Wire has demonstrated something remarkable in the 32 years of intermittent existence following their debut Pink Flag. Though complete individuals with varying tastes and personalities, they’ve managed to remain relatively consistent in membership and carry on with their legacy of innovation. Graham Lewis speaks now about process, decision-making, and creative obsession. This interview by Katie Byron.
You’ve been in this band for over thirty years, so you’ve probably answered every question.
Graham Lewis (bass/vocals): I don’t think that’s actually true. I think it’s quite peculiar. It tends to go in cycles, doesn’t it? There are certain subjects that are touched upon at certain times—within the time frame of what you’re doing at that time. What tends to happen is a generalized myth develops. Perhaps someone says something at the time and then it gets set in concrete. It is funny.
Well, that’s comforting. So we know you live in Sweden currently. How do you feel about Sweden functioning as some sort of utopian model—I’m thinking of all the great benefits citizens get from living there.
God, it certainly helps. The Swedes have the good sense to put into practice democratic socialism. They were able to do this based on the money amassed during the Second World War. What they did was apply that and try to make a society that was more even, really. Consequently when you do look around Sweden, you can actually see that investment in their health—in their teeth and in their education. And of course to realize that, people have to pay tax. They pay a proportionally higher tax than anywhere else. But the people are happy with that if they believe they’re getting value for that and that value is to support those who are less fortunate—those who are less healthy. They see that that makes for better citizens and for better society. I like it for many reasons. It’s also a more equal country with regards to men and women—which I find essential—so that you have a better background of feminism in the country, which needs to be there until things are more equal. Through consequence of that you also have a great interest in the upbringing of children, which is absolutely essential because that is your commodity. That’s your future.
It really brings us hope when we can see a model where it is working out.
It’s very interesting with this crisis going on at the moment with the bailout the Federal Reserve is suggesting. I know it hasn’t been confirmed yet. But even that is based on the Swedish model. When the Swedes had their terrible financial crisis, they bought out the debts of the banks and reliquified the market and made money out of it in the end.
Alright—so recent political issues out of the way! Since you’re the main lyricist behind Wire, do you get tired of having to explain the songs?
I’m perfectly willing to stand for what I’ve written.
It seems the songwriting itself makes for good stories.
What often happens is that one gets accused of being opaque and obscure. The dreaded word ‘surrealist’ tends to come up quite often with regards to my writing. When in actual fact, I try to observe things pretty closely. When you do that, things inevitably become stranger than if you just observe them in a very generally sort of sketchy way. It depends which song it is. Some songs are absolute nonsense. But I think nonsense can be very good as well. It’s good if you can provide another layer of ambiguity so as the listener can have their interpretation as well instead of smashing them over the head with something terribly obvious.
I love the writing method where you set up guidelines and systems to break them. The story behind ‘106 Beats That’ is a more interesting story than just an explanation of the meaning behind the lyrics.
In any form of the arts, I have great respect for process because it’s the process that’s really interesting. And the fruits of that process. And after going through that process it becomes something else because you go into the area of marketing and all that other stuff. The art is really about process. My daughter’s just been watching this new David Lynch DVD. Lynch talks about that a lot. That’s what it’s about. It’s about thinking and trying to produce new metaphors, really.
As part of the refusal to stick to rules and obey cycles, do you have any trouble with playing live and having to perform these songs again and again?
We always had a built-in way of dealing with that. Quite often there are pieces that reveal new meanings if they do have deeper meanings. We’re playing live at the moment and what we have to do is come up with an analog for new material. You’re not trying to emulate what is on the record, or at least we’ve never tried to do that. Because the studio experience and the studio sonics are a different way of sculpting the song than when you’re doing it live, which has a greater physical presence. You approach that material in that way. You’ve had the writing process and the recording process where things always change, and then you come out of the other end and you’re looking for an analog for what it is that you’ve done. And then hopefully you come up with a convincing sonic picture for the live performance. And what tends to go with that is taking old material or very old material and having it stand up to a contemporary treatment, so you get a re-reading of the material. You get a re-energization and a reinterpretation of it.
Is there a specific song where you’ve noticed this?
‘Boiling Boy.’ We’ve been playing that live and that’s transformed. It’s not something that has been buried for a long time. But it’s really changed. It has a lot to do with our attitudes to what we’re playing and how we’re playing the new things. Combine that with the fact that we’re playing with a different guitar player. We have Margaret Fiedler playing guitar instead of Bruce Gilbert. So there’s another swerve there. Inevitably there’s a change in emphasis.
For a band that’s been around for 32 years, it’s really incredible that the line up has stayed so consistent.
That’s something that wasn’t even in question until 2004 when Bruce resigned. He just didn’t want to do it anymore. And he didn’t really care to explain why either. What we did is we got on with the material and we got on with the recording and we made the records and they sounded fine to us.
Did your songwriting method change then?
I think it always changes. There are certain aspects to it that are consistent. One of which is that I always carry a notebook. Always. And I write down anything that I come across of interest—what I hear or what I’ve read.
You do get a sense of an inspired self in your lyrics. Maybe we can tell you’re carrying a notebook. It doesn’t seem like this stuff just comes from out of nowhere.
Well, sometimes it does! On another level, I wish I had a lot more dreams where the work actually writes itself. I’m ready to take inspiration anywhere, really. Wherever it comes from.
What’s the first song you wrote for Wire?
Was the first line of ‘Lowdown’ the first line written?
I think it was the first line. That’s something else that I think is interesting. You know, when you’re writing text, one can often produce the punchline. When you’ve got the punchline, you can build the rest. That’s great. Otherwise you find yourself searching for the punchline if there’s going to be one. ‘Lowdown’ is pretty straightforward. It’s quite peculiar because in a way it’s a song about process and it’s very much about being creative and projecting ideas ahead of you. Saying it’s prophetic is a little strong, but that’s what we try to do. It’s definitely what we’re conscious of. That’s our attitude. To try and change and move along. Keep changing.
In a way, that really did set the tone for the next thirty years then.
In a sense. 32 years later, I’m pleased with its relevance. It does sum up a lot of the attitude the three of us that went to art college had. We were very specific about the things we liked and we’d move along on the things we didn’t like
You’re still working on visual art projects and installation. Is visual art is still important to you?
I try and do as much relevant stuff and am as flexible as possible, really. It’s still the thing about trying to find the right medium for ideas, and some areas are easier to get into than others. But the visual aspect of work is still very important to me. I still practice. I don’t make a living out of it but that doesn’t really bother me as long as I can pay the rent otherwise. It’s fantastic when one does get opportunities. I was involved with collaboration here in Sweden. We had a huge video installation with surround sound a couple years ago. Those opportunities do not come that often.
What’s your link between the audio and the visual?
A lot of the time, I write words and the words try to describe the visual, and then from that one gets to another area. If I can’t see it in my mind, I can’t make it. It’s very visually based for me.
So what about your work as a fashion designer? How did this work into your artistic goals?
I ended up doing a degree in fashion because it was the department that had the best tutors who could get me the best deal. If I did the course work, I could do whatever I wanted. I got into college doing other things but I resented what I thought were petty restrictions. At the time it was so long ago. In the early ‘70s there was no such thing as media, and coming from pop it was art. I found that the pictures I might have painted if I felt that I could paint—I was too young to have anything to paint, but those images translated pretty well into what I developed which was the very large t-shirt which was ideal for making large images. As it happened it fell together. It went well. I got an introduction to a world of photography and High Street. I was very interested in mass production. How to make one and then many. Turned out that the fashion department was a great place to be. We had great teachers. Brian Harris. Brian did the beautiful calligraphy for the inner sleeve of 154. He was somebody who worked in lots of different media. He didn’t get hung up on one. And when you have mentors like that, you can’t go wrong. He’d say it doesn’t matter what you do unless you do it fucking well. It’s a 24/7 activity and not a hobby. These links were starting to happen. They first manifest in the early Roxy music where you actually had collaboration between design, music and imagination where everything is integrated. And noise of course.
How confident were you in decisions you had to make in the beginning of the band?
With regards to career, absolutely hopeless. We made some stunning mistakes. And we were helped at times by a couple of managers who we might have hoped for more from. We were a group of individuals but on top of that you have three people who are creative and writing. We always had an incredible amount of intentions. That was what it was about. At times we were unmanageable, but at other times we could have really used the support that was lacking. We were on the edge of sizable success on a couple of different occasions and we managed to walk away from it each time.
Let’s use ‘Pink Flag’ as an example.
I had a dream. I wrote the text. I gave it to Colin who wrote the music. Then we brought it in to rehearsal and Wire-ized it and played it. And it became an extremely important piece. When we got to the situation where we had enough material for an LP, we were asked initially if we wanted to make a few singles and that wasn’t what we were interested in. We wanted to make this piece. This body of work. And obviously when that process became real, we put our thoughts into the graphics. We got into the graphic zone. Bruce and I came up with an identical sketch. After that it was finding the site and having the image executed.
Anything almost not make that record?
We had written a lot more material and there were a few songs that had been written which appeared on Chairs Missing. It was due to the good shepherding of [producer] Mike Thorne who went through all the tracks and said, ‘Hey, look—I don’t think anyone’s ever done this before. You’re going to have an LP with 21 songs on it.’ You have to understand that we didn’t know anything about recording. We thought they were all the right length. What was important was to put together a coherent body of work. There were things that we thought were so great but we were told that they would be great in a little while.
So what happened when you were pushed towards creating an extended version of ‘Outdoor Miner’ on Chairs Missing?
Let’s put it this way—it wasn’t one of the most comfortable decisions ever made. Bruce was actually incandescent about it. I felt pragmatic about it. I felt it was pretty good the way it was. Mike Thorne’s argument was, ‘If I put this in, it’s going to stand a greater chance.’ And I wanted all of the material to be seen. I think the worst decision made that wasn’t our idea was to put it on this horrible white vinyl, which sounded like shit. That was far worse than the piano solo.
Was there any other song where you were pushed for an extended length?
No that was the only time where there was that issue. We weren’t easily pushed about.
Is there any time when the four of you had a creative link? Were you ever crazy about the same musician, book or artist at the same time?
That’s a difficult one to answer. I would say…probably never. The drummer doesn’t listen to a lot of music. Obviously Bruce and I did a lot of work after Wire and in between Wire simply because we had similar interests and similar artist friends. We had a common currency. In the beginning we had a shared sense of the music coming out of New York in 1975 and 1976 like Jonathan Richman and Patti Smith. That is the time where there was something very consistent. After that, what has always been the case is that there’s a great sense of what is contemporary and that it doesn’t necessarily have to be in the same medium. That’s a strength. It means that people are bringing different things to the table. But I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the longest hiatus 1990 to 2000 was when we hadn’t played guitar in ten years because we had all been making electronic music cause that’s where we were all at. To that list I should add the early solo records Eno made. They were important.
What is it about the idea of pattern recognition and memory that seems to run through all of your work?
I find it essential to living. That’s all there is, really. I had a lot of conversations with a psychiatrist friend of mine. Basically—what have you got? All you have is your narrative and your narrative is your ability to recognize pattern and shapes and forms and numbers and colors. It’s there, isn’t it? All the time. Inescapable.
It’s comforting to realize you work towards a common theme. You can feel proud of a constant idea that haunts you.
There are themes and interests you have, and one can get obsessed with those. You are trying to find another media or another way of more successfully failing in trying to describe it.
So what’s the Echoplex like?
It’s a fairly large venue. Pretty good sound too. They do a really good dub night there every week.
Oh terrific! That’s something we’re all into at the moment. Three or four months ago we were rehearsing before going on the road in Belgium and I shot out and came back with a collection of King Tubby from 1972. You listen to this record and it’s so clear and so transparent. That’s the quality that’s so great. Very inspiring. If they have a good dub night, it sounds like a good place.