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Wire interview

Washington Post, 2002

The Washington Post's Shannon Zimmerman talks to Wire.

Wire's Taut Link to the Past

Wire is back. And just in time, too. The British band may have left punk behind—but not its punch. The members of the band—guitarists Colin Newman and Bruce Gilbert, bassist Graham Lewis and drummer Robert Grey—were the grad students among punk's original class of juvenile delinquents. The band's first three albums—Pink Flag, Chairs Missing and 154—were recorded during a furious burst of creativity that spanned 1977 to 1979, when the group experimented with condensing Sex Pistols-style roar into art-school-style theory. The end result was a minimalist take on their contemporaries' more raucous sound, one that's proven hugely influential. The band's songs have been covered by REM and ripped off by Elastica. Any 'neo-garage' act worth its major-label contract is likely to cite the first phase of Wire's career as a template.

Yet even though these early discs are widely regarded as founding documents of the punk movement and its various offshoots, it's best not to mention that to the group. "We're not a punk band!" Newman and Lewis shout, nearly in unison, during a break at the Chicago rehearsal studio where Wire is preparing for its 15-city US tour, which will bring the band to the 9:30 club on Friday.

Their denial is at least partly true. Wire's career has had plenty of sonic detours. The group disbanded in 1980, returning five years later as a self-styled 'beat combo'. In this incarnation Wire made digitally manipulated dance music that anticipated the rise of electronica. The Drill, a 1991 disc that features nine versions of the song Drill, was an early foray into the fine art of the remix album. And from the very beginning, the members of the band have pursued various separate interests during the group's frequent hiatuses. Drummer Grey (formerly Robert Gotobed) even took up farming.

But following a recent spate of European festivals and a high-profile performance at London's prestigious Royal Festival Hall, Wire has gotten back to where it once belonged. The group toured the United States in 2000, mainly playing older material. The set list for the new tour will be culled primarily from the band's two new releases, Read and Burn 01 and Read and Burn 02, both of which find the group revisiting its incendiary early sound. Admittedly, the band's timing is perfect, but for a famously forward-looking outfit like Wire, the look back seems unusual. Not so, says Newman.

"I think where it really kicked off," he explains, "was when we played Mogwai's All Tomorrow's Parties festival [in 2000]. It wasn't our audience. Mogwai are a band who are derived from the school of Tortoise [the Chicago indie band]. It's very slow music. It was a festival of slowness, with a lot of young men going very slow. And suddenly these old men were standing onstage going 90 miles an hour, and this was having a visceral effect on certain members of the audience. This sounds apocryphal, but I knew standing onstage there that fast rock was on its way. I just felt it."

Newman was correct, of course: Punk-infused rock-and-roll has largely replaced teen pop as the sound du jour, with groups such as the Hives, the Strokes and the Vines giving the label 'boy band' a whole new meaning. Meanwhile, songs by Wire contemporaries such as the Buzzcocks and the Clash have, sadly, been in heavy rotation recently as commercial soundtracks for beer and automobile companies.

Still, while Wire's new material does recall the band's early mingling of mayhem and erudition, it's hardly retrograde. The group continues to experiment with recording techniques—Read and Burn 01's" opener, In the Art of Stopping, is built around a slurred tape loop—and on I Don't Understand, Wire seems to display a knowing sense of humor about its status as a group of elder statesmen. "Your time is up/You've had your chance," Newman chants on the track. "You've made your point/Get over it."

Yet if there's any self-lacerating subtext there, the band declines to identify it. The lyrics may even be directed at the Sex Pistols, whose recent reunion tours dismayed the members of Wire. ("Very predictable," says Newman, an erstwhile admirer of the band. "It was a bit sad.") Or they might be aimed at the fading stars of Britpop, Elastica included, who borrowed heavily from Wire's Three Girl Rhumba for its minor hit Connection. Britpop "was when so-called indie music became the mainstream," Newman says now of the phenomenon, with obvious contempt.

For his part, guitarist Gilbert views I Don't Understand as "a bit of spleen venting," but it's clear that Wire is pleased to be reemerging as a recording and touring unit at a time when audiences seem primed for its classic sound. "If we are able to do something where we can be recognized by the generation that are working now," says Lewis, "then that's very good validation." Adds Newman: "We were iffy in the '70s. This is the best Wire ever."

"We find ourselves in a very interesting situation right now," he continues. "We are both a part of, and an influence on, specifically American kinds of bands. To me, it's all about rhythm. If you go back to the early-to-mid-'90s, if you didn't have any funk in your rhythm, you were missing out on what was going on. You would never have supposed that, when all of that dissolved, that jerky, 1979-1980-type rhythms would again hold sway."

But they are. And that development has given Wire precisely the kind of paradoxical opening the group has thrived in since its earliest days. This time around, the band has a chance to be both contemporary and true to its original spirit, to lead the way back.

But not back to punk, of course. "It's got to have a heavy-metal sensibility," says Newman, only half-jokingly. "It's got to be in your face."

Shannon Zimmerman

This interview originally appeared in The Washington Post.