Few couples can say they’ve stood the test of time better than Malka Spigel (bassist of Minimal Compact) and Colin Newman (of Wire), who’ve worked together as artists and musicians for over 20 years. Rising out of London’s techno scene, each having tasted success with their respective ground-breaking bands, Spigel and Newman began Immersion in 1994 as an instrumental-only project unlike anything they or anyone in the scene had ever heard. A lack of structure or vocals gave them total freedom of expression, making a creative space focusing instead on feeling, ambiance and a moving musical atmosphere. They released their first two albums in ’94 and ’95 on their jointly-run record label “Swim ~,” putting the band on hiatus after their third album as the ’90s came to a close and other projects demanded their attention.
In 2015, the couple decided to reboot Immersion, this time with the purpose of expanding their experimentation to other artists and musicians. This month, the band’s latest album Sleepless was released, featuring collaborations from Hexenschuss and Holy Fuck. As an instrumental band not used to playing many shows, Immersion will now be taking their music on the road, determined to share their captivating visual and sonic live experience with an audience. The band will begin an American tour coast-to-coast later this week and we spoke with Malka and Colin about the process behind Sleepless, in all its abstract glory.
mxdwn: Sleepless has been described as a big evolution for the band. What influences went into this album that make it such a big change from Analogue Creatures?
Malka Spigel: I would say it’s more an influence within ourselves. We make an album then we evolve it as we add on rhythm and guitars. What do you think?
Colin Newman: Yeah, with Immersion it’s always really hard to know. We don’t really think in those terms. What started the cycle of what became the album: we wrote on the track which ended up being a collaboration with this group Hexenschuss, and it was quite drum-heavy, and we thought we’d just go with it. Like okay, let’s have loud drums on this record, this is new, so that was probably, more than anything else, the big difference between this and the last album. On the last album, the songs are very quiet and on this one the drums are much louder.
MP: And also playing live made it evolve as well, I would say.
CN: Oh yeah we’ve done a lot of live shows, this is something that we never did. Immersion started originally in the early ’90s and then we stopped after the end of the ’90s and just did other things. Since we’ve come back to it, the thing that we’re doing now that we’ve never done before is playing gigs, and we’ve played quite a few, so I think it just gives us a lot more confidence with it.
mxdwn: You’ve been collaborating with each other on projects for most of your musical careers, what do you think makes you work together so well as artists from separate backgrounds, as well as husband and wife?
MP: It kind of helps that we are a couple because we trust each other. We support each other, we’re very open with each other when we make music. So there are no barriers really. Even in a band you’ve been in for 15, 20 years, there are still barriers, things you wouldn’t do or wouldn’t say and we don’t have any of that.
CN: We live together and we do a lot of things together…
MP: And we’ve got similar music taste!
CN: So working together is just an extension of everything we do. That’s not to belittle anybody not in a relationship, it’s just a lot easier. Sometimes being in a band with people that you actually aren’t in a relationship with can be quite hard work. Because you are in a kind of relationship, but it’s one in which there are, like Malka said, barriers and tensions.
MP: And often it’s dysfunctional (laughs).
CN: Whereas, I mean if something’s not working between us, it’s a disaster! You know? But because we’re together and we’re a couple, we solve it. We can’t be in a situation where one person is trying to get one over the other one, because groups can be quite…
MP: In groups, for years people go on and there’s a resentment that builds up. Not talking about anyone specifically, but just from seeing stories of other bands.
mxdwn: Wire and Minimal Compact have singers, but as Immersion you write instrumentals. What inspired the change to instrumental music?
CN: Immersion’s always been an instrumental project since day one. It goes back to the first album in ’94, we kind of came out of techno, where we started and we were quite involved in that scene in London in the ’90s. Then towards the end of the ’90s everything changed, Wire started again and Immersion just didn’t seem to fit in the world anymore. Then we came back to it a couple years ago and felt we should do something with it.
MP: There’s a kind of freedom in instrumental music which is quite pure, you don’t have to worry about songs and structure and it’s very nice to express yourself with a voice; there’s a certain kind of freedom in doing instrumental music.
mxdwn: Your music videos, like the one for “Prupulsoid,” focus on making the music a visual experience for the listener. What is important to you when it comes to creating each video?
CN: It was something that happened this year. We’ve done videos in the past. Normally when you present a track, a lot of people use SoundCloud but I kind of got a bit fed up with SoundCloud, and I thought, if we’re gonna put something on Youtube it better be a video, not just an album cover with a picture.
MP: There’s also a certain magic when the visuals match the music, adds to the experience, that’s kind of magical and that’s what we look for in the videos.
CN: I mean we do them super fast!
MP: Just like we do the music mostly (laughs).
Mxdwn: What do you consider the perfect listening experience for your music?
MP: We don’t listen a lot, we listen back when we want to judge it but once it’s out we kind of let it go. But for other people?
CN: That is kind of a question, how do people consume music now? I’m not talking about what format do they buy in, but how do they actually listen? In what space? I would imagine the only people who listen to music sitting in a room are people listening on vinyl because you can’t move around. I would imagine a lot of people listen on their phones…
MP: Or in the car…
CN: In the car…
MP: I mean, we want it to be an immersive experience so, I’m not sure how you do that, but it has to be loud enough and you have to let yourself be immersed in it.
CN: Yeah for sure, of course we’d love it if we imagined everybody positioning themselves in between the speakers of a very good system and listening to it from start to finish, but I don’t know how many people actually do that.
MP: We do that sometimes, we play music, but it’s hard, people’s attention is pulled all over the place.
CN: The other thing of course is with live, you’re hearing the music on a much louder system than you might have at home. One frequency might get lost, like you might hear much more bass, so the sound of the music is going to be much more visceral, and that’s just a part of the live experience. So you know, when people talk about how the sound was fantastic on the live show, possibly what they’re talking about was the sound being loud, because…
MP: It can be loud and not very good…
CN: And in a way it’s best not to be too precious about it. You have to make the thing sound the best in the space you’ve made it in, then put it through a mastering process to make sure you’re getting the best out of the material. But there’s no way to control where and how people are listening to the music. To hear Immersion without a sub, you’re missing a lot of the picture (laughs). There’s a lot of activity on the bottom end there.
mxdwn: On this album, you worked with Matt Schulz from Holy Fuck and Gil and Asi of Hexenschuss. What did their influences add to the album and how did those partnerships form?
CN: Holy Fuck we’ve known for quite a long time, I think we’ve seen them four or five times.
MP: They’re amazing live!
CN: They’re a great band and there was one night — probably three or four years ago — when they played a show in Brighton (where we live). There was an early show and after the show they loaded down and we went to a bar and just hung out for a few hours. Brighton can be quite late on the weekends and it was kind of a process of getting to know each other. You get to know people in bands after seeing them in festivals and things…
MP: And we love the way Matt plays drums, he came early on the train.
CN: We’d somehow gotten into communication with him about how he wanted to play with us and he came on the train really early from Bristol so he could come rehearse with us before he did his sound check.
MP: Which means he probably didn’t sleep at all.
CN: We just got in a room with drums and the gear and started playing. We thought it seemed okay and we had “Propulsoids” already and really felt it would benefit from live drums on it, so we left the tracks with a mutual friend who owns a studio in New York. He recorded there and it worked out. And then at the back end of last year they played a show in Tel Aviv and we were there DJing. We DJed at their show and they DJ’ed at our show, and he played drums with us, so it’s complicated but, you know. Gil and Asi, Gil was actually the keyboard player in Malka’s band and he’s a really old friend, someone we’ve known for a really long time. They do a lot of touring in Europe and he’s always kind of keen to trying to get other people interested, so he asked us if we would work with this track and we started developing this track a long way from where it started-
MP: it sounded more like Immersion than Hexenschuss, and we knew it would be better to put it on the album and they thought it was a great idea so we just kept it like that.
mxdwn: “Sleepless” combines the band’s techno sound with drums, guitar and bass, adding a dynamic to the album that sets it apart from earlier releases. What was the recording process like for this album?
CN: It’s the same, really, it’s kind of how we always do it. We started this with what became “Seeing is Believing,” which was remixed and became a track on the album. It was like, ‘Well ok, where do we go from there?’ and things just organically happened. I don’t know if there are any regular guitars on the album, one is a tenor four-string guitar which is tuned more like violin — and it’s quite high — and the other guitar is a baritone which is lower than a regular guitar. Malka plays quite a lot of the guitars and she’s not really a guitarist, she’s a bass player, so she can’t play chords or anything like that and it gives a certain flavor to it. But unlike the last album, this one has some classic Malka basslines, because they just sound good (laughs).
MP: We do what we feel like, so if we’re working on a piece in the studio and I feel like there should be bass, we do it. There’s no rules, the only rules are that we’re not singing, but they’re not fixed rules, are they? You think one day we’ll sing?
CN: The thing is, as soon as you put a voice in something it becomes, in a way, something else. We’ve made Malka records, and some of the methodology of working on those is very similar, but it serves a voice. In many ways Immersion can be very expressive. Even if we’re not playing a lead part, there’s always some kind of wailing in the mix, some instrument… and maybe that’s the one common thread among Immersion music.
MP: It’s kind of a rule we have in understanding each piece, because it gives it that Immersion character.
mxdwn: During the songwriting process, do you envision a certain narrative that plays throughout the album, or do you look at each song as individual, abstract pieces?
CN: They’re kind of pieces rather than songs, songs should have singing in it really. I just think each piece develops in its own way…I mean if the last piece we worked on was fast, we think maybe we should do one that’s a bit slower but…
MP: …that’s about it really (laughs).
CN: And there’s no narrative arc through the whole album. I mean I think other people can make connections that we don’t see…
MP: And because we work on it there’s a block, they were done in the same period so you’re in a certain state of mind, but I don’t know how it works really, it’s a mystery to us too!
mxdwn: You’re about to go out on your North American tour, beginning with a special collaborative show in Brighton. What are you looking forward to for the live shows?
CN: We’ve never toured America before, we’ve only played one gig in America which was last year, a festival in Los Angeles. But that’s been the sum total of our American gigging, so this will be a complete experience ’cause we’re literally driving coast to coast. We’ll do something which a lot of Americans haven’t done, seeing the whole country!
MP: We just hope it’s going to have the atmosphere and vibe that will lift the whole thing up, it’s very important for Immersion for the atmosphere it’s done in to be right.
Mxdwn: Are there any artists or bands you hope to collaborate with in the future?
MP: We have a night in Brighton coming up, The Nanocluster, which is Immersion collaborating with other artists, Immersion is really into collaborating.
CN: The thing about Nanocluster, this is a very Brighton thing. We’ll maybe do it in other cities but I can’t imagine this is something we’d ever tour. It’s a collaboration from the ground up, so we do a little preparation and then spend the week working together to make some tracks. Then we do a gig which is where we play for half an hour, and our guest plays for half an hour, and then we play together the material we’ve rehearsed. So it’s not jamming, it’s finished material.
MP: It’s completely new, and although it will be on an album eventually, what the audience experiences is something we worked out very quickly and it’s a very unique, one-of-a-kind experience, so it’s very exciting.
CN: A kind of bespoke gig, nothing like that exists in the world!
MP: (laughs) You don’t know that!
CN: I mean, you have people in jazz, where they play differently every night, but this is…we don’t know how it’s gonna turn out. We take a very big risk with our reputations, us and our guests, ’cause if it’s not very good, people will notice! It’s just part of it. We are natural collaborators. Immersion is a project open to collaboration.
MP: And within that project, it can have vocals, anything. It’s flexible. Immersion plus more.
mxdwn: As seasoned musicians who are still putting out new music, do you have any hopes for where your careers will take you in the future?
MP: It doesn’t really change whether you’ve been around for 20 years or two years, you always want to put out better music and for people to hear it.
CN: You can’t live in the past, the past is like a familiar country you can never visit anyway.
MP: And some people try.
CN: But you can’t literally live in the past and I noticed it’s very boring to just repeat the same thing I’ve done already, even if you can get paid for doing it. It’s just one of those things, people are naturally creative, that’s one thing about human beings. Doing new things is something we all kind of want to do, to have new experiences. We’re not young and actually new experiences and working in new ways is really important to keep you…
CN: ….Or else life is boring! And you might as well just give up!
MP: We like new music all the time, so it’s not really related to how long we’ve been doing it. If we’re interested in new things, new things are going to come out of it!