circus maximus
Colin Newman / Wire

In the art of stopping

Your relationships with Crammed discs were not so good at the time of "It Seems".. Could this be a reason why you didn't make a solo album for over ten years after the release of It Seems?

Not sure this is true! Malka & I grew away from the Crammed scene but that was after It Seems. It is true that it was many years between the albums "It Seems" and "Bastard". This has much more to do with various other things. There was this period after "It Seems" when there were a lot of things changing. This was the period when Minimal Compact was breaking up. This was taking place against a backdrop of the end of the 80's Brussels scene. Our response to that and our growing interest in sequencing, sampling, hip hop and early dance music was the collaboration called Oracle with Samy Birnbach. Although I didn't sing on the resulting record I was as deeply involved in it as I was in "It Seems" or "Commercial Suicide".. Malka & I started to develop a working partnership to complement our relationship. Oracle was actually proposed to Crammed but they never showed much interest in it but then this was only 1988 and record companies didn't start falling over themselves to sign stuff like this till about '94. In the end there was nothing to keep us in Brussels and we moved to London in 1992. Swim was started in '93. It was a kind of twist of fate that after working on Oracle for 5 years it's first release should be Malka's first album "Rosh Ballata" another album as close to how I was at the time as any could have been. We ended up taking a decision to release the Oracle album after we'd had some success with "Rosh Ballata". Then after that came "Oscillating" by Immersion (in 1994) again this was as much a "Colin Newman" album as any I could have made at the time. This is not to underplay Malka's contribution to these three items. We have a true collaboration, we call the items different names to indicate the moods or just on a whim J During the period 95-96 we started to kick around the concept of what a "Colin Newman" album might involve. There actually was a 12" in 1995 called "Voice" (with some singing!) and we started making what would turn in "Bastard" in 1996.

What kind of attitude do you have towards the reception of your music? Did you sometimes feel like having been obliged to plan to make things as a reactions to the reactions (i.e. "Provisionally entitled the singing fish" after "A-Z")? Has it become hard to be spontaneous? Is it possible to be an artist today without being a post-modern? Do you think it is better not to be too much aware of the current trends in music?

I suppose one thing that has developed is that I care less about all that stuff. I mean I don't set out to piss people off. I just know that if I don't like it then I can hardly expect anyone else to like it. It's sometimes hard for me to remember how I felt at any one time. One thing is sure : I dislike to be categorised. I've been involved in lots of different types of music over the years. Regarding the current trends, I'd say you can't ignore the gestalt but following fashion is sad.

Isn't it a bit paradoxical with what you said earlier about the kind of music where everything is dictated by the voice sounding "very old fashioned right now"?
This is so much a context thing! In the period '90-'96 none of the music we were hearing and liked had vocals in it. Anyhow art is all about paradox!! We all tread the unclear line between wanting to do new things and being a "fashion victim".. For us this is all part of what makes it interesting.

Does your stopping making solo album has anything to do with the relative lack of success of your former attempts?
Depends what you mean by success. It's like the French use of the word "interesting" (to mean financially rewarding). Nothing I've ever been involved in has made a lot of money. If I was doing it for the money I'd definitely do it very differently!

What would be your answer if we replace "success" by "public acknowledgemen"?
If you can succeed to be popular (or at least appreciated) by the kind of people whose taste you respect then wider recognition is less of a problem. I don't know how it works in France but in the UK any artist worth their salt would rather be considered "cool" than "popular". For me specifically Wire is always going to be better known than me personally BUT even Wire isn't what you'd call famous. It's nice to be appreciated but in the end you have to do the work you feel moved to do.

Conceptual gaps
- About collaborations & production -

You have produced several albums in the 80's, and nearly all the stuff which has been released on your label so far. Where does your interest in production come from?
I only ever really produced two whole albums in previous times ("…If I die, I die" by The Virgin Prunes and "Raging Souls" by Minimal Compact). They were both quite different. The Virgin Prunes needed some organisation whereas Minimal didn't really need a producer in any conventional sense although I did influence the choice of a wider range of material. The second statement is factually incorrect. I have acted as an engineer on some Swim projects and obviously Malka & I "produced" all the Malka Spigel/Immersion/Colin Newman items between us but in that case produced = made. The only swim release I was credited as producer (co-producer in fact) was the Silo album "Instar".. This is because I helped them design the way to make the album. The "production" was more like working out creative solutions to interesting problems in partnership with the band. They had all these pieces written in a tracker program for their laptop PC, a kind of basic audio sequencer. They had done recordings playing live in a friend's studio - they are to all intents and purposes a "rock band" line up (guitar, bass, drums) - but were much more interested in pursuing the direction their audio sampler was tasking them into. They just didn't know how to integrate this with the live instruments having had no history of working with samples and loops etc. So what we ended up doing was actually have Soren the drummer play along to the "sequenced" tracks and then used loops taken from his playing the same way we might use a drum loop from a sample CD in our work. This worked pretty well although Fred did a lot of work to really make the whole rhythm sound seamless.

That said, my interest in production comes from the early Wire albums. When I was younger, I was very taken with what Mike Thorne did on these albums. It seemed like production would be a good thing to get involved in so I experimented - first own my own with "The Singing Fish", I was helped a lot in this by Steve Parker the engineer. Then I tried my own band on "Not To". By the time we'd done that Steve & I felt we could take on another band and I was offered the Virgin Prunes. It was definitely a quite traditional producer/engineer team…
To be quite honest I don't really know what a record producer does. And I've been questioning the role of a producer for many years now. I personally don't like the idea at all of some other kind of authority figure judging and screwing around with my work, so I don't see why anyone should like me doing that to their work. I also think that the role has been somewhat rendered redundant by the means of production we have available to us now. Certainly the "top down" authoritarian George Martin style has no place in contemporary productions. All that doesn't mean I wouldn't have something to add to the right project but perhaps the methodology would be an important consideration.

When you say "Certainly the "top down" authoritarian George Martin style has no place in contemporary productions", does it also include some regrets?
I'd really have to go into the history of music production to seriously address this but suffice to say recording started with men in white gloves operating the machines and musicians virtually employed on a casual basis. The great thing about the democracy of technology is that anyone can make their own album in whatever way they damn well please. I have absolutely no regrets about that development. I'm an artist first and anything which adds freedom is good!

What do you think have you given to the bands you have produced - if just in terms of sound?
Then & now would be very different. As I said before with the Prunes it was about organising the chaos into something coherent while capturing their unique performance abilities. With Minimal perhaps I added something to the textures. Nowadays I tend to work much more as an engineer so it's much more about mixing, something I couldn't do in the 80's.

Could tell us more about your collaboration with the French singer Alain Bashung on "Novice"? Your influence is very pregnant in the sound of several tracks. How did you work together?
My role in the album was really to provide some arrangements, some of which got used and some of which didn't. I certainly wasn't in any way responsible for the overall sound or direction of the work.

How would you rate this album - his best one from my point of view?
I can't really offer much of an opinion of Alain's work as I only know "Novice". I'm really surprised that you like this album as I was told by a journalist from "Les Inrockuptibles" that I'd ruined it and had the general impression no one much liked it.

For what reason did the album that you and John Bonnar were supposed to release in the Made to Measure collection was never published?
Long Story!! The MTM record was basically John's and he just never did it.

Could you please tell us a few words about each of your solo and "Swim" albums, some kind of brief commentary of what you spontaneously associate with each of them?
"A-Z" was kind of me proving I could do my own album. It had compositions on it that could have been on the 4th EMI Wire album.
"The Singing Fish" was in a way a blueprint for a kind of record people would be making a few years later (after sampling/ sequencing was invented). At least that's what Ivo - Watts-Russell - said about it a few years later!!
"Not To" was really the album made by the band that I was working with at the time, that is Desmond Simmons, Simon Gillham, Robert Gotobed and I. The band was called "Soft Option".. If it had gone on longer I think it would have become a band. Unfortunately 4AD at the time only wanted albums with my name on them.

"Commercial Suicide" was originally designed as a collaboration between myself and John Bonnar but as the project developed (after I moved to Brussels and started living with Malka) it became more of a collaboration between the 4 people involved (with Gilles Martin being the 4th person). We were definitely trying to make something that didn't sound like a rock band or really like anything else. By rejecting conventional rock rhythms it actually formed a basis to re-approach rhythm later.
"It Seems" is kind of "son of CS". Same team but this time much more with sequencers than live players. It was the first album I've ever been involved in where some of the work (the sequencing) was done in our own studio.

"Bastard" - This album has to been seen in the context of the swim work which preceded it (Oracle's "Tree", Malka's "Rosh Ballata" & "Hide" and Immersion's "Oscillating"). Malka & I were developing a diverse language through these projects so we had to really work to see what a Colin Newman album should be in the mid-90's. You can say that "Commercial Suicide" answered that question in the mid 80's and "Bastard" did a decade later. I'm also always aware of the context of being "that bloke from Wire" and all my solo albums are an attempt to not do the obvious thing in relationship to that.

You DJ every now and then. How do you relate to that?
Djing is fun. However I've often referred to myself as the "world's worst DJ" I can't beat mix to save my life and I'm not really interested in the latest floor fillers. For me it's a way to present stuff we've been releasing. I like to switch the beats around too. Yet despite that it's great when a crowd starts jumping around to it. I think the best reaction I got so far was in Chicago when I dropped my Hawkwind remix in the middle of a g-man track (absolutely verboten in "real" DJ terms) and the crowd went apeshit!!

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