Legendary British band, Wire. Photo: Adam Scott
Wire is that legendary British band known for musical schizophrenia. After a period of intense creativity in the late ’70s that brought about a classic post-punk record trilogy (Pink Flag, 154 and Chairs Missing), the band dissolved and came back together mid-80s, and again in full force in the mid-00s. With their new album, Change Becomes Us, the band revisits unrecorded material from the late-’70s, and reworks it into something new and exciting. I spoke with members Colin Newman, Graham Lewis and Matthew Simms about the new album, debunking oddball political accusations and playing Pitchfork Music Festival for the first time.
SLUG: Songs on the new album [Change Becomes Us] were initially written in 1979-80. What was the impulse like to revisit the band’s first iteration? Has the distance from that era revealed anything new or interesting, and how did you approach the process?
Newman: It’s partly true, that first statement. They have their foundations in that period to varying degrees––some have very little foundation in that period. As an idea, we had to engage with the notion that there was this material around. It’s always fit within the lore or the history of the band that there was an album’s worth of material that was not recorded after 154. The band was in an interesting space creatively and an absolutely awful state personally––it just dissolved for reasons that are too complicated to go into now. There was little or no interest in that material in the ’80s when we came back around again, or really any subsequent time, but we arrived at a point in 2011 because we added Matt [Simms] to the band (he’s the one holding the microphone by the way), where we had developed really well as a live band playing a set based on Red Barked Tree material. We just felt that this could be a chance to push the envelope of the band a little bit and try something. There was one particular piece, “Adore Your Island,” which was technically very difficult to play. There had been, in previous decades, a reductive culture in the band, just looking to play things that were pretty easy live. “Adore Your Island” is pretty challenging because it has two speeds and you have to turn on the six splits and you have to come back all together in the right place. The band has to be tight and all focused there, and the fact that we were able to execute that song signaled to me that maybe looking at some of this older material could be a really interesting challenge for us. We had a second tour in 2011 in Britain, so we had to find some new material to put in the set. We decided to take six or seven of these pieces and see if we can make any sense out of them for how we are now. Lewis: I was thinking what would be interesting is for Matt to answer the question because his perspective is really interesting––basically you’ve just heard the old stuff in bits, the historic remains. Your experience was of actually transcending that and making new things.
Simms: I would question the question, because it says that the songs on the new album were initially written in 1979-80, which I would say is disputable. The songs [on Change Becomes Us] are very different, they’re more taking the initial ideas or essence as a spark of inspiration to create something new with. Throughout the whole of the recording, to me, it wasn’t about looking back, it was about making something now and current and new.
Lewis: It was very intuitive. From the side of text/lyrics, once we’d established how the songs were going to be, a lot of the text had to be cannibalized or new text had to be written because the sketches that had been there before were no longer relevant. They all had changes.
SLUG: Were there deliberate differences or similarities from the last album [Red Barked Tree] or others previous?
Newman: In a way, Change Becomes Us is, in methodology, Red Barked Tree plus. Red Barked Tree set a certain way of doing an album. With Change Becomes Us, some of those things we actually played live––the band could do competent performances and we were able to record old-school style recordings in one day. The pieces that hadn’t been worked on we had to work out in the studio to figure out arrangements for them and record them straight away. As a principle, this works really well for us because we are a playing band. Wire is very much about the Wire sound––it’s very much around the interaction of four people playing, that’s how it’s created. It’s more representative of us to be making records in that way rather than trying to assemble something out of pieces.
Lewis: In a way, the working method for this record has something in common with the way that we worked in 1979––the band is in a similar situation––it’s a working band which has toured a lot, that had a lot of confidence and body memory, in order to respond in a very intuitive way. Not a lot of conversation was necessary––there’s an organic quality to when the band is strong.
SLUG: I read from an uncited source [Wikipedia] that Wire has a Situationist political stance. What’s the place of politics in your music?
Newman: Some idiot put that on Wikipedia. We’ve never had a philosophy of any kind in the band apart from change. We’re not the Gang of Four, we’re not siting around discussing a Marxist dialectic. I deleted that from Wikipedia more than once and obviously someone keeps putting it back. It has nothing to do with us, it has everything to do with the person who keeps putting it up there.
Lewis: Once this rumour came into being, then, of course, it’s very hard to get out of the situation [chuckles]. You could say that certain situations are situationalist and certain tactics and strategies are, but that’s not what we sit down to do. You could say that we’re the Zen Bingo Band as well.
SLUG: Alternative music culture seems to be changing more rapidly than it ever has. Wire manages to both welcome change as an important musical factor and hold on to its punk / post-punk roots. How do you manage the current musical environment?
Newman: We do what we do. One advantage that we have (which is an attitude one, not necessarily due to age) is it’s our generation that came up in the ’80s, where everything is a smorgasbord. People say we’re going to be this, this and this and this, and then they’ve decided it before they do it. We don’t really think like that. We’re not that much about post-punk, punk roots. I don’t do any kind of punk really. The only kind of punk Wire is not punk.
SLUG: Do you enjoy festival performances? Does Pitchfork feel any different from other festivals? Does the venue or environment affect the way you play live?
Newman: Yes. It depends on which one. Obviously Pitchfork is going to be amazing. We’ve all been told great things about Pitchfork. We’ve had some very interesting festival experiences––Primavera, Sled Island, Traffic Festival in Turin. Benicassim in the ’80s.
Lewis: You obviously play different––it can be very hit and miss because you only get a line check.
SLUG: Who are you interested in seeing at the festival?
Simms: I’m looking forward to seeing Björk as well. I’m looking forward to the Record Fair––apparently the labels set up their own stores.
Lewis: I’ve seen Björk before, singing with Antony [Johnson]. I’m looking forward to seeing Pissed Jeans as well. And Pancake Mountain, obviously.
Wire will be playing the Pitchfork Music Festival in Chicago, Ill. this Friday, July 19. Watch for more SLUG coverage of the festival here at slugmag.com. For more information on Wire, to pick up their new album or find out when they play near you, head to their website. More on the Pitchfork Music Festival can be found here.