The Art of Stopping (and Starting Again)
by Stephen Slaybaugh

Were Wire just another bright flash in the punk explosion of 1976, the band’s story might be simple to encapsulate in a few paragraphs. But while the band’s initial trio of albums—1977’s Pink Flag, 1978’s Chairs Missing and 1979’s 154—are rightfully considered seminal pieces in the punk canon, there is so much more to the Wire story. Indeed, even by Chairs Missing, the group of former Watford Art College students had usurped the short and sharp blasts of their debut with a more expansive approach. So when the band ceased operations in 1980, they had already moved far past punk’s narrow confines.

Only it wasn’t the end of Wire. The band reconvened five years later, taking to a new direction that didn’t exactly start from where they had left off. Albums like The Ideal Copy and A Bell Is a Cup... Until It Is Struck incorporated a greater influx of pop along with an increased interest in electronic music. The group continued to cultivate their avant garde inclinations, only now its experimentation was more technological than conceptual. After dropping the “e” in the band’s name when drummer Robert Gotobed (nee Grey) exited and releasing 1991’s The First Letter, the other members of Wire—guitarists Colin Newman and Bruce Gilbert and bassist Graham Lewis—again put the band to rest.

In 2000, Wire reconvened once more, this time to curate an evening at the Royal Festival Hall in London. Surprisingly enough, the band revisited their ‘70s material for the first time since those albums’ releases. (When Wire toured the States in the ‘80s, they hired an opening band to play Pink Flag in its entirety so they wouldn’t have to concern themselves with that period.) Subsequent releases, the Read and Burn EPs and Send, all put out under Wire’s newly anointed Pink Flag label, found the band favoring a loud and fast sound somewhat reminiscent of its punk roots. Still, Wire’s reunion had little to do with revisiting its past. As evidenced by these records, Wire was still very much redefining its approach and output.

This week sees the release of Object 47. (The title refers to the album’s place in the Wire discography when all singles, EPs and full-lengths are tallied.) It is the band’s first album without Gilbert. However, his absence is not necessarily pronounced. More than any of the band’s records, Object seems to encapsulate all the varied tacks the band has taken. From the onset of opener “One of Us,” Newman’s rough-edged guitar work butts up against ambient embellishments, and Lewis’ throbbing bass meshes with Gotobed’s mechanically precise rhythms. It is, in short, one of the finest of Wire’s many fine works. As such, it seemed the perfect time to check in with Newman.

Are there principles established when Wire started that still guide what the band does?

Colin Newman: It may sound trite, but the main principle has always been to do something original. Not some weird ‘60s space age thing, or like some guy with a beard playing a harp and singing “La la la la,” but—without being too po-faced about it—something artistic.

Viewing your music as art, how do you balance art with commerce?

CN: One of the big problems with popular music for many years and that still exists is that basically you are a boy or a girl and you have a sketch and then you have to go to a man who will give you some money to make it into a proper thing. And that as a concept is deeply flawed because that person who gives you the money gives you worse terms than any bank would ever give you. And you’re probably not going to see anything back from it. There is a possibility to do that commerce in a different way now, but unfortunately it is very skewed towards recognized brands, like all commerce is. So that works in a way for a brand called Wire because Wire is a recognized brand and can market itself. We run our own label. Everything that we’ve released since 2000 was done through the studio downstairs here. We don’t spend a lot of money going on the road. We want to be the maximum amount effective without being ridiculous about the amount of money that we spend actually doing it. Then it becomes self-defeating then.

So all those things are considered and that’s why you don’t compromise the art one iota because we’ve found the right context in which to work. We could go to any of the indie labels and the people we know that run them and ask them to put our next record out. But then we wouldn’t make anything because they would spend all the money on marketing it and everything would get absorbed. We might end up selling slightly more, but we wouldn’t see much from it. That’s a modern day reality. I wish I knew a way that I could recommend to younger bands to operate in which they didn’t have to engage the worst aspects of the industry. At the moment, I can’t say anything other than play live a lot and build up an audience and make up some 7-inches and sell them at the gigs. That’s really what you have to do. The industry itself, or the part that has any money, is only really interested in what it thinks it can sell and that’s very different from what artists want to produce and, in many ways, quite different from what people who are interested in where contemporary music is heading are interested in.

In your past dealings with record labels, has Wire ever made concessions when it comes to art?

CN: There was never any concessions. We always did exactly what we liked. We always had songs that we intended to be more populist than others. We’re not like hard-nosed noise-niks. We do what we do. It could be the most hummable tune ever, but if it’s exciting then we like it.

In many ways, it’s a bit of a false premise. I think the kind of compromise someone might make would be... I don’t know really. It all depends on where you start from. We started from a premise of this is what we do. Back in the ‘70s, when we were dealing with EMI, the guy who signed us was the same guy who signed the Pink Floyd, and they didn’t understand the Pink Floyd. There was a general feeling like, “Well, this band, we don’t understand them, but they could turn out like the Pink Floyd so we won’t say anything.” The culture changed around 1979/1980, where they thought they knew what they were selling and they decided what they would rather have was Duran Duran, which was fine by us.

When we were on Mute in the ‘80s, we had such a cache. Those people—Daniel Miller, Ivo Watts-Russell, Jeff Travis, that generation of label bosses—were all huge Wire fans. We could have gone to any of them and said “Just open up the safe and give us all the money.” We had a sort of carte blanche that to an extent, I think, didn’t do us any good. There was little real ability to deal with what working with a large independent label exposes you to, which is much more the fiscal aspects of the business. With EMI, they basically just gave us an advance every time we put a record out. We never made any money, we just got the advance and tour support. There was the potential with Mute to make real money, but the general conscious of the band was much more about getting an advance. That’s changed really radically now, partially just because I started to run a label (Swim) in the early ‘90s and became aware of how it works. So it seemed to me, when we came back around to doing it this decade, that it would make more sense to do it along the lines of an indie label instead of going to someone and getting them to give us a load of money.

What were the reasons for the times that Wire was put on the shelf? Did you always know that you would reconvene?

CN: No and I don’t know, in reverse order. There’s many ways of looking at that. On one level, you could say that it’s good to work awhile and then stop awhile because that’s good for your artistic soul. On the other side, there were personal reasons and there was always two pulling in different directions. We were not always the best advised in terms of what our strategy should be—there wasn’t much in the way of a strategy in the ‘70s. All that lead to an inevitability of things not working out in the smartest way. We have a reputation of being super smart, and I don’t think we’re that smart. There have been times when Wire hasn’t done the most intelligent thing. But I don’t think there’s ever been a time when I thought that Wire would never happen again. It’s one of those Wire expressions, “Never say never.”

You’ve said that you started making fast music again because it was “culturally appropriate.” Has each incarnation of Wire been dictated by what was “culturally appropriate?”

CN: You must think I’m an ass for using phrases like that! It seems that the Send era stuff—it is garage rock. “In the Art of Stopping” is one big guitar, drums and vocal. It’s done differently to how other bands have done that, but the aesthetic is garage rock. In the mid-90s here, drum ‘n’ bass was incredibly dominant. It was really the only music that existed and then in the latter part of the ‘90s it started to eat itself and got into this dark style that was kind of rock. And then suddenly post-rock was everywhere. And it was like, “Yeah, rock. I had forgotten about rock.” And post-rock gave way to rock and then there was punk rock! And it was quite exciting. I don’t think you could call Melt Banana “punk rock,” but they played fast and there was, as you doubtless know, a bunch of bands in Brooklyn who were playing hard and fast. So around the millennial cusp it became exciting to be doing fast rock. Then it stopped being exciting and it become something else, something indie, with bands sounding like the Gang of Four and the Smiths. Then there were lots and lots of groups that are really, really young and who just sound like every other group you’ve ever heard in your life and that appeal to fans their age. My son, who’s 19, said that as far as he’s concerned, if you’re in an indie band the only reason is to get off with posh girls.

This latest incarnation of Wire, I think people view it as being more analogous to those first three records...

CN: Well, which one? Do you think Object 47 is?

Actually, I almost feel that Object 47 is Wire 4.

CN: There has been an interruption in the period. We haven’t really made a decision if we’re into Wire 4 or is it just Wire 3.2. Is it an incremental update or is it a full software revision? We haven’t changed the source code. In a way, it’s almost meaningless—it’s Wire. This past year, I saw Tuxedomoon. They played in London at a sort of jazz festival. I don’t think I’ve ever seen them live before; they’re not something I’ve followed intimately. They’re from from the mid to late ‘70s and were involved in the San Francisco art scene. Their first album is generally considered a classic. What was amazing about them was that I realized what an older band can do because they play with such great dignity. It crystalized something for me. When we stand on stage, we’re just being Wire. Of course you have to make a proper job of it, but you don’t have to try. You don’t have to over-conceptualize it, and say “Now we’re doing the such-and-such tour.” It’s really become irrelevant. When I look in the audience, I see 80% of the audience is under 30 and a large amount of those people just know the first three albums and a bit of the newer stuff. How people contextualize it with the first three albums is always going to be an issue. In a way, what we did in the ‘80s was deliberate negation because we wanted to follow a different path. It would have been very dangerous for us to be too over preoccupied with what he had done in the ‘70s because the dominant aesthetic in music had really changed. The much lauded post-punk that’s on everyone’s lips now was a phrase that wasn’t even invented at that point. Anything with “punk” in it was fundamentally dirty. No one was interested in anything that had anything to do with punk rock. The ‘80s were all about machines, about clean, big hair, big shoulder-pads, big snare drums. It had its own aesthetic. Even if you’re theoretically supposed to be dealing with timelessness, you live in a culture and you’re part of it. You can’t ignore what’s going on around you. We’re not blues men. We’re not folk musicians just come from the Appalachians playing songs that have been handed down for over 15 generations. It’s not what we come from. So therefore, if you don’t come from a tradition, you come from now and you have to always be coming from now and your work has to somehow relate. And it does willy-nilly whether you want it to or not because that’s the kind of beast it is.

That’s actually exactly what I wanted to get at—how you viewed that period—because you’re talking to someone who came to the band through An Ideal Copy and A Bell Is a Cup. “Four Long Years” reminds me of A Bell Is A Cup.

CN: Yeah, you’re not the first person to say it. But “Four Long Years” is smoother. If you listen to the production, they’re worlds apart. The problem with A Bell Is a Cup, and what for me makes a lot of stuff from the ‘80s unlistenable, is that the snare drum is too loud and there’s too much reverb. In a way, I think one of the reasons people still like the ‘70s stuff is because there’s none of that obvious production. The ‘80s was very much about newness; everything had to be new. You could have the snare drum loud so you had it loud.

You touched on this a little bit, but do you find that you are more open to incorporating all the varied aspects of Wire’s sound these days? In the past, it seems like you’ve focused on one or two ideas for a record.

CN: The idea with Object 47 was to make something much less tightly focused than Send. Send was of a particular moment in time, and there’s a lot of stuff from around that period that we don’t necessarily celebrate. Part of the approach of Object 47 was to bring a wider aesthetic and a bigger sound palette. I suppose if you want to use a Wire-type shorthand, more 154 than Pink Flag.

When we started looking at this album in November 2006, there was a pile of stuff. Graham came over here (from Sweden) and we sorted through everything that was on the hard drive and put it into A, B and C categories. We discovered there was quite a bit in the A category. Object 47 is more in the direction of the aesthetic I’m interested in anyway. One of the things about Send was to make something brutal because maybe that’s a way of making up for this not being an expensive studio. After that, though, I started thinking that I could do recordings that could compete with anything from anywhere. One of the things on this record was just to record drums in a nice room. There’s no reverb or natural ambiance on Send at all, and there’s plenty of natural ambiance on this record. And we don’t have to prove anymore that we’re not too old and we can still get it up, as it were. We just want, this is going to sound sort of stupid, “We just want to do what we want to do, man.”

I think people view rock music as a young man’s game. Does viewing it as art negate that notion?

CN: Oh, I don’t know. That’s a very difficult area. Like I said, there’s a lot of bands in Britain made up of people 17 to 19 in age. It’s not just like you’re competing with people who are in their twenties who are aspirational. Now it’s kids and their motivation is very different. What we do is art and it’s always been art, but you can’t deny that it is rock music. Down that path lies a point where you just start talking nonsense. It is rock music as well as art. It’s all part and parcel the same thing. We seem to get away with it.

So what happened with Bruce?

CN: In mid-2004, he announced that he was leaving, which was pretty much a surprise, and we never got an explanation. In 2003 and 2004, a lot of things had become very difficult. I think much of the blame can be put at the feet of our ex-manager, who was very manipulative. He exploited the fact that he haven’t always gotten on with each other for his own ends, and Bruce partially fell off the end of that. But it’s hard to tell because he never really told us why. We’ve, obviously, offered him opportunities to jump back on the bus when it seemed appropriate, but he doesn’t seem to want to do it. He doesn’t like playing live, that’s for sure. And I have to say, without sounding churlish, that he doesn’t think he’s in a rock band. He doesn’t consider being in a rock band something that he does, and that’s why I say that there’s a point where you start to say stuff like that and the majority of people just won’t know what you’re talking about. How can you say that you’re not in a rock band when you’re in Wire? But he does things for reasons that over the years I’ve struggled to understand. Sometimes his moods are brilliant and sometimes they’re very ill-considered. I’ve heard—I haven’t spoken to him—that he’s happy. It’s what he wants to do.

So we had to make a decision in 2006, when we started talking about this again, what if Bruce doesn’t want to do it? So we just decided that Wire deserves that we continue. It would be stupid to stop because someone says they don’t want to do it, even if it’s always been basically the same people. And in a way it gave us a lot of freedom. Sonically, there’s a big difference between Send and Object 47. Send is full of enormous Bruce guitar parts. I encouraged him to do that: build layer and layer of enormous guitar parts. But there wasn’t much room for anything else aside from drums and voice, certainly no room for bass in there. And depending on the track, not much room for me to play guitar either. We had to reconfigure, and taking that very dominant guitar out gave us a space to start with bass drum and build up. So you’ve got bass with bass lines and guitars that cut across the rhythm and the bass. It’s a much less claustrophobic record. I must say, though, that there had never been a Wire record before Send on which Bruce’s guitar was so dominant.

It’s one of those peculiar things that a lot of what is considered the classic Wire guitar parts are my parts and not his parts. He’s a genius guitarist, but not for some of the things he’s been credited with. When we took a guitarist to play live with us, Margaret Fiedler who used to be in Laika, we asked her to learn some songs. She learned all these guitar parts, but they were all my parts. There was a great quote in the ‘80s that said you never quite know what Bruce is playing, but you notice it when he stops. He can be wonderfully obscure. It is much more about sonics and texture than it is about parts, per say, with him. It is a different band without him, but I don’t think it’s a lesser band. I don’t think it’s any less Wire.

Did you consider dropping a letter?

CN: Nah, we did that once. To be honest with you, it was a Bruce idea. It was a good artistic statement as long as we weren’t going to make a serious continuation with it. But it’s our brand and it would be incredibly stupid of us to, first, just repeat the same idea, but secondly it would devalue what we’re doing. It is Wire.

When you came back, you viewed playing the old material as something novel for Wire. Are you still playing the old material now?

CN: I don’t want to give it all away since we’re going to be touring North America in October. Maybe the set we’ll be doing will be different than the one now, but I bet if you do some judicious Googling you’ll be able to find a set list. Shall we say, we present Wire and you can draw your own conclusion.