interview with Colin Newman originally printed in The Broken Face
I guess some of you know Colin Newman being he was part of Wire. Wire of course is a band that has constantly re-invented itself from punk (you know that song every punk band covers “12XU”) to the roots of post punk & it’s evolution into art pop & then stuff that’s much harder to try & explain to someone who’s never heard it. Robert Smith once said, “Who needs The Cure when there’s Wire?” & I guess that means something right? & Wire is officially functioning again & working on new material. So enough about Wire. Personally my favorite thing Colin Newman has done is probably his album “A to Z” which is growing near twenty years old & my girlfriend says is the thing most likely to be playing in my car. I can’t explain what that record is about & I don’t understand why it’s so great myself; just do yourself a favor & buy it. You might not love it the first time you hear it, but listen to it for a week. Of course more recently he started a record label with his wife Malka called Swim that some of you may know. His last album “Bastard” has the feel of guitar loop experiments with beats. Very soothing & cool & if it had come out this year it probably would be better received than years ago. I’m waiting for the next installment. I think this interview shows Newman’s style very effectively, mildly evasive, intelligent, & intense.
QRD – In the 80’s when you stopped working on music & went to India, did you know you’d come back to it & what did you learn during this period?
Colin – Hard question. I personally think that one interpretation of the reincarnation theory is that it is an allegory for life itself. Each phase is like a reincarnation & this is particularly true of my life. I've always had a problem with seeing my own life in non quantum terms. I suppose what I mean by all this is that it was all relevant at the time, but right now I don't feel that much connection with this period of my life.
QRD – I know categorization of music sucks & Wire has always shaken any tag they get with their next release, but Wire is now often seen as an art band; is this an acceptable term to you & the other members?
Colin – Easy Question. Right now, acceptable. Although it would be even more acceptable to simply describe Wire as Art.
QRD – Is Swim your label or Malka’s?
Colin – Both of ours. The label itself is an act of "curation." We tend to be described as having a very good quality filter. We don't release any crap. However as 95% of music is marketed with virtually no reference to content & even so called underground labels tend to release more than they should to keep up their distributor totals (you can only have weight in distribution if you are releasing enough titles to get continuous "profile" - attempting to do this with limited resources can only lead to iffy output, very often masquerading as cool content, because there just isn't that amount really good stuff out there that's just gonna drift your way) it's a hard job to compete with such a dead weight of average output. We also tend to eschew tribalism in music as "self-niching" is ultimately such a dead end street. We are very proud of what we have achieved & the quality of the artists we are able to have on the label. I would wholeheartedly recommend that people check out acts like silo, symptoms, lobe, immersion, etc. The easiest route into swim is via the CD compilation "swim team#1" which should retail for the price of a 12". <www.swimhq.com>
QRD – Which of the following do you think you’re most & least talented as: lyricist, guitar player, songwriter, producer?
Colin – Depends on which day. I have an ability with prose text (I occasionally contribute to various papers/magazines) but I am in no way a poet (& have very little interest to be one), so I'd say I'm a pretty lousy lyricist. Mind you I'm also technically a pretty crap guitarist (I can barely play better than I could when I was 17). I wouldn't really regard my self as much of a "songwriter" anymore, at least not in the strumming acoustic guitar on the toilet way I was in my 20's. I'd say I'm more of a manipulator of information (sometimes sonic) these days. I'm also rather unsure about record production. In the early 90's I contributed what was considered a rather well reasoned argument as to why record production was a load of crap to a music production magazine. This actually persuaded one "name" producer to give up record production for a couple of years! I don't know what record production is in the 3rd millennium but I can say that I haven't seen the inside of many "conventional" studios in the last 10 years! So there you go, equally crap at them all.
QRD – Would you like to one day do a collaborative work with your son?
Colin – We do (or at least help him out). His project is called "bumpy". There is a track on the last sampler.
QRD – What’s your favorite record label other than Swim?
Colin – Don't know, there have been many. I'm starting to hear stuff on artefact & deluxe that I like right now. (see above re- label release patterns)
QRD – Why did you decide to start Swim? Your first three releases were relatively speaking "self-releases," why didn’t you send them to other labels?
Colin – Actually the first release. "Rosh Ballata" was originally for another label, (NMC in Israel) we technically licensed it to them, so we thought we'd try to put it out in the rest of the world. Having succeeded we then decided to release an Oracle album. Believe me we tried to get Oracle signed to another label during the 80's that's why the album we released is a retrospective. By the time we got to Immersion we realised we actually were a record label so it kind of got easier (& harder!!).
QRD – What’s the best & worst way for people to listen to your music?
Colin – Like everything else it depends on circumstance. The best stuff works in lots of different situations. The worst? Not listening, listening and not hearing…..
QRD – My understanding is that there is new Wire material in the works, is it more guitar/bass/drums oriented like the last tour was?
Colin – Yes & no. Guitar, bass, & drums are the source. There is an MP3 of the last 7" on the pinkflag site. It tells you something & nothing. <www.pinkflag.com>
QRD – Would you rather be pre or post?
Colin – Best not to be lost in the post. If you are post you have to be post everything (just happens to be the name of a rather cool site associated with swim & wire) <www.posteverything.com>
QRD – Do you think you’ll one day start to write symphonic or string quartet works?
Colin – I hope not! I did my classical bit with Commercial Suicide. I'm a bit bored with those kind of sounds. I'm kind of into dirt, interference, & speed (velocity not drugs) right now. I'm also into environmental audio and exploring the lines between sound and music. None of this means some kind of "a-musical" kind of treatments or noise for noise's sake. I know that explains nothing but I can't play you what I mean!
QRD – Your lyrics sometimes come across as juxtapositioning & linking of unrelated phrases, is this intentional? What is your lyric writing process?
Colin – These are technically called "lists." The uncharitable might also call them random bollocks. I suspect my outpourings are often untroubled by earthly concepts like meaning & sense or even syntax.
QRD – In what ways do you feel computers have most helped music & most hurt music?
Colin – This is a thesis question. For me it's all about editing. Computers are very handy for facilitating editing be it text, images, sound, or whatever. Of course if you haven't got any ideas or any clue about what was good about the mess you made that can be edited into something interesting, then any amount of any kind of technology isn't going to help. For me computers made it clear that the art was in the choosing. Of course the proliferation of cheap & easy ways to create has meant that there is much more crap about, but only in quantity not in percentage terms. I always think that at least 95 percent of everything is crap!
QRD – What city in the world do you think has the healthiest music scene & why?
Colin – There are many cities in which things are happening. London has had something going for it more or less since the beginning of the 90's. Manchester always produces interesting stuff. I have the sense that Paris is definitely somewhere to be keeping an eye on right now. Berlin produced some really cool stuff during the very end of the 90's. There is definitely some kind of scene in Brooklyn. & of course we have 2 artists on the label from Copenhagen!
QRD – Do you think the guitar has been fairly thoroughly explored?
Colin – Who knows? Certainly not me. I can play more or less everything I know how to play in about ten minutes & I never really got the hang of guitar amps. However I currently have interesting approaches to recorded guitars within a Pro-Tools environment, but then you can just say they are another sound source.
QRD – If you could own one famous person’s instrument, what/who’s would it be?
Colin – I have absolutely no instrument fetishism.
QRD – What era in your musical career do you feel has been least well captured?
Colin – I tend to feel that I've yet to have a musical career. I'll let you know when it starts.
QRD – What is the next Colin Newman record going to be like?
Colin – Probably a heap of crap.
QRD – What’s your current favourite piece of musical equipment & what would you like to see come out that doesn’t exist to your knowledge?
Colin – Basically my current main "instrument" is a Macintosh G4. The absolute most recent thing Malka & I did was an a/v thing where the soundtrack was sourced only from audio recorded via the camera. There was of course heavy manipulation, looping etc. - I'm really waiting on a plug & play, cheap DV authoring solution - The highest end current generation G4s have a start on this, but we need greater capacity & not having to buy a new Mac to have it!!
QRD – Would you like for all of your albums to be in print or are you comfortable with some of them being fairly obscure?
Colin – Nobody plans on obscurity. Whatever they may say! However we don't see it as swim's function to keep currently unavailable personal back catalogue from other labels in print.
QRD – How have you survived economically in the past 25 years making uncompromising music & do you have advice for others who are trying to live off of their music?
Colin – Well for a start I'm not sure how uncompromising the work is. There was never an intention to be uncompromising. Just a desire not to do crap, which from a British perspective is something quite different. Each age has its own survival strategies. I think a lot of musicians discovered that the tactic of sounding like every band that ever existed & waiting for large muliti-national corporations to give you lots of money is not very effective! I'd personally hesitate to give out advice, but I do think that for survival you need a high degree of common sense in relationship to financial matters combined with an ability to know just exactly what you are good at.
QRD – Do something with this list of people and explain what you did: Robert Fripp, David Hockney, John Lydon, Syd Barrett, Richard Pryor. (this isn’t my question, I asked what he meant & he said, I didn’t want to just ask his opinion of the people, I thought he could make anagrams or say what he thought or whatever.)
Colin – Two I have spoken to. One I have disagreed with. One was in higher education with my ex-wife. One I have been compared to (easy). One I don't know of any personal connection with. Two I have seen play live…. Fit the names to the statements.
QRD – If you could go back and change something about Wire's albums from the 70's, what would it be?
Colin – Don't get me started! I'd love to have the chance to work on the mulititracks to some of those tracks. I wouldn't be interested in radical re-workings just re-focussing for the current age.
QRD – Do you enjoy playing guitar?
Colin – Hmm. I do it really quite rarely outside of formal situations (live gigs etc.) & absolutely never practice. My finger ends are quite soft right now, so that will tell you something. However I don't hate it, but do find the physical pain associated rather tedious.
QRD – What do you think are your parents’ favourite memories of your music?
Colin – I don't think either of my parents would have known any music I've been involved with specifically (my mother is sadly no longer with us). I think my father long ago got over the shock of realising that I actually made money out of it!
QRD – What is "I am the Fly" about?
Colin – I didn't write the words (only the tune). I hope you realise that rather unusually Wire has a singer who historically tended to write the music rather than the words to songs. However, I must say that "I am the fly" is very 1978. Do you have the expression "fly in the ointment" in US English? It means "spanner in the works" a small element that screws it all up. I would imagine that from that basis the rest is pretty easy to work it out given the kind of material there was around at the time.
QRD – Anything else?
Colin – By now my activities are so diverse
that it's often quite hard for me to know which aspects to concentrate
on in an interview. This is of course often governed by which questions
are asked. These usually reveal how the questioner categorises my activities
and my responses are usually governed by how much I want to fit into the
box the questioner is describing. However because I'm used to having to
wear many hats, I'm also keenly aware that too much of a scattergun effect
may leave readers confused. I have an unsentimental view of my own past
& reputation. What matters to me is what I'm doing now….