(Photo: Mike Hipple)
On Monday night, the UK post-punk band Wire makes their first ever Columbus stop for a sold-out show at Ace of Cups. The band’s first three albums – released in rapid succession (1977 – Pink Flag, 1978 – Chairs Missing, 1979 – 154) – are widely considered to be among some of the most influential albums of the late ’70s. Bands from The Cure to Sonic Youth, R.E.M. to Guided by Voices have cited (and, many times, covered) Wire’s earliest releases as an influence though the band’s most recent releases (2015 – Wire, 2016 – Nocturnal Koreans, 2017 – Silver/Lead) are a far cry from the minimalistic post-punk that Wire started out playing with lush arrangements and bouncy bass and synths.
I recently had the chance to interview founding member Colin Newman (vocals/guitar) via email and while sometimes these types of interviews can be hit or miss, Newman’s answers were particularly well thought out and thorough.
My intro to Wire came via a dubbed Pink Flag cassette a friend gave me because I lived in Columbus, home of the New Bomb Turks, and my friend wanted me to hear the original version of “Mr. Suit” that the Turks had covered on 1993’s Destroy-Oh-Boy. I grew up on FM radio and ‘80s hair metal so I will admit that, at the time of that introduction (1993-ish), I didn’t love Pink Flag (that would come 15 or so years later as my tastes evolved and I started listening to more bands that Wire influenced). Now that I have Spotify and have been able to go back and listen to the entire catalog, it seems like had my friend burned me a copy of The Drill, I would have been an instant convert. The evolution of Wire’s sound is fascinating to me (and something I’m sure you’ve been talking about for decades!) but I’m wondering, if the 2017 you had found a time machine and gone back to 1977 and played the Pink Flag-era you music from Silver/Lead, would the 1977 you say, “This is great, I can’t believe how far we’ve progressed”?” Or, would the 1977 you spit in the 2017 you’s face and say, “What is this???? You’re a liar, this isn’t Wire!”?
I’ve always had pretty (for that read very!) broad taste and never subscribed to the punk “year zero” philosophy. Certainly I had no interest in trying to mine a pretty narrow aesthetic. In fact “I Feel Mysterious Today” (from “Chairs Missing”) was written before “Pink Flag” was recorded but Mike Thorne considered it too “advanced” for that album. So no way would I have regarded Silver/ Lead as some kind of foreign body!
I read an interview you did with Rolling Stone earlier this year and you mentioned that despite the fact that you’ve influenced countless bands, you’re walk to down the street in relative obscurity. Have you ever had an opportunity to meet an artist you admire or that influenced you and had them say, “I know who you are. I’m a big fan”? On the flipside, have you ever met somebody like that and casually mentioned, “Yeah, I’ve been in this band called Wire for 40 years, maybe you’ve heard of us” and been met with an ice cold stare?
The quote I’m fond of throwing out is that Wire are “the most famous band you’ve never heard of”. I have zero expectation that anyone I meet who I was a fan of in my younger days would know who I was. I met John Martyn before his death (I was a huge John Martyn fan when I was at college). He was very friendly but had no idea who I was. I also had a conversation with Steve Reich during which I quickly discovered he had no idea who I was. From younger bands, yes of course I meet many who do know who I am but most seem to just know the 70’s stuff (there have been notable exceptions to that). On the obverse of that we had Jeff Tweedy play in the guitar orchestra at DRILL : CHICAGO back in 2015 and he basically said his son had “instructed” him to join in 🙂 citing Wire as a “really cool” band!
What is your tour history like in the U.S.? I think I read that you didn’t really put a lot of time touring in the U.S. early on but have been doing a lot more in the last decade or so. When the Columbus show was announced, the promoter warned people on Facebook that the show would sell out and, sure enough, it did pretty quickly. Although you’re spending more time touring in the U.S., are you finding that you can fill a room pretty easily?
Check www.pinkflag.com/live.php – it has all the upcoming and historic dates. We didn’t tour USA in the 70’s (just a “tour” of CBGBs in 1978). We certainly did tour in the 80’s and during the last 2 decades with increasing frequency. We have found that we can tour USA pretty much every other year. As regards to filling rooms depends how big the room is and where it is! But certainly sold out shows are not a novelty for us.
When it comes to the setlist, I understand that the majority of what you play is very recent stuff and I think this is pretty well known but do you ever have to deal with somebody who calls out, between songs, and request old songs or people that come up after the show and say, “Why didn’t you play anything from your first couple of albums?”
The core of any Wire set is always the new album although we won’t play all of it normally! The rest of the set will be made of of songs which are by varying degrees “old”. Some might be just a couple of years old but others will be much older. It’s simply not true we don’t play anything from the 1st 3 albums, it’s just that we don’t do that annoying thing some older bands will do which is play some “token” new ones at the beginning of the set and have the end & encores consisting only of the oldest material. There are good reasons for our approach. Firstly no fan wants to see the band be a bad cover band of its own material. There is, I would suggest, a certain cynicism in bands who try so hard to please the audience / recapture faded glories. I think we are pretty clear about why we are doing this. It’s artistic practice not entertainment. And as such it is beholden to us to aspire to the highest standards. Being a bit rubbish and having the audience fill the gaps by being very familiar with the material is not our aim. The things we choose to play are the things we know work and remain interested to play. If we find the experience of playing the material rewarding then there is a greater chance the audience will also appreciate it!
As I mentioned earlier, I’ve been digging into your catalog on Spotify. It’s somewhat difficult to have a conversation with an artist in 2017 and not bring up the topic of how people consume music these days. As I write these questions, I’m listening to the Self-Titled album through bluetooth headphones that are connected to my phone that is playing Spotify. A few questions … what is your take on how people listen to music – do you find Spotify to be a game changer or do you think it’s taking away some of the magic of listening to music? Do you still buy physical media (albums, CDs) and, if so, can you tell me some of your recent purchases and where you bought them? And, when it comes to technology, does it blow your mind that in many people’s pocket, they have a device that can take pictures, film movies, make phone calls, play games, stream an endless supply of music, serve as a GPS, conduct banking, etc? Or, just as your music has evolved over time, do you just consider this a technological evolution that was bound to happen?
When I get in my car a curated list of over 1000 pieces of my favourite music starts playing automatically over bluetooth from my phone, in random sequence. It would be the same playlist if I listened on headphones. Spotify on the move is not practical due to data costs over 4g but I think the principle is the same. I do not think any artist can afford the luxury of being a “format snob”. I don’t think people who buy vinyl are somehow bigger fans than people who stream on spotify or apple music. Having said that I still personally prefer to own music rather than stream it simply because I want to hear it offline as well as when I’m on wifi. I tend to use spotify to check stuff out. I mainly buy stuff on digital but if there’s interesting artwork I might buy on CD or vinyl (not cassette!). Recent purchases have been Rob Crow’s Gloomy Place”You’re Doomed, Be Nice” and the re-mastered version of “St. Pepper’s” which I bought on CD to get he 2nd disc & the booklet.
I’m not just saying this because you’ve been kind of enough to take time to answer my questions. I really think Silver / Lead is a great album and I sincerely appreciate that you haven’t settled into the nostalgia tour circuit and play a “greatest hits” set. Do you still get a charge out of writing and recording new material? Do you get those moments in the studio where you either think to yourself or say out loud, “Yeah! THIS IS GOOD”? I’m guessing that you aren’t putting out new music just to have product to sell on the road, you’re putting it out because you genuinely aren’t done making music.
It’s not really in the nature of Wire or myself to be much interested in the nostalgia tour circuit and to be honest why would we do that when we can tour in our own right and play what we want to play. It’s also quite possibly a more commercial approach than any nostalgia route. We sell considerably more through distribution (both physical & digital) than we sell on the road although merch income is always welcome! Of course, making an album is a process but there are plenty of points when I step back and think how good particular piece sounds. To be honest I wouldn’t be doing Wire if I didn’t think it was any good! I have also mixed every Wire album since 2000 so I bring my own exacting standards to the final mixes.
Finally, in that same Rolling Stone interview I referenced earlier, you mentioned that you’re pretty happy with your course in life, that you’ve never had to take a day job to pay the rent. At home, among your circle of friends, do you mostly associate with other musicians or do you have friends/neighbors/etc that work day jobs and do you ever sit around and trade war stories about your jobs? Do they look at you with envy because you’re doing what you’ve always wanted to do and have the ability to tour the world and meet all kinds of people? Do you look at them and think, “If I had to, I could probably settle down, buy a suit and sit behind a desk all day?”
My life partner, Malka Spigel, is also a musician (and co boss of the other label I run swim ~) Our current project is Immersion but we have done many things together including her solo albums & the band Githead. We tend to gravitate towards other artists, we live in Brighton which has lots of musicians & artists of various kinds so most people know what we do. There are always degrees in that, some artists we know haven’t really toured or travelled much and play to quite small audiences, others are at the other end of the scale. I regard myself as unemployable in the conventional work place (It’s not an opinion it’s fact) so I don’t really have the choice!