Across the Wire: An Interview with Colin Newman and Graham Lewis

Over three decades ago, the legendary art-punk band Wire released their debut album Pink Flag. Today, it’s seen as the first of three essential records from the band—the others being Chairs Missing (1978) and 154 (1979). By the mid-90s, the band once consisting of frontman Colin Newman, bassist Graham Lewis, drummer Robert Grey and guitarist Bruce Gilbert had broken up, pursued solo projects and reunited, only to break up again. Eventually, they faded into obscurity. Their music, however, left a mark inspiring a whole new generation of bands like Big Black, The Minutemen, Minor Threat and even R.E.M. Wire have managed to remain strangely compelling throughout their long and unpredictable career. In 1999 the band reformed for good—and with a vengeance, I might add. They’ve continued to release critically acclaimed records like 2003’s viciously sonic Send and the avant-pop Object 47 in 2008. Three of the original four members (sans Bruce) are about to release their tenth album: Red Barked Tree.

SLUG: What would you say was the biggest challenge while recording Red Barked Tree?
Colin Newman: I was really thrown into stark contrast by the last Wire album. There’s a track called “One of Us,” which is a stomping good song. It’s got the best drums, a great guitar riff, a thumping bass line and a soaring vocal—none of which were done at the same time. It was put together out of bits, like the idea of hip hop … Taking bits of music that didn’t really fit together and kind of jamming them all into one.
Graham Lewis: For us, it’s always a case of coming up with the process that’s appropriate for where we are at the time. The process remained fairly close to the original idea. One of the things that we decided to do, which sounds remarkably simple and conventional, was to write a bunch of good songs before we actually went into the studio.

SLUG: My favorite track is “Bad Worn Thing.” To me, it has some pop qualities with a catchy hook and sing-along chorus. Can you tell me more about this song?
Lewis: It was something that I formed the arrangement for and brought to the studio. We put down the track and basically removed as much information as possible. It’s a piece, in this case, about subtraction, really.

: Something else I noticed while listening to the new record is that it seems to have a few more delicate, quiet moments than previous albums. In particular the tracks “Adapt,” “Down To This,” and the title track “Red Barked Tree.” Was this your intention from the beginning?
Newman: It comes in all flavors, basically. The band interfaces with material, and it goes in whichever direction it goes in. I thought when I originally wrote “Down To This” it was going to be heavy. It ended up being based around the acoustic guitar. It’s inescapable. They are hymns.

SLUG: Considering that the first three Wire albums (Pink Flag, 154 and Chairs Missing) are seen as masterpieces, do you feel that everything you’ve released since then has been compared to these three records?
Lewis: I think it’s inevitable, really. We made the three records and then there was a large gap before we produced anything else. I think those records are separated in time as much as anything else. It will be interesting to see how Red Barked Tree is compared.
Newman: Actually, at the time, the American reviews of Pink Flag were mainly awful.
Lewis: The truth is, you can’t deny history. Pink Flag was a good blueprint and a lot of people found it useful in the ‘80s. All the hardcore guys really liked it, even if people didn’t like it at the time.

SLUG: Colin, this is a question specifically for you. I want to bring up your other project, Githead. How does the writing and recording process differ between the two?
Newman: I take both bands very seriously. In terms of working methods, Githead will write as a band. It’s not something that Wire has any history of doing. Githead will literally just start playing as soon as instruments are plugged in and have something within ten minutes. It’s two very different ways of thinking about music and working with music. I really enjoy that difference. It makes it really interesting for me.

SLUG: When considering your role as a punk icon, does anyone inspire your music these days?
Newman: I’m not a punk icon. That’s an American perspective. No British person would think in those terms. Punk just means something very different here. For people of our generation it’s not necessarily a positive thing. At the time we didn’t look like a punk band even though now it sounds like punk rock. People in general thought we were worse than punk.

SLUG: Worse than punk?
Lewis: Yes, we were actually below punk. They despised us. They spat upon us. My answer to your question, though, would be: Lee Perry, Igor Stravinsky, King Tubby, Steve Reich, Ornette Coleman and T. Rex, of course.

Red Barked Tree will be released in the U.S. on January 11 by Pink Flag.