Interview: Bruce Gilbert, Wire – Come Back In Two Halves
I met with Bruce Gilbert back in 1995 when my brother-in-arms Roddy Hunter was performing at the National Review of Live Art in Glasgow. Roddy had used one of Bruce’s tracks (from the P’o album ‘Whilst Climbing Thieves Vie For Attention’) in his performance / installation titled ‘Blind Tim’ and we took the opportunity post-performance to softly grill Bruce about his time in Wire, Dome, Duet Emmo and P’o. I had little idea that we would in fact be led into a enthralling tale which detailed the exploits of electronic luminaries Richard James and Alex Paterson – as they, with Bruce, attempted to subvert the course of modern music during a potentially violent night out in downtown Moscow.
Bruce closed the interview by discussing, somewhat reluctantly, the future of Wire. He chose his words carefully, announcing that Wire were “asleep”, and of course the band reformed five years later for a series of releases, arguably as angular, taut and unnerving as their early releases of the 1970s. The interview was first published in Thee Data Base #5, 1995.
COME BACK IN TWO HALVES
One of the most dangerous things about the current music scene is the resurgence of the dodgy middle-aged male fraternity. You know the kind, the ex-punks – or even worse, the ex-prog-rockers – who think they have something new to say. Alas, the likes of Killing Joke, Tangerine Dream and Steve Hillage have very little to say – but give them their credit, they know a good bandwagon when they see one.
It would be easy, and more than a little insulting, to disregard the whole generation out of hand. There are some who have marched swiftly to the forefront of new electronica such as Andy Weatherall and Alex Paterson and there are some who have been making absurdist and avant-garde music quietly in the background.
One such luminary is Bruce Gilbert. His music career started fresh out of college in 1976 when he joined as guitarist / writer for Wire. They seemed to be a little too clever for the heady maelstrom of punk, but that only made their survival more inevitable. They managed to succeed outside of the usual rigours of the standard album-tour format and their imagination even carried them through a five year hiatus from 1980-1985. During that time, Wire never performed or recorded as a group, instead the members drifted from one solo / duo project to another. Bruce Gilbert notched up an impressive back-catalogue of work, mainly with Wire vocalist Graham Lewis, in Dome, Duet Emmo and P’o. It was P’o that brought Thee Data Base in touch with Bruce Gilbert in November last year. The track “Blind Tim” from the only P’o album, “Whilst Climbing Thieves Vie For Attention”, was used a continous loop in an eight hour installation / performance from Glasgow “Live Art” collective, Cylinder. Their idea of Cylinder’s “Blind Tim” performance inspired Gilbert to visit Glasgow, framed as it was in the context of the National Review Of Live Art. Though he would never call himself a performance artist, Gilbert & Lewis’ ‘Dome’ collaboration sparked off a series of live art performances at venues such as Manchester’s Hacienda, the Museum of Modern Art in Oxford and the Rotterdam Arts Festival.
“We never called it ‘performance’ as such” explained Bruce Gilbert, in an impromptu interview in the midst of Cylinder’s set. “There was a need to make the music three dimensional. We wanted a physical equivalent of our approaches in the studio, which had a strong absurdity angle. Our work had to be done in 3D. When you create something out of context, if you have no history of intellectual context, it becomes anecdotal at best or just absurd – cliche ridden quite often. The object was to put our approach to things in the context of normal music. When we were invited to “arts” events we were very uncomfortable. We didn’t want a career as performance artists. I dabbled as a performer.”
Why then did ‘Dome’ perform at such events if Gilbert did not see himself as a performance artist? “Being a rock group, we had to perform at both levels or no levels. Wire as a group were always committed towards using multi-media. When you use record company money to make absurd things, when the record company had no idea what the money was to be used for, then you had to have a strategy. It was a good background, coming from a musical entity, but people just expected us to play Wire songs. They expected us to play punk rock songs and they didn’t get it. We were progressing very quickly. We used to confront audiences with something they would never dream of seeing at any other time, but eventually people did see the link. We saw the link, so it needed to be done. We had the opportunity, so we had to use it.”
Wire returned to recording in 1985 with ‘Snakedrill’ released through Mute records. As the most prolific and certainly most respected ‘independent’ label in the UK, Mute saw Wire sit side-by-side with the likes of Neubauten, Nick Cave and Diamanda Galas. The credibility of Mute’s recent attatchments with the likes of Ritchie Hawtin and Moby have enevitability done Gilbert’s profile no harm.
He was invited to DJ at the now-legendary Brittronica Festival in Moscow with the Aphex Twin and Alex Paterson amongst others. “When I sent over my requirements, I said that I wanted to be DJing in a shed. I got there and there was no shed. It wasn’t as if there were any large pieces of wood lying around that I could make one out of – you learn to do these things in those situations. I said to the organisers “Where’s the shed?” They just looked at me and laughed and said, “We just thought you were joking.” It soon became obvious to me that all the resident DJs were just little Moscow rich kids with baseball caps playing Madonna records. The club was basically full of members of the Russian Mafia and their girlfriends. The “kids” that we wanted to play to couldn’t afford the tickets. We were not playing to “real people”.
“I tried to duck out of my DJ spot, but the rest of them said to me, “You’re only playing fucking records…”. I started off with what I normally play – “drones” by people like Phil Niblock. I thought it would set the scene, a scene on top of which you can do anything. The audience were becoming restless, they wanted to dance to the Top Ten western dancey-dancey tracks. “I decided to put on “Frankie Teardrop”, I thought “well, it’s got a kind of beat”, but it’s basically just acapella screaming and it goes beautifully with the drones. All of sudden I was surrounded by people on stage with shiny shirts saying “Why are you not playing music for the people?”. They started to look through my record bag and I was saying “Madonna isn’t in there…” After that, I put this other tape on and a man in an even shinier shirt came up and said “People want to dance!”, so by this point I had had enough and I just said, “Oh, fuck off.” Then he started saying, “No, you fuck off!” and it went on from there “Fuck Off!”, “No You Fuck Off!”, “No You Fuck Off!”…
“While this was going on, I turned to Richard James and I said “I’ve done my bit! It’s your turn!”. He put on this dancey thing and these uniformed goons arrive. They were basically Russian SAS moonlighting as security guards. The Aphex Twin had played about thirty seconds of this beautifully groovy music when he was physically removed from the stage. We both went upstairs and Alex Paterson was just like, “What the fuck’s going on? I’m going down to do my set…” He come back thirty seconds later shouting “Bastards! Wouldn’t even let me audition…”
“Ultramarine were due on next, but they said they weren’t playing if the DJs weren’t allowed to play. The coach was called and the roadies from Ultramarine were the last people out. We were all on the coach and it was just revving up to go, when they came running out of the building towards the bus – they just went in there and pulled out all the plugs for the resident DJs… The frustration was in that we never got to play in front of real people. We never met the “underground” of Russia. If you’d had that line up in this country, people would be queuing in the streets – it would have been a great idea. What’s a bunch of show-off Russian DJs compared to the likes of Alex Paterson?”
Not to be disheartened from such an event, Gilbert has taken up a monthly DJ residency, appearing as ‘The Beekeper’ at the Disboey Club in London. “It’s a club with an eclectic mix of acts with everything from standard free jazz to situationist ranters like Stewart Home. As a DJ at Disobey there are certain rules I have to follow. Records are allowed to be old and temporarily unavailable, but they must have been commercially available at some point. Having no record player at home also makes life interesting.”
The last recorded output from Wire was under the name Wir, following the departure of drummer of Robert Gotobed. The album, ‘The First Letter’, surfaced in 1991, and since then all has been unnervingly quiet in the Wire camp. “When you don’t sell a large quantity of records, you are in a very vulnerable position. We were put in the position of having to sell our arses to the Americans. We were on tour in the US and I was being given a few $ a day in payment and I thought to myself, “I don’t need to be put through this kind of pressure.” Mute wanted to sell us to America – it was just like being on the record business hamster wheel. We never had a contract with Mute though. If Daniel Miller dies, we’re all up shit creek.
“‘Wire’ is asleep. Colin [Newman] is a record company now, doing trance LPs. He loves the complications of the business – he’s the only real muso out of all of us. Graham has left the Mute family. He’s living in Sweden and it would cost Â£400 for one airfare. The bottom line is that to finance people you have to promise tours and get into deeper shit with record companies. We’re perfectly capable of getting into a room and making a noise, but at the moment that’s not on the table.”
Following Gilbert’s Glasgow visit, he returned to London to instigate a one-off ‘Dome’ performance at Disobey with Graham Lewis. Quite what that says for his future plans, remains to be seen. He says he’s taking things easy, making plans and waiting for invitations. So and slow it grows.