Q Magazine

Colin Newman Revisits His Most Recent Solo Album, Recalls Wire Working with Steve Albini, and Discusses the Dangers of Music Snobbery

'You shouldn't be snobbish about how people consume your music. What you want is for people to love it.'

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Source: Colin Newman

Colin Newman, still looking as effortlessly cool now as he did in the '70s

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Ever since Wire released their debut album, Pink Flag, back in 1977, Colin Newman has remained on the music scene in some capacity or other, be it as a member of that aforementioned influential art-punk/post-punk band or as a solo artist. It was back in 2020 when fans last got a new Wire album (Mind Hive), but as far as Newman's last solo album, would you believe it's been 27 years? And to hear Newman tell it, we really shouldn't waste our time waiting for that situation to change anytime soon. That said, he's decided that it's a perfect time to reissue that most recent solo endeavor, which brings us to the reason behind his recent chat with Q: the expanded reissue of 1997's Bastard.

Newman was kind enough to hop onto Zoom and discuss the LP in question with Q, but while that may have been the predominant purpose of the conversation, a variety of different topics ended up being tackled before all was said and done, including the current state of artist royalties, the status of the recordings Wire did with Steve Albini once upon a long ago, and the importance of avoiding music snobbery.

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Source: Colin Newman

If you're looking for Colin Newman, you've come to the right stop.

It's nice to be able to hear Bastard again, although I know that – even though it was released in 1997 – it still remains your most recent solo effort.

And will do, I think, for the foreseeable future. [Laughs.] I mean, I suppose there could be circumstances under which I would record another one, but I'm not really sure I see the point in it, as the sleeve notes explain, I hope, clearly enough. I mean, I did Bastard specifically... I think it was three or four years into the history of Swim (Newman's label), and a lot of people were saying to me, "Well, if you really want to promote the label, you need to do a Colin Newman solo record." So that was actually one of the main drivers.

Well, it's interesting looking back at your solo career. Even your first solo album wasn't necessarily intended as a solo album. It was originally songs for a Wire album.

Yeah, it was basically me sort of allowing others in Wire to have more writing input, but me just having way too much stuff and thinking, "Well, having a solo record... Surely that's what solo albums are for!" As I said, I had no idea that people would then just give you money to make records just because you're a great artist! [Laughs.] Being a great artist, of course, is arguable... But the whole thing is kind of slightly absurd when I look back on it. I just think, "How could I have been so naïve as to imagine..." [Pauses.] I mean, to be quite honest, that was the reason why I ended up not working anymore with Mike Thorne! Because Mike Thorne was, like, "Well, how come you're not having a solo career? And how come you're not taking a band to America?" I just hadn't planned on any of that! And if I'm being super honest, it would definitely have been in the back of my head that me and Rob [Grey], going out on the road, as some kind of Colin Newman Band... That would've been the death knell of Wire, which I didn't want to happen. Wire has a fractious and difficult history, but I would never, ever want to be the one that was putting the final nail in the coffin, y'know? It's just not in my nature to be that person.

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Source: swim~

The cover art for Colin Newman's 1997 solo album, 'Bastard,' now reissued in a deluxe edition through his label, swim~

As far as Bastard goes... I don't know if it's actually the liner notes or just the press release that accompanied the copy I received, but you talk about the fact that it's kind of a spin on dance music, so to speak.

Well, I think you have to understand where we were. I don't know how much you know about the history of Swim, but when Malka (Spigel, Newman's wife and musical partner) and I first moved to the UK, which was in the early '90s, we'd been living in Brussels. We'd become more than aware of what was happening in dance music. I mean, the label R&S was based in Ghent, we knew people who worked there... I mean, we were well plugged into the Belgian techno scene. So we knew about that music before we came to Britain. Actually, Britain was a bit behind! And we started to, in a way, proselytize that new kind of music. I mean, it appealed to us, the idea that you could make music without it having vocals, without it having an obvious personality. It seemed modern, it seemed contemporary.

And as the scene developed, it developed into many, many strands, so you had techno and house. Techno and house were quite separate from each other, but then you also had breakbeat and the whole breakbeat scene, both hip-hop breaks and then drum and bass. All of those things were existing at the same time, but they were not necessarily feeding each other. So the idea that you would mash up dance music styles in the mid-'90s was really something that nobody was doing, because the tribes were very different. And we were still living in a period in the mid-'90s where a lot of Americans thought - and looking back on it now, there's kind of a racist undercurrent to this - that music without a drum kit wasn't proper music!

So it's a moment in time I've always wanted - and Malka feels the same way - we like to ally ourselves to what's going on in a contemporary scene in music. We wanted to be part. There was a burgeoning electronic scene in London, and we became part of it. And Bastard is an expression of that. On one level, it's like me saying, "Well, I'm not going to make a song record, because what's the point in that?" None of the music we were listening to in the mid-'90s has singing in it! [Laughs.] Instrumental music was the thing! And the way that underground America kind of co-opted that was post-rock. And there's elements of post-rock also in Bastard as well, because it's a record from '97, as post-rock started to have an influence. Tortoise were massively influential in Britain. Massively! All those strands are meeting.

So in many ways it's a product of a very specific point in time, but as others have pointed out - and that's something that's a real surprise to me- it somehow holds water in a contemporary sense. It makes sense to people now listening to it, which seems odd to me. But I'll go with it! I mean, I'm self-critical, and I wouldn't make a record like that now, but that's absolutely fine also.

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Well, it certainly holds up, whether you view it as an artifact of its time or as something contemporary.

And it's nice of you to say that. I re-released it for quite mundane reasons. I had the rights to re-release in physical form both of my Crammed [Discs] solo albums, Commercial Suicide and It Seems, and I had been trying to negotiate with the record company to buy the masters, because it seemed to be that A) they're not worth that much money, and B) I don't see why I would be releasing something physical of something when I don't own the digital, because all I'm doing is promoting someone else's release. Because that's the way the music industry works now. I mean, everything is about the digital. So therefore I would be spending time and money to be putting out physical releases...and, yes, there would be income generated from them and, yes, I do get a percentage off of the digital, but still it's not quite the same as owning it. So I was kind of talking it through with the boss of our distribution, and he said, "Well, why don't you just re-release Bastard?" And I was, like, "Well, that's not a stupid idea." [Laughs.] So in the end, that was kind of how it came about. And like everything else about that album, it's kind of a bastard: it wasn't entirely what I'd been planning to happen, but it happened anyway!

How was Bastard in terms of being a collaboration with Malka? Not that it was the first time you two had collaborated.

Well, to be honest, I think everything with my name on it since I've known Malka - apart from Wire - is a collaboration with Malka. I mean, it just is. We've worked together now... [Hesitates.] Blimey, so we met in '85? And we started working together soon afterwards. So we've just done loads and loads, and now the collaboration is just so natural that I'd find it hard to imagine... I mean, it's one of the reasons why I can't really think about, "Why would I put out a Colin Newman solo record? Because it's not going to be a solo record anyway! And what point am I trying to make?" And then you kind of realize, "Well, I'd rather be working on the things that we're working towards for next year and the things that we're working on in general."

For my part, I've found that the older I get, the more I find it easier to lean toward instrumental music, so I think that's in particular why I enjoyed Bastard.

Well, that's interesting to know. I can work in both fields, I'm easy in both fields, and as it is... I don't know if you know this, but Malka and I have had a radio show for the last three and a half years, a weekly one, and we play a very, very diverse type of music which goes all the way from neo-classical to egg punk and everything in between. So I feel perfectly at home listening to or being engaged in any kind of music that you can imagine, so instrumental music is very much part of our world. But I can hack stuff with vocals as well.

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I wanted to ask you about a few other things in your back catalog, and I pretty much have to start with Wire. So the band continues to be a going concern, technically?

Um, yeah, I can't really say. I can't really give a status report on it. There was a small piece that I wrote to go out to all of the journalists that might want to talk to me, what to say about Wire.

I'm sorry, if it was in the packet, I must've missed it.

Well, Wire is now in a situation whereby the five people who are of Wire, so to speak, are now... [Pauses.] Because Wire now owns the master rights to its classic catalog - that's the '70s catalog - this generates a pretty reasonable income. I mean, there are no swimming pools going on here. There's no rich rock stars. But there is income being generated to the level that everyone's getting money monthly. Which means that there is not necessarily a driving force in order to get on and do other things post-pandemic. And Wire... It requires the collective will of the band to do anything. I run the business, but I'm certainly not in charge of the band, y'know? There's no way I can say to anybody, "We should be doing this," or, "We should be doing that." I mean, everyone either decides between them, "Yeah, we should do something," or not. And, really, that's not in my gift.

Well, I'll say that my gateway drug into the Wire catalog - as, I think, was the case with many Americans - was "Eardrum Buzz."

Yeah, that definitely sets your generation. [Laughs.] If you were in your twenties, you'd be saying Pink Flag.

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Of course. And although "Eardrum Buzz" was my introduction to the band, it was certainly weird to view that as a touchstone once I went back and listened to the older material. There was that instant awareness: "This is a very different band."

Yeah, of course, there's sort of the chameleon nature of all that, which is kind of interesting. I think what's interesting about this period - and we're talking about the 2020s here - is just the amount that Wire continues to be intergenerational. I mean, whether they know it or not, every single egg punk band is either influenced by Wire or Devo. Directly or indirectly. It just is. You hear it in the music. And what's so fascinating is the humor of it, which always appeals to me.

Yeah, it's kind of fascinating, and understanding how that works is something which... I mean, because I run the business, I literally see what sells and what doesn't sell, and what's popular and what isn't popular, and it's totally fascinating. It's a weird situation to be in, because most artists of Wire's size and stature... I mean, big reputation, but we're certainly not up in the Taylor Swift territory in terms of sales! But you see the kind of income that's coming in to the band, and then you think about every other band, especially the ones who are bigger, who don't own any of their catalog, and some of those will be struggling. And this is a real eye-opener for me about how the industry works, and it's something I'm starting to become involved in increasingly on the political level, really, as far as what can be done about this.

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What's happened is, with streaming especially digital, the owners of the rights... I'm talking about record companies, but lots and lots of record companies have gone bust, and the ownership of that catalog gets bought by other companies, and they aren't always record companies. They can also be people who just own other things. And they only have to pay out on the contract terms, so if the contract date is from the '70s, and the band was on 10%, then they only have to pay out 10% of the income. When you think in terms of physical, in order to do that, they've got to keep manufacturing stuff, so there's a cost involved, and you need to keep promoting it. With digital, it all just goes on its own. Nobody promotes anything on Spotify. It's just all playlists and algorithms.

So those companies are getting 90% of the income, and... You know, the whole debate seems to be about how much money Spotify and Apple Music make, and for sure they make more money than they probably should, but if you were really going to recompense artists like a proper level, then you would charge more for the subscriptions. But it's how much money those record companies are making, and that is enormous amounts of money...and there are many, many artists who haven't got a clue. 99% of artists haven't got a clue just how they are missing out on potential income. People who might be in comfortable jobs, having left music years ago, this could be the inheritance of their kids. There's that kind of stuff. It's a massive story. And interestingly, the one place where they have done something about that is America, where there's a law that you can reclaim your rights after 30 years. This is only for America. This is a pretty progressive piece of legislation, actually!

Yeah, I actually just did an interview recently with Rosanne Cash, Johnny's daughter, and she just got the masters back for her album The Wheel, which came out 30 years ago, so she's just reissued it on her own label.

Yeah, those things, they can make a big, big difference. When you think about older artists that maybe are not in the best of health, but they still have to go out and tour, maybe they're playing quite small venues, they're staying in cheap hotels, they're up all not really healthy hours, not eating the best... They wouldn't have to be doing that, perhaps, if they could see a decent income off of their catalogs. And they're making the money that they're making, usually, by playing their hits, which will be from the past! It's an inequitable setup, and I find it quite depressing, and I find that the debate around this has been puerile.

I've been trying to bring this up with journalists for the last three or four years, and many times if you mention Spotify, all they'll want to talk about is Joe Rogan! [Laughs.] I mean, for f***'s sake... I'm not saying Spotify are the good guys, but ultimately what they pay out relates to how much people are willing to pay per month on their subscriptions, and...you can't have it both ways. You can't say, "Well, I don't want to pay any more than $5.00 a month to have every single bit of music that's ever been made available to me!" and "I think artists should get well paid for what they do!" There has to be a bit of give and take in there somewhere. [Sighs.] This is an endless discussion, really, and it's probably not the subject of what you want to do the interview about. But it's one of the things that's driving me a lot.

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Well, I'll just say that I just did a piece about how Nile Rodgers appeared before the House of Commons, and I'm reading straight from my article here, but it was the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, and he said:

"I’m 71 years old, I’ve been doing this for 50 years of my life. In 50 years, you would have thought with the advent of all the new technologies, people like me would have a much better life, things would be easier, we’d all profit together, and that’s not the case. There’s something dreadfully wrong with that.”

Well, he's absolutely right. One piece of really good news for Britain is that Tom Gray, who has been running a campaign called the Broken Record Campaign, has just stood for being the potential Parliamentary candidate for the Labour Party in Brighton, which is where I live, and he stands a pretty good chance of winning in the next election. And he's literally on the inside of this issue. So I'm certainly interested to work in the political space with other organizations and other people who are interested in this issue. We need to fix this, and we need to fix it without destroying the industry. You have to have a smart enough approach to it to understand that record companies will still exist and they need to earn something, but it's all about fairness and an equitable way of doing this.

Because I've done labels now for, what, since we started Swim, which was the mid-'90s? So, God, I've lost count of how many years that is. [Laughs.] But I understand the industry from every side. I understand what a record label does, and I understand that it's unfair to expect them to do everything for nothing. It's not a charity. But on the other side, there's a strong argument about this, and this space starts to become something that needs to be spoken about. I doubt very much whether the Conservative government in this country are going to do much, because they're too much like the Republicans - a vested interest in who's greasing whose palms - but I think a Labour Party who will be strapped for cash because the economy is so screwed right now and want to make some friends may well be interested in this as an idea, because it's a way to look very good without spending any money at all.

Fingers crossed, for all parties concerned.

For all parties concerned! But on the other side, I did an interview with another American journalist, and I'm interested that journalists are starting to be interested in this space. So me saying something means that people know that I have something to say in this space, and maybe other people will come to me and say, "What can we do? What are your ideas?" or whatever. That's what I wanted to do: start a dialogue. Because it's incredibly important. And I understand what it's like to be the beneficiary of hard work and luck. Wire got its '70s catalog by a piece of luck, but it was also my complete persistence in the face of what seemed like a very difficult situation to actually do it. And I'm still fighting the fight. There are still bits of the catalog that Wire don't own, and I'm in the fight to get those back. I've adopted quite a strong challenger role. In some cases it gets some response, and in other cases you really find out who's an asshole. [Laughs.] Not to put too fine a point on it!

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I did have a few other Wire questions, while I've got you. For one, when you look at the band's back catalog, is there a particular album that you look at and consider it to be underrated or just didn't get enough ears on it?

I think possibly my two favorite Wire albums of the... [Hesitates.] I don't know how you say it. The second decade of the third millennium? The '10s? But the albums are Nocturnal Koreans and 10:20. I think they're both weird, unintended records, and I think they're both in a way better because of that, because they didn't have any weight of expectation around them. They just were byproducts of other processes. And I quite like that as a thing. That's my current thinking.

I know they've been disparaged in the past, but do you think there's any chance that the band's recordings with Steve Albini will ever see the light of day?

[Bursts out laughing.] You're the first journalist to ever ask me that! So, yeah, it's something that exists that could be released at some point. I mean, the main thing is that... [Pauses.] I mean, I like Steve. He's actually been here. We know them pretty well, although Steve is a difficult person to know. Although in his heart, he's really a nice guy. You can understand that he's obviously someone who is - to put it politely - on the scale. That means that's part of his genius! I mean, the guy's a maths whiz. He's one of two people I know who makes a fortune out of gambling! And I've seen Steve walk around in Brighton, giving out to people on the street £20 and £50 notes because he's got a social conscience and he cares about stuff like that. Which I think is amazing. I've never seen anyone give that amount of money to a beggar.

But I think the general opinion at the time about those recordings were, "Why would anyone want recordings of what are basically '70s Wire songs played okay but sounding a bit American?" [Laughs.] I mean, I'm being honest: that was the opinion of the band at the time. I think in terms of the historic thing, I think there would be some interest in it, and I do think there would be reasons to release it. I'm not discounting it at all. I think it would be finding the right context. There are a number of things that could be released on Pink Flag, historic items. But, yeah, I think it's just a matter of finding the timing and the interest.

Like most bands, Wire are not really that interested in all that kind of stuff. Live recordings, not even slightly. Anything like radio recordings, Peel Sessions and stuff like that... The band's really not that interested. They're more interested in the version that was - as it were - the final version, or the gig that's in front of them tomorrow. But I'd say that's in common with anyone in any band that I've ever spoken to. I mean, it's not like anyone's ignoring it, it's just the thinking is very much band thinking rather than fan thinking. Fans want to own it. Fans want to have everything. But I think probably if you had in your hand a copy of the sessions of Wire recorded and mixed by Steve Albini, you might end up listening to it once. It's that kind of thing. It's not something you'd come back to again and again and again.

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And yet, as you say, there are the Wire fans who'd find it worth buying just to hear it that one time.

Well, the collector mentality is very far from the creative mentality. A very good friend from the main indie record store in Brighton said, "Basically, they queue up all night on Record Store Day to buy records that they never take out of their shrink wrap and that they listen to on Spotify probably once or twice." I mean, for a musician, that's about the most depressing thing to hear. You slaved for months over making your new album, which you're really excited about - and, yeah, you get the income of someone having bought it - but it wasn't something that someone really treasures and wants to play over and over again. It really is a depressing aspect, in a way, but you've got to get over it.

But on the other side, you've got that ridiculous musician snobbery which says, "Oh, my album is only really important on vinyl, and people who listen to it on Spotify are somehow inferior!" F*** that. That's just straightforward snobbery. There is no other term for that. The art is not superior on a different medium. The art is the art. And if the way that someone can get to hear the music is on their phone, then that's how they get to hear it. You shouldn't be snobbish about how people consume your music. What you want is for people to love it. Or you should, anyway. As an artist, you don't want people to say... [Pompously.] "Oh, this is a really clever piece of work, I'm really, really glad I own this!" and then just never listen to it. You want someone to say, "Oh, I love this! I can't stop listening to it!" It's what, as an artist, you should want.

You made the comment a few minutes ago when you mentioned Devo and Wire in the same breath. When you look back at Wire's early days, was there any other band that you related to or that you would compare to Wire in terms of your career development? Does Devo fall into that category?

Devo's a very different thing. Devo had a strange trajectory, actually, because that very first EP, with "Jocko Homo," when I first heard that... I sort of put that in the same world as the Residents. It was like a pop version of the Residents, and I thought it was absolute genius. I thought, "This is the best band ever!" But then they did stuff like "Whip It," which...I just thought was a bit rubbish, really. It was sort of MTV music. But I think hindsight has been really, really good for them. Like, the band Snapped Ankles, they're very, very Devo. And a lot of egg punk over the past two or three years references Devo, either overtly or they've just heard other bands that sound a bit like Devo. I think there's certainly elements that they pick out. And I think there's the kind of uppy, downy vocal thing is perhaps something that Wire have in common with Devo. [Does a brief impression of the aforementioned "uppy, downy vocal thing" before breaking into laughter.] You know what I mean? That's a very basic explanation. Musically the two bands are entirely different and coming from somewhere else.

I think the band that also gets included, more in the post-punk thing, although maybe that's more relevant 20 years ago, would be Gang of Four. I don't think anybody at the time felt much in common with those bands. I think in the late '70s... I mean, I was a massive fan of Kraftwerk. I thought that kind of forward-looking electronic music was the thing that I was most interested in.

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Punk rock, obviously, was very short-lived in Britain, especially. The thing is, if you even use the term "punk rock," it's so generational. What it means to anybody depends on how old you are precisely. For somebody from my generation, British, who kind of went through that late '70s thing... Well, by the end of 1978, it was all over. So American hardcore was, like, "What's wrong with those people?" [Laughs.] "Why are they playing old music?" It took another 20 years for me to understand that American hardcore had any significance at all. I just didn't get it! I didn't understand why anyone would be doing punk rock in the early '80s. It just seemed weird! But I think probably one of the best bands I saw this year was Alien Nose Job. Bedroom punk!

Things kind of come around in ways that are quite unexpected, so I think it's quite important not to be too much of a snob, musically. The way that people come at music and understand music, it changes down the generations. Having a radio show, I'm going back to some things that I didn't like or even know at the time. The show isn't about the past, but we do play some older things, and all that is totally fascinating. So I've tried, certainly in the last two or three years, to be much less snobbish about what I like and what I don't like.

I do know that feeling. After doing music journalism for all these years, it finally reached a point where I realized that I'd run out of adjectives and stopped doing reviews in favor of interviews, which in turn gave me back the excuse to actually sit down and just listen to albums instead of actively criticizing them. And that made all the difference as far as opening up my horizons.

Absolutely! I mean, the person who does all the research for the show is Malka, and she's kind of an obsessive collector. Not of artifacts - she wouldn't collect vinyl records or stuff like that - but she'll come to the show and suddenly I'll see on the list that she's chosen something from Third Ear Band. Third Ear Band were completely territory that you shouldn't go to in the late '70s. They were beyond the pale! And then you listen to it now, and you think, "Why did anyone think that was weird? It makes complete sense!" You could understand that they would exist in a similar world to Popul Vuh, a name that people like to drop to show that they know more about Kraftwerk than you do. Lots of people have done stuff over the years, and sometimes it's fashionable, and sometimes it's not fashionable, but the fact that it isn't fashionable doesn't mean to say that it isn't good. It can also be unfashionable and terrible! [Laughs] And fashionable and terrible! All those things exist as possibilities, and it's ultimately down to personal taste. You like what you like.

[To check out Colin and Malka's radio show, Swimming in Sound, just click right here.]

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Source: Swimming in Sound

Malka and Colin: Married to Music...and Also Each Other.


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