photo by Marylene Mey; left to right: Robert Grey, Colin Newman, Matthew Simms, Graham Lewis
Colin Newman and Graham Lewis interview by D. Strauss, Part I
Having pioneered art-punk, synth-pop and industrial music in their 35+ year career, post-punk conceptualists Wire have grown mean and lean in their current incarnation. For one thing, they’ve shed guitarist/sound-guru Bruce Gilbert (replaced by It Hugs Back’s Matt Simms), and guitars (or their illusion) are as prominent in their music as they’ve been in a while. Their latest album, Change Becomes Us (Pink Flag), reworks songs and sketches that were to be the basis of the aborted final studio album of the bands first iteration at the turn of the 1980’s. Singer/Guitarist COLIN NEWMAN and bassist/singer GRAHAM LEWIS might maintain reputations for the elliptical and obscure, but in person, their garrulous road warriors and word worriers. Get sucked in again.
A small portion of this interview originally ran in Exberliner in October 2013.
Q: Thanks for doing the interview. I know you're doing a lot of them, I hope you're getting something out of them and not just we, the press.
CN: Of course.
GL: No, it's been really good. People have had answers to questions that we've posed. [laughs]
GL: in the record which we didn't know what the answers were.
Q: This could make my life really easy.
GL: You have to interview the people who did the interviews first. [laughs]
CN: Maybe – maybe someone should do an interview just of the people who have interviewed us and, and, and construct a piece from that –
GL: No but – in answer to your question– it's not dull because people have been asking interesting questions and they've been saying things which... I don't know, you make it work and then you put it out and then [pause]
Q: When I read about Wire, I often read that you guys don't like to go over the past that much so when you in these retrospective situations – and of course you're dealing with, especially music journalists, of a certain age and generation and probably gender who were particularly caught up that period, you know, post-punk, experimentalism – and all of a sudden you're in Berlin which this music never actually seems to – it always seems to have some sort of audience as well. I mean what does it feel like? And then you have a new record out which is also, according to what I've read, you're dealing with some of your older ideas and reconsidering them again. It seems like it's more of a retrospective moment or maybe introspective is a better word for Wire.
CN: It's about Wire. In a way, it's not about retrospective, it's about... Wire and its own history. We refuse nostalgia in any way, and we're not really that interested in living in the past – because actually you can't. We're certainly not interested in marketing ourselves as a spectacle for remembering... you know, some kind of like nostalgia trip. We are perpetually always interesting in investigating aspects of things that we've done in the past, especially in the live context, because you might tour a new album but the set can't consist entirely of the new album. It has to consist of other things.
And, you know, there are other things. There are things you may have played in sets before, maybe there are other things that you haven't played for a long time that you'll bring in or you'll look at again and you'll take a different direction with them. So it's within our culture that we're all the time looking at different things and the time line kind of disappears. It's just stuff... that we're working with. But specifically with this album, we were in a situation after the last album, Red Bark Tree, we did a lot of touring for the best part of a year and we have a new guitarist, Matthew Sims. During that touring, we became a pretty fearsome live unit. You know, we'd figured out the angles of how we want to be on stage and we've pushed forward on that. And we've got to an interesting situation where, at the end of that year, which is 2011, we had to do a 2nd UK tour and, although it was more venues than we had played on the previous one and in different places, we didn't really want to repeat the same set. Or even a variation of the same set. So we had to think about – well normally in that situation, you would get some new material but of course we didn't necessarily have any new material because we'd been on the road.
So, the idea of investigating this body of material that was left over when Wire stopped in 1980 has been around for a while and, and the material itself is in our DNA. Everybody in the band knows about it... Quite, you know, the kind of core fans know about it. They know that thing exists. They know there were no proper recordings. They know that it was all done in a kind of lo fi way.
GL: It's the material that should've been the 4th record which we didn't make.
CN: But there's no real, serious record of that material. It was never really done.
GL: In a strange way it's fortuitous that it was recorded at all. It's sort of like... the recordings of bad bootlegs really. So, you know, I mean Documents and Eyewitnesses? It was one part of it, yeah.
Q: It's such an unusual record. I mean, I guess it's about the most accurately named record...
GL: Thank you.
Q: [laughs] ...that could possibly be put out.
GL: Because that's what it, so you understood? That's perfect. 'Cause that's what it was. You know what I mean, it was... as good as we could have at that time. When we put it out, it seemed to be the right thing to do, because, as far as we understood, Wire was finished. You know what I mean? So it seemed like well, in some way it's got to be a record of... the mess. The end. But the material had not been worked, it had not gone under the kind of focus of process which previous material had, which had resulted in (the first) 3 records.
Q: I didn't go back and listen to Document and Eyewitness. Is some of the material from that on this record?
CN: Some of it. Some has its roots in it, but a lot of that...
GL: ...Some of its roots, that's it.
CN: ... stuff in Document and Eyewitness is pretty underdone.
Q: So then you developed those...
CN: Yeah. The cooking level is... quite close to raw. Really in terms of how much the material's been cut.
GL: It didn't actually get into the pan, in most places.
CN: Yes. So, that's it. There was also a performance at the Jeanette Cochrane Theatre, the previous November, which there's a bootleg of which we could hear. So those are the 2 major sources and there're also things which existed in my own archive and that includes my head, which could contribute to the things that we could choose from.
Q: Do you feel you're a good archivist of your head?
CN: Um... I don't know. I have a very good body memory. If I find the first chord, I can usually work out the rest, but you have to know where it starts.
GL: I think... with that material, it's just the underline, it's unprocessed quality. It was all very shortly after 154, so you know what I mean. We we're in no shape... This material wasn't in any shape to be recorded. It was a baby.
Q: You were doing incredibly prolific song writing – it seems that period I mean not just the Wire stuff but all of the solo stuff and the Dome stuff and so many projects you were doing.
GL: Well that's the thing of it. Then you understand why that stuff wasn't really investigated because when we came to make 154, it was insane. We had so much stuff as to what's going to go in, what's not going to go in.
Q: What was your process back then – I mean you were writing songs together but also apart, I assume.
GL: All of us... had different combinations.
CN: No, we didn't. We've never really written songs together. I mean, you'll (have) one person's text and another person's tune.
GL: ... Yeah.
CN: And I mean, this kind of sitting together at the piano that never happened. [laughs]
GL: No, not really. But it was extremely productive. [pause] I think it's fairly unusual, you have, out of 4 people, you've got 3 people who're actively writing, you know what I mean. And it was our strength and our weakness at the same time because, I mean, it was a lot of ambition.
Q: What sort of ambition?
GL: Well, ambition in the sense that when you say we were prolific, that is the best result or that is reflected by the level of ambition that we had because we really were very excited by what we were doing and where and how we were able to do it, you know, which meant things moved very, very quickly and I think (there were) various reasons why things [pause] couldn't work out. But it kind of fell apart because of ambition. You know what I mean, because we wanted to be really, really good but couldn't be as good as 3 different people thought it should be. You know what I mean, like we're still trying to examine this. I think that's fair.
Q: It seems like your personal relationships as people never got so strained.
CN: Ahh... there are... moments.
GL: Yeah, yeah, there have been times.
CN: There are plenty of- plenty of moments of it being strained. But, in a way civilised.
GL: ... A lot of the time it's about the bloody work though, it's about... artists arguing.
CN: Yeah and and we're arguing, we're not saying, you know, 'you've got a fat face.' We're saying, you know, 'I don't like the way – I don't like the direction of this. This is the wrong thing, we should be doing this.'
GL: ... 'I think you're wrong.'
GL: 'I think you should do this.'
CN: And that's 154. 154 suffers for that, I mean... in some ways if you go back to Pink Flag, there was more homo-geniality in the writing and the majority are my tune and Graham's text. That's the majority of the work and that's also true on Chairs Missing. In 154, that breaks down a bit because you know, um... George and Ringo are starting to write as well. I mean, I deliberately said that because it is kind of like that. You know, you see how with the Beatles, how in many ways, George Harrison was encouraged to write by the strength of Lennon and McCartney but at the same time was so overshadowed...
Q: Yeah, 'we'll give you 2 songs per record.'
CN: Yeah exactly, so they had to be bloody good ones, you know. So that's one of the reasons why his work endures. But it was very hard to get that volume of writing all into one record.
GL: It's impossible.
CN: And also 2 or maybe 3 radically different views about what the record should be and that's not counting what EMI thought it should be. EMI wanted 154 to be a collection of singles. Well... we may not have agreed on much but we certainly agreed that that was not what we were doing.
GL: They said they want the singles that they wanted, that's for sure.
CN: Yeah, as you would say in the days, 'good luck with that chaps.' You know. [laughs]
Q: But it's funny because 154 on the whole is the best reviewed record.
GL: It's like all of these, you know - to contextualise what you said, the thing about it is, it is what it is.
GL: What we're talking about now is... for a long time, it was just our business, you know what I mean, how we managed to fuck things, how other people were fucking things up which was behind the scenes or whatever. The relevance still was to complete the record and I think the record is a pretty good record... It's a very good record made under rather difficult circumstances.
Q: You know it's Mick Jagger thinks that Exile on Main St. is the worst Stones record because...
GL: ... He's a twat. Put it that way.
Q: ... But it must have been such a pain in the ass to make that album so I can see, he's thinking...
GL: Of course!
CN: ... Your thinking is always...
GL: ... It's a process.
CN: Kind of like the circumstances...
GL: It's like even when you read about it, you think 'God I'm glad I wasn't there,' you know what I mean? But the record, when you hear it, first time I heard it, you just went 'Wow'. Like "Rip This Joint" or something, you think 'Shit!'
Q: And he's pissed that you know, Keith Richards is getting all the credit, that this is like the Keith record.
CN: But in the end, however much process, however much goes into it, it's about the result. And if the result isn't good, then nobody really gives too much of a damn about how it came about. And if the result is good, people are... The unfortunate legacy of 154 is that people thought that the creative tension in Wire was the source of it being good. Actually, that's not true at all. A certain amount of having different views is always there. It's important, but serious creative tension is totally destructive. The fact was, we managed to get the record done before the shit really...
GL: ... Yeah, yeah, yeah.
CN: ...Hit the fan. And that's going back to what we're talking about now, in the development of that material that followed on which we'd been taking from for this album. There is some real strength in the writing and there is some real forward movement. There is a momentum... going there. But the whole thing hit a total brick wall of just not having any way in which to move it forward. I mean you can certainly... you know, I'll leave I'll leave the last word on that to Wilson Neate's book (Read and Burn) because he has interview us all for that period and he's come to some conclusions about how it finished up. It finished in many ways rather badly for Wire. Suddenly, there was no band. It just stopped. And we weren't able to, in many ways, get the just rewards for what we'd invested in.
GL: What we'd invented.
CN: We were as poor in 1980 as we had been in 1977 and you know, other people took our ideas and took them on and did well (with) them.
Q: Were you aware of this when you were 28 years old?
GL: Of course.
CN: Of course we knew everything. We were the best band in the world in 1979.
GL: Yeah... but the thing about it is... It's very dispiriting for people to keep saying 'Oh you're two years ahead of your time.' It's a very difficult place to live. I don't (want) anybody to do it.
Q: It's worse today. Now you can be two days ahead of your time.
Q: Once an idea is out, the idea travels everywhere.
GL: Yeah, well... you know what I mean, I would say at that time, the way things worked then, it was too slow for where we were. Because we did really have serious ideas and we were having huge conflicts. The head of marketing at EMI said 'What do you think we should do with this record?' We said 'we think we should advertise it on TV. We want to do TV ads.' He said 'It doesn't work, we've tried.'
Q: Captain Beefheart did TV ads– have you ever seen those? He did amazing TV ads for Lick My Decals Off, Baby. Really, really strange stuff– like a foot tipping a bowl of milk over a dividing line in the street.
GL: Perfect, perfect. Of course. That's exactly what we thought too. It's the same as the guy, the East German guy who did the ads with The Monks' music.
Q: But they have the Afri-cola ads.
GL: Afri-cola – it's absolute genius.
Q: Yes, it's right on the wall right there.
GL: Yeah and we were like, 'that's what we want to do.'
Q: Charles Wilp, I think that was his name.
GL: Perfect. Very well done.
Q: Donna Summer was in those ads.
GL: Yeah. yeah.
Q: It was like her first acting role.
GL: So you can imagine where we're at. We were... should we say were a little bit frustrated.
CN: And we had no real handle on how the business of work could work. And this is the massive difference with now. If we decide to do a madcap project, like investigate material that's 35 years old, then we do it (with) on our own money and we...
GL: ... We know what responsibility feels (like).
Q: Oh you are doing it on your own money now?
CN: Pink Flag is our label.
GL: And we're still as poor as we were in 1970. [laughs]
CN: No, we're not. Just you are, at the moment.
GL: No, it was a joke.
CN: I mean, the thing is, we didn't really know what we... What would have been great, if we'd have had a vehicle in which we could've contained all of the ambition of the band in terms of what collaborative and solo work they wanted to do and keep doing Wire things. This just was not possible. There was nothing that could contain that and we didn't have any money to invest ourselves. We even talked, at that point, to Factory Records, to Tony Wilson about going there. But, you know, Tony said the thing that all independent labels would have said at the time- 'We don't give advances.' But without really understanding that we didn't have any money, we couldn't make a commitment to a label when we had to literally get through the next month.
Q: And it seemed like it was the great period of independent labels that were just starting.
CN: Yeah, it was just starting but we were poor now. You know, to wait for 2 years would have been... 2 years...
Q: Because when you came back you were at Mute right?
CN: Yeah we came back to Mute, yeah.
Q: And that seems like, abstractly, a pretty good match especially for the stuff that you were doing at the time.
GL: Well, we've known Daniel since...
Q: He's living here now, you know.
GL: Dan's living here now?
Q: I don't know if it's full time, but he was...
GL: No, he's not full time. He's a huge... Berlin fan (though).
CN: He spends a lot of time (here) – he's always spent a lot of time in Berlin.
GL: No, you know we knew Daniel from when he came out with that single.
Q: "Warm Leatherette."
GL: We were huge fans, you know. And he was going to tour with us. I don't know whatever happened to that. Him and Rob...
CN: And he was one of the first people to have the Mac as well.
GL: Him and Robert Rental, wasn't it? Um... yeah. You know, Bruce and I had done work with Mute as well before Wire and... yeah, so it was very natural, I think.
- This 1997 interview with Colin Newman
- A Change Becomes Us era interview with Colin Newman
- This 2005 interview with Githead (one of Colin's other bands)
- Colin Newman's article about The Middle Ground of the Techno Revolution
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