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).
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. 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.