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Colin Newman interview

freewilliamsburg.com, 2002

This interview finds freewilliamsburg.com's Alexander Laurence [AL] interviewing Colin Newman [CN].

The Return of Wire

Wire 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 '70s. They released three amazing albums during this period which are still considered to be classics: Pink Flag (1977), Chairs Missing (1978), and 154 (1979).

In the early '80s, 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 (1986) 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 '70s or '80s. With this third version of the band, 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 Colin Newman while they were practicing for this exciting tour.

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?

CN: 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 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 instrumental).

AL: You reunited at the Meltdown around 1998, right?

CN: 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 cheque 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.

CN: 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 ten years. Therefore we worked through a huge list of back catalogue material to try to find the items that we could easily remember how to play and those 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 age.

AL: How did the gigs go?

CN: 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 its 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. There was 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.

AL: You lived in Israel off and on for the past 16 years. Was it a real influence on you, Wire, and your solo records?

CN: I haven't lived there, just visited. Probably not a big influence.

AL: What was the biggest Wire single or album that charted?

CN: No idea. I don't have any comparative sales figures plus the '70s 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?

CN: You can't ask people in group's what they think of their co-member's solo work!

AL: There are many references to Berlin and Germany in many Wire songs. What is the fascination with Berlin?

CN: Wire made two albums in Berlin in the 1980s: 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. What happened to that song?

CN: 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?

CN: 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 or production.

AL: I was always wondering about the Wire/Wir gigs around 1989/1991. What was it like performing songs from albums like Manscape or The First Letter which were more studio based albums? And what was it like without Robert Gotobed?

CN: 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 1980s and fared rather badly under its 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. 1980s 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 few Wire albums.

CN: Absolutely. The aim of 'mark 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?

CN: 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 and It's all in the Brochure. 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 7" single, Twelve Times You, based on audio recorded at the Garage in 2000. Although Read & Burn 01 has been put into conventional distribution, its 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?

CN: 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 people expect?

CN: The live show features stuff from Read & Burn 01 and Read & Burn 02 as well as some as yet unscheduled pieces. We did the 'museum piece' show in 2000, and 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. Any comments?

CN: 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?

CN: 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?

CN: 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'. Its qualities are many and various and life is way to short to list them all here.

Alexander Laurence.

This interview originally appeared online at www.freewilliamsburg.com.

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