Having pioneered art-punk, synth-pop and industrial music in their 35-plus year career, post-punk conceptualists Wire have grown mean and lean in their current incarnation.
For one thing, they’ve shed guitarist/sound guru Bruce Gilbert (replaced by It Hugs Back’s Matt Simms), and guitars are as prominent in their music as they’ve been in a while. Their latest album, Change Becomes Us (Pink Flag), reworks songs and sketches that were to be the basis of the aborted final studio album of the band’s first iteration at the turn of the 1980s. Singer/ guitarist Colin Newman (right) and bassist/ singer Graham Lewis (left) might maintain reputations for the elliptical and obscure, but in person, they’re garrulous road warriors and word worriers. Get sucked in again on Tuesday, October 8 at Postbahnhof.
The new album reworks old ideas. You guys aren’t exactly known for a tendency toward retrospection. You don’t even like to play your canon.
COLIN NEWMAN: It’s about Wire and its own history. We refuse nostalgia in any way, and we’re certainly not interested in marketing ourselves as a spectacle for remembering. We were in an interesting situation where at the end of 2011, we had to do a second UK tour and normally, in that situation, you would get some new material but of course we didn’t necessarily have any new material because we’d been on the road. So, the idea of investigating this body of material that was left over when Wire stopped in 1980 has been around for a while and, and the material itself is in our DNA. Everybody in the band knows about it. The kind-of core fans know about it. They know there was no serious record of that material.
Some of it ended up on 1981’s Odds ‘n’ Sods-style Documents and Eyewitnesses (Mute), which is about the most accurately named record ever.
GRAHAM LEWIS: So, you understood? That’s perfect. ‘Cause that’s what it was. In a strange way it’s fortuitous that it was recorded at all. When we put it out, it seemed to be the right thing to do, because as far as we understood, Wire was finished. It’s got to be a record of the mess. The end. But the material had not been worked, it had not gone under the kind of focus of process which had resulted in the first three records.
Do you feel you’re a good archivist of your head?
CN: I don’t know. I have a very good body memory. If I find the first chord, I can usually work out the rest but you have to know where it starts.
How would you write songs at the time?
GL: All of us had different combinations.
CN: We’ve never really written songs together. You’ll put one person’s text with another person’s tune. This kind of sitting together at the piano – that never happened. [Laughs]
GL: It was extremely productive. I think it’s fairly unusual: out of four people you’ve got three people who’re actively writing. It was our strength and our weakness at the same time – things moved very, very quickly. But it kind of fell apart because of ambition, because we couldn’t be as good as three different people thought it should be. We’re still trying to examine this.
Even during the downtime, you never seemed to lose touch.
CN: There are plenty of moments of it being strained. But in a way, civilised.
GL: A lot of the time it’s about the bloody work. It’s artists arguing.
CN: We’re not saying, you know, “You’ve got a fat face.” But [1979‘s] 154 (EMI) suffers for that, I mean – in some ways if you go back to [1977’s] Pink Flag (EMI) there was more homogeneity in the in the writing and the majority are my tune and Graham’s text. That’s also true on [1978‘s] Chairs Missing (EMI). In 154 that breaks down a bit because, you know, George and Ringo are starting to write as well. You see how with the Beatles, in many ways, George Harrison was encouraged to write by the strength of Lennon and McCartney but at the same time was so overshadowed.
“We’ll give you two songs per record.”
CN: So they had to be bloody good ones. That’s one of the reasons why his work endures. But it was very hard to get that volume of writing all into one record.
GL: It’s impossible.
CN: And also two or maybe three radically different views about what the record should be – and that’s not counting what EMI thought it should be. EMI wanted 154 to be a collection of singles. Well, we may not have agreed on much but we certainly agreed that that was not what we were doing. As you would say in the days, “Good luck with that, chaps.” [Laughs]
154, on the whole, is your best reviewed record.
GL: It’s a very good record made under rather difficult circumstances.
CN: The unfortunate legacy of 154 is that people thought that the creative tension in Wire was the source of it being good. It’s important, but serious creative tension is totally destructive. The fact was, we managed to get the record done before the shit really hit the fan. It finished in many ways rather badly for Wire. There was no band. It just stopped. And we didn’t get the just rewards for what we’d invested in.
GL: What we’d invented.
CN: We were as poor in 1980 as we had been in 1977 and, you know, other people took our ideas and took them on and did well.
Were you aware of this when you were 28 years old?
CN: Of course.
GL: Of course.
CN: Of course, we knew everything. We were the best band in the world in 1979.
GL: But it’s very dispiriting for people to keep saying, “Oh you’re two years ahead of your time.” It’s a very difficult place to live. I don’t advise anybody to do it.
And now Bruce Gilbert is out.
GL: There were issues that had to be sorted out and some of those had to do with the very, very bad choice in management which we’d had. There was common cause, at least about being against somebody who severely fucked with the group. Bruce had quit and he didn’t want to talk about it either.
CN: We still don’t really know why.
GL: Before that happened, of course, an amount of material had been generated. And it was like, where does it go? And Colin was saying, “Well, is Bruce in or is Bruce out?” And I said I think we should go through the material and everything that Bruce has made a gesture at we put in one box. This stuff became [the 2007 EP] Read & Burn 3 (Pink Flag). We sent Bruce a CD and said, “This is what we’re doing – are you in or are you out?” And he said, “I’m out.” We said, “We will proceed.” He said, “Of course.” It’s about the work and that’s why we came together in the first place. It wasn’t because we were mates and had a love for Joan Baez or something.
Wire w/Traams Tue, Oct 8, 20:00 | Postbahnhof, Straße der Pariser Kommune 3-10, Friedrichshain, S-Bhf Ostbahnhof