The Collapse Board Interview | Wire
Since first forming in 1976, and over the course of 13 studio albums, Wire have remained perennial outsiders. While their first three albums – Pink Flag (1977), Chairs Missing (1978) and 154 (1979) – are regarded as classic post-punk albums, the band themselves have never been one to reflect on labels, with each album showing a desire to experiment and continually move forwards. Creative differences split the band up for a five year period in 1980 and it was to unfinished ideas from this era, some of which were included on 1981’s Document and Eyewitness live album that Wire returned for inspiration for their current album, Change Becomes Us.
We spoke to the London-based Colin Newman and the Sweden-based Graham Lewis about their desire to always be a contemporary band, their views on nostalgia in the music industry and their plans for their upcoming Australian tour.
You’ve both collaborated with a host of musicians in other projects over the years, but what brings you back to Wire?
Colin Newman: That’s a good question. The official answer to that is that it’s like an itch that you can’t scratch but you don’t know why. There is something, and I’ve known people who have been in bands that have been well known, and for various reasons that band can’t go on, and I think there’s a sadness about that. If you’ve done something that has a history, and that history was good and people have guarded it well and are able to do something now which as good as they’ve done in the past, as well thought out and as concentrated, those sort of things, then surely its worthwhile doing. It’s sad when personal differences, or whatever it is, make that impossible.
Graham Lewis: Simply it’s always about unfinished business really. The reason you’re able to ask that question is because there have been several occasions where we’ve stopped and Wire stopped working together for various reasons. Sometimes there’d been problems from outside or internal problems we’ve had ourselves but I think quite often it’s been symptomatic of this feeling that perhaps there wasn’t really anything pressing to do with Wire. It’s like any collaboration with music, or anything creative really, it’s a conversation between two or more people to see where that might lead you.
Although there has been a few times when Wire hasn’t existed as a group, is there a secret to maintaining a working relationship in a band the best part of 37 years after you first formed?
CN: That’s a question and a half. There aren’t that many bands that keep going and actually I read the occasional rock biography, partly for that reason, to understand the dynamic of a group and how does that work. I think it requires something. Wire has a peculiar history in that we’ve certainly had periods of time when we haven’t got on at all. I think what’s happened in the last ten years, and this year it’ll be ten years since Bruce [Gilbert] left, is that we came to a decision that has increasingly impacted in a positive way on the band. We were in a situation in 2004 when there was no real opinion as to what happening, where do we go. We made the decision that whatever it is that we have, if we’re doing it we have to do it from a positive standpoint or not do it at all.
GL: I think also, to say it’s philosophical is perhaps an bit grand really, but when we started we had the intention of being involved with something which was committed towards changing and that’s been one of the few consistent things about what we’ve done. For better or worse that’s always been part of the equation because I think we all get bored pretty easily.
In the interviews with you that I’ve read, a key feature that you’ve always emphasised the desire to continually keep changing and reinventing yourself as a band. Is that the key to continually remaining relevant?
CN: I thinks it’s desire, desire to be that band. I think there’s only ever been one real aim in Wire and that’s to be contemporary band. You have to sit down and think about what you have to do to be relevant to now. It’s been 37 years now and it’s not something that comes naturally but practice does help. Although there have been times when there hasn’t been Wire, it has been its own on and off fashion, pretty much constant, and it has been that fact, that you’ve been doing it, that you’ve become bored with what you did before so you want to do something else, that whole thing that any artistic venture has to have, you’re constantly thinking about ways to reinvent yourself.
GL: When we started the whole thing, the idea was, from myself, I’d been out of art college for a couple of years, and I wanted to be a contemporary artist and as an artist what you do is practice your art and what you continue to try to do is be an contemporary artist otherwise it’s pointless, which means one continues to do the same thing and tries to keep it relevant to what is now and what you think is relevant to what you believe in. We’re not very good at nostalgia.
In saying that do you think that the art college background you went through helps instil that disciple to adapt?
GL: It’s absolutely fundamental. I chose going to art school, it was a positive decision for me. I did have the opportunity to go to university to read something but I chose to go to art school and the ones that I was fortunate to attend both had a philosophy which was fine art based. Basically what they taught was thinking and that seemed a terrific way to spend four years, being taught, or at least being given some pointers about, how to think. The friends of mine who are still involved in art education all complain of how art education has, as all education has, become another market-orientated commodity. I think it’s rather unfortunate as certain things don’t fit conveniently into how the market works. The last five years have certainly drawn the attention to some very serious doubts about how intelligent or how well regulated the market is itself.
CN: I don’t think it’s necessarily an art school background thing. There’s two ways to look at this, you can either look at it as basically as what you do is entertainment and if you feel that what you do is entertainment that simply means that you’re going to do anything that really accord to that, so if the public wants something you give them that. And if you think that what you do is art then giving the public what they want is not necessarily how you go about it. I’m not saying that there’s no element of that , I guess I’m thinking a bit of what Henry Ford said, that if he’d given the public what they wanted when he started, they would have wanted a faster horse. You have to look at it from the point of view of actually what we’re doing is something which is actually better. There are some people, a lot of people, who only view music in terms of entertainment , who view all performing musicians as entertainers and they regard the experience as entertainment. I think a less mainstream, more artistic audience is more interested in “Well, what’ve you got to show us?” It comes with a different mindset and I think that’s much more where we’re coming from and where we’ve always come from.
You mentioned nostalgia. Given how big the nostalgia industry has become in the last decade, and sometimes it seems to feel that it’s even bigger the ‘new music’ industry , has it been hard for Wire to resist the lure of nostalgia?
GL: I suppose nostalgia is a very individual thing and I think it’s hard to measure other peoples’ degree of nostalgia but it’s not something we encourage. We do play old material but when we play it we also play it in what we consider to be a contemporary fashion and the way that the group is playing at this time. I suppose it’s simple, it’s certainly what I enjoy is going to see somebody and see what they’re doing now. I’m not very interested in seeing former glories. What seems to happen with the nostalgia business is that it starts to become a little softer around the edges and there seems to be a warm glow where the sharpness and the focus that had previously been in the work is no longer there or certainly the spirit of it has left the room.
CN: It’s a weird thing. We’ve been saying no to nostalgia for so many years that it’s become our famous modus operandi. You know even in the 80s we refused to play anything from the 70s and was a direct result of not wanting to deal in nostalgia. It’s interesting but nostalgia is aimed at an audience who didn’t see it the first time around. The Rolling Stones have, in a way, become the prime example. They don’t really have a lot of new material and it really isn’t about the new material. The people who go go because they play ‘Jumping Jack Flash’, ‘Paint It Black’ and all those songs and they carefully manage that because that’s the expectation from them and that’s what they deliver and the whole thing is quite considered. They’re not doing it because they don’t have any choices, they just haven’t given themselves the choice.
You compared Bruce [Gilbert, original guitarist] leaving in 2007 to a fatal injury but in retrospect did you view it as a very Wire thing to happen that leads you eventually to a positive outcome?
CN: I think in hindsight it was inevitable but I think if anyone knows the band had looked at the original line-up and someone had said that there would be one person missing at some point and who would that be, I don’t think anybody would have said that we could have made a viable forward looking band out of the three of us, it was a most unlucky combination. But it’s actually proved to be the only practical one, that’s what’s amazing. You see basically that it is the only way, that if you have to lose one member you have to look at it as the only member you could have lost and survived, that’s a very interesting thing. That put us all in a situation where we were coping with the decision to be Wire and saying whatever we had between us, we’ll put that on hold and we’ll bring Wire forward and that started the change and allowed us to be active in terms of what we were doing, where we were going, what could happen.
What do you think you gained when [new guitarist] Matt Simms joined.
CN: We did about one and a half years with Margaret Fiedler McGinnis who was fantastic as a live guitarist, she was just the perfect person for us to have at that point because she’s very professional, very experienced, she’s been there , done it, done it all, we didn’t have to change how we play live, she was a very positive influence. We definitely planned at the end of the cycle to take a new person and we got to the end of the cycle and we suddenly started to think about the new album, which at that point was Red Bark Tree, and so we started the idea of looking for a new person.
We had auditions and Matt was half around and there were other people that had auditioned who were every bit as good as Margaret had been. We could have quite easily stuck to the backplate and continued on to the next cycle with her but then Matt had something else, he had something extra to add and the simple truth is that Matt is really like us, with the way he approaches everything. He did a few gigs with us in 2010 and then a year passed but by the end of that it became obvious that it would be stupid to let Matt go. Whether we should be sticking to our plan or not, you know, ”Stick to the plan but shoot yourself in the foot at the same time, that’s a really dumb idea.” So it became obvious that we had to ask him to become a member, whether he’d accept or not.
Matt has made a fantastic contributor to how we sound now. It would be hard now to disengage him from our whole sound. It’s not because of Matt but Matt is building on what we have, it’s so intrinsic. It’s really about the idea of thinking positively as a band and do what we’ve always done and be really excited about talking things forward
Is the upcoming Australian tour the end of the cycle for the Change Becomes Us album?
CN: What’s happening is classically Wire is that we actually have half of the next album to play in our repertoire, seven songs or something like that in the mix, although whether we play any of them I’m not too sure, they’re not really quite ready but it’ll be good to experiment with having different things in and out of the set.
Of course we don’t just play new material, we play a selection of stuff, partly because we quite like the idea of playing right across our history and it’s also a generational thing, the nostalgia thing doesn’t really hold any water for us anymore. How can somebody who’s in their teens and early twenties who are coming to shows in the next year, an audience who are predominantly younger than us, and you will generally get a younger audience because you get to a point where people in their 50s and 60s tend not to go to shows very much.
How do you arrive at the setlist for a tour and the new arrangements of the old songs you include? Does it get worked out in practices or does it change as the tour progresses?
GL: What tends to happen in a lot of cases is when the arrangements are good, what has happened is that things have developed through the context of what the group is actually playing at the time. Things we’ve chosen which are older have been chosen because they complement and make a whole picture of the performance, rather than cherry picking things because they were the ‘pop song’ or the ‘most favourite song’.
CN: Many people in their 20s, the 70s stuff is kind of contemporary for them because they’ve only recently discovered it so we play some 70s stuff, we play some 80s stuff. We never do that kind of thing where we play the popular songs because we never had any hits, so we play the things that we think work best and which are exciting for us to play. Ultimately it’s about the visceral experience and experiencing that first hand. You can’t get that off a live record or a Youtube clip or any of that, you can only really get that when you see it live. That’s why you have to go and see the band because it’s a band that puts on a really, really good live show.
Wire’s Australian Tour 2014
Wednesday 19th February 2014
Brisbane, The Zoo – QLD
Thursday 20th February 2014
Sydney, Oxford Art Factory – NSW
Friday 21st February 2014
Melbourne, Corner Hotel – VIC
Saturday 22nd February 2014
Adelaide, Jive – SA
Tickets available from jivevenue.com
Monday 24th February 2014
Perth, Perth Festival – WA