40 years ago come April Fool’s Day, Wire set foot on the stage at the legendary The Roxy, in London. Bottom of a bill (“they were OK, but pretty much the style of Rotten take-off bands”, according to punk blogger Adrain Fox) that included Eater and Buzzcocks, this was in fact the moment when Wire stepped out of the increasingly stultifying shadow of punk, and instead became part of the much more creatively fruitful and infinitely more interesting post punk and new wave scenes. Coming out of the punk scene, Wire consisted of Colin Newman, Robert Grey, Graham Lewis and Bruce Gilbert, and proceeded to latch onto the possibilities, musically and artistically, that were being energetically prised open by punk, without really becoming punks themselves. In particular, their opening three albums (Pink Flag, Chairs Missing, 154), are a triumvirate of classic proportions, works that are still held up as era-defining muscial pieces that defined British art-rock.
40 years later and Wire – with the same lineup minus Bruce Gilbert, plus Matthew Simms – are improbably still at it. Not in a cash-in nostalgic sort of way, as befits many from that era, but as a prolifically creative on-going way. They are a band that refuse to snatch more than a glance of their past in decidedly focusing on the road ahead, both in the abstract and the physical sense. Lead singer and the man responsible for most of the band’s music, Colin Newman, has made Brighton and Hove his home, and he took some time out to talk to BF about all things Wire.
Silver/Lead is being released one day shy of your 40th anniversary.
It’s the first anniversary of the first gig with the classic four-piece. There was a band that existed called Wire in the latter part of 1976, but that was somebody else’s band. It wasn’t until we kicked that person (George Gill) out of his own band, that what you would think of Wire was really born. That first gig was actually recorded. We played on the bottom of the bill at a punk festival to about three and a half people (the recording of that gig, and the one on the subsequent day, is available as Live at the Roxy, London – April 1st & 2nd 1977/Live at CBGB Theatre, New York – July 18th 1978) But we were playing half of what became Pink Flag.
How does it sound to your ears today?
That live album had a fair amount of post-production, because it was not brilliant. It sounds old now. Just old. 40 years is an awful long time ago. You’re not the same person. You aren’t even physically the same person. All of your cells have been replaced several times. In effect, we’re younger, but stupider.
You’ve been very prolific of late. Silver/Lead is your fourth album of the decade, plus there was last year’s mini-album Nocturnal Koreans.
We have released quite lot recently, yes. It wasn’t totally a plan. We could have just ignored the anniversary, but I felt we could do something with it somehow, even if just to prove to people that we don’t live in the past. It was the right thing to do, to release a new album. Certainly in Wire’s way of thinking. A forward looking gesture. It struck me when we did Change Becomes Us in 2013. How long you can run commercially and that means how often can you tour? If you only tour every five years there isn’t a lot of point in putting out a new record in-between. You can’t really support that. It made sense for us to do the self-titled album in 2015. But we recorded way too much when we did it, so we had another album’s worth of material (Nocturnal Koreans). The idea was to see if we could put out a record without actually doing a tour, maybe just a couple of gigs. You obviously don’t do as well, but we did OK! I think we’ve been fresh in people’s minds because we’re releasing all the time, and that has been a good thing. The economics suggests that releasing an album every year isn’t necessarily a good thing, but if you’ve got the material then you can find ways.
You now release material on your own label?
Pink Flag is our own label, and I run it. We don’t really need to adhere to any rules. What you don’t want to do is go out on the road and not play to anybody. That is more disaster.
Tell me about Wire’s writing and recording processes.
I will write a bunch of material ahead of recording an album. We’ll book a session and then we’ll record it and I’ll then bring it here (his home) and work on it. Then we might do a bit more, and then I’ll finish and mix it. We made two visits to Rockfield. But everything is finished in my studio. All my vocals, all the keyboard work. There’s plenty of Brighton in it.
It’s all very deadline driven. This album had to be finished in October because of the long lead times for vinyl. It takes some of the spontaneity out of it but at the same time it gives you a frame to work to. I don’t write in that way unless I’m writing for a Wire record. I’m not sitting around writing songs every day.
And Graham Lewis is still writing all the lyrics?
Yes, he wrote all the lyrics for this record. He calls them texts.
Can you talk to me about the song Short Elevated Period and what it all means?
Graham tends to conflate a lot of things together. It’s partly to do with how he talks and thinks. He’s quite playful with language, but there will be several different things running through a piece. There’s never been any requirement for a Wire song to make any sense, either musically or lyrically.
He has this ability to come up with words that conjures up strong visual imagery.
I think that’s what he does. It is very much how he talks. It is sometimes quite difficult to communicate because he doesn’t do absolutes, really. So, when you’re having a technical conversation, when you require certain information, I’ll send him an email asking for certain information, and he won’t give me the information, he’ll give me a question. ‘If you give me the information first I’ll answer your question’! There is so much about how people are that makes its way into what they do. It’s ridiculously obvious. Wire is peculiar in that it is and always has been four individuals with very different viewpoints of the world. Where we meet is probably where Wire is. Sometimes it would be hard to imagine we would agree on anything ever. Sometimes we agree on everything. There isn’t a lot of logic to it. I think that’s part of its beauty.
And the album title, Silver/Lead. What does that mean?
From Graham’s perspective it’s the philosophy of the Mexican drug gangs. All problems can be solved with either silver or lead. Silver being money, lead being bullets. You can enlarge that for the whole world. There are plenty of people who do believe that, by paying people off or shooting them. Figuratively, as well, I also like the imagery of clouds either being leaden or having a silver lining, but they they are still clouds. I felt it to be really appropriate to our anniversary, because we’re not going to get MBE’s or a spot on Desert Island Discs. Nobody is going to say, ‘Well done chaps’. What do you expect? We’re not in it to get medals, to get the silver and the glory. We’re going to get a lead one, probably! I will always find a way to relate Graham’s lyrics to the band, although they are not often about the band. I think he quite likes the fact I did find a parallel there.
How you finding life down these parts?
I’ve been here two and a half years already, more even. I don’t have to sell it to you or anyone who lives in Brighton. It’s a little island. Sometimes it feels like a little island of sanity in a very crazy world. I did feel especially proud – although I would have felt the same if I was still in London – that Brighton was one of the places that emphatically didn’t go for Brexit. I love the openness of it. I love the fact it has got a massive LGBT community, and that it’s completely random at times. It doesn’t necessarily make that much sense. As time goes on I think we feed more and more into the local scene, as it were. With Graham Duff (writer of comedy sitcom Ideal and massive Wire fan), Malta Spigel (with whom he is Immersion, a musical sideline) and a guy called Andy Rossiter (local promoter, venue manager etc) we’ve started an occasional night called Nanocluster. We had one back in January, which Immersion played at, and we’re planning another one right now. It will be one-offs at the moment, but I hope to step it up with a bit more regularity next year. Brighton is a place where you can do things like that. When we lived in South West London you couldn’t do anything there. There’s nothing local. You had to be in Stoke Newington, or somewhere like that to achieve anything, especially in music. And Brighton is especially well set up for music. I don’t think I’ve come across a place like it. Everything is here.
Many will remember Drill:Brighton which you helped to curate a couple of years back. I see there are several Drill: Festivals coming up (Los Angeles, Berlin, Brussels, Leeds) in the next month or two!
We’re actually going to be in Los Angeles for the anniversary which seems somehow fitting, rather than a basement in Covent Garden in the 70s. It suits our story. Because we’re not into looking back, the nostalgia thing. Where The Roxy was in Neal Street is now a shoe shop. The idea of setting up a stage in the basement of a shoe shop sounds a bit stupid to me. And the idea of Drill: is not to do the same event twice. Each one is a bit different.