Bruce Gilbert is best known as co-founder and guitarist of Wire. Which is understandable. But some of his most radical and rewarding contributions to music came after the art-punk legends’ first disbandment in 1980.
Suddenly freed from their practical and spiritual obligations to the band, Gilbert and bassist Graham Lewis embarked on an extended period of studio improvisation and inter-disciplinary collaboration that yielded some quite astonishing records. Wire’s “final” album, 154, had hinted at the highly experimental, electronics-savvy and texturally heightened direction that the duo would take in various projects, including Cupol, P’o, Duet Emmo (with Daniel Miller) and, most centrally, Dome. As Dome, they channelled synths, guitars, bass and found sounds into a collagistic, structurally unorthodox and largely rhythm-based compositional approach that loosely chimed with the dark ambience and machine minimalism of the industrial acts emerging around the same time. Their intimate relationship with Blackwing Studios enabled them to push themselves technologically and conceptually.
“Pretty straightforward stuff really: make things, no rules, but be quick.”
They founded their own Dome label, using it at as a platform to release three of their own albums as well as records by Desmond Simmons, Michael O’Shea and AC Marias (their regular collaborator, and Gilbert’s partner, Angela Conway); yet another Dome album, 3R4, appeared in 1981 on 4AD. Gilbert and Lewis were very much art-school progeny, and the early 80s saw them connect anew with the fine art world – the Dome LP MZUI (Waterloo Gallery) was a collection of recordings made at the eponymous exhibition space with Russell Mills, and their live shows routinely tended towards the surreal (among other things, they performed with paper tubes on their head in order to restrict their vision). Gilbert, meanwhile, was applying himself solo to various sound commissions for dance and film.
Released by Mute in 1984, shortly before Wire re-formed, This Way was Gilbert’s first solo album. At its centre are two grave yet soaringly beautiful pieces, ‘Do You Me? I’ Did and ‘Swamp’, which were commissioned to accompany danceworks by notorious choreographer Michael Clark (who would later collaborate with The Fall on 1989′s I Am Kurious Oranj); the other, rather more slight but no less intriguing tracks explore noisier terrain. 1986 follow-up The Shivering Man goes yet deeper into bleak and burnished electronic abstraction, but is also more rhythmic, and pays loving lip service to pop on two sublime vocal-led numbers: ‘Eline Cout II’, sung by Angela Conway, and ‘Epitaph For Henran Brenlar’, sung by Graham Lewis.
This month sees the first ever “full” reissue of The Shivering Man, courtesy of Vienna’s Editions Mego, who also reissued This Way back in 2009, they same year they released a brand new album from Gilbert, Oblivio Agitatum. The CD includes a short Angela Conway video featuring Michael Clark; originally broadcast in 1987 on Channel 4, you can also view it via YouTube here. Both albums have been remastered by longtime Mego and Gilbert associate Russell Haswell, and are now also available together as a 2xLP vinyl set.
Gilbert shows no sign of quietening down as he heads towards his seventh decade on this earth. On Sunday he will be collaborating live on-stage with Mika Vainio, formerly of Pan Sonic, as part of the Netaudio London 2011 festival. Also appearing that night are Stephen Stapleton’s Nurse With Wound (a rare live appearance) and Radian. This is not to be missed; find more information and tickets at netaudiolondon.org.
FACT’s Kiran Sande spoke to Gilbert over email last week about his 1980s work and the imminent NAL11 performance, and learned the secret of his success: “Make things, no rules, but be quick.”
“I first met Pan(a)sonic in a bar in New York; Wire had just finished a tour and I believe Pan(a)sonic had played or about to play a concert. Mika had expressed a desire to meet Wire and so a drink was organised. For Mika the meeting was very short as he fell asleep under the table we were sitting at.
“I followed Pan(a)sonic’s career with great interest and saw many of their concerts in London. I was also privileged to be invited to join in with them live and recorded on several occasions when Mika and Ilpo moved to London. I’ve met up with Mika sporadically over the years and was very pleased when he contacted me about this NAL11 project and though I am not so keen on collaborations these days I feel very comfortable with the idea of playing with Mika. This is very out of the blue so there there has been no real gestation – we will meet for a brief ‘rehearsal’ to find an approach to an improvised performance. I hope it will be recorded with a view to finding it’s way onto a record of some sort.”