The Return of WIRE
An Interview with Colin Newman
by Alexander Laurence
are one of the most distinctive bands of our time. Colin
Newman (guitar/vocals), Bruce Gilbert (guitar), Graham Lewis
(bass/vocals), and Robert Gotobed (drums) make up this enduring
band that emerged at the time of the punk explosion in London
in the late seventies. They released three amazing albums
during this period which are still considered to be classics:
Pink Flag (1977), Chairs Missing (1978), and
In the early eighties, the band members pursued several
solo projects, but soon after reformed as a group (now subtitled
"The Beat Combo") and produced five more albums.
The most distinct were The Ideal Copy (1996) and
The Drill (1991). Many of the albums were heavily produced
and were not well received. They soon moved on to other
projects and didn't perform together for a decade.
WIRE surprisingly came back to the USA in May 2000 and
played to audiences who were often too young to have ever
seen them play live in the seventies or eighties. With this
third version of the band (WIRE mark III), they started
to play material from all their albums. Later they started
releasing some singles and EPs, marking a new period for
the band. This new material is faster and heavier than anything
they have done in the past. People are getting into them
for the first time or, like me, getting excited about a
band they have loved since the late 1970s. They will be
touring in the USA in September 2002, and Europe in November
2002. I spoke to singer and guitarist while they were practicing
for this exciting tour. Hope to see you all there!
AL: I am guessing that
WIRE reformed because either Graham Lewis moved back
to England or because you were being asked to do many festivals
like All Tomorrow's
Parties. How did it happen exactly?
Colin: No, Graham still
lives in Sweden. You cannot divorce WIRE, especially
WIRE mark III, working again from a notion of appropriate
timing. WIRE is a
creature of whatever time it is being conducted in. If you
go back to say
1995 it would be hard to imagine how WIRE as a specific
unit could have
operated at that time, the individuals are multi-modal,
they are always happy
to operate with culturally appropriate artistic currency.
But it would have
been hard (although not impossible) to construct a model
of WIRE that could
have operated at that time (for a start it would have had
to be totally
AL: You reunited at
the Meltdown around 1998, right?
Colin: Yeah. By the
late 1990's things had moved on. Both Bruce and I (who are
London residents) independently developed the sense that
there could be a WIRE construction for that period. A specific
invite came to play a show at Daniel Miller's "mini
meltdown" in 1998. In the end it came to nothing, but
the seeds were sown. The next year an invite came that it
would have been unwise to ignore in the shape of an offer
to curate an evening and headline at the Royal Festival
Hall (with a reasonably sized check attached!!) This was
actually a bigger show than WIRE had ever played in their
own right! A 3,500 capacity, which we sold out! In order
to do the show we had to tool up the band from a more or
less cold start.
AL: WIRE hadn't played for about ten years.
Colin: In preparation
for it we made the decision that it would have been giving
ourselves too much of a mountain to climb to try to make
entirely new material for this one show, as the band had
been effectively dormant for 10 years. So we worked through
a huge list of back catalogue material to try to find -
A- the items that we could easily remember how to play and
B- items that were not so totally dependent on the "atmosphere"
of the studio versions that they could sustain a new life.
At this time we were really not sure if what we were doing
was going to last any more than one very well paid gig.
The approach was quite simple and could be described as
a stripping away, not only of extraneous musical information
but also of approaches and formalities belonging to another
AL: How did the gigs go?
Colin: The Royal Festival
Hall gig went well and we were offered to play the first,
Mogwai curated, All Tomorrow's Parties. There, seeds for
much more were unearthed. Whereas the RFH gig, for all it's
trappings, was a "museum piece" a chance for the
belated and curious to see it and add it to the checklist
- ATP was something else, a young audience of music fans
there to watch whoever might take their fancy from the assortment
on show. Their response, especially to WIRE in full flight
with the accelerator on was enlightening.
ATP that year could be described as a "festival of
slowness," a lot of Tortoise derived bands exploring
the spaces in between the notes. So it was surprising that
the effect of WIRE's fastness was visceral. Not something
measured in applause and outbreaks of mad frenzy, just a
sense that, to put it simply and presciently "fast
is on it's way." At that point (April 2000) I personally
knew that WIRE had to make new, fast material. It was just
something you could feel in the room.
By that time we were also committed to a US tour. No time
to develop new material but a space to hammer the museum
piece into contemporary currency. WIRE were discovering
a directness and urgency it had never had before.
You lived in Israel off and on for the past 16 years. Was
it a real
influence on you, Wire, and your solo records?
Colin: I haven't lived
there, just visited. Probably not a big influence.
AL: What was the biggest
WIRE single or album that charted?
Colin: No idea. I don't
have any comparative sales figures plus the 70's stuff didn't
sell much at the time but kept selling (and still continues
to do so)
AL: What do you think
of Graham Lewis' solo stuff?
Colin: You can't ask
people in group's what they think of their co-members solo
AL: There are many references
to Berlin and Germany in many WIRE songs. What is the fascination
Colin: WIRE made two
albums in Berlin in the 1980's: The Ideal Copy, and
A Bell Is A Cup. Berlin is a fascinating place.
AL: During that American
tour you played a new song "The Art of Persistence."
happened to that song?
Colin: Not a lot really.
We don't play it any more. At one point I made a much darker
version of it which we may revisit at some time in the future.
AL: Do you still wish
to collaborate with others, new groups, musically and
producing them, or is it limited to WIRE and Malka Spigel/Immersion?
Colin: Of course. I
just did a mix for a Belgian band Dead Man Ray. In fact,
since "Read & Burn 01" has started to be heard,
I'm starting to get more people approaching me about mixing
AL: I was always wondering
about the WIRE/WIR gigs around 1989/1991. What was it like
performing songs off of albums like Manscape or The First
Letter which were more studio based albums? And what was
it like without Robert Gotobed?
Colin: In a way this
was a different band dealing with a different set of circumstances.
In general WIRE had very little appropriate support during
the 1980's and fared rather badly under it's own advice.
WIRE is never short of good ideas, however care always needs
to be taken to be selective about which paths will yield
well for the long term. 1980's WIRE is bitty. It is the
band's least favorite version. I feel we have a much more
intelligently curated strategy now.
AL: Some people think
"Read & Burn 01" is much better than the last
Colin: Absolutely. The
aim of mk III WIRE is to produce items which have the power
of our best work but centered in now rather than then.
AL: "Read &
Burn 01" is one of the first releases on Pinkflag.
Is there a plan to do any further albums or EPs?
Colin: That little 01
in the corner there should tell you what you need to know
about pinkflag's future. The label started by releasing
two albums in 2000 "The Third Day" (PF 1) &
"It's all in the Brochure" (PF2). The former is
a record of the first rehearsal for the RFH thing and the
latter is a document of the show. These items were only
available either at shows or through mail-order at www.posteverything.com/pinkflag.
They are now out of print. We followed up with a seven inch
single "twelve times you" (VPF3) based on audio
recorded at the Garage in 2000. Although "Read &
Burn 01" has been put into conventional distribution,
it's follow up "Read & Burn 02" will not be.
It will be available at the US shows. Pinkflag started as
a "fan" imprint but now it becomes a record company.
AL: Could you comment
on some more obscure WIRE tracks like "Harry Houdini,"
"Stepping Off Too Quick," "Oh No Not So (save
the bullet)," or "It's the Motive?"
Colin: They are obscure.
If they were any good they'd be less so...
AL: You are touring
America this September. After that in Europe. What should
Colin: The live show
features stuff from "Read & Burn 01" &
"Read & Burn 02" as well as some as yet unscheduled
pieces. We did the "museum piece" show in 2000,
now it's time for new stuff. We have played this set a few
times in the UK and have received the strongest positive
feedback we have ever received for Wire live.
AL: Many British bands
refuse to tour the USA because even if they have a
high profile in the UK they are like an indie band here.
Colin: It's quite hard
to make money on the road in USA so you'd better have an
audience or someone to subsidize you. You can easily get
sunk by the costs. WIRE have an audience (no one subsidizes
us) but we have to be pretty careful otherwise we'd end
up losing money and that comes out of our pockets directly!
I can see therefore why someone might not want to do it.
AL: What advice do you
have for younger people who want to play music?
Colin: How young are
we talking here? Not young but younger, if young is teen
then younger is pre-teen? I have a 13-year old son who makes
his own tracks under the name of Bumpy. We have released
a few of these on swim. He also recently started picking
up bass guitar. We never really encouraged him but if he's
interested we can help. I'm going to buy him a bass soon.
Wanting isn't enough, it's about doing it. If you are interested
you'll find a way to do it.
AL: What qualities
do you like about music?
Colin: I can't believe anyone would ask such a question!
I've spent most of my adult life being involved with what
might loosely be described as "music." It's qualities
are many and various and life is way to short to list them
More WIRE info: www.pinkflag.com
-- Alexander Laurence