Genre-defying music legends Wire come to Leicester’s newest venue Dryden Street Social this November in support of their new album Silver/Lead. Frontman Colin Newman spoke to us about what life is like in a band that is always working towards the next thing…
“I don’t do interviews,” says Colin, and I immediately brace myself for a difficult chat. It’s easy to assume that the frontman of an act known for being constantly innovative in a truly artistic way for 40 years is likely to be aloof and to look down on the mainstream. Luckily for me, I couldn’t have been more wrong, and he turns out to be one of the warmest and most interesting musicians I’ve ever spoken to. The rest of his sentence – “I don’t do interviews, I do conversations” – proves to be the basis of a deep back-and-forth about Wire, how they do things, and how that’s changed.
2017 has seen the release of Silver/Lead, Wire’s 16th studio album and third in three years. Wire’s debut, Pink Flag, was unleashed onto an unsuspecting public in 1977, and since then Wire have built up a huge body of work. “In some ways recording is completely different, but in some ways it’s quite similar,” Colin tells me from his home studio. “It changed in the 80s because of the tools which were available to us. Our albums from the 80s up to and including Send and Object 47 (2003 and 2008) were quite process based – they were assemblages. When we did Red Barked Tree (2011) I decided I wanted something more organic, so I decided I would start writing on acoustic guitar again and bring it to the band, and we’ve been refining that process over the last six years.”
Wire’s music is particularly known for being angular and having a unique, raw sound. As it turns out, a large part of this on more recent releases is because the band don’t get to hear the songs that Colin has written until they’re in the studio. “There’s always something quite exciting about when the band and the song first meet each other, and capturing that moment has become something of an obsession.” The basis of Silver/Lead, he tells me, is performances that are first or second takes of the first time each of the musicians engages with the demo, leading to a sound which is natural, impulsive and genuine.
This is a particularly interesting discussion to me, because the first thing that I ever heard by Wire was 1991’s The Drill, an album consisting entirely of 8 versions of the same track. It’s hard to get further from the idea of the first take being the correct one, and Colin is amused by the idea that this was my introduction to the band. “Drill was a bit of a Bruce [Gilbert, former guitarist] concept. When we started again in the 80s everything was different, and we’ve never been into nostalgia. Bruce came up with this ‘Year Zero’ concept that we wouldn’t play anything we’d played before. He suggested we all get together in a room and jam which is never how we’d worked – one of the things we came up with was Drill and we played it throughout the 80s. It got up to ridiculous lengths. One of Bruce’s great sayings was that there can never be enough Drill in the world, and so we decided we could make an album purely of versions of Drill… Right in the beginning it was fast and very small, and we brought that back in the last decade. Keep it fast, light and short. Then it becomes something very special.”
The ‘Year Zero’ concept was something that Wire stuck to rigidly, refusing to play anything from their first three albums, even when trying to break America. “A Wire audience are into what we’re doing, and I think if we’d ever had a hit it might have been the worst thing because we’d be like flies in amber. You get respectable bands who have a hit that fixes them in that point in time… The Rolling Stones are a great example of how not to do it – there was a shift from the new albums towards only playing the classics. The Stones really invented the heritage thing as a way of marketing the group. It denies the band being creative, and that’s become a template.”
This desire to keep moving and avoid nostalgia led to a fascinating first tour of the USA where their support act was a group of recently-graduated college students who played nothing but songs from Wire’s first three albums. “They did Pink Flag in its entirety for their end of term party. Nobody ever did that before. We found out about it because the drummer interviewed me and Graham [Lewis, bass guitar] – we got on really well and he just sort of dropped this and we thought ‘that’s amazing’ and then we asked if they’d like to tour America with us. Britain and America were very different musically, and America was still under the thrall of hardcore and punk rock, and that was utterly boring in the UK. But America would have found it bizarre if we hadn’t ‘played the hits’. It was kind of a concept and they were kids just finishing college – they weren’t touring, they didn’t know how they were going to get around America. They had an accent but they knew how to play in the right way, which was quite spooky to us!”
The band no longer adhere to the Year Zero concept, because new audiences are discovering their music all the time. “We have people coming to our shows now who weren’t born in 1977, so they can’t really be nostalgic for it. We’ll play stuff from all through our catalogue now – if there’s anything we think will fit the set then it goes in.” With a Wire show now featuring four decades of ever-inventive material, it’s amazing that no matter what they try, the band has always sounded like Wire. “We’ve expanded the styles of music contained within Wire, but it always sounds like Wire – and I’ve no idea how we’ve done that,” Colin laughs. “Minimalism is a big part – Rob [Grey, drums] is the biggest minimalist. People come up to me all the time and say ‘it must be a dream being a guitarist in Wire, Rob gives you so much space!’ Sometimes we have to tell him to add parts in!”
Wire are performing at Dryden Street Social on Thursday, November 2nd, at 7:30 PM. Tickets are available here.