On Returning:
Colin Newman Connects Wire – Past, Present and Future

“Wire’s first three albums are a bit too revered.”

I beg to differ, but it’s a provocative statement coming from one of those albums’ creators. From 1977 to 1979, four British art students called Wire made a trio of albums – Pink Flag, Chairs Missing and 154 – that along with Joy Division virtually defined the notion of post-punk, and which for my money constitutes the finest three-album run ever. The band then splintered into a bevy of solo projects and collaborations, reconvening in 1986 with a more beat-oriented approach that started strong but yielded diminishing returns. After sitting out the ’90s Wire have returned in fits and starts over the past decade. Just when it seemed they were entering another soft patch, in 2011 a reconfigured Wire unleashed Red Barked Tree, their freshest work in eons. And with the new Change Becomes Us, Wire have put together their most compelling two-record string since the ’70s.

Making it even more remarkable is that a band that’s assiduously refused to rehash the past chose to construct their new album from unreleased sketches of songs from their fertile (and too revered?) 1979-80 period. Yet Colin Newman claims Change Becomes Us is “purely forward looking”; and he may actually be right.

“This really isn’t old material, there were no tapes,” Newman insists. Several of these songs will be familiar to Wire fanatics based on well-traveled bootlegs, albeit under different titles. A few of the highlights popped up on Wire’s surrealistic live album Document & Eyewitness, which chronicled a 1980 Electric Ballroom show that Newman laughingly characterizes as “pure audience confrontation.” The shimmering “Keep Exhaling,” a highlight of Change Becomes Us, is a reinvention of the jagged “Relationship” from that live set, for instance.

“The idea started when Wire received an invitation to play a few shows early last year,” Newman explains. “We had been touring with Red Barked Tree for most of 2011, and thought we needed some new material to make those performances worthwhile. We started with ‘Adore Your Island’ (which alternates jock-rock power chording with serrated thrash reminiscent of the band’s later Send era) – which is very hard to play because it has no beat to tie it together – and a couple of others, and some longtime fans told us afterwards it was the best Wire show they’d ever seen.”

For a quartet that famously hired a cover band (the Ex-Lion Tamers) to play an opening set dispensing of its earlier material during their 1987 US comeback tour, Wire has become quite generous with its back catalog and with this new release seems to have come full circle. But the real miracle isn’t that they’re making music this good, but that they’re still making music at all. “Being in Wire has never been easy,” Newman concedes. “After Send, Wire were barely on speaking terms with one another.”

Eventually the longstanding creative tension took its toll, as founding guitarist Bruce Gilbert cut the cord following Send. A friend notes that on the 2003 tour supporting that album Gilbert appeared to be physically repulsed by his instrument. “Bruce has always been uncomfortable with the idea of being in a rock band,” Newman concurs. “We’ve always thought of Wire as an artistic endeavor, but in presentation we’re a rock band as well. The three of us (Newman, bassist Graham Lewis, and drummer Robert Grey – who took the surname Gotobed in the band’s first cycle) have accepted that reality, and Bruce has never really come to terms with it.” Along those lines, Gilbert has always referred to Wire’s output as “pieces,” rather than albums or songs. Notably, Newman exclusively refers to Wire in the third person – this is hardly a brain-dead longhair endeavor.

Newman is still in contact with Gilbert. “After all, I’m the manager of his record company, so I send him statements every month and often include a note, but we haven’t talked in a while. There’s no acrimony, though, not that I know of.” That latter claim may be a case of protesting too much, as Newman seems unable to let the matter rest. “I think Bruce was shocked that we decided to continue without him. Then he was surprised that it actually went well. And now I think he’s gobsmacked by what Matt has added.” It’s worth recalling that Grey also flew the coop toward the end of the ’80s run when he felt supplanted by drum programming (a stretch during which the remaining threesome cheekily christened themselves Wir), but Newman minimizes his absence as a transitory blip. Gilbert’s seems more permanent.

Matt is Matt Simms, who has unexpectedly settled in as the new permanent fourth member of Wire. The original notion was to enlist a new guitarist for each ensuing post-Gilbert project. “At one point we were close to bringing on Page Hamilton (of Helmet/Band of Susans fame) as the fourth member of Wire, which would have been great – we love Page, and it would have brought a whole new dimension with our past histories and the like. But he wasn’t in a position to relocate from Los Angeles, and we all realized the logistic details just didn’t make sense.

“We held two days of auditions before touring with Red Barked Tree, and we were close to choosing someone else, but Matt came in toward the end and blew us away.” Simms’ resume is headlined by the band It Hugs Back, which sports the proximity of a 4AD discography but more often draws comparisons to the likes of Yo La Tengo. “It Hugs Back is still an ongoing concern but they don’t play live much. Matt makes most of his living these days composing for film, which is important because we needed someone with flexibility, where we don’t have to schedule around other touring commitments but also someone who doesn’t need a full time commitment because we’re not always working. It was also important they live relatively near London,” simplifying the logistics since Lewis has lived in Sweden since the late ’80s and Grey tends farm near Leicester, England.

Newman shrugs off any suggestion that Gilbert’s absence is particularly conspicuous on this collection of samizdat vintage material. “These were such early song fragments, there was no specific material of his,” he counters. “But we do thank Bruce on the record, and are including him for a percentage. Matt’s now a full financial participant in Wire,” Newman is quick to add.

The turmoil may have been a necessary step for reinvigoration, as Wire arguably has become more of a working band than at any time since the days of Chairs Missing. “Send pursued an aesthetic which really didn’t suit Wire – we played essentially the same set every show,” Newman remarks in retrospect. “Also, I had grown tired of the hip hop approach to making records, which is essentially what Send was – taking short fragments and stitching them together. What happened was that after Send we took some time and reached the conclusion that the three of us still wanted to do this.”

Newman has a refreshing ability to distance himself and critique has own past work, which spares me the discomfort of pushing my belief that 2008’s Object 47 – Wire’s first release without Gilbert – represents a low point. Newman is quicker to dismiss the entirety of the band’s 1980s output – I don’t think they fell off the table until 1989’s IBTABA – although I suspect his judgment is colored by emotional factors (see accompanying sidebar in the March print edition).

Object 47 was definitely a transitional album, comprised mostly of bits we had around from the Send era. But it was important that we clean the slate in order to start fresh. Margaret (Fiedler, the onetime Laika/Moonshake member and PJ Harvey sidewoman) was the ideal fourth member for the time.” The band regrouped in a big way for the heady, full-bodied Red Barked Tree, which also marked the first time Newman had written on the acoustic guitar “in decades.” The band toured with Red Barked Tree more than with any release since the ’80s, and solidified a sound that melded their entire timeline – the ’70s austerity, the ’80s beat orientation, and the abrasive guitars of Send and various side projects. “Similarly, the exercise of writing Change Becomes Us was necessary for me to get on the trail of the next album.”

The phrase “control freak” has been applied to Newman (he’s also a generous and captivating conversationalist), and he clearly relishes the complete independence of Wire’s new millennium incarnation – perhaps in part because he’s established a firm grip on the reins of all aspects of band operations. Newman manages pinkflag records and handles production at his swim studios, juggling a multitude of spinoff projects like the band Githead, with wife Malka Spigel. “I can write a melody in two minutes – it’s the arranging and production that takes all the time,” he admits, adding, “I don’t subject the rest of the band to the recording of my vocals. I can often take two days on one song.” This explains the appeal of the Read & Burn series, the premise of which was to compress that cycle and deliver urgent music into fans’ hands quickly. Its first two installments largely became Send, while Read & Burn 3 marked Gilbert’s swansong and yielded the 10-minute “minor Wire classic” (in Newman’s words) “23 Years Too Late.” According to Newman, the “very loose plan” is to follow up Change Becomes Us with a Read & Burn 4, depending on how busy this latest release makes them.

Still striving to avoid the textbook record-tour treadmill, Wire are launching Change Becomes Us with DRILL:LONDON, a series of events spanning four nights and three clubs (playing off Wire’s “Drill” motif dating to 1986) featuring Simms’ band It Hugs Back, Malka Spigel, Klara Lewis (Graham’s spouse), and of course Wire performing Change Becomes Us with an encore rendition of Pink Flag by the “Pink Flag Guitar Orchestra” – essentially a gang of noisemongering friends. Although those of us stateside probably shouldn’t hold our breath for a reprise, Newman jokes, “I think DRILL:DAYTON, OHIO is unlikely but I can imagine it working in some larger cities here.”

Even after the 13 tracks of Change Becomes Us there remain several unreleased tracks from various bootlegs, nearly all from that same 1978-80 window. Which begs the question, just what kind of a hot streak were the four gentlemen of Wire on back then? Again, Newman’s not biting on the “golden era” angle. “I think we’ve now had the best from that period, to be honest. Being prolific is not the entire story. There could be as much entirely new material now but that would require not having to deal with anything other than being creative. You won’t find me more than just a bit saddened by this. The work I do as pinkflag and in general coordination of the project of Wire has enabled the band to be financially solvent – although by no means rich – and independent. The latter is hugely important. In the ’70s we lived on peanuts and large corporations owned everything we did. Now pinkflag has a growing catalogue and Wire is completely free to do whatever it wants.”

Photo by Adam Scott.