Photo: Owen Richards

Burning Bridges With Wire

Colin Newman is a rock legend. Wire have been churning out great self-released LPs for years, and their new one is no exception.

In the mid-to-late 1970s, popular music zigged. Along came punk rock, which zagged sharply against progressive rock, southern rock, what is now known as classic rock, and whatever else people were getting sick of during the “me” decade.

To say that the English band Wire joined in on the zagging is misleading. Music writers tend to lump them into the punk category as a matter of convenience, but from the outset there was always something extra peculiar about Wire. They did not zig and they did not zag. They were too punk or not punk enough, or sometimes nothing like punk at all. Their sound could be at once vicious and three-dimensional. My own brother admitted to me that he could not reconcile the fact that the same four guys who made Pink Flag also made “Eardrum Buzz”. Normally in the world of pop/rock, such reconciliation can be so easy.

Wire are no longer the same four guys. Over the years singer Colin Newman founded Swim records with his wife Malka Spigel and developed a taste for post-rock, bassist Graham Lewis got in touch with his avant-garde side when pairing off with guitarist Bruce Gilbert, and drummer Robert Grey got so bored playing a three-piece drum kit that he quit in the band in 1990. After a successful run of reunion shows at the turn of the century, two EPs and an album, Gilbert walked away and Wire continued as a trio. After touring with the famous axe-for-hire Margaret Fiedler McGinnis, the band settled on Matthew Simms from It Hugs Back to flesh out their live sound.

Things went so well with Simms that they invited him into the studio to help bring closure to some long-mothballed songs, the resulting album being named Change Becomes Us. Things went so well in the studio that Simms now appears to be in it for the long haul. WIRE is the sound of the new lineup working as closely together as any lineup had before. Lewis writes the words, Newman sets them to music, and Grey and Simms somehow make it all sound even better.

But as you will notice from PopMatters’s interview with Colin Newman, Wire can work in a peculiar way. When Lewis hands Newman a sheet of lyrics, no one can even be sure of what the chorus will turn out to be. But the way they work has produced great results. The self-titled album’s final track “Harpooned” enjoyed a following of its own before it was even recorded. According to Newman, the band played it at shows so often that “there were plenty of people out there who think that ‘Harpooned’ is the best song in the universe.” And if WIRE is not the best album in the universe, most Wire fans can safely say that they have all been well-served, that 38 years later, the well has not run dry.

“I’m very pleased with it,” Newman told me over the phone one day, leading up to the album’s release. “It’s quite a weird record in a way because some of it is very pop and some of it really isn’t. It’s not really obvious where it’s all going, and I think that puts us in an interesting place.”

I started off by asking why Wire released a self-titled album. As most music nerds know, the eponymous release can carry many connotations …

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Colin Newman: We were trying to come up with a title, [going through] the usual things [people] normally do, you go through lyrics and something jumps out, and absolutely nothing jumped out that anyone could agree on. Then our sleeve designer came and said “Well, if you just called it WIRE, it would word really well typographically.” It kind of struck me as not the worst idea that anyone had. And then I realized a couple of other people in the band sort of felt the same thing. It was the thing that we had the most agreement on. And then there was some discussion about the fact that you normally self-title a debut album. And actually, that’s not true. There’s some really famous examples of non-debut albums with are self-titled, including some bands who have titled more than one [that way]. Peter Gabriel, I think, titled his first four albums Peter Gabriel, which is kind of a little bit excessive, I would say.

I think the one that kind of really stuck was what everybody called The White Album which is actually called The Beatles. And what struck everybody about it was its high-art concept. That, to me, is a very thoughtful piece of work. Certainly within that context, the name of The Beatles, which is a terrible pun, it’s like My Bloody Valentine where it loses its meaning by repetition and context. It’s an interesting idea, what we’re doing with the name and using that image on the cover with that fan. It’s basically a fan. Where you would normally have the company name, it just says WIRE in the middle. I think it’s very strong and singular, which is kind of how Wire is, really.

I’ve always liked the cryptic artwork the band has used for covers. The pictures are clear, but you don’t always know what they are.

There’s sense of a target as well there. It is actually an industrial fan but it’s not necessarily supposed to read like that. It’s a shape.

How do you and Graham Lewis work together on the band’s lyrics? Does he bring you a finished set complete with verses and choruses?

Sometimes his writing is too structured and I feel like it doesn’t give me a lot of options. There’s two tracks on the album that came out of where I cut a lyric in half. “In Manchester” and “Split Your Ends” were one text that was supposedly not finished. That gave me real possibility with “In Manchester” because I picked that line out, really. It’s where it felt, when I was playing through the song, it felt like it needed to be repeated. From an American point of view, you probably don’t get the absurdity of it. But the absurdity of it is that only one line in the song actually took place in Manchester.

Wire’s a band that doesn’t have a strong connection with [Manchester]. We’ve played there plenty of times and we’ve got friends in Manchester. But [that city] has a very strong regional identity. Bands from Manchester and things connected to Manchester, they all stand out to any British person like a sore thumb. You absolutely know “that’s from Manchester.” So to actually have the line “In Manchester” in a song which is fairly catchy could actually get used in situations, I can imagine a situation where there’s something happening in Manchester and you see it on the TV, it’s kind of crazy because nobody in Manchester actually did a song called “In Manchester”. I love the absurdity of it, really.

Does “Split Your Ends” have the same absurdity to it?

It’s a different thing, it’s a little more linear. I think I picked out an obvious chorus and repeated it, I can’t really remember how it was. I don’t always stick to Graham’s rhyming scheme anyway. I’ll definitely take a bit and shove it around. I don’t necessarily change the order of the lyrics but I try and make it kind of interesting so that there’s no obvious verses and choruses. I also encouraged him to write in a much more open way. Like on a song like “High”, that’s how you get such a weird structure. There’s isn’t really a chorus, there’s just one repeating one. But that works, actually. It sustains for the one-and-a-half minutes that it plays. I did write a couple of lyrics on the album as well.

Which ones?

“Sleep-Walking” and “Octopus”.

There is some muttering going on the background towards the end of “Sleep-Walking”.

That’s Graham. It happens a couple of times in the song. It’s credited on the album as “Vox Pop”. It’s the idea of people dementedly ranting, people who think they catch the popular will of the people. But it came out a bit Klingon [laughs]. It’s low in the mix, so it’s quite disconcerting. I liked it, it’s really nice to use things like that quite low in the mix. You don’t really know what they are, and Graham’s very good at doing stuff like that.

In the album’s press release, Graham Lewis talks briefly about Wire’s sense of humor. Do you find that people still have a hard time comprehending that Wire doesn’t always take itself too seriously?

It depends on who it is. Some people really get it and some people don’t. Some people set themselves in a kind of situation where they’re probably never going to understand anything you do. It’s personal, music is incredibly personal. And it strikes people in a totally personal way. There’s what you put in it, but what somebody gets out of it might be entirely different from what you imagined when you put into it. That’s one of the fascinating things about the art forms but it can also be very frustrating because you think “How come nobody got that? It’s the most obvious thing!” What can you say? I don’t think anyone will ever make any money out of second-guessing what other people will think of any particular piece of art.

Wire has been doing the self-production thing for quite a while: recording, mixing, releasing.

[In faux seriousness] It’s Marxism. [laughs] We’re trying to undermine America! Basically, it’s the most sensible way to do things. For a band like us, with the kind of record sales that we can get, which is decent but not stellar, if we had a relationship with a record company and that involved having to pay a producer and just everything that you can imagine, I don’t think we could make any money out of it. And if we didn’t make any money out of the records, then it would be very, very difficult to imagine why you would do it. We’re not doing it for the money, but the whole thing is set up in order to be self-sustaining so that the band can engage in activities which they want to do and also make a living out of it. That’s the idea. It doesn’t quite work but it works way better than if we were with a label. That’s the reality of it because I’ve been running a record label for years. And because I have a studio, I’m able to finish a mix. A lot of artists are quite good at starting things and not many are good at finishing them.

Sometimes it’s a struggle within the band to see a production home because people have different ideas about how something ought to be. But in the end, somebody has to have some kind of vision about how the thing is going to work out. I don’t think the records which I’ve mixed are records which people who basically want to hear the sound of a live band, I don’t think they would like that so much. There is a transparency there, it does sound like a band playing. But it’s not like a live recording. It has a sense of people playing, and that’s really how it should sound. It’s really difficult because people see these things in really different ways. Some people like their “R-A-W-K”. It’s genuine, but in a way it sounds to me maybe old-fashioned.

I do like there to be some “production”. There is a lot of hip-hop producers who do that, you hear it. You hear a Beyoncé record, you hear the production. It says in big letters, “BIG BOY PRODUCTION”. I want people to hear a bit of music and think “I really like that song,” or “I really like that arrangement.” “I really like the way that guitar goes.” I don’t want them to think “Oh, that’s really impressive production.” I’m not really interesting in that. But at the same time, something that just sounds like a group playing in a room, it could be a radio session or it could be a live recording, I don’t really see that as a record. It’s a record in the sense of it’s a record of that performance. I believe in recorded music as being its own art form.

When new guitarist Matthew Simms joined in Wire in promoting Red Barked Tree, he seemed to just fall right into the live setting. Is it correct that he’s now part of the writing process?

It’s quite a bit like the original arrangement. He’s there when we’re turning the songs into a Wire piece of music. The way that we talk about a piece of music is that you have three elements: you have the song, which is basically the tune, you have the lyrics or text and then you have the music. Individuals write the song and the text. I mainly write the songs, Graham mainly writes the text, but the music is all done by Wire.

There’s this massive split in bands with how they do publishing. Publishing is not a big issue for us because we self-release. But there are many cases where you have one writer in a band who makes lots of money and the rest of the people don’t make so much money. And that one person sort of gets all the credit. And you have other ones where everything is split between the band members, credit-wise. But then the person who actually wrote the song doesn’t really get the credit for it. We were trying to find something that was in between the two.

Where Matt comes in is in that point where it becomes a piece of Wire music. We auditioned Matt in, I think, April of 2010. We had auditioned several people, and he just aced it. There were people who were really good, who came completely prepared and completely on-the-money and would have been absolutely fine. But Matt came in and, not only did he have all the parts down, but he had all the right sounds as well. He’s got a very good ear for the kind of sounds you want to have and he’s thinking all the time about how to make sounds. And he’s very, very well invested in equipment. He puts time and energy into making sure that he’s there and he’s up to speed with whatever’s going on. And he’s been an absolute joy to work with. Matt’s amazing.

Our original plan was to do what we had done with Margaret [Fiedler McGinnis], which was to do a couple years — you know, an album cycle and then kind of move on. It got to that point where we realized it would be really, really stupid to let Matt go. Nothing against Margaret at all, who is a fantastic musician and a great person. But she doesn’t come from the same place as we come from. She comes from a slightly different place. If Matt was the same age as us and if he was around in ’77, he could have been in the original band. His mentality is very similar, the way he approaches music, the way he thinks about it. And he’s very sharp. He’s a very nice person, I can’t say anything negative about him, he’s great. He really has fit right in, very quickly. It’s something that didn’t need to be explained to him. And he’s very loud on the records! I love the way he plays around my voice.

Is that the nature of his guitar parts?

I tend to be more of the spine and he’ll have parts to play around it. He’ll play within the spine but against the voice. Like on something like “Blogging”, you really hear the playing of his guitar and my voice with my guitar, providing the harmonic backdrop for that kind of drama. It was something I really enjoyed when mixing the record as well.

And when it comes to a band of guys that have been playing together for 30-odd years, it can be hard for the new guy to slide into an already-established dynamic.

We never had a sense of being that kind of “club”. We are more open to that idea of having a different person. Certainly after Bruce [Gilbert] left, there was no idea at all that we would replace Bruce. And Matt certainly isn’t a replacement for Bruce. That was why we had the idea of not having a permanent extra member. But reality takes over and it makes more sense to have someone who is permanently in the band.

Any details you can share about Wire’s future performances? Are you going to attack a gas stove?

Personally, we’ve discovered that gas stoves are very, very hard to get on the rider. They just take up too much space in the van. We’ve had to sack the gas stove, it’s a real pity. But we are launching the album in London with something we call DRILL: LEXINGTON which is five nights in a small club, which happens to be a really great place to see a band. We are working mentally with the idea of having a revolving set list. One of the things we’ll certainly be aiming for is to have us working in a way where not every night is going to be the same. It requires a huge repertoire and a standard of musicianship we just don’t have. I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s new material that’s post-this album in the set as well. We’re thinking about the next one already. Songs can happen very fast.

Splash image: press photo by Owen Richards