Wire were one of the key bands in the punk movement. They have just released a great new album, ‘Red Barked Tree’. Louder Than War spoke to the band.
”ËI think Wire are very easy to deconstruct and fiendishly hard to copy”Â¦.’
Colin Newman is talking. And talking.
If Wire make so much of their stripped down simplicity, in real life their guitarist/vocalist and music writer communicates in endless theories and ideas. A fascinating man whose head if filled with a million theories on music. Colin has one of those non-stop minds.
”ËI said this before when there was this album of covers of ”ËOutdoor Miner’- a whole album of covers and not one gets the chorus right. I was thinking, ‘No! It doesn’t go like that! It’s way more simple than you think.’
They play what they think they are hearing but is not actually there. It’s very simple- the verse and chorus are exactly the same and this is a tactic I have unconsciously employed over years of song writing. Sometimes I go back and work old Wire songs out and think how does that go? and think ”Ëwhat! I can’t believe I did that! you fucker! how did you do that, it’s so simple?’ But if it works, it works. There’s a level of self-belief and conviction and great deal of enjoyment in writing and playing. It’s problem solving because that’s what gets you excited. The material should always convey an emotion”Â¦’
Colin briefly pauses.
”ËThere’s a zillion records released every week, so much stuff vying for attention. It’s not a question of why should anyone why would anyone buy that but even why should anyone listen to it because they can get so much for free anyway. So I think the only answer the conscious artist can make is to make the best material that they can and hope that people out there who are open to hear something good are able to hear it.’
Still thinking. Still questioning – Wire, for my money, were the quintessential punk band.
Much misunderstood punk was far more than one fast and furious template for music. There was a whole rush of ideas pouring out- from the dressed up howl of the Sex Pistols to the pulse of Suicide to the Beefheart flavoured aggro of the Stranglers. No-one owned the sound and no-one dictated the template. No matter how hard they tried.
Every group sounded completely different. Wire were typical of this. Many modern writers like to count them out of the punk movement and place them in post-punk but they are mistaken.
Initially Wire took the three chords of punk and twisted them into new shapes and atmospheres. Making the simple complex- it was a brilliant trick.
The band have existed intermittedly since then. In the eighties they became a wilfully awkward pop band, displaying a knack for off kilter electronic pop. They would then stop the band. Not splitting up in a conventional sense. These were far smarter operators than the usual clutch of individuals in a band.
I even saw one of their last gigs. A twenty-minute noise jam beneath the Westway in 1990 – They would then return, making new albums that were just below the radar- great documents of a fascinating bunch of individuals.
The latest album, ”ËRed Barked Tree’, is a great work. It’s like all the different Wire’s over the years collected under one roof. Stripped down and succinct, it’s one of their best yet. The stripping down, weeding out process was forced upon the band when they went down to a three piece with the loss of original Wire man and second guitar player Bruce Gilbert a few years ago.
”ËWhen Bruce left in 2004 there was a lot of disarray in the band. We were not sure what was going on, not even talking to each other at that point. There was a lot of shit going on in the band at that point which I don’t want to get into. We met again in 2006 and we came to the conclusion that Wire was something worth doing and we put a proposal to Bruce- a plan but he didn’t want to do it and we decided to continue without him.’
The newly reconstructed band typically of Wire used the departure to their advantage and enjoyed the new disciple it created.
”ËWell I always thought of lots of guitar parts for all the Wire records- so its not like anything new creatively but it made us rethink and made us more disciplined.
It was important that the three of us made this record so we could step forward and say ”Ëwe are Wire’ and we have the right to be Wire and produce something good under the circumstances. In many ways it does or doesn’t make a difference on one level it’s more general that the creative balance in band has changed. In Wire there were so many personal issues, everyone in the band has had moments and issues. When it got to just three everyone knows the basic thing that if someone else leaves that there is only two and that’s half of the original band. As three we can play perfectly well so it doesn’t feel any less Wire.
”ËIt certainly forced my hand as I had to think of what both guitars would be playing when I was writing.’
That was one of the interesting things about doing the album on one of the heavier tracks on the album we just played it. It was one of those instant things that came out exactly like the recorded version. I came to the control room and the engineer said ”Ëyou make a big noise for a three piece’. He had never heard the band before which was really good and we thought ”Ëyeah, we do, don’t we!’
The new Wire trio was a discipline that forced bassman and band lyrics writer Graham Lewis’s hand as well.
Graham acknowledges the same creative forcing of hands.
”ËI had to think more on the bass, sometimes taking the lead. It certainly changed how we worked.’
”ËI hate the word but it was organic. When we made the last album, ”ËObject 47′ we worked on it for a couple of years. We then reassessed the situation and circumstances that we were in and make some decisions with the line up of the band. Once we had done that we had an idea of how we would make records.’
The process of creativity is something that Colin Newman takes very seriously.
”ËWire have never been much a jamming band. If you go back to the classic seventies stuff that was all written on acoustic guitar and presented to the band. Everything I wrote, which was the vast majority of the material, was presented to the band and that point where the band sees the material is a very important one.
The way that a lot of people work these days is that everything is composed in bits and you put the pieces together and the vocals come last and I felt that was kind of wrong for Wire. The songs develop in different ways and build those different soundscapes round them. The sound is because of the way that the band interfaces with the material. I have no idea of where they are going to take it and that’s including me playing it as well because there is a big difference between writing something on an acoustic guitar and having it working to how a band will re-interpret that material. It’s not like they will do things differently but they will do things that you don’t expect and that what gives it an interesting character.’
Born out of punk in 1976 and yet never consumed by the clichÃÂ©s Wire played the legendary Roxy in 1977 where their short, sharp shocks of songs of stripped down minimalism were already hinting at something else.
They were misfits in a scene of misfits.
”Ë”ËWe certainly didn’t fit in with punk in 70s socially or musically and I’m old enough to realise there was no such thing as post punk till about ten years ago when it got invented! We got labelled a lot of things- even proto Goth. I think slippery is a good expression! In many ways it’s good for longevity but bad for success. We can’t be pigeonholed. ”ËToo clever for their own good’ was a phrase thrown at Wire often in the past. People thought our sound was harsh and unremitting. Yet look back at it now and you wonder what they were thinking. Being ahead of your time doesn’t get you awards! But we always get adopted by musicians for some reason.’
They are still the misfits.
”ËThe world is not black and while. Why should art not shy away from engaging in emotional complexity? This wikileaks things, you can’t know what the affects will be, good or band. We don’t know about the world or the future of our own lives. We live in an age of uncertainty but we feel strongly and we don’t know what we are feeling without being portentous. I get fed up with sloganeering. Everyone sloganeers in the most pathetic and annoying way. The government blames everything on the last government. I get so bored with everything being to fucking obvious. I’m bored of the obvious. Why do we need it rammed down our throats so much. It’s important to think about what your are singing and not just whinging on about your girlfriend leaving.’
The grinding, dark, slab of concrete guitar sound on Wire’s debut ”ËPink Flag’ went on to provide the template for post punk and eventually for American hardcore. infiltrating the DC scene and perhaps being the very foundation on Minor Threat’s sound- Minor Treat even paid them back with their thrashed cover of ”Ë12XU’.
Everywhere you sniff in punk and post punk Wire are there- Joy Division owe them a debt and so do a whole host of bands who came out of that tumultuous era.
”ËPink Flag’, which goes far beyond its art rock template is a punk record that every self-disrespecting punk orientated listener should. This is classic twisted British art rock but put through the grater of the period. Surely no other band had guitars with this wall of sound, and surely no other punk band sounded, well, this punk or this dark.
”ËIts dark but for me its also very summery. It was made in summer of 1977 it’s a record that was very difficult to make. We were right on the edge of our ability. With the next album, ”ËChairs Missing’ we had been on the road and we could pay a bit better so it was less of a struggle doing the backing tracks
Robert was not an accomplished drummer and him and Graham would just fight all the time. But with Pink Floyd it may have its darkness in its material but it was very enjoyable to make.’
Then there was the near hit, the sprightly ”ËI Am The Fly’; that saw Wire move into another space, a neo disco yet still stark post punk anthem which gives several clues to the continuing unusual song writing process with Colin wring the music and Graham the words for Colin to sing.
Wire’s second album, ”ËChairs Missing’ was a darker, more psychedelic affair that presaged the post punkers by a couple of years. Now in their Punk Floyd phase and shapeshiftng their sound, a restless process that that would go on for years as Colin explains.
”ËIt’s the way of working. Without taking ourselves too seriously but taking the music seriously. I’m not sure if the media ever understood what we did, the media in the UK is throwaway and there is a nasty side to British culture that says proper culture is classical culture and anything to do with pop music is throwaway and you can’t have anything beyond Pop Idol and those of us that care about those sort of things know that this is so not true. We know that this is a culture nurtured by generations of people and it has gone through their lives which have been sustained by music made people who have no formal music training- never heard classical or know nothing about art but they instinctively know how to make something. They instinctively know how to affect people and I don’t mean in a simple boy/girl type of thing, they know how to make something which evokes more complex kind of feelings.’
The band’s new album, ‘Red Barked Tree’ sees them move into yet new soundscapes and doesn’t rest on it laurels. All the different types of Wire are here and they are even breaking new ground on ”ËRed Barked Tree’ with its mantra like quality. The constants are Colin’s clipped very English vocal and that hypnotic, deceptively simple music.
This is the sound of a band that cannot keep still and despite being over thirty years into their trajectory is still one step ahead.
Somehow it still works within the parameters of what punk was when it started. A music that was reaching out beyond trad rock but not losing any of the excitement of the form. A music that was reflecting it’s own background of rainy day concrete UK without being a clichÃÂ©, a smart and hip music that worked beyond boundaries but never keeled over into flashy muso meanderings of the dreaded prog but neither fell into the dumbing down trap that cursed so much of punk.
Wire are a band that think deeply about what they do as Colin muses.
”ËWe saw what the Pistols represented but we only really liked the Buzzcocks ”Ëspiral scratch’. They felt like they were going forwards and not trying not to sound like an American band or the sixties rehashed. I remember the day Howard Devoto left the Buzzcocks and in the arrogance of youth I thought that’s it- no competition now! You have to feel that.’
There has been no competition for Wire since then. On their own trajectory they operate. ”ËRed Barked Tree’ is a great work and proof that Wire are still ahead of the game.