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.”
How did you approach the composition of the music that makes up The Shivering Man and This Way?
“The approach to composition relied heavily on the relationship with Blackwing Studios, developed through making the Dome records there. Eric Radcliffe (owner and engineer) and John Fryer (engineer) were very sympathetic to improvisation and stretching the studio technology. By the time I came to work on This Way, John was a fully-fledged and inventive engineer which allowed me to think on my feet and create in a very quick and free way.
“The main aim initially was to make sound for Michael Clark’s first substantial dancework (Do You Me? I Did), but thanks to Daniel Miller of Mute I was given the opportunity to make a record. The dancework did have a structure of sorts but like the rest of the record was the result of a combination of bits and pieces developed at home with fairly crude technology, improvisation in the studio and a relentless abuse of the effects in the studio. Experiment coupled with highly skilled studio engineering is the best way of describing both records.”
“Experiment coupled with highly skilled studio engineering is the best way of describing both records.”
So would you say they were quite technology-driven works?
“In some ways the records are ‘technology-driven’, although not being very technical myself, I was aware of what could be achieved with sampling and MIDI, especially given the limited time I had at my disposal. My set up at home is extremely primitive and chaotic. I still rely on a lot of analogue equipment which always throws up surprises and malfunctional opportunities that I can exploit.”
How did you think of The Shivering Man and This Way at the time? As minimalism? As abstraction? As noise? What language did you use to describe your own experiments, or at least frame them in your own mind?
“It’s very difficult to know what I thought at the time now. I did know that the dance piece worked but that was due to it being ‘completed’ by Michael’s choreography. I was, and am, very pleased that my compulsion to try to make objects that did not exist before has not been a total waste of my and other people’s effort. If there is a ‘framework’ to my experiments then it’s what I like to call ‘psycho-eclecticism’ – whatever that means.”
“Graham Lewis and I had a shared interest in approaches to the notion of possibility, of seeing how far one could go.”
What were you listening to at the time of making these albums? Were there any specific artists, records or listening experiences that you would say fed into the conception of This Way and The Shivering Man?
“I stopped buying and listening to records in 1980.”
A lot of people would say these albums have an ‘industrial’ feel. Was industrial music something you were conscious of, let alone interested in, in the early 80s? The artists from that sphere now considered canonical – TG, Chris & Cosey, Nurse With Wound, NON, etc – did they make much of an impression on you at the time?
“I was aware of the projects you mention and I saw many of them live which was stimulating in lots of ways – especially NON’s joyous minimalism.”
How do these two albums relate to your work in Dome? Simplistic Wire-centric history tends to gloss over the whole P’o/Dome/Cupol/Duet Emmo/BG stuff as one short, sharp burst of activity, when of course they were all different, if intimately related, endeavours. Can unpick this period and these projects for me a little bit?
“It’s impossible to ‘unpick’ the period when these projects were created. Graham and I had the energy, curiosity and opportunity to break away from the strictures of a working semi-commercial situation [in Wire] and explore the notion of how far one could go with improvisation and studio technology and it still be described as music. Pretty straightforward stuff really: make things, no rules, but be quick. It’s worth mentioning that the P’o project involved lots of rehearsal as it was meant to be a strictly live object but circumstances changed and it became a recorded object.”
What role did Graham play in the shaping and execution of these records?
“I asked for Graham’s help on several pieces on the two records but he wasn’t involved in the shaping orexecution. Our musical relationship was fruitful and fully explored in the various collaborative projects we did, as we had a shared interest in approaches to the notion of possibility, of seeing how far one could go.”
How were the albums promoted, marketed and positioned by Mute at the time?
“Mute did their best given the nature of the material.”
How did you first encounter Angela Conway and come to work with her? It seems your association with her yielded some amazing stuff – the AC Marias album, ‘Eline Cout II’, etc…
“Angela Conway and I were partners. I was obviouslly aware of her artistic qualities and her unique vocal approach but didn’t know how to bring it into ‘the open’ until there was some down-time on a Wire studio session and we were able to develop an idea which became the the first Dome release – a 45 single by AC Marias, ‘Drop’/’So ‘, which I’m told is worth many pounds now.
“We were lucky enough to be given (again by the sainted Daniel Miller) the opportunity to make several records and Angela was given the chance to make several excellent videos. Angela is today a practicing fine artist and has worked on various community art projects.”
“The idea of an overlap between the arts is not new but Michael Clark brought it bang up to date with a vengeance.”
How did you fall into the orbit of Michael Clark? Was dance something you were personally interested in? Did it feel like there was a lot of potential in the overlap between different arts at the time?
“I met Michael Clark when I was staring at some guitar effects pedals in a shop on Charing Cross Road and an amazingly beautiful young man tapped me on the shoulder and said, ‘Are you [Wire drummer] Robert Gotobed? I want to use some Wire music for a ballet piece, do you mind?’. We became friends and later he asked me to make sound for a number of danceworks. The idea of an overlap between the arts is not new but Michael brought it bang up to date with a vengeance.”
Both The Shivering Man and This Way were remastered by Russell Haswell for Editions Mego’s recent reissues. Am I right in thinking that you and Russell go way back? Did you feed into the re-mastering process, or did you just let him do his thing?
“Russell Haswell was a fine art student with an unhealthy interest in Death Metal and noise in general when I first met him. He was the first ‘techno boy’ I had encountered who had fine art sensibilities. He was an enormous help to me and very generous with his time computer editing some of my projects. I would trust him with my life, never mind re-mastering.”
How did you come to release your work through Mego?
[Mego boss] Peter Rehberg and I have been friends for many years from the time he was a DJ in a bar. He was a very significant factor in promoting electronic music in Vienna and is an artist in his own right so when he created Mego it seemed perfectly natural for us to work together. It’s thanks to his enthusiasm and determination that This Way and The Shivering Man have been re-released 25 years after their first appearance. The relationship will, I hope, continue with plans to re-release old work and put out new items.”
” I would trust Russell Haswell with my life, never mind re-mastering.”
How, if at all, does Oblivio Agitatum relate to This Way and The Shivering Man?
“Oblivio was made entirely at home with a modest amount of modern technology. The process was very similar to previous work done in a studio but without without the sheen brought to it by an expert engineer and the constrictions of time (having said that there was a lot thinking and pacing about but because I am fairly impatient much of the work is the result of ‘live’ performance).
What you’re working on at the moment? Any recorded releases planned for the near future?
A 45 vinyl ,’Re-exit’, is being released by Touch very soon. I’m collaborating with Beaconsfield Gallery/Art Centre on a live installation, and I have started some new work.”