Innocent Music in Little Frames
Colin Newman

Interview by Akiko Hada
Rock Magazine (Japan), March 1981

Illogical chain of words. Chain of syllables. The harder you try to read something into them the more blurred the words become, more defaced the chain becomes. Abstract. Abstract? What is abstract? Camouflage of words? Play of words? ...Thought wanders around. Only the ears pick up the words and throw them into the now empty head. Pleasure of being played by words.

WIRE - Colin Newman, Graham Lewis, Bruce Gilbert, Robert Gotobed.

WIRE - "Pink Flag", "Chairs Missing", "154". Spooky pictures on the covers. Coercing sound. Chilliness. Meaningless terror. Bottomless marsh.
Colin Newman's distinct accent pronouncing mysterious syllables, that hang onto the eerie sound.

In front of me across a big desk sits Colin, looking like a precocious secondary schoolboy, logic-chopping to himself all the time. Like an eccentric boy, always bashful and unable to fit in. Such first impression was perhaps not all that wrong: both being shy, we never said a word to each other - not even hello - until I got my tape recorder out, and yet, while I was talking to someone else in the office, Colin was listening in and got a word in edgeways. And when the tape started running, he talked, talked...... and talked.

I like tunes. What I most like about when you sing with music is the sound of the voice; the voice just making noises to go with the music. So I'm always singing in terms of words that would do something to the music, that'd come into it at a funny angle. That's why there's always lots of ridiculous three-syllable words in them because I like those. They sound so pretentious.

What are the lyrics for? That's a very good question. I think what I'm trying to do is - if there's anything in it at all - it's the fact that I'm trying to say I haven't got anything to say, in a roundabout way. I find it very difficult to make overt statements about the way I see things. More and more I seem to be able to have acquired the facility to say things in more than one stand point, which is probably for an artist exceptionally dangerous, but I don't really care. If I see something in one way I can say 'OK, here it is and that's how it could be' but then it could be this, it could be that, or it could be the other.

Graham always used to say On Returning was the best lyrics I ever wrote because it's like a synopsis of an event. I don't think I've ever written anything as conscience as that - I think I'd quite like to, but I can't think I want to say something so conscisely about. I don't want it to present little homilies of my life, of my loves, or anything. I don't want to write love songs or sex songs or drug songs or whatever type of songs that you normally get in rock'n'roll.

And then there's also the comedy thing on A-Z. A lot of things I think are meant to be comical. There are things on the album about certain things, but usually it is to do with the sound of the words, in the way I could possibly phrase it and turn it around and make it sound funny.

B is really meant to be funny, for fun, for children's parties - jelly and ice cream and having a nice time. Not in a way that adults have a formal nice time, it's more like kids having a nice time when they really do enjoy themselves. Children, when they're not quite aware of what they're doing, they just get carried away because they get excited by things. Adults always tend to lose that capacity and they always regret having lost it. I was trying to get something of that sort of innocence. That's why I chose it as a single. There's so much of - especially all this electronics stuff - it's all so knowing, they all seem to know what they're doing, all seem to be self-important. And I was trying to get something - it' s just a parody, parody of myself as much as anything else. Because people are thinking of me as being one of these martyrs from Mars, all that stuff, you know. I'm just an average jerk, just like everyone else. I make fool of myself just like everyone else does. I really have tried hard to present myself as not taking myself very seriously on this album. I don't know how much it's come across, I think people still take it seriously.

I only do the music because I enjoy it, and I haven't got a clue why I like it. I just do things that appeal to try, and things just come . naturally, rather than concocting some scheme or plan. Even if the most ridiculous thought comes into your head about what should happen, why not try it out? There are many fairly silly things on the record. Like in the middle of Image, all the drums have been replaced by me hitting guitars and bits of furniture, and me going 'Dah Dah Dah' down a vaccuum cleaner tube. Star Eyes has got all kazoos at the end - not just particularly kazoos but I wanted to use instruments that aren't properly regarded.

At the moment everyone thinks, if you've got 3 synthesizers and a bloke in a black suit, and you've got a group. I want to get back to instruments again, and not just the instruments you're used to. So you have to try and realise those things on records. I do hope to try and use more and varied instruments on the records, and I'm acquiring a lot of cheap instruments. If I see any instrument that costs under £5, I'll buy it. I'm not very rich and I can't afford to buy expensive instruments. None of them I can play, but it doesn't matter. I suppose I'm alright at playing guitar but I'm not particularly good, I've got no real technique to speak of. I watch all these people who really know how to do it, and I just wonder how they get the fingers to go so quick.

But I do try to make it come from me, do try to make it real so it's me that's coming out of the instrument. Whatever instrument and however bad I'm playing it, it's me. I can't be anyone else so I might be me.

I recognise that so much in a lot of art forms where people aren't being themselves, and I think people can discern the difference. I think sometimes people don't really care. A lot of people who buy just more or less straight pop stuff, I don't think they really care whether people are doing what they ought to be doing or not. It's just a pleasant noise, so it doesn't occupy them and there's no reason why it should

It's true people of my age got grown up on rock music, but I can't listen to it any more. It all sounds the same to me. And I'm just saying what my parents used to say about it: 'it all sounds the same' - but it does!

Rock is a very limited medium, and I have started to wonder why I'm working in rock medium. However highly someone regards you and your work, you're always good just in that medium. And if you don't like the medium very much, it's not a very high thing to aim for. It would be nice to try and do something that's really good in a broader sense.

I don't listen very much to rock music, so maybe the things I listen now have more and more influence on me. It's all... I suppose what they call ethnic music. Indiginous music of places, like African music or oriental music. There is something that we don't really think about in our Society. The fact we don't work small any more - we always want to work big and there's a lot been said for working big. But when we were in New York, we went to one of the art museums and they had illustrations from The Conference of Birds. The painting was done in 12-14 centuries, and people have worked for a very long time on a very tiny scale. The detail is something you don't see any more. And I do find that in music too, looking at one thing for a really long period of time, over generations and generations.

In a way, maybe what I'll be doing will be more and more limited. When I was younger I could never see the attraction of anyone wanting to play the blues. But now I can understand it a lot more why people want to play the same thing over and over again. It' s that kind of subtlety, detail that they're looking for. Although I'm still not particularly attracted to the blues, I can understand the thinking behind it.

We've been working on some new things for live performance. We can't conceivably play the album because half of it's done by tape effects anyway, say, something like Alone, the drums were a slowed-down drum track, and you can't play that live. I mean, apart from importing tape recorders on stage - which I think is a little bit false - or having a synthesizer player, which...I'm so anti-synthesizer at the moment, I don't want a synthesizer player. I'd just like to develop a group sound.

The group have taken over, so I'm just in it. Although they're playing mostly my songs, it has got a consciousness of its own, I hope. I don't want to be too important, I want it to be music of its own so that it won't be just a Wire off-shoot. It's got to be something different, something more distinctive.

There is a sound that's emerging. I think it's going to be far more simple, even more pathetically simple than even what I've been doing now. Simplicity is the only direction I can go in. I've always been frightened of it in the past. Pink Flag has got a lot of rhythm guitar, bass, a lot of filling-in so frantically going at it to make it sound more. But now I've come so far away from that, almost the opposite thing you can have. Four people just tapping bits of words...that's what I'm aiming for, something that's just so simple, just little tunes that go with other tunes.

I won't tell you what I've got in my mind but I'll tell you what it won't be: the lights come up, Colin Newman steps out with a backing band - 'Hi, fans" ...all that stuff. I don't want to play the hero, it'd just be utterly false.

Actually it's very funny because the only people that used to show what I thought was a real appreciation of Wire were people who actually knew us, because they used to think it was funny. We used to do all kinds of stupid things, but people used to think it was really clever and arty. I must admit, without sounding arrogant, I've watched people doing me on stage. And they do it so fucking badly, there was so little sense of humour! All things I started to do because I thought they were funny, people do seriously because they think it's stylish or arty or something. I mean, people didn't laugh when I was standing in the middle of the stage with a drum synthesizer, hitting it on my head. If people didn't think this bloke was trying to be funny and they didn't laugh, then obviously they think it's stylish. And they start hitting their head with a drum synthesizer!

I think the art attitude - artist as someone who's more special than anyone else - is a load of bollocks, to be quite honest. You know that importance of art, it's all so fussy, it doesn't feel right. There's something that makes me feel a kind of itchy about it. And you see that thing about culture - 'we must get some culture in our lives' and you import something, you get a cultural object and 'this object represents my culture' and you just put all the significance into an object and then forget about it.

I don't think anyone is more important than anyone else in what they do creatively. Human beings are creative and it's just one thing that they are, it's not a big deal. So I make music because I just discovered I was OK at it. Other people do other things and that doesn't make them any less good or bad.

Wire has never been a group, ever. We were four people, very different to each other, we weren't friends before we started. The process of three Wire albums is very much the process of four people actually getting to know each other. We didn't know each other beforehand, we didn't cultivate a friendship, we didn't live in the same area, we didn't do many things together apart from when we were actually working together. So it was always seen by anyone near the band as a set of individuals.

We never used to fight. Because everyone has such different views on things, if you started fighting it would split into factions and the factions go this way, that way and the other. So we never used to talk about why we were doing anything, because we always knew we would get in terrible hot water if we did.

In the period before and directly after 154, we started to explore two major areas we hadn't been into before. I think there's an important distinction between music for the moment and music which is a repeatable kind, and all the things on the three Wire albums are very much the music of the repeatable kind. Although they were changing in the recording all the time and they often ended up with being completely different from where it started, it was definitely a thought behind it all the time. We hadn't done anything that was produced precisely to happen in one moment and just to be recorded almost like a jazz record. We thought it was nice to do that, to do things individually and work away from each other. So when the time came that we could leave EMI, we did, and we just continued, to actually follow up the things we wanted to do from there. Having no commitment to actually make records together, we decided not to do any for a while because we don't have to.

There was one thing we did, which was very much the music for the moment; we did a recording for John Peel Show called Crazy For Love. What we did was, you're alloted 15 minutes throughout the show, so we thought 'why don't we have our 15 minutes together?' and do some rehearsals and just play some music, but don't work out what we're going to do - just work out the area where it's going to be in, and then just play it almost by ear.

With that (Peel Session) and Jeanetta Cochrane thing [1], which we did as our kind of wayward promotion of 154, we then got to the stage we didn't quite know what was going to happen next, apart from people having things they wanted to do. Graham and Bruce had projects they were thinking of doing, whose outlets became available through Rough Trade and 4AD. I started to formulate this idea of doing another song record with Mike (Thorne, Wire's producer), which was going to be working out my relationship with Mike. Mike and Wire parted company after 154 but I thought his relationship with me wasn't exhausted at that point.

Then the whole EMI thing fell in two days before we were meant to start recording, so I was left with a project which was ready to go, and I had nowhere to release it. So I thought 'let's try some record companies and see what they say...' I didn't get an awful lot of joy, apart from Beggars Banquet who kept ringing up and saying 'anyone in Wire who's got anything to offer, COME DOWN! why don't you come down and talk to us?' So I did.
Six pieces of map laid out on a black background. Land and roads filled with variation of colours. Without the title 'A-Z', they would probably look like mere patterns. The maps here are not maps, they are pictures to be printed and displayed at record shops.

It was his wife Annette who suggested using the bits of paintings for the album cover, which Colin (a former art student) had cut out from A-Z and filled in with colours. Since there were six rectangles on the front, she said there should be six boxes on the back as well. Hence the photos and a track list. Then the inner sleeve has six boxes on each sides, with the lyrics and credits jam-packed inside them. This "typographer's nightmare" was Colin's idea, so that "it looks like someone's cut bits out of a novel".
It was to put the lyrics on but not give them too much importance. It's so hard to get through them and you wonder where it goes next. By the time you've done all that, you're bloody exhausted so you don't bother anyway. And to run the credits in with it is so that the credits weren't important. I was going to say who played what exactly, or I was going to say these people played the music, and I thought it would be best just to say these people played the music because it was more truthful. Even if someone did just one thing on something, their contribution is liable to be just as important as 18 things someone else did because of the weight of it.

We (members of Wire) still see each other, we're still friends. We have actually become friends with each other now. It is diversion, people are different. Also Graham and I was younger - I'm the youngest - and Robert and Bruce are a bit older. That's another thing, we've gone through a certain stage of growing up.

People always viewed Wire as a group of individuals who knew why they were doing things, whereas we always knew we didn't have a clue. We never thought why we were doing everything, could never see any reasons - which I think is better than inventing reasons.

At Jeannetta Cochrane I had all these (14) guitarists[2] come on, so there was twenty people in the dressing room every night. That's very good for the people in rock bands, because the dressing room is the inner sanctum where the band go, no one goes in there except for really important record company executives or someone. If you want to lose your rock trap there's nothing better than having so many people in the dressing room. And it was good because you could see the people in the groups felt really strange about it and, once they realised why they were feeling strange, they fought against that in themselves.

I didn't even know half of the people, people were just turning up. It was amazing. They all worked it out themselves, who's going to be there, where we're going to go, what we're going to do, getting them on and off, what they do afterwards, and all the rest of it. They all did it themselves. It's the same with all the video people. We said we wanted some video in it, and all the students from Central School of Art and Design designed the set. And it was really good. You can't do that with rock'n'roll people. They're used to people from bands or tour manager or record company saying 'you do this' and 'you do that', whereas we tried to get people work on their own initiative towards making something that they thought was going to be alright. People would come in with new ideas every night, so out of all those people and the new ideas every night, it was different every night, which was another nice thing.

It was more like pantomime than anything else at Jeanette Cochrane, that's how I thought. It was meant to be funny in bits, it was thrill, spills, laughter, tears, all the fun of the fair. It was entertainment like they used to say in Victorian times.

What I'm doing now is, in a way, different from Wire. There's a subtler shift. 154 was a very middle bracket album in terms of what it cost to make. It's not a cheap album but it's not a big deal. It sounds a bit more big deal than it actually is, sounds a bit more over-blown. I wanted it to sound a bit smaller on A-Z. While working with Robert (Gotobed) and Desmond (Simmons), things developed that way; it's become much more fragmented and much less one big kind of edifice.

I still don't understand promotion apart from promoting artifact, which I understand as a businessman, I don't know anything about promoting myself. I don't want to become a personality very much.

I listen to the radio a lot. I listen to Radio 4 and you get a lot of people talking all the time. It's all talking all the time, people talking about themselves. It's all mostly rubbish. I suppose everyone wants to feel important because they can't face the fact they are not.

My attitudes towards rock music are totally unprofessional. I'm sure I'm going to reach some kind of denouement at some point. I'm totally willful in not taking any notice of what anyone is doing in rock music at all. I never listen to the radio that plays that music and I don't go to gigs very often. I don't know who's hip and who's the latest thing. I'm sure it's professionally very bad to do thatm but I just can't be bothered. So I probably end up being just totally out to lunch. I'm off my head indulging in my private fantasies...

© Akiko Hada 1981/2019

A series of performances at Jeanetta Cochrane Theatre (attached to the Central School of Art & Design) in November 1979. Each night consisted of 7 acts, the first and the last being "Audience" - the live video projection of the audience coming in and leaving the theatre. Acts 2 to 5 were each conceived and carried out by one of the four members of Wire, and Act 6 was the band playing.
[2] Act 4, Colin's part, Tableau, consisted of 15 guitarists gradually filling the whole stage, all playing the same note (on the evening I saw.) By the way, Lester Square of the Monochrome Set was one of them :-)

Back to Interviews Index