The friendship of Graham Lewis and Ted Milton started many years ago – then Wire, co-founded by Lewis played Tony Wilson’s So It Goes show. Occasionally, the two representatives of the post-punk movement teamed up and played together, never getting too far with it.
Joined by musician and engineer – Sam Britton, Lewis and Milton found the way to express their common ideas in a Dadaistic way. I got the chance to speak with Graham Lewis, musician, songwriter, lyricist, co-founder or Wire and Dome, a member of various projects. For Louder Than War, Graham speaks about the upcoming Elegiac record and their first single – Vous Et Ici, about painting and Dada-mentality, about the formation of Wire and the importance of Dome in his current career.
Despite the fact that you’re mostly known as co-founder of Wire, the collaborative aspect always been quite important for you. What meaning does the collaborative work have for you and what brought you collaborating with Ted Milton on ELEGIAC?
“Em…What can I say? For me the whole thing with Wire, of course, that was it…We started that project coming out not as much as musicians. So after that or let’s say after the first phase of Wire, Bruce Gilbert and I went on to form Dome and continued our experiments. And those led to introductions and interests. And work with other people.
The thing about this collaboration with Ted – I became aware of Ted in the world, so to speak. I think it must have been like 1977 when Wire were first touring in the U.K. and Tony Wilson of Factory Records had his programme So It Goes on Granada TV and the program that we were in also featured a piece of Ted Milton’s abstract puppetry, which consisted of strange shapes and subjects falling through the frame of the TV, accompanied by various noises (laughs). Bruce and I thought it was tremendous! It was very good! So I think then it came to…I think, it was 1979 and we’d heard about Blurt – Ted was in.
I went on [to see them] with my old friend – Claude Bessy, the writer, and we were absolutely blown away by it. It was absolutely incredible. Ted is absolutely extraordinary performing. That night, on the spot, Wire had a couple shows coming up. I think it was Notre Dam Hall, which is by Leicester Square and I invited Ted on the spot. I said: “Would you like to come and play with us ?”. That was the start of our friendship, basically. I’ve known him a very long time. Over the years, Ted’s come and played, been featured on Wire-performances. I think I did a remix-12-inch for him in the mid-’80s, but basically we’ve just stayed in touch with him over the years, gone for drinks and basically talked about things over the years.”
One of the most interesting aspects of this recording is that your producer, Sam Britton, contributed to the recording also as a collaborator and co-author working with sounds, landscapes and adding bits and pieces to the whole picture. How different is it from your typical practices?
“First of all, I’d like to say I’m doubtful about being a typical way (laughs). This is very much part of the collaboration, for me. What is interesting? What is fun about collaboration is actually about working out what you’re supposed to do. Of what you can do usefully within the framework you set up for that production.
I’d met Sam briefly once because he was doing Ted’s live sound on stage and I went along to see Odes, which I particularly liked. The specific thing about how this project started, I was out with Ted, having a drink one of the times, doing some Wire-shows, I think. Ted asked: “Would you like to do a track together?” I said: “Yeah! It would be very fun!”. I basically produce the music, the backing which turned into Vous Et Ici – which is the first track we worked on. I arranged it, in the way I could on my own. And then I sent it to them in London.”
“Ted and Sam worked on the track in the studio and then sent it back to me. I said: “Oh, that’s wonderful! That sounds great!” – the next question I had: “Doesn’t it mean that we’re gonna have B[side]? Is it gonna be a single, a 7-inch or something? We need another track!”. So I obviously did the same thing. But something very different. When it happened, when it was done, I said: “Come on! We might do a 12-inch!”. So we did another two tracks. And this process is still completely held up! When that was done, I said: “We won’t make any money out of 12-inch. Why won’t we make an album?” (laughs). That’s where I understood: “This became rather serious! I have to create ANOTHER SIX TRACKS!” (laughs). But that’s how the process worked.
There was one track which was instigated, they did a severe, fucking cutting up of something I sent. And when they sent that track for me to hear, that was the only time I said: “I need to do something about this!” – send everything back to me, so I could intervene and do anything I think I feel is necessary. That basically was the process. That’s kind of the answer to your question. But the part of the question I can’t answer – I wasn’t there! And that’s what I think pretty extraordinary about the record. Because I think it was an incredibly coherent feel about it. Which I agree, which is something you said about the mix Sam did. And I think, it was remarkable that we had so little critical discussion between us because everything just went incredibly smoothly. Not that I thought we’d discuss about taking things back, because we’re a bit grown up. But yeah, it was very very strange because it’s a very close process. Because of the esthetics, the common ground worked so well.”
For most of the artists I know, the collaborative aspect of their work is something they do aside from their main activity. Collaborating with different musicians you didn’t make as many records as you did as a member of Wire.
“Oh, absolutely! Cause this record, we started recording in…I don’t know, 2007 or something like that. It was over about a period of a year. But I suppose, continuing about your question about production – during the last few years I’ve made an album – UUUU, with Thighpaulsandra, Valentina Magaletti and Matthew Simms from Wire. That was made in a completely different way. That was the group playing live-in-a-room and completely improvising. Then, editing it severely. And working on it at distance, over a period of year basically, mixing as it went. So that was a very different process.”
At the same time, there are projects of yours like He Said Omala or FITTED where your roles are obviously different. Having different situations, musically, do you always have the same sort of creative rules?
“I think it’s always different. And what I’m trying to do and hopefully what happens, if you’re working with people, basically you support the best idea. The best idea wins. That’s how you should be. And that’s the case where everybody could put their ego in the right place supporting the work because what you’re looking for with collaboration is creating something that’s more than the sum of its parts. And I think that’s the great excitement of it.
As I said with the UUUU thing, we ended up with an abstract, astonishing record. Because of Tim’s engineering skills etc. and also, the editing, arrangement skills all four of us had. All of that is trying to find the process where everybody could bring their strengths to the table and actually get to work on it. For instance, making this record – the ELEGIAC record with Ted and Sam, it was different situation for me.
Because, apart from one backing vocal which is a sample of what I’ve made which I never released, I didn’t sing on it, I didn’t write any text. And that’s kind of an unusual thing for me! But I think, it always sounds dreadfully simple but it’s not! I think it’s trying to recognise what it is. Bruce Gilbert always used to say: “Did anything happen?” (laughs). That’s something you want! You want something to happen you never experienced before! That’s the reason you’re working with people. Matthew and I did a collaboration that came out a couple of years ago. With Mike Watt and Bob Lee. And we did that at distance! They sent us bass and drum-tracks, some vocal-tracks.
Matthew and I distanced again and made that album. It is defining what it is. With that FITTED record, Matt and I both thought: This is the band created to play live. But ironically, we ended up in a situation that’s not live. So, what we wanted to make is to sound like it is live. It’s not about authentication. But it was about the vibe of what suited that group, if that makes sense.”
Absolutely. But again, you recently stated that even after songs are written they pass through different sorts of processes until the final release. What usually gives you an understanding that this or that particular song is ready, that it finally has its own identity?
“I think there are a couple of ways of looking at that…I think, it was Duke Ellington who said: “Give me a deadline!” (laughs) – that’s always helpful. The more time you get – the more time you think about things. But I do think you just know when it’s finished. It’s funny, I have an unreleased album of the project that started about the same time as ELEGIAC. And that one certainly lost its way by me involving other people and then, continuing to work…And I don’t think it went forward after probably the first year. I think it’s easy to lose sights of things. But somehow, it’s like a deadline thing.
With Dome, Bruce and I came up with a formula. And that formula was: we went into a studio on Monday morning and when we left on the following Sunday night the album is finished and mixed, sequenced, done! It was a terrific way to work because that was what you had! I don’t know…I have a solo-album that basically was finished in the Autumn, last year. We had this whole pandemic this Christmas and I was unhappy with one track. Otherwise, it would have been done. Now I’ve got one track to finish off. Because with time I became dissatisfied. I like to work on many things. But I think that also helped, because working on something else informs you about what else you’re working with, I think.”
When you said about the lyrics for ELEGIAC I found myself thinking about all these songs you’ve written over the years, songs like Outdoor Miner – straight-ahead but still interesting to look at. At the same time, there are ELEGIAC songs, where the function of a lyrical side is different. It gets to a point where it becomes another layer.
“Yeah. I think it’s perfectly straightforward. Ted is a poet. He performs his poetry. He’s got music, he got his saxophone. It very much comes from that world. I always associate what he does with the beats – sort of Last Poets, all these different things. It’s different! Beause he’s just got such extraordinary voice! So, yeah.”
It’s interesting because back in the days of punk-rock, lots of artists were writing songs expressing their anger and rage. What motivated you to start, back in the day?
“Well, I suppose I started round about 76’ or something like that (laughs)…I don’t know! I started being involved in a project that wasn’t really Wire at that point. It was another person in it and it was basically his group. I started writing. I just felt the need! The first thing that I wrote was Lowdown basically. It wasn’t till years later when I could look at it and realise: “It’s like a manifesto, really!”. So at that time, I always wanted musical collaboration, being in the group but I never met people who would have been kind of “on the same turns”. The art-education I got, the basic lesson I got was: “If you’re gonna do it – do it seriously. Otherwise, don’t fucking bother! Just don’t fucking waste my time, blah-blah-blah…” And I started writing.
When we were out one night, went to the Roxy, I think to see The Damned or something. Everybody’s been talking about getting rid of George who’d been in the group. And Colin said: “We should write our own material…” – ‘cause the material wasn’t very good. And probably, why I’d started writing. It can’t be inspiring when things aren’t very good. Colin said: “Well, I can write tunes!” – and I just put my hand in my pocket, took out Lowdown and gave it to him. I said: “Here you go!”. The next time we went to rehearsal Colin turned up and went: “This is this…And it goes like this…” – everybody went: “WOW!” (laughs).
In the period of about three weeks we wrote just about all of the songs that went on Pink Flag. Because there was a need (laughs). There’s nothing like the need! When you suddenly have a function to write a text! So that’s what we did.
From the very beginning, Bruce and I had discussions about that. And I said: “You know, we didn’t come from that musical folky-singer-songwriter-doodly-do-bearded-guys-and-acoustic-guitar-shit.” What we were interested in was if we’re gonna have text, as we called it, then we’d have to get the music. And it was astonishing because things started to become consequential. And we started inventing rules. We were like: When the text runs out – the music stops. That worked really well for a while.
When you start giving ambitions about that, understanding what’s the function of the content and what you put in the project – that’s the important thing about how you shape things. Then it’s the framing of it, the editing, you mentioned early on. I think in the end that’s it! How do you frame it? ‘Cause, framing things is really difficult. That’s what really makes great things!”
You’ve always been saying that getting into the music world with Pink Flag and Chairs Missing you were inexperienced and still were learning how to play, but with it, extremely motivated. 154 became the first real point of growth for you. How much did your attitude change after that five-year break, at the beginning of your work on The Ideal Copy?
“With The Ideal Copy? That’s not an easy question to answer simply. From that period of 1985, I think, Bruce and I, between us and individually, I think, we made 10 albums or something. We were involved in a lot of installations, performances, with Michael Clark, the dancer and choreographer, we did work with Quay Brothers. There were so many things to do. When we re-convened to do The Ideal Copy, certainly with Bruce and me, our attitude towards how to use the studio had changed vastly.
We started to understand. There was this synchronicity around ’79 when everybody started understanding that the studio was an instrument. And electronic technology came to the studio. That became more and more the case, which of course suited us as non-musicians down to the ground. As Glenn Miller always used to say: “Take the two-fingered keyboard players – that’s all you need!” (laughs). It was about the idea, sound and sculpting that.
So when we came in to do The Ideal Copy, when we started making the record, we tried to make it in a conventional way. I suppose you can call it that. Like the group is playing, because that’s how the previous Wire records had been made. It was the way Colin had continued to make records. But It didn’t work. It didn’t work at all. I don’t know what it was, but after a month we weren’t happy at all. Fortunately, what happened was Gareth [Jones] had taken delivery of a Steinberg, he said: “I’ve got this! Do you want to see what this does?” – and I remember, we spent 8 hours programming the bass-line for Ahead. At the end of it, Gareth went in: “So what do you think? Do you think we should pursue this?” and we went: “ABSOLUTELY!” – this is it, this is the future.
The fact that it’s hard, it’s difficult, it was unfriendly. You still knew what you had to pursue. There was a bloody whole way of working. But it got better! It was a difficult period in the ’80s for making music. Technologies were unfriendly.”
And also, Dome as a project was important for you, exploring the nature of sounds, soundscapes. How important is Dome as a project for you now?
“It’s absolutely central! We made a couple of decisions. All Wire-albums were made in a very top-end studio – Advision. As I said, Bruce and I had been working at home, in a very simple way with tape-recorders, double cassette players and recorders. All that kind of stuff! Daniel Miller recommended Backwing Studios – an 8-track studio owned, engineered and ran by an incredible guy called Eric Radcliffe. It was an 8-track. It was extremely cheap. And relatively, it was cheap! It was fantastic with Eric as well. And what we did really – we were just investigating the idea of what music is. And that was it!
We tried to open our mind as [much as] possible, making propositions to each other, together and seeing what happened: “What would happen if ?!” – what helped the project is that Eric was extremely curious and forward-thinking. So when he bought the newest pieces of technology, he used to say: “See if you can break it…”. So we just gave ourselves the right to do what the fuck we wanted to do. Just see what happened. Quite honestly, it was about whether we were entertained or not, if we thought it was exciting or entertaining. But always, with that provisor, it’d been 8-track. You couldn’t put off the decisions like you could with 24-track. Like: “We’ll fix that later!” – you can’t! You need to keep on moving, being brutal and enjoying it.
You have to be very decisive and get those things when it suddenly transforms your idea of time and how you’re spending your time. When we have the studio like this, which wasn’t so expensive, we were able to use it. When you’re making a sculpture or you’re painting, which is what I’ve been doing a lot last year, you need a lot of time. You need reflection. But also you need momentum. But you always try to make processes which facilitate that, which take off that red-light-bullshit-pressure.
But also, give momentum to a passage of ideas and get in somewhere with things. So, it was an incredible education. It was so much fun! As it was through doing it, Geoff Travis, when we presented him the first album which then cost 300 quid to make, he said: “Why don’t you have your own label and release it through your own label?” and we said: “What does that mean?” – “You’ll get 95% of the profit!” – we said: “Well, that seems to be a very good deal!” compared to slavery we sold ourselves with EMI. And then, we had another facility through doing that work (laugh). That meant we could choose and give the other people the opportunity to record.
So we were able to make the Michael O’Shea album, which AllCity re-released last year. And also, therefore, we had that facility, because we never intended Dome to be a group. But it didn’t mean that we had a situation where we were able to make what became a soundtrack for performances or installations. When we got bored with the studio, we investigated other spaces and made MZUI, for instance, which was a completely experimental thing where we set up around field-recording-situations made instruments and sounds and then used them to compose something else – that continuous search.”
“I was thinking about…It was funny when you was talking about 154 and The Ideal Copy – in all that time I’ve been working and making music, I’ve been aware of the Last Poets. This is general, because of John Peel, I’ve been aware of the Last Poets in, like 1971. Can you imagine that?! You heard the first-ever hip-hop record or whatever in 1971, when I was first DJ’ing, when I first went to art-college in 71-72. I was introduced to NEU! and Can. When you understood it or knew what the fuck to do is when you heard that. More or less, these things do change your mind.
I saw Roland Kirk playing when I was 19! Your life will never be the same! And that continues – it’s like: “Yeah,yeah,yeah! We’ve done all these Dome-records, blah-blah-blah.” – but then I got an opportunity to see Sun Ra and go: “Holy fuck!”. So, it’s as you say, it’s not genres – it’s such a dull-term for it. People come from places and they have strengths, maybe stylistically sometimes, but I think, quite often you really have to manage your taste (laughs)!”
You just mentioned that you spent a great part of the recent year painting. What usually motivates you to start writing – whether these are lyrics or a piece of music or a piece of art, do you have the same set of feelings?
“That’s a hard thing to answer! Something strikes you as being interesting. With the painting I’ve been doing, I had a process which is basically filling a side of paper with one line. Completely covering the page. I’ve been doing that since the end of the 80’s. But this time, last year, I made a breakthrough and I can’t tell you why! But there’s an accident that happened. And that accident just pulled me in! That’s quite often the case. It’s an accident but you never know where it’s going to come from, I think.
There’s an old collaboration of mine with Carl Michael von Hausswolff – a conceptual artist, composer. He was teaching in an art academy in Stockholm. One of the first days when he had his students he said: “Tomorrow we’ll meet at the swimming pool!” (laughs). And all his kids were: “What? What the fuck?!” (laughs). And he considered doing that any day of the week! Of course, the object of these exercises is to understand that ideas could come from anywhere.
But a swimming [pool] is quite a good place for ideas to come. I like water. I lay in the bath quite a lot. With lyrics – I carry a notebook, I carry the digital-recorder. If I hear something that I think is interesting, I record it. I don’t think about it. You don’t think: “That would make…whatever”. Something is interesting or something that muses you, or you think “What is that ? I must find that that is!”.”
Also, there’s a certain line I can draw between Dadaists – the fragmentary part of their job, how pieces became the whole, like with the ELEGIAC record.
“That’s one of the reasons Ted and I had such a long friendship – because we all have an appreciation of Dada… Joseph Boyce, of course…Blah-blah. All these things are interesting. I think it is what it is. You can make something. And something you don’t know what you’re making! Sometimes, years afterwards you understand what it was. As I was saying with the text of Lowdown, I didn’t actually understand what I’d done.
Because I didn’t do that at that time. Isn’t it quite often when you hear somebody, you see the piece of music and you’re: “God! That’s extraordinary!” and you listen to it, knowing what it is and saying: “I’m sure they didn’t know what they were doing!” – because, there’s an element of the unknown in that. That’s why you’re doing it – you’re trying to find out, express something they haven’t expressed (laughs). That’s what you’re doing. If you’re an artist – you make art. Making art is “To Do”! It’s not: “To sit and think” or whatever. It’s “To Do”, “To be active within it”. So it’s always good to collect good ideas and maybe the good idea comes and you’d write the whole text.
If you’re lucky, you might even wake up having a dream and just write that! The moment with the painting thing I’m doing was managed to involve the process, there’re lots of random possibilities. And I think, quite often, if you get a concept and it generates random possibilities, that’s an extremely truthful area. Like cybernetics, isn’t it really? You only need to change one part and you’ll get a completely different result.”
At the same time, the concept can pass through a series of changes. Even having a certain idea you’ll try expressing it in different forms and sometimes form affects the concept. In other cases – you just do it and the idea comes. Simply.
“Yeah, I see!”
I think it’s a very punk-rock type of approach…
“I don’t know! In such a case, you’ll need to say where did punk come from! I think, that ties again – Dada, the beats, Bukowski All these things.”
Photo credits: Carney James Turner
Words by Dan Volohov. Find his author’s archive here.