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Colin Newman interview

Chicago Sun-Tribune, 2000

This interview finds the Chicago Tribune's rock critic, Greg Kot [GK] interviewing Colin Newman [CN].

Live Wire—the legendary British group revisits its past

'Wire's first three albums (Pink Flag, Chairs Missing, 154) sold meagrely but changed lives, paving the way for Wire obsessives as diverse as REM, Husker Du and The Cure. This was not the British working-class, let's-start-a-riot punk of the Sex Pistols or The Clash, but a more subversive strain, influenced as much by avant-gardists John Cage and Brian Eno as by The Ramones. Whereas the Pistols and The Clash started out with the notion of restoring rock 'n' roll to its more primitive, pre-corporate form, Wire was intent on pushing it forward. In this sense, the band was to the '70s what the Velvet Underground was to the '60s.

"Our friendship," singer Colin Newman says of his bandmates Bruce Gilbert, Graham Lewis and Robert Gotobed, "was based on being ahead of the game."

After those initial three albums, Wire went on hiatus for five years, returning to experiment with emerging synthesiser and sampling technology at the expense of guitars and live drums. The band toured America for the first time during this period, but refused to play material from its ground-breaking punk-era albums. On one tour, a New Jersey-based band called the Ex-Lion Tamers was hired to play all of Pink Flag before Wire took the stage.

"We figured once an album was recorded, it was time to move on," Newman says. Now Wire returns in its third incarnation, intent on surveying its entire career for the first time for North American audiences, including a concert Wednesday, May 10 at Metro.

In an interview, Newman explained why Wire has decided to revisit its past.

GK: You've been playing songs like 12XU and Being Sucked in Again for the first time since the '70s. How do you keep it from becoming nostalgia?

CN: A few months ago we were asked to play the Royal Festival Hall in London, a sort of retrospective exhibition of our work that also encompassed some of our individual projects outside Wire. It seemed appropriate then to revisit some of the older material, but only if we would bring conviction to it. Could we play Pink Flag and get excited about it? We found out that we could, but we don't play it the same. I look back at some of our older material and wince. To me, the song Pink Flag has one good bit amid many rubbish bits. So we redid those. There is a combination of critical thinking and acknowledging that some of what we did was actually pretty good. It's the same piece of music, but somehow it's more subtly about now.

GK: Your solo work uses the studio extensively as an instrument. How has that filtered in to how you approach Wire now?

CN: The recordings are ultimately snapshots. An album is made in the studio, but it's part of a process that acknowledges there is no ultimate version of the song. The remix culture has changed the idea that there is ever a finished version of anything. It gets around the retro thing—we're playing Pink Flag in 2000 now, as if it were written last week. That was the only justification to approaching that kind of material. So once again, Wire is playing guitars.

GK: Ten years ago you told me guitar-based rock was over.

CN: Things have changed. I don't think I would have personally been interested in doing Wire five years ago. But now it is much more relevant to be doing something like this with two guitars, bass and drums—a stripped-down, quite tough version of Wire that is not overly pretty. It's time to reinvent rock music, which has basically become crap. In a way that scenario is what caused Wire to become a band in the first place, 25 years ago. The climate of how the industry works is actually a lot worse, this massive monolithic media mainstream of tightly manufactured stuff. This isn't necessarily a criticism, but the main game is to find the next 14-year-old girl to sell records to 11-year-olds. It's all about money basically. And Wire is about trying to do something really good, in a genuine way that has nothing to do with 'bring back the good old days'.

The kind of pop music we're interested in is becoming more and more underground, because of the disappearance of any kind of national independent distribution of music. The Internet is the only channel for people to hook up with new ideas on a national level. Wire can operate in that climate. We're not trying to crack the top-40. That machine cannot serve us. It can only chew us up.'

Greg Kot

This interview originally appeared in The Chicago Sun-Tribune during 2000.