COMING UNWIRED Githead

Fasten Your Seatbelts and Prepare for Landing: Colin Newman
and Malka Spigel Talk Git.

 

BY WILSON NEATE

 

“Githead is like a bastard
child,” says Colin Newman. “No one expected it to happen, no one
expected it to come along quite the way it did, and it certainly wasn’t planned
for longevity.” Nevertheless, the charmingly named band has assumed a life
of its own, taking its first tentative steps on the Headgit EP (2004) and the debut album Profile (2005), asserting a unique, self-assured identity with Art Pop (2007) and now coming of age on
the mature, fully realized Landing (Swim).

 

Githead was originally conceived
in 2004 by the Wire front man and his partner Malka Spigel (the former Minimal
Compact bassist) for a performance at London’s ICA as part of their Swim~
label’s 10th birthday celebrations. They initially envisaged the group as a
guitar/bass/drums trio but enlisted longtime friend Robin Rimbaud, aka Scanner,
as a second guitarist and opted for a drum machine (later replaced by Spigel’s
Minimal Compact bandmate Max Franken). While the bandmembers’ individual
pedigrees have drawn considerable interest to Githead, their CVs have also been
a double-edged sword: although their previous and concurrent work generates
curiosity about the group, it inevitably colors perceptions, leading people to
view Githead as a side project, with all that that implies – something
supplementary, less important, a break from their real work.

 

Newman and Spigel bristle at this
notion, emphasizing that Githead is a band in its own right. What’s more,
Newman feels that countering those narrow perceptions is very much part of
Githead’s raison
d’être: “Githead is about challenging
preconceptions about what artists who’ve been around for a while can actually
do, and Githead very quickly felt like a band, so it’s not really fair to call
it anything else.”

 

Newman and Spigel characterize
Githead’s evolution as strongly organic and detached from their other work,
focused precisely on the possibilities of starting from scratch, albeit with
extensive résumés. “The idea of beginning from nothing is what excites
me,” explains Spigel. “We developed like a new band, starting from
zero with our first album.” Newman agrees: “We started with
absolutely nothing. We had no audience, no reputation, no nothing. We were just
a collection of individuals. And people come to the band because they like what
we do together. It really is a band. The whole thing has been developed
together. That’s what we hope to draw people in with. We don’t have anything
else to offer. We’re too old!”

 

Of course, given Newman’s high
profile with the still-active Wire, those who see Githead as a side project are
most likely to view it in relation to his other group, something that’s a
source of frustration: “The worst thing that can happen is that people
hear Githead and think it’s a Wire side project and say, ‘Oh, well it’s not as good as Pink Flag.’ Please. In America there’s a default perception that
Githead is a Wire side project. I hope people see it for what it is. It’s not
‘Colin Newman is taking a break from Wire.’ It has fuck all to do with that.
It’s just a band. No one’s asking Animal Collective about the other bands
they’re in. People should accept the thing for itself.”

 

Naming the group Githead was one simple, playful way of
making that point and underscoring its separateness from Newman’s other band.
The very British, essentially untranslatable insult, githead, is a million miles away from the austere, inscrutable Wire (although humor is an integral part
of Wire also). Spigel elaborates: “Some of my favorite bands, like My
Bloody Valentine, have rubbish names, but you kind of forget the name. We
didn’t want to sound too clever, and there’s so many good names taken already
anyway. Robin made a joke and called Colin a ‘githead,’ and it kind of stuck.
We didn’t give it more than 30 seconds’ thought, really.” Newman expands
on this: “You could have a name that’s so pretentious: you’ve got ‘that bloke from Wire’ and ‘that Scanner bloke.’ But
it’s totally rubbish, the name. What do you expect us to be called? ‘Poésie
Électronique’ or something?” As Spigel recounts, certain people outside
Githead shared Newman’s assessment of the name’s moronic quality: “I
remember Bruce [Gilbert] from Wire coming to our first gig. He said he liked
the gig but that the name was absolutely rubbish.”

 

Above all, Githead’s distance from
Wire is unmistakable in purely sonic terms; ironically, Newman often invokes
Wire as a reference point, if only to highlight that contrast. To him, the core
difference lies in the creative process: “It’s two very different bands.
They’re like chalk and cheese. Wire has always had stuff written for it. I’ve
always been one of the main writers in Wire, even going right back to the
beginning. I’d bring a song that was more or less finished and demonstrate it,
and then the band would learn it and we’d make the arrangement between
us.” In the case of Githead, a few songs have been developed by Newman
independently, but most are generated by playing together, a process that’s
much quicker than Wire’s usual approach: “We can work very, very fast in
terms of how we put things together,” Newman stresses, “and unlike
Wire, Githead ‘free playing’ gets from inspiration to construction very fast.
Githead can go from zero to something very quickly.”

 

While Githead’s sonic identity is
generally a discrete one, some cross-pollination is unavoidable and Wire fans
will have previously detected some familiar Newmanoid signatures creeping in
here and there — something that’s not lost on Spigel. “When we do
Githead, we do it together, so it’s obviously Githead, but in the past, there
were points where I got paranoid about Wire and Githead sounding too similar,
mixing the two, because Colin can’t help doing the sound that he does.”
Newman provides an example: “The track ‘All Set Up’ on Art Pop could be a ’70s Wire song,
although the bassline is a Malka bassline, not a Graham one. And it’s even more
economical than Wire. It’s exactly the same chords on the verse and chorus.
It’s terrible! I was like, What? I’m
surprising myself at how moronic I can be!” Spigel continues, “I get
paranoid — not because I don’t like Wire but because you want to have your own
individuality and be seen as your own personality.” And Githead’s own
personality certainly comes across on Landing,
which Spigel considers a definite turning point for the band: “On Landing we cut away from that crossover.
And that’s intentional.” Newman concurs: “There’s nothing there that
you could really compare with Wire.”

 

But Landing‘s
distinctiveness doesn’t come just from putting distance between Githead and
Wire; there was also a deliberate break with elements of Githead’s existing
sound. Spigel describes a conscious effort to “find ways to subvert how
things have been done in the past.” And Landing had to make a quantum leap from 2007’s Art Pop because Newman had blithely gone around telling everyone
how brilliant it was going to be — long before it was even finished: “Six
months ago I told people, ‘Watch out — the next Githead album’s going to be
fucking amazing!’ And I had nothing to base that on. There was just a sense
that if it all came together the way it could come together, it would be
fantastic.”

 

The band made good on Newman’s promise. Landing is unquestionably their most
compelling album so far, melodically richer and more textured, the songs
showing a greater sense of space. There’s a very natural feel to much of the
material: the strongest tracks seem effortless and unforced. Newman attributes
this characteristic in large part to Spigel, who defined the album’s guiding
principle: “Malka thought we should make an album that went in a more
organic direction. We allowed it to develop more.”

 

Earlier Githead recordings showed a
fondness for the work of ’70s German artists experimenting at the interface of
electronic and organic musics, but that aspect is even more pronounced on Landing, especially in its stronger
motorik impulse and its fluid, gliding guitar textures — traits that gesture
back to NEU! and Harmonia. Even so, Newman and Spigel are reluctant to talk
about influences. “It’s just a mixture of everything we ever liked, all of
us, and put together,” offers Spigel quite reasonably. They do give a
couple of clues, though. Spigel reveals that Landing‘s “Lightswimmer” was recorded after watching a
documentary on Hawkwind, quickly noting, “The music had nothing to do with
Hawkwind, but something about the feel of how they played.” Newman
suggests another, slightly left-field connection: “The opening chords of  ‘From My Perspective’ remind me of the New
York Dolls’ ‘Personality Crisis'” — adding, with his tongue firmly in his
cheek, “and the album’s all based on Hawkwind. Also, I think that maybe
the Sweet have been one of our major influences. There was someone I was at
college with who wanted to be the bass player in Wire before Graham joined and
his opening line was, ‘I’m in a band that’s been favorably compared to the
Sweet.’ “

 

However, the couple is more forthcoming
about younger artists who’ve impressed them, particularly in the live context.
When asked for recommendations, without missing a beat, they immediately say
“Holy Fuck” in unison: “Machines and humans playing
together,” enthuses Newman. “I’ve never seen anyone do it like that.
I never knew you could do it.”

 

Talk of machines and humans playing
together turns the conversation to the role in Githead of Robin Rimbaud —
whose creative alias, Scanner, as well as his artistic practice, has blurred
the lines of difference between the individual and his chosen technology.
Whereas Newman, Spigel and Franken mostly maintain their familiar musical roles
in Githead, Rimbaud is in largely uncharted territory. As an electronic artist,
he’s never been known for his work with conventional musical tools, but, as
Spigel points out, he’s always had rock ‘n’ roll aspirations: “When he was
a child he used to play guitar in front of the mirror doing rock ‘n’ roll poses,
and suddenly with Githead he found himself in a band playing the guitar; it’s
the dream he had as a young man. So it means something to him — and he
practices more than any of us.”

 

Newman comments, ironically, “Well,
hopefully he’s got over that by now,” then adds, in a tone somewhere
between disbelief and mild disdain, “Robin actually reads guitar
magazines!” According to Newman, he and Spigel have had to keep Rimbaud’s
inner axeman in check as Githead has evolved: “Withering looks when he was
doing rock ‘n’ roll poses were helpful. Also, the whammy bar is illegal in Wire
and I don’t think it’s allowed in Githead either. Robin is discouraged from
doing any whanginess — anything that
looks like he’s playing the guitar.”

 

Ultimately, a measure of how far Githead
has come with Landing is the change
in terms of its perceived relationship with Wire. If there was any concern
about Wire’s sound spilling over into Githead, Landing may have initiated some reverse influence, as Newman
explains: “With the next Wire album, I very much want to do something
that’s quite similar to how we did it in the ’70s, because I’m bored with the
cut-and-paste method of production. It’s not new any more. I really want to try
what it’s like to have words, write a song with those words, go to a band, have
them play it and work out their arrangement — how does that music strike you,
how should you play on hearing that?

 

“That thought process is partly driven by
Githead, where the recording process is about getting the uniqueness of the
combination of the individuals — and that’s really what interests me most now
in recording. It’s not about making the perfect pop record.”

 

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