Wire at the Stereo Society
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Wire at the Stereo Society
Bruce Gilbert In Interview
Bruce Gilbert was the George Harrison of Wire. B.C. Gilbert, always the reserved and quiet presence, was often the glue that kept the group together. While Bruce has released six CDs (in 1999) of his own outside Wire (as well as the Dome collaborations with Graham Lewis, and the three-piece Wire created when Robert Gotobed the drummer left), he has pursued a wider-ranging course embracing installations and performance art.
Bruce was often seen as the quiet man of Wire, the person who held it all together through all the seventies mayhem and exploration. His personal contradiction is that he has always been exploring new paths and new ways (? of causing trouble?). He was interviewed by early-days collaborator/producer Mike Thorne in the Golden Heart, one of a fast-disappearing class of old-style pub in London’s Shoreditch, close to Liverpool Street Station. One Brit thing has changed for the better is that pubs are open all afternoon, so they shared the establishment with perhaps three other reprobate lags on a sunny summer Thursday afternoon. There were several interruptions, not least of which by the colorful landlady, and the juke box was playing the perfect background. Streaming audio of Bruce’s answers can be heard by clicking on the player after each question. For help in playing music, see our Playing Audio page in the Big Help Desk.
BC Gilbert at home
in the Golden Heart
Bruce, you are always doing something different. What are you up to now and how has that lead on from where you’ve been?
At the moment, I seem to be doing mostly funny little remix projects for people. It’s really quite interesting and not necessarily to do with music, more to do with the note and the practice of fiddling and altering sounds–sometimes social documents, etc. Also, amusingly, I’m working with people who think, “If I do a remix for them, it will somehow enhance their careers.” I find this slightly misguided. As they found out, just because my name is on the remix, it doesn’t necessarily guarantee that they will claw their way out of their present obscurity.
You say “amusingly,” but half of the music-making business or half of the people who are making music are functioning with remixes and transmutations of material.
This seems to be the case. I mean–I do enjoy it. You find an awful lot about your own techniques or certain approaches to mixing sound, which you haven’t fully explored in your own work. There are tricks you find, and I don’t feel I can use the same trick again. But, with a remix situation, you can explore and take it a little bit further. Or, if it is a more musical project, then that’s nice, as well. I don’t really deal with my own work anymore, and sometimes it can be engaging or refreshing to actually revisit a musical approach to things.
With new material?
With material which is not your own. That makes it a little bit more fun. I think one doesn’t have a responsibility, the same kind of responsibility that you find with your own material.
Losing the responsibility: do you think that’s a change that can happen in more areas than just the remix area?
Possibly. I think I am quite good at collaborating when I can take a back seat in the situation. You have the advantage of being slightly more objective about certain things when you are dealing with somebody else’s material. You tend to go with your instincts about the particular material or try to fathom out what the person is trying to get at, even exploring the situation a little bit further. It is always useful to have an external voice for almost everybody, really. The collaborations, in general, I find quite difficult when trying to find something that is genuinely the product of two attitudes colliding. It’s easy to work with people like Panasonic, because this is a non-vocal, nonverbal situation. There is no discussion. The noise starts and it is a question of trust. There are no concepts and the work takes place in similar areas, so it doesn’t feel like a collaboration. It feels like something very natural, organic, and there is a tacit agreement that what sounds good, sounds good or sounds unusual or we haven’t heard that before. Surely, it’s an interesting thing to do. I’ve collaborated in other situations that have been fairly tricky because its been verbalized too much. At times, the concepts are not a useful thing to work from in terms of collaboration. It is much better if the concept emerges from the activity.
You always use the word, “activity,” and also, “music and art,” almost to be interchangeable.
I don’t see a difference. It’s something that occurred to me before Wire. I had a growing feeling even before Wire. I thought that sound, and perhaps, even music was certainly something that should be considered as a fine art activity. ‘fine art’ in inverted commas is a very unfashionable phase, but it is useful. There seemed to be a huge gap between modern, classical, experimental music and pop art in its broadest sense. Pop art seems to be allowable. People weren’t classically trained, it seemed to me, but until Brian Eno, there didn’t seem to be a link at all between the people who had aspirations or a desire to manipulate sounds and being considered part of the fine art activity or practice.
Whether in the fine arts, to use the unfashionable phrase, or in music, there was always a popular access. It was always possible to start and to do it yourself, which was the essence of the punk era, and this is something you used as a springboard. Do you think that’s possible at all, twenty years later? Do you think this is a constant of the society we are in?
Well, for all its faults, I think the punk era solidified the notion of the crossover between the arts and music. Culture was something that could be explored and was worthy, whether the audience was big or small. The situation we are in at the moment could not have arrived, I’m fairly sure, without the punk period. The notion of the “do it yourself” aspect to these things, and the fact that people came out of the closet with their artistic aspirations seems to be not as embarrassing as it was in previous times. You know the concept how, all very embarrassing, they always got a bit strange after the third album kind of syndrome which was certainly part of the sixties mentality in terms of the music industry.
It is obvious to me that people from the dance world don’t find it particularly embarrassing to venture into slightly more esoteric areas or abstract areas, and that’s partly because everyone is using the same kind of machinery, but also there’s this notion that one should develop and get more extreme rather than actually plow the same furrow. And for me, it is quite interesting that people from the dance world think it is almost a duty to push the limits. I think that seems to be a thread running through and it is because of this thread that crosses over between the artist and the more commercial aspects of music. Going weird now is not an embarrassment.
There is a long tradition starting in the sixties with the art school graduate who became a musician. Do you think there is a parallel of the same thing happening today?
It is much more cohesive now. Partly because of the way these art schools are run and the fact that media department in many schools are now being taken seriously as a fine art activity that crosses over into more commercial aspects. There isn’t so much artistic resistance to this idea now. In fact, I think almost every art school in this country has a sound studio. Some of the music departments at some of the universities are almost lagging behind in terms of the exploration of what can be considered to be music or a musical activity. But, there is still an academic resistance going on. That has to do with the obsession, it is still there. I’ve come across it: you cannot possibly enter into the world of making sound or exploring sound for its own sake without having completed these certificates. I think it has become much more open and easy, and because it is also mixed up with various media, there are opportunities for people to express themselves in ways other than painting, drawing and sculpture. And I’ve always believed, since the seventies, anyway, there should be no delineation between various activities when it comes to art.
You are very optimistic about the new experimentation that’s possible at the grass roots level, so to speak, but in practice what’s happening with commercial art is that it is moving into larger and larger mass-market exercises resulting in acts like The Spice Girls and the obsession with them.
But that’s always going to be there; pop won’t go away. The commercial aspect of delivering the lowest common denominator to twelve-year-old kids will not go away. That’s a permanent feature and will always be one. My optimism comes from living in a multi-genre situation. Twenty-five years ago, nobody would have dreamt of so many genres and the increasingly cheap technology that is available for people who don’t necessarily have musical talent in the traditional way but have an attitude towards music. Even a distinctive feel for things can actually be expressed through the technology we now have today.
The punk era was the prime example, possibly the best example, of a simple technology assisting a very simple expression but a very freshened new expression. You are talking about other simple technologies also coming out and enabling people. Do you think that a simple technique is an easier way to a simple, clear expression of an idea?
Possibly, that’s more of a complicated question than it sounds. I think because of technology, cultural pressures, and the proliferation of all these genres, the situation has arrived where, really, in the end it is still down to peoples’ personal vision (or obsession, I should say). I don’t think a simple technique is the answer to everything, but it is basically access. And, because the technology is available, a lot of the techniques which in the past would have taken quite a few years to master, now are at peoples’ fingertips. They take it for granted, and I don’t think that is a bad thing. But the variety of technology and machines, which, basically, are made to make things sound convincing and commercial, can still be used and abused. I think in the end the people will always gravitate to the simplest way of doing things and respond to instruction manuals in the way they always have done: ‘that’s all very well, but how can I make some noise very quickly, please!’ Of course, the other aspect is people who buy the technology in order to sound like something which is in the Top Ten, but we don’t really count those.
Often, what comes out of this new technology, is a priesthood of people who are the so-called professionals and the so-called experts, and rejecting the priesthood was an important facet of punk in the seventies just as it was an important component of other artistic movements and rebellions in earlier times. Do you think this is a cyclical process? Could we expect one today? It seems a little quiet at the moment.
I think it is quiet today because there are options because of technology, and because, as I said before, we have so many genres. The priesthood aspect, I think, has changed a bit. I think people who are respected in a lot of these genres are not so much to do with amazing technique or talent with a big “T” I think it is more to do with their artistic integrity or their willingness to take a chance. I may be completely misguided about this, as another spin-off from the punk era when integrity was something which was considered part of it–integrity, not in terms of moral integrity, although it probably has a moral aspect, but in terms of having a responsibility for one’s own development and not sitting on one’s laurels or finding a star and churning it out until one gets rich.
The paradox often became, though, that having integrity meant it was worn like a haircut, and people became more concerned with integrity than, perhaps, what it was actually lying on.
Of course, all these aspects of integrity, style, etc., can buy people who have a superficial view of these things. Clearly an asset, they perceive this as something which they could coopt to copy. It’s the haircut syndrome, the integrity haircut. But there is not a lot you can do about that. You can trust; it’s a question of trust–a leap of faith.
Do you think the pretense of integrity or the imitation of integrity undermines the impact of the real thing on the audience and the possibility of the real thing being recognized by the audience?
That’s a question about audiences, really, isn’t it? There is a sense in which we will always try and chase down the “real thing.” It’s a question of which audiences. Who? Twelve-year-olds certainly are not concerned with integrity. No reason why they should be. That audience stops listening to music by the time they are nineteen, anyway. They go to country and western, especially, when they get married. Their evolvement as a music consumer stops, basically, and they become a different kind of audience, but there is always a section of “the audience” which carries on. Seems usually to be male and recording train spotters. But those audiences are obviously much smaller than the constant supply of twelve-year-old girls.
Don’t you think the twelve-year-old girl ideal music business target is a relatively recent ideal?
It is only a recent ideal in that they are younger. I think in previous times there was a similar kind of audience. They were just older and there wasn’t any TV. You had to go to the local palais for your entertainment. It was just a different way of accessing entertainment. That’s the change. The perfect audience of twelve-year-old girls is more of a sociological thing. I don’t see an awful lot of differences except that they’re younger, they can access the music, and have purchasing power.
But, what happens to old codgers like us who still want a little intensity from what they are seeing around them, but don’t go into record stores and, typically, as “baby boomers,” have an awful lot of discretionary income? What happens to their musical and artistic consumption?
Well, there are still options. I think getting frustrated because it’s not on “Radio One” is a bit irrelevant. It’s still there. You can find it. Certainly, all over the world there is always that funny little record shop that insists on vending unmentionable material. Mail order things, etc. You don’t have to be frustrated about the availability of unusual or intense music. Also, it is possible to see it live, as well. The fact that this kind of material is not presented in the stadium, I think, is not a problem. It’s proper to experience it in a mundane, smaller space, anyway. You can say that it parallels jazz or something. It’s the closest I can come to it. There’s an avant-garde audience and there’s a jazz audience. What is quite strange is there being a crossover, which in this case is improvised music. Now there are improvised music festivals, for instance, which include electronic improvisation. People who do remixes for the dance scene have this almost secret life forming improvised music, or sound, or pure sonic assault. It’s all available. I don’t think anyone should get frustrated, as I said, because it is not popular.
What might be popular among people thirty years old and up? Should it be any different from the rest? Do you expect a growth of understanding or perception as the audience ages?
Yes, unfortunately, I do, but I think that is a false expectation. The mass audience does not develop from the Spice Girls to, should we say, serious electronic music. It just doesn’t happen but, possibly, might happen with the more extreme dance music. That’s a possibility that they might explore on their own÷you know, extreme sounds and presentations of sonic assault.
You talk about graduating to much more subtle forms. So, did you start with the Spice Girls equivalent listening to popular music?
My earliest experience with music was the popular music of the time, which tended to be Ella Fitzgerald. My mother and her sisters had quite good taste, I suppose, in terms of their pop music so I was slightly more sophisticated about a lot of things going on in the forties and fifties. But, the thing that really set me off was the first time I heard the Blues. That’s one of the first things I actually recognize as having something to do with me and the way I would view music as exciting. It seemed important, very direct and the noises were interesting. One doesn’t know why one responds to certain things as a child, but there was a dissonance, which seemed attractive, and dangerous. It’s surely something one could connect with in a strange sort of way. I am not sure whether appreciating that kind of dissonance or that kind of simplicity, was influenced by my exposure to Ella Fitzgerald. Could well be.
It looks like a very short step though to the chain saw guitar sound.
Yes, possibly. The chain saw guitar. I think it had to do with drones in the end. The first time I actually played an amplified guitar, an over-amplified guitar, I thought, ‘This is a drone.’ Although I am very interested in the direct rhythmic stuff, I think what it boils down to is you create a drone with an over-amplified guitar. It is something I always found fascinating.
So things got simpler and simpler with the Blues and with the chain saw guitar drone. Why is it that the lyrics still provoke arguments among the fans about the actual ‘meaning’ of the oblique collision of a very simple sound with often very abstract images?
I think that possibly leads to the idea of a collage. I think that is very important÷a slightly pretentious word, but it is a way of viewing songs or music as settings to poetry. It’s an extremely consciousness approach to music. Personally, I always found that quite interesting because, to me, it’s more like the way that life is÷a constant bombardment of disparate images or imagery with verbal associations. For me, a collage sometimes seems closer to reality than the simple story. Also, looking at the way a rhyme operates, we felt there weren’t any rules concerning what a song was. Some could be very simple stories and some could be a purely associative collage of imagery or content.
Of the Wire recordings of the last twenty-two years, which ones persist for you and which come closest to the ideals you have just talked about?
I still have a soft spot for 12 X U, it came close to a sonic haiku, the perfect small notion, object concept. I love complicated things set in very limited means and very few syllables. I still have a soft spot for that. I read what your questions might be, and I saw that. It is one of those questions one always dreads because that kind of thing changes all the time, and I don’t listen to Wire. On occasion I had to, a few recordings for technical purposes, and I’ve always been confused. I thought well, that’s quite good, really or that’s slightly embarrassing. I think it changes all the time. That’s an almost impossible question to answer.
Do you ever get intimidated by what you did and hearing the distillation of hours, days of effort whizzing by in two and a half minutes?
Not intimidated. On the very rare occasions when I have been exposed to Wire recordings, I’ve been vaguely impressed. Possibly due to the way you couched that question, I was reminded there was quite a lot of practicing that went on to achieve very simple effects. At the same time, the only way to achieve musical effects was to repeat them endlessly. And that’s going back to the fine art, I suppose. Sometimes one has to learn a technique in order to achieve even one piece of art. To do it properly you may be forced to learn a skill of some description. Music is a sensory outlet where you get direct correlation between music and modern art. Now, if you have an object you want to see in the world, you get somebody who is very good at making those things to make it for you. It is the idea which is important, not necessarily the skill which is involved in creating that object.
The idea has always been the essence of what you’ve done. At one point though you became dangerously close to being pop stars. Would that have been a contradiction?
It would have been very tricky if that had happened. When there’s collaboration between four people, each are dealing with three other peoples’ personalities all the time. I think I suffered from the “Jonah Syndrome.” When things become important or successful, I find myself retreating. I think that if Wire had a hit single of some description, things would have become extremely tricky. Certain members of the personnel might have reacted in different ways and that might have shortened the career of the collaboration. In the end, it would have depended which particular item was successful. If it had been one of the more unusual songs, that would have been perceived by the record company as a commercial approach. Perhaps we would have been given a certain amount of freedom to actually carry on doing slightly more unusual things, and still be perceived as a commercial proposition. But, the danger is in the more throwaway, more jovial. That would have been perceived as a star which could be pursued for the benefit of all concerned. I could see that as being very dangerous. Luckily for us there was no real pressure.
As an artist whose job is communication, would you have valued the additional, broader platform that a single would have given you to propagate your ideas?
Not necessarily. Sometimes that can be a huge disadvantage. I was just thinking while I was in the toilet about the syndrome being stuck in time, or stylistically stuck commercially, with the possibility of having a hit single and the pursuit of that particular style. I was trying to think of a good example. The history of pop music is littered with people who have had a hit single but whose live act was quite different. (This is terrible; I can’t think of the name of the group. It is quite a vulgar example. It was the guy who had the top hat with mirrors on. Early to mid-seventies, Pre-Punk. Think of it from Woburn Hampton, Birmingham. You do know them. This is terrible.) [Slade.] Anyway, they had a series of hits÷three-hits-a-year kind of situation, and they wore more and more ridiculous clothes. But, basically, they were heavy metal type of group.
That’s a kind of a broad example. But, I suppose the difference between groups like that and us was that they were not pursuing an idea–they were pursuing a career. Sometimes a success in one field can narrow your success in others. This country’s notoriously unforgiving in terms of being successful in one genre and attempting to crossover into another. Although, I am fairly satisfied with the way it’s turned out, it would be nicer, I suppose, having nothing to interfere with my artistic pursuits. A lack of expectation by potential audiences is quite good. I’ve grown chronically lazy.
As you said, different members of Wire might have had different approaches to the larger platform that a hit would have given. There were tensions within the group, everybody hating everybody at some point. Do you think that was part of the dynamo that drove the group? Do you think that was part of the reason the recordings came out so successfully?
It’s possible, I suppose. I think the elements of, shall we say, competition between Graham and Colin vying for the ultra-male position, might have added a certain dynamic, but I am not sure it is particularly important, really. I think Wire was its best when this element of competition wasn’t really there. We might have produced more material in terms of who could get the most songs in. It is always a good thing, but I don’t think it was particularly, in terms of the way things were made. I don’t think that aspect, that kind of friction and tension, as particularly valuable. It’s something I felt was inevitable and had to be accepted as part of the parcel of life.
Inevitably, the collaboration between four people for any length of time, especially since everyone had their own views, was: If we found out it worked, it functioned. But then these other aspects of the situation started to bubble up to the surface. Once confidence was established, they felt, I suppose, that Wire wasn’t enough. That’s the cliché thing; we have always said that about Wire. That was the pity about the EMI situation. If the various projects which were bubbling around individuals or different combinations of people in the group could have been realized, then, perhaps, the Wire project would have carried on. It could have hit eventually, broken the will of the audience into actually buying the records. I don’t know.
Well, people still bought the records, and continue to do so. In fact, at one time Wire were labeled the “Pink Floyd of the New Wave.” This seemed such a huge accolade, and all four of you seemed to appreciate it at the time.
I think everyone understood that it was a compliment but, being associated with something like Pink Floyd, was not a comfortable idea however one respects their music and the ground-breaking aspect of their activities. I think because we were very convinced about ourselves, we wanted to be the new Wire not the new Pink Floyd.
Thinking of the time before Robert (Gotobed) left, when you settled into being Wire, what, in retrospect, do you think the roles were? Was there a clear dynamic of who did what and to whom?
It seemed to swap around quite a lot. It has to be said that Robert’s role was fairly constant. As far as the other three, I think, the kind of roles were interchangeable quite often. As people develop their personalities, their skills at producing beautiful objects also develops, and the aspirations obviously alter. We’re getting older all the time and the unspoken aspects of the collaboration eventually deteriorates because peoples’ ambitions become more and more obvious. At the same time, the realization of responsibility for the other three members possibly become almost a burden.
We were talking about the roles and why. How did it change when you became a three piece?
Basically, the way I viewed it, when there were four of us, Colin was the most musically experienced. He was always viewed as kind of the bandmaster but not in terms of the concept or where it was going musically. There’s got to be somebody who says, ‘we should do that again’ or ‘that’s not quite right.’ It’s better if the singer did that because they have to be more secure about what’s happening behind them. I think because Colin took on the technology aspect early on, his role was too much of a burden. He was the person who had the computer and the early sequencing program, etc. Somebody had to do it, and I think it somehow distorted the organic nature of things.
As a three piece we tried very, very hard and, just before Robert left, the idea of still creating stuff from jams was recorded by the sequencing program. The sound was great and it was a very good idea, but sometimes the sounds one develops, as one would in a normal jamming situation with guitars, were not repeatable in terms of being sampled off. So, quite often, I think Colin was put in a bit of an invidious situation. Not only did he feel responsible for making sure this stuff went down complete, but also tried to enjoy the jam aspect of rehearsals and the song writing process.
Is Wire in the past tense now or are you going to work together again?
There have been a few Wire scares recently. I also thought it would be an interesting and amusing thing to see if Wire were actually put in a position where we would have to play for a quarter of an hour or something. What would it do now? The curiosity factor is still there. I think for everybody, but, apparently, not for Robert. I don’t play guitar anymore, but I still have a curiosity about what would happen if the four of us got back to basics. What would happen if four people got into a room with limited means–limited musical ability–what would they do? But, it’s not practical. It could be practical. The problem is, for it to be a practical proposition, the stakes would have to be too high in order to get Graham over and rehearse. It would have to be a fairly major project which means we would have to commit. I think that would not be a natural situation. There would be too much riding on it, and I think that would spoil the soufflé. I still find it an intriguing idea that they might do something again, but certainly not make an album as the first idea. To make some noise in a room is the first idea I still find a fairly attractive.
So many people have taken Wire’s example now, and there are so many people who have gain some knowledge and influence from Wire, do you think they would dislike being called the Wire of the late nineties?
Well, if I was them, I would. Nobody with any integrity would want to be called the something of something of the nineties.