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).
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.
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.