Don’t look back: A Q&A with Wire

Too punk for the art kids and too art for the punk kids, Wire never fit neatly into a box. Formed in London in 1976, the group released a trifecta of perfect albums — the seminal debut “Pink Flag,” 1978’s “Chairs Missing” and the eclectic “154” the next year — before taking a sabbatical to pursue other projects. Upon their late ’80s reboot, Wire eschewed their snaky, steely art rock roots for a more brazen electronic approach, going so far as to tour with tribute band The Ex-Lion Tamers (a Pink Flag reference) to perform audience-satisfying vintage material as a warm-up set.

Wire v3.0 barreled through the early aughts with the muscular, industrial-informed “Read & Burn” EP series that gave bands half their age something to think about before vocalist Colin Newman, bassist Graham Lewis and drummer Robert Grey expanded their sonic palette with the same vigor and craftsmanship as Wire’s celebrated early catalog with an astounding and artistically-rich run of self-released LPs. They even reworked some of their more confrontational, Dadaist older material within a dream pop prism for 2013’s “Change Becomes Us.” Wire makes their second stop in as many years to Louisville as part of a select few U.S. dates in support of their latest and totally excellent new effort, “Wire,” because after almost 40 years, why not?

LEO chatted with Newman by phone about not looking back, experimentation and that pesky punk label.

LEO: To me, “Wire” feels like an angry album, even though a lot of fans seem to extrapolate a more happy, poppy feeling from the record, thinking about the dreamier sound of “Red Barked Tree” and even parts of “Change Becomes Us.” There’s some punch to “Wire,” lyrically or musically with “Harpooned,” that feels like its informed by the difficulty of living in the modern world. And trolls.
Colin Newman: That’s an interesting viewpoint. I would say it’s more extreme musically in that, it has … it’s not just one end of the spectrum, not that Wire goes sludgecore [laughs]. What makes it good for us is that there’s not one thing we do, or one type of song [we write]. You have a song “Sleep-Walking” about a pretty disturbing British political situation, but at the same time you have “Burning Bridges.” I like the diversity of this record. We started work in pieces and we had a lot of material for this record. It was quite difficult to get down to the final tracks, and we knew we wanted to do a single record since [the self-released] “Change Becomes Us,” as a double vinyl, cost a fortune. The decision on which tracks ended up on [“Wire”] really came down to a band aesthetic. Graham [Lewis] likes to keep his writing open. It’s a fascinating idea that while you think it’s angry, some people find it’s softer. I certainly don’t think it’s softer though.

LEO: On genre labels, I feel like you reject punk a bit.
CN: [laughs] A lot. But that’s also a generational thing. Being exactly the age we are and going through the mid ‘70s in real time, a punk band didn’t look like us and didn’t sound like us. We were quite specifically hated by the punks, as it were in Britain in 1977. We were too weird, too smart — in both senses of the word — we didn’t try to look like a punk group. It just so happened we were going on at the same time and in some ways we kinda invented post-punk in the middle of punk because we were already not punk, not that anyone had a concept of [that label] in the late ‘70s.

LEO: Except post-punk wasn’t even a word until the ‘90s.
CN: Exactly. And I don’t think it’s a category that has that much meaning. It’s like saying post-pop or post-rock, which became certain American groups in the ‘90s. I think all musicians hate that sort of classification. What information does that tell you? It doesn’t mean anything emotionally. I don’t think I know what post-punk is, or if someone likes it.

LEO: I think it means fast-ish songs but there’s synths involved.
CN: [laughs] Hey! You got it! But that could be anything too.

LEO: A lot of bands who’ve been around as long as Wire has relish in their zenith periods, but you all don’t — rarely playing material from the first three records. It’s mostly the new songs. To me though, the new songs are just as exuberant as the old. How does Wire stay fresh and forward thinking?
CN: It goes to the old Graham Lewis joke, or heckle, that goes “play what made you famous!” Entertainers play whatever made them famous, because that’s what they do — entertainers entertain. They do whatever they need to do to please the audience. Wire has always been an art project, from our perspective, so it’s our viewpoint that Wire gets to do new things. And there’s a combination of natural evolution, which goes on anyway, and curiosity of what if we took this approach. We are disinterested in being one of those heritage groups. It’s a huge trap. But [those bands] are also not interested in making new records, which is a gamble to make work, so therefore they will just play it safe. So they’ll tour around on the classic album, make a bit of money, and then go back to doing whatever they were doing, which is probably not much. It’s artistically a terrible decision. It’s a one way ticket. I think it’s rather depressing, really. Of course, [some of these bands] can charge a lot of money and people will come see them so they don’t really care. We’re not in a situation where we can make a lot of money and it goes against our instinct — we don’t want to do it. It’s not a lot of fun. Even though it’s hard work to get the band to agree on how to move forward, it’s never boring.

LEO: So if ATP approached you about doing a Don’t Look Back show for [infamous 1980 absurdist cabaret live album] “Document & Eyewitness”…
CN: [laughs] Well, that’d be another one way ticket to oblivion!

About the Author

Don’t look back: A Q&A with Wire

Michael C. Powell keeps his spear sharp in many creative endeavors, freelancing as a writer, designer, and photographer whose work has appeared in VICE, The Guardian, PASTE Magazine, The Daily Swarm, IMPOSE, Consequence of Sound, and many others. Michael, who sometimes authors under the nom de plume Kenny Bloggins, loves Twitter and actively abuses the platform at @kbloggins. He is the creator of Welp!, LEO Weekly’s food features gone gonzo.

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