Colin Newman on Wire: Creatively cohesive
Wire’s 1977 debut, Pink Flag, was noisy but the noise was tempered. The guitars on album opener “Reuters” were distorted but not that distorted. Most songs clocked in at one or two minutes in length and almost had an industrial feel to them. Band members have said they were essentially still learning to play their instruments on Pink Flag. But with 1978’s Chairs Missing and 1979’s 154, the group developed a bit more confidence and proved Pink Flag was no fluke. Singer-guitarist Colin Newman phoned us from England to talk about the group’s new self-titled effort.
You wanted to get a spontaneous reaction from the band for the album. Talk about how you went about doing that.
There are two ways in which we arrived at the final pieces. One is that there were things written before that we had played live. There are three of those on the album. For the rest of the pieces, I had this idea that the way to get the best out of everyone was for them to have heard nothing beforehand. I came to the studio with a bunch of pieces. We just played the song to everyone in the control room. We all learned it together and then we played it. There are arguments for both ways of doing things. The argument for the first way is that people can grow into the pieces and develop them. The argument for the second way is that you get that instant reaction. That’s good because there’s a history in Wire of people forgetting things. There was one song that we were playing live and could have been on the record but [bassist] Graham [Lewis] forgot the bass line. None of us read music. There’s no way to notate something. I really like to capture the band in a way. We talked about in principle about how we go about the next record and we agree that that mixture is a good one.
The basic tracks were recorded at Rockfield Studios near Monmouth, with overdubs added at Brighton Electric last December following the DRILL: BRIGHTON Festival. What was the recording experience like?
It’s the second album we’ve done there though we worked in a different studio in the complex this time. It was fun. It was easy on one level. Once you set it up, the way of recording is that you can record everything at once. The basic take of the song can all be recorded at once with a performance. It’s a good way to do something cohesive. You’re not layering stuff and creating stuffy by layering. The problem is that you change something fundamental in the arrangement it becomes too difficult. It’s easy to work those things out really fast.
“Sleep-Walking” is such an ominous tune. What inspired it?
It’s very simple. Lyrically, it’s about the fragile state of Britain politically, especially separation. We could be out of the EU. We could decide to just go off because they’re being treated like shit. I see myself as British and I think it’s a sentiment that a lot of people do share. I don’t want to be English. Scotland and Wales and Ireland are their own places. Everybody has the right to their connection to a country. It certainly isn’t coming from a conservative, unionist perspective. I know the UK is a body that needs reformed. I don’t think there’s any sense to it. The kind of people who want to leave are the kind of people who like to take orders. It’s what it comes down to. It’s a small-minded way to looking at the world. It’s a real concern. It’s an interesting moment. I don’t want to be over topical. You can also say the song is about other things as well. It could be any situation where people are drifting apart.
“Harpooned” is one of the heaviest songs on the album.
It has a fascinating history. We have been playing it live and it came into the set in September 2013. It’s quite old. We wanted to do it very slow and it’s very, very simple. We started playing it live and people reacted very strongly. We have been closing the set with it now for two years. It took on a life of its own. It got to the point where it’s an old story but live it’s impossibly loud. If you haven’t got earplugs in, God help you.
Graham Lewis once told me that punk was 1976. Wire was 1977. Talk about that distinction.
It wasn’t that punk was irrelevant by 1977 but you didn’t want to be a punk band in 1977. There were too many other bands being punk bands. We had other concerns. It depends on how old you are. For someone now in their twenties and thirties, they might not see a distinction. Punk hated Wire. We played too slow and the songs were too short. We were arty and intellectual, all of the things you weren’t supposed to be. We didn’t look like punk. We were quite smart. We were somewhat fashionable. It was a different thing.
Was it the case you were still learning to play your instruments on Pink Flag?
I think it’s really different for whoever you are talking about. Robert Gotobed was pretty new on drums and found it the hardest. Graham had been playing the bass for a while. Bruce [Gilbert] had been playing the guitar a while but had only played in open tuning but not standard tuning. I played a bit on Pink Flag and I wrote the songs. I didn’t play the songs on guitar. I was just a singer at the beginning. I was singing my songs. Bruce had to learn things I had written which weren’t easy to play. It’s not about the talent of individual instrumentalists, although people have become very good at what they do. Robert has become a fearsome drummer.
What does the band’s future look like?
I think the year after next is our 40th anniversary so we need to do something special for that. We want to have an album out then but we can’t guarantee it. Another thing that happened with this one is that we set the release to coincide with a date in London. I also moved last year so finishing the production was hard. I delivered it a month sooner than I had promised but it was too late for the vinyl. If we had had vinyl the week of release, we would have gone Top 40. This is a new concern. You could say charts are rubbish but certain things will happen because you’ve sold very well. People pay more attention to you and your value goes well. It’s a good thing for the band ultimately . . . not that we’re trying to make Top 40 music.
Upcoming 2015 Shows
Music Hall Of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, NY
Bowery Ballroom, New York, NY
Union Transfer, Philadelphia, PA
Black Cat, Washington, D.C.
Beachland Ballroom, Cleveland, OH
Majestic Theatre, Detroit, MI
Headliners, Louisville, KY