Photo: Toby Mason / Courtesy of the artist

Colin Newman and Malka Spigel Discuss New Immersion Project ‘Nanocluster Vol. 1’

Colin Newman and Malka Spigel talk about moving to Brighton, the art of collaboration, and the new Immersion project Nanocluster, Vol. 1.

Nanocluster Vol 1
Immersion (Colin Newman and Malka Spigel)
4 September 2021

And that’s what you were looking for in collaborators?

MS: Yeah, being open, just going with it. We didn’t look for anything. We just let it happen, and so did they. Each one was different. 

CN: You’d have to talk about specifics. Like Tarwater, we’ve known Tarwater for — oh, blimey — from the early days of [German record label] Kitty-Yo, when the Kitty-Yo tour van turned up at our house in London. Tarwater were in the van, and everybody sat in our garden and drank tea. Every time we’ve ever been in Berlin, we’ve always hung out with Tarwater.

MS: And Ronald [Lippok] played live with us.

CN: Ronald was in Malka’s band from when she had a live band and has played on more than one of her records. So these are people we go back with quite a long time. Ronald is someone who just phones up every now and then, and we just chat.

MS: Like family.

CN: Yeah, it’s like family. Laetitia [Sadier, of Stereolab], we did a Krautrock Karaoke with her. Krautrock Karaoke is this thing our friend Kenichi Iwasa has been doing in London for the last few years, where he invites a bunch of musicians to take to the stage and play cover versions — theoretically — of krautrock classics. But actually, everybody just jams.

MS: You don’t know who is going to end up on stage with you. It’s great! You meet lots of people this way, and that’s very similar to what we did with the collaborators.

CN: With Laetitia, we did the Krautrock Karaoke with me and her playing guitars and Malka playing bass, and that seemed like a natural kind of fit. She’s a good, willing guitarist. Rather than just saying, “oh yeah, she’s the singer for Stereolab, let’s make a krautrock track and have her sing on it,” that’s really stupid thinking. That’s not how we think. It’s more like, “yeah, let’s have a bit of a laugh with Laetitia and see if we can come up with something.” With Ulrich [Schnauss], we worked with before. We did a collaborative show in Tel Aviv together back in — God knows — 2016 or something like that?

MS: I remember it was November, but I don’t know what year. 

CN: Yeah. At that time, he stayed here, and we rehearsed together. Ulrich is someone we have admired for a long time, and we got to know him through mutual friends. He’s someone we get on with really well. And with Robin [Rimbaud], we go back years… literally years.

MS: We were in a band together [Githead]. 

CN: We were in a band together; we knew each other years before that as well.

MS: He was part of that electronic scene. He had a club called the Electronic Lounge, and lots of people used to turn up. We go back a long way.

CN: That was kind of the center of the electronic scene in London in the ‘90s. The Electronic Lounge was really important.

Vocals on an Immersion album are a new thing, aren’t they?

MS: As we collaborated, we went very much along with whatever the collaborator brought. For instance, Laetitia brought a guitar riff that sounded very much like a song structure. It kind of wanted a voice. She wanted to be the guitarist and not so much the voice at the time, so we sang on it. Other pieces, I guess you kind of feel like what it needs. Sometimes it needs a vocal. It’s very open. We are Immersion, but within Nanocluster, it’s much more open [with] where it goes. Including vocals.

Your vocal performance of “Remember Those Days” — I might be wrong here — it sounds like you’re describing the mundane aspects of a traveling musician. Many of us think it would be cool to just roam around with your guitar, but we also hear all kinds of tales about how it could be boring.

MS: Yeah, it’s a lot of in-between, not much going on. We did an American tour with Immersion. We started in LA and ended up in New York and everything in between. Although I’m talking about all the boring bits, it was magical. When I say [the refrain] “It doesn’t matter”, it didn’t matter that it was hard work. It was magic. So it’s actually positive. 

CN: That piece became a song during last year’s lockdown, May/June, something like that. It was like singing about almost being on the road and the mundanity of being on the road. It’s almost painful. It’s a kind of sadness of loss.

MS: Of how free it felt!

CN: Yeah, of how free it felt. How free you suddenly were. Right now, Malka and I literally can’t come to America. We’re not allowed to go to America. Our whole lives have been [spent] traveling. Now we cannot travel, or traveling is very complex and difficult. The idea of us being free on the road and the biggest worry of your day is the fact that you ran out of socks [a lyric from “Remember Those Days”].

MS: Or what you’re going to have for breakfast. 

CN: It feels like another reality. For me, that song has a lot of poignancy. 

Right, I was going to ask about COVID-related things. When did these Nanocluster gigs take place?

CN: It was over a long period of time. The first one with Tarwater was in September 2017. Then Laetitia’s show was 2018, in the middle of what we call the Beast from the East [snowstorm that hit the UK], so something like March 2018. Ulrich was just before we went and did the American tour, so that would have been the summer of 2018. And the one with Robin would have been in 2019.

MS: Before the pandemic.

CN: Before the pandemic, yeah. It’s called COVID-19, but it didn’t really start until the end of 2019 [both laugh].

Running your label and making money from gigging is tough enough, but the pandemic added a new dimension to the hardships. Musicians have been sharing online how they’ve been struggling with the pandemic. Is there anything you would like to add, something that people might not have considered?

MS: I think the hardest thing is the unknown. Nobody knows where it’s going, and nobody knows how to plan anything, what’s safe, where you can go. That’s the hardest for us.

CN: And the fact that it’s really different in different places. The USA got Delta [Variant] after we got it. So I was talking to people in America, and they were thinking that everything was opening up and it was all fine, and I was saying “no, no, no, no, it’s gonna get worse.” And everyone’s going, “aw, come on!” And then suddenly everybody started to panic. We really don’t know, and we are a victim of appalling leadership, historically in America and currently in Britain. Leadership on a level where they should be had for international war crimes, like Brazil. The brutal reality is that the world got completely divided because Donald Trump decided to blame China, and we’ve had no global response. It screwed us! On the other hand, we are financially secure. We’re not suffering the worst that others have suffered.

MS: It became much more uneven. Some countries can have gigs, like my friends in Tel Aviv have big gigs, and it’s all happening. But in other countries, nothing happens. And then a young musician would struggle more to organize anything because it got harder, and the big acts have enough money to get on the road. It’s more uneven than it was. 

CN: And, of course, we’ve got Brexit on top of it. 

MS: Yeah, that’s a disaster. It became a sudden bureaucracy to play in Europe. For years and years and years, young musicians from Europe could come here and go from here to there — you get in a van and drive on a low budget, you could survive and take gigs. Now, it has become much harder. You can’t sell your merch. You have to fill out forms, and there’s maybe tax coming off your fee. It just became a nightmare.

CN: On top of COVID [laughs]. The record side seemed fine, and then the vinyl shortage hit. So the industry is well screwed right now, apart from the tsunami of money coming into the major labels by streaming.

Is everything set for Nanocluster’s vinyl release?

CN: It’s a double ten-inch vinyl. Interestingly, it is somewhat easier to manufacture ten-inches during this period. We just happen to like ten-inches. The tracks fitted quite nicely with the idea of a double ten-inch; it’s a side per collaboration. When we started to make the album from what had originally been put together for the performances, it was quite problematic because the first idea we had was just to bring all the collaborators back and we work on the tracks together, and then we’ll finish it. But of course, COVID put a stop to that. We couldn’t have anyone here. We thought, “how can we make this thing work together?” Because they were all different collaborations.

MS: Some of them are more complete than others. We kind of built a little bit together, but it wasn’t ready to be released. 

CN: When we were starting to put the thing together, we thought that if we had a side per collaboration, at least it wouldn’t sound too weird going from one thing to another. In the end, the way we worked on the production, I think that we managed to make it sound like one thing rather than just four different things. That was the amount of work we put in to make sure it sounded as good as we could get it to sound.

It does come across as consistent from the first track to last, and I was hoping you would take that as a compliment.

CN: The first person to say that was the guy who does all our mastering, Denis Blackham. We’ve been working with him for years. He just said, “that’s amazing, considering it’s all different collaborations.” It’s all very consistent, sonically. I certainly give thanks to Malka, who was very much there on all the stages, especially the final mixes. It’s the first time we’ve worked that closely together. I tend to finish things because, through Wire, I’ve become good at mixing records. I know how to finish a record. It’s just having that extra pair of ears to say, “hang on, yeah, that all sounds good, but that snare drum there is really loud!”

MS: Or “this section is too long.” It helps being so close, being a couple, and being totally open. I’m sure you know there’s lots of ego involved in people working together, and we don’t have a lot of ego between us. 

CN: You make a choice. Do you want to preserve your relationship, or do you just want to behave like an idiot band member? Malka and I’s relationship is consistent through all of the things that we do.

This album is titled Nanoclusters, Vol. 1. I am hoping for more installments, but it sounds like that might be difficult with Brexit and COVID.

CN: It is opening up a little bit now. Doing another Nanocluster would be very hard to do at full capacity. If we have to fly anybody [here], that can be problematic. But we kind of hope that things will work out a bit.

MS: We always intended to do more. It was always going to be a slow process because there has to be the right kind of people to do it with. It’s not like there’s expectations for it to happen every couple of months. 

CN: And if you think we’re putting out a record in September 2021, and the first Nanocluster collaboration was in September 2017…that’s four years.

MS: That makes it sound like it’s old or something [laughs].

CN: No! Nonsense. Although we can be pessimistic about how things are going right now, I think we have to have some hope that we will be able to do these things at some point in the future. There are artists in Brighton and other artists in Britain we could collaborate with.

MS: Hopefully, also, when they hear the double ten-inch album, they’ll kind of get the concept. Some people might think it’s an interesting thing for them to do.

CN: The other idea that we had was that there are artists located in Britain that we would like to collaborate with. And maybe, if we can find a venue in another city, in another country, we could do a similar kind of thing. They would obviously have to have a studio to record in or whatever. I could see how that could work. The Rose Hill is a fantastic venue, but the limitation is that you can’t have any live drums there because they have noise restrictions. Especially now with COVID because they run the venue with the doors and windows open. There are many ways you can go about this. We are quite open with the project. Volume 1 is a little bit of a tease. I deliberately put it there; I just thought it would be funny. Rather than just call it Nanocluster, because that’s a bit limiting.

MS: But it’s an ongoing event. 

CN: And it’s a bit like Reggae Chartbusters Volume 1. I kind of like the idea of those [compilations]…you know, Motown Chartbusters. In the ‘60s and the ‘70s, you used to get these records with “all the hits!” coming in different volumes.

Does the decision to do ten-inch vinyl have anything to do with changing the sound as the needle gets closer to the center?

CN: No, I don’t think so. I think it’s more to do with the fact that you could just about get this album onto a single 12-inch.

MS: And then we discovered that ten-inch is much easier to press.

CN: There’s a big queue for 12-inch vinyl and less of a queue for ten-inch vinyl.

MS: Because it’s less common.

CN: Because it’s less common. A double ten-inch is a weird format. A band will go to a record company and say, “we’ve got our new album.” And the label boss is going to be saying to them, “actually, if you take five tracks off, we can get it out quicker because then we can do it on a ten-inch!” I can imagine how that conversation will go, you know? It’s not the medium for everybody. 

MS: And the volume does drop if you put something too long on a record. 

CN: And the other thing about the ten-inch is the connection. There are classic jazz ten-inches, and there’s a lot of drum & bass on ten-inches. We like that connection as well.

MS: And it looks cool. 

I was once sent an album to review, and it was pressed on one 12-inch and one ten-inch, and it jumbled the order of the album. I often wonder what the band thought of that.

CN: [laughs] Who knows?

MS: You have to make it fit. 

CN: With us being the record company and the artist, we know all the options, and we can also plan right at the beginning of a project exactly how something will work. I have one page [laughs] from Chicago Vinyl Mastering where our friend Bob Weston from [Chicago indie rock band] Shellac works. I think I’ve told him this at some point, that that’s our bible. Because it tells you on that page how long you can have at what speed on ten-inch, seven-inch, 12-inch. So you can easily work out from your tracks and their lengths what you can fit on what.

MS: It’s important!

CN: It’s important to know that stuff.

MS: There’s nothing more depressing for a musician or producer to hear what they did, and it suddenly drops in volume a lot because it was too long for the format.

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