Wire to Wire - An interview with Colin Newman
One of 2004’s most welcome collector’s items was Wire on the Box: 1979, an official release of the band’s performance on Alan Bangs’ German television program RockPalast. After floating around as a bootleg for several years, the band obtained the footage from the WDR archives and packaged it on their own Pink Flag label, thus making widely available the only existing television footage of the band from the late 1970s. And while it’s of obvious interest to longtime fans, it also contains live versions of material from Chairs Missing and the not-yet-released-at-that-time 154 that are also likely to win over those who haven’t heard those classic albums. The cutaways from the band’s lively performance to the studio audience politely seated on risers is alone worth the cost of the DVD.
Colin Newman answered a few questions from Dusted about Wire on the Box and his latest venture, Githead, a band he formed with his partner Malka Spiegel and Robin Rimbaud from Scanner. Their debut EP, Headgit, is available now from Swim records.
Tom Zimpleman: Did Wire do many more TV appearances other than the RockPalast concert?
Colin Newman: There have actually been no other concerts for TV in this manner recorded of Wire in any period. In the ’70s there were a few small sections recorded (mainly miming as far as I remember). Some of these are in the (quite extensive in some areas) Wire archive. In the ’80s there was our notorious appearance “drilling with Susan Summers,” a few “mime alongs” and a couple of interview things (as well as some videos, obviously). In the recent period there has been no actual TV, apart from a concert for Slovenian TV, plus Benecassim this year was filmed by them for Spanish TV (I presume). Wire themselves have also extensively filmed and recorded during this period, the most notable being the filmic documentation (by artist Tom Gidley) of the appearance at the Triptych Festival (in 2004), which rather fortuitously for this interview happens to be pinkflag’s next release! Look out for WIRE: The Scottish Play: 2004 for the “then and now” contrast with On the Box.
TZ: Do you think the RockPalast performance was indicative of most of your live shows in the '70s?
CN: Well, strangely enough, I’ve never seen Wire!! This is a very hard question to ask anyone in a band, as their views about their performances are entirely subjective! From a technical point of view, it lacks the rather dramatic lighting we used to use in this period. The “Venetian blinds” used to be a big part of the look – obviously WDR were using TV lighting (which needs to be much brighter). In terms of the performance of the music, it’s somewhat better than I remember us being, but as I said my view would be highly subjective.
TZ: For how long had you been playing most of the material collected here?
CN: Checking my handy Wire gig-ography I can see that this show was recorded (Feb. 14, 1979) not long before Wire’s infamous tour supporting Roxy Music (27 Feb. – 18 March, 1979) there had only been three gigs that year before it (all in Feb.). So I suspect that this set was put together in Jan./Feb. ’79 – warmed up on those three dates and presented to TV as a promotion for our appearance on the Roxy tour (plus obviously promotion for Chairs Missing).
TZ: What do you remember about the taping? Any good stories?
CN: Very little! We got quite drunk in Düsseldorf's (in)famous Ratingerhof the night before the show (with Alan, in fact). We probably did the show on autopilot. Actually I really can’t remember anything!
On a side issue I discovered that Wire had been very influential in the Köln/ Düsseldorf post punk scene, which was much more arty that Berlin’s rather more “political” scene. There was an exhibition and book celebrating this in 2002, and Wire & Pere Ubu are the only non-German bands referenced.
TZ: How did the band meet Alan Bangs?
CN: In the mid ’70s, Alan worked for British Forces (Army) Radio in Germany, based in Köln. He had what amounted to the John Peel slot, he was the guy on late at night who played all the weird records. Because it was a British station, it gave him the excuse to import all the new music coming out of Britain at the time. Germany, in this period, was also a really good market for British music, so there was a kind of synergy between the radio and the touring and the sales. We went on his radio show every time we were in Köln. His show also crossed over to an eager youthful German audience who were not being served by the national broadcasters.
Of course, it’s now a matter of history that with his personable looks and impeccable German, he would cross over to mainstream German media, RockPalast being a stepping stone to that end. I saw him last in the ’80s and even though he was by then quite a TV personality. He was one of those kind of guys who had to have his house structurally re-enforced to take the weight of all his vinyl!
TZ: Had you always planned to release the tapes of this performance?
CN: Well, there’s wanting and getting – and also having the facility. Wire per se didn’t have the ability to release anything until pinkflag! It wasn’t until the ’90s when WDR rebroadcast the show that I even became aware (because someone taped it for me) what it actually was (memory is faulty and no one had VCR’s in the ’70s) and that the TV station still had a master. WDR is a public broadcaster and artists have the right to commercially release copies of their work/ performances (under certain conditions). It took a bit of application to actually get a master and a bit more dusting & tidying to get it to how it appears on the DVD, but it has always been viewed as an important archive item and we are happy to make it available.
TZ: How would you describe Githead's music? Any big influences?
CN: I personally hate bands that do that “Let’s form a band from this list of influences” kind of crap, it’s like writing the press release before you write any songs! What people should know is that Githead is in fact a highly organic project that evolves it’s own style out of the personalities & playing styles of its members. It’s not a concept or a “side project” – just a band I’m in.
That having been said, it is in the nature of the individuals that make up Githead that the band is very much viewed within the landscape of contemporary music & art. In my view, everything that matters in this milieu is always a product of its time somehow. Hindsight may gift a project with timeless qualities, but no one can really judge that as it’s being created.
It is also a fact that Githead is moving very fast in terms of the artistic “ground” it encompasses, the album will, I hope, have a few surprises in store! It’s a project that is continually surprising us with its scope.
TZ: How did the group form?
CN: There is a long back story about the connection of the individuals that happen to be in this band. I guess I have to start with the presumption that people know that Malka and I are a couple and have been working together on various projects since the late ’80s and have been running our Swim label for over 10 years.
So bearing that in mind, then you have to add the fact that we’ve known Robin since the early ’90s (he’s originally from just down the road from where we live so is in fact a local boy!). Robin was very encouraging to Swim in the early days and we have often spoken about doing more things together. Malka and I have also had the idea to do a “rock band” for a few years now but didn’t find the right circumstance. However all that is just back story and might or might not have led to something.
The actual events are quite funny, but I’ll tell you a lot about how it is and why it’s a band and not just some project. We did an event early in 2004 for the 10-year anniversary of Swim, and for Malka and my contribution we wanted to do some kind of live band. We also asked Robin to be part of the event because he was part of our story (contributing to both the immersion remix project & Malka’s My Pet Fish album as well as putting on the first ever Swim event in his electronic lounge at the ICA). As Robin prefers to play live rather than DJ, we thought it would be worth a shot to see if we could work out a few things to play together, even if the item was really only for a one-off. The three of us got together in our studio and Robin played us a few things from his laptop. The studio is a working place, not a place to sit and listen to stuff that’s a not being worked on, so after a while Malka suggested we just play. So we plugged in guitars, found the first drum loop we could get our hands on to play along with and within three minutes we had “reset,” but also it was obvious we had a band!
It is quite amazing the way that we are able to very easily and quickly come up with quite diverse material that still retains a personality of the band. In my opinion, what makes a band is the fact that that there is a natural ease about the way that the parts fit together, which is kind of beyond the particular skills or personalities of the individuals concerned. It’s a case of the sum being greater than the parts. This project wasn’t actually something we had necessarily planned on taking further than one gig, but if something works as well as Githead works then it demands that you take it seriously and give it time and energy!
TZ: When is the full-length album being released?
CN: We are aiming to have the album finished by the end of Jan. 2005 so we’d be looking at a release somewhere in the April-June period. Depends on where you are when you actually able to buy it, but for sure it’ll be available on Posteverything (www.posteverything.com/swim) first. We’ll probably put something special up on www.githead.co.uk as well.
TZ: Any plans for future albums or performances?
CN: As far as we are concerned Githead is a serious ongoing project. The next stage for us, after finishing the album, is to rehearse with a live drummer (we have one in mind) so that we can start to gig more frequently than we have and be more of a complete band on stage.
By Tom Zimpleman