Colin Newman:
The Lost Interview

The global pandemic has claimed a number of things, including stopping my favorite band in the entire world from completing their North American tour, as Wire had to pull up stakes half way through and return home. We take it for granted that every Wire album will be phenomenal now, but it really is staggering that they can produce something as incredible and current as Mind Hive well over 40 years into their career.

While we have been robbed of the joys of seeing Wire live, being in lockdown has finally allowed me to go back and save an interview that I did with Colin Newman back in 2017 around the reissue of his incredible early solo records. A-Z, Provisionally Entitled The Singing Fish, and Not To remain some of my favorite albums of all-time. I could talk about them for days. Colin tells me he doesn’t have much to say about them, and then we chat for hours…

Colin Newman: I don’t have a huge amount to say. I don’t know if you’ve read any of the interviews I’ve done for my solo records. I tend to run out of things to say very quickly. I did it because I felt I had an opportunity I couldn’t not take. There’s too many negatives in that sentence, but you understand what I mean. I heard from a friend who works for Beggars that they were allowing some of their artists to have their back catalogue on vinyl. And I thought, “Well, that will be nice, but it would be good to do CDs because I’ve got extra tracks in the archives I could make doubles of and that will make a more interesting release for fans.” And so I negotiated with them to get a CD and they were fine with that, and they just basically gave them to me to release. They retained the title; they owned them. But they’re not keeping the things in print anymore.

I think Beggars are in a position to do this but they do take quite seriously the kind of, as it were, the unwritten pact between a record company and an artist — especially an independent label. If you have someone’s records and you’re not making them available, then you don’t really have the right to continue to — you’re not exploiting it on behalf of the artist, so you could be legally challenged if you weren’t. But I don’t think they look at it like that; it’s more like, “Well, if the artist can do something with it, then why not get them to do it?” So that was where I came into it. It took me forever to get anything together. I’ve known about this since 2012.

John Foster: You and I have talked about it even further back, as far as a speculative thing that could happen.

Yeah. So it’s one of those things. I don’t feel particularly close to the material, but at the same time I’m very happy that I’ve made quite a lot of people happy with rereleasing it, so that’s ultimately a good thing as far as I’m concerned.

It’s interesting too. In setting that up, I guess one of the things I was curious about was why not reissue them on Pink Flag or Swim, setting up a separate —

Pink Flag doesn’t release anything other than Wire records. It’s very specific in that regard. I think it would have been a more commercial option to release them on Pink Flag but then you open up all kinds of potential problems within the band if you say, “Oh, well I’m using this vehicle for my own use.” That seems to me a bit unethical, really. The only way I can maintain a position of being in the band and running the label is to be beyond reproach. I can’t ever be seen to be doing anything to my personal advantage. It all has to be about Wire. It’s very specific, that Pink Flag only releases Wire records. Swim, on the other hand, only releases new records. That was the idea of it, to have a sub-label. Of course Sentient Sonics is a sub-label of Swim. And the name came from Graham Duff, the writer. Ages ago I thought, “We need to have a name for this label,” and he came up with it. He always comes up with names of groups. A lot of his writing is about music, or has been in the past, so band names is one of his specialties. There’s always an element of humor in them.

Right, he’s got a list of things waiting for the right opportunity to launch them?

Not really, it’s just something that he came up with that kind of stuck. If there will be more things, it’s not beyond the realms of possibility that there would be another set, which would be Commercial Suicide, It Seems, and Bastard, all done in the same way. They will be released on vinyl. There’s definitely material for second discs for all of those three. So there will be a commercial market for them.

You were touching on Beggars, and the label conversation. One of the things that’s interesting here is the shift from Beggars proper when you’re doing A-Z and then going with 4AD, which obviously is Beggars-related — especially back then —

That was simply to do with sales, really. It’s A to Zed. It’s very specifically A to Zed. Maybe you’re not familiar enough with London to know, there is something called the “A-Z” [pronounced “Zed”] — I don’t think I’ve got one in here. It’s not something that people have anymore, but before Google maps — it’s a book and a map, and it was the book that every Londoner would have. It had a few editions, from tiny ones to the slightly bigger ones. Everyone would have it in their bag or their pocket or wherever, and it was a map of London. The A-Z. So the reason why the album has that title is, it is about London. It’s a London record.

Anyway, when I did the initial deal with Beggars, it was akin to a mugging. I had quite a reasonable advance out of them, what I calculated I’d need to live on for a year. But they refused it all, and the sales were not stellar. So I think Martin just thought it’d be easier if Ivo deals with me rather than Beggars. The budgets I’d been given for the records were somewhat reduced; they were more 4AD-scale. This was when 4AD was still a pretty small label. I wasn’t 100 percent happy with it, but the thing was, what I wanted to do after A-Z — to get into that story, it’s so complex.

Basically, how A-Z came about was that it was kind of a joke but sort of serious, that Wire would do three albums and I would do a solo record. And that had nothing to do with me wanting to get more attention for myself; it’s just to do with the writing. If you go back to Pink Flag, there’s a couple of songs that I didn’t write the tune of, but all the rest of it is mine. Chairs Missing there were less tracks on it. I think it’s still only a couple of tracks written by other people, but because there’s less tracks the percentage looks a bit greater. And by 154 there would have to be more writing by other people than me in the band. But I was still writing at the same rate. So I had far more material than could fit in a Wire record. And in a way, the logical thing would be if I did solo records that would give other writers in Wire a chance to have their material taken up on Wire releases. So that was sort of the thinking around how A-Z started life. And some of the actual songs were written in the studio while 154 was being recorded.

This was all the plan until Wire and EMI parted company, and actually A-Z was the reason why — it wasn’t the total reason, but it was the spark that ignited Wire leaving EMI. The suggestion had been that Wire would have a label that would be an imprint, what you would call it these days. We wouldn’t run anything; we would just say, “Well, we’re doing this, this, and this,” and that imprint would put out solo records, Dome records, some records that were made very cheaply, an assortment of things, and every so often there would be a Wire album, which would be the lead item. That would be the thing that would make the whole thing tick over. And this was, as far as we understood, agreed to, and then EMI said, “We don’t want to pay…” which would have been the advance we would have needed to live on through the next year, because we didn’t have any money of course.

And they said they would release the fourth album and they would pay for it to be recorded but they wouldn’t give us an advance. Well, by 1979, Wire were no richer than they were in 1977 as individuals. We weren’t seeing any money out of it. But we would go on the road, so everyone would get paid. We would just get per diems. It was just the way it was, and we had no concept of seeing the band as a business so we had no way of approaching it that would give us an idea about how we could survive off it. So it was just basically — you get the advance at the beginning, that’s what you live on for that year, and then you get the next advance for the next year. So we did that for three years.

By the end of ’79, the advance for 154 had run out and nobody had any money, so we had to figure out other ways to make money. That’s why that situation with EMI kind of collapsed. Those demos you hear on the second disc had already been recorded, and I used those demos to go and get a deal with another record company, Beggars Banquet. I think that they thought they were getting something different from what they actually got.

Wire had had a disastrous ’79, actually. Because we did this famous tour supporting Roxy Music, which was miserable, and the Roxy Music fans hated us. This was not 1974 Roxy Music; this was 1979 Roxy Music. They were billed as “Bryan Ferry and Roxy Music” and Eno was long gone. It was a different thing. And they were playing in huge — what they call “sheds,” through Europe. We were mainly getting booed. They didn’t like us; they didn’t get us. And it was dispiriting. It cost us money to be on that tour. We didn’t think about it: “Oh, who cares? EMI put up the money.” But still. And we were treated fairly poorly by Roxy Music’s crew. I mean, Roxy Music themselves were nice to us. Bryan was very friendly. But in the end, we just thought, “Is this it? Do we have to become like that in order to become successful?”

There’s a psychology with bands, and I’m talking of an age that doesn’t really exist anymore. Nothing that we did had any relationship to how much money we saw. The only money we saw was the advance at the beginning of the album cycle. So how good the record was, whether it sold or not, how many people we played to in gigs — all of that stuff, how much we toured, none of that made any difference to the amount of money that we earned. The only money that we saw was our advance in the beginning of the year. So it was completely logical to assume that touring was pointless.

Yeah, touring to you at that point is just a per diem.

You’re not earning any money from it, so why would you want to do it? So I came into that whole situation promoting A-Z from that point of view. The other thing was, the band that made that record — that’s without Mike, it was the three of us, myself, Robert, and Desmond. We were not a real band. They were just playing on my record. In fact, as a band, even with the version of it that was called Soft Option and included Simon Gillham, that came to America — I think we did six gigs ever. The whole live thing, it’s almost like if you wanted to end up in the right place you should have started in a different place. If I’d have planned having a proper solo career, which I didn’t, I would have thought, “Actually, maybe I should create some name for my solo project.”

That’s what smart people do these days. They make records out of their own band and they call it Tame Impala or whatever, and it can be a person or it can be a band. It can be whatever combination you want to throw together. It leaves it open. I just knew I had a lot of songs and some of them were pretty good, and I wanted people to hear them. That was about as far as my thinking about it went. So I certainly wasn’t planning on having a solo career. That having been said, the band was great.

It’s kind of funny. I think that material, in its way, actually lends itself even more to being a really kickass live band compared to the things you’d have to pull off to do 154 or even to do the later eighties period, the Wire return stuff. There was so much studio involvement in those records that was harder to replicate live. Yet A-Z, it’s a burner of a record. You can see it, if it was played. So it’s funny that the records you made, they were almost — until the more recent records, which obviously are very comfortable in the live environment, it’s funny that you made this record that would have been perfect to tour and it’s the one you didn’t tour.

Absolutely. And not only that, that was to cause the big bust-up between Mike Thorne and I. Because when the album was mixed in New York, Mike at that point was living in New York so my first wife Annette and I stayed with Mike and his then-girlfriend while mixing it. And we had a meeting with whatever they were called at that point — PolyGram, Atlantic, or whoever they were. The American licensee. And they were like, “Yeah, we’re gonna get behind this album, yeah! When’s the tour start?” And I was like, “We’re not really thinking of touring this. I don’t really have a band.” And you can imagine the dropping of the faces of the record executives.

At that point Mike was like, “You’re just not serious about this.” There are lots of reasons why people have solo careers, in quotes. Mainly it’s because they think they want to be like, “I’m the important one. I want to be the featured artist,” and all that kind of stuff. And it was never really my preoccupation. It was all about the material. It was all about the work. That was what it was about. And this material, I wanted people to hear it.

I’ve done rock music. I’ll do a record of abstract music. I became obsessed with the idea of soundtracks. It was just about the time when — I’m sure you’ve seen them, the really well-known, high-budget BBC nature documentaries. This was when the Trinitron came in, when you started to have really nice-looking TVs. And these things all had music. Documentaries with music, and abstract music. I immediately thought, “That’s how to make money.” So that was the initial idea behind The Singing Fish, was music that could be used for soundtracks.

I’ve got to admit, I’m super-fascinated with that record. It’s one of my favorites of all time, but also now that you’re releasing the demos and some of the extra tracks, to hear that some of those songs had lyrics and vocals — that they had words in the vocals early on, there are tons of vocals in the music obviously but it’s an instrumental record for better or worse.

First it starts with Martin saying, “I think you should really go to Ivo for something like this.” That was how it started, the 4AD thing. It was me coming to Beggars and saying I wanted to do a record of instrumental music.

And Martin said, “That sounds great. You should do it downstairs.”

“Do it with Ivo.” And Ivo was just starting out, and he was very enthusiastic about it. So it was a great idea.

It is well reported that Ivo was Wire-obsessed.

He gave me a tiny budget.

Which probably was a big budget for him.

Well, I don’t know. It was recorded at a studio called Scorpio Sound, which was in Euston Tower, underneath where Capital Radio was. It doesn’t exist anymore, the studio. I got very friendly with one of the engineers there and the boss, and they said, “Any time you want to do anything, Colin, just tell us.” And I said, “Well, I’ve got this very tiny budget. Can we make a record?” So Steve Parker, my engineer, and I devised odd moments of going in and doing mornings and the spare odd day, and did it in bits over a period of time. And it was just me and Steve. We didn’t have anyone else involved in it. There were a few things I’d demoed before. The speeding-up idea was the first idea I came in with. So “Fish 1” is “Mannequin.” I think that’s now starting to become common knowledge. I think it’s the chorus followed by the verse of “Mannequin,” sped up without the singing.

It’s amazing that you’ve continued that method of cannibalizing your material.

Well, I think it is just taking a light touch to what it is to make this music. This is coming from somebody who took great pride in the fact that — like, “Map Ref.” which is regarded as being a big Wire pop song, the chorus and the verse are exactly the same, apart from one chord. And it’s all major chords; there’s no clever stuff of any kind in it. The first time I came up with the idea for what became “Fish 1,” I just thought it was hilarious. “Wow, recycling.” I’ve always been very green.

That’s always been a fascinating part of your work for me, and it’s the thing I loved about the Pitchfork piece that you did. You’re influenced by big pop songs, fun pop songs. At one point you and I were talking about Wire and you were like, “They’re just dumb, big pop songs. That’s the point.”

There are some, yeah.

But that’s the amazing thing. Everybody puts this layer of artiness to it, but it’s not the angle that you’re coming at it from. You’re coming at it from a more playful sense.

It’s playful, but it in some respects that’s the art. I have a playful attitude towards it. It doesn’t come from a more musical angle. That’s not a musicianly way of thinking. It just doesn’t exist anywhere in Wire. You have to feel confident with yourself, to start with. You have to feel that you have something that people want to hear. Because otherwise, why would anyone want to listen to an album of me fiddling about in odd hours in the studio, basically messing around? Me messing around and Steve recording it. That’s what it was as a record. Interestingly, I’ve seen various opinions expressed as to those three records over the last few months. Quite a lot of people think Singing Fish is the least interesting thing. I think it’s the one that holds up the best. I think there’s something a bit dated about the production of both A-Z and Not To, but I think Singing Fish — there are moments in it which could be from any time. Obviously, a lot of that stuff would be way easier to do with the kind of tools that we have these days. Synchronization of things, being able to just not be able to play something very well and chop it up and make it sound like you can play.

All the looping that you can do now.

That you can do now. But then, I’m not doing that. I’m not doing solo records. I don’t want to have a solo career. I think that’s been my biggest problem. Having a solo career somehow seems to be — I don’t like the idea of “I want all the attention for myself.” I don’t mind getting attention for what I do, but I don’t want to artificially create that situation. “I want to be the one; don’t listen to them. You’ve got to listen to me, because the bees’ knees, not the rest of them.” Also, it’s just not very interesting for people. I’m not saying I would never make another solo record, but I find I have more fun in collaboration now. And in some ways, all of those three Colin Newman records are collaborations in ways I didn’t understand so well at the time. It’s true, even if I was maybe the lead collaborator.

I’m a big fan of Desmond’s influence during that time period as well, on those records, and I think it’s great to have that encapsulation between A-Z and Not To, and having all that material out there. And it is really interesting that Fish is plopped in the middle, and such a different project, but definitely part of the continuum of what you were doing.

I’ve never done another record quite like it. Immersion does connect somehow, but I think it would be a bit far-fetched to make it any more than a very, very general connection between those. Doing more abstract instrumental music is something I just naturally do with Malka. I wouldn’t necessarily want to do that on my own anymore. But talking of Desmond, some people know who he is. He’s obviously passed now, and nobody can really talk to him about what it was. He didn’t want to be the bass player. That was one of the dynamics of why it wasn’t a group. He was the bass player by default. The original idea was, those demos that you hear on the second disc of A-Z, that’s me and Desmond and Rob, and that’s the Repetitive Stones, and we worked all of those songs out in Rob’s basement in Brixton.

We must have rehearsed a bit to be able to play those songs. I don’t really remember the rehearsals, but Desmond always said he felt uncomfortable playing the bass. I didn’t really get his point, to be honest, because he was someone who could turn his hand to more or less whatever was needed. He was a good guitarist, but he wasn’t the world’s greatest guitarist. He wasn’t a maestro or anything like that. That was the role that was needed. The reason why Simon Gillham came in when we did Not To and we did some of the gigs to surround that, was simply because Desmond didn’t want to play the bass anymore, so we got in a bass player — who wasn’t really a bass player, there’s another story there — so Desmond could go on second guitar. Which was good. Certainly for a live band, that was good; that was a good dynamic.

That was a very strong band, and Simon was really good. I think all of the people in that group had very different opinions as to what they were doing. I think Robert felt, which I think would be fair, that it couldn’t be a group for two reasons. One, if it was a group we should have equal billing because we were both from Wire. And secondly, if it was a group then we were having another group that wasn’t Wire. Having another group that wasn’t Wire, even though in 1980 it looked like there wouldn’t be Wire — the way the dynamic tension has always worked in Wire, that could just change in an instant, and there suddenly could be Wire. That’s something we’ve talked about fairly recently, actually. At the beginning, he was quite upset about the fact that he was just playing drums on my records, and it didn’t say “Colin and Robert.” I viewed it that this was my material; I wrote the pieces. And he was just helping to put it together. But I should have been a bit more sympathetic to his viewpoint. On the other side, having established a solo career with my name, it would have been very difficult to try to do a record as a band suddenly. People were much less open to that kind of thing in those days. I think people switch around all kinds of shit these days.

Yeah, back then it would have had to have been a real formal — basically, you would have to end Wire to start this new thing. Or else people wouldn’t take it seriously.

Yeah. I think that was from Rob’s point of view. Desmond really came into it — I made music with Desmond from the beginning, from when I couldn’t play anything. We were in a band together, CNDS — Colin Newman and Desmond Simmons, alphabetical order. That was definitely Desmond’s band. I was the sometimes-singer and hit the box, which was what we had for drums. And Desmond was the actual person who knew how to play instruments. I couldn’t play anything. Most of the material was his. It was mainly his singing. We kept that going from the latter years of school right up to when Wire started. It was only fate and accident that Wire happened and I was in a situation where I wasn’t living so close to Desmond. I think Desmond always felt upset that I hadn’t asked him to join Wire. It didn’t really work like that.

It wasn’t my group that I could suddenly start inviting people into. It was a very specific relationship. But I always felt as soon as I did anything that wasn’t with Wire that I could have Desmond involved in, I would get Desmond involved in it. I felt I owed it to him. So that was how come Desmond was there. But Desmond was extremely complicated as a person, and also extremely funny and very charming, I should add. He was even less wanting to be in my band. But I just thought this could be a good vehicle for him to launch something he wanted to do. That was the original three-piece. Simon was in a way, when he joined, less complicated. He came into an already existing situation. He was younger. He just thought, “OK, I’m with these great people. I’m playing in a band with two people out of Wire. How bad could that be?”

That’s a lesson you guys are still putting into good effect.

And that certainly wasn’t Desmond’s viewpoint. But Desmond was of the same generation as me, same age as me. Simon was a few years younger.

With Desmond, do you think he was holding on to, like, “OK, we’ve had this pause in the band that we were doing while you were doing Wire and now we’re going to do the band where we were on equal footing, or maybe even I was in a better situation?”

What happened was, the thing reversed. When it was CNDS, Desmond was definitely the lead person. I was the Andrew Ridgeley, if you understand that. And then suddenly the boot was on the other foot and it was my band, and he was in it. To be quite honest, I probably wasn’t sensitive enough about that point. It was all about the material. I had these pieces and I wanted to do them. They lived down the road. Rob lived 15 minutes from my house; Desmond lived ’round the corner from Rob.

More than anything, they just made the most sense. “These are the closest people who are like-minded to make this stuff with me.”

We were friends; we would hang out together anyway. We were a social thing. During the seventies, Rob and I always lived in the Brixton area. We always lived close to each other. Graham used to live in West London, so that’s a bit of a distance away. And Bruce lived in Barnet, which is North London. Rob and I would always do things together, because we lived close to each other and we had quite a lot of friends in common as well, including Desmond. So that was how it worked, socially.

Going back to the live thing, was there any push from those guys to play these songs out live, from Desmond and Rob during the time period when you obviously didn’t see the point of it? Or I guess maybe Rob was in the same mindset you were after coming off the Roxy tour.

What happened was, we got offered to do some dates in America. We played a club called Hurrah in New York, another club called the Mudd Club. The fee on the Mudd Club was big enough to pay the whole trip. We did a couple of gigs at a place called the Edge in Toronto. I just thought, “Well, we can’t turn this down.” Everyone in the band got paid the same as I did, so we did it as a band, the touring thing. So that could be a good enough reason for them to go, because it might say my name on the tin but everyone will be earning the same amount of money. That was why we actually put together a live band. That was supposed to be promoting A-Z, but we were already playing half the stuff off Not To at that point. And that and one gig at a venue called the Venue in Victoria — it doesn’t exist anymore — and a later gig at the Venue which wasn’t with that band but a different combination. We did one more, and that was it, supporting an all-girl heavy metal band.

That sounds fascinating.

Who’d had a number one in Gibraltar. It was unannounced. We needed a gig. We just went and played in a pub.

If you’re going to play somewhere unannounced, you might as well play for the top all-girl heavy metal band in Gibraltar.

They were British, but they had a hit in Gibraltar, so that’s even more absurd. But that obviously did lead into doing Not To. And Not To was in many ways even more of a band record than A-Z was. We did play all as a band. There’s stuff on A-Z which I have no idea how we did it, how we synced it, but it definitely didn’t start with a band performance. So I don’t really know how we did it. I have a feeling that Mike might have had — because he had the Synclavier — it had some kind of sequencer in it, or a way of looping audio or something like that, which would have been really, really early on for that kind of technology. But I just can’t remember how it was done.

Whereas Not To is pretty much a band-played record. You can feel it in the way it was put together, in the aesthetic. And Steve, who was the engineer and mixed it, was very much into this unfussy, very clean kind of aesthetic for the sound. One of his sayings was “clean dirt.” That’s very eighties. All the sound in the eighties was all about “clean.” “Clean” was the new “dirt.” That was how records sounded. That’s one of the reasons why I feel it sounds very much of its time, because it does sound like a record from the early eighties. It has a lot of bent tonality, which was fairly common during that period, but the cleanliness of the sound was very much — it’s a pre-“big snare” eighties sound. It’s not that kind of eighties sound.

It’s not trapped in the drum sound but there are definitely some — particularly the way guitars are treated, I think it has a time period that’s not there for Fish, which is fascinating.

Yeah, of course. And that’s one of the reasons why I included the demos. Because I think the best version of some of those songs exists somewhere between the album version and the demo. I understand why people might not think that my home demos are the most amazing thing to listen to, because they were in those days quite lo-fi. But some of them I think do capture more of the spirit of the song than the band versions. The band versions are all interpretations.

How were you recording the demos back then?

Just to tape. So I had a two-track and a cassette, and I would bounce between them. Occasionally, Robert would lend me his four-track and I would use that as well. And the later demos on Not To were done on four-track as well. But bouncing between a four-track and a two-track, so slightly more hi-fi than doing it with a cassette. But I used to take drum tracks, so I had complete drum recordings from A-Z and Not To that I would take home. There might be a bit of Rob’s drumming on one track on Singing Fish, I’m not sure. But a lot of those demos have bits of Rob’s drumming taken from other songs I could just play on top of. Because I didn’t have any other way of doing drums. Very, very, very basic.

You were lucky to have a consistent human metronome-style drummer to be able to lift tracks from to take home to play with. Your own personal drum machine.

In those days, drum machines — even when we got to the early Linndrum — were not very human-sounding. But also, I didn’t have an eight-track until when I first did with Malka, so we’re talking about ’85 or something like that. That was when we first invested in getting an eight-track.

That’s interesting too. How easy was it to go back and compile? There’s a lot of material here for the bonus. There’s a pretty big wealth of stuff, so obviously you put a lot of work into finding all these recordings.

It was over a period of time. I had the stuff on cassette that got transferred to digital. There were things like B-sides and extra tracks that came from the Beggars archive. The demos from A-Z actually came from the EMI archive, but we don’t want to talk about that. Actually, to be quite honest, I have no idea who owns them, because I know that when the original CDs of A-Z were released, Beggars put tracks from those demos on there. But I don’t think they paid EMI any money for either. It’s one of those things, I don’t think anybody from Warner Brothers gives us stuff. It’s not worth them chasing.

“Hey, but we paid for the studio time for those bonus tracks. You owe us one-nineteenth of the record sales for this.”

Yeah, I don’t think that’s going to happen. It was similar when we put out Document and Eyewitness. It was one conversation. I know Mute had released a CD version of that, and I could never work out how Mute got to be able to do that. And I had one conversation with the guy from Rough Trade, Geoff Travis. I said to Geoff Travis, “Who owns Document and Eyewitness?” And he just looked up and he said, “Probably you do.” That’s enough authority to release our material.

You’re like, “John, you’re giving me too much credit. I didn’t curate this stuff; I just dumped everything I had.”

Exactly. The only thing that was left off was the live things.

Oh, so you have live recordings as well?

There are live recordings. Mark Bursa, who is my partner on the legal bootleg series, was like, “Oh, you’ve got to put out the live recordings.” I just found them really, really difficult to listen to. The voices are all out of tune. They’re classic board recordings where the voice is really loud and the band is really quiet, because a lot of the band sound is coming from the stage. So it’s not a proper mix.

Small club board recordings from the eighties are consistently tough.

Yeah, and the vocals are not in tune. It’s painful to listen to. And I just didn’t see the point. Why add extra items?

“I couldn’t see the point. There’s enough opportunities to hear me sing out of tune. Why do we need to — ?”

Absolutely. You could say, in putting out these three classic albums I’m adding all these extra lo-fi recordings that nobody’s interested in. But I’ve not heard one person who said to me, “Why did you put all that lo-fi shit on there?” Everybody says it sounds fantastic. All the extra tracks really add value. In fact, what I did was, I completely defeated the original aim by doing it because the original aim was to have those albums available on vinyl. Because they haven’t been available for years. But what happened is, the CD sales have totally eclipsed the vinyl sales because all the fans want the second CDs, and the newly mastered versions of the original albums. I don’t think any of those three albums were mastered for CD when they were first put on CD back in the eighties or whatever it was, just transferred, I think. I don’t think anybody thought about stuff like that. I know that the A-Z demos, banging it through a mastering system made them sound just unbelievably better. I’d always dismissed them as bad songs. “That’s all it is. There is nothing special going on there, but it’s just us playing.” But I said, “Wow, they sound really good. Sounds really present. We can really do that.” And it really cheered me up a lot, actually. That was a really good thing.

It’s funny, because I’ve lived with these records for so long but now it’s hard to not live with them with all the extra tracks. These are records I’ve played hundreds of times.

Probably more times than I have.

I wasn’t dismissive, but I wasn’t as excited about the bonus material as I probably should have been. I was like, “Well, these albums are sort of perfect as they are to me. I don’t really need anything extra.” But then it turns out I did need them. And the one record I probably would have thought that I especially didn’t need to hear anything, which was Fish, now I’m completely amazed at listening to the process and hearing those demos, and then seeing — without ever having talked to you until now about it — I could suss out where you had made this conscious decision to create these rules around how this record was going to work. The demos weren’t necessarily there, and it had gone through this process of saying, “OK, I’m allowed to do this and I’m not allowed to do these things.” In particular that you’re like, “Hey, I can sing on this record. I’m going to sing all over it, but there’s not going to be any lyrics; there’s not going to be words.”

I always struggle with lyrics. Like, a lot of times with Wire I’ll just wait for Graham to send me lyrics before I write any songs, because if I have ideas and then I don’t have a lyric then I’m going to be spending another three hours while I’m still hot with a piece trying to construct a set of lyrics while I’m trying to retain everything in my head. And I just find this a very stressful process. What I really like is to have something — and I only ever write specifically, on acoustic guitar I only ever write for Wire, and I only write when there’s a record to be written. It’s not that I don’t touch it otherwise, but I don’t write in that way. I like to be able to go, “Oh yeah, I’ve got this bit of an idea,” and then grab a lyric and jam that to fit in.

Do you think because you write that way that it actually comes pretty fast at that point, like you’ve almost been waiting?

It’s always super-fast. It’s the Charlie Watts view, where you have 10 minutes’ action and 20 hours of standing around. That’s my songwriting method. I basically don’t do anything most of the time. Writing songs is not what I do, for the most part. When I do do it, it’s super fast, and I don’t want to be spending a lot of time on it. I don’t want to be fiddling about, I don’t want to have anything stand in the way of going bomp-bomp. That’s the piece.

The end result, then, becomes completely pure.

That’s exactly it. Any context, conceptualization, any tweaking about, alluding to the sense of the piece always comes after. The classic rule of fine art, actually, and don’t let anybody tell you it’s any different. The concept comes second; it doesn’t come first. You do the work and then you decide. Actually, I like when making music to have as little thought as possible involved in it, because it just comes out much more pure in that way. And quick. It shouldn’t take hours to write a song, or days. I don’t want to be endlessly crafting it. The production process is a different thing. I am quite slow and anal on production. But that’s something where you are making something that will be listened to, that actual thing will be listened to multiple times. So you have to make it so it will stand up to being listened to multiple times, and still convey the idea that’s in it, the core thing.

These are concepts I’ve developed over years as a way of working. But I’ve always been the same with writing songs. There’s a classic one — I was sitting on the loo and I came up with it, and I was like, “I have to get off the loo and try to find words.” I grabbed the first thing that I could. Because it was the only way to make the tune solid in my head was to have some words and sing it. And in those days, I didn’t even used to record. I used to just play the song 20 or 30 times and then commit it to memory so I would have it by the time it came to be played in front of the band, or whatever. Then I would just record straightaway. There’s quite a few tracks on Silver/Lead which are still based around the original acoustic guitar I wrote the song with. So I’d literally write the song and record it and then start building it in Pro Tools, take the basic track, have the band play on top of it, then bring it back and finish the production here. And in the case of the title track, that’s still the original vocal that I did right at the beginning of the process.

It’s as raw as possible.

Conceptually as well. In a way, it shouldn’t sound raw —

I mean “raw” in the creative sense, not in the production sense. “This is it. This is the creative process. There’s nothing interfering with it; this is exactly when this came out of me.”

These are reasons why I don’t make solo records anymore, because there is no way I have opportunity in the things I work on to be as creative as I can possibly be and retain as much creativity going through it, and still working with other people and have their creative input. That’s a win-win situation. Then I have to come up with all of it myself. Everything of value I put in at the beginning can be preserved if it’s worth preserving. And in a way, it felt, with the demos and the extra tracks on the three albums, that’s why they’re there: to say, “Actually, look, this person started off doing this and then did this and developed this, and you can track that development up to whatever the latest record is that’s just come out.” Because it’s just a continuous process of learning how to do it. Every record is about how to do it.

We were saying, leading up to A-Z, having all this material spilling out of you, and that’s even more obvious with all the demos and the other tracks — you couldn’t help but create this mountain of material.

I didn’t have anything else to do at that point. I didn’t have a ton of boring organizational stuff to deal with like I do these days. So that was all I did, was write and create. Actually, I was incredibly lazy if you compare my work rate in the seventies to what it’s like nowadays. I just do so much more in a day than I used to.

Do you think it’s lazy, or you’re restricted by having to depend on other people to get this stuff out? Because now you’re invested in it in a different way. You’ve built up everything around you so that you can be creative at any moment’s notice.

I can, but the restrictions right now — I’m looking at emails, I’m in the studio, and this is the studio where most of the emails don’t come. But there are some. I’m seeing ones I know that I have to deal with coming in here.

It’s funny with these reissues, because obviously looking backwards isn’t something you’ve made a habit of doing — you’ve always been pushing forward.

In a way, it’s a very complex relationship with these reissues, because ultimately I’m very pleased it’s made so many people happy. That’s what I feel about it. As I said, I don’t feel that close to the material. When I listen to the records, I just pick holes in them, what’s wrong with the production, how I would have mixed it differently, the choice of sounds. There’s all kinds of things I just wouldn’t do if I was doing it now. But I remember Jason at Beggars, who was the person who originally suggested I do this, when we first talked about it I said to him, “I wonder if I could get the multitracks and remix them.” He said, “That would make you very happy.”

Nobody wants that. You’re the only one that wants that.

Absolutely. “OK, that’s what it is. Live with it.” I said to Denis, “When you master the albums, can you make it sound a bit more warm and a bit more like the kind of production I would do these days?” And he comes back and it’s just the same only it’s louder and more in-your-face. And Denis said, “It is what it is, mate. You can’t make it something that it isn’t.”

You’re like, “I love this. Let’s play it through this amp and we’ll record that. We can definitely fix this; hold on.”

It is — whatever. But that’s really where I am with it.

I think that’s the restless creative in you also, that your inclination would be to keep working on it. “Oh, we could do something with this. We could make this better.”

It’s like what I was talking about, about “Fish 1” being “Mannequin.” Someone who knows Wire, maybe knows Pink Flag and likes it, would say, “That record is perfect.” But for me it’s just material. And to anyone in the band, it’s not about the final result of what went into it, so therefore to take something and just rework it and take it into another direction, and do it in such a way that people don’t even know that you’ve done it, is for me just natural.

I know some people are like, “I can’t wait to hear this music on vinyl.” And for me, those kinds of statements don’t have any meaning at all. I am a finisher. I learned to be a finisher. I learned how to finish records and get them to a point where I don’t think there’s a better way in which that track can come across unless it’s something which is really, really different. And those records, A-Z and Not To specifically, feel to me like I don’t really like the way they’re finished. So for me, they aren’t the statement that people who love them think they are. They’re just material, and that’s how they came out. I hear the ideas, I hear the content, I hear all the good things about them, but I also hear, “That’s too loud; that’s too quiet. That should have been a different sound. That section doesn’t really work. Why did I even think to do it like that? Or “how did we get there? That’s quite interesting, but I have no idea how that was done.” Those are the thoughts that I have when I listen to it. Why should I? That material is starting out with me, so therefore I’m the one who has the least idea what effect it has on other people.

That’s always going to be the case as the creator. And that’s the whole point of art — it’s to make it and then step away from it. Then it’s what it is to the viewer. I always hate over-analysis of art, or when everybody says, “What were you trying to do here?” It’s like, “I’m not going to be next to you while you’re listening to this. I’m not going to be standing in the gallery with you while you’re looking at this thing. It is what it is to you. That’s honest.”

That’s why I say, at the end of the interviews, the thing that is most pleasing for me is that I’ve made other people very happy out of this. I’ve heard nobody complain about it.

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