Bluefat Archive October 2008

Three Decades In, Wire Reignites the Spark of Art Punk

Wire is a band that has achieved a kind of cachet or mystique with a moniker prone to be dropped into conversation about relevant music at all your most tomorrow-leaning parties. Most certainly you'll want to highlight them in your MySpace favorites list or whatever.

"Wire tends to be one of those bands that people talk about in hushed tones," says founder Colin Newman with a snigger. "My reading of the situation is, well, if it's the kind of music you're supposed to be into, your girlfriend definitely won't like it. There's always been an inclination in Wire to be both incredibly artistic and sussed, something that blokes like but also something that has some kind of appeal."

And who or what exactly are Wire? How did they come to stride such hallowed historical halls?

The short version opens with a quartet of very art-oriented young men in London, circa 1977, a time and place that, musically and sociologically, you don't need to hear much more explanation about, 'cause all that's been done to death. Punk rock, OK; form a band, bash it out, express yourself in very forceful and direct terms. Cut your hair, don't wear flairs.

The Wire fellows — Newman, voice and guitar; Graham Lewis, voice and bass; Bruce Gilbert, guitar and electronic stuff; Robert Gotobed, drums — while intrigued by punk rock's healthy minimalizing and fat-trimming aesthetic, seemed from the start far more interested in borrowing punk's clean lines and ferocious energy to abstractly express an obliquely monochromatic emotional palette with brutally restrictive technical delivery. Their infamous debut album, Pink Flag, was about short-sharp-shock: 21 tracks totaling 35 minutes in length, all killer. Though Newman and Lewis' gruffly intoned or barked lyrics mentioned rape, homosexuality and social isolation, the group seemed staunchly unpolitical in the literal sense.

Pink Flag launched Wire into the punk stratosphere cred-wise, and bands like Bloc Party, Interpol and Spoon have obviously grabbed huge chunks of its finely chopped rhythmic aesthetics to build their own careers. Yet the album here and there hinted at gloomier or at least more expansive ideals, which were more fully explored in their subsequent Chairs Missing and 154 albums; both made extensive use of atmospheric keyboards and complex studio effects — which punk purists disdained, of course, as being too prog — in often protracted tracks, such as "A Touching Display," and more often avant-pop ditties such as "I Am the Fly," "Outdoor Miner" and "Map Reference 41N 93W." On these latter songs, the band's modernist electronics and textural densities were combined with a unique gift for ripping good sing-alongish rock choons.

Through the years, this hugely influential band has re-emerged as a recording/touring entity, between periods in which they've taken time off to devote themselves to their solo interests, mostly in the electronic and avant-garde realms. Wire Phase II would be their late-'80s/early-'90s return with terse rock/electronic hybrid albums like The Ideal Copy and A Bell Is a Cup ...Until It Is Struck. The awe-inspiring Phase III saw them come back super-no-bullshit-strong with the brutal salvos of Send in 2003 and subsequent EP series Read & Burn.

Now Wire re-emerges with a harshly beautiful thing called Object 47 on the group's own Pink Flag imprimatur. Colin Newman and Graham Lewis talked to me about the album's genesis, how electronic music has changed and improved rock music, and their peculiarly righteous place within the "progressive-punk" quagmire.

First, what had compelled you to return to action in '02? You just roared back out of the gate and haven't let up since, albeit briefly.

GRAHAM LEWIS: Originally what happened is that right at the end of the millennium there, we were approached and asked to play in what was a series of concerts, which were called "Living Legends," believe it or not, at the South Bank complex in London. And as we hadn't worked together for about nine years — Bruce, Colin and myself had all been involved in electronic music since the last manifestation of Wire — none of us had played guitars or anything, so there was a sufficiently large fee for us to think that if we gave ourselves two weeks we might be able to put something together, we might be able to pull it off.

And that's what we just about did. And then we did a few more shows, came over to the States and did some dates over there, and at the end of it, through playing old material but in a contemporary way, we actually felt that we had something we could use to shape or make a new recording, which was Send.

Send had a very deliberate design to it, which was that it was extremely sonic rather than melodic, the tempos were very fast on the whole, and it was an extremely ruthless sort of work.

Your timing for this no-nonsense, all-meat/no-fat aesthetic seemed perfect, as I recall. It just felt correct for the times.

LEWIS: We didn't want to be reviewed as being old men who were sort of laid-back, trying to drag their sorry asses around the block one more time. [Laughs] So it was very, very, very strongly designed, and live it was particularly brutal. It did not brook indifference.

COLIN NEWMAN: It was kind of rock like hip-hop. That was the basic idea, then what developed around that was a bunch of stuff in which there was very little in the way of melody. And live, it was something which had this dual function: It sounded instantaneously old and new, and it had that sense of a bunch of people standing onstage kind of shouting at you, coming at you with a lot of energy. So it gave the sense that this band had something to — you know, we could still get it up.

The performances on Send and particularly live, as I witnessed them at Spaceland and the El Rey in Los Angeles at that time, were incredibly inspiring; that's not just because of the energy and commitment you evinced but also because it sounded indubitably like Wire yet modernized, somehow, and relevant, musically speaking.

LEWIS: Well, the guitar and, shall we say, sound technology had moved on since we'd been engaged with it before, and everyone's work had been in the realm of electronics, so that's what informed the sound of Send; its very construction is based around how loud you can make a kick drum and, you know, how loud you can make the kit. So it was really based around the ideas of how you construct dance music.

As we've always said in Wire, we try to engage with the technology of the day; if you're wanting your music to sound like the time, then that's what one must do.

On your latest, Object 47, the songs are much more melodically oriented, more "musical," so to speak.

LEWIS: We were trying to think of another way to author material. At the end of 2006, I went 'round to Colin's studio, and basically what we said we were going to do was review the material, and that included things which appeared on Read and Burn 3. And I grabbed a bass that was there and we started this one thing, and I said, "Look, let's just record," and I recorded on 12 tracks. So we had a sort of very productive day.

This was based on a phone call we had, which was, "What kind of a record would you be interested in making?" And I said what I'd like to do is to let some light into the place which Send had been, because Send had been a claustrophobic record; I think it beckoned strongly to become a cul-de-sac, really. And that's not a good place to be, 'cause we thought we'd done that, and the theme was to sort of move on, you know, informed by what Send had been sonically.

NEWMAN: The bad thing about Send was that it was an artistic dead end; Send was very good for what it was, but in a way, what we're doing now is a return to our core identity — which is not Pink Flag, either. The most creative period of Wire was the period of '78-79, with the acceleration. People say, Oh, Pink Flag is the only real Wire record. And I say, Rubbish! When something is said to have a timeless quality, you've gotta beware, because for the most part records are about the time when people were making them. Wire are about where the culture is going.

Your new sound, starting with Send, would have been steered, then, by your experiences with electronic and hip-hop production techniques.

NEWMAN: It's all electronic production. We were all playing in a room together on Object 47, but it's not really about that. We can't really afford to do all that; and secondly, we're rubbish at it. In many ways, we've always preferred an element of process in the way of putting together records, 'cause the creative ambition above any individual person is quite high compared to the physical skill of playing. It always has been. And it has been for the last five years my job to try and realize the great creative ambition of Wire through intelligent use of contemporary recording methods.

What I hope is that the average listener doesn't care about all that, he doesn't give a damn how I made this record, and all he cares about is if he likes the tunes or not.

Read Bluefat review of Wire's Red Barked Tree