Q&A: Wire’s Colin Newman on ‘Change Becomes Us’ and Ignoring Nostalgia
Arguably more than any other English act that emerged in response to punk, Wire have always been as much of an art project as a band. Originating in a unit at singer Colin Newman’s art school, this experimental quartet explored through their much-lauded 1977 debut Pink Flag a detached and savage minimalism, which, in the former, would inspire Brit-pop bands such as Elastica and, in the latter, provoke American hardcore acts like Black Flag. Three years and two similarly substantial albums later, Wire screeched to an abrupt halt. In 1985, they started anew, moving in an increasingly electronic direction until splitting once again in the early Nineties. They reunited one more time in 2000.
On March 26th, Wire will release Change Becomes Us, their 13th album and first with guitarist Matthew Sims. Like everything else in their varied discography, it’s lyrically challenging, melodically and rhythmically accessible and texturally contemporary. For the first time since the Seventies, though, this one feels like a genuine band album, as if Wire’s previous stops and starts never happened. There’s a good reason for this, and, like the band itself, it’s completely unconventional.
Change Becomes Us gives the impression of picking up where Wire‘s final studio album from the first period, 154, left off. So it‘s startling to learn that it actually uses music created right after that album as raw material for new songs.
Yes, it is true, although it got used pretty much in the way that any material gets used – “That bit’s all right, the rest is rubbish.” The last album, Red Barked Tree, was the first album since the Eighties where I’d written the majority of the material on an acoustic guitar. The way that the albums had occurred in the Eighties, in the Nineties and in the last decade were made by methods of assemblage, where you create a track and then sing on top of it. And then I thought what’s interesting about this material from the late Seventies and early Eighties is that it was all pretty much written on acoustic guitar, but the person who wrote it had been writing songs on acoustic guitar – for Wire – for the previous four years, and was quite bored with virtually everything he could do with it. So the songs have a certain peculiarity to them, and that’s what I was looking for. I had to subvert myself for future Wire songs to mine that space of being less excited about the acoustic guitar but still writing songs with it. Some of it was really never finished, and what you’re hearing on the album is completely new music.
Video: Post-Punk Legends Wire Perform ‘Red Barked Trees’ on ‘Fallon’
Where did this original material come from?
There were four main sources. One was Document and Eyewitness [a 1981 live album]. Another was the Legal Bootleg series – we recorded one at the Jeanetta Cochrane Theatre in November 1979, three months before we recorded Document, but with different material. There were personal demos of stuff I recorded at home on my own, and then stuff that came out of my head.
What are some specific examples?
“Doubles & Trebles” was in its embryonic form informed by an earlier song, “Ally in Exile” [from Document and Eyewitness], that was in Wire’s DNA. In fact, we had already brought that back into the fold in 2000 and turned it into another song, “I Don’t Understand.” It’s not unusual for Wire to do stuff like this, although we’ve never done it wholesale with a whole album. Another song like “Love Bends” takes 10 seconds of intro from another song on Document [“Piano Tuner (Keep Strumming Those Guitars)”], and the rest is new. “Re-invent Your Second Wheel” is basically some words from “Zegk Hoqp” and a completely new piece of music.
Following this period you drew from here, late 1979 through early 1980, did the band actually spit up, or was the understanding that you were simply going to take a break from each other?
I wish it were the latter. I think it just kind of fell apart in not a particularly good way – certainly not in a good way for the band. That’s the kind of crazy thing about this material, because it all existed with no band to follow through by early 1980. There’s a book coming out by Wilson Neate [who wrote about Pink Flag in the 33⅓ paperback series] around the same time as Change Becomes Us, and I think people will be a bit clearer on what happened. I didn’t think it was unhealthy, but for various absurd reasons within the band, it stopped. It was not an easy period, and certainly there were lots of not-so-great things happening around the band that, in the end, the band didn’t want to be. Which was kind of sad, considering where we were. But that has in some ways been very much the history of Wire.
Did the band split up in part because of the struggle you had against people’s expectations that you were supposed to be a punk band, and only play fast guitar music?
No, not really. It was more to do with the internal politics of the band. Wire was perfectly capable of existing and doing whatever it wants without necessarily having other people say what kind of thing we are. In England, Wire was technically not a punk band. We couldn’t have been. We were too late. We played the wrong kind of music, and had the wrong attitude. But there are those who say Wire was the best punk band ever because it broke all of the rules, didn’t stick with any of the blueprints and did actually what it wanted. That argument is hard to argue with because it obviously gives great credence to Wire. I just wouldn’t call that punk, personally. Punk is just one of those words that’s so overused that you have no idea what it means anymore.
What about “post-punk,” which is also often used to describe Wire, particularly after Pink Flag? What does that mean to you?
It doesn’t mean anything. It was a term invented in probably the late Nineties to describe a form of music, which mainly wasn’t that popular at the time, not to put anyone or anything down. It’s just that nobody in 1980, 1981 would’ve called themselves “post-punk.” The term “postmodern” did exist, but no one ever used “post-” in music until “post-rock.” “Post-punk” came because somebody needed to describe the bands on the millennial cusp, mainly from Brooklyn, who had a relationship with bands from the early Eighties.
When Wire got back together in 2000, the result was louder and more brutal than even Pink Flag. Was that an outgrowth of performing your older material for the first time in years, a reaction to the more electronic music you did in the late Eighties and early Nineties, or something else?
My personal view is that through the second half of Eighties and all of the Nineties, the dominant music – certainly in Britain and Europe – was electronic. And off of the back end of dark drum ‘n’ bass, people were for the first time in electronic music incorporating tonalities of rock through synthesizers that were more harsh and rock-like. That was happening just prior to the big return to rock that happened around the millennial cusp. And I thought that for Wire to just become a rock band or an indie band would not have been the right response. Somehow the best way to respond to it was ultimately rooted in electronic and dance music, but with a rock-like soundscape. There was live playing, but done with the consciousness of how you make a techno record. It had been immediately preceded by us playing a historic set, but we realized fairly soon that we didn’t really want to be a museum piece.
It wasn’t so obvious in 2000, but by the middle of the last decade, the industry divided into two parts. You have contemporary, which means younger artists, or you have classic, which means older artists. And the thing about classic is that nobody’s interested in the new album. They’re only interested in you playing the hits. An extreme example is the Rolling Stones. They had a single two months ago. It wasn’t terrible, but it wasn’t all over the press – or anything. But they played some massive gigs, and charged a fortune for them by playing music from the Sixties that everyone wants to hear. Wire doesn’t feel comfortable with that. We want to be a contemporary band, and we fought very, very hard for that status. It means more to us than anything else. Yeah, we’re not young. Get over it, as we say in Britain.
Why did longtime guitarist Bruce Gilbert leave after Send?
That’s a very good question, and not one I’m entirely qualified to answer. He had his own reasons, none of which he told us at the time. But apart from some personal disgruntlement, mainly with me, I think the main reason was that he never was comfortable being onstage and being in a band. He doesn’t like playing the guitar. It’s very basic.
Was Object 47‘s quieter sound simply reflective of having one less guitarist, or were there other objectives for that record and Red Barked Tree that required more restraint?
When Wire started again in 2006, 2007 without Bruce, it was very fragile. All we knew was that we wanted to. We were lucky enough to have a bunch of material that had been worked on post-Send, and some of that material got used on Read & Burn 03, and some got used on Object 47. It was still material made with assemblage, and the objective of Object 47 was to make a record more lyrical and less claustrophobic than Send. We had already made a big noise – we didn’t need to make it again. After Object 47 we toured with Margaret [Fiedler-McGinnis], who was just the right person for a band that was very fragile. The more we toured, we got stronger, and the more we could inhabit that thing that is Wire. When we got to Red Barked Tree, that was when I thought we needed to make a record utilizing the playing skills of the band, not my producer skills of putting stuff together. It was very important that we didn’t have another person playing on that record because, for me, it was the first one where the band had developed a consciousness that was entirely post-Bruce. That enabled a space to open up in which we could invite somebody else. Matt [Sims] is a very likable and good-natured and easy-going guy, but he’s way strong musically and comes up to the same level as us. I don’t think we could’ve dealt with someone so strong soon after Bruce left. But by the time we had done Red Barked Tree and we were starting to tour again, we were in good shape and could handle that.
Wire don‘t seem in any way autobiographical. Whatever details from your private lives, if there are any, seem cloaked by abstract lyrics. So how have your own changes as a person shaped Wire?
In the Eighties, I met the love of my life, Malka Spigel, and we became a couple. We got married, we had a child. She was a musician and we had from the beginning the means to record in the house – we had an eight-track and an Atari ST and Cubase. My personal development was one in which it suited us to have our own music production, to put out our records together, and that ended up suiting Wire as well. By the time we came back together in 2000, I had already mixed a bunch of albums. We had a studio and a record company set up. If we would’ve had an advance from somebody like Mute [Wire’s previous label], there wouldn’t have been very much money, and perhaps they wouldn’t have really believed in it the way that we believe in it, so it might’ve come to nothing. Having your own music production is such a fantastic boon for an artist. There are plenty of people who have it and totally take it for granted, but for people of our generation, that’s a more difficult thing. It used to cost the price of a house to make a record.
What do you feel Wire has yet to do?
Achieve real recognition. Basically, the world divides into people who know Wire and they think that everybody knows it, and the rest of the world, which is 99.9 percent of it, who’ve never heard of Wire.