If you don't have a ticket to see Wire, the legendary English art-rock band formed in 1976 by Colin Newman, Graham Lewis, Bruce Gilbert, and Robert Gotobed, we don't know what to tell you. The show's been out since late spring.
Still jumped at the chance to discuss the band's long and thoughtful career with singer and guitarist Colin Newman, who spoke to the Phoenix via Skype from his home studio in London.
Hi Colin, how's your day going?
Not so bad! Tidying up the studio.
I'm not sure if you know this, but the show here is sold out. So thanks for doing this interview anyway!
Well, there's quite a few on this tour that are sold out, so I'm not at all surprised. I mean, it's not very often that we play in Portland, Maine. I don't think we ever have before. We played I think in Bangor at some point in some biker's club. It was the '80s.
I'm curious, as a band that's been together for 40 years with a lot of the same personnel, how have you kept it interesting? Do you devise new songwriting techniques or play games with each other?
I think it's a matter of refining than changing for the sake. You don't fix if if it's not broken. Since, really, (the album) Red Barked Tree in 2011, it's been a gradual refining of the methodology of how to make a Wire record. I mean, Wire records in the '70s were done in a certain kind of way. And in the '80s there was quite a lot of experimentation about how to make Wire records because there was a lot of experimentation in general about how to make records. And I think the technology — to use a word I hate — sort of turned down around the millenium, so you could have the benefits of so-called electronic recording and old-school tape-style recording. And ultimately, the way we settled on how to make a Wire record was a synethesis of the best use of available tools and being able to actually play as a band.
Because we are a band. We can stand in a room and play. It's not a problem. But there was a period of time where we had to go to extreme lengths in order to make that happen. Now, you can get anything in time with anything else in any way, shape or form. You can throw stuff together and sort it out later. So that led me to think I needed to go back to what I used to do originally, which is write songs on acoustic guitar, bring them to the band, the band learning them, and then we make the album on that basis. In terms of my relationship to the rest of the band on that, we got to a point where basically nobody hears anything until we all meet in the studio to record it. Occasionally I may bring stuff to others in various forms, but everything comes back here (to my studio) for us to finish as a band. Basically, how do you go about the idea of making a Wire record? And how do you make it the purest expression of being a Wire record that you can get to?
That's interesting, because Wire is talked about as this influential punk band, but for so much of your career, you've operated well outside of that form.
We weren't a punk band in 1977 — what part of not being a punk band don't people understand? (laughs). I think there are two viewpoints are that. Some people, especially people our age, don't for one minute think Wire is a punk band. Even though some of Pink Flag sounds a bit like punk, it was the wrong kind of music. There was no such things as slow songs in punk. And then other people who are a bit more conceptual think Wire is the best punk band ever because we've broken every rule of punk. So, what does that mean?
One of you at some point talked about wanting to be a "contemporary band" —
I think that's always been Wire's kind of cool identity. I mean, we were extremely aware of what was happening in music when we started. As far as we were concerned, punk was a 1976 thing, and every band, especially the local bands, who were influenced by the Sex Pistols — meaning they wanted to sound exactly like the Sex Pistols — were going to last about two minutes. It was important to be the next thing, so we considered what we were doing as the next thing. So that became a kind of way of describing what we wanted to do.
Obviously now, there's no such thing as a timeline in music. Every record that's ever been made is as new as every other record that's ever been made. It's hard to imagine when I was growing up that I would be walking down the street hearing (today) music that was fifty years old as a regular thing. And that's true in any country in the western world. So I don't have to go to special places where old people go to hear old music. Old music is a part of the culture. And in a way, that's a very weird thing. What is a contemporary band? I don't know what that means anymore. Everything and nothing is contemporary. There's new music that sounds more like old music than old music sounds. There's a (contemporary) artist called Drugdealer from Los Angeles, and that album is the most '70s-sounding album I've ever heard in my life. And I don't think anyone in the '70s sounded that much in the '70s. But in some ways, he's kind of crystallizing an aesthetic. In the end, you either like it or don't like it.
The other thing of course is what you say and what you do. You can have a band in their early twenties who say they don't listen to anything after 1973. Or that they only use old technology. You know, if someone in their sixties sounds like that, they just sound like an old geezer. For us, being sort of analog purists — I mean, we've made enough records in analog. We know their limitations.
Wire + Minibeast | September 22 | Fri 8:30 pm | SPACE Gallery, 538 Congress St., Portland | SOLD OUT | www.space538.org