[q&a] Wire's Colin Newman on one-chord shouting, being obvious (or not) and counting girls (gasp!) as fans

WIRE are often pegged as minimal, but a conversation with main-man COLIN NEWMAN tends to be anything but—meaning of course that when we featured them in this week’s issue, a lot of great interview clips were bound to hit the cutting room floor. The band’s latest, this winter’s Red Barked Tree, continues the band’s winning streak they’ve been running since 2003’s shockingly awesome Send, and their current triumphant run sees them coming to the Middle East Downstairs Sunday night, April 3rd. In this interview, Newman is in a downright spritely mood, which is a bit of a change from the slightly-prickly ‘tude I detected when I spoke to him three years ago—maybe it’s the acclaim that Red Barked Tree has been getting, or maybe he’s finally sensing that music culture is catching up with the dogged futurism rock that Wire has consistently served up for going-on four decades:

You’ve often gone to great pains to distance the music you make from the rock and roll tradition. Do you feel like your music is adherent to other traditions? Because listening to your new album, I hear a lot of, for example, nods to classic psychedelia—
Yeah, there’s a good word to use.

Are there other musical traditions you feel a part of? Is it possible to make music outside of musical tradition—and is that something that you’re even interested in?
Yeah, it’s an incredibly difficult area—I would tend to say that on the most basic level, it comes out how it comes out. But I think the thing about psychedelic music is that when you look at 60s psychedelia, what was good about it was that is that it didn’t really sound like anything that had come before. And it was a period of kind of sorting out, you know, a set of rules that had gone before on how you made music, even if those rules only lasted five minutes!

But I think that idea of something which doesn’t really belong in a tradition is really good—I mean, music of tradition, you’re basically talking about folk, or blues, which is a form of folk; that sort of music, you can’t claim to be it, you need other people to claim authenticity for you. And secondly, I don’t feel that I’m kind of person, I don’t think that Wire is that kind of band, we didn’t come from that kind of holding on to a tradition, our music didn’t come from that. And I think when I talk about rock and roll tradition—it’s something that’s more American, I think, than British.

There is a sort of history of—it’s not entirely true, but American music can be seen as more rule-based. And punk kind of blew it away it a bit, but there is still this thing that you have to prove where you come from, it has to be about something related to what somebody else did in the past. And that’s pretty much part of the game—the whole influence-listing game, let’s put together a list of influences and act as if we’ve got a big record collection kind of thing. And there’s something a bit dubious about the whole thing, because on another level, really, for me, people who produce something original, good, or interesting, they can’t really say where it came from, it just sort of happens. And I know that’s sort of a feeble thing to say, but it’s the way it is.

And with the new Wire album, it’s been very organic, just me writing songs, which is something I hadn’t done in a very long time. Writing in my most, kind of—how can I describe it?-- it’s not about the brain, like telling yourself a problem and trying to solve it. That’s a reduction thing. When you are really writing, it isn’t really about anything at all, and it’s very fast. At least for me. I kind of rediscovered the art of songwriting, as much of an art as there is. And that really involves writing a song that takes a maximum of five minutes, if it takes more than five minutes then it’s not going to get written. And I like that direct way of doing things, and the same with production as well. But the notion, that is really very obvious, but with Wire, it seems like the more sensible route is to take the song and have the band learn it and play it in the way that the band wants to, the way everyone feels it, recording it, refining that recording, and that way you have something written, something already constructed, a basic arrangement, the horizontal arrangement between the instruments. And to get from that to something that sounds really good, really well-sorted out, is the best way for Wire to work.

Yeah—I mean, this new record, and correct me if I’m wrong, came together a lot faster than prior Wire albums, right?
If you go back to the history of it, you could chart the beginning of the process of when the three of us came back together in 2006 to start making music again together, there was a ton of stuff left over when Bruce left the band. There was close to an album’s worth of music left over, and it would have been stupid to not have used it. But I really felt that after that period, the idea of just getting stuff from the archive and putting it together via some kind of assemblage—which has really been the dominant form of music production since the 80s, invented by hip-hop, obviously, you use the same methodology. But if you are using computer editing, assemblage, it’s a very obvious way to work. But what you miss is some kind of individuality that you get from people playing together. And that was what I felt was—I felt like Object 47 was a solid record—even if “solid” sounds like damning with faint praise! But one thing that everyone has to realize is that I’m in two bands, and the Githead album that followed Object 47 [2009’s Landing] was, in my opinion, totally fucking kick-ass. And there was no way that Wire could come up with an album after that that was less good—that would have been problematic on so many levels, especially to me.

And I guess that I could be accused of being, like, “Oh, you aren’t paying attention to Wire, you’re taking the thing that made you famous for granted.” And I’m very keen to that sort of thing, it’s really important to me that I treat both bands importantly, and I don’t do the perverse thing of “Oh, I have to be more into Githead because it’s less famous!” And I won’t do the obvious thing of “Oh, I’ll only do the famous thing.” Because the right way of doing it is that if you are doing it, you have to say “I love my children equally.” And the two bands require different disciplines, and each band informs each other, and the way that I can influence what needs to be done is different, it gives me a wider understanding of what it means to be in a band.

And that’s quite precious information, because most people in bands have no idea of the bigger picture about them. They just see what happens in the band, and what happens, of course, when a band get attention, especially very good attention, is that they disappear into their own world. And then you get the album about the girlfriend or the fantastic teen feeling. But what’s afterward, you know what I mean? And you see that happen with so many people. And you have to say “No, let’s not disappear into that little world” and Wire has been guilty of that in the past, disappearing into its own little world. And now is not the time to be doing that. Everything has to justify its place.

It’s interesting that you put it that way—because bands can disappear into their own little world, but often bands disappear into a world where outside people tell them what to do. And Wire certainly never did that.
Well, there’s always been a certain willfulness about the band. And we’ve got plenty of that—we don’t need any more of that! And I think that one thing that’s different about now is that there is a need for all artists to view what they do as partly a business. And I’m not saying that it has to be all business—because we’re not selling cheese here, you know. But good business practice and business ideas can apply very well to art. And one of the single most important ideas is U.S.P.

And what is that?
“Unique Selling Point”. And Wire has its own unique selling point, and one of the things that makes people interested in Wire is what it has over other people. And this is a natural understanding which is really tempered by performing, by engaging with people who are interested in what we are doing, just being aware rather than having some manager-type telling you “You need to have some kind of message,” which is usually a disaster. You know?

With the new album, there seems to be a renewed interest in songwriting itself—and I’m curious about how Wire is often pegged as “minimal”, and what your thoughts are now, decades later, about whether that tag is accurate?
Well, again, it’s a natural thing. I mean, Wire used to be a band with three minimalists, now it’s a band with two minimalists. And I think that there is something about a dislike of too much excess. And that’s not just about arrangements-- do you need fifteen of these diddly bits-- but it’s also about emotional excess. Like, for example, I can’t stand Muse. And I mean, if you listen to the cuts without the voice, there are some stunning ideas. But that guy’s singing is just so over the top and so excessive for what is needed for those bits of music. And it obviously appeals to people, but I just absolutely hate it. So there’s a sort of having to be restrained or being more... real, emotionally. I listen to that music and think “Does anybody out there really feel like that?”

I mean, to be able to understand and be part of the emotional landscape that people can explore with you, and one which feels real, that is a landscape that is not necessarily that defined. It’s not obvious whether something is good or bad, we don’t really know what’s happening next in the world or our lives, you know? I guess people who are religious are always trying to find certainty, but they’re just finding what someone tells them is certainty, they aren’t finding it. There’s a desperate need for certainty, but we don’t have it, we somehow have to learn to live, as humans, with the notion of the fact that we don’t really know that much. And even our own part in the universe is unknown, maybe it’s something that makes sense over time, we gather experience and hope that’s gonna help us, but we don’t know. And I think that’s very real, that’s how we feel in our lives, and if you can reflect that in the landscape we’re occupying, and that’s not necessarily emotionally loud, it’s not in your face, you’re not really quite sure what it is or what it means, it’s just kind of how things are.

Totally. And I feel like this trend is kind of more and more true, that people want certainty even when it doesn’t exist. In music, I feel like as everything gets more fractured and less obvious, people are more obsessed with this notion of “talent”, which kind of pops up in these tv contests and whatnot, it’s really bizarre.
I think the thing is simply this: that there’s just an awful lot of bullshit. It’s the 90%/10% rule: 90% of everything is shit, 90% of people don’t really have a clue about the topic at hand. So 90% of people don’t know anything about music, what’s good and what’s not, they need to be told. They don’t know the difference between Robbie Williams and... whatever. And the other 10%, that’s the underground, right? And things cross over and all, but that’s how I make sense of those kinds of things, personally.

I mean, something like The Xx, the way that they got so massive, is interesting. I mean, at the beginning, the people who were into it were “Oh, that’s really good for what it is”, but it somehow turned into “If you’ve got taste, you’ve got to buy this record.” And then it’s “Oh, I’m gonna look cool if I get that.” And the music kind of becomes secondary.

But I mean, the whole thing of innate talent is bullshit. I just think that all people are creatively and uniquely talented, it’s just a matter of finding out what that is. I’m good at this, but I’m absolute rubbish at most other things! It’s all part of the reality of “What does all this mean?” I mean, people who discover Wire are into it because they discovered it themselves or through their friends, and there have been several generations who have discovered us that way.

As a band that has sort-of resurrected itself, a few times, what’s your take on the whole wave of older bands reuniting?
A lot of people who have seen bands survive the generations and do the comeback thing have seen it and gone “Ehhh, well, nobody did anything bad, it’s ok, but how can it possibly be as good as it was before?” And there’s this disappointment. And then there are bands that people go “Oh, we have to see them before they die.” And then there are bands that are like “Oh, we’re gonna go around and hoover up all of the potential money in a specific market.” That’s taking a very cynical view, but then they’re like “Oh, now we don’t have to do anything else.” Or you have a band that hasn’t done much for the last few decades, a life-changing amount of money is very tempting. And everyone’s seen that sort of thing, and then they look at Wire and think “Wire don’t do that. They do this other thing.”

Yeah—you guys have never done that whole thing where you come onstage and go “Hey, here’s some 40 year old music!”
Yeah, I feel like our refusal to do that is finally giving us some decent results.

A big deal had been made about Red Barked Tree having acoustic guitar, which I guess upends the idea of you guys being all about prickly post-punk. But, and again correct me if I’m wrong here, I feel like I’ve read that you have written many of your songs on acoustic, even back in the early days, right?
Yeah—I mean, if you go back to the beginning, all the songs I wrote for Pink Flag, Chairs Missing and 154 were all written on acoustic guitar, every single one of them. And the thing you get with acoustic guitar that you don’t get with electric is rhythm. At least the way I play acoustic, I don’t do fingerpicking or any of that, It’s all rhythm, I write a rhythm, there’s a harmonic structure, and the vocals fit with that, all the stops and all that, written into the song. And it’s kind of a way of working that I’ve rediscovered, because you can get excited enough just by getting this skinny little acoustic guitar thing that gets you to the lyric, and that’s really cool and it lets out some good results.

Was your initial concept for Wire primarily rhythmic? Because I feel like if I was to explain Wire to someone who had never heard you guys, I’d differentiate what you do from other guitar bands primarily by your unusual rhythmic attitude.
Oh yeah, although it wasn’t really a thought-out concept, it was all pretty natural. Like “Three Girl Rhumba”, all those songs, those were, rhythmically, my riffs. “Lowdown”, “Reuters”, they’ve all got those rhythms inside them in terms of where the drums go, and those go great for that kind of straight-forward rhythmic bed that rock can provide, it provides a lot of space. Last year I did some work with the band Tortoise on BBC Radio 3, they get these weird collaborations in a big nice studio, I think it was Maida Vale. And basically they put us together, and I’d been to see them the night before. And I thought “Man, there’s no way that I can play their kind of stuff, I just do moronic guitar riffs!” But I got there at the big studio, where they have orchestras, and I started playing my moronic guitar riffs, and they all joined in, and it was great, and they loved it. Because they never do that, play those kinds of things. And people love doing that, people love what I do, even though it’s simple, the tiniest ideas, but people want to play with them.

Yeah, I mean, you self-disparage your guitar playing as ‘moronic’, but in the context of Wire songs, you have tons of recognizable riffs.
Yeah, stylistically recognizable, yeah. And I use “moronic” as a deliberately self-deprecating way. But you see, at the same time, I’m not a player. And I don’t really play guitar any better than I did when I was 17. I mean, If you put me in an orchestra, I’d be rubbish. I do a fair-to-middling job of doing a certain kind of rock guitar, the rest of it, I have no idea! I guess I don’t construct basic music in that way.

Do you feel like you put together Wire with the aim of constructing music this way?
Well, I didn’t put Wire together. I mean, we had that band, Overload, and I was asked to be the singer in it, and Wire grew out of the ashes of that, of that just not stopping. I don’t know why we did it, I have no idea. I had a girlfriend who kicked me out and I thought “Ok, I’ll just do music now to cure my broken heart.” I mean, I don’t know if that’s entirely true, but I definitely thought “Maybe I’ll not be chasing girls for a while, I’ll do music instead.”

It was an unlikely band to start with, and actually not very good. But something good came out of it. And I got the chance to write for it, which was great. When we asked George [Gill, original lead guitarist] to leave, there were no writers of tunes, so I just said that I could, without being entirely sure if I could or not. But I figured that I’d have a go.

It seems like a lot of people are hesitant to call themselves songwriters, even if they write songs for a living.
Oh sure, I can see that. But at the same, you’ve got that Tin Pan Alley thing, haven’t you—the guy in the little tiny room with a piano. The singer-songwriter thing. But I dunno: some of the things that I like are singer-songwriter-y, and female singer-songwriters I’ve liked quite a lot in the last few years. Women tend to be more direct with the emotional stuff, and sometimes you wonder if a guy can really be that sensitive or if that’s a bit of a put-on to fit with a market or something. I don’t really know how I feel about it, to be really honest!

Yeah, it’s just the songs on the new album are really great, and because there’s acoustic guitar on the album, I read a lot of things talking Wire being “sensitive”, and I think “Not really—this new album is pretty hard.”

The basic review is, basically “It’s not as good as Pink Flag. Right? But I’m not embarrassed about anything I’ve done in the past, and Pink Flag is a good record, but it was quite a long time ago. But at the same time, who’s interested in a new Rolling Stones album? And, I mean, The Who get paid a lot of money to do new records but don’t even bother doing new records. And so many of these bands don’t even bother, don’t even engage, because people just want to hear the classics. And we don’t do that. But at the same time, Pink Flag has a certain place within a certain kind of person’s perception of the universe, which we can’t really deny.

Do you feel like Pink Flag embodies a certain mindset embodies a certain mindset or certain attitude that doesn’t apply to Wire anymore, and hasn’t for a while?
Yeah, I mean, the classic non-Wire fan who knows Wire would say that Pink Flag is the best record, and the Wire fan would say 154 is the best record ever made.

Or Chairs Missing
Or Chairs Missing, though 154 more, and that one is of course the one that’s hated by the people who really think Pink Flag is the best thing since sliced bread. But maybe what they really want is a punk rock record. I mean, Pink Flag doesn’t escape being a punk-rock record. Well, at least 50% of it—and there’s another 50% of it that really isn’t punk rock. But it’s obvious where it’s coming from, and it’s pretty clear where it’s going as well.

One thing that you can really say about Pink Flag is that it proposes a kind of template, and if you’ve just started a band, and you’ve got two guitars, bass, drums, and you want it to be loud, you’ve got really two templates: you’ve got the rock and roll template, coming from 12-bar blues, or you’ve got, you know, one-chord shouting. If you can’t really write songs and all, you’re kind of limited beyond that-- and one-chord shouting seems like a better option at that stage. And that’s where it starts.

One thing that’s been remarkable is that girls definitely seem to use that as a template. I had a letter delivered to me while I was on tour from a 21-year old girl who said, with little pictures and flowers and everything, an American girl, how Pink Flag was everything, and what it meant to her. And you know, you can’t be cynical about that sort of thing. And I don’t want to speak in stereotypes, but Pink Flag had been revealed, over the years, to be an organic record, not an intellectual record, and it in a way appeals to girls. They get it, like “Yeah, one-chord shouting about something not obvious and complex, I get it.” Rather than, you know, the blokey kind of thing with “Yeah, there should be an extra key change and here is where you need the pyrotechnic guitar bit.” And again, I’m speaking stereotypes here, but I can feel that there is a sense of that, somehow, that this is how it is.

Yeah, that seems like almost the different between you guys and a band like The Stranglers, who are similar but totally different.
Well, I mean, they had that whole agenda, that whole macho thing, and it wasn’t very real. They were a pub-rock band who realized that they could jump on the punk bandwagon and make a bit more money, and it never felt very genuine, to me, what they did. And I never really liked what they did, apart from “Golden Brown”. And it was always much more about putting across—like a song like “No More Heroes”, just the way that it was said and done was just very very obvious. And we always tried not to be obvious.

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