Colin Newman of legendary UK band talks 'Pink Flag,' new album and how to make a Wire album 40 years on
For 40 years, the only constant in Wire has been change. While the core of singer/guitarist Colin Newman, bassist/lyricist/erstwhile vocalist Graham Lewis and drummer Robert Grey has remained mostly intact since 1977, the band has embraced a never-look-back mentality, making groundbreaking records without ever repeating itself.
The group of British art-school kids arguably invented the genre of post-punk on their 1977 debut, the legendary Pink Flag. Then, immediately after channeling the energy of punk into its most taut form, Wire discarded that aesthetic for the atmospheric, early Pink Floyd vibe of Chairs Missing. From then on, amid a couple of years-long breaks, each album has proved to be a reinvention of sorts.
Reached by Skype from the UK, Newman said the band's restless spirit and transformational tendencies grew out of the way Wire initially formed. “Wire started as a five-piece. We were somebody else's band,” Newman said, referring to his initial musical partnership with Overload's George Gill (founding guitarist Bruce Gilbert has also since been replaced by Matt Simms). “We decided that wasn't what we wanted, so we got rid of our founder. We unceremoniously dumped him and reinvented the band. I think that simple process defined Wire forever: ‘We don't have to be that; we can be this.'”
The Pink Flag era of Wire, Newman said, came out of a lack of allegiance to traditional forms. “I don't like [1950s] rock 'n' roll very much,” Newman said. “There's something about [it] that I find infinitely depressing. So I was working with an idiom I wasn't particularly grounded in. I just thought, ‘I don't owe any loyalty to this.' I'm not into any kind of purity. So if [a song] is going to go 20 seconds on one chord and then 20 seconds on another chord and then stop, that's good by me.”
Punk-rock, similarly, didn't impress Newman. “One of the problems with punk was that there was a very strong element of pub-rock in it,” he said. “When you took away the attitude and the clothes and the safety pins, some of the groups were just so deeply traditional. … Why sound just like the Sex Pistols? We had higher ambition than that. We had something better going.”
That ambition remains intact on Wire's newest record, 2017's alternately pretty and unsettling, mostly mid-tempo Silver/Lead. New material will make up much of the band's set at a sold-out Ace of Cups show on Monday, Sept. 18.
After four decades, Newman has developed certain strategies for Wire's creative process. To let artistic expression happen naturally, the band employs self-imposed restrictions. First, Lewis writes words for the new songs, but he doesn't reveal the meanings behind his poetic, cryptic lyrics (“That notion of, ‘This song is about...' is very un-Wire,” Newman said). Newman doesn't attempt to put music to those words until a month before studio sessions.
“I'm such a minimal guitarist. What I play is very basic but open, so it's easy for people to fit around it,” Newman said. “If I was writing every day, I suspect my writing would become more complex and more polished. But I don't think that having something more artfully crafted would be useful for Wire.”
Before entering the studio, Newman also keeps his bandmates in the dark. “The band [members] don't get to hear any of the demos before we go into the studio because it's entirely pointless,” he said. “I remember when I gave everyone demos for what became [2011 album] Red Barked Tree, and Rob said, ‘It sounds like you playing the acoustic guitar and singing.' Graham said, ‘I don't like acoustic guitars.' They obviously didn't listen to the songs at all. They were just reacting to the sound.”
“You have to use some kind of psychology there,” he continued. “It's not because anybody is stupid. It's simply how you go about it to have the outcome that has the band the most fresh. It's raw. The ideas going down when it's being played will be the first or second time that someone has played that. There is something particular about Wire. When something is new, it seems to come together very fast in an interesting and intuitive way, and you want to capture that moment.”
The philosophy is, perhaps, best summed up by a line from Silver/Lead's “Diamonds in Cups.” “The course of creation is often quite strange,” Newman sings. “Keep your mind open, be willing to change.”