Wire:
The TVD Interview

Through all stages of their career, the defining quality of Wire has been that they consistently thwart expectations; forever changing and challenging their approach and always delivering amazing recordings, even if they still manage to sound like total surprises to their fans.

For their most recent effort, Change Becomes Us, the band went back to the clutch of songs readied for their fourth album in 1980, one that was never recorded, as the band ceased operations. By the time they were working together again in 1985, they had moved on to newer explorations. What was left behind of that forgotten period were performance recordings of the songs still being developed, and it seemed that would be all that there would ever be—a minor footnote at best.

But a sequence of events caused the band to take a fresh view on that material, and suddenly here they were tearing at the compositions until they quickly became an entirely new beast. What was, in some ways, simply an experiment in de- and re-construction, has formed one of the strongest albums in a discography packed with brilliance. That they have done it 36 years after their debut is simply staggering, and a testament to the band’s vigorous need to constantly be evolving. The fact that it comes at a time when a rather large tome has been published attempting to encapsulate their entire career further goes to show you that Wire is a band that you simply can’t keep pace with creatively.

I managed to at least catch Colin Newman for a conversation as they were on the way to the opening date of their U.S. tour. We celebrated their stubborn nature, discussed the addition of guitarist Matt Simms, went over their elaborate festival style launch for the record, hinted about exciting events in the very near future, and balanced overlooking the entire city of Rome with having fans hand you their desired set list after shows. 

Let’s get right to it—this is a crazy premise for making an album! Even with the history of recycling content in the band, who in the world would return to the entire batch of songs created just before the premature pause of the first iteration of the band, yet not even re-record them, but rather use them as a launch pad and re-work them entirely to the point that they have new titles as well? It’s maybe the ultimate Wire exercise. How did you guys end up at this point?

Well, it was a project, as you realized, it was a kind of “what would it be like if we were to” and it had kind of a long history to it where we specifically worked up certain songs years ago and looked at those and then delved further. The important part is that the museum of Wire has no artifices in it. There are no exhibits in the museum of Wire. None that were put there by us any way. So we just got interested in, and began engaging in it, almost as if it were new material, using the methodology we have evolved over the years and the whole thing felt kind of crazy and it felt like it could end up being a very expensive mistake.

I think there is always a reward in the process, even if it didn’t turn out as successfully as it did. Luckily, for all of us, it turned out well enough that we all get to hear the results.

In some ways that is kind of sheer pigheadedness—it’s like you are just going to make it work.

Whether this is a good idea or not, we are going to make something out of it!

Well, in the beginning part of the process, we had this second part of a UK tour that we did in 2011, which is when we put 7 or 8 of the songs into the set. We were rehearsing in Putney and it just seemed absurd. Just engaging in this and literally putting it in and the fact that we were going to play a tour and 95% of the audience are not even going to know what it is that we are playing.

To have any basis and knowledge of these songs you would have to be a major hardcore end-to-end Wire fan.

Absolutely! That made it really interesting and it felt like an adventure. And we could see that the set was really good and this material was really strong, so that left us with some confidence and good feelings that we probably would succeed with it. It sounded great when we were recording it and I started working on it and we had this show in Rome at a festival and right at the top overlooking the city I just stood there and listened to it and it felt right and was I was just really impressed with what we had done and I thought, “okay, now I’ve got to sit down and make this thing work.”

In a way, if you hadn’t told anyone the process that you went through in developing these songs, obviously 95% of the people, or even more, wouldn’t have known.

In some ways telling people has complicated it; some people don’t know why we did it, and for us, it is an interesting story why, but the reality is it is just a new album and it seems obvious in that way, but we weren’t thinking of it in those terms. We were just thinking of it as an interesting project and trying to make that material sound good. That is why we did it.

I think there was a feeling, just in general, about that time period in the band and not being able to realize the potential that was there in those songs.

Yeah, of course, you can say that there is something cathartic about it, and we sort of semi-admit it.

It’s great to have the opportunity to revisit those, but then in true Wire form you end up making them in to something totally different. You can’t help yourselves!

Well, absolutely. There was no way we were going to do anything different. The engineer asked us if we wanted to go for that sound of the late ’70s and we just went “what would we want to do that for? Absolutely not!” Just let go of it and work on it like it’s new material.

I think that is the joy of it. In a way, for me, it has turned into this really interesting bridge between all of the albums that came before it, with a sense of the riff bedrock that was there around the time period, but there is so much of the new sound manipulation and the way the songs are formed, but then it also mixes in with more of Robert’s steady hand at the drum kit, and in a way it kind of has the best of everything in it.

I think Wire is in an increasingly good place as a band and it has truly become like an adventure again and we are just launching into it and we have even got two completely new songs in the set, that weren’t even written before we came to America just now. I had some lyrics and within five minutes in the rehearsal room we are just really getting it as a band.

Now you see you are jumping far ahead in my list of questions as you have already gotten to the two new songs in the set list—haha! This is exciting though as I really feel like it is great that this is such a creative period for the band.

The thing about Wire, and I guess this has always been the thing, is this will appeal to certain people and we will be really pleased to find ourselves on the MOJO top 20 or 30 records of the year if that happens, but we are already thinking about the next record. I think bringing Matt in last year has brought us about to finding this creative direction that for once we are really really working on our own terms—totally.

I think the driving force through all periods of Wire is that there has always been a sense of moving forward and challenging and creating in a way, more problems to solve than are evident to the listener.

But it can be an over-intellectual process. I think if it is Wire then it should just change all the time. The set list is now drawing from five different periods of the band and stylistically that is kind of fascinating. Bands often adopt a style and they just stick to it because that is a good way of marketing themselves. It is a rather uncommercial approach, but we don’t do uncommercial music.

It has been interesting, as the end result is still very commercial, but you refuse to be pigeon holed at any turn, which is what still makes you vital and important now, as much as you were when you started out. Otherwise, you would just be a retro touring dinosaur act, which is boring.

Absolutely, and we are just really not interested in that.

If all you were doing were the new record it would still just be vital and amazing and just as important as anything that came before it. There is nothing else like Wire.

I think we are pretty unique for our generation and it is the hardest thing to maintain in the face of an industry where bands have either been contemporary or historic.

You have the position where you can play for a sophisticated listening public like the MOJO audience, and still play the Pitchfork Festival for 17 year-old kids, which is the beauty of where you are now.

Reminds me of the festival with how we launched the album in London.

I wanted to talk about that as I feel like people kept expecting the “art event” aspect of Wire to diminish with the change in personnel, yet it is still here stronger than ever. How did the Drill:London events and working with The Quietus come about? In a way, this is the most extravagant of all of the events that you have done in the past.

I think you just can’t limit your ambition. Matt being part of the band has really helped us kind of grow and move forward, to work with someone like that who is a big musical personality. He is not someone who stands around on the sidelines and begs to be told what to do. He may be young, but he has no problem being the loudest person in the room.

It’s what is needed, and because it was such a peculiar process with how we ended up with the record it left me thinking. I had the idea of the festival a while ago and then someone said why don’t we launch the album with the festival. Now, at that point, no one knew how the album was going to turn out—so it was still very much talking about a project. Now you don’t stick a year-long tour on the back of a project, that might not come out, so it became a really interesting idea to launch it in this manner.

It turned out much better than I thought it would actually, to be honest, in terms of it coming off and us not losing our asses moneywise. The live experience is about finding great venues where it could be and not having to worry about getting these big bands because you are not doing it in these huge halls. So, keeping it like a city festival takes off a certain amount of pressure. I can’t say any more about it now, but we do have a plan about doing one in a North American city.

I was going to ask you about that. London gives you the possibility with the fantastic venues you selected, as they are pretty amazing rooms, and I was trying to think about where in the States you could pull off something like that and if you would even take it on, but it sounds like you are hinting that there is the possibility that that might be in the offing.

I can’t give you much more information.

You can just tease me a little. Just the fact that you are thinking about it is good.

We are looking to announce it in maybe six weeks. It’s not too long to hang on. There is nobody on the bill right now, but the principle will remain the same. Small local venues that people really love to be in. In London we had the Lexington, and they ended up being the promoters for the whole festival in London bringing in their expertise, as they promote in other venues as well and the Lexington is just simply a great place to see a rock band (JF – I can confirm this having seen an amazing Jad Fair show there where he led a clapping parade through the crowd.)

Café Oto is a great space for experimental music and people like to go there. People will go and see three Japanese artists who have no reputation outside of their scene and fill the room. (JF – I can confirm this is a great venue as well and you should not miss a chance to see Dead Rat Orchestra play there and find out why there is suddenly a massive tree trunk in the middle of the room.)

People know these venues and know where people like to go, which is very different thing from the kind of festival where you have got to get the biggest band to play and the biggest place to hold as many people and it is not what we are doing. Of course, we are going to rely on our reputation to get people, who are perhaps bigger than would normally play in those venues, and that gives you a certain edge.

The joy with the way those events are curated is across the board: it’s got experimental things and new bands and people who are more established doing different things and probably the key to it all is that there are so many risks involved and places in the lineup where there could be a little bit of failure, but in a really interesting way, so that the whole thing gets pulled off as a really memorable event.

From a Wire perspective, and a larger perspective, it is a way to associate ourselves with a lot of other kinds of music. It is a way of seeing that we are not a punk band and we are a contemporary band and we know this stuff and if we are putting it in the festival it frames that context. And the people who might think they know Wire… that they don’t really. They have maybe heard one record, or maybe not any records but have heard what other people think of it, and now we can really choose how we engage with the world. It is not a case of not caring or trying to find an audience for it but you know, maybe not always do the obvious thing.

I won’t ask if you have read Read and Burn (Wilson Neale’s new book on the band’s career up until now), or even the book about Pink Flag, but as Wire has always been so much about the process of creation; I am curious as to your thoughts on what it was like to be involved in the process of someone attempting to write the defining text about the band.

Well, about the book, it is Wilson’s book basically, and it is serious to us that someone has written a book that is about us that is big enough to hold open the door with it, it is obviously something worthy of note. We all have different views, but I think he did alright and I think it was all more contained in a way, although there is a bit of a sting at the end for me.

And I think in the end it is just a partial story—everything is a partial story and everyone will bring to it what their prejudice is. People have prejudices about the band, and who they think is important in the band, and what they think is important in the band, and they will find in the book what supports their particular viewpoint.

Even more so, what was it like on a personal level, just going through that process? How much of an obligation did you feel to participate, or are you re-thinking what you might have said, or wanting to add something?

I basically like Wilson. He has a much bigger ego than I thought he had. Maybe I should not have been so naïve as to imagine that he didn’t have a big ego, but you know, he is very thorough, and he asks a lot of questions. We agreed that we would engage with it fully and do so to the best of our abilities and there was no point in holding anything back. I mean, why not, you know?

With running your own label and with a lot of the product built around special edition CD releases, how are you adjusting to the recent return to vinyl and selling music via objects other than CDs?

We sold two and a half times as many copies of Change Becomes Us on vinyl as we did Red Barked Tree already, so we deliberately put it out for Record Store Day and I think also that everything has changed in a way and I have heard, but haven’t seen it yet, that the vinyl is outselling the CD in the US by a large degree so far on this record, and it is really the younger audience buying it on vinyl.

For me personally, we still guarantee the continuation of the CD by making it special and we have had to approach the CD differently with unique editions and this one comes as a book and that is how the market is and you can’t ignore that stuff. You can’t just be like, oh yeah we made a record and you don’t give a damn about anything else. You have to care about that stuff, because otherwise you won’t find an audience or the audience won’t find you.

Do you find that since you have a one to one relationship with the audience through pinkflag.com that you are able to be more reactive to that?

In some respects, but if you look on the forum it is a lot of moaning minnies.

The forum is always going to be full of the 59 complainers.

It is just that there comes a point where you can’t make them all happy. It’s like those guys that come to gigs, especially in America. They come up to you after the show and they say “I have been a Wire fan for blah blah blah and you didn’t play…” and here is the list of all of the songs that they really love and you didn’t play and in some ways that they didn’t get their money’s worth.

If that is the way that you see the world, then you actually don’t really understand what it is that we are doing. What we are trying to do is make the most interesting and exciting show that we can put together: The show that the band is genuinely enthusiastic to play. That is what we are trying to do because we know that that is going to be better than trying to do some sort of focus group list of what are the hits and we have to play those. We would just turn in to a karaoke band and be our own worst cover band.

Is that solely an American quality?

I have only had those kinds of conversations in America, but I am sure there are Europeans with those feelings.

I am sure there is one German who is waiting to hear “Ex-Lion Tamer” and is still bitter about the last three times he paid to see you.

There is also the funny assumption that certain songs are like “hits.” You ask 20 Wire fans to list their top 20 Wire songs and you are going to get a different response out of every one.

It would have been a massive missed opportunity, thinking back to all of the times that I have seen you over the last ten years, to have sacrificed any of the newer material for older songs would have really been a loss. To experience them when they are still kind of raw and being still formed and manipulated rather than just going through the motions of playing old material would be missing the point of Wire entirely.

Yes, we just make sure that it sounds good—if you can make it sound convincing.

That has been the cool part of the recent sets and having Matt in the band has re-galvanized some of the older songs in a way and you guys have been more playful with them and deconstructing them more and manipulating them more. It is a good time for all of the material, newer and older. For people who arrived at Wire in the early 80’s and maybe bought the first three records but not when they came out, and got Ideal Copy upon release, this record really serves as the perfect bridge between all of the albums. This record has the best qualities of all of those pieces of Wire, and you can tell that you didn’t consciously cherry pick from each era, but the material just brought out the best in you.

Absolutely. It is an organic process. But I also think somehow that the work that we did post Red Barked Tree and having Matt in the band and the spirit that there is about moving forward and experimenting and just taking an interesting attitude and always moving towards our own sound and our way of looking at the world—I think it is quite fascinating.

I mean—I’m interested! I’ve got no idea what to expect really as to what will happen and that makes it kind of fun for everyone.

Wire is presently on the road.

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