“I don't want to be sitting there every day trying to hone my chops, I like a certain amount of freshness...” hmv.com talks to Wire's Colin Newman
Emerging at the back end of the 1970s amid the post-punk scene in London, Wire were always something of a unique entity. While they never achieved the commercial success enjoyed by some of their peers, Wire's approach to making music meant they always stood apart from the crowd and their music has been cited as an influence by a range of bands, including R.E.M., Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr. and Minor Threat, to name just a handful.
While many of the bands from that era either burned out rapidly or have since found themselves trotting out their best-known songs on lucrative reunion tours, Wire have been steadily – if sporadically – turning in albums full of brilliant and challenging new material for almost four decades now.
As they prepare to release their 14th studio album, entitled simply Wire, next week (April 13th), we caught up with frontman Colin Newman to talk about how the band has evolved over the years, why they never considered themselves part of the punk scene, and the band's plans to celebrate 40 years of their existence...
I guess the most obvious question to begin with is about the album's eponymous title. Why did you decide on doing that for this record?
“Well, there are two parallel stories to this. The first is just the result of the band going through all the album's lyrics and nobody coming up with a title that anybody else was happy with. But then Jon Wozencroft, who did the cover artwork, just said 'why don't you self-title it?'. He already had the image in mind and it's partly a graphical device, the image is of a fan with the band's logo. So we went around the obvious question of 'yeah, but isn't that always a thing you do for the debut album?', and actually two seconds of research on the internet will prove that it isn't. I mean, Peter Gabriel called his first three or four solo albums 'Peter Gabriel', which I think is entirely unhelpful if I'm honest, but still...
“But one or two of us were starting to warm to the idea and when we had a discussion about it I think the thing that convinced me was that the most famous self-titled album that isn't a debut was The Beatles, which obviously everybody just calls 'The White Album', but I think the combination of the high art cover and the re-contextualisation of the name is what appealed to me. They'd already engaged with fine art with the Sgt. Pepper's artwork, but that was very, very 'pop'. This wasn't, it was saying something else about the band. So that's it really, it's the combination of the title and the image that gives you a sense of the record. It is also the first album where Matt (Simmons, guitarist) has really been involved with the material from the beginning, so it's… not a rebirth, but an evolution.”
How do you put songs together these days? Do you write alone or is it quite collaborative?
“I guess you could say there have been three phases of Wire in terms of how songs are written, the first and the last of these are the same. If you go back to when we started in the 70s, I wrote everything on an acoustic guitar. All of Pink Flag was written that way, with the exception of 'Strange' which was Bruce's (Gilbert, guitarist) riff. I would always want to have lyrics, so I would start a writing song and just grab any lyrics and shove them in, I'd already have a tune but no words. On some occasions I would write my own words, but that wasn't the case with the majority of the material.
“Then in the 80s we made things via a kind of process, or through a different kind of songwriting. It's how I imagine people who make records on their own working, sort of building up a layered playback and then singing on top of it. I call that the hip-hop method, it's a sort of assemblage. So that was they way we worked up until around the time we did Send and Object 47, but then after that when we did Red Barked Tree I really felt that I wanted to go back to writing on an acoustic guitar."
Is that how you approached making records like Change Becomes Us and the new album?
“Well, Change Becomes Us was a bit of a strange diversion from that. What I realised listening to Red Barked Tree was that it's all very well saying you're going to write on an acoustic guitar, but I literally don't even pick up a guitar when I'm not working, I don't sit around writing songs all day, so there's this quality to the songs, I felt, that sounded like somebody who hadn't written in that way for a long time.
“I don't expect anyone else to pick up on that, but in the same way when I listened back to Change Becomes Us I got the sense that these were songs that were written by someone on acoustic guitar, but who was frankly quite bored with the process and was arseing around a lot in terms of how to do it! So this time around I thought 'well, I wouldn't mind a bit of that energy on this record'.”
What effect do you think that has had on this new record?
“I don't really know if all of that has had much effect, to be quite honest I don't think a lot about the process. For me, I've got songs to write, whichever way it happens. I write very fast, but if I sat and did that every day I wouldn't write very much, I'd be so bored with it! I do it in bursts, so yeah, I can write a song in two minutes, but there's an awful lot of standing about doing other things in between and for me that's a required part of the process. I don't want to be sitting there every day trying to hone my chops, I like a certain amount of freshness in the music. I don't want to be thinking about who I am or what it means, or any of that stuff, I think that's a little bit pointless. If a song has meaning it will shine through.”
So what kind of album is this lyrically? The opening track 'Blogger' talks about the internet and how we project ourselves through it, is that a running theme through the rest of the record?
“I don't think so, but then most of the words are written by Graham (Lewis, Bassist) so you'd have to ask him. It's one of the peculiarities of Wire, that I write the songs and sing them, but I usually don't write the lyrics. We've always approached writing as a band in three parts; there's the song, as in the tune and the structure, the main text – and Graham prefers 'text' to 'lyrics', but whatever – and then the music, which is always done by Wire, so it's that meeting of elements that makes it Wire music. It's always done in a certain way, but it's never predictable.”
You talked about going back to writing on a guitar like you did in the early days, but the sound on this album is a lot more polished than the stuff on Pink Flag or Chairs Missing. There was a real immediacy and a rough edge to that early material, did you consider yourselves part of the Punk movement back then?
“Not really. It's difficult to understand out of context – and I've said this so many times – but we formed in 1977, so by definition we were too late, you had to be a 1976 band. Basically there was a very small number of people in groups who knew each other and identified themselves 'punk', and then a bunch of johnny-come-latelys who desperately wanted to be, but weren't.”
Did you ever want to be?
“For about two minutes! I mean, there was a point in '76 where The Sex Pistols came along and they were a generational definer, you were either with them or you were against them. You knew what side of the fence you were on, but then after a while you just got fed up with the whole thing. It was a bit thin, it didn't really progress. It was theatre, how they were marketed became the most interesting thing about them. They were stunted in their growth, because they couldn't play! They making quite a lot of money, but they should've played. We did a show with them around 2008, a huge festival in Italy, and they were playing roughly the same set they played at the Roxy in '76. It was incredibly boring. Without the tension of the moment there it doesn't hold up, you know? It's got to work on more than just that level, there has to be a bit more in the box.”
What sort of music are you listening to now? Have there been any particular influences on this record?
“Well, we curate our own festival called Drill. We started engaging in that way with artists that we like and respect, so there are people on those bills that we're very happy to be seen in the company of. Lately I've been listening to The Mild High Club. It's quite wonky, and it does inhabit some of the same sort of space that the songs on this album do, although I hadn't heard it until after it was written so I don't think that counts as an influence!
“I find the whole influence thing very weird actually. There was a school of thought that emerged in the 80s that all music is a smorgasbord of influences, you take a bit of this and splice it with something else and that's your music. But the problem is that you get a lot of artists that just sound like the sum of their influences, there's no possibility to progress because you've already set your limits. For me it's all quite organic, I think influence works on a much more subliminal level. I mean, I can hear something that I totally identify with on some level, but it could be folk, or soul, or R&B, whatever. Wire's music in the last few years has employed tons of ideas from dance music in terms of structure, but it's now so ingrained that it just gets played rather than constructed in any way.”
What touring plans do you have for the new record? Are your sets career-spanning at this point, or are you just playing the new stuff?
“The live set will always be centred around the album that we've just done, that will be the middle of it, but then we just... play stuff. The main thing is that we don't construct it, you know? It's not like you have a focus group. I actually heard this story about The Shadows, that they had focus groups with fans about what to play, so they could be as 'on message' as possible?! Fuck that!! I mean for a start if you're playing older stuff you've got to do with a certain amount of conviction, otherwise you're veering towards being a bad covers band of yourself. So somebody will go 'why don't we play this?' and we'll have a go at it. There are some live stalwarts that always feel good to play. The thing is we never really had any hits, so people don't come to our shows expecting to hear 'the hits', because there have never been any!”
They were cult hits, Colin...
“Ha! Yeah? Which ones were they?! That's the thing, if you asked 100 Wire fans to list their top 10 Wire songs, you'd have a list of 500 songs. I think our audiences are used to what we do though. But also, if you set out with that approach of playing 'the hits' then you'd better be good, because if you aren't people are just going to say 'well, they're not as good as they used to be'. We can't be the same as we were in our twenties, we have to be who Wire are now and I rail quite hard against the heritage thing because I think it's unhelpful. Yeah, bands reform and make quite a lot of money in the short term, but I've never heard anyone that really pulled it off, and if it's just about pleasing the audience then, er, aren't we supposed to be doing art?”
So where does the tour kick off then?
“We'll be starting with something called Drill Lexington in Islington, the idea behind that is to do five nights instead of one big headline show. There aren't really many large venues in London that we like and people tend to prefer seeing us at smaller club shows anyway, but obviously in some cities we get larger audiences than we could fit in to those venues, so this way everybody gets to see us, we can do a slightly different set each night and if people are mad for it they can come more than once.”
Finally, what's next for you? Will there be a 15th Wire album?
“Well, we've got a plan. On April 1st 2017 the band will be 40 years old, so we've got to do something for that. That was the first date as a four-piece, we played 1st and 2nd of April at The Roxy. April Fools Day, what a perfect launch date for a band! Sadly the venue isn't there any more, I think it's a shoe shop now so it's hard to imagine them letting us do anything in there! But we'll do something, it's a nice way of letting people know we've been around for that long.”
New album Wire is available in hmv stores and to download from April 13th. To find more details on Wire's upcoming tour dates head to their website