Three Decades In, Wire Reignites the Spark
of Art Punk
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
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
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.
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.
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
timing for this no-nonsense, all-meat/no-fat aesthetic seemed perfect, as I
recall. It just felt correct for the times.
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
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.
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.
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.
your latest, Object
47, the songs are much more melodically oriented, more
"musical," so to speak.
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.
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
new sound, starting with Send, would have been steered, then, by your experiences
with electronic and hip-hop production techniques.
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