As If Response Were Based on Fact: A Conversation With Wire
It's been nearly four decades since Wire put out Pink Flag, one of the most seminal rock albums of the modern era. Now, with their 15th studio effort, Colin Newman and Graham Lewis are fiesty as ever with zero signs of slowing down.
Wire holds a compellingly contradictory place in the story of the 1977 British punk explosion. If you want to sum up Wire in an introductory paragraph to an interview, you are forced into using a dilemma of clichés for example "ever-changing", "post-punk", "pioneering", and "influential". So the impulse is to present the work of Wire in a new way which attempts to do credit to the innovations that these cliché terms try to capture. I will spare you my clever introduction and ask you to acquaint yourself with Wire's 15 LPs and 13 EPs, which span 1977's Pink Flag on towards this year's Nocturnal Koreans. You should do so preferably in chronological order over a comfortable period of time. Even then, you don't really get a sense of Wire, yet you know their distinctive voice.
Like many students, I discovered Wire while trying to get into the pants of a fellow student. My interest in Wire far outlasted her interest in me. I ended up with a cassette, which consisted of Wire's 1977 classic Pink Flag. The b-side of the tape was the Fall's Live at the Witch Trials. Wire are very much a part of the arts curriculum in the US.
Speaking to PopMatters, Wire's founding members Colin Newman and Graham Lewis spoke to us about their working process, the new record, and the impact of history.
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Lots of creative people have a personal connection with your body of work. Do you feel the pressure of your history when you begin a new record?
Colin Newman: Me, personally not. I feel the pressure of the future, actually in quite a literal sense. Ever since vinyl got to be important again, with diminishing places to make it, the very long lead times you need in order to deliver everything to be ready for the release date means you have to plan ahead quite thoroughly. For instance Pink Flag was recorded and mixed in September 1977 and released in December 1977, totally impossible today considering vinyl manufacture lead times and the fact that important music press is published monthly. Nocturnal Koreans was delivered in November 2015 for an April 2016 release!
Graham Lewis: "The pressure of your history" only in the sense one is trying to avoid copying/repeating/plagiarizing oneself.
What's the process for a new Wire record? Do you go in with complete songs or fragments or what?
Colin: The majority of Wire material has text by Graham and songs by me. Some have my text and tune and some pieces Graham brings sketches for and we develop together. So the majority of Wire material (for example all of Wire and all but one track on Nocturnal Koreans) are written songs before they reach the studio. The song/text part is what anyone could cover but it's Wire that make the pieces Wire. In "Wire-speak" that's called the music.
Nocturnal Koreans as I understand is made up of tracks that weren't on 2015's Wire yet had a unified aesthetic. Can you explain how this "mini-record" came about?
Colin: It wasn't the plan but in that way that seemingly arbitrary Wire events make sense in the long term it worked out well. We ended up doing basic recording for 19 pieces on the sessions that became Wire. It became obvious that there were too many for a single album. The previous album, Change Became Us, ended up being a double-vinyl because of the length; we wanted to keep to the discipline of a single vinyl record for it's follow up. So a scheme was developed to decide which ones were to be completed and which would be rested -- again this was under the pressure of a delivery date for the album. This wasn't really a judgment based on which tracks are better or worse but from my perspective the choice was based on playability, whether or not they could be played live.
In fact we played 100% of the Wire album live at some point. Because the pieces on Nocturnal Koreans were from the same sessions and were in some cases ones that needed something less obvious to get them to work the production method was necessarily different. Some of the drums were re-recorded and a different sonic approach was taken with them, we had a session where everybody got to add overdubs and then I added a lot of keyboards on top so it became lusher and more produced sounding (well at least within Wire's oeuvre). I think the result quite instructive.
Graham: To underline what Colin said, the Wire album itself was based on how many tracks would fit on a vinyl LP. My choice/sequencing of which tracks from the second selection of tracks completed, was different from the other three. I state this to point out that the tracks which now appear on Nocturnal Koreans were not "leftovers" but the result of extra process and work based on necessity and subjective choice. Not a quality [or] "this doesn't fly" basis.
Matt Simms says in the press release that Nocturnal Koreans is about a gig in Boston. Would you like to tell our readers a bit of back-story on the song?
Graham: Not the gig but the accommodation our travel agent had sourced. Condemned to stay, not one but two nights, in a shabby hotel in Massachusetts, a touring Wire found itself billeted with crackle barrel redneck crystal meth heads, a Pan-African Evangelical convention and the ultra-Christian Koreans of the title. The Koreans were seriously jet-lagged, stranded and somnambulant, with wrecked travel plans, hence they were as nocturnal as me. Felt a bit like Scooby Doo/The Partridge Family having a bad trip, directed by John Waters on a budget -- obviously, a subject matter gift for a song.
My favorite track on this record is "Numbered" it has a tense dynamic that feels new yet recalls the angularity of the earlier work. I see songs like "The 15th" from 154 to be close cousins with more recent songs like "Please Take" from Red Barked Tree. You are known for constantly changing, however do you see patterns emerging in the work?
Colin: Interesting comparisons you make. "Numbered" and "The 15th" are both my song and text. "Please Take" is Graham's text and melody although I did provide the chord structure. In some ways that shows that some of the common elements in Wire's work are more deeply in our DNA than we realize! I personally never think about older work when I'm writing something new. The "The Three Girl Rumba" quote in "Numbered" is simply a trap for the unwary! The main point with "Numbered" is that you have two very different parts, one very angular and one motorik. The arrangement and development of the piece emphasizes the difference between the two parts to a point when someone might imagine it's two separate pieces welded together. It isn't, it was written as one piece.
I'm interested in how the songs sound different to me at different points of my life. Your process seems to take that older work and re-contextualize it for whatever you are going through. Is this conscious or just a natural course of your creativity?
Colin: From my perspective everything is new all of the time! However we are who we are and it is what it is!
Graham: Although it hasn't stopped us from trying on occasions, re-inventing the wheel can be rather delusional and time consuming! Innovation in the form of a second wheel can often provide greater traction and acceleration! As always, context is all!
One thing I've noticed about Wire over the years is that there is a dark sense of humor. Is the repartee within Wire as witty as I imagine?
Colin: In some ways if it didn't make you laugh it wasn't worth doing! The way we communicate is totally dependent on context and mood (as in any other group of people who have known each other a long time). Within the work the humor is sometimes in the words and sometimes in the music. I think you have to have a well-developed sense of the absurd to be in Wire!
Graham: Comedy and pop were my first cultural loves, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore's Not Only But Also combined with the broadcast output of the North Sea pirate radio ships, a major moulder of my early teens. In the early '80s, when B.C.Gilbert and I were creating the Dome projects, I flirted with the idea of becoming actively involved in the burgeoning comedy scene. Cartoonist Tom Johnston and I saw the Comedy Store debut of 20th Century Coyote when they performed an incredible skit on the oeuvre of Samuel Beckett. Something similar had been my "best idea" for an act: absurdism, Dada, were unifying weapons for Bruce and I.
Last night I was reading about the project you did with Jake and Dinos Chapman. That sounds interesting to me. Can you tell me more about that? Have you done other art collaborations like this?
Colin: It was actually a two-part collaboration with Jake and Dinos Chapman in one part and the set designer Es Devlin in the second part. The piece was called "Flag: Burning", at the Barbican in London with the first part being based on Pink Flag and the second part being based on the Read and Burn series (the first two from which "Send" was drawn). In my opinion Wire is actually quite a difficult project to collaborate with, it being so self-contained. The question of how non-time based art can successfully work with a live band is an open one the scales are very different. This is why you will typically see live bands combined with film or set design. The most obvious collaborations come with things like sleeve designs although there was an exhibition of Wire related objets during the '90s (an idea worth reviving in my view).
The Barbican show was in two parts: the first half visually designed by Jake and Dinos with Tom Gidley, basically an edited and morphed back projection of keep fit video work out exercisers in pink lycra. Wire played the Pink Flag album, song by song, from beginning to end. After the final track Pink Flag, Wire were joined on stage by a pink lycra clad exercise troop with step boards and choreography by Lettie Collins, incidentally, daughter of Wire's first manger. Wire then played the song "Pink Flag" in the contemporary form it had developed into in 2002 and the exercisers stepped! This was the bridge to the second part of the show; which had the soundtrack of the newly released album SEND. So, first album Pink Flag and then latest album SEND. Flag: Burning.
Graham: The second half was graced by an Es Devlin set, her first for a contemporary music act; she has since worked with Jay Z, Madonna, and Take That. The set consisted of four large mirrored cubes across the front of the stage on to/ in to which lighting and projections were made. The individual members inhabited a box each.
Are you guys all into different intellectual pursuits? It seems that Wire has to be constantly learning to continue evolving? Do books play a big part in the creation of the work?
Graham: Like all writers I read a lot! I have made and composed work for modern dance, video, installation and performance, film ...
I read an interview in the Quietus about how you said, "email interviews do and don't work". I'm inclined to agree. Do you think blogging is journalism?
Colin: Email interviews have some advantages but are mainly a pain in the butt. The big advantage is that if you are misquoted then it's entirely your own fault! I'm personally not a very fast writer but I do care about grammar so I have the tendency to read, re-read and edit until it probably doesn't sound like natural speech at all (I do this with important emails too). The main problem is the time it takes.
A very big problem with the whole idea of "brain to internet" writing is that there are no sub-editors any more. People make glaring errors (yesterday I read a review in which Graham Newman seemed to be largely involved with the work of Wire!) and of course in journalism and political writing nobody holds anybody to account so grammar is not the only victim here. I get the notion of freedom of expression but people should also hold to the dictum that they should not say on the Internet stuff, which they would not be able to say to anyone's faces. On the question of whether blogging is journalism, depends on how good the writer is!
Graham: Email interviews are time consuming! Is blogging art?