A chat with art-punk godfather Bruce Gilbert, a founder member of left-field collaboration Wire. The man reveals a low-tech approach to hi-tech gear... and a few trade secrets.
Tony Reed talks to art punk auteur Bruce Gilbert
The name probably doesn't mean much to you. In the late seventies, though Bruce's little beat combo, Wire, carved out a niche in the art-punk edifice alongside the likes of David Cunningham and The Pop Group.
Described by one commentator at the time as "...a morbid noise", his fractured guitars and disciplined dirge scrawled across three albums produced by Mike Thorne (latterly of Soft Cell and Bronski Beat) before giving up the ghost.
Since then, he and collaborator Graham Lewis have kept their hand in with a number of projects; albums produced under the names of Dome and Gilbert and Lewis; and a number of co-ventures with illustrator Russell Mills for 'art/sound installations' at various galleries round the country.
Recently, the duo have embarked on their highest-profile work for some time, joining Daniel Miller, Mute Capo and Depeche Mode's producer to produce a single and an album both entitled Or So It Seems under the banner of Duet Emmo (it's an anagram apparently). Bruce has also been branching out on his own account, coming up with ah albumful of music (This Way) for Michael Clark, the young punk dancer/choreographer who has thrown the staid world of dance into uproar with his irreverent semi-naked routines. The keynote of all these ventures, however, has been Bruce's use of the studio;
"We were very interested in work which was actually created in the studio... Building up an atmosphere, going through an almost ritualistic process and ending up with something you haven't heard before and weren't even sure you'd recorded."
"I never was into music particularly, but sounds. One very Freudian incident that I remember from my youth was sitting underneath the piano my mother owned, with my face pressed against it, pounding away at the lowest notes on the keyboard.... The vibrations I felt through the wood was the closest thing to ecstasy I had ever experienced at that time! (laughs). As I got older, it was still individual sounds and bits that I listened to, rather than complete things."
"I remember that I was fortunate in owning, from quite an early age, a old reel-to-reel tape deck. Probably the first 'musical' use I put it to was down to Duane Eddie... I was very fond of a record by him called The Theme from Peter Gunn, but I was disturbed by its shortness... it had a compulsive, relentless sort of riff, which I thought should be longer, so I recorded three versions of it off the radio, and edited 'em together very crudely... I used Sellotape, in fact... to make a continuous record..."
"That was the first thing I actually remember doing, but after that, I did it all the time, recording favourite riffs, noises, and notes, and just editing them together."
The first things you did that came to public attention though — the Wire Stuff — it got all those quotes like "morbid" and "depressing"... Not a very broad front?...
"It was more a matter of the first things we did being very instant, very primitive, rather than 'depressing'... The main thing about it was that it was sincere... gloomy or not, nobody wrote anything for the group unless they felt it... it all came about by accident anyhow. I never wanted to have a 'group' at all..."
You got one though. How?
"I was working as an A.V technician in charge of a small studio at the College. I was fiddling about, as usual, making strange tapes (laughs) with one of the students... We were planning to do a... I suppose... Tangerine Dream-ish sort of thing, but more harrowing, not as soporific. At that time, I was unaware of the other things that were happening in Germany, the experimental, harder stuff... but I suppose that was what I was working towards, without knowing it."
"Then a chap who played guitar started dropping by to make use of the facilities... somehow, the studio just became a focus for people. I couldn't play guitar at the time, but I was using it as a sound source, mixing up the inside of a Spanish guitar, and hitting it, processing the noises through cheap effects and so on... so some of us just started playing things together. I was very wary of where it might lead... I'm not impressed by 'technique', and to begin with, my role in the proceedings was to make sure that it didn't get in the way of what we were trying to do.
"The people who actually could play a bit provided the basic framework... but it was more interesting to subvert it, simplify things.... Again, noise was the key.... The sound of three or four rhythm guitars playing together is... fairly glorious!
He smiles for the first time since we began talking.
"I was spending a lot of time on tape loops, and 'low technology'. I like the bald use of basic stuff, like these preset foot-pedal Wire Bar rhythm machines... Just by putting one of these through an amp with good Eq and a few effects, you can come up with some really great sounds.
"The Dome project was another example a 'low tech' affair. It was before decent sampling techniques had been evolved, but as I said. I was a sucker for noises, and I wanted a way of using various 'found sounds' that I'd collected in that sort of way. So I'd make a loop of the sounds I wanted to use, and either drop them into the stuff I was working on by hand as it were, or use a noise gate. They're a really good example of cheap technology that you can do a lot with. In addition to all the usual things, we used them to process tape loops for percussive sounds. All you had to do was adjust the threshold of the Gate so that only certain parts of the signal get through. Then by manipulating the gate, turning it on or off, you can get some really interesting things.... Triggering from other machines or by hand gives you even more scope. With a bit of preparation, you can get most 'sampled' effects. It's one of the few areas of high-technology I really like..."
Yes — working at Blackwing must have been a gift in that way.
"Yet in some ways, the use of them is already clichéd. You know I think you have to have a very good reason to use the same sound twice, for example. The problem then becomes... what should you sample, and why? You have to give yourself a brief: finding the reasons why becomes more important than the technology you use."
How does this discipline apply to producing a particular piece of work?
"All my work, whatever it is, is backgrounded by a continuous process, a very slow and strange process. I keep three or four notebooks on the go all the time, and over a period of eighteen months or so, cross-referencing between them constantly, an idea gradually crystallizes... and then I have to act on it. The best recent example is the Michael Clark project. I'd been stimulated by his dancing, and by his youth and irreverence for the dance establishment, so when he approached me, I felt there were points of contact between us... which I need. I have to have a reason for doing something...."
"Most of what you can hear on the album is simply these basic sounds manipulated via the studio's A.M.S. It was a matter of working on that stuff until I had enough material that was both satisfying to me personally, and provided Michael with what he wanted. I always overcompensate when it comes to work so I end up with loads of tapes littered with tracks that could stand in their own right, but don't fit the current criteria. That's good, because it gives you space, to choose only what is 'appropriate'."
What about the album Or So It Seems with Daniel Miller. That's the first musical thing he's done on his own account in over three years. What made you so special?
"It's just that we knew each other from a long way back. I was a real admirer of The Normal, and The Silicon Teens things that he did, and we met up on a horrible provincial tour one time supporting Robert Rental... in East Anglia, I think it was. We said we'd do something then, but Depeche Mode has their first hit, and then it was something else, and something else.... It took us until now to get it together."
I read somewhere that Daniel Miller is quite a perfectionist in the studio, spending a whole day on one drum sound, that sort of thing ... Did that fit in with your own non-technical way of working?
"Well, most of the time, we were in the studio at different times. So it wasn't such a problem! One or other of us would go into the studio, put some stuff down, and work on whatever was left over from the previous visit. It really worked well, and I can see us doing some more that way in the future."
These days, you have access to an awful lot of technology, people like me come to talk to you about your work. How does it feel to be an expert ?
"Very strange... because I'm not! A lot of what I do today is not Hi-tech... U-Mu-U (Featured on the Tape-Ed.) was done at home, just using guitar effects. The technology often just makes the process faster... and I try to work slowly in respect of it. I don't want my technical ability to outstrip my inspiration. It is my duty to be... irresponsible, as far as all that sort of thing is concerned."
Interview by Tony Reed
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