with Colin Newman of Wire
August 4, 2007
Name: Colin Newman
QRD – How old were you when you first realized you wanted to be a professional musician?
Colin – Start with the tough ones, eh? I know what you want to ask, but I don’t think I ever have or ever will describe myself as a “professional musician.” For want of a better description I’m an artist who uses music as his main mode of expression. I can’t remember a time when that wasn’t what I wanted to be. As a child I was affected to the core by music & had very strong ideas about what I liked & how close to perfection a particular artist had come in whatever record I was hearing, but I had no idea at all about the mechanics of making music. So you could say that every skill I’ve learned in the years since I was a kid conjuring up mental re-arrangement of the tunes of the day has been to service the ideas I have. Those skills have ranged from wetting the paper in a kazoo to get a softer tone to being able to mix an entire album. Some of the skills I’ve acquired could be called “musicianly,” but to be honest my skills as a player of an instrument are fairly modest.
QRD – What are a few highlights of your musical career?
Colin – What I normally say to people when they start enquiring about my “musical career” is that I’ll let them know when it starts! I’m honestly not being facetious; I just find it very hard to describe what I do in those terms. It’s more about a lifelong passion, it’s about wanting to do & wanting to connect & finding the means to facilitate that. In terms of highlights, it’s hard to pick a few; being that bloke from Wire would be regarded, by most other people in bands at least, as being a continuous musical highlight, it’s achievements are numerous not the least of which is it’s peculiar longevity, not many bands have achieved the distinction of being that cool for that long! Outside of Wire I’ve run the swim ~ label since 1992 with my wife & partner Malka Spigel, who is also in my “other” band Githead. The latest album “Art Pop” has received reviews amongst the best I’ve ever had for anything in my life, it was mixed (by me) & recorded for the most part in our own studio. I’ve mixed all the Githead stuff, all the Wire stuff since 2000 (including “Send”) & a bunch of stuff that came out on swim ~ in our studio. Being as I’ve accumulated a lot of experience running Swim ~ I took on running Wire’s label pinkflag from it’s outset in 2000, the label achieves very respectable sales for a small indie with no staff. I’m also part of posteverything.com which just got re-launched (this week!) with digital added to its offer. All this counts for me as stuff I do, the achievement is getting it done & the reward (beyond the financial one) is of having acquired the skills necessary to do the job.
QRD – At what age did you decide you wanted to become a father?
Colin – Malka is my second wife (and most definitely the true love of my life!). I was 22 when I got married the first time & my first wife was quite a bit older than me. She wanted to be married because I guess it was what you were supposed to do, I didn’t really have any objections even though I knew she couldn’t have kids. I wasn’t much more than a kid myself & I was way too busy to consider a family anyhow. In any relationship you just go on the internal logic. While we were together it all made sense. After it finished not much about it made sense to be honest. The start of the relationship with Malka was both beautiful & very hard at the same time, but I do remember asking her pretty early on if she wanted kids. I think she was a bit shocked at me asking so early in our story; but I remember her saying that she wasn’t planning any (well she could hardly be promising kids to a guy she only just met!), but it wasn’t something she was against. As our relationship became more formal (moving in together, getting married, etc.), it became something we both realized we wanted. We were both in our 30’s, which was at the time (late 80’s) considered to be very late to start a family & to use a cliché the biological clock was ticking.…
QRD – What are some positive & negative impacts your family has had on your career?
Colin – I married a bass player in a rock band, not a housewife to be. The early part of our relationship consisted of intercontinental phone calls from hotel rooms of our respective tours. I even proposed to Malka on the phone (I was drunk & I honestly didn’t know if she would say yes or not!). We realized we were going to have to start to create projects where we could work together & be at home more. That’s how the studio started, in the middle room of our flat in Brussels. Our idea was that we should gravitate towards working together (luckily we’ve always been very easy musical collaborators) so we could spend more time together. It also of course started to create the circumstances for creating a family. Ben was born in November 1988, we bought a house & set up a studio in the basement. It took a while, but by the time we had moved to London & set up swim ~ we had created a circumstance whereby we could both be parents & artists. In many ways the distinctions between home & work are very blurred in my life but it’s a choice we have made together.
QRD – What are some positive & negative impacts your career has had on your family?
Colin – Ben grew up in a house surrounded by creative means, but we never made any kind of big deal about what we do. We’ve also never pushed him in any particular direction. We’ve tried to be as “normal” parents as possible, but have provided him with some of the means to find out what he wants to do. Whether he’ll end up in the “family business” remains to be seen. In some ways the next few years will be crucial. He needs to find out where his skills & passions really lie.
QRD – Has your son effected the music you make &/or listen to?
Colin – There have been times when Ben has resented the fact that we are way more interested than “regular” parents in what he regards as “his” culture, but he’s getting over that by now. He’s got pretty good taste in general, but is completely capable of doing the annoying teenager thing of inappropriately loud music emanating from the bedroom!
QRD – Have you had problems with the lack of steady money from a musical career providing the security you feel necessary in your household?
Colin – Financial security is THE big problem for any artist whose life doesn’t include a regular wage packet (& I don’t know many that do!). Truthfully, what somebody like me gets out of my artistic status is: notoriety - which helps with the general networking one needs to survive & a lot of love - which certainly helps make a sometimes very difficult life easier to bear. Probably most people in regular jobs (I mean ones with proper careers) earn more money than I do. This is just a statement of fact rather than a complaint. This is the life I have chosen for myself.
QRD – Given the limitations having a family has on being a touring musician, would you have toured more earlier in life if you’d known?
Colin – Well, both Malka & I did a lot of touring before Ben was born & the stage when he was little pretty much coincided with a big rise in club culture in Europe. I also wasn’t much interested in touring at that point. I think the vagaries of Wire’s internal relations have had much more impact on the incidence of touring in my life! Malka & I did a few things in the late 90’s & we might have done more had it not been for Ben. It’s not until Githead that we have a vehicle that can really tour & this is something we just have to build up bit by bit as Githead can’t yet demand the fees that Wire can. In this you’ve also got to look at the way things move around. Over the last few years people are again interested to go & see a live band. There’s been a huge resurgence of interest in this. During the 90’s, it was way less so.
QRD – Do you think being a father or a musician has a greater impact on your community?
Colin – Not quite sure what you mean by community here? We live in London. Not a place anyone comes to to feel a sense of community apart from in the most general sense of kinship to humanity (NB - London has by far & away the biggest range of cultures, emanating from the biggest number of countries & regions of any city in the world bar none). If we have a “community” it’s an artistic one, not based in any one geographic location. I don’t think me being a father has a big impact here.
QRD – Would you rather see your son eventually become a musician or parent?
Colin – Well I know one thing for sure. Ben will make a great parent! He has a really strong sense of family. This is not anything you can teach or impart in any way; I see this as part of his intrinsic nature. He’s that kind of guy. He may or may not end up being a musician. He has the physical skills (he’s a good bass player & is generally very musical), but we are absolutely the wrong people to give him the context to bring that somewhere (or we are right now anyhow, name me an 18 year old who’d want to be in a band with his mum & dad!). We just want him to end up doing something in life that plays to his strengths & gives him satisfaction.
QRD – Both family & music seem like things that will take up as much of your time as you’re willing to put in. How do you end up dividing your time?
Colin – Not formally that’s for sure! The one thing I do is get up earlier than anyone else so I usually have a couple of hours in the morning to deal with emails, interviews, etc. This is not really off of any decision, but is more about my own body clock. It wakes me up too early! Especially in summer. But apart from that we just have to do what needs to be done!
QRD – Do you have a split/secret life between being a parent & being a musician?
Colin – Not at all. Ben is likeable & very social. I love it when I see him getting on with other people we work with.
QRD – What does Ben think of your music?
Colin – Strange one really. I really hate those kids of musicians that end up being so much in the shadow of their parent’s creativity that all they know is what is centered around what their parents do. I want him to discover for himself. I think at core he likes what we do, but it’s not a big part of his life. He occasionally tells me of conversations he’s had with people he meets of the “Wow, your dad’s in Wire” variety (and similar “Wow, your mum’s from Minimal Compact” ones he’s had in Israel). I guess it’s unusual for a child to grow up in a house where both parents are creatively involved with various projects.
QRD – Do you think you could ever do a musical project with your children?
Colin – When Ben was younger we helped him do a few tracks as Bumpy (a name he doesn’t like any more as it’s too child like). I’m sure that if he gets a band together I’m going to end up helping record & mix it. Beyond that a lot depends on what he wants to do with his life.
QRD – Any words of advice to young people?
Colin – My view would be that any artistic venture has to start as a passion (some might say obsession). You need the skills to get the job done, the innate ability to recognize your own strengths & the presence of mind to be ruthless in self-editing. You might use sex, association, causes, etc. to sell your work but in the end those things will be the things sold not the art. Don’t expect to make any money, but don’t be stupid about opportunities that come your way. You have to be in the business of art & you have to get smart fast. If everyone thinks you are the best thing since sliced bread & everyone wants to be your friend, just remember at all times you are just another human being. There’s loads more, maybe I should do lecture tours!
Another QRD interview