We will be at the band’s Manchester show at the great Gorilla venue- this will be a top night- come to the gig, see the band and come and say hello! Click this link for tickets for Wire at Gorilla. Wire UK tour dates are here.
Wire, in all the best possible ways, are one of the great conundrums.
Appearing in the midst of punk- they famously played the Roxy- but have denied being part of that or any spurious wave or handy marketing brand. They were all at once awkward outsiders in a movement that they more part of than they would care admit. The very nature of Wire with its art school aesthetic, its commitment to movement, its not taking part, its anti punk was so punk and even those glorious atonal wall of sound guitars on their debut Pink Flag were so punk but very much in their own definition- those contradictions are so perfect.
They were pre-post -unk, more of a continuation of the everything is possible surge of the sixties tempered with a punk edge, a psychedelic pop band operating out of time, a post punk band who denied that lame terminology.
They left their fingerprints everywhere and influence on bands as diverse as Joy Division and American hardcore bands like Minor Threat. They were everywhere yet nowhere, a mysterious presence who signed to EMI, a band who could release glorious pop records like Outdoor Miner that weren’t hits, a ban that had the smarts but could still strip it down to glorious simplicity, a band out of time that was perfect for the times they were in.
More than thirty years later they sound even stronger, their current album- the craftily titled Change Becomes Us- takes old demos and snippets of songs and recreates them for the now without ever losing their original germ of meaning and sound.
It’s an exercise that underlines both how far ahead they were when they wrote the damn things in the first place and how forwards they still are. Past. Present and future make no sense in Wire world. It’s yet another strong album in a recent upsurge that was sparked by the band taking control of their own affairs, releasing their own music on their Pink Flag label and arriving into the brave new world of self control for musicians in the internet age as if they had invented the idea years ago all by themselves.
Last year at ATP they were one of the festival highlights and their upcoming autumn tour is going to be one of the key jaunts of the autumn. This new found independence, where the band runs their own show and their own label has been a big boom to Wire as the erudite and enthusiastic Wire guitarist and singer Colin Newman explains.
‘The band is in a very good place. It feels like we are moving forward very strongly. We are pretty united in general. The album went well and the launch at Drill: London – Wire launch, culminating in a headline London show, where we played Change Becomes Us in its entirety was a very Wire thing to do – just performing the album for the first time live with a sell-out gig at Heaven. It’s very Wire to play the new album live in its entirety instead of playing the greatest hits and it’s this freedom that comes from running our own affairs, which is a continuation of how we have always operated. It’s great to be a cottage industry even if we have to be careful with the money.’
Change Becomes Us is an interesting project- going backwards to go forwards with old demos reworked with new titles, old scraps of songs that would have, intriguingly, been their forth album have been revisited and reworked- with newly rewritten versions of the Document and Eyewitness/Turns and Strokes material that was reworked sometimes on post Wire solo albums. In the context of a band who would never play old songs at their peak and always denied their past this is even more fascinating- instead of greatest hits Wire have recorded greatest bits which sounds as good as anything their ever did at the time.
With music this timeless it’s also far from being a nostalgia trip.
‘This new album was very full on for us. It was a very different way of making a record because we went back to these old demos and it was more like a project. Also we didn’t really plan the usual 6 months of touring after the release and have only just started touring now. We thought it would be interesting to do the Wire festival instead which proved to be very good ending up with the sold out show at Heaven. It was after that that we realised that we would have to play shows and that’s why we fixed up this tour later than it should have been. We have been to America already which was the start of a fairly solid bunch of work which continues from now until December. For me it’s crazy because at this point in the cycle we normally have done all the touring and now we are about to start it but Wire never did things the normal way.’
Three decades and bit in Wire have slotted very easily into older musician territory but have sneaked out of the treadmill and instead of becoming vintage are still cutting edge.
‘I think there are three different things going on, I think yes the way that we work has been a fairly organic process, it comes naturally and we evolve.
There is also a whole strong conceptual side to the band which comes from a fine art point of view of looking at what we do and the actual making it work which is conceptualized and that comes afterwards. It’s about how you see the work and where you think it stands in relationship to other things. Once you start to have bunch of songs and texts going along you think what does that mean? If anyone says to me what does that album mean there are as many different answers as tracks. I don’t think anybody can lead with concept, you can’t decide what you are going to do and try and make the songs fit. That is a recipe for disaster unless you are really adept and make something quite different from what you what you started out with.’
The big sea change came early in the last decade with the founding of Pink Flag- the label which has been increasingly important to the way we work and obviously the general structure of the day to day running of the band and how it works to be creative and we now find ourselves in a situation where we have to think about how much would it cost to do this show and how much it would cost to do another record and whether to do this or that project would be a good idea considering the cost and those would be the intelligent questions we would have to ask every time.’
Change Becomes Us was a very interesting project- for a start you didn’t write new songs for it but reworked unused old ones.
‘The new album came from a different direction. We were quite fearless with it. We went to Rockfield studios, which is not cheap even if you can get a deal because they don’t give it away cheap! For us it was quite exciting really, we just decided we are going to do this album this way and we thought we would probably get the money back but it was a risk. We developed a consciousness between us of what we needed to do..We were thinking about how to make it work. This needs to be practical. How much does it cost to make is important but it is also fun to create your own freedom and destiny. There are no rules about how you do it. It makes it exciting when things come off- you think wow, that’s a purer statement of what we are about.
It is not to say we don’t have people we work with but there is a sense of things being in house. This is a tight set of people. We have no management. No external record company and nobody telling us what to do and that have a good and bad side to it. Sometimes it is good to have a person to say- you have to do this, sometimes you have to get advice.’
Wire have always been odd. They even write their songs in a unique way with Colin providing the music and bassist Graham Lewis writing the words for Colin to sing- even if he doesn’t know what they are about!
‘A large per cent of Wire songs have always been my tunes and Graham’s lyrics which is peculiar as I sing his words although sometimes he will sing his own. There have been different combinations but that’s generally how it works and there is already an interesting disconnect going on there. I’m involved in an act of interpretation and he doesn’t he tell me what his lyrics mean. Sometimes I have no idea want he is going on about but in that creative moment the idea sounds good.’
Like many long term bands Wire operate under their own rules at their own speed.
‘The sound evolves quite naturally. This time we got our new guitar player Mathew Simmsinto the process from the beginning. He didn’t play on Red Barked Tree only did those songs live but he is fully involved now.
The creative process in Wire is that we have written songs and the band rehearse and performs them and the band builds its own arrangement to the piece- guitar, bass and voice and then there’s the production which tends to be me. I take what has been recorded and everyone can record what they want and if people have ideas for overdubs we add them afterwards and I then add judicious stuff but it has to be in the spirit of the original performance because, for me, that is sacrosanct. The production has to be built around it and what fits. I have a fairly strong sense of where something is going and things evolve naturally.
The new album has got lots of keyboards so we have taken a keyboard player on the road with us this time who is not another member of the band but to add more layers of texture to our sound and that really came out in our festival. It’s not an unusual thing for us to have keyboard parts in Wire but we felt adventurous in what we can do now. We were not expecting them to bring a whole new personality to the sound but the keyboards bring to the piece a different aspect. A song like Time Lock Fog needs the atmosphere of the keyboards which brings the whole thing together and that’s not a song that we have played live apart from at Heaven.’
As you would expect the live Wire is something that is deeply thought about. This is not a band that makes lazy choices.
‘It is always a judgment call with the live set. It’s all about performance and the moment and you got to have stuff that works in that moment. You don’t have to get the focus group bollocks of what are the best-known Wire songs that the fans want to hear. We don’t approach it from that point of view. We have to be good and think what pieces can we play excellently and make the sound amazing. Wire has to be a stand up band.
On this tour the classic Wire is not coming up on the final set list yet, the set will be heavy on the new album with plenty of stuff from all eras of Wire and also two new songs in the set. I got some texts sent from Graham and I am working through them. It’s a big ask to get brand new songs into the set for September but there is always that thing that when confident with the set then we can try things out in the sound check and if we think it will fly then go for it.’
Texts? I knew Wire were minimal but sending lyrics by text is pretty stripped down and quite genius…
‘No! It’s not that I meant the lyrics get sent as texts. He sends them by email! They are written as lyrical texts. He sends them to me and I work them into the music. My peculiarity is that when I’m writing I don’t play guitar unless I’m onstage on stage, in rehearsal room or in the studio. If I’m writing I will play guitar and stuff comes straight away and if I have the words in front of me I have a song. If there are no words I will stop. It’s all about the moment. I wrote a song half an hour ago- I had this part and now I will see what words fit the best. It’s a pretty fast process. It’s a peculiarity of the Wire process- I jam the words into the song, sometimes I have a melody and jam the words in to fit it.
I do write some words but I don’t think of myself like Graham- who think in terms of being a poet- I don’t and I don’t write texts like he does- I write words. I have a very different idea to Graham towards that. I’m fine with writing prose and in terms of writing something lyrical, I don’t have a strong urge to do it. I don’t really push myself lyrically. I don’t think it’s my role in Wire. I believe strongly in a shared responsibility and being with a band that matches my personal philosophy. Everyone has to feel like they have a stake in the writing process. We have to share authorship, the idea of everybody played on it and did they write it so we take a percentage of publishing for the song is a moot point in many bands.’
It’s always tricky to define what a song is exactly.
‘The song for me is that could this still be the song without Wire – the voice, words and basic harmonic structure are there but that is not everything. As long as everybody feels there is something for them in the song. We profit share anyway. We have our own label and we do earn money from the records. It is and has been an issue in the past and there are always two schools of thought in every band- people will say I wrote my bit and someone who wrote the song will say the song is the bit that could be covered by someone else with different instrumentation and not just the bits- there are two diagrammatically opposite ways of looking at this.’
Wire are a band who are constantly defining themselves and these days it feels like they are clover than ever to this definition.
‘We have had a bit of a sea change in the recent past and that relates to the album title- Change Become Us- it is the key meaning- look at the word change, that’s the word that Wire uses to describe itself- Wire has always changed. Change Becomes Wire, it could be that Wire becomes us, the title of the album is actually about the change between the way the band thinks of itself.
We were not a mates’ band but an arts venture. It was useful in the 70s if everybody thought of the band in the third person. No one thinks about returning to the band as individuals- it’s about the commitment to Wire and that includes a new member like Matt as well. Wire is the purely artistic ownership of the means of production and it’s more to do with responsibility. It’s so easy to become almost divorced from the thing. There have been times in the past when you have no idea of why you are doing it. You have an album and tour to do. We live in a world of choices and now we choose to do it. It’s like when you first start – why are we eternally fresh, we always thought of ourselves as a contemporary band and in Britain and American people see us that way.’
This ongoing creative process, the contemporary edge was reflected in a recent article in Mojo that advised readers on which Wire album to buy. Instead of the vintage classics the new albums scored heavily- very rare in a long term band.
‘I think of it in terms of what we do -the results speak for themselves. It was totally fascinating if you saw that Mojo article on how to buy Wire. A lot of people on the forum were talking about what their favorite album was and that listing was interesting – it was not surprising that the first three albums were quite highly placed but we were surprised that Pink Flag was not number one and that our just released Change Becomes Us was so high. I spoke to Mojo journalist, Keith Cameron about it and he was saying that it was a very eloquent statement of where Wire is.
And it’s a rare thing for bands that have been going for a long time. As much as the last Rolling Stones single was not that terrible, nobody is that interested in the them of now and go and see them play before they are dead. People go and see the old bands, not because the new record is any good but for their past. I also think the Stones could make more effort and make a good new record but they are overwhelmed with their own history and why they are so successful with that project that they all they have to do is play stuff from the sixties.’
Not that Wire are adverse to their own history.
‘We do have important anniversary in 2017 – it will be the 40th anniversary of our first gig. We are planning to mark this already. There are no definite plans yet, we probably have an album out at that point in time and probably could do another festival at that point. We can’t wait 4 years for a new album – material and finances dictate another release before then.
That long term planning is important and in place now. With the anniversary, it is such a pity to waste it.
You could play the first Roxy set again and give it the Wire treatment.
‘There are some stinkers in the Roxy set but it would be amazing do an impromptu pop up show in the shoe shop where the Roxy was. It’s a sign of the times that that place is long gone and now a shoe shop! We can be free to think how to interpret that event, that’s proper grown up planning which is not very rock n roll- you’re supposed to be in a band take drugs and not do long term planning (laughs)