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WIRE: [COLIN NEWMAN] WHO’S A CLEVER BOY THEN? – INTERVIEW BY LEE MCFADDEN

 
At the time of writing, Wire have just announced a batch of dates for November 2011, with a live CD from their already extensive tour which will be on sale exclusively at these shows.

“We haven’t toured like that since 1978. We’ve been round the world one and a half times – played every season at least twice and we’re still on speaking terms!”

Telling words from Colin Newman, founder member, co-vocalist and lead guitarist of Wire, and supremo of their own record label Pink Flag – titled of course after their seminal first album in 1977. Wire‘s existence has been frustratingly fractured – imploding in 1980 at the peak of their powers only to return five years later, 1990’s departure of drummer Robert Gotobed (now Grey) which heralded a symbolic dropping of a letter from the band monicker (“Wir”), 2002’s triumphant return of the full quartet with the genre and generation defying “Send”, only to remain teetering on the edge in 2004 with the seemingly permanent departure of stalwart guitarist Bruce Gilbert.

For the past year the remainder of the group – Newman, Grey and Graham Lewis – have been joined live by second guitarist Matt Simms – Laika’s Margaret McGinnis filling the gap from Gilbert’s departure prior to Simms’ arrival. The studio albums since 2004 – “Object 47” and the current “Red Barked Tree” - involve the three core members only, and where “Object 47” was a supreme effort to resume business as usual, “Red Barked Tree” stands as one of the pinnacles of their career – a truly accomplished album which the band attempted to get on to the shortlist for the Mercury Music Prize.

“The industry divides itself into two parts – ‘Contemporary’ (in your twenties) and ‘Classic’ – which is only playing old stuff and not interested in anything new. Wire attempt – and to some degree succeed in straddling that. We put out new records, we get a lot of interest in our new records – but we haven’t made it to that level where someone will say ‘They’ve made a really strong record and we should be thinking about them for the list later this year’. It ticks a lot of boxes – and quite frankly I’m bored with all that box-ticking, but what can you do?”

Wire commenced work on “Red Barked Tree” in February 2010 – evolving in a more organic process than its 21st century predecessors, “Send” and “Object 47”.

“We’ve had our studio since 1993, and at some point I felt I could make records that could pass muster for any level. The way we always proposed doing Wire when we restarted in the last decade was by assembly. We couldn’t afford to go in the studio and record together so we proposed to send bits – but in the end with ‘Send’ Bruce and I put it all together in the studio and the drums were recorded in a rehearsal room. By the time we did ‘Object 47’ I was getting bored with the assembly method of making records. The problem is you make playback (everything apart from the voice) and then you sing on it. You can get quite good stuff like “One Of Us”, but not something much more lyrical like “Red Barked Trees” – it just doesn’t come that way. It needs to be from the ground up – so I felt I needed to write songs with an acoustic guitar. I felt by doing this I could make it very purely Wire – going back to the 70’s most of those songs were written on acoustic guitar and worked up in a rehearsal room, taken on tour and then recorded. For “Red Barked Tree” we collapsed that down to me writing the songs on acoustic guitar, getting the band to rehearse them in a studio and recording them straightaway.”

“I had five or six lyrics of Graham’s which I wrote songs with. That wasn’t enough material so I wrote more songs with my lyrics and then some of mine I allowed Graham to adjust. ‘Down To This’ and ‘Clay’ is mine, ‘Red Barked Trees’ is Graham’s lyric and obviously ‘Please Take’ is Graham’s – ‘A Flat Tent’ is between the two of us”.

I pose the question – how do you decide who takes the lead vocal – as it doesn’t seem to follow the obvious path.

“Graham sings his songs – I sing his lyrics – different thing.”

The production of the album and the relentless promotion that followed brought about a sustained concentrated period of activity for the band which will culminate in the November dates – after which Wire will venture into other projects.

“I’ve been pretty solidly doing Wire for a very long time – all meat and no rice – it’s not the good and bad, it’s just like if you do the same thing all of the time it can be quite draining artistically. We’ll probably start the next album at the back end of next year – I’m deliberately not planning it because I don’t want to get stuck in ‘album-tour’ cycle. The main issue with Wire in its relationship with everything else is that whatever bus you’re driving – you might be sitting by the side of the road just breathing the air and enjoying the countryside – and then the Wire bus comes tumbling along, takes the door off and goes speeding ahead! “

Newman’s other projects currently include working on the next Malka Spigel (Mrs Newman) album – “I’ve been gradually working on the material in off-times this year – it’s beginning to get some kind of shape” – and sporadic collaborations with her in the live-only “Hopper” venture that they have performed at festivals and exhibitions in venues ranging from Calgary to Jerusalem.  The line up and material changes with each performance.

“Curators have to find us two musicians and a space for us to rehearse. We have a rolling set of material that we’re developing. We send the musicians a bunch of MP3’s which they have to absorb and learn. It’s set material, completely original. We have two days rehearsal with them, and then we do the gig. Obviously they’re allowed to bring themselves to it, but it’s written material. It’s not recorded – it’s about a definition of performance. The logic comes out of recorded music becoming problematic – the whole point about live shows is that you’re either there or you aren’t – so if you have something which is absolutely about the performance, there is no other choice. It’s like a site-specific installation, a piece of performance art, but also a rock band”.

Newman foresees further activity next year - reissuing elements of the Wire back catalogue – and the historically pivotal 1980 live compilation “Document and Eyewitness” is definitely earmarked.

“There’s Document & Eyewitness per se, and then there’s Document and Eyewitness Naked – which is the original (Electric Ballroom) gig without the edits and all the tracks rather than just some of them, and the stuff from the other gig from the other side of the record (Notre Dame Hall). It could be a double CD, or a CD and a download – it’s just a matter of deciding. Wilson (Neate, Wire’s biographer) has just been writing the sleevenotes to it. We’ve just added a couple of songs from that period to our set – ‘The Spare One’ (only released on the long out-of-print Wire live/outtakes compilation “Turns & Strokes”) and ‘Ally In Exile’. ‘The Spare One’ was intended to make the four (!) people who knew it in the audience wet themselves basically (laughs). ‘Ally In Exile’ should have been there all the time. Malka says it’s the best opener of a Wire set she’s ever seen. We’ve also been playing ‘Underwater Experiences’. We could perhaps record them all and make that record that we never made.”

“Document & Eyewitness” is a fittingly turbulent album for the period that followed the performances. The mainstay of the record, the Electric Ballroom concert - was performed after Wire broke ties with EMI, after three years and three highly acclaimed albums – “Pink Flag”, “Chairs Missing” and “154”. The band were in their critical ascendancy at this point. The Electric Ballroom show (save for an ironic crowd pleaser of “12XU”) consisted entirely of  unheard and unrecorded material, with a few artistic pranks thrown in – culminating with an angry crowd and at least one thrown bottle, triggering Newman’s famous response “Who’s a clever boy then!” Wire split shortly after this performance, not to reappear for another five years. A couple of the songs were recorded for Newman’s 1982 solo album “Not To”, but Wire were never to reach the studio with this body of output.

“The first break up was frankly down to Bruce. It’s really hard – Bruce’s world view is very different to mine – probably to the rest of the band. Bruce is not interested in any kind of fame or any kind of success – actually success scares him. The reviews for ‘154’ were pretty much ‘We are the best of our generation’ – but within 6 months of ‘154’ coming out the band didn’t exist. How could you do that? We did this tour supporting Roxy Music which was the worst thing we could have possibly done. The thing is – decisions when you’re not seeing any money out of something are based on what you feel like, not necessarily what’s sensible. So you go, it’s horrible, you don’t make any money and everyone hates you. Nobody felt good after doing that Roxy Music tour, It’s hard work, unpleasant, fucking cold.....we were probably a year and a half away from really getting into a place where we’d have been hugely successful -  but we had nothing there to keep  us going and no one around to give us any good advice. So Bruce didn’t want to do it”.

Wire’s history – and that of certain Manchester bands – could have changed forever – as following their split with EMI Tony Wilson called them to a meeting to discuss recording with Factory Records.

“The only reason we didn’t join Factory was pretty much a misunderstanding of culture. Although we were very much loved and lauded within the independent world, at that point we had been on a major label. What happens with major labels is bands get an advance for their record and live on it for a year, so by the end of it they haven’t got any money. We were completely flat broke. We met with Tony who said ‘I’d like you to come on Factory, we could make fantastic records, it would be brilliant, we could help you sell lots.....’. We said ‘Great – how much advance are you going to give us?’. He replied ‘Independent labels don’t give advances’.  How would we have survived? Maybe we could have thought ‘Let’s find a way to make some money – do some other stuff then record the Factory album’ – nobody literally had a penny to rub together at that point. On the other side, Tony could have thought – ‘How much do I need to give them? Probably not that much – they just need to survive’ rather than the flat ‘Independent labels don’t give advances’. When we came back round in 1984/85 we could have gone with any of those labels, and the conversation with Dan (Daniel Miller – Mute Records supremo) went exactly the same way. We started to go out and he called after us ‘Yes, but boys.....’”

Wire’s return to the fray with “The Ideal Copy” almost resulted in their immediate downfall.

“‘154’ was a bit fractious, but ‘The Ideal Copy was way worse. I actually left the band at the end of it – I couldn’t take any more. I can’t go in too deeply about it – Wilson Neate’s writing a book on the full history and we’ll save it for that!”

The album – despite Newman’s hesitancy at recounting it – is a strong steadfast collection that commenced Wire’s second phase, following on with the seismic (and mindbendingly titled) “A Bell Is A Cup Until It Is Struck”, the live reworkings of “It’s Beginning To And Back Again”, the fervently electronic “Manscape” and the playful “The Drill” – Wire’s exploration of the classic track from ‘The Ideal Copy’ remixed and reworked to extremes. By the recording of “Manscape”, however, Robert Gotobed had felt his role in the band was decreasing considerably, and upon his departure, Wire became ‘Wir’ and released 1991’s “The First Letter” – a fascinating album that is probably due a critical reappraisal.

 Wire’s triumphant return in 1999 with the full quartet blasted into view in the most unexpected way possible. A band who were so wilfully intent on “the new” in the past that whenever an album was released most of their live set would be from the next album (and most notoriously with John Peel Sessions too),they played the Royal Festival Hall with purely old material, with Bruce Gilbert sporting a guitar for the first time since the mid eighties. The first album to arise from the revitalised line up was 2002’s “Send” – an uncompromising neo-punk barrage christened at a typically imaginative Wire performance at the Barbican where the entire “Pink Flag” album was played in order for the first half of the show (the title track showcased by a row of cheerleaders) and the second half – “Send” - featured Wire playing in individual white boxes with close ups of the band verging on the medical screened on each box.

“Send” reaffirmed Wire’s position as critical darlings and cemented their place in their importance in contemporary music culture, which had already borne fruit from R.E.M.’s 1987 cover of “Strange” to Elastica’s infamous homage to “Three Girl Rhumba” in their “Connection” single. Once again in their ascendancy, Wire were dealt a potentially fatal blow with Bruce Gilbert’s decision to leave the band in 2004.

“I don’t know what he feels now and I’m not going to put any words into his mouth, so – you can’t really blame someone for being how they are. He never was much interested in being in a rock band. He doesn’t like touring and never has. There’s an awful lot about the daily life of it – it’s an artistic project but it also is a rock band, and you have to realise that at some level. He’s perfectly within his rights to do what he wants to do in the way he wants to do it, and certainly I wish him really well. Certainly from my side there’s no hard feelings at all. It was very fragile when Bruce left, but since then we’ve come together and grown stronger as a unit. Actually it was probably one of the best favours he could have done for the band. I don’t think he thought we could continue, but he did us a fantastic favour because he forced us to come to terms with things we never felt we could -  such as ‘What is it that we’re doing?’ – ‘What’s the point of it?’ ‘Why would we continue to do it?’ ‘If we’re doing it, let’s do it wholeheartedly and with some regard for the other people in it.’ Sometimes Wire could be brutal – people just out for themselves. Actually most bands are like that! You just have to understand that there is a common interest and to face in the same direction – so it’s all fine”.

2007’s “Object 47” was a stylistic bridge between “Send “ and the current release “Red Barked Tree”. “Object 47” stands as a conciliatory work, paving the way for the impeccable masterpiece of  “Red Barked Tree”. Similarly to  Subway Sect’s latest release “We Come As Aliens”, “Red Barked Tree” is an  album which at least equals, if not surpasses their famed early works – acknowledging the past but encompassing the songwriting ability to continue to innovate.

The market for nostalgia is more omnipresent than ever – were Wire ever approached for Punk festivals and what is Newman’s opinion of them?

“No and no, basically! (Re the “Pink Flag”/”Send” Barbican show) – It wasn’t the greatest gig I must say, but it was very new in that kind of ‘Don’t Look Back’ thing and it wasn’t being done very much – now everybody’s done it. Benicassim Festival wanted us this year but wanted us to play “Pink Flag” – we told them we’re touring a new album so the idea seemed absurd – maybe we could do it another year. In 2008 Pitchfork wanted us to play – but only if we played old material. We told them to fuck off.  Jonathan Ross did a programme on punk rock (BBC Three) – there wasn’t a mention of Wire. We don’t get included in ‘that list’ ever, and that has proved to be quite a bonus. There are people out there who think ‘Pink Flag’ is a classic punk rock album – those people don’t like any other Wire records – they think ‘Wire went shit after that’. Actually nobody thought we were a proper punk band at the time – in fact most of these people actually hated us. There were all these rumours going round that we did the Roxy tracks (1977 live compilation) in the studio! It’s not that we had extreme musical skills but we didn’t want to sound like a bunch of fucking idiots. We didn’t see ourselves as being a punk band. We knew we were using it so you could get to play in these places. I saw Subway Sect play at the 100 Club at the ’76 punk festival – I thought they were fantastic. Buzzcocks with Devoto – they were amazing – that first EP (‘Spiral Scratch’) – it’s not punk rock – it’s almost drum ‘n’ bass! It’s not lumpen at all, it’s really flowing. I’ve said this before – when Howard Devoto left The Buzzcocks, I thought ‘They’ve just left the ground completely open for us’. They were the bands that I really liked. Sex Pistols were a great band to see live in ’76, but by ’77 you would be bored with it. It was just kind of antics. Lydon is obviously smart, but it hasn’t held up in the long term”.

Would it have held together if Glen Matlock had stayed?

“There’s a lot of truth in that. Kicking out your songwriter isn’t the smartest thing to do, but was Glen Matlock capable of writing anything that was more than a sort of cheerful three chord tune? I don’t know. Lydon almost had it right with Public Image, but frankly there wouldn’t have been Public Image if it wasn’t for Wire. We were setting the benchmark by that point, not the Sex Pistols. When we met Cabaret Voltaire in ’78 when we played in Sheffield, they said to us ‘You’re The Guys’ to which we replied – ‘You’re so modern – you’ve got synthesisers and everything!’”

Newman finishes the interview with a typical twist of the nostalgia trend.

“We could play the fourth album – the one that never came out!”

Was there ever a track listing?  

“No – but we’ll have to devise one – you can’t get very far without a track listing!”

www.pinkflag.com
www.facebook.com/WIRE.pinkflag
www.colinewman.com
https://www.facebook.com/ColinNewmanCN

Lee McFadden 22/8/11

Photo Credit: Maya Newman