Wire’s Colin Newman

Sam Adams

By Sam Adams

on 01.21.11 in Interviews

It seems like every week some classic (or not-so-) punk band reunites for One Last Tour. Occasionally, they head back into the studio to add a half-hearted footnote to their discography. But the music Wire has made since reforming in 2000 is anything but perfunctory. Like Send and Object 47 before it, the new Red Barked Tree stands with the best in the band’s catalogue, nearly rivaling the one-two-three punch of the classic Pink Flag, Chairs Missing and 154.

Since 2006, Wire has been without original guitarist Bruce Gilbert, whose departure nearly broke up the band. But they’ve soldiered on as a trio, recording Object 47 with help from Helmet’s Page Hamilton and touring the album with Laika’s Margaret Fiedler McGinnis. For Red Barked Tree, they approached the studio as a three-piece for the first time, resulting in a sound that is both sparer and more layered than the galvanizing assault of Send.

Via a Skype link from the control booth of his own Swim studios, Wire’s Colin Newman talked to eMusic’s Sam Adams about the band’s near-collapse and subsequent revival, why he writes songs in five minutes — or not at all, and the road from the “big fuck-off rock noise” of Send to the Pentangle-ish lull of Red Barked Tree‘s title track.

Wire isn’t a full-time job for you: You also play in Githead and run the Swim label. How do you decide when it’s time to make another record?

The history of Red Barked Tree starts in 2006, when Bruce left. It was a very difficult period. There was load of other stuff going on around the band involving people who aren’t actually in the group, and that caused the kind of friction that resulted in him dropping off the map. He didn’t say why he left, but I don’t think he loves being in a rock band. I don’t think he likes touring. There were other things happening at the time, but over the long term, I think that’s where it was. I think he imagined that we would just stop. And I think we damn near did, actually.

In 2006, the three of us had reason to start talking to each other. We met up, famously, on the South Bank in London, and came with the simplest of thoughts: a) it’s worth doing, because it’s good, and b) we should have a plan. If we have a plan and we present it to Bruce, then he can see if he wants to do it or not. If he doesn’t want to do it, we’ll still do it anyway. That was how it started.

When Bruce left, there was an album half-done. That was what turned into Read and Burn 3. We followed that with a bunch of touring. In 2008 and 2009 we toured a lot. At the end of that period, my feeling was we should do it a different way.

I’m in two bands, which helps to explain certain things. The way the two bands operate is very different. Githead is like, put ‘em in a room and play, they’ll make something up. From zero to a piece in half an hour. If you tried that with Wire, it wouldn’t work. Wire requires things to be written, although it may be the most simple set of instructions. I had that thought sitting in the bus on the Githead tour: I’ve got to write some songs.

That may seem like an incredibly obvious thing, but since the mid ’80s, hip-hop was a very big thing in music. And I see hip-hop in terms of the assemblage of sound. That’s the core working method. What happened is people got better and better equipment in order to do the same assemblage and make it more and more seamless, and less like it was just a bunch of stuff jammed together that didn’t necessarily belong together. I thought, “If you’re struggling so hard to make something sound like it was all done together, why don’t you just do it together?” That would be the better way of doing it.

So I thought, “I have to write some songs.” My method of writing songs, which I hadn’t used for 30 years, is to write them on acoustic guitar. They take an average of five minutes each. If it’s not written in five minutes, it’s not going to get written. I’d sit on the couch, play a bit, if I had some words from Graham, jam ‘em in, record it to my iPhone, then I’d present a bunch of songs to Rob and Graham. Rob said, [derisively] “It sounds like the ’70s” and Graham said, “I hate acoustic guitar,” so I knew we were onto a winner. That’s so classic Wire.

The studio thing was a bit of a disaster. The album I’d worked on the year before, which was Landing by Githead, we did all the recordings in Frankie [Lievaart]‘s studio in Rotterdam. It’s a really nice studio. I really like it there. Frankie is not only Githead’s soundman; he’s also Wire’s soundman. And he got stolen away with the fairies by Gogol Bordello, and disappeared. I think they all moved to Brazil or some other thing. We were supposed to do the Wire record in December 2009, but I couldn’t get hold of him. So we ended up booking a studio in London. It was February before we got in. We had four days booked.

The notion of going into a studio to record, it may seem like an old thing, but it’s a new thing [for Wire], because we have limited means for production, in terms of money. We have plenty of means in terms of imagination. I can produce fairly decent-sounding mixes here [at Swim], but for physical recording, if you’re going to record drums in a nice room, first of all you’ve got to have a nice room, and someone who knows how to record drums. If you’re going to record a whole band, you’ve got to have the right place to do it.

So four days had been booked, it was a week to go. I had four songs written, because that was all the lyrics I had from Graham. And I realized I wasn’t getting any more words out of him. So I had to write a song a day so there was enough. Graham came with a couple of things, but there was no way he would come with enough songs to fill out the rest of the record. So I took an instant editorial decision that was what was going to happen. Some of those words stayed, and some of those words got worked on by Graham and me. That was it, basically.

We worked on 14 pieces, something like that. We dropped a couple, because we didn’t think that they were working quite well enough. The idea was to make something where every song is really strong. People aren’t going to listen to [Red Barked Tree] and say, “I like that. It’s got five really good tracks on it.”

The reaction we’ve had so far has been unbelievable. It seems to have worked. There are people out there saying, “It doesn’t sound like Pink Flag.” Yes, it doesn’t sound like Pink Flag. That is true. It’s very difficult, having no idea how records were made in the ’70s, to go back and try to slavishly recreate a working method from that long ago, and not be doing retro. It’s beyond me how you do that, conceptually. So sorry, you’re not going to get a record that sounds like Pink Flag, because that was made in 1977, and we’re making records now in 2010. That’s just the reality. That’s where we are.

When Wire first regrouped for the Read and Burn EPs and the Send album, you described the band’s desire to make what you called “a bit fuck-off rock noise.” That’s very different from the sound of Red Barked Tree, which is more airy and lyrical. The songs have a lot more space in them.

I think that’s absolutely true. Part of the claustrophobic sound of Send is the way it was recorded. Most of the drums were recorded in a rehearsal room, with zero ambience. You can put reverb on, but reverb always sounds rubbish. The notion behind Send was this: Here you were, coming of the back end of two decades of dance music. The thing that most informed Send for me was something called dark drum and bass, which was the point when drum and bass turned into an almost rock tonality. It’s very fast, with this kind of “rrrrrr” noise. I thought it would be great to make rock music that was like that. That was the simple idea it started with. But it took on a life of its own. There was quite a dark sense around it. It was quite a claustrophobic period, and it ended very badly for the band. There was a definite feeling when we did Object 47 to do something lighter, let the air in a little bit more. That was a conscious thing.

There’s a deliberate simplicity, almost crudity, to Send songs like “The Art of Stopping” or “Comet.”

There’s probably more simplicity in Red Barked Tree than there is on Object 47. They are simple pieces. Some of them are as simple as the pieces on Send or the pieces on Pink Flag and Chairs Missing. They have all the classic tricks. All the daft musical jokes that I’m always very fond of. But if anyone would try to work them out on guitar, they’d realize they’re way more simple than you think they are.

One thing I didn’t like about Send: I think the noise was great, but there was very little delicacy in the production. You don’t really hear the individual instruments that much. It just sounds like one machine. But it was to be machine rock. That was the idea. That was a moment in time when I thought that was relevant. What happened was things didn’t go in that direction. The whole post-punk thing of the millennial cusp went more in a Gang of Four-ish direction. It went jerky rather than fuck-off. So it seemed like it was a sort of dead end. You get a taster of it on “Two Minutes.” “Two Minutes” is Send done with the kind of production I would think about doing now. I certainly haven’t given up the idea of making a big fuck-off noise.

There’s a pensive, philosophical quality to the title track of Red Barked Tree, which feels like new — or, at least, not recently explored — terrain for the band. It has an almost spiritual quality.

It has. But if you think about “A Mutual Friend” on 154, that’s got that kind of quality. I really picked up on the “Red Barked Trees” idea — that’s Graham’s lyric — the search for the philosopher’s stone, the idea of the thing that’s going to make everything work, the thing that will enable you to understand everything, and that can only be joyous. The fact that it wound up sounding a bit like Pentangle is really quite extraordinary. I think it’s in many ways the weirdest track Wire have ever recorded, although to someone who listens to that kind of music all the time, it’s perfectly normal. It’s in 3/4 with bouzoukis and organ. And as of two days ago, we can play it live as well, which is kind of amazing. It’s probably my favorite thing on the album, but I like being transgressive. The thing about the big fuck-off noise is that it isn’t too transgressive. It’s transgressive within the context of all other music, but it’s not transgressive within the context of Wire. You do have to understand that as far as Wire is concerned — and I can be objective because a) I’m in two bands and b) because I always analyze these things — it lives in its own little world. Wire are kings of the land of Wire. Absolute, undisputed kings. And everything works within that context. People seem to think that we’re somehow operating within some other context, which none of us understand. We understand very well how the universe of Wire works, but we don’t really understand how those other universes work.

What other contexts does Wire get placed into?

We got a shitload of reviews over the weekend, and there were three of them that mentioned the Fall. In two of them, we’re better than the Fall because they’re grumpy old gits, and we’re all positive, whereas in the third one, we aren’t as good as the Fall because we’re not grumpy old gits. We’re not sitting there thinking, “I wonder how we’re doing up against the Fall. What’s the Fall-to-Wire ratio?” We’re just getting on with doing what we do. Mark Smith’s got his own way of going about doing what he does.

Has it always been that way, or is the confidence to fly by your own lights and not measure yourself against other bands something that comes with experience?

There’s a famous — infamous — Wire song from the ’70s that never got recorded beyond demo called “Culture Vultures.” It was part of a whole bunch of songs that were like, “We’re not going to do those. We’re going to do Chairs Missing instead.” The opening line is “What we do is what we do.” I think that’s been the basic philosophy of the band since the beginning. It’s the only way to do Wire. Otherwise it doesn’t make any sense. These preposterous old men who somehow imagine that they can try and be hip… If there’s anything from the outside to look at, there are people who are really interested in music — I’m not talking about people who have a passing interest — people who are really excited, and it’s really important to them, and they really disappointed when somebody who they liked before doesn’t live up to an expectation. I’m sure that we have not lived up to everybody’s expectation, but I think that we’re probably erring more on the side of living up to the expectation than not living up to the expectation. At least we’re trying to do something original all the time.

The next record will be done differently. God knows when that will be. We’ve turned from the big fuck-off guitar noise to the big fuck-off list of dates. We have an incredibly busy year of playing gigs ahead, during which at some point I’m going to be thoroughly and utterly bored with Wire world, and I’m going to want to be doing something else — which is absolutely fine, and that’s what everyone else will feel. You have to give yourselves some escape clauses. This year’s going to pretty hardcore for us, so I don’t imagine we’re going to be making a record in 2012. And when we do get round to making a record again, who knows what we’ll be thinking. There’s certainly some [feeling of] “Yeah! Let’s keep bunging new things in the set!” But where do those new things come from? Someone’s got to write them. I’m always thinking, ‘How can I insert something in to the process that’s going to make it go in a slightly different way? ‘The plan for Red Barked Tree wasn’t what anybody expected we were going to do, but it’s amazing how quickly everybody signed up. Once everybody sees common ground, then they’re on it. That’s it. There’s no more discussion. You don’t need to talk about it.

A lot of the songs on Red Barked Tree you recorded straight through, playing as a trio. Was that a function of having only a few days in the studio, or was it always the plan to capture more of a live sound?

The band was very fragile in 2006, when we started to come back together again, and even during the live dates we were playing with Margaret [Fiedler McGinnis]. Margaret was a great person to have — and I’m not damning with faint praise here — she was a very safe pair of hands. She could deal with the fact that these guys had gone through a bit of a divorce. She was someone who was musically competent, able to do the job really well, wasn’t trying to steal the limelight or anything like that. Some people were saying, “You’re so great live. Much better than you used to be. Maybe it’s the girl.” I’m thinking, “No, no, no.” It’s not that Margaret isn’t really good. It’s that we’re more organized.

One of the bad things about the Send period is that there was no evolution going on. There was no desire at all to try and do something that required a greater level of participation. Things were very, very set, because the songs were pre-written as complete arrangements, so you had to play everything just like on the record. It was really boring. Having been through that period, I thought it would be fantastic if we just went in the studio and it was just us. You have to understand, as a three-piece, we’d very rarely played together. There was a short set of maybe two dates ‘rehearsal when we started auditioning, before Margaret joined, just to see if we could actually stand in a room and make any kind of a convincing noise. We’d never been three people playing before. So [for Red Barked Tree,] I thought, “Let’s see how it goes in the studio.” We worked with an engineer that we’d never worked with before, who was Irish. We did “Moreover,” and after we were done playing, he came in and said, “You make a big fookin ‘noise for three.” It was a confidence-building thing: Yes, we are Wire, we have the right to be Wire. We can do it. We can make that noise. And then when we go to work with another person, we’re then building on a solid base.

Since April, we’ve been working with a guitarist called Matt Simms. He didn’t play on the record; he plays live. He’s really, really good. He’s very young and very talented. It’s a very interesting evolution, because we’ve gone up a level of organization as well, in terms of how we play, and how everybody has to be more supportive of each other. There was a point where Wire got very disparate. Everyone was just playing their instrument, and not paying any mind to each other on stage. It doesn’t really work. It’s not as cohesive as it should be. I think we’ve got to a better place now. God knows where we’ll be when we’ve been playing a billion gigs.

I must say, I think Wire’s in a pretty good place right now. The album came out yesterday [in the UK] and today someone tried to buy it on Amazon and they were sold out. We’ve been nursing that. There seems to be a lot of interest. With a band like Wire, we’ve always felt, if we could align the stars the right way, we could do something that would appeal to a bigger audience. It’s not like we’re sitting here thinking, “How can we appeal to the widest possible audience?” But we’ve never considered ourselves to be, “We only appeal to those people.” We’re acclaimed by such a diverse set of people anyway.

There’s a point in a band’s life cycle where if they’re not constantly adding younger fans to their audience, it starts withering away. People get older, they have kids, or they don’t feel like staying out late on a weeknight.

I don’t know how it is America. It’s been a couple of years since we’ve been there. But you get somewhere like Italy, if a band like Wire relied on people that are their age, you’d have 10 people in the audience every night. The people that come out are the ones in their 20s. That’s what the audience is. If you can’t appeal to that audience, you don’t get an audience. So you’ve got to have something that will appeal to those people. It’s probably a well-known fact that when we play live now, we play a selection of Wire material. I think that’s worked for us. Again, it’s to do with context. If we’d been playing ’70s stuff in the ’80s, that would have just looked like a nostalgia trap, because the audience we had was the same audience we had in the 70s, only they were older. So we had to somehow artificially create a situation of only playing new material. That stuck a bit when we were doing the Send thing. That was partly because we’d done a tour in 2000 where we played only old material. The whole set was Send, Read and Burn 1, Read and Burn 2, with some other stuff as encores. But when we started touring again in 2008, we thought, “Having any kind of construct is pointless.”

Back in the 90s, there was a shop in London called Fat Cat, which was the number one source for techno. It was the hippest shop. When Malka and I moved back to London from Brussels, I went into Fat Cat and I asked the guy behind the counter to recommend some albums. He said, “Tell you what. I’ll play some tunes. If you like one, put your hand up.” There was a bunch of people in there, and they put tunes on; you put your hand up, buy it. Nobody knew what anything was. It feels like that with a Wire gig. We’re going to play a bunch of stuff, and you don’t have to be there with your notebook, “Mmmm, that’s ’70s. That’s 1987, I think.” Who gives a flying fuck? It’s just a bunch of songs that we play, and it sort of works.

Robert Grey talks approvingly about the “moronic” quality of your songwriting. How do you hold onto that over more than three decades without it becoming contrived? You must have learned something by now.

There’s a bit of a fallacy: Older and wiser. Some people get older and get wiser, some people get older and more stupid, some people get older and stay the same. The thing is that I use “moronic” in a certain kind of way. You could also go all Buddhist and call it mindless. Something just makes you do something. If I’m writing a song, or I have an idea to do something, I just have it. I haven’t thought about it to any degree at all. The number one tool that any artist needs is the ability to spontaneously come up with something. The number two tool that you need is the ability to go through all those ideas that you come up with and know which ones are any good. If you don’t know that, then you’re not really an artist. You’re just someone who produces a lot of splurge, and nobody is ever going to be the wiser about you.

Malka and I know this from listening to demos. You’d have someone who would have a brilliant first track, and then the next track would be absolute rubbish. You’d think, “Why?” This person is not going to benefit from having a label look after them, because they don’t know the different between what’s good and what’s not good. It’s a partnership. You do have to know that. And also you have to know something about the context in which you’re operating. I think those things are really important. I think most of the songs on Red Barked Tree are dead moronic. What have you got? [sings riff to "Please Take"] A riff you’ve heard a billion times before. “Two Minutes” is not exactly prog rock. “Clay,” three chords. “Moreover,” just the one, really. “Smash” is two bits that are pushed together that don’t really fit.

There’s the old saw that punk was about bands realizing you only needed to be able to play three chords to write a song. It seems as if Wire was saying, “That’s two chords too many.”

We did this thing at the Barbican a few years ago. It was Pink Flag in the first part and Send in the second part. And the staff had written in the wings, just where we were about to go on, “Wire: Four great guys, one great chord.” Malka and I were talking to Rhys Chatham, and he said, “It’s all one chord.” I said, “Which one?” I knew which one, but I just had to ask. It’s always E.