Wire: the transcripts

A conversation with Wire's Colin Newman

Wire: the transcripts

Photo by Alex Vanhee

Read our original Wire interview here.

There's a transcript of our interview with Graham Lewis here.

I was looking at the gigography on your website, and it looks like Wire has played more shows this year than in any year since 1978.
We'll end up, this year, playing more shows even than in 1978.

Isn't that what bands are supposed to do when they're starting out?
I know. It's a ploy, in some ways. We don't accord to the general rules of how you're supposed to be. There are a lot of groups of, shall we say, a certain vintage who realize that you can play your old records, and people will come and see it and they'll pay you quite a lot of money for it. But unfortunately, the problem with the 'back from the dead' approach is that it's pretty much a one shot. After they've seen it… basically, people go – to be brutal – because they want to see you before you die, and after they've seen it, what is there left for you to do? And if you haven't made a record for, like, 30 years or something like that, nobody's going to like any new records that you make. You've got yourself in a trap. I think Wire have finally managed to successfully avoid that trap.

The approach that we took in the '80s was a sort of anti-nostalgia one, just simply because that was when we were in our thirties, and the audience that we had were mainly the same audience we'd had when we were in our twenties, only ten years older. And we didn't really feel nostalgic for the '70s, and didn't think that anybody else should be either. But then, you know, there was a period of time in between 1990 and 2000 when we weren't working together, and when we came back round again, the first thing we tried was playing from a sort of mix of older material, but we just couldn't keep off the idea of doing new material – actually, it seemed more relevant. In a way, we've cultivated an audience that would expect that. So, by 2002 we were already on the trail of new material. So I think, having kind of established that, we then had to, I think, go through a couple of loops to finally come with a record that got a set of reviews – certainly here [in the UK] – that were, 'well, this is at least as good as what they were doing in the '70s.' That's really hard for a band to get.

You know, if you look at any 'classic' band: did the Rolling Stones make a record in the last five years? I have no idea. I have no idea whether it was very good, but nobody's going to be saying, 'Hey, the Rolling Stones have just done another Beggars Banquet' or something like that. Nobody's going to be doing that – that's not going to be happening. And so the fact that we've been getting lauded in that way, because we've stuck at it really… I mean, there's been a method in our madness. There were times when people within the industry have said, 'Why don't you just take the easy route?' But we've seen other bands doing it, and we've seen them, frankly… you know… [Sighs] Yeah, they get to play festivals and stuff like that, but there's a point where they can't do any more because they haven't got any more to do. And, just on the back of having an album which has had a lot of attention – and, coincidentally, has also sold very well – there were a lot of offers for shows, and we've kind of taken it up.

The original plan was actually to do some club shows and then do a bunch of festivals, and in many ways the festivals that we've done so far this year have been quite disappointing. We're becoming more and more interested in the idea of club shows. I mean, what we are going to do – we've just announced – is our second British tour this year, which is pretty amazing. The British market is one of the toughest in the world, and for a band of our age to be going around doing two British tours within one year, and the second tour a bigger and longer tour in bigger venues is a pretty remarkable achievement. And there's been a lot of demand for it. I mean, it's… There are two ways you can look at that. You can say that there's the hard work that we've put in to make sure that we have the right thing and we're doing it in the right way. And secondly, there is of course time and place. And I think the other side of that story, of bands going round and doing their classic album or something like that, is people become very bored with that. They saw it, and the ones that can remember it from the first time around [say], 'Yeah, it was good, but it didn't have the buzz…' And the younger fans are like, 'Yeah, I'm really glad I saw that,' but then they would be more excited about seeing a band their own age. So it's like… It's a very, very hard thing, because the industry divides up between contemporary and classic, and woe betide any band who are 'classic' who attempt to be 'contemporary.' But we appear this year to have pulled it off.

Do you think you could've done that if you weren't releasing your own music?
I think obviously, again, there's another history there, which is the history of the label. And that's to do with my background – you know, I'm sitting in our studio, which is in my house – being involved in being a label since the '90s, and bringing that experience to that version of Wire that's been released since 2000, I think made a big difference. I kind of get my cues in a way, for good or bad, from somebody like Damien Hirst. Because the idea that an artist is someone who kind of sits around and makes sketches, and waits for a man to give him a pile of money so he can develop it into proper paintings is, frankly, in this day and age, a little bit old-fashioned and absurd. And once you get beyond a certain age, there are no people queueing up to give you money anyway.

So I had already developed, alongside the whole notion of self-production – a studio, a label, I just kind of fell into that thing of knowing how to do it – and so by the time we were doing Wire, I already had some kind of track record, a set of relationships that could take that forward. Although I was initially reluctant to do Pinkflag, in the end it seemed like it was the only really logical way of doing it. And, really, the history of the label… We started out doing small imprints for mail order and show sales, and then once we got into the new material, the thing that really changed everything was Read & Burn 01. The idea was that initially, that we would do a few EPs and then we would compile them into albums, and we'd sell a couple of thousand of each EP and then we'd put them onto the album and… Read & Burn 01 sold 17,000 in the first two weeks, and it was like, 'Woah…' That strategy went out the window. You suddenly realized there was an appetite out there already, in 2002, 2003, for new Wire material, and people were excited about it. And we had to figure out a way of coming through on that.

There was a level of complexity about how to do the productions, because, with the initial four-piece, you only had two people living in London, one living in Sweden, one living in Leicestershire, and we had no real money. My studio was my garage: it's great for mixing, you can play – as long as it's not drums, a drumkit – you can't record a band in here. We didn't really have the budget to record a band. So all the recording of Send was actually done in a rehearsal room…

Which is why the drums have that sound to them…
Yeah, so it sounds very, very claustrophobic, in a way. And when we came round to doing Object 47, one of the kind of revisions, sort of post-Bruce, was, well, let's not do it like that. At that point, I'd already developed a relationship with somebody who had a studio that was, you know, that had a proper live room, so we started recording there. And that worked for Object 47, but that still had the same kind of idea of assemblage as a way of making [an album] – it's basically hip-hop. Loads and loads of people make records like that, but it makes a certain kind of record. I'm lucky enough to be in two bands, and both bands – the other band's called Githead – they are radically different in the way that they operate, but in terms of putting a record together, the previous Githead album had been very instructive, because we had done a lot of it actually recording ensemble, and I just thought, well, how do you do Wire ensemble? Unlike Githead, Wire's not a jamming band: you can't stick it in a room and say, we'll play some stuff and then we'll sort it all out later. It needs structured material. So I just thought, well, what we should do is I should write some songs, and then the band should learn them in the studio and play them, and then that will be the basis for the production. It's a fairly ambitious plan.

It was going to be done in the studio where we'd done Object 47 and [Githead's] Landing, and… that sort of disappeared, and it's a bit of a long and complicated story, but we were supposed to be doing it at the back end of 2009 and it didn't happen, so I had to find a studio in London for the band to record. We literally went in in February 2010 with a pile of songs written on acoustic guitar, a couple of things that Graham brought from Logic, and then in three days just learned and recorded everything. And then I spent the ensuing best part of a year sort of finessing that – we did have another session in early June, of a couple of days in a different studio where we added some different colours to the record, especially the organs and stuff like that – and it was really kind of using… What I wanted was that, I knew I'd figured out a way over the last 20 years to make a record sound good, but I didn't want to do it out of bits any more. I wanted to make a record that was based, pretty much wholly, on the performances of the members, and especially the initial arrangement: how the material strikes the band.

I write pretty fast, you know: acoustic guitar, vocals… Because I don't do it all the time – in fact, I haven't really done it like that for 20 years – I can bring a certain freshness to it. I don't play the guitar unless I have to; I'm not one of those people that sits around noodling on guitars, I don't touch it. So when I pick it up, I'll start playing something, and if that's exciting enough for me to – if I've got some words in front of me – to start making a song. So the songs are written really fast, and the arrangements also come together really fast. I mean, it's just: how does that material strike everybody when we're standing, trying to work out and play it? It's amazing how quickly you can develop those things – and something which would just take forever to do putting it together out of bits. It just doesn't have that flow to it. I know it's very kind of old-school, but that was really the basic aim. And I was absolutely convinced this was going to be a brilliant process.

Initially, I did send out some acoustic guitar songs, and Graham said… Robert said, 'It sounds like the '70s' and Graham said, 'I hate acoustic guitars.' That's classic Wire, really. But as soon as they engaged with the material, it was like everybody owned it. That's the other thing about doing it like this: because we made the arrangements between us, in one point, everybody feels an ownership of the material, right from the start. And you don't have to play it in the studio, and then learn it afterwards for live, because what people play is pretty much what they would naturally play anyway, so it makes the songs much more easy to play live. I was 100 percent convinced that this was going to be a successful process. I don't think I could've predicted quite how successful it would be. The sales have been remarkable.

What, compared to the last couple of albums you put out?
Yeah, yeah, absolutely. And Send was a pretty good seller, we're definitely going to completely outsell Send. You're going to have to be looking back very far back in the catalogue to find a record that has sold as much as Red Barked Tree. And this is another remarkable thing…

Especially considering what the industry is like at the moment.
Absolutely, absolutely. We're sort of bucking a trend. And I think it's all to do with the fact that it's Wire being Wire. It's exactly what… That's the only way you can really describe it. It doesn't sound like it's a record from the '70s, but it sounds like Wire. And it has those elements of it that people identify with being from the band. It's, in so many cases, one's had the impression that people are saying, 'Well, this is the record that we've been waiting for for years.' It's going to be interesting to follow it up, but we don't have to care about that now because we're still pretty much in the cycle of the album itself. We're having… It's good to have a bit of a lighter summer, we've only had one show in June. And considering how much globe-trotting…

Oh, I suppose the other thing to mention is that on stage, of course, we are a four-piece. During the period, sort of 2008-2009 when we were touring around Object 47, we had Margaret Fiedler McGinnis play with us, and she came to us at a point when the band was incredibly fragile. We had lost a founder member, we weren't convinced that we could make a convincing live band, even, and we were able to put something together that was convincing and worked. So we were able to do a fair amount of shows, and got to sound pretty good, but felt that this should be – at least, at that point, we felt it should be a revolving post. And, when we had some shows in 2010 – just a few, a short French tour before playing Primavera – so we auditioned and we got a new guitarist, Matt Simms, who's younger, and really aced the audition by having the right sound: not only being able to play the songs, but coming with the right sounds. And he's done remarkably well with us, and really adds considerably to the… he's not necessarily playing his own parts, but the way he comes at the band that fits very well with the live show, and has meant that we've been able to take enormous risks live.

We've just played a show at the Royal Festival Hall, in Ray Davies' Meltdown, and we put four pieces that had either never been played before or hadn't been played for years before in the set, with just one day rehearsal, and pretty much pulled it off. And that's... The band is in a very, very strong position right now. The last time we played in Japan was during the Send period and I know that people liked it a lot. It's a very, very different band now. It is very lyrical, and… It's not hard to be more melodic than Send. [Chuckles] I mean, in many ways, Send was important because we kind of had to say, yeah – other people have tried to make that point since, but we were probably the first – that you don't have to be flabby if you're old. You can be shockingly intense. And this was, it was kind of useful. But then there just came a point where… I think one of the good things about Wire is that we tend not to belabor points. Once we've made a point, then it's just like, okay, we've made that point, we can go on to the next thing. Consistency is not, really… I don't think you have to be consistent in art. You have to be consistently good, you don't have to be consistently the same. You don't want your cheese to taste like toothpaste, but when it comes to your art, if it's a bit different every time, that's quite good.

Definitely. With Red Barked Tree, when the album came out you were doing quite a lot of interviews for it, but I was wondering, having toured it quite extensively since then, if your opinion of the songs on the album has changed somehow.
Um… Yes and no, I think. And, obviously, some of them, you've just played them a lot of times so you become very familiar, it's become a very familiar skin. But then, I've become very familiar with… The thing with the pre… the sort of recording and the initial putting together was vey fast, but then I'm quite slow in terms of the finessing. I worked pretty solidly on the record from February till September, so I'd spent a lot of time with that material. So it'd probably be a better thing to ask Graham, because he'd spent less time with the material. Although, you know, it is part of the process that we're bouncing around stuff all the time, and people are sort of listening and giving opinions. In many ways, what I'm trying to do with the production process, it should be, hopefully, invisible: it's just, oh, well that's the song.

That's a very different approach to Send: Send has got a lot of tricks on it. That's partly Bruce's influence, because Bruce likes tricks, he likes bits which go suddenly from one bit to another bit. But in many ways, you hear that as production, from my point of view: 'Oh yeah, that's something the producer did.' Whereas I quite like the idea that it just sounds like the band playing, and it gets to the nub of the material, because I'm really coming to it from the point of view of being a musician and a songwriter, rather than from an engineer point of view. I think it's really important, and I think it was really important for this record that it's like that, because again, it's about representing the band, and I knew that there would be quite a lot of live playing afterwards. So there has to be… The live playing doesn't have to sound exactly the same as the record, but if they live in the same world, that's not a bad thing.

So up until this point, had you seen Wire as more of a live band or as more of a studio band?
My attitude towards it, personally… especially… I think, you go back to when we started to come back together after Bruce had left, I mean, Bruce was always very reluctant about playing live. He would play live somewhere where he'd never been before, somewhere interesting to go, but didn't like… He doesn't really like touring. I don't think anybody really likes touring, but it's a necessary evil, and one of the things I said was that if we're going to do this, we have to think seriously about how much we're going to play live. This was 2006, really. Because it was so obvious from the way the industry was going that the live show had become paramount. Having gone through the 90s, where live music was reduced, and god was a DJ, suddenly everything turned round on the millennium cusp, and you had much more interest in live bands.

And of course – I'm not the first or the last person to say – you can't download a live gig. You've either got to be there or not there. There's no equivocating about it. Yeah, you can shoot it on your mobile phone and upload to YouTube, but it's not the same thing, it's not a visceral experience. A live album, watching a festival on TV – none of those are a replacement for being in a room with a band that's playing live. It's all about the moment. And it seemed to me that it was important that Wire would become that. It was something that we had developed during the same period, we had become an effective live band, and it was important to me – and I think has become important to everyone – that we were an effective live band. And I think that we were sometimes brilliant but sometimes rubbish in the '80s, and I think in the '70s we were actually pretty good live sometimes, but we felt that the live show wasn't really that important, it was just to promote the albums. But that's '70s thinking, that's not… We're in the second decade of the third millennium: it's all about now, you can't not respond to how the conditions are. So, I think being a live band is pretty important to us, yeah.

From what I've been reading about your shows recently, it sounds like there isn't such a visual element to them, compared to some of what you've done in the past.
We haven't got to a point where we are able to incorporate any kind of extras. I think there are reasons for doing that – one really obvious one is cost. If you're going to put on some kind of spectacular, kind of visual show, that really ups the amount of money that you have to spend on putting the show together. And there have to be economics in there. I'm in charge… my job as the sort of head of the label means that I'm sort of responsible for quite a lot of things, and one of the things that I take on as a responsibility is that everybody earns money out of it. This is incredibly important. This is not greed-driven: this is about being able to do this properly. There is no way that any artist can operate to the best of their ability if they can't afford to live off it. As soon as you stop being able to afford to live off it then it becomes a hobby. And the other thing you're doing to earn your money becomes the main focus of your life. And then that means that you can't give it the time and energy that you need. So you've got to be able to first of all make a living out of it – it's absolutely important, and paramount. And once you… it would be nice to imagine that Wire's star is definitely rising, but there might be a point where we're doing shows that are large enough where we have to think about bringing in the different element, because that will take it further. Really, it's about, right now, the visceral experience of being in what is not a particularly large club, and seeing a band, right there in front of you, kind of doing it.

With the event that you're coming over to Japan for, it's the birthday party at this club, Unit. Last year at the same event they had Cluster playing, and the year before it was Silver Apples. I was just wondering how it feels to be placed in that company…
Um… (Pauses) Fine. I mean, obviously they're going after the last-man-standing, living legends, aren't they? I met the Silver Apples – what's he called? I've forgotten his name, the guy from the Silver Apples…

What is it, Simeon or something?
Yeah, Simeon. He's such an irrepressible name-dropper. And nobody can challenge him, because nobody's old enough to have been around, in Greenwich Village when he was playing with Jimi Hendrix, or whatever it was that he was doing – I don't know the story, it's very long and… whatever. It's amazing, that's an amazing story, that somebody who perhaps is not as obscure as Vashti Bunyan, but who pretty obscure at the time, has managed to mold a career now, going out and being it, simply because he's the last man standing. With Cluster, I saw them at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, they had a sort of Berlin with To Rococo Rot, and they did a sort of bit where they played – Cluster played, and then To Rococo Rot played after that. I was really disappointed. It was just all laptops. I just thought, well they haven't… I know it's probably easy to do it like that, and make the music sound like they want it to sound, but it has no real element in it that sounded, kind of… in any way… No it wasn't, it was Tortoise. It was with Tortoise. It was at the Royal Festival Hall. That was a weird gig anyway. I know Tortoise quite well, because I've played with them, we did have some vague plan to do something together at some point. So… I wasn't greatly overwhelmed. But then, on the other hand, I've seen Michael Rother do the, you know, just the laptop thing, but then when they do the thing with the drummer from Sonic Youth – I saw it at Primavera last year and it was awesome.

Yeah, just because it's Krautrock. As soon as the bass and the drums come in, you know… There's Michael does this like, you know, what he does, with all these loops going and whatever, and then suddenly the bass and the drums drop in and you just want to jump up and down. It's that rhythm, you know. I've forgotten – it's named after one of the songs, I can't remember what the project's called, but it's really amazing. I think if people engage with the thing in the right way, older musicians can pull it off. But it's not good to just take the easy option, and get out the machines and kind of stand there and be a legend. You've gotta do more than that. But I don't know who else is playing. I know nothing else about the line-up.

It's a really, really random line-up, actually. They've got a lot of DJs, obviously, but… They have this Japanese band playing, Friction, who are actually of fairly similar vintage to Wire – I think they started up in the late 70s or early 80s, when Japan had something that you might vaguely equate to the punk and post-punk scene in the UK. And they're one of these bands who have intermittently gone on hiatus and then come back, but are still going. I've honestly never seen them live, but apparently they just put on quite a rocking show. Then it's a load of DJs – they've got Eye from the Boredoms DJing, but I doubt you would've heard of any of the others.
Graham knows Eye. I mean, I've met him. That sounds quite a… I think we play quite late. I talked to Shin, the guy that's putting the show on, it's mainly about practical details. I need to get him and talk to him about some of the other stuff. I'm immensely looking forward to it. I mean, any reason to go to Japan. It's really interesting, the way that the request came. On the American tour, probably one of the highlights was New York, where we played, basically, two sell-out shows – one in Manhattan and one in Brooklyn – and also did Jimmy Fallon, which is national TV, and WFMU, which is the coolest. And we did all that in two days, and it was really, like… 'Fuck, this is amazing.' And then, we were just loading up from the hotel to go off and play the New York show, and I just got an email from our agent offering this show. And I kind of got in the van and said, 'Does anyone wanna go to Tokyo?'

We had hoped that we might get invited to go, but Japan has sort of… the market has changed. Five or ten years ago, you would always go to Japan if you went to Australia and New Zealand. Well, we've been to Australia and New Zealand this year, earlier, and we didn't go to Japan. Not only that – we have a licensee in Australia and New Zealand who also books shows. He's originally from Hong Kong, so he's quite into promoting shows in the Far East, and he wants us to do some Far Eastern shows – but won't be doing Japan. He doesn't book Japan, it's a separate thing. And Japan seems to have – I guess because of the economic situation – sort of dropped off a little bit. So you'll get the bigger bands at the festivals, or whatever, and you'll get special one-off things, but perhaps you're not getting as much touring traffic as you might have got in previous years.

Interview by James Hadfield
Please note: All information is correct at the time of writing but is subject to change without notice.


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