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For Wire and Colin Newman, Change is Good. (Interview)
It’s hard to imagine the existence of 1980s indie rock without the seminal post-punk band Wire and its three classic records from the late-1970s – Pink Flag, Chairs Missing, and 154.
Singer/songwriter/guitarist Colin Newman has been fronting Wire since 1976, and been a driving force in the recording the band’s innovative records, which have influenced artists as sonically diverse as R.E.M., Radiohead, and My Bloody Valentine.
Newman recently talked to Rock Cellar Magazine about Wire’s latest album – Change Becomes Us – which shows a band at the peak of its vitality. Along the way, he reveals some fun facts about Wire’s classic records, as well as how the band recovered and became stronger after original guitarist Bruce Gilbert left in 2004.
Rock Cellar Magazine: You’ve said that he songs on your new record, Change Becomes Us, were based on “quick sketches” for live performances in 1979 and 1980. What do you mean by that?
Colin Newman: One significant part of Wire’s strange history has been the fact that when the band finished in 1980 we had at least an album’s worth of material not only not recorded, but not demoed, not anything really. That stayed in all our consciousness as a band for years – and when we came back in the ’80s, this was just not a relevant thing to deal with.
Again, somebody brought up the idea of tackling it when we came back together in 2000. Then it also seemed completely irrelevant as an idea, although we did take the song that was originally titled Ally in Exile and make it into another song called I Don’t Understand. That song was famously featured in a Victoria’s Secret ad a few years later.
So it’s not like that stuff was completely being ignored. I had this idea: maybe we could do a typically-Wire Don’t Look Back show. Which was never recorded for an album and never released, so most people didn’t know what it was. As you can imagine, it didn’t have any takers, but it did seem that the opportunity arose to restore all that material in a recorded context – and that came about through 2011.
We had a big tour planned in 2011 for Red Barked Tree. It was pretty serious, and we toured solidly for 4 months and doing festivals throughout the year.
RCM: This was around the time Matt Simms became your live guitarist?
CN: During that time, we’d integrated Matt very much into the band, and he’s someone who somehow we couldn’t help becoming closer to. There’s a big age difference, but somehow he thinks very similarly to the way we do.
RCM: So you started playing a lot live…
CN: The band was in an amazing space toward the latter half of 2011 in terms of its playing ability. It was somewhere where it hadn’t been for a very long time in its live performance.
So we were asked by our UK agent to do a second UK tour. This was something completely new. We hadn’t done more than one tour of the UK in a single year since 1978. Normally in that stage, we would import a lot of new material. But there wasn’t new material because we really hadn’t started working on the supposed follow-up to Red Barked Tree.
That’s where the idea of using some of the [1979-1980] material came in. We probably ended up with 7 or 8 pieces that we put into the set, and 90% of the audience had no idea what those pieces were. They just liked it and people were saying, “This is the best we’ve ever seen the band!” Which was kind of exciting, really.
RCM: And so you decided to record the material as Change Becomes Us?
CN: We thought that it would be a stupid waste not to! So we booked in Rockfield, which is a very famous recording studio in Monmouth, in Wales, where some truly classic records had been made. We did a week there, and then I did my usual 6-months’ production on it.
By the time it had gone through the whole process, it not only had become not simply the next Wire album, but in many people’s opinion, one of the best things we’ve ever done.
RCM: Why were these songs not fully fleshed out back in 1979 and 1980?
CN: Because there wasn’t a band. In between the release of 154 and when the band fizzled out in the spring of 1980 – the band went from being the best band of its generation to just being nonexistent. There were a lot of forces outside of the band but also inside of the band – there was no common cause, no unanimity. There was no general idea about what we should do next. It just really fell apart.
RCM: From Reuters on Pink Flag to Doubles & Trebles on Change Becomes Us, the opening tracks on Wire records always seem to create a sense of excitement. How do you choose the opening cut?
CN: Good question. Well, Doubles & Trebles was always a shoe-in for the opener. It had been opening the set since the summer of 2011. It’s a great opener because it starts with just the guitar and the voice and then gradually builds. The drums come in at some point, but they’re not the ultimate. But the ultimate part of them comes right at the end, after it goes into the final section.
RCM: There’s a lot of complexity in the song…
CN: Actually, it was the most problematic track on Change Becomes Us. The original idea was to go back to the original demo, which had been recorded on acoustic guitar – and start it with an acoustic guitar and build it up. But the jump was too big when the drums came in. It just all felt like it wasn’t really working.
So in the end, I got my baritone and just recorded another guitar part – playing exactly the same thing but on a different guitar. Somehow that knitted the piece together. I’m really proud of that initial intro – the combination of the bass, and then the guitar goes [makes diving sound], and then this massive guitar that’s got reverb on it [makes higher-pitched sound].
It sounds like something’s coming…but it also doesn’t sound like a rock record! This is not a standard intro for a rock track – which is very satisfying.
RCM: Change Becomes Us is the first Wire album for which you take a producer credit. How do you get the band’s great guitar sound?
CN: I have a particular approach to guitars that I’ve been employing and building on for a number of years, which relates to multiple tracking – but from one source. I always record clean DI’s of all the guitars, so you have a combination of amps recorded in Rockfield. You’ve got two amps – because all my sounds are stereo – and then you have that close, room-miked. Then you’ve got the plain DI, which then goes through re-amping effects in my studio.
You make really massive guitar sounds like that (laughs)! I’m not going to show you, but there were a lot of guitar tracks recorded in Rockfield. I went through so many guitars, it’s just mad.
RCM: This process of recording sounds time-consuming…
CN: It takes a long time to sort it all out and order it and figure out what’s good. The amps tend to give – in the way I build guitar pictures – the room, the space around it. But the direct sound – which I then re-amp through guitar plug-ins – gives you the very, very direct, upfront sound. It’s that combination; you’ve got the directness and the space.
RCM: How has the band compensated for the departure of original member and guitarist Bruce Gilbert? Didn’t he help craft the guitar sound?
CN: Bruce hasn’t been in the band since 2004, so I don’t know if he’s responsible for crafting the guitar sound of Wire. As much as I think that Bruce is really talented and really good, I think I’ve tended to be under-credited for guitar, simply because I didn’t play guitar on Pink Flag.
Nobody has attempted to compensate for Bruce. That’s not really an issue for the band. We did Red Barked Tree without him, and I did all the guitars.
RCM: You picked up guitar for Chairs Missing. Why did you guys feel that two guitars were necessary at that point?
CN: The thing about Pink Flag is that I wrote all the tunes and taught Bruce to play the guitar parts. I think Bruce in his own words would say he doesn’t regard himself as a particularly good technical guitarist. His favorite approach to the guitar is to tune the guitar to an open tuning and then put his finger on it. The problem with that is you can’t accommodate minor chords and subtle chordal shifts and changes, which have occurred in all my songs, going back to the opening track of Pink Flag – Reuters. The first chord you hear is a minor.
The fact that minor chords were used in Wire from the outset is what distinguished us from other groups. Punk rock is not about minor chords. Punk rock is about major chords. Minor chords give it a different kind of feeling, so Bruce had to learn how to play the guitar in standard tuning for Wire.
RCM: Whatever he did, it worked.
CN: He did it, and I think he became quite good at it. But it was really obvious by the time we were getting to the second album – Chairs Missing – that we needed to be two guitars. The classic example is Practice Makes Perfect. That’s my riff, and I’m the only one who can really play it like that.
On Pink Flag, Bruce was playing my guitar chords, my rhythm guitar parts – and me going back to being the rhythm guitarist allowed Bruce to find another space within the band.
RCM: So who plays what on Practice Makes Perfect?
CN: I’m playing the riff, and Bruce is doing the arpeggios. It just created a lot of space within the band and made sense from then on that I should play the guitar. Had I played from the beginning, it’s not entirely sure what Bruce would have done. You can’t play songs basically just based on one guitar part with two guitars playing the same thing. It would’ve sounded stupid.
RCM: Practice Makes Perfect makes a sonic announcement about the possibility of punk guitar and electronics. What led the band in this experimental direction?
CN: In Britain Wire isn’t a punk band. Wire doesn’t have any punk credentials. It’s a rubbish punk band; it always was.
Punks in 1977 hated Wire. We didn’t do anything that they wanted us to. If we played something fast, it was too short. Then we played slow things, and we have minor chords. Minor chords are very, very not punk rock.
There’s a combination of a certain kind of guitar aesthetic from the mid-70s, with the addition of keyboards. We weren’t ideologically bound to any idea of a punk-rock reductionism. We were much more interested in a more expansive sound, although from a minimal base.
RCM: How about the lyrics on Change Becomes Us. Was Graham inspired by any specific political events?
CN: The record was a wholesale rewriting of texts, as there was a wholesale rewriting of tunes, vocal melodies. I think that Graham likes to make links between things that he’s written and current political events.
RCM: Are there any political causes that the band as a whole supports?
CN: I think – unsurprisingly – that we’re more left-wing than right-wing. I personally find the whole notion of “cause music” very, very difficult.
Some charity, political, and other organizations love to co-opt people who are famous onto their side. And the voices of those individuals tend to get lost – buried under the message of the organization that they’ve allied themselves to. That’s detrimental to art in general.
We’re individuals; we speak with our individual voices. We have views. We vote a certain way. But just stamping something, you know, as being “You’re the representative of this” – suddenly, you don’t become the representative yourself. You become the representative of some other interest group, which I think is very, very dangerous.
RCM: Re-Invent Your Second Wheel shows an almost Romanticism in the lyrics, no?
CN: The origins of that piece were in a semi-tribal kind of thing that was on Documents and Eyewitness. The only thing that Graham really kept for the lyric was the letters of the alphabet. I think he wanted to write something that had all the letter of the alphabet in it – kind of like The Jackson 5’s ABC. I’ve heard him say that this song is kind of a love song, so there’s a personal element in it.
RCM: Stealth of a Stork addresses the concept of change. How does that relate to title of the album?
CN: The answer is considerably more mundane than you might think. The “change” in Stealth of a Stork is because there are two quite different parts in the song: One is a fiendishly difficult series of chords, which you will become unstuck if you don’t pay total attention to – because they’re not entirely logical. One bar is very, very easy – it’s just an E. We kept the change of part A to part B because it was kind of interesting. Yeah, “change” is one of those words that Wire uses a lot.
RCM: Of course, it seems as though a lot of the songs thematically relate to “change,” no?
CN: When it comes to the title of the album – Change Becomes Us – then you have to look to & Much Besides; that’s where the title comes from. It’s my title, so I guess I can talk with some authority. Wire likes to describe itself as being about change. If you read “Wire” as “Change,” it becomes “Wire Becomes Us” – and it’s about a process of the band recovering and becoming what it should be.
RCM: Recovering from…?
CN: When Bruce left in 2004, we were fatally, fatally injured. And due to other things that were going on at that time, we weren’t even talking to each other at that point. I don’t think that Bruce intended to deal a body blow to us – I think he was just doing what he wanted to do. The feeling of the three remaining members was, “We don’t want to waste this. We’ve given a lot of our lives to this, so why the hell should we just abandon it?”
RCM: Talk a bit about the re-vamped Wire.
CN: It was a slow process; we had to come from really nothing. We had nothing around us, and we were not used to being just a 3-piece. But we started with a positive statement about how we wanted Wire to exist: We wanted there to be a Wire in the world. And we wanted it to be good.
And over the period of 2006 and 2011, the band grew and grew in strength. We got to a point where we could make a record like Red Barked Tree, which was widely lauded, and we made it with just the three of us. But we toured it with Matt – and by the time Matt was there, we were strong enough to take somebody like Matt.
RCM: What does Matt bring to the band?
CN: His own inimitable style. I think Wire works very well as a two-guitar band, but those two guitarists can be completely different. Matt is not a pushy or a loud person, but he has a very strong musical personality. He’s definitely up there with the rest of us in terms of his abilities.
RCM: Robert Gotobed’s percussion is always inventive. Time Like Fog is a great example. What percussion instruments does Robert use and how does he get them to work so well with the electronic effects in the construction of the song?
CN: It was something that we talked about when we were making the record. Robert doesn’t like to do “percussion”; he doesn’t regard himself as a “percussionist.” He’s a drummer. But some of those pieces have a very, very sparse rhythm. I mean just a cymbal or, in one case, a bottle.
I suggested to him that he do some random percussion. He just had some stuff on the floor – I mean keys. I mean they’re not regular percussion keys and stuff, but he had them on the floor of the studio in Rockfield. That room was very nicely miked – and we could send everything into a chamber – which is a real acoustic reverb. On Time Like Fog,he also hit a radiator in the kitchen area.
RCM: When and why did the band decide that Graham should sing the occasional lead vocal?
CN: It’s just part of the thing of Wire. We’re trying to find a means by which the band can work on his songs the same way they work on my songs. But it’s sort of evolved to where there are a certain number of songs on every album that Graham should sing.
Re-Invent Your Second Wheel is ostensibly a completely new piece of music that he sang as a relationship with a piece that was on Document and Eyewitness.
RCM: How does the band decide who sings lead on what track?
CN: I think it works the other way around. I’m the lead singer, and in most cases, they’re my songs, so I sing them. Graham just brings things to the sessions that he’s written and he wants to sing on.
RCM: Is Wire planning to tour in support of Change Becomes Us?
CN: Yes. We’ve just announced some dates in July in America – which will be in the middle and the East Coast. They’re at the band’s website. We’re also looking at coming back in November to do the West Coast, but I can’t tell you any of those dates yet because I don’t know them yet.
We’ve come a long way in a relatively short time. It all comes down to that basic thing of there is a will – a will to be Wire, and a will to be good. This is what drives the whole project.