April 16th, 2011 | Interviews

Illustration by Joe McGarry

Wire did a million things by taking guitar-bass-drums music as close to the minimum as they could and then rebuilding it according to rules of their very own. Their newest Red Barked Tree can stand resolutely beside their classic first three LPs and they will be performing on Saturday at Coachella. Singer Colin Newman speaks now from an Italian hotel. This interview by Chris Ziegler.

You said once that you only ever received two pieces of advice about music and that they were both horrible. Somebody told you that you’d never make it playing your own material and somebody else told you never to go to America because it would destroy your band. Has anyone ever told you anything about Wire that turned out to be true?
Colin Newman (vocals): Oh…blimey. I remember that first thing because that was before I was ever in a band and I was horrified at the idea of only being in a cover band. The second was actually given by Arthur Brown. He had The Crazy World of Arthur Brown in the ‘60s. He told me on the first American tour the band broke up because some of them found drugs and some of them found girls and probably the other ones found religion or something. It sounded all quite totally crazy to me.
The first time you came to America, did you find it to be the land of religious and sexual temptation as Arthur Brown had warned you?
Absolutely not. The very first time I came to America we had a famous tour of one city. In fact, one club: CBGB’s in the summer of 1978. We had a residency for, I think, four or five nights, something like that. It was the strangest thing. We stayed in a Holiday Inn and we’d play two shows some nights. That was back in the days when people would engage you in conversation to hear your lovely English accent. The world is so different now. As a British person going in, you have all these ideas about what America’s going to be like.
What are those ideas?
Like you could have 24-hour television and that it’s all fantastic. There was 24-hour television but none of it was fantastic.
You’ve said you were monitoring things and predicting trends and that it seemed that on the horizon a very Wire-y time was approaching, and that was one of the reasons you wanted to reactivate Wire. What sorts of things have happened on planet Earth to make this an appropriate climate for Wire to exist?
What’s really important and very good with this album and this current phase is the fact that there are other bands of that generation that have come around and done the comeback thing and everybody looked at it and thought, ‘Yeah, that was quite nice. Well, what else have they got?’ Well, they don’t really have anything else. They aren’t really a band. They’re just doing it because someone said, ‘Well, if you do this, you can get quite well-paid for it.’ And I’m not being super-cynical because someone who’s never really made any money out of anything deserves to get it. But because Wire never really went away in that way, we’ve never really done the comeback. Suddenly people are thinking, ‘Now, hang on, that lot is really good and they never really stopped being what they are.’ It’s almost like if you keep doing something long enough eventually you’re going to get recognized for it. We have things in Britain that we’ve never had, just in terms of the level of exposure.
You’ve said there are two kinds of people who make music. On the one hand you have traditionalists and for them, preserving a tradition is more important than whatever trend is going on. The other kind is people who relate more to the general context of creativity—they just want to do what they do and don’t care about ‘authenticity.’ Where do your own sympathies lie?
I’m not really a traditionalist, I don’t think, personally. I think Wire as a band and me as an artist are kind of anti-traditionalist. It doesn’t belong to a long tradition. It just is what it is in itself. So it has to relate more to the creative moment. Every artist hopes—and this could be pure arrogance—that you’re somehow plugged into the moment, the zeitgeist…that you’re doing something that makes sense. Just saying it isn’t proof that you are it but that’s what one hopes for.
Bruce said he thought orthodoxy had settled into punk by the end of 1977. Do you feel that’s true? If so, what was it like before that?
There was no world without orthodoxy before. It was just different orthodoxies. What he meant was that punk had become orthodox by the end of 1977. Every genre becomes its own means of strangulation. The most important people in genre music are the people who create it and the people who escape it. The rest are sort of the lumpen ones who are just going along because they’re with it this week.
Which do you feel closer to: the creator or the escaper?
Probably an escaper.
You’d rather be remembered as an escape artist than an innovator?
It’s not about innovation. You’re going to get put into genres whatever you do, so finding your way out is a different kind of innovation. I certainly wouldn’t make any claim to having created a genre. Creating a genre is a very specific thing and it’s very scene oriented. It’s people who take the energy from the genre who then escape it. That’s exactly what Wire is in relationship to punk. It’s not escaping “to.” You just know that there’s somewhere else to be and it becomes almost entirely a matter of gut instinct, I would say.
Is that something you can hone? Or do you just need a certain kind of gut?
I don’t know if you can hone it. When it comes to pure creativity, I always feel like I’m an evil genius or an idiot. Probably both. I think that people who create should be more in contact with their gut in terms of what they feel they ought to do and if they don’t feel anything, I don’t know what to say. But you need your brain. You need your brain after, not before. You need your brain to figure out what you did and whether it was any good. You don’t need your brain beforehand to decide what to do. You just do what you feel like.
How does formal education fits in? Does that privilege the head over the gut?
I don’t know because I’ve never had formal education in music. I’ve had formal education in art but I was a complete failure as an art student. I think formal education is useful for brain training but it feels to me that creativity comes from an entirely different place than from where the thinking about it comes from. I guess the only thing I can say is to try and get them in the right order. That’s more of an American problem than it is a British problem: the idea that people think they need to know how to play before they can do anything. Whereas I don’t think that British people have ever really worried about that too much. Sometimes they don’t have to. It’s almost pure innocence. You sort of pick it up as you go along. Virtuosity really doesn’t help apart from being able to play other people’s music. If you’re playing your own music, virtuosity is neither a help nor a hindrance. Well, probably a hindrance because you’re just going to play everything you know. You’re being a cover band.
You said once that in terms of general artistic development, you felt that America lags behind the U.K. Even though American artists may sort of start new trends, it’s the British who will pick it up and run with it.
I don’t think that America lags behind. The Brits are very good at selling American culture back to Americans. I mean, look at the Beatles and everything from then on. I mean, techno in the ‘90s is a great example. I mean, techno completely took off in Europe but it got decimated by grunge in North America and then had to kind of find a way back. I wouldn’t say that America doesn’t innovate. That’s rubbish. And I wouldn’t say America lags behind. I just think that sometimes things are out of phase. I think Wire is a band that doesn’t really do that. There’s a lot of formality to rock that we just don’t use—specifically the American forms.
What American forms?
It’s like—what’s the difference between the Ramones and Wire? And with Wire, it’s probably less chords.
And less leather.
Yes, less leather. The Ramones were reductive but they didn’t really throw away the rock ‘n’ roll thing. Whereas Wire quite happily would throw that away because it didn’t mean as much.
You said that Wire has always responded to new things—what are you drawing meaning from in 2011?
One of the great things about the album is the reinvention of a mode of working and that is basically the result of hip-hop. Hip-hop has been so powerful in music production. And I say “hip-hop” in terms of methodology and I think anyone who makes music understands that very well. The whole basic tenet of hip-hop is that you take a bunch of different things that don’t really belong together and you shove them together. That’s been refined and refined and refined over a number of years until basically a large percentage of music is made by assemblage. You can make rock music that way just as you could make any kind of music that way. It doesn’t necessarily have to come from different sources. It can come from playing in the same band.
What hip-hop producers have you found inspiring?
Well, you’d have to go back to really the beginning, like the first time I heard—I’m slightly drunk so I don’t remember any of those names. Stuff like De La Soul. Things that were just obviously made out of bits of other people’s records. In the mid ‘80s that was just really refreshing because you couldn’t stand in a room and play that. It had to be created by that method and that methodology led to all the sort of break-based music. Drum and bass came out of that in terms of methodology but it added a level of speed, so it was not only the things themselves off the records that you couldn’t actually reproduce but they were also edited at a speed that humans couldn’t play either. So that was a totally brilliant idea. I liked all that as ideas. It was fantastic. You know the first time I heard “Time Stretch” by Roni Size it completely blew me away. So that kind of stuff. But there becomes a point where that becomes so assimilated into the general culture that it’s just stuff, you know, and you have to figure out how to be fresh again.
You said you aren’t a musical generalist because if you listen to everything you lose artistic perspective. Now that the Internet has made everything available to everyone all the time, is all perspective gone?
What I’m saying is that it is very difficult. I’m absolutely terrible. I can give something two seconds of my attention and decide that I’m never going to listen to it again, ever. So I’m just a musical fascist.
What makes you hit pause after two seconds?
It’s not really about genre. It’s about content, you know? Some things I just don’t like. I can’t even put my finger on it. And I like some stuff that’s completely cheesy and some stuff that’s quite kosher. I have extremely broad taste in music.
What is the most party-friendly Wire song? Like for kicking back with a girl?
No idea. Why, are you trying to make it with somebody?
Like if you want to have people over—throw on some Wire records.
Well, I don’t know. But it has changed. In the ‘70s, if you had girls at a Wire show they’d usually been dragged along by their boyfriends but now we get quite a lot of girls, which is good.
Is that progress in Wire or progress in society?
I think it’s probably progress in everything, really. I think it might have something to do also with the fact that we do sometimes get girls up the front and they’re not there because they think you’re sexy but because they’re checking it out. And they’re all in bands.
Did you ever experience a bunch of girls up front checking you out because they thought you were sexy?
Certainly not—no, is the short answer to that.