Wire Interview – 2014

Responsible for a trio of minor classics in the late 70s, in the form of Pink Flag, Chairs Missing and 154, Wire combined a new wave aesthetic, with art school nous and punk rock noise in creating a unique sound, that transcended musical boundaries. From the frantic punk rush of 12XU to the sublime psychedelic pop of Outdoor Miner, and from the warped industrialism of Once Is Enough to the spooky new wave sounds of I Am The Fly, Wire had it all, alternating a strong melodic nous with an experimental streak.

But, they threw much of that aside, somewhat intentionally, with their fourth album, Document and Eyewitness, a live recording that captured not only the band's desire to not be bound by their history but also expectations heaped on to them by their fans. It seriously divided fans and critics alike, and soon after Wire called it a day, whilst pursuing various solo and collaborative projects.

"We count the first of April, 1977, as the official birthday of Wire," says Colin Newman, referring to their first ever gig as the four-piece they became known as (previously founder member George Gil had also been in the band from it's actual inception in 1976).

Coming out of the punk scene Wire consisted of Colin Newman, Robert Gotobed, Graham Lewis and Bruce Gilbert, and proceeded to latch onto to the possibilities, musically and artistically, that were being prised open by punk, without becoming punks themselves… "We always used to say we had no influences," says Colin Newman. "One of the things we started with was that we didn't want to be a punk band. Punk was, in Britain, a 1976 phenomenon. Quite a lot was tedious by 1977; it was a formula. You had to be in a council flat, you had to be on the dole, all these things, which of course none of the bands particularly were. It had become very formulaic in style and subject matter, rather backward looking. I really don't like 50s rock'n'roll much," he says by way of a minor tangent. "I have a bit of a problem with it. It's an age thing, nothing personal. I was born at a point when 50s rock'n'roll was old, and what was coming in the 60s was new. For me, I'm a child of psychedelic pop. By the time we came to make Wire, I had heard everything: Steve Reich, Can…"

Although they looked punkish with their short hair and straight trousers, briefly enjoyed punk aliases (Colin Newman was Klive Nice, a subversion of Johnny Rotten) and produced many short bursts of noisy punk sounding songs, they ultimately spoke another language to that of punk, one filled with Situationism, general artiness and a general air of wilful abstruseness. 'No Pun(k)s Please, We're Wire', proclaimed an NME cover of late 1977. Their influences were much wider and deeper, and they were hungry to learn more… "People talked about stuff, you went around to other peoples houses to listen to records. You could read about it, but not hear it unless you went to a shop on a Saturday afternoon and get the guy to put a record on for you. Now, even though everything is available, there's still obscurity. I'm not into obscurity for its own value, but one thing which is interesting is that there is no such thing as a timeline anymore; there isn't an 'era' of music now, I don't think. People under a certain age don't understand the concept of a timeline, which I'm fine with. Everything is current at once. Sometimes the older things sound newer than the old things! That's the first time ever in the history of pop that that is said to be true."

Having reformed in 1985, Wire effectively disbanded again after 1991's The First Letter, only to once again regroup in 1999, whereupon favourable reactions led them to decide to stick around. Although they lost Bruce Gilbert in 2004, the band have remained together, recruiting the much younger Matthew Simms as a full time touring member in 2010. "His approach to music is quite similar to ours," says Colin. Of the 'comeback', Newman says: "We didn't want to do the legacy circuit. To us, it does not make any sense to be about the past. We're not afraid of our history, but we're just not interested in dealing with it. Some people make a successful career out of it, but it's not very interesting or exciting for us… We are very excited about new music, and we get good, solid critical acclaim for that and we sell a few records. But, Wire is the most famous band you have never heard of. We've never had any records in the charts, although we did have a top ten album in New Zealand," laughs Newman.

 

Commercially, their highest ever chart placing was for Outdoor Miner (number 51), followed by Eardrum Buzz (number 68), while album wise, 154 made number 39 in 1979. But, this gives only half the picture… "The whole point of what we do, and this is where it links in with Drill, is some kind of connectivity. Wire has influenced a lot of bands. And I mean a lot," says Newman, "from different generations, and different types of music. Some have been influenced by the music, some by the attitude." He's not kidding. They have been expressly influenced by the likes of Manic Street Preachers, REM, The Cure, Minor Threat, My Bloody Valentine, Blur and a host of post-punk revivalists. And then of course Elastica took their love perhaps a step too far when they plagiarised Wire's Three Girl Rhumba for their hit Connection (resulting in an out-of-court settlement).

Fast forward to late 2014, and Wire's Drill:Brighton is about to take place. It follows on from a concept born the previous year when Wire released their Change Becomes Us album, itself much made up of fragments from the Document and Eyewitness album, but decidedly improved on. "The idea of Drill:London was in essence, the launch of the album. Our headline show was at Heaven, and we played the entire album from start to finish the day before it was released. A classically Wire thing to do…

"That went well and which we did as a collaboration with The Quietus, and then we decided that we wanted to continue with the concept of the Drill Festival. We then did one in Seattle, this time last year."

Drill is a name of a Wire song from their 1986 Snakepit Drill EP, which represented the comeback for the band after the very poorly received Document and Eyewitness in 1981. `With the Drill track subsequently cited as an influence on minimalist European techno, Wire then released The Drill album in 1991, which was effectively a number of remixes of the original Drill song. It gives us a unique and interesting contact to operate in when we are doing something like a festival. We naturally operate in a multi-genre world. A festival consisting entirely of post-punk bands would be, I think, the most boring thing you could imagine. Wire wouldn't even play, let alone curate," says Newman. "I think this is not so unusual now, or conceptually not so unusual, but if you go back to the 70s, we solidly believed that what we did was art. We weren't embarrassed having the A word attached to us. We tried to do things that were interesting for us and the audience. It meant we did things in a different way. Traditionally, groups would tour, and then get signed, and their first album would be their set, and that's why the second album is often a problem, because you've played the first album for years… With us, when we did our first album, we'd barely been going for six months, and we'd already thrown out stuff from the set; we hadn't toured extensively at all. So, we saw no reason for us to be attached to the material on the first record. Pink Flag came out in December (1977), and by January we were already playing a set that consisted of half of Chairs Missing. And we continued in that way. We would do the things we were most excited by. We always had a new toy."

In collaboration with Brighton's One Inch Badge, Drill:Brighton is a fantastic looking festival, with over 100 acts playing in 14 different venues, spread across four days. Colin is both excited and nervous about the prospect. "It is very ambitious, scarily ambitious!" he laughs. Headliners include such diverse acts as the post-rock noiseniks Swans, contemporary all-girl post-punkers Savages, Brighton's British Sea Power (who will be collaborating with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra Brass Quintet), alt-indie legends Wedding Present, the wonderfully literate alt-pop and rock of Courtney Barnett, psychedelic rockers Toy, UK hip hoppers, and recent Mercury Music Prize winners, Young Fathers, and indie punks Blood Red Shoes. Many of these acts will be playing smaller venues than they are used to (for instance Blood Red Shoes will be performing at Bleach).

"It's a great honour to have Savages," says Newman, "and we're very lucky to have Courtney Barnett. We are doing a collaboration with Swans, which will be fascinating. This is a key feature of the festival, there are certain things we do, like performing the song Drill with another band. In London we did it with Teeth of the Sea, In Seattle we did it with Earth. What that technically means  is that we turn up at the end of the set to play. It could go either way… It's going to be interesting. I like the idea of something that isn't totally tied down."

Of course, Wire will be performing their own set, and as is the tradition now, they'll be concluding with the title track of their debut Pink Flag album. "We always finish with the Pink Flag Guitar Orchestra, which features up to 30 guitarists. It's only one chord, no skill required! We basically ask people if they want to do it, people who are known or unknown, girls and boys…"

"There's also plenty of music not so known on the bill, including a set by cult rockers Goblin. "The concept of the show is fantastic; it's a soundtrack to a movie called Suspera, It's Italian prog and it's a horror movie. What's not to like about that? C'mon!" he laughs. And there is more… "Monotony are the same band as Sauna Youth; Anyone who listens to Marc Riley will know he's been caning their EP, literally a track every day. Monotony have swapped their instruments from what they normally play as Sauna Youth; it's a kind of moronic punk rock – it's knowing but not in a knowing way."

Brighton is very well represented at Drill:Brighton. As well as the aforementioned British Sea Power, Wedding Present and Blood Red Shoes, there's the Physics House Band, AK/DK, The Wytches, Fujiya & Miyagi, Esben & The Witch, Verity Susman (ex-Electrelane), Early Ghost, Speak Galactic, Monsters Build Mean Robots, Graham Duff and many others with current or past Brighton and Sussex connections. "We should be using local acts, its showing the city to itself. But Brighton has such an active music scene, I'm not sure it's such a story as it might be in other places. It's not meant to be an advert for the city," says Newman.

And then there's Githead, a side project of Newman's, who also feature his wife Malka Spigel (ex-Minimal Compact) and Robin Rimbaud, otherwise known as Scanner (so called because he used to use a scanning device on stage to pick up random radio and mobile phone signals, which he then incorporated into his music) and who have their fifth album released the day after Drill:Brighton finishes. "The fact that Robin is in this band could be seen by some people as quite pretentious, so you would expect the band to have a name that is clever and considered. I think Robin said, 'why don't we call ourselves Githead', and this had everyone laughing and thinking this was the most stupid name anyone could call anything."

Will you do another Drill? "There are plenty of plans," he says. "The next Drill will be a completely different concept, a single venue in London, which will be the album launch for the next Wire album. We are also in discussions to hold Drill in another American city. Drill doesn't stay in one place, that's not the point of it." And this, despite the fact that, coincidentally it seems, Newman has recently relocated here. "I only came down in September. We've been here a lot of times, and enjoyed the city… The air is clean, which is a big plus for it, but you don't need me to tell you that… I'm amazed at the genuine reactions from residents here, how much they love it. I feel like it's somewhere we want to be for a while."

Jeff Hemmings

Website: pinkflag.com
Facebook: facebook.com/WIRE.pinkflag