Posted July 4, 2013 by Jeff in Tunes

Wire’s Graham Lewis digs into past, but he’s no archaeologist


Formed in 1976 in England just as the punk rock scene was exploding, Wire decided to draw upon punk but do something sorta different for its 1977 debut, Pink Flag. The result: an album of short, sharp songs that sound more like what we associate with indie and alternative rock. The band was clearly ahead of its time and acts such as Black Flag, New Bomb Turks and Bloc Party have all cited them as an influence. For its latest album, Change Becomes Us, the band went back to its archives and recorded some tracks that never got the proper studio treatment. Bassist Graham Lewis spoke to us about the release via phone his home in Sweden, where he’s lived since 1988.

You’re touring behind Change Becomes Us, a collection of previously unreleased music you’ve revisited. Talk about the decision to record the tunes.
It came about because we integrated [guitarist] Matt [Simms] into the group in 2011. We played a lot of shows and wanted to do something whereby we could harness the sound that the band was making. We’d been promoting the last album, Object 47, before that. This material comes from 1979 and 1980 and some of it was written just after 154 was released. It’s a long time ago. At different times, we’ve made use of things from that period. Because it turned out that the band flew apart in 1980, there were two albums worth of material which we never investigated or played very much. Some things were very sketchy and others had been looked at in a more serious way. When we wanted to capture what the group was sounding like in 2011 and 2012, we thought this material might be a good starting point, but only a starting point. We had a second tour of the UK to do in 2011 and we thought we wanted to present something new. I think we plucked out seven things and took them into rehearsal and with a very open and liberal mind, saw what we might be able to do with these things. It wasn’t a case of trying to copy what had been done in the past because there wasn’t a definitive version of anything. They were all left in flux. We took seven of them on the road and they worked really well. We thought, “Let’s continue with this.” It was still a project. We booked some time in Rockfield Studios in Wales and had seven things which we’d been playing live and another seven things which we didn’t know what we would do with them. We worked on them in a very intuitive and spontaneous manner. I think we maybe kept a chord or ten seconds of something. The work went tremendously well. After five days, we had 13 songs that were really good. As that developed, we thought we had an extremely good album. It’s a bit of a less than straightforward Wire approach.

Would they have sounded the same if you had recorded them back at the time they were written?
If anyone wants to get a vague idea of what the group was doing, there’s a live album called Document and Eyewitness, which is a lo-fi recording that captures the group playing these things in some vague versions of what they were like. It’s not like we went back to those tunes because they were so great. We just wanted somewhere to start to capture the intuitive nature of how everyone is playing now. We were looking to transcend its historical basis. In the end, as the material turned out, I rewrote many of the texts and two or three them didn’t have texts. It rapidly became making a new record. It wasn’t a piece of archaeology.

It rapidly became making a new record. It wasn’t a piece of archaeology.

The band is often heralded for creating a sound that we now call “post-punk.” Do you take credit for that?
Post-punk is only a few years old, isn’t it? It’s a relatively new term. As far as we were concerned, punk was 1976. That’s when we discovered it. That was what was going on and exciting and driving things forward. We never claimed to be a punk band. We thought it was done in 1976. We were a 1977 group. In that way, yes, it was post-punk. Punk was such a small thing in London at that time. You had different kinds of things going on in New York and whatever but it was still relatively small. We wanted to do something else. We didn’t want to do punk. We felt that the [Sex] Pistols, the Ramones and The Damned did it pretty well.

So where did you look for inspiration?
It comes from various strands. It was important that the members of the group were rather strong individuals and had different influences. What united us was things we didn’t like. We had an enthusiasm for what we were doing. Everyone had a specific place. We weren’t a mates group. We had a lot of enthusiasm and discipline, too. We had a lot of ideas and worked hard to realize those ideas and the ambition just kept growing. If different ideas came along, you had to acquire new skills. What really does change things is when a particular song comes along. I remember “Practice Makes Perfect Comes.” I think that was even before we recorded Pink Flag. Pieces of music come along and they signal that the work is finished and it’s time to move on. That’s what we had in common. We got bored quite quickly. Once it was done, it was done and time to do something else. Hopefully, Change Becomes Us suggests that again. I know perhaps people find it confusing. It’s 33 years old. But it’s about what’s going on in a contemporary time. Classic is not our area of activities. We’re trying to work in a contemporary way.

It was important that the members of the group were rather strong individuals and had different influences. What united us was things we didn’t like.

What were the reasons for the break-up in 1980?
Oh gosh. You’ll probably get a better idea about it if you read Wilson Neate’s book called Read and Burn, which is about Wire. It’s quite complicated. In the period from 1977 to the end of 1979, we made Pink Flag, Chairs Missing and 154 and decided our relationship with the record company wasn’t what we thought and the manager wasn’t as good as he should have been. We had three people writing who were very ambitious and directed and we had three times as much material as we needed for 154. There wasn’t anybody around to sit us down and tell us to relax. If someone had been able to explain to us what we wanted to do and told us to slow down and get a better perspective, that would have helped. We felt very exposed. There were so few things that we felt in common with. There was Pere Ubu and what Bowie and Eno were doing. We felt out there. If MTV had been around, that would have helped. Those were the ideas we were trying to get through to EMI. We wanted them to do music videos. They said that music on TV wouldn’t work. Two years later, they had signed Duran Duran and there you go.

What’s been the key to keeping the group together?
The best advice would be that we’ve taken quite long breaks at times when we felt as if we did what we needed to do and we knew what to do next. We haven’t just gone on for the sake of it. This recent period started about 2007, which is why it’s been possible to make Change in the fashion we did. We have a group that’s been touring and hardened in that way and has that kind of momentum and those kinds of skills. Things don’t’ come from nowhere. It just doesn’t work that way.

The band’s been hugely influential over the years. Has that surprised you?
I’d like to be modest and say, “Oh no.” But I think we made every one of those records thinking it was going to be the last chance we got. We weren’t certain how they’d be received. Pink Flag, we didn’t have a clue what people would say. We have been surprised by the longevity it has had. But it is a bit of a blueprint of people learning to play music. We were learning to play on that record. The other ones are more conscious. We were more aware of what we were doing.

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Jeff started writing about rock ’n’ roll some 20 years ago when he stood in the pouring rain to hitch hike his way to see R.E.M. on their Life’s Rich Pageant tour. Since that time, he's written for various daily newspapers, alt-weeklies, magazines and websites. Feel free to comment on his posts or suggest music, film and art to him at jeff@whopperjaw.net.