Chicago Sun-Tribune, 2000
This interview finds the Chicago Tribune's pop music critic, Jim Derogatis [JD] talking to Colin Newman [CN], Robert Grey [RG], Bruce Gilbert [BG] and Graham Lewis [GL].
The real live Wire
Brian Eno once said of the velvet underground that although the group didn't sell a lot of records in its time, everyone who bought one went out and started a band. Through the '80s and into the '90s, the same could be said of Wire. The musicians have been cited as influences by Sonic Youth, The Feelies, Husker Du, ministry, The Minutemen and countless others. They've been covered by REM (Strange), Big Black (Heartbeat) and My Bloody Valentine (Map Reference); slotted into the soundtrack of The Silence of the Lambs, and ripped off wholesale by the likes of Elastica and Blur.
Forming the band in the wake of The Sex Pistols during the original punk explosion, guitarist-vocalist Colin Newman, bassist-lyricist Graham Lewis, guitarist Bruce Gilbert and drummer Robert Gotobed released three extraordinarily diverse and groundbreaking albums from 1977 to '79: Pink Flag, Chairs Missing and 154. And then they broke up for a time.
Wire first reconvened in 1986 and toured the 'States for the first time in '87, but it refused to play its most heralded material. The musicians preferred to move forward, performing new songs from the Snakedrill EP and The Ideal Copy album. But they didn't ignore their past—instead, they hired a young covers band from New Jersey. The Ex-Lion Tamers opened every show on the month long tour by performing the 21-song Pink Flag album in order in its entirety—part homage, part post-modern prank. (In interviews, Wire said the 'Tamers were the only band that had ever influenced them.) I know because I happen to have been the drummer for that group.
In addition to forging some lasting friendships, the experience afforded me a front-row seat with unprecedented insight into how one of the most significant rock bands of the last two decades actually operated. It's for this reason that I don't feel compromised in writing about them now that the members of Wire are back for round three and another US Tour, performing together for the first time since 1990.
What's surprising is that this time they're playing material from every era of the band, returning to what they have derisively called 'the beat combo' of guitars, bass and drums after spending the past decade on various electronic, ambient and DJ projects (all except for Gotobed, who became an organic farmer).
This is a unique group of four extremely smart, opinionated and strong-willed individuals, as you'll see from the answers below, and the members all have different explanations for the current reunion. I posed exactly the same questions to each of them, and they all answered separately via email
JD: To quote 12XU: all right, here it is, again. Why, and why now?
CN: This can be answered in two ways; one is particular to Wire, and the other more relevant to the prevailing artistic climate. In pure Wire terms, there are periods when the reasons for doing Wire outweigh the reasons for not doing it. Although there are practical concerns, fundamentally these reasons are artistic and relate to an interest in doing 'that thing' with those people.
There's no comeback agenda and no record company underwriting it. I do it because it could be fun and because it represents an 'itch that can't be scratched in any other way'.
In terms of the general artistic climate, there has been a move (at least in the UK anyway) in the last few years toward a more 'played' aesthetic and actual live performance. In many ways, bands like Chicago's Tortoise have been very influential in this. This relates more to a crowd who have moved forward from the electronic scene, rather than something that relates to the past. This has created a healthier climate for Wire to take the form they are currently taking. It would have been much more difficult to do this 10 years ago.
GL: First, we did in fact congregate for the purposes of marking the 50th birthday of the Gilbert in 1996—a secret performance to inaugurate the commencement of the building of a club on the South Bank site. The club subsequently was not built, but communications were reopened between the members of Wire.
My second daughter timed her arrival perfectly, being born on Bruce's birthday.
A year later, Gareth Jones, producer of two Wire Mute albums, asked Colin, Bruce and myself to play guitars with the object of realising a remix for Erasure [Figures in Crumbs]. None of us had played guitars for years, but the harmolodic chemistry and ease of execution were apparent after two days. We managed to realise the four-part 'Vince composition' into one shifting mesh. The ability to work together, producing a particular sound picture, I think explains the 'why?' Part of your question.
The 'why now?' Is in some way explained previously, but the triggers were added to by an invitation from [Mute records founder] Daniel Miller to take part in his 'mini-meltdown festival' on the South Bank in '99, which Robert declined. However, it stimulated the debate as to 'could there be a Wire?' I'm sure me stating emphatically that there was no need for 'it' at all, six months earlier in an interview, further increased the possibility.
When the invitation was extended by the South Bank for Wire to play the Royal Festival Hall, and curate the entire evening, with a fee that would enable us to rehearse extensively and produce the event independently of any outside interference (no record companies, etc.), instinctively I said 'yes!' The subsequent meetings with Robert, Colin and Bruce in London were extremely direct and clear; whatever was to be attempted should consider all of our previous compositions (including 12XU) plus that which could be realised from new text which I had written. Above all, the process would be fun... Learn to play again from scratch in two weeks and present another version of Wire. A challenge.
BG: Why? We were asked. I liked the idea of the context—given that we would have to approach it in a retrospective manner, which was practical, and of course playing the old things was always something we'd avoided and therefore something we should investigate. The now of it is a little hard to answer. I think it is a kind of instinct.
RG: There is still enthusiasm from inside the group and outside. I feel there is an indefinable bond between the four members, and a stage is the most likely place that bond can be. It is also the outlet for my drumming work.
JD: What does each of you bring to the group? Can you briefly sketch for me the others' roles as you see them?
CN: I try to bring organisational skills both in the making of the music and in other functions of the band. Bruce's role is more of a savant and philosopher. Graham's concerns are tied a lot to meaning. Robert is very practical.
GL: Robert: drums; Colin: text memory and guitar; Bruce: tone guitar; Graham: bass and new text.
BG: This time it is harder to answer a question like that—there has always been a kind of swapping of roles and defining those roles is not something we have spent time on. At present it is more about being collectively cohesive in order to achieve realistic goals rather than pushing the creative pace, etc.
RG: Bruce: ideas, planning, songs, interesting noises; Colin: official skills, tunes; Graham: ideas, words.
JD: I hold that nostalgia is the most insidious corrupter of great rock 'n' roll (or art in general, if you gentlemen are still rejecting the 'rock' tag). Wire has always taken a strong stance against wallowing in the past. How then does the retrospective nature of the current set list fit with that?
CN: For me this is all tied up with the first question. In Wire terms it is of course a novelty to play older material. Our refusal to do so in the past had less to do with an obdurate refutation of our own accomplishments and more to do with the fact that we are unlikely to have brought enough conviction to the material to make it 'new' again. Enough time has now elapsed for the pieces to be a challenge and it is for sure that we are not in the re-creation or nostalgia business.
People should be aware that there is a finite period during which we will be able to present this material with enough conviction to satisfy our own exacting demands. It also has to be said that the older material is somehow suffused with the spirit of the age in which it is being performed. I'm not able to be objective about how subtle that effect is, but it certainly doesn't feel like 'old' material. In fact people have commented on how 'fresh' and somewhat contemporary we sound.
GL: This is the only Wire retrospective.
BG: I felt no nostalgia for any of the items we are performing—for me this is a series of presentations of retrospective exhibits. In the process of executing these items, I hope that something unexpected will happen. It's still a sculpture, Jim.
RG: For Wire, this is radical.
JD: About rock 'n' roll: three of you were emphatic about the 'beat combo' having run its course. I never understood that; it always seemed to me that if that was a given in how Wire was to be defined, why not do 'an Eno' (a la the oblique strategies) and make it a creative challenge? You know: 'if drums are to be part of the mix, how much can we warp everything around them?' In any event, have you resolved this matter of electronic vs. organic rhythms?
CN: It is a point of fact that in terms of general artistic development, the United States lags many years behind the United Kingdom. This despite the fact that it is very often American artists who spark new trends and directions. It just happens that so often it's the Brits who sell your own music back to you.
I don't really have an answer to your failure to understand why or why not to pursue a particular direction due to your cultural inadequacy. The drums vs. electronic debate is so outmoded and irrelevant to anything that is going on now in art that we may as well be talking about rock 'n' roll vs. jazz. For god's sake grow up!
GL: Personally, I thought all of the recordings we made at Mute addressed the 'beat combo' problem. Listen to The Drill again. As to the organic-electronic rhythm, I have no problem. Check out my [current solo] work... I believe in 'different' rather than 'vs'.
The discussion in the late '80s within Wire was of its time. I certainly believed we could have pushed the envelope further. As to the future, rhythmically, no possibilities exist for nostalgia, given the freedom the individuals have worked towards. However, organic drums sound like... ?
BG: As long as Rob is keen to play acoustic drums, we have to work around that—the beat combo approach. I don't have to resolve anything; learning to play the guitar again has been fascinating and laborious, but it always was. I don't think any of us entertain doing this version of Wire for very long.
RG: Still thinking on that one.
JD: Since you began your career by 'cocking a snoot' at the history of rock 'n' roll on Pink Flag and spent much of the rest of it trying to explode the bloated carcass of the same, where does Wire now fit in the grand scheme of things, popular-music-wise?
CN: Up its arse.
GL: The Beatles, the Velvet Underground...
BG: Come on, Jim. You know how it works: all we are doing is revisiting the scene of the crime. Of course it is interesting to be called traitors/heroes by maggots still feeding of the carcass.
This interview originally appeared in The Chicago Sun-Tribune during 2000.