Art rock, post punk, alternative, situationist. These are all terms that have been imposed upon Wire in the past but as abstractions go, they can only go so far in describing their textured and often creepy aural scathings. Applying “oblique strategies” to their creation process they have produced music far more perceptive than their obtuse rock peers, whilst sacrificing none of the visceral buzz. Their original unholy-trinity of albums during the late 70s – Pink Flag, Chairs Missing and 154 are exploited by many as a template for their own art rock stylings. Elastica and R.E.M. need to bow down.
After numerous, hiatus and reformations Wire have returned with a new release, Change Becomes Us, the first to feature new guitarist, Matt Simms, which re-contextualises unused snippets of material from that genesis era. They’re also about to curate their first music festival, Drill: London, that takes place from this Thursday (March 21 until March 24) in various venues across the capital and which culminates in a show at Heaven featuring the Pink Flag Orchestra, namely around 30 guitarists, some known, some just fans of the band all playing E-major in union. Glass meets Wire, completed by the erudite Colin Newman, the charming Graham Lewis and the more ascetic Robert Grey (née Gotobed) to talk about their unconventional rubric.
From what I understand, the album is based on snippets of live performances from 1979-1980..?
Colin: Well that’s a little bit reductionist. When Wire exited stage left in early 1980, there was an amount of material that hadn’t been recorded, some of it had been played live, some it was finished in terms of writing, some of it definitely wasn’t finished – baked to varying degrees shall we say – and that story has (always) been part of Wire’s DNA.
Graham: We are the creative curators!
C: But the idea of maybe making some of that material into an album really came in 2011. We did quite a lot of touring and we had to do a second tour of Britain in November and couldn’t play the same set. (There’s) a very specific way of writing for Wire. I prefer to write Wire songs with Graham’s lyrics but there were no lyrics … but there was a starting of a process of music we could work on.
Much like the previous album, Red Barked Tree (2010) then where you went into the studio without lyrical jumping off points and just wrote on the fly as it were …
C: Well almost… well it was a ruse. It was a project that we thought “wouldn’t it be fun”, especially taking some of the material that wasn’t really promising and seeing if you do something with it. It appeals to our perverse nature.
So because it’s loosely based upon material when relationships in band were disintegrating. Did this bring back bad memories or was it a case of putting things right?
G: No, it was more a case of, is any of this stuff useful for our life now?
C: It’s coming up with something that’s fast, interesting and a currency that the band can deal with. If it’s about anything it’s about what Wire is now.
So you weren’t going into the studio with a resolute, hard-line “concept”?
G: Well there’s different stages really. With some things, it was like “well the riff was okay” but it was for that bit when the man with the inflatable aeroplane was flying from the ceiling, you know what I mean? It was about disinterring the pieces that were going to make work.
Are all lyrics new or also from that time? Did you try to put yourself back into your 20-year-old brain and the way you thought/felt about things then?
G: It’s a complete mix. There are certain things I might have just changed a word or something like that but there are other pieces which are completely new, so it goes in between all of those things.
In album opener, Doubles and Trebles you exclaim “Resistance is futile” and on the expansive & Much Besides “Change becomes us all in time. The course is set”. Is this about the crushing inevitability of change? Are you trying to build a bridge between who you were then and who you are now?
C: The thing is, change is in Wire’s DNA. Change means Wire, change is Wire. It’s about Wire becoming us … Wire becoming ants in a way. There was a lot of history with Wire. A lot of Wire referring to itself almost as a third person, and I think, one of the things we’’re doing in this particular phase of the band is regaining ownership of it.
It’s the most mature you’ve ever sounded. The album is perfectly weighed up tonally and lyrically …
G: Well, I think it depends on where you’re coming from when you’re writing. Object 47 (reformation album, 2008) was kind of fractured because it (had) past and present things in it and we weren’t that confident in ourselves. Red Barked Tree was just full with questions. I think now we come to this one, it’s a lot more in the first person because sometimes that’s the right voice and the emotional content is quite high.
C: It’s partly (also) to having Matt. We were in a very fragile state after Bruce (Gilbert – original guitarist who exited prior to this cycle), we weren’t even really talking to each other. We came back together around 2006. We’d kind of taken the decision that we wanted to do it but we’d always been a four-piece. There was (also) a period when Robert wasn’t there. It never felt like it was complete.
G: But coming up into that, it was yet again just another situation. So when it came, it wasn’t as if we said, “this is impossible”, what it meant was how do we find out how do we do that?
C: Matt started touring with us and then it kind of developed. Matt is very different. For a start he’s a musical heavyweight, you know Matt is there. He’s already there at our level.
So tell us a little about the festival you’re curating across London this weekend.
C: It’s called Drill: London and it’s Wire’s festival. I started thinking that due to the general crapness of festivals it might be a good idea for Wire to do one and I didn’t get talked out of it. We’ve deliberately titled it Drill: London and that means there could be a Drill somewhere else. It’s reliant upon having a pool of fans within the city.
And which acts have you selected to complement Wire? You’re obviously playing yourself in your many guises (Colin is playing with his wife, Malka Spiegel, Graham is performing under the moniker Edvard Graham Lewis, and Matt plays with his other band, It Hugs Back).
C: Well on March 23 we’re actually supporting Toy at the Lexington. The very first Toy single I got very excited about, especially the end section because it is very Wire in a way but very them as well. They do layers of simplicity that not many people can pull off, an acceleration of heaviness. The attention they’ve got is well deserved.
G: However, the question is, what will we play?
C: Well we’ll play a support set!
How do you select the songs that you perform now? Are you comfortable revisiting past material? You notably weren’t in the 80s during your original reformation.
G: That whole stance and that whole way of going about things stopped being relevant in the 90s.
C: You have to think about context really. For us to (have been) referencing the seventies in that way, to be going out and playing stuff from Pink Flag would have made us sound like dinosaurs.
Do you plan on touring more? You have the support of Toy and then you’re headlining Heaven on March 24 to climax your Drill: London festival.
G: It’s all a bit TBA at the moment.
C: America in June. (But) life becomes more difficult for musicians as time goes on… We’re aiming to tour in Europe in the Autumn. Perhaps we’ll do some festivals in the summer. It’s partly to do with what you can make a convincing fist of, in terms of what you can do in a live context and what’s repeatable.
Especially on this record though you sound very true to your original output. Do you ever see yourself as making a grand detour into a different genre?
G: Well we did! I think that’s why some of this (current) music was still there, because we made a huge detour! When there are certain things that can’t be resolved the best thing to do is let it rest. I think there was an element of that with this because it had to be playful and brutal at the same time. Is this fun? Can we make the bloody thing work? Will it fly? To me it sounds pretty solid.
by Benjamin Lovegrove
Change Becomes is released by Wire on Pinkflag Records on March 25.
Wire’s London: Drill festival takes place from Thursday, March 21 until Sunday, March 24.