circus maximus
Colin Newman / Wire

In the art of stopping

Pour la troisième fois de son histoire, Wire, le légendaire quatuor issu du punk, redémarre. Ce nouveau départ en trombe, amorcé dès l'an 2000 par une série de concerts, s'est concrétisé l'an passé par la sortie de deux EP, "Read & Burn 01" et "02", parus sur Pink Flag, le propre label du groupe - des disques dont Colin Newman déclare qu'ils s'apparentent, par leur caractère instantané et immédiat, à des sortes de "white labels". Ce retour en grâce se confirme avec la sortie, le 28 avril, de "Send", premier album du quatuor depuis douze ans (et l'excellent album "The Drill", en 1991). On aurait tort de croire cependant, à l'écoute de ces 11 morceaux nerveux, rapides, courts et "basiques", à un pur et simple retour aux sources. Du punk qui a marqué leurs débuts, Wire semble avoir retenu surtout l'esprit - ce "do it yourself" auquel le développement de la scène et des technologies électroniques est venu donner un nouveau souffle. Ainsi, la simplicité formelle des morceaux de "Send" (dont six titres figuraient déjà sur les EP précédents : le plus surprenant étant qu'on a l'impression, à l'écoute, qu'ils ont été réenregistrés) masquent mal un formidable travail de studio, sous la férule de Colin Newman, porte-parole du groupe. Cet album est ainsi le fruit d'un extraordinaire travail d'"editing" et de mixage, comme si le groupe avait choisi de faire repasser sa musique par le filtre de l'electro (celle d'Autechre comme celle de Fischerspooner - qui a d'ailleurs repris The 15th, morceau tiré de l'album 154 de Wire, sur son album). Groupe intelligent et inspiré autant que fondateur, Wire démontre aujourd'hui que sa postérité n'est pas plus douteuse que son actualité. Si ce quatuor est constitué de quatre fortes individualités musicales - de Colin Newman, Bruce Gilbert, Graham Lewis et Robert Gotobed - qui, toutes, possèdent leur propre conception de cette véritable aventure musicale, c'est avec Colin Newman que nous avons choisi de nous entretenir. Pour évoquer tout à la fois le parcours personnel de ce musicien qui est également directeur de label, producteur et même plasticien, mais aussi le passé et le futur de Wire, trois longs entretiens par e-mail, complétés de conversations informelles, ont été nécessaires. C'est la "substantifique moëlle" de ces propos souvent passionnants et lumineux que nous vous livrons ici (certains extraits ayant été publiés dans les numéros 13 et 21 du magazine "Octopus").

Interview réalisée par David Sanson avec Bertrand Dermoncourt et le concours de Vincent Laufer

"You are the audience, you are the star"
- About evolution & reception -

How have you been making any distinction between your compositions - the ones that were for Wire, the ones you kept for you?
It didn't really work like that. It was more to do with material and diversification. I wrote the majority of the "tunes" on the first 3 Wire albums, however I never considered it fair that I dominated the writing so in order to give more space for the others I started selecting what I brought to Wire which left a lot of material over. The original plan was to see if we could get a "Wire" imprint at EMI and put out quite a diverse set of material on it. I could say it wasn't really a practical consideration or I could say EMI didn't have the vision. Anyway they were going through corporate changes and in the end Wire just left with no real plan to find another record company. "A-Z" was written & demoed and Beggars Banquet wanted to sponsor it. It seemed like a sensible idea. Nothing was really planned; Wire at that point (1980) wasn't very interested in chasing after deals. A lot had happened in the last couple of years to disillusion us. For myself I just needed a soapbox !!

Your evolution could be seen through its relation with technology, which developments you have been following. Your first albums were recorded in a classical analogic studio ; the "It seems" period seems to be under influence of the sequencer ; and then the computer, for the projects on your label, Swim. Would you agree with that?
I must admit to being extremely wary of all pronouncements by musicians, DJ's and journalists containing the word "technology"". The very recording of music involves some kind of "technology". I'm sure there were many that lamented the disappearance of sheet music when records came in ! I've always used appropriate technology for the time. However it has to be said that from the mid-80's the liberation provided by affordable technology has provided a great spur to differing kinds of creativity. Right now multi-track hard disk recording/manipulation through fast home computers allows the kind of working methods followed in analogue tape days to be more seamlessly integrated with the more sequencer/sampler style of working from the previous period. Not only that but now we can make videos using the same system.

When you speak of using the "appropriate technology for the time", would you agree with people who say that the current means are a kind of danger (see the conceptions of Brian Eno) since they make it all the more difficult - and necessary at the same time - to make choices as the amount of possibilities and choices has become nearly infinite?
"Option Paralysis" is a fact of modern life. It could be argued that this increase in choice is actually part of man's spiritual development. As mankind matures it is able to deal more with more freedom. Our forefathers had less choices... More choice doesn't make you any happier or any better at what you do. As artists we have to develop the instinct to make decisions about what technology is relevant to what activity.

What is your attitude regarding sampling, and how do you use it?
For me a sampler has been so much part of studio equipment for so many years (used on every single project I've worked on since and including "Commercial Suicide") that you can't have any more opinion on it than you can on a mixing board or microphone. Samplers are a bit superseded in these days when we have multi-track hard disk recording but I still use them to an extent. There is only one sample off someone else's record on "My Pet Fish".. We'd always spoken to Benjamin Lew about doing something like this and in fact still have a DAT somewhere of samples he gave us. The other artists provided us samples to use in the compositions. In general we don't really use recognisable samples from other people's records (although train spotters might know where some drum breaks came from before they were on the sample CD's we got them off) mainly because it's a bit naff!

The arrangements seem to have always had a big importance for you. Yet today you have given away the "song" form. Would you say that until your "discovery" of instrumental music your songs have been an expression for feelings, and that since then your music has become more ""abstract"? Would you consider it as less "personal"?
For me it's all about appropriate technology and appropriate cultural response to the period one is working in. In my opinion many artists start off (if they are any good) very much in tune with the "cultural gestalt" which throws them up. Then so often what happens is that they presume that by continuing in the same vein they will just get better but so often it's just the same thing refined (and very often less interesting) I become easily bored and I like to challenge myself. Singing or not singing is definitely a response to where I am and what music I'm hearing as well as the fact that I can become extremely bored with the sound of my own voice. I'm not sure that putting a voice on something makes it more personal.

But isn't the text or the mere presence of a voice the best way to install a kind of "intimacy" or proximity with the listener?
It's so dependant on who is singing or adding voice. For the voice to convey real intimacy or proximity it has to be real. So it is pretty important whether the person adding the voice thinks it's a worthwhile activity or not! In terms of my own work it's really down to whether I believe that I have something to add with my voice. There are drawbacks with using voice. It can make something more literal or tie the music down to some kind of narrative, however abstract. For me personally instrumental music was a great liberation from formal song structure… A lot of the stuff Malka & I have done together which is either instrumental or on which I haven't sung is much less formal than some of the songs I've done. I somehow can't feel that something that is more formal is more personal. In the final analysis I make stuff to please myself or we make stuff to please ourselves. It's the only valid way to do it, in my humble opinion.

I consider your lyrics in Wire maybe as the most "directly personal" (it is a compliment), but each of the members of Wire seem to have manifested a need of expressing himself through words and sometimes to use them as a reflection of your current situation (in the band as well as in privacy). Has this need become less important for you, perhaps as a result of a new kind of stability? Do you still write texts?
There is a context thing with Wire in that I've always been considered more a "tunesmith" than a poet. I personally have never really attempted to be a poet although in recent years I have discovered I'm good at expressing myself through text. Some of Bruce's words are painfully personal ("Two People in a room" or the awesome "Ticking mouth"). Somehow "3 girl rhumba" doesn't have that kind of gravitas.
Having said that I do write the odd text to be sung /spoken. My intention is that the new CN album Malka & I are working on does have some voice.
I suppose the real point in respect to these questions is that what always turned me on about music was never the words and always the music. I'm not being falsely modest when I say I don't set a great deal of store by my words. However if something profound does come out then it's because I'm trying hard not to be unpretentious about it!!

How would you explain the fact that most your greatest "hits" (i.e. "Alone", "Their terrain", "Better later than never", etc.) are the songs that are the most "arranged", where there is the most polyphony, with a lot of melodical gimmicks?
Are these hits? I'll grant they are somewhat formal.

Regarding musical influences, what was your interest :
- for psychedelism, since your first three albums are quite psychedelic,
- for the pop music of the 60's (the perfection of your vocal lines/arrangements is not far from Paul Mccartney's)?
- for techno and electronic music (did this bring to the point of reconsidering your approach of music)?

Blimey! Don't know about any of that really! The problem is I don't really know what any of that means! Just what does psychedelic mean in 2000? Can anyone recall Paul McCartney without immediately thinking of "Mull of Kintyre" or "Ebony & Ivory" these days? And who the hell would want to be compared with that !! And just what does techno or electronic mean in 2000 when anyone making techno is retro and all "recorded" music is electronic. I know I'm playing with words here but actually I consider all these things to be completely irrelevant to how I work.

To us, you are a brilliant songwriter. Have you ever been considering yourself as such? Are there current "classical" songwriters that you particularly like? Why don't you sing anymore : don't you like your voice anymore? even on the Wir album you sing less than Graham....
I've answered some of this before. To be quite honest I'm not that much into songwriting any more. I think the idea of voice & music can be a really devilish combination but it feels to me that most people doing stuff with the narrative song form are just repeating stuff which has been done before. I'm not going to pronounce it dead because I'm sure someone somewhere has some kind of possibility to re-invent it BUT it seems to me that the kind of music where everything is dictated by the voice sounds very old fashioned right now and has done for some time. However, as I said before I'm quite into singing right now.