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Wire interview

Cracked Machine, 2003

This interview finds Graeme Rowland of Cracked Machine interviewing Colin Newman and Graham Lewis via email.

No fat on fast streets

Wire will send us its first full-length album in way too long at the end of the fourth month of 2003. This amalgamates the best tracks from the two Read and Burn EPs so far released. adds four new numbers, and promises to be a cyber-punk blast of pyrotechnic precision and addictive repetition. The final track, 99.9, is quite possibly the most powerful piece of music Wire has ever recorded, and although the band might observe in pre-apocalyptic dread that "the road ahead looks quite uncertain," one thing about the Wire trip has become very clear: here are four restless souls who will never be satisfied with anything less than pointing the way forward for rock-dancin' futures.

GR: Graeme Rowland
CN: Colin Newman
GL: Graham Lewis

GR: Does the song title 1st Fast refer to the song being the first track completed or worked on after 12 Times You?

CN: Yes, it was Graham's title. I felt there needed to be new fast ones and so wrote a bunch.

GL: It is the title I offered to one of three untitled (fast) pieces Colin presented in Jan/Feb 2001. The others were Germ Ship and Nice Streets Above.

GR: Or could it be a sequel to In The Art of Stopping in that to fast is to stop eating?

CN: You are too clever for your own good, a criticism often levelled at Wire. In short: NO!

GL: I wish that were true... Love the Roman Catholic/Jewish/Muslim Vibe... I'm giving IT up for Lent!

GR: Wasn't 12 Times You considered a bit of a joke at first?

GL: 12XU always was... 12 Times You recontextualises it for the 00s.

GR: Are the lyrics to 1st Fast mostly written by Bruce with a little bit of Colin input?

CN: No they are all mine.

GR: Do the lyrics to 1st Fast largely refer to the creation process for Read and Burn 01?

GL: Unqualified to answer, but I seriously doubt IT! However, I titled Read and Burn 01 too.

CN: No, but there is an obvious 'coppiced riff meets aphorism' shouty Wire description. This was a complete piece (from the tune/words) point of view before there was any process. I used the early pieces as a kind of 'magnet' to attract the rest of the band into the creation process, as I figured that the way we are now working was really the only credible process by which new Wire material for release could be derived.

GL: Funny... I thought Colin had just got excited about playing guitar again. The rehearse it/play it/ADAT it/reconstruct it has a lot to recommend it for Wire at present, given our limited time periods for creative togetherness. Also it captures much more of what Wire do together in a room. In the past, so much disappeared unrecorded. It is not ergonomically fun for more than two people to sit and work around a monitor! It's why so many electronic groups are duos or dictatorships!

GL: Thought it might be handy to have a few short answers available for as yet unformed/asked questions: BLACK, Alfa Romeo, James Ellroy, Grass, Not Tequila, George Best, Lance Gibbs, - 27C.

GR: So how did George Best influence Read and Burn then?

GL: Probably as much influence as the Beatles... There again: "The slayer of giants in the finest of stockings!" Young Bueys for goal posts, scraped knees, time for tea, Marmite sandwiches...

GR: How did the current Wire recording process arise?

GL: Pragmatism... me in Sweden, the rest in UK; no record company, limited financial resources but plenty of human and digital ones not least of which is Colin's Swim Studio. If one has learnt anything over the last 26 years, its that there is more than one way of skinning a cat (this is patently a lie as I don't even know one... get a sharp knife!)

Working this way, one is forced to accept the restrictions which are in-built. Inevitably one must accept with good grace decisions one would have made differently. Taste is taste and vanity is corrosive, but egotism and paranoia are poor bedfellows. I used my distance from the day-to-day (Bruce and Colin at Swim) process to develop a different perspective. This might be more obvious with further releases. Read and Burn 01 has a deliberately tightened focus.

CN: The 2000 version of Wire was fundamentally conceived as a historical item, like a museum exhibit. We really saw as far as the RFH and not much further. The rehearsals threw up The Art of Persistence and He Knows, which were kind of new, but perhaps the 'newest' thing was Pink Flag. We did it as a kind of scheme; it was something I had thought about for a while, as the Mini-Meltdown in '99 that never happened was to be a fifteen minute Pink Flag. Basically, take out the crap bit and the faffing and make it a big grind with a drop down to bass and drums in the verses! It's only one chord so from a technical perspective it's easy to do but from a point of the band cohesion it helped us make a much more intense kind of sound.

It became obvious we were not going to stop at the RFH and we went on to do ATP, the US tour and the Garage. By the end of that it was obvious that we needed new material and that it needed to be 'authored.' The experience of feeling that the wave for fast music was approaching I had on stage at 2000's ATP was a good starting place. But in order for any of that to happen on a record Wire had to in a way learn to think in very different ways it had thought in the past.

The recordings we did with Steve Albini taught us one simple thing: bashing it out in a conventional studio is not the most interesting process. We put poor Steve on a hiding to nothing, and made his position impossible. We really only gave him the 'historical item' to work with and to be quite honest the material was not performed in a particularly exciting or original way.

GR: So is it unlikely that these recordings will ever be released?

CN: More than possible. There's plenty of historical stuff that will come out eventually but new stuff is more interesting now and any serious follower of Wire should feel the same!

We recorded the Garage sets and I produced some mixes during autumn 2000. As it was all sitting in Pro-Tools in my studio I could do stuff which from a technical point Steve could not do: 24-track analogue is fundamentally reliant on the quality of the performance. Also from an intellectual point of view, I can do stuff because I'm in the band that an outsider, especially a fan, would not dare do. So in with the live mixes I started 'fiddling' with stuff that was less than stellar in performance. That's how 12 Times You came about. I took the best bits and audio sequenced them in Pro-Tools.

One thing about Wire is that they always get stimulation from new things, so although the eyes glaze over when they hear the live version of Lowdown for the 3000th time, something new is a different proposition! Within a week of me sending out the CDRs we were mastering a 7" in Porky's! This has something to do with the precision of audio sequencing in Pro-Tools, I'd tried a few 'versions' before using Cubase and the sampler, but they didn't have that 'on' rhythmic precision which excited everyone.

By this point it was obvious to me that this was going to be the way to both author and record new material, so I did some demos using chopped up/sped up Robert stereo drum tracks which I played guitar riffs over. I have drum tracks from a few old albums which I used to use as a compositional aid.

GR: You also used Robert tapes for the lost material from after Not To as well as more recent recordings? Haven't you always had Robert tapes around since the early 80s? Has this post- Not To period in any way influenced the way you began Read and Burn 01?

CN: I have drum tapes from A-Z, Not To and The Singing Fish. It was necessary to immerse myself rhythmically in Rob's dynamic minimalism—it could not and would not be Wire with different kinds of rhythms so you could say it's the absolute bedrock. I'm really pleased with the positive feedback in reviews and comments that are being paid to the drums on Read and Burn 01. Yes, there is a process there to make it kick, but at the base it's the way Rob plays his kit that gives the motor power. It's somewhat new for Wire to think about it's output in that way but we've all done enough stuff with loops and drum machines to know that you start with the kick drum and build the track from there.

NB: Craig Grannel, who runs Wireviews mentioned the following story about how Raft Ants from Read and Burn 02 evolved, which he remembered from conversations with Colin.

Craig: When Wire was first creating a lot of new material, post-RFH, Rob decided to buy a sampler, proceeded to play the fastest drum tracks he could, and then sent them to Colin. As it turns out, Colin found this highly amusing, the tech-savvy one being usurped by the one who originally left because of technology. In one case, what appeared was so fast that Colin could only do the simplest 'accompaniment' to it, and the track became Raft Ants.

CN: Having sent the demos to everyone I suggested that we get into a rehearsal room for three days with a 16-track ADAT and bash round those and any other ideas anyone had. I got Rob to put down a whole bunch of multi-track drums so we could have a 'bank' to draw on for later stuff and took clean direct inputs off all the guitars so we could make the sounds in the studio. This was around February and March 2001. I had 4-5 tracks mixed by April using combinations of this material and the original demos.

It then became time to really involve Bruce in the process. The work we started together went very slowly and it took us maybe four or five months to really find a way to do it, but then in September it started to click and we got a lot of work done in the ensuing six months. Rob would pop in every now and then to give us rhythmic feedback, obviously CDRs are flying backwards and forwards to Sweden. Graham came over for a visit when he put quite a lot of contributions down.

By February 2002 we had already accumulated a lot of quite diverse work to varying degrees of completion on the hard disc. We evolved the 'six song disc' concept and chose tracks to fit the Read and Burn 01 aesthetic then it was just a case of working out which tracks were finished and what was needed to finish the rest.

GR: Were any tracks birthed via computer as opposed to beat combo?

CN: They all come out of playing somehow. Germ Ship is the only one that was played as a beat combo before recording.

GR: Would you consider asking outside remixers to deconstruct the Read and Burn tracks later on?

GL: Funnily enough someone has already approached me, to do that very thing. We shall have to see if it is appropriate. It's our BALL.

CN: Perhaps, when DJ F——off's fees get too astronomical! To be honest it's not really an issue right now.

GR: Beyond the obvious roles of guitar/bass/ drums, how do the other three non-Newman members of Wire figure in the creation process at this point?

GL: Beyond the obvious is probably an apt description of the wider Wire creative process: text, ideas and perspective do tend to help produce the swerve necessary to create that all-important, essential slingshot acceleration to get beyond. That beyond, however, has to be realised in the here and now using guitars, bass, drums, voices, Pro-Tools, Logic, Digital hard disc recording, MD, DAT, CDR, email, broadband, telephone, post, etc, etc.

CN: This is a bit of a leading question and pre-supposes an attitude within the band which relates more to how it was in the past rather than how it is now. I take a role of editor and mixer which was in the past fulfilled by people outside the band. In this I put myself at the service of the band rather than try to fulfill my own agenda. I have one very big advantage over anyone who has ever done that job in that I know what it's supposed to sound like!

I actually think Wire have suffered greatly in the past from others foisting their production agendas on the band. I feel somewhat privileged in this role and have received some very positive feedback from other band members. It also puts me under a lot of pressure. Bruce always has a lot of input into the shape and content of the tracks and we tend to egg each other on in pushing stuff beyond it's boundaries. The relationship is more complicated with Graham as he is not in London. Bruce and I felt we really had to prove ourselves with The Agfers of Kodack; we had tried with a previous Graham track and he'd absolutely hated it!

GR: What has or will become of this track?

GL: It's nagging away... must try another approach.

CN: Graham writes in a very different way to Bruce or I, who are fundamentally rhythm guitarists and can easily bang out a riff over a beat. His stuff comes already sequenced with his own sounds. It was up to us to make Agfers fit with the other material. I must admit to being very pleased with how it turned out.

People should not run away with the idea that this is 'Colin's' Wire. I have always had a lot to offer this band and what I do now is a natural extension of how it worked in the '70s. BUT the bottom line is that if Graham, Bruce amd Rob were not happy with the results they'd not permit these to be Wire items.

GR: Is there still a 3:1 boredom veto?

GL: Very probably... but at present the boredom veto seems to be consistently 4-0!

GR: Were Silo an influence on recording process?

CN: Yes on several levels. Firstly I think it was my work on the Silo album that convinced Paul (Smith, Wire manager), amongst others, that I was up to mixing Wire. However, Instar was all done with a combination of Cubase and the sampler, but it's Fred's absolute insistence that the drum tracks in particular show no sampling 'artifacts' that really taught me a lot about how to make sequenced audio sound convincing—well, at least not sound like cut up loops!

GR: You mention that you consider the cut up digital reconstruction approach to recording that has fueled Read and Burn and Send to be the only credible way Wire could record at this point. How did you come to that realisation?

CN: I've partly dealt with this. I should add that Wire are great fans of 'process' which is the hook that makes working like this as opposed to all the band in a conventional studio or even all the band in our studio a viable option. It is also not a secret that certain Wire records have been very difficult to make. As a studio entity Wire can lack focus and have in the past relied on outside persons to act as referee and judge. This is really not a practical solution any more. The whole thrust of this version of Wire is that all the motive power and decision making comes from within the band. There has been a big learning curve to go through and there are many more things to be gone through before this band can truly realize it's potential.

GR: Colin has stated quite frequently that you felt the wave of fast music approaching on stage at ATP. My take on this is very different. I don't think fast music ever went away, it might just've become less visible. However judging by the majority of the stuff you played on Resonance FM, I'd say that there's been more of a move toward the integration of rock/dance (which were never really distinctly separate in the first place), or that at least this is the milieu you feel Wire can fit into or spearhead? Do you have any comments to make on that perspective?

GL: I always thought that we did... I Should Have Known Better was informed by dance music of its time. Wire's subsequent deactivation, left this area wide open for exploitation by the likes of New Order (Wire appreciators).

CN: One thing that Graham, Bruce and I have in common is that we are not musical generalists. If you listen to everything, you can, as an artist, lose perspective. One needs to hear what is appropriate to its time. This is why, with tongue firmly in cheek, I sometimes describe us as 'fashion victims.' The process I describe is one of realising that 'fast' was in the process of becoming culturally appropriate again. There is absolutely no point in having a Wire if we cannot pre-figure those trends and have solid relationships with other artists who are able to understand the importance of 'the moment.' Anyone who tries to understand Wire only in the context of it's own history will never understand what we are up to and why. This version of Wire has as it's absolute core the idea that we are serious about being on the moment! I've been doing dance-floor heavy metal for a while now. It might catch on eventually!

GR: You have mentioned different aesthetics for each instalment of Read and Burn. However, you haven't defined these aesthetics. Although it may seem obvious (i.e. fast songs) what is/are the aesthetic(s) you were trying to get across with Read and Burn 01?

GL: This is a question better answered after the fact (and by Colin or Bruce). At the time, during the process, what is not to be included has great significance. When what 'is not' has been eradicated, what is good/horrible/whatever can be magnified to become the focus. The material often holds and directs its aesthetic destiny, but once in the studio it is steered and designed by the presence and conversation of the active listeners / composers. Read and Burn 01 was to be contemporary, direct, fresh, loud, muscular, noisy with a tight focus facilitated by the choice and compilation of tracks. FAST NO FAT! LOVE IT OR LEAVE IT!

CN: Read and Burn 01 is 'yer basic thing.' I wanted this stuff out at the back end of 2001, but then I am very ambitious for Wire! There is material covering a great array of styles sitting on the hard disc and we have the luxury therefore of 'curating' our own releases. This is real high function art and a place and position of artistic power where Wire have absolutely never been before. With conventional recording we would never have got to this position.

NB: Anyone who saw the Wire gig in Edinburgh in December 2000 will have heard a small example of a direction the band might be heading in with later Read and Burn EPs. Zoom was a droning instrumental with Bruce and Robert gadget-looping, Colin using an e-bow on his guitar and Graham on synth.

GR: How did Robert start Zoom?

GL: With his finger!

CN: A very peculiar non 4/4 loop in his drum machine. We would have done more with it but I see it as an Read and Burn 03 or even 04 track.

GR: Is Graham's synth part from Zoom resurrected from one of the pre>He tracks?

GL: No. It is in fact charmed from my fifth Casio SKI bought in New York at the end of the Wire US 2000 Tour, played through a chain of guitar pedals. Using the flute setting in loop, onboard reverb and delay, and taping down various combinations of octave and fifths keys many drone variations appear.

CN: As far as I know it's all loops apart from my guitar, there is very little that's fixed.

GR: What has become of He Knows, which was played for the last time in Edinburgh? Is it set to appear on a later Read and Burn CD?

CN: Who knows? Maybe 'He' does?

GL: There exists a good "live" mixed version. It's not an immediate priority.

NB: The other new song premiered in Edinburgh was Germ Ship which underwent some small changes before appearing as a highlight on Read and Burn 01. On the EP Colin whispers most of the vocal, but in Edinburgh Colin and Graham both shouted the words in tandem and the way the stepped up to the microphones in unison was very striking.

GR: The most obvious reading of Germ Ship to me is that it's a commentary on the fractious relationship between large record labels whose concern is profit and bands whose concern is creativity—in other words a succinct follow up to Go Ahead. Is this what it's about?

GL: Planet Earth.

GR: Did the title Read and Burn come before or after The Agfers of Kodack?

GL: Before.

GR: Agfers seems to continue the war correspondent theme of Reuters and The First Letter in some respects—were you thinking of reading and burning news reports or terrorist/war orders?

GL: Yes, in a way, but the initial stimulation was the similarity of the 'look and demeanor of the survivors' of the Twin Towers and the 'unending' wars of Afghanistan... Dust Tribes... fear and thirst... acute drought and close annihilation. Aircraft and tank wreckage as post-war accommodation... architectural ruin as monument, place of pilgrimage... survivors surviving. Highly Classified Intelligence Documents carry the instruction: 'Read and Burn'. And of course it refers to email and digital/CD-R media.

GR: Are there any other interpretations of the title Read and Burn that occurred to you?

GL: A Fascist Book Club.

GR: Does "the slayer of giants in the finest of stockings" refer to any perceived 'heroic' figure?

GL: No, more an historic reference to the quality of hosiery worn by those of wealth or distinction.

GR: Was it intentional for Graham to try to sing like Colin on the Agfers chorus or just a funny coincidence?

GL: There was no intention of either singing like Colin or to provide a funny coincidence. At the time of recording Colin and I thought it was perhaps a touch "Ozzy", with the half tone harmonics? However this was in no way an attempt to bite on to His Jubilee Bandwagon, for his participation had yet to be announced at that time.

CN: I always thought he sounded like Ozzie! In the end, if it sounds good who gives a f——?!

GR: But you have very different voices, unlike some bands, such as Mission of Burma, where it is much harder to tell the singers apart. This makes it amusing that long time fans who have listened to a lot of Wire get confused about who is singing what... hence the question.

CN: It's academic. Graham would not be shown off to best advantage using his 'classic baritone' on that song. What works is what's right.

GR: Graham sounds like he might've had a few drinks before recording the Agfers vocal. Were you drunk, Lewis?

GL: Completely sober. Drug intake: one white coffee. Vocal recorded at approximately 11:00am.

CN: Graham was most certainly not drunk when he did the vocal on Agfers. I was there and recorded it in the studio! Actually we were both pretty cheerful. I certainly encouraged him to make it good and shouty and Bruce and we put a lot of time into making the piece as strong as we could get it. There is quite a lot of distortion on Graham's vocal, mixed in with the straight. I'm not sure if he's used it in his own work but I found it very effective!

GR: Was it intentional for Colin to sound like Graham on the chorus of Nice Streets Above?

GL: It was not my intention to make Colin sound like Graham when I customised the vocal. The source was a live Wire recording of the Edinburgh December 2000 Show on which Colin is singing some other work. After sampling and shedding, it became apparent that someone (Colin?) was now singing an as yet uncomposed or titled piece (Nice Streets) and, from what you imply in your question, was also attempting to impersonate me (Graham?). This was the unadorned reality, which I had to accept with as much courage as possible, and expand upon. Later Bruce and Colin, were responsible for not so much expanding as stretching the limits of this reality.

CN: It's all the same thing really: the chorus of Nice Streets is based on a Graham sample of a bit out of a live mix of a Wire song with me singing.

GR: Which song?

GL: Drill.

GR: To my ears, it seems as if there's a lot of Gilbert-drone in it and the fucked up robotic vocals are great. Were you inspired by Trans Am there?

CN: I like the whole notion of authorship becoming blurred. Malka and I have worked like this for years, you need trust but in the end it's a much better way of getting a result than scrapping it out. Nice Streets, like a lot of nouveau Wire, is structured like dance music, even if the speeds and timescales are different. The elements include a very vague live performance of this piece, some samples from Graham, elements from the Rob drum factory, and some random bits from the hard disc, all put through the sausage machine of the working method.

To be quite honest early versions were a total mess. The piece was quite clumsy and not really going anywhere. One weekend I decided to just play with it and did the first draft of the current version. It was considerably more weird and had about five parts none of which really fitted together but it was quite funny and more than a bit Japanese. The bit everyone liked was the bit on the last drop down where it goes down to just the drums and that ner-ner guitar. So the piece was structured around that.

It's a very multi-layered piece involving bits from a diverse set of stuff. That of course doesn't guarantee results; the key to it was what you hear at the start of the last drop down, stuff was then selected to fit with that aesthetic. It is very hard to pull these pieces apart. You can't really say who did what. In the end it's about what works. Not to sound too pretentious, but Wire are not only in the business of re-inventing rock music but also in the business of re-inventing dance music. Aim high you might achieve some of it!

Graeme Rowland

Originally published on the Cracked Machine website.