Wire at the Stereo Society
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Wire at the Stereo Society
Interview, May 1996, for the Wire Newsletter
Can you tell me a bit about your background and how you eventually got into production?
Before getting into production I was editing Studio Sound and doing quite a lot of writing, both pop and classical reviews, some for The Guardian. I’d studied composition at The Guildhall. But I’ve also got a degree in physics after which, in the early seventies, I had worked in a recording studio (from where I got fired). I started as the tea-boy, otherwise known as assistant engineer. I’d worked on the Deep Purple sessions for Fireball. All of this was converging on record production, but as far as I was concerned it was converging on A & R.
I got into the business by deciding I wanted to look for an A&R job and tried in London and Los Angeles. New York wasn’t really a happening place in 1975 and I wound up with a couple of offers in London, one of which was with EMI. The attraction of EMI was the breadth of music which was available. I went in relatively old, 28 when I joined them in March 1976. Traditional A&R involved a lot of hanging around the Speakeasy [London after-hours club], the old boy network, but I went into the whole punk scene completely naïve, just looking for the interesting music and the action. Pretty soon I realized I couldn’t do A&R the way other people did it. I didn’t want to do this old boy thing, and preferred to head towards the more interesting music, so in my naivete I went for the punk stuff, which of course had suddenly become very fashionable. I was one of maybe two or three A&R people on the scene.
After doing A&R for a while, I started producing at the end of 1976 because so may people had asked me to, although initially I didn’t want the responsibility of people’s futures hanging onto what I was doing. But after a while I looked around and figured I could do it at as least as well as the other people who were messing things up.
What sort of things did you start producing?
In my first year I did five albums: Gryphon’s last album (I saw them off); then Live At The Roxy, then the French group Telephone, which went gold; then a live Soft Machine album in Paris; and of course Pink Flag.
In terms of the Wire story, your work on the Live At The Roxy album is where we know your name from.
The idea for the Roxy album certainly caused some consternation at EMI. I remember hanging onto the pay-phone at the club, trying to explain some raucous contractual point to the Managing Director [Leslie Hill]. Logistically it was a major effort getting all that together. For the recording, I deliberately took direct guitar feeds as well as miking the amps and in a couple of cases I did reconstitute a guitar sound but, despite the catty rumors, there was no tarting up of Wire. I only took a little liberty on behalf of the people who were really hopelessly out of line, sound-wise.
What attracted you to Wire and pushing them for a deal with EMI?
I thought Wire were great. Very strong, distinctive music with an attitude. It was music that I liked. And the criteria I stuck with for production was to make music I liked with people I liked. I don’t make music that I like with people I don’t like, and vise-versa.
Within a month of the Roxy album you recorded a series of demos with them, even before they had signed a contract.
In my mind Wire were ready to record an album, but you have to get better recordings for the internal company selling, if nothing else. It’s also a good way of getting to know a band.
Wasn’t there concern that Wire might jettison some songs in favor of new material?
I thought the absence of preciousness about a song was very good. Any song has a certain growth life where it means something active, where people are interested in it. Once one became routine, Wire would jettison it.
It was pretty quick from signing in September to Pink Flag being released in November?
There were 21 songs on the list and we had demos of 14, plus the 2 live tracks. And we had a very tiring meeting at my place in Stockwell [South London] when we put the running order of the album together, before we went into the studio.
In the Wire book, they say that you really helped them get used to the studio and feel relaxed.
When we went in the first day I took in a jar of home-grown, just so they could settle into the studio. I didn’t want them to get precious and put undue pressure on that first day. Everybody (except me, who had to be the straight man) got completely ripped and the studio fear was completely gone after that.
The band played all the tracks live in the studio and then overdubbed?
Colin would always sing live, except on Strange, which was re-done. Colin didn’t play much guitar on that record, apart from the solo on Lowdown. Although he did go out and buy his white Ovation. It looked very nice.
Did you offer any musical ideas?
I saw my function as lightening the load on the band as much as possible while they concentrated on the main action, which was getting the intensity into the songs. I did play piano on Reuters, which is buried in the mix. I was extremely shy about pushing my talents forward.
There were some vocal harmonies on Mannequin and flutes on Strange. Why did you feel the need for this?
Dave Oberlé, the lead singer in Gryphon, was brought in to do some big sweet backing vocals on Mannequin. He contributed a different color. In the same way, there are flutes on Strange. That was a serious overdub. There are actually clusters of flutter-tongue flutes which I scored a semi-tone apart, and they were played by Kate Lukas, my flute teacher. There are about eight or ten of them, just following the same pattern. But again, because I was very shy and retiring about my contributions, they are fairly low in the mix. They should have been forced up a bit. The band we up for it, up for anything. As soon as they realized that there were exciting possibilities… the hammering at the end of Strange is me hitting the fire-escape with a drum stick. I just thought it needed something manic at the end of it, it sounds like somebody frantically trying to get out. I heard later they were all in the control room wondering if I’d really lost it! The one thing I really enjoyed with Wire was that they would never ever be in a discussion where someone would say ‘Let’s do a Motown sort of feel.’ That would never cross their minds. If there was any stylistic reference it would be jettisoned. Never any argument about that.
By the time of Chairs Missing you were being pushed to play on the sessions.
They dragged my involvement out of me. Bruce said ‘Unless you play those keyboards and synthesizers we’re going to get that Brian Eno in!’ I don’t think they would have, but they pushed people into doing creative things. This was where everything started to get layered. It went down live, because you need to capture an energy you can feed on. Then, the overdubs went on and things were replaced.
And your keyboards are all over the album.
I really felt like an extension of the band, which I think is the ideal way a producer should fit.
The Other Window was really pushing their abstraction.
Paul Hardiman, the engineer, said ‘What this needs is something ploughing right through the middle, like a huge drum kit’. He was half-joking. I thought it was a good idea. That was one of the most positive aspects of working with Wire. They always pulled people in, like me with my keyboards. I’ve never played on stage since. They made Bruce do his own vocals.
Shortly afterwards you went on tour with them.
The Lyceum gig in July 1978 was the first time I played live with them. I was terrified. I’d done all my preparation and got all my charts together so I could change all my gizmos at the end of each song for a different sound. Colin changed the running order (actually, he forgot it) and so I didn’t know where I was in the set or with my controls! That left me completely lost and about two seconds behind the beat. I just gave up. [Wire went to CBGB’s then came back and continued the tour with Mike.] They taught me not to take it too seriously. The keyboards were hard work. For example, we’d recorded Another The Letter with a sequencer but I had to play the damn thing on stage. Most of the time live they played things twice as fast, and I am no way a virtuoso.
I can just about remember one very funny incident when we played The Venue [London showcase]. We did two sets. The first set was really good but when the second one came around we’d all had a bit to drink. Anyway, several people from Warner Brothers Records were in the audience, since they had just signed Wire. We were busy playing and as usual I had my head down concentrating on my keyboards, but I was suddenly aware that something had jumped in the sound, although everybody was playing. So I quickly looked up and there was everyone: there’s Colin, there’s Bruce, there’s Robert. Where’s Graham? I looked around and all I could see was a pair of feet hanging over the back of an overturned amp. It appears that he’d got a bit over-excited and somehow got himself caught up on his guitar lead and the shag-pile carpet that was on the Venue stage, and fallen backwards into Colin’s amp. He was just lying there on his back, legs in the air, playing his bass while a roadie tried to drag him up. Anyway, we finished the song and this roadie was still trying to get him vertical and Graham shouts out ‘Fuck off I’m alright like this, it’s very comfortable!’ What the Warners folks made of it…
When it came to 154, Wire had been through the mill on the Roxy Music tour and had had a run in with EMI over Outdoor Miner. It’s also well documented that these sessions were far from easy.
There was an incredible step up in their playing capabilities when we went into 154. Wire sessions were always a battle anyway. There was no way I wasn’t going to get a hard time every session. We were all pulling in different directions, even on Chairs Missing. This certain wanton obliqueness in what they were about collided with my goal and concern to work and reveal the music. That created a constant tension. At one point I suggested that they might as well go on their promotion tour with paper bags over their heads. I remember those sessions just being full of disagreement and tension about just about everything we were doing. I wasn’t too precious about things, though. If an idea didn’t meet with approval there was always another. When Wire played the songs in the studio it was generally initially to get the cheese-grater guitars and jangly bashy noises right, so if you can take out all of that and leave a big gap which has to be filled. And was filled very creatively. We experimented with the whole studio.
All of Wire have commented on the difficulties of these sessions and the ‘power bases’ being made: Dome [Bruce Gilbert and Graham Lewis], versus you and Colin Newman. What was your feeling at the time?
I just always saw it as people functioning in different ways. They had a certain style, and quite often those grated on each other also. Colin and I just gravitated together. If anything, I ignored the personality side of all the tensions much more than I should have done. In my mind, I went in to just deal with the music, and certainly wasn’t prepared to say something calming for the sake of it. My approach, if something wasn’t right, was to go toe to toe.
Combined with those internal difficulties there was also problems dealing with EMI.
EMI have to sell records. Here was Wire making records with the budget of a substantial selling record and approaching it like an artwork. Pop music needs to support itself, if it wants to do without an Arts Council crutch.
Towards the end of 154, after one particularly intense mixing session, I called Mike Collins [the manager] and said, ‘I’m sorry I just can’t do this anymore, but don’t say anything to anybody just yet.’ Then they came down to the next mixing session and Bruce said, ‘So you did the deed.’ The creative tension worked but I didn’t want the personal wear and tear.
But you did agree to producing and playing on Colin’s first solo album A-Z?
Colin and I got along well. And he played me his demos, which I liked a lot. He was individually very open and innovative. I had a new synthesizer [a very early Synclavier] and I asked him if I should bring the synth I relied on before or should I look for completely new solutions on this new one. He said he wanted new solutions. Fine by me. The album was recorded in cheap time at Scorpio Sound, and I think it’s got some of the best keyboard playing I have ever done on Seconds To Last. A long passionate solo which, again, is undermixed. Typical shrinking violet! It was done first thing in the morning. It was 11 o’clock, me on New York time [five hours behind] putting me completely out of it. This was probably the only reason that it played beautifully from beginning to end. I was sitting there listening to the band and reacting to them and I was playing only to keep them going and keep the dynamics of the track moving. When I came around and woke up I realized I’d done something very good.
Colin has said he thinks A-Z was ‘a bit over pop’ and that this caused a bust-up between you. Colin had this view that he was making pop and you thought otherwise.
Pop may mean obvious. But the way a musician hears it is very different from how the public hears it. A musician hears all the nuance, all the background that went into its creation, but you’ve got to lay it out much more clearly for the audience. They simply don’t have that background, so musicians’ ears will be very different. I was always very concerned to expose and make clear whatever was there in the music. There was an idea, so let’s take it all the way. And if it’s worth doing it’s worth overdoing. From my side I always push it in the ‘pop’ direction. But it’s only a pop direction in the sense of ‘popular’ not ‘pop’ as some style. I want people to hear and understand these records.
I speak of myself as a shrinking violet but they used to be sometimes, too. I worried that they liked to keep their heads down too much, saying something oblique so that they couldn’t be accused of anything specific. At one point early in our relationship I complained that ‘you won’t really have a full vocabulary until you’ve written a love song.’ Because writing a love song has to be a very direct thing: ‘here’s what I’m saying, I’m wide open.’ Heartbeat is the first exception. That’s a beautiful love song.
So A-Z was your last work with any of them. Was there no inclination to continue working with Colin?
After A-Z Colin came to me talking about musical experimentation and other grand schemes, but I’d really had enough and we just kind of drifted apart, the split exacerbated by my living in New York. I think it was that they had all come of age and were challenging the ‘parents’. Which is exactly what they all did, going on to produce their own records.