ive-waited-ages-an-interview-with-colin-newman

I’ve Waited Ages: An Interview with Wire’s Colin Newman

With the influence of rock group Wire still ringing large, Colin Newman talks about the haphazard, almost casual way that his first three solo albums emerged (now finally re-released).
Colin Newman
A-Z
Sentient Sonics

Once upon a time, Wire frontman Colin Newman had a solo career. It certainly wasn’t his idea.

After releasing three now-landmark albums between 1977 and 1979, the legendary British post-punk quartet Wire abruptly called it quits. Accounts on the split vary, but one piece of truth that has held steady since then is that the band were not out of ideas. In fact, there was quite a surplus of them. Apart from their strangely confrontational live album Document & Eyewitness, Wire also had a few oddball compilations like Behind the Curtain and Turns & Strokes for the stray recordings.

When the band split apart, bassist Graham Lewis and guitarist Bruce Gilbert continued to work together as the highly prolific avant-garde duo Dome. Singer/guitarist Colin Newman and drummer Robert Grey went the opposite way, working on an album that could have sounded like Wire’s fourth full-length had they chose to stay together, A-Z. And although Newman found the record label Beggars Banquet to be an artistically nurturing environment for him and all of his orphan Wire songs, he never quite felt comfortable in the role as a solo artist. For him, releasing the material was far more important than the name that adorned the album cover.

That attitude holds steady in 2016. Colin Newman is now rereleasing his first three solo albums on his very own Swim~ label. Released in 1980, 1981, and 1982 respectively, A-Z, the all-instrumental Provisionally Entitled the Singing Fish, and Not To are not only being repackaged on vinyl but are also enjoying an enormous CD repackaging with three extra CDs full of demos and outtakes. Newman’s only motivation for their rerelease is that all three albums have been long out of print.

Skyping from his studio in England one Sunday, he admitted that he’s not emotionally close to the material. That’s astoundingly modest, considering that one of the tracks, “Alone”, was used by film director Jonathan Demme in the hit horror movie The Silence of the Lambs. Most of us would be proudly waving that flag long after our artistic stock has dwindled.

But Colin Newman’s stock has never been in danger of dwindling because he’s always pushing himself and his band forward. In fact, Newman was in the process of mixing Wire’s next album when PopMatters spoke to him. The band plans to briefly commemorate the 40th anniversary of their first gig (April Fool’s Day, 1977) and then hit the road to promote their forthcoming releases. At the start of our conversation, I held up my old copy of A-Z (with a pithy five bonus tracks) to the screen, temporarily unaware that my pronunciation of the last letter of the English alphabet highlighted a cultural difference.

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Newman: It’s named A-Z for a very specific reason: If you look at the cover, there are six images. These are pages from a map book which was used by navigators. The book was called A to Z.

The original CD releases were done without my say-so or knowledge. I actually wasn’t in the country at the time when they did them. The approach that I’ve taken is to go back to the original three albums — it’s three albums, not one album and one kind of compilation — and do additional CDs for each one. So the releases are three vinyl LPs, which are the same as the original three vinyl albums, and three CDs, each of which has a second CD with more material. Some of them are demos, some of them are home demos, some of them b-sides, or whatever.

When the first three Wire albums were rereleased, I noticed the supplemental material was removed.

These things, however, they went out at the time, are statements. Spurious extra tracks, which were a new kind of concept when CDs first came out, were generally not useful. You don’t want to have more tracks on the vinyl because it’s a classic item. Not a superior item, it is what it is. It’s the original item when it was released.

When you look back on the period of time these three albums cover, does it feel like yesterday? Or does it truly feel like more than 30 years have passed?

It was a long time ago. The reason why I’m releasing these is because a friend of mine who works for Beggars [Banquet], Jason White, told me that Beggars sometimes gave physical release rights back to the artists. And if I ever wanted to put these out on vinyl, I should talk to people who work there. I did and thought it would be a good idea to do CDs as well so I could do the extra tracks. That was about three or four years ago, I’ve really been too busy to do anything with it. This is why it’s coming out this year.

These are records that have their place in the history of … whatever, you know. I’m not particularly close to them. It’s not something that informs my current work in any way. I’m not really interested in hacking over the past as a thing in itself. I’m certainly not into the heritage game of popular music. I’m releasing them because they were not available in physical format. You had to pay collector’s prices to buy them. And there were extra tracks from my archives that I could share with people who would be interested to hear them.

It kind of relates to the legal bootleg series of Wire. It’s that kind of idea: “Here, have everything! If you want it, here it is.” Nobody’s saying this is the best thing since sliced bread, but some people are completists and they like to have everything in a nice quality. [We] make sure everything is mastered, that it’s nicely presented, and people will feel that you’ve done them a service. That’s kind of how I see it, really.

There are people who have come to what I do probably through Wire or whatever, and thought “Oh God, I’d love to get those records but you can’t anymore.” There are all kinds of people of all ages who will find some interest in it. But I don’t imagine these are going to change the world or set anything alight. They are what they are, and they are from a period in time that is quite specific, 1980 to 1982.

It does not sound like it came from that time.

Yeah, it depends on what you listen to. I hear a lot odd ’80s-isms. I think the one that is least able to be placed in that time period is probably Provisionally Entitled the Singing Fish just because it’s so much more open musically. A-Z had some stuff on it which was — I can’t think of how I did it, quite honestly. It was certainly pushing the envelope in terms of, not just the content, but how it was done.

Not To has a lot of very classic bent tonality: loud snare drums, big tonality, things that were more associated with early ’80s than the mid-’80s. That’s how I hear them, and I hear with extremely critical ears. You’re talking to me in the studio, I’m working on Wire this moment, on the next Wire album. For me, it’s a living thing, music. I’m extremely critical because I have to be critical. As an older artist, you can’t rest on laurels because you still have more to prove.

When you go back to listen to these demos, does anything come flooding back to you? Where you were, what you were doing, how you were feeling?

I’ve included those demos because of context. When I listen to those three albums, I can tell who how each track could have been done better or how it could have been mixed better. Some of the demos are quite low-fi, they capture something that didn’t quite make it out through the band version. Sometimes the band version good, it’s just a different piece of music. They are personal, but it’s just music. This is, in many ways, the early years of when I first started learning how to make and produce records. I didn’t really understand production per se until I had my own studio. The home demos are very much four-track, tape-to-tape recordings. It’s very basic recording, trying to figure out how to make something work. That’s literally how it was written, you’re hearing the writing.

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You’re perfectly welcome to say “Why’s he putting all that low-fi crap out there? We just want the finished product!” That’s fine, but others would say they want to hear everything and maybe even more. Some people would like to hear the live recordings as well. I personally [dislike] the live recordings, I find them very difficult to listen to because a lot of the vocals are out of tune and that’s something I’m really aware of. Out of tune vocals, I find very hard to [hear], and my own voice, I find very hard to deal with.

Some songwriters like to get all the little bits and pieces of a song in place on their demo so they don’t waste time in the studio. Others leave room for accidents and surprises to happen in the studio. Where do you fall on that?

If I’m writing something on the acoustic guitar, which I’ve done quite a lot of, what I come [up] with is usually a set of chords, a structure, a rhythm, a speed [tempo] and a vocal melody. But then the rest of it is just up to the other people, whether it’s Wire or the group that played on those records. They just work out their own parts. It may be decided, Oh, it’ll sound better fast or slower. I don’t feel dictatorial about how a piece should be. I might have a piece that was written at home where I’ve taken two parts which have to work against each other. Someone will have to play both of those parts, I’ll play one part, someone else will play another part. With A-Z where you have studio demos and home demos, you’ve got the original piece of writing, the home demo. Then you’ve got the studio demos, the Riverside recordings, the band playing it. We must have rehearsed that before we went in to record that. And then you have the final studio version and you see some massive differences in between, like “Order for Order” — it started off in 3/4 [waltz time].

And I know there are some live recordings of Wire doing various songs from these releases like “Safe”.

That’s part of the legal bootleg series, you can get those. It’s a different version, though. It’s a different tune. Same lyrics, different tune.

Who was it that more-or-less decided that those tunes weren’t really for Wire?

What happened was, and it depends on whose version you hear … have you read Wilson Neate’s book Read & Burn?

No. I’ve only read the 33 1/3 for Pink Flag.

That’s not going to get you very far for 1980. Basically, Wire imploded in early 1980. Some people decided they didn’t want to do it anymore and more or less informed the others of what they were doing. There was a bunch of material left over, and that material got used in various ways. Some of it ended up going through a whole 360-degree [change] and ended up becoming the backbone of Change Becomes Us. It was a connection to a painful period in Wire’s history. It wasn’t an acrimonious breakup, it was literally two of us going to a pub and being told by the other two that it’s finished. That’s our version of it anyway.

A-Z was already written at that point, so I don’t think I used any of that [Wire] material. The only thing I used was “Inventory”, which was my own lyric and my own tune, it was anyhow never really going to fly as a Wire song IMO. We played it at the Document & Eyewtiness gig, but actually, it was never really a Wire song. Apart from that, I picked up on the pieces which I felt were good ones and used them for Not To.

If you read the book, you will hear different versions of that story. That’s the way it goes with groups. It’s not really a case of saying “this fits more with this and that fits more with that.” I don’t make solo records anymore for that reason. I’m not saying that I’ll never make another solo record, but I don’t make solo records anymore partly for those reasons, making a decision: “Why am I making song-based records with my name on the cover?” It doesn’t make any sense and it didn’t make a lot of sense at the time.

Those three albums were informed by Wire but also constrained by Wire. If Wire had not gone west in 1980, A-Z would have happened perhaps, and maybe Singing Fish might have happened, I’m not sure if Not To would have happened. I didn’t feel like I needed to have a solo career. I’m not that interested in it, to be really honest. I’m not good at being a solo [artist]. There are singers in groups who do it because they want to be more famous. They want the world according to them. I don’t really care about that kind of stuff, it was about having a bunch of material that I wanted out. I wanted people to hear it. Colin Newman is my name, not a thing. It’s one step removed from yourself. As soon as you create another project, and there’s a band, is it a band project? Then it becomes more complex, and it was complex.

Robert [Grey, Wire’s drummer] was not happy with the idea of being my drummer. He was happy to play in a group with me and he liked the material. But in the final analysis, he didn’t want to be my drummer. He wanted to be in a group with me. But here’s the problem; If we’d had made another group, then we would be saying that we’re doing a different band to Wire? And it wasn’t Wire. In the end, that’s how it was really constrained by Wire because we felt that Wire would be back around the block at some point in the not-too-distant future and then we would do that.

And now you have plenty of places to put your surplus of ideas, such as Githead and Immersion.

Yeah, Immersion is back.

Provisionally Entitled the Singing Fish…

You and Robert were working together. Were you at all cognizant of the things that Bruce Gilbert and Graham Lewis, the other two members of Wire, were doing together?

I remember Bruce saying he didn’t want to do this high-level, 24-track recording, that he wanted to be doing it on an 8-track in a small studio. And A-Z is me saying, Actually, I quite like the high-level, 24-track recording, that I feel comfortable with that. I don’t really need to be recording on an 8-track. I’d be happy to make demos that way. There’s enough low-fi stuff in my demos, but I never got into low-fi as an end in and of itself. It’s a means to something. I don’t want to speak behind Bruce’s back, especially since he wasn’t been in Wire for quite a long time, but he can be quite perverse in his ways of doing things. He was actually quite scared of getting too much attention. Wire had got to a place after 154 where we were being lauded as the band of our generation. The reviews of 154 in the UK were the lead review in all of the main newspapers, basically saying “You’re not going to get any better than this.” It’s a scary thing to live up to. It’s not like we weren’t working for it, it’s not like we didn’t think we were good.

I got the job of singing in Wire not because I’m a great singer, but because I don’t have stage fright. I’m not nervous about standing up and singing, I don’t really have a problem with that. But I really don’t want to speak for someone else because this history is not just about me, it’s very tangled. Provionally Entitled the Singing Fish was me saying “Well, actually, if you want more abstract instrumental music, I can do that as well.”

Can you explain the title of Provisionally Entitled the Singing Fish?

How do you title a series of instrumentals? I had this idea about a fish, I had this image for the cover, and then I thought it would be really funny to call it Provisionally Entitled the Singing Fish. If somebody says, “Oh, I really like ‘Fish 4’!”, I have no idea which track they’re talking about. I don’t retain the titles. There’s no [way] to attach a title to a tune.

I have always been able to identify “Fish 1” because at one time you had words to it in the form of the song “No Doubt”.

Do you know what it was called because it was called “No Doubt”? It’s “Mannequin”. It’s the verse and the chords to “Mannequin”, but fast. I played it twice as fast and it’s pitched up a bit. That was the first idea I had for doing the record, actually. I had done something called “This Picture” [from the new Provisionally Entitled the Singing Fish bonus disc] because we did “Inventory” as a single, I needed a b-side, so I went one day into the studio on my own. There wasn’t anything written, I thought I’d just make something up. I made up a piece working with Steve [Parker, engineer] in a day. And that became the template for how to do The Singing Fish. I kind of knew enough from having done home demos that you have to start with a rhythm, and we tried various things. I can’t really play the drums. But we did various things with tape loops as opposed to sample loops. Getting anything in time is enough of a struggle.

It was an interesting process. Steve had been the assistant engineer for A-Z and Dennis Weinreich [one of A-Z‘s main engineers] said “We’ve really got to do something more with you.” I liked Steve because he had a stutter and he was somehow a little unconfident. But he was someone who had this strange trajectory in that he spent most of the time doing adverts. He used to record all of the advertising sessions in the studio. When he was not doing that, he wanted to do something more leftfield.

There was a lot of pressure for me to followup A-Z with something that was similar. At that point, I really didn’t want to do that. For a start, because I didn’t really think of it as being a solo career. There was a band that played on it, but we hardly played any gigs ever. What I should have done is gone out on the road. I had no consciousness of how to do that. I know that seems weird, anyone who is a musician these days in their 20s must think How can anybody be so stupid? How can you not support your own releases? My experience with Wire, after three years and three albums on a major label, the only money you ever saw was the advance at the beginning. You didn’t make any money on the road, you didn’t make any money on the records, you didn’t make any money! The only money you saw was the advance. When I went to Beggars Banquet, I got my advance and I thought, I’m not going to do those other things because I’m not going to make any money anyway. In some ways, I was just not well-informed. ATCO, the U.S. licensee for A-Z, were absolutely horrified when I told them I wasn’t going to tour. They wanted me to tour America, and Wire hadn’t toured America! I didn’t see how I could tour America.

Maybe they were thinking they could promote you as Colin Newman, formerly of Wire.

Of course, they thought that! But also, I didn’t feel good about doing that. I didn’t want to exploit that. That’s the classic Solo Record by a Member of a Band thing to do. Look at me! I’m a star!

Jumping ahead a few years, the song “Alone” appeared in a famous feature film. Was it Jonathan Demme that reached out to you? Supposedly he’s a big music guy.

He didn’t contact me, he contacted Beggars Banquet. He had a low budget art movie, and could they get some music for it? He chose “Alone”, I don’t know how it was chosen. They paid an advance. Because the song was never on the The Silence of the Lambs soundtrack, that was the only money I saw out of it. The advance was very small, and it went to Beggars Banquet. It didn’t go to me. My account was negative at that point, so I got nothing out of it. I’ve never seen the movie either because I don’t like horror movies. They make me feel weird.

I wanted to ask if you had any misgivings over handing over the song. Not because the movie is grotesque, but because songs used in a different medium can take on a life of their own.

In a way, you just literally pay money and use any bit of music for anything. I don’t think an author can turn around and say “You can’t use my music for this.” I don’t know of an example of that, maybe it is possible. But I was never consulted, I had heard about it afterward. It only came to my attention when it became one of the biggest-grossing movies in the world, which is kind of crazy. But I remember that line, that he had come to Beggars because he was making a low budget art movie. But what can I say about it? Those things do raise your status in a way, people who don’t know anything about me can hear that piece of music and want to know more. But there really isn’t much I can say or do about that many years later. I can’t really complain about Beggars because they have been gracious enough to let me release these records.

Where Beggars Banquet pretty hands-off with their artists?

A-Z was on Beggars Banquet, but Not To and The Singing Fish were on 4AD. What happened was, when Gary Numan was a big success and Beggars had money, Martin [Mills, co-founder] just got a bunch of people from the label who had come up through the shops and said, “If you want to have [another] label, go and do that label.” Most of them didn’t survive for more than two minutes, but the one that lasted was 4AD. Ivo [Watts-Russell, 4AD co-founder]’s attitude was very different to Martin’s. He didn’t seem to care if I played live or not, it wasn’t really that important to him.

Secondly, he thought doing The Singing Fish was a good idea, it sounded like an interesting project to him. And while A-Z sold well enough to pay back my percentage of the advance, I think Martin felt [that kind of album] would be better off on 4AD with a smaller budget for it. There was a tiny advance and at that point, I didn’t have a lot of money. So I said, “I’ve got these songs, let’s do [Not To] and I’ll produce it because we can’t really afford to pay a producer.” I thought Steve and I could put something together, we were kind of a team already. The band was there, Robert and Desmond [Simmons, bassist, and guitarist] had already played on A-Z and then Simon Gillham [bassist] had played on the very few live shows that we actually did — including a micro-tour of North America which consisted of three gigs in New York and two in Toronto. The band actually had a name, it was called Soft Option, and it was pretty good. I remember at some point saying to Ivo “Do you think we can just do the album under the band’s name?”

There was a definite feeling that they, especially Desmond and Robert, didn’t want to be in my backing band but were happy to work with me in the group. I was basically told, “Well, it’s your name that’s selling it.” This is something you see more of in the last ten or 15 years, especially amongst American bands, that kind of multi-identity of combinations of stuff. I think at the time, for me to have suddenly gone to having an album under a different band name, I would have had to build the whole thing up again. They felt that should take a name that was easy to promote. Yes and no, ultimately on that one. Yeah, what was the question?

I think it had to do with the environment under the Beggars Banquet umbrella.

Nobody at any point ever said, “You should be doing this.” There was some consternation because Beggars, and especially Martin, really needed “Not Me” to be the single of A-Z, and I didn’t even record it for the album [two demos available on new A-Z bonus disc] because I thought it was the most derivative song amongst them all. At first, I heard — oh what are they called — this group that did “Pretty in Pink”?

Psychedelic Furs?

Psychedelic Furs. They sounded exactly like “Not Me” sounded like. I can’t say it in words, simply. It’s a style of music which is — you’ve just heard it all before. It’s nicely done, it’s not that the people [who make it] are not credible, it just doesn’t sound very original. I thought it was the least original song on the record. By the time it came to the album I was already bored senseless with it, I wished I hadn’t demoed it.

How do you feel about the covers done of your work? This Mortal Coil recorded two songs from A-Z.

It all depends on how good it is, really. I’m kind of a stickler. There was a record of others playing “Outdoor Miner” [from Wire’s 1978 album Chairs Missing] and every single artist got the chorus wrong. It’s way simpler than you think it is. You can hear it, the harmony is wrong! It’s all about the chords against the voice. And when you got that detail wrong, for me, it just doesn’t sound right. It’s very, very particular to me. As a songwriter, that’s at the core of what I do. But there have been some fantastic Wire covers. Lush have done a couple of really good Wire covers. The This Mortal Coil covers were of their time. There are more people who would definitely know This Mortal Coil records more than Colin Newman records.

I really have no idea how these things will be received or if they will sell. Quite a lot of people aren’t that interested in rereleases because there are so many of them and I’m not really surprised. I’m not blaming them. My kind of attitude about it is, this isn’t about the release day, building up a whole head of steam, it’s about: Here, they’re available.

Any plans in place to give a similar treatment to your other three solo albums — Commercial Suicide, It Seems, and Bastard?

The context is different. The context with A-Z, Provisionally Entitled the Singing Fish, and Not To is that Beggars Banquet has a policy of allowing artists to re-release on vinyl of their own back catalog. They can afford to let us do this because they’ve got Adele, which helps. I certainly don’t want to look a gift horse in the mouth too much, they’ve been nothing but decent to me to allow me to do this. If it’s Commercial Suicide and It Seems, that’s Crammed [Discs, record label]. I would hope that if these reissues go okay, and they’re nicely received, and people think I’ve done a good job putting them together and whatever, then Crammed might say “Yeah, okay. You can do that.” Then again, Marc [Hollander, founder of Crammed Discs] might say no. It’s a matter of how someone might see it.

Bastard came out on Swim ~, so that wouldn’t be a problem. There’s also a bunch of tracks which had never come out on anything, recorded in my studio within the last ten years. They would make a good companion to Bastard. There is the original demos to Commercial Suicide and It Seems, all of which can be considered less low-fi than the home demos on the Beggars Banquet ones. So there would be a way of doing it. I’ve certainly had more people in the last few years coming up to me, especially in America, asking about Commercial Suicide and It Seems than at the time of their release. It Seems was hated in America. It got terrible reviews because it’s sequenced. There was a point in the ’80s were people hated anything with sequencing on it because that was closely related to dance music, and It Seems starts off with a very sequenced track. It wasn’t intended to be in your face, it was very much in context with what was happening in Europe. Then something happened within the last decade and suddenly, you have LCD Soundsystem and people who are overtly embracing DJ culture in America. And there’s a whole new generation of American bands making hybrid records with beats and singing. Now it’s not even slightly an issue.

For someone like me, it’s hard to remember a time when that was such a divisive musical trait.

You have to remember, back in the ’70s which is not long before the beginning of the ’80s, you had the whole “Disco Sucks” thing. That didn’t happen in Britain. Disco fell into the roots of a new music that was taken up. Historically, techno comes right at the point were second-hand analog synthesizers and drum machines were cheaper than guitars. So anyone who wanted to make music could buy these things really cheap in junk shops. A few years later, definitely not, but at the time you could get them cheap and you could make tunes with it. The way music is driven by technology is always interesting, though I normally don’t use the “T” word in polite conversation.

I hadn’t realized that Wire had a 40th anniversary approaching. How does it feel to have [Wire debut] Pink Flag reach middle-age?

It will be 40 years since the first gig of the classic four-piece on the first of April 2017. We’re not going to celebrate at all the 40 year anniversary of Pink Flag, because we’re really not interested in looking backward. It’s just a point in time that’s kind of interesting. We’re quite early in the process of our new album, it’s not quite finished yet and we’ll start promoting it next year. There will be quite a bit of special activity next year.

I can’t tell you the title [the new album] yet because we haven’t decided, but I can tell you the release date: it’s the closest Friday to the first of April.

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