The bassist and lyricist for the seminal post-punk band talks about the unique inspiration for their new album and why he has no time for nostalgia.
Of any of the recently reconstituted seminal bands in existence, Wire are probably the least interested in cashing in on their past. Since returning on record and in concert in 2004, the seminal art-punk band have coyly refused to do what’s expected of a band that’s been around this long, focusing on new material rather than trading in on the legacy of classics like Pink Flag and Chairs Missing. But, as they were back in 1977, Wire are in a different frame of mind than their contemporaries. “I’m always focused on the present,” says Wire bassist Graham Lewis when asked about Change Becomes Us, the band’s new album based on old material written for live shows in 1980. “We have to be focused on the present. We live in the present, after all.”
It’s this frame of mind -- be in the present, look to the future, and don’t worry so much about the past -- that makes the concept behind Change Becomes Us an interesting one for the band. Instead of writing new material, the band went back to a collection of old songs sketched out around the time of the band’s third album, 154. “We had about two albums’ worth of material after 154,” says Lewis. “We were writing a lot at the time, and a lot of these songs were only written to be performed. At the time, we didn’t have the intention of honing the material for a record.”
Most die-hard Wire fans will have heard much of Change Becomes Us via Document and Eyewitness, a 1980 recording of a live performance that most listeners find challenging. Lewis points out that a few of the songs appear almost fully formed on this record: Change opener “Double & Treble” appears on Eyewitness as “Ally in Exile", a near-identical version that sounds a little rougher around the edges outside the comforts of the studio. Other songs, however, came out of the studio completely transformed: Eyewitness’ punky “Relationships” appears on Change Becomes Us as the delicate “Keep Exhaling", keeping the driving beat but adding synthesizers and a more mature, seasoned performance. Lewis’ own composition “Reinvent Your Second Wheel” went under arguably the most drastic re-imagination. Originally written by Lewis as “an exercise; a way to reconsider the alphabet in a more melodically pleasing way,” the early recording relies mostly on percussion and a chant of letters arranged in a seemingly random order. When the band returned to the song in 2012, though, Lewis found that it took on a completely different character. “When we were recording it, I realized that it was becoming a sort of unrequited love song. You listen to love songs like ''A’ You’re Adorable' by Perry Como and 'ABC' by the Jackson 5 and they’re using every letter they can to express this feeling of love.” The finished product keeps Lewis’ re-imagined alphabet, but takes on a more soothing, polished feel that fits in with Wire’s latest sonic evolution.
“Object 47 was an album that asked a lot of questions,” Lewis says about the band’s first full-length after re-forming in the 2000s. “On Red Barked Tree, we started to expand our sound, but things really changed when we brought Matt [Simms] into the band.” To hear Lewis tell it, Wire’s new guitarist-replacing original member Bruce Gilbert-played a crucial role in making Change Becomes Us happen. Originally, the band had intended to bring back the songs on Change Becomes Us for a UK tour. “We looked back at this old material and picked seven songs to play live,” Lewis says. “The fans responded well to [the material], and after the tour, we picked another seven songs and took them into the studio.” The end result is a record with a far more expanded sound, not just in relation to the crude live sketches from 1980, but also in comparison to the two albums that came before it. Lewis gives much of the credit to Simms. “He adds something different to us as a band, something special,” Lewis says. “That more expansive sound that you hear, that’s confidence.” Indeed, despite its roots in the past, Change Becomes Us points towards an interesting future for the band.
Wire’s insistence on pushing towards the future puts them in an interesting situation, though. In recent years, the band’s oldest records have reached a wider audience; this is especially true in America, where hardcore godfathers Henry Rollins and Ian Mackaye both showed open affection for Pink Flag in interviews and through covers. As a result, many Wire shows in America (especially on the tour behind Object 47, during which this writer saw the band twice) include fans screaming for “12XU” or “Lowdown” after the band have only played two or three songs. The fondness for Wire’s past is something that Lewis is especially aware of, considering the nature of the band’s latest endeavor. “That happened in New York a lot because there were those guitar bands coming out of Brooklyn like Liars who were taking inspiration from those early albums, and obviously Pink Flag was very popular with hardcore punk,” Lewis says, speculating on the lasting appreciation for the band’s older work. “Things go in and out of fashion, and sometimes something old comes back into fashion.”
Even though he understands the fondness for those old records, the past isn’t something that Lewis is keen to revisit, especially live. “It can be a bit irritating,” he says of the inevitable nightly requests to play as many of the band’s old songs as possible. Nostalgia doesn’t seem to be something that Wire want to give in to, even if they’re going back to old songs for this new album. “The purpose of this band was always to be contemporary,” Lewis says. “I still think we are, that’s certainly our aim. We’re still playing in the now.” As such, don’t expect a lavish retrospective anniversary tour behind Pink Flag when the time comes. “I’ve never understood the purpose of just playing your old albums to people,” Lewis says, “It won’t be as good as it used to be; it won’t be as good as listening to the album now. It’s all kind of pointless, really.” For Lewis and for Wire as a whole, the future seems far more inviting.