Call for Music Writers: Let your voice be heard by PopMatters’ quality readership.
Call for Music Writers: Let your voice be heard by PopMatters’ quality readership.

Down to This: An Interview with Wire

The Black Session Paris, 10 May 2011
Pink Flag

Wire emerged from the United Kingdom around the time when punk rock reigned with seemingly more authority than the queen herself. It was the mid-’70s, and the rules that bound classic and prog rock to the radio were mercilessly being thrown out the window by a new breed of bands that wanted noise, speed, and nihilism. Glancing backward in time got you in trouble, and no one quite knew how to, or wanted to, look into the future. Wire somehow took punk music and made it more punk by subtracting the “roll” from “rock ‘n’ roll” and substituting it with an high-minded, gut-level collision of mathematics and fine art. More than 30 years have passed since Wire released their debut album Pink Flag, and most of us music nerds are still scratching our heads, wondering how they pulled the whole thing off.

Wire’s penchant for challenging listeners inhabited their recordings as well as their stage presence. They deliberately didn’t play the songs people came to hear them play, did things on stage that were belligerently un-rock ‘n’ roll, and just didn’t care what people thought about the whole thing. This approached is epitomized on the 1981 LP Document & Eyewitness, a live album that caters to … well, no one. Fast forward to 2012 and Wire still has a career. How? Reinvention, reinvention, reinvention, with plenty of breaks in between. Singer/guitarist Colin Newman, bassist Graham Lewis, drummer Robert Gotobed/Grey and guitarist/miscellaneous noisemaker Bruce Gilbert proved time and again that ignoring trends and following your raw ambitions went beyond having short haircuts and hating disco. It was in every move they made.

When Wire was gearing up for more rounds of recording and touring around 2006, Bruce Gilbert took a pass on reuniting with his old bandmates. This doesn’t appear to have slowed down the band. Since then they have recorded plenty of material; the albums Object 47 and Red Barked Tree, the EPs Read & Burn 03 and Strays, and the new live album The Black Session — Paris 10, May 2011, documentation of Wire’s appearance on the C’est Lenoir show. This latest release features new guitarist Matt Simms and takes listeners for a stroll through Wire’s back catalog, from their art-punk early days (“Pink Flag”, “Map Ref. 41°N 93°W”) through the ‘80s (“Drill”, “Kidney Bingos”) and arriving at their surprisingly furious 21st century output (“Comet”, “Moreover”). Wire frontman Colin Newman set aside some time so that PopMatters may catch up with all things Wire: the talented and restless cast of guitarists, their artistic approach to their latest studio album Red Barked Tree, handing production duties over to others for The Black Sessions, and what’s next for the band as well as his spouse/musical partner Malka Spigel.

* * *

Talk a little bit about Wire’s date on Bernard Lenoir’s show “C’est Lenoir”. How did this engagement come about?

Bernard Lenoir’s show was the stalwart of Radio France’s “alternative” output and was considered the single most prestigious radio show any one could get in France. The producer Michelle Soupier confided in us that Wire had been “on the list” for some time but it took until May last year for it to actually happen. The date preceded a short French tour. Unfortunately, shortly after our edition the show finished its long run when Bernard retired.

Outside of North America, where Wire has always been well supported at college radio, Wire has never been viewed as a “radio” band. However last year saw a significant change in that with 6 Music in the UK becoming very supportive and something like the The Black Session in France. France is also a country in which, until this decade, Wire had barely played and almost never outside of Paris.

Wire has had several live albums over the years. Discuss some of the things that set The Black Sessions apart from the other live recordings.

The plan had always been to document 2011 somehow. We played an awful lot of shows, especially in the first third of the year and actually recorded quite a few. However The Black Session presented an un-missable opportunity. As soon as the session was complete Michelle handed me a CD and said that it would be possible to license the session from them should we want to release it. It’s a studio recording, in front of a live, and very enthusiastic, audience and the band was well honed from all those gigs. Unlike say the Metro, Chicago recording from 2002 or the The Scottish Play recording from 2004, the Black Session came as a “readymade” whereas I had to mix the others (at least three months work on each).

Matthew Simms, as best as I can tell, is now the second guitarist to stand in Bruce Gilbert’s spot on stage. What does he bring to the current Wire lineup? How does he compare to Gilbert and Margaret Fiedler?

Well you know comparisons are odious … Each person is different. Bruce is a one off and not replaceable — we’ve never attempted to do it. Margaret and Matt are very different to each other. Margaret is a very capable musician and someone who comes with a strong pedigree. I think she was fantastic for us when she worked with us but also is someone who really should be doing her own projects. She is a great talent. In spite of the big age difference, Matt is someone who alongside being a great musician has a very similar world view to the rest of us when it comes to creativity. He has a very big musical personality while remaining a very modest person. There’s a lot you don’t have to explain to Matt. He has his own projects but also can draw from us in his own growing process. He is also a great talent!

When it comes to Wire’s most recent studio material, you were the one who largely oversaw the recording and mixing. The Black Sessions was recorded and mixed by someone else, Rémi Fessart. Was it difficult to give up that task to someone else?

I think we have been quite straightforward in the way we have promoted this album. It’s a snapshot of the band back on May 2011 and a great keepsake for anyone who saw that set live (and quite a lot of people did) as well as an advert for what the live band is in the current day. You don’t have to ask if they play any 70s or 80s material live because it’s in the track listing! What it isn’t is another example of a “version” of Wire which I have brought my mixing and editing aesthetic to. Some will miss that, but to be honest, I’d rather concentrate that effort on studio projects. After all I never can mix the band live!

In the 33 1/3 entry for Wire’s first album Pink Flag, you mentioned how the band had already moved past the material before they recorded it. Does Wire encounter anything like this in its current working model? In other words, did the Red Barked Tree songs start to feel like old news by this point?

It was part of the working method with Red Barked Tree to come very fresh to the material, so in fact the basic recordings for the album were pretty much the first time the songs had been played by the band (I don’t think we did any more than three takes of any of the songs); there were no rehearsals, the band simply learned the material and recorded it straight away. In fact these kinds of ideas are in all the methodology of any new recording. It’s good to keep it fresh!

How does the band go about choosing songs for current set lists? The irreverent days of Document & Eyewitness are obviously well behind you.

Hmm, I wouldn’t be so sure about the last statement! The set we toured UK with in November was almost certainly the most “challenging” one we have played for a long time. We chose it for various reasons, some of which will become clear over time but one of which was the fact that we had already toured the UK earlier in the year with the Black Sessions set. In general we want to play what we are most excited about and not that interested in doing a set of checkboxes of what some might call “hits” (of course Wire has never had any hits and nobody agrees on what they might have been). The most important thing for a live band to be is exciting and engaging — this works best if the band themselves are excited by what they are doing. Luckily it’s very hard for Wire to sound like anything else but Wire so only the most moronically pedantic could complain.

The song “Drill” has seen many incarnations over the years. In fact your former bandmate Bruce Gilbert once said “there can never be enough ‘Drill’s in the world.” Do you think there are stranger mutations of the song waiting for you guys in the future?

Wire is about nothing if it’s not about understanding and interacting with its own history. Back in the days long before the three-minute epic and the infinite variations, “Drill” was this tiny, fragile but perfectly formed core Wire item (check out the video from Bloomsbury which accompanies the legal bootleg subscription). In the first rehearsal after Matt joined us I suggested we attempt a very stripped down (and short) “Drill.” Matt “got” it in very short order and that first version still rates as one of the best ever “Drills”. It stuck around in the set and is different every time …

Does Wire currently have any future plans? Are you open to having someone like Matthew Simms join you in the studio?

Yes we do but I have to be a little cagey about that right now. But expect something unexpected! And yes, we will be joined by Matt.

Do you ever plan to pick up on your solo career again? Are you still interested in the style you were pursuing on the 1997 album Bastard?

I came to the conclusion at some point that I prefer collaboration to making “solo” records. I’m not saying I’ll never make another solo record but I have no plans right now. The current studio project is Malka’s first solo record in many years. I’m blown away by how good it’s developing to be. It’s very special!

The Black Session concludes with a brutal-then-spacey ten-minute version of “Pink Flag”. At first my 18-month-old was hopping up and down in my lap to the music. By the end of it, she had fallen asleep. Do you worry about losing the toddler demographic?

Hahahaha! Ahh but what dreams she might have had … 🙂

In the early days, Wire was known for its brevity. According to the 33 1/3 book, you guys would end a song when the lyrics ran out, with nothing more to add. Back in 1977, would you had ever entertained the idea of performing a song like “Pink Flag” for ten minutes?

Well the thing is that all rules are made to be broken and all concepts need to be kept where they belong. If Wire were solely about brevity we would never have got beyond our first album conceptually and probably wouldn’t have lasted as a band beyond 1978. Performing “Pink Flag” for 10 minutes would have not been at all surprising to the 1977 me. Especially if I knew that this would be in a set on an album released 35 years later.

Any advice to a recently-disbanded trio like R.E.M.?

None at all. I can sort of understand why they did it but I think had I been in their position I might have gone for some kind of re-invention. But then again I have no clue to how their internal relationship is. Maybe they can’t stand the sight of each other …