Interview: Wire Guitarist Colin Newman on the Band's New Live Album, Gear and Plans for the Future
Leaving New York City's Bowery Ballroom last April after Wire's third show in the area in as many days, I overheard a fellow concertgoer remark to his friend, "The show was alright, but it's bullshit they didn't play anything from Pink Flag."
The irony, of course, is that earlier that in the evening, the band had, in fact, played the title track to that very album, only they had stripped the song down to one chord (from the original two) and more than doubled the length.
"When we started again in late 1999, we did sort of a semi-retrospective set," says frontman Colin Newman, "and I came to the sessions with one idea, and that was that we could do 'Pink Flag' with one less chord." He added with a laugh, "There's only two in the original, and I thought we could have one less."
And that's why there are fans of Pink Flag, and then there are fans of Wire.
It's near impossible to not be hooked by the short, artfully crafted tunes on the band's 1977 debut, with Newman and fellow guitarist Bruce Gilbert's angular riffing complimented perfectly by Newman's wry observations on modern life.
While they identified more with the burgeoning punk movement than the litany of bands with art-school pedigrees, Wire inadvertently became the quintessential art rock band of the post-punk era, coming along right at the moment punk had reached the apex of its explosive force and was preparing to collapse right back in on itself.
Wire would cut two more classic albums — 1978's Chairs Missing and 1979's 154 — before abruptly quitting music all together, claiming that their creative well had run dry.
If they had stopped there, their influence on modern music would hardly have been diminished. Their "concept art" approach to rock music was an inspiration to the likes of Sonic Youth, The Minutemen, R.E.M. and countless others, not to mention being an oft-cited influence of the post-punk revival just after the turn of the century that spawned bands like Franz Ferdinand and Bloc Party.
Lucky for us, they didn't stay dormant for long, and their recrudescence has seen the band relentlessly attempting to challenge themselves and their fans to explore uncharted waters, whether the results sank or not. Their work — particularly their live performances — often delved so deep into the avant-garde that listeners weren't sure whether to scratch their heads or get in on the joke — if there was one.
But Wire were never about to go out of their way to appease fans who longed for the dissonant thrash of "Reuters." "We've climatized our audience to the idea that Wire isn't going to lay down and just do the old dog tricks," Colin Newman says defiantly.
Whatever their next move, Wire are still content to never repeat themselves.
GUITAR WORLD: There have certainly been no shortage of live albums from Wire over the years, but this new one [The Black Session: Paris, 10 May 2011] manages to feel fresh and different. How did the idea come about?
COLIN NEWMAN: Well, we talked about it. Red Barked Tree was a big plan, a very ambitious plan that involved releasing the album at the beginning of last year and doing a — not a world tour, but a three-continent tour. We sort of felt that as the year went through, we did the touring and we were going to then go more touring, so we felt that it would be nice to end the year with a live album.
We didn't quite get it out by the end of the year. We did record quite a bit of gigs with the aim of mixing one of them. The recordings were kind of ... it just really felt like it would be a lot of work to make them sound good.
And then back in May  we were invited to do this Black Session that was a radio program that went on for many years, but now unfortunately is finished. The guy, Bernard Lenoir, was a bit like a French John Peel and he was responsible for introducing a lot of alternative music to France. The idea of the show is that every week a band gets to do a concert in the Radio France studio - which is basically a studio in the terms of being both a performance space and a small theater. So we were able to invite about 150 or 200 people and they record in obviously quite good conditions.
After the show, the producer said to me, "If you want to use it, you can." So we got the CD and we listened to it and went, "Hang on. We spent all that time, energy and money recording those shows to mix one of those, and here's something that sounds pretty good as it is. So why don't we use that?"
The idea was that we did a British tour during November and December last year and it was available just as merchandise on that tour, and then we would release it afterwards. So that's how it kind of came to be in that shape.
The material from Red Barked Tree sounds in some places dramatically different than what we hear on the album, particularly the live version of "Clay." How did you arrive at those arrangements?
I thought about playability. Again, you have to go back to the recording process for Red Barked Tree. I wrote most of the songs on an acoustic guitar, then we met in the studio and everyone had rough demos of those songs. We learned to play them as arrangements in the studio and then recorded it that way. Then I worked the tracks up in production.
So everyone basically knew how to play them, but tracks didn't have the benefit of being taken on the road and being taken in a direction that a live band might take them. And obviously Matt [Simms, guitar] didn't play on the album, but he plays in the live band and contributes to the way the arrangements come together.
I don't think we come from any kind of tradition where you look at a live set in relation to a live album and say, "We have to do it exactly the same." A live show is about the immediacy and the energy. When you stand on stage, people kind of have to get it directly. The mistakes and the odd bits where things go wrong don't matter, because they're momentary. Those things are really important on the record because once you've heard them several times then they really jar. But if it's just a live performance then the moment is the moment, and then it's gone. Never to be again.
"Pink Flag" has been stripped down to one chord now for live performances, which puts all the emphasis on rhythm and dynamics. Was that the idea?
The idea was basically that it's an on-off dynamic. It starts 1-2-3-4 and then there's a big blast and then it goes down for the vocal, and then it sort of builds up again. It's like a dance track. Basically that's the whole raison d'être of it is that it's a kind of dancefloor track — it goes down then it builds up and goes full on. It's kind of got that kind of energy to it, but the energy of just one chord. It's just one note really. It's just E.
I remember the crowd that night being overall very good, but there were one or two fans yelling for "Reuters" and "Three Girl Rhumba." How do you go about picking the archival songs to include in the set? Are you annoyed at all that people get hung up on an album — classic though it may be — from 1977?
No. I think the reality is that it should be for a live show. It should all be serving the fact that the whole thing has to be great. The thing is there will be 5 percent of the audience that go there with a checklist of songs that they want to hear and they'll come back disappointed because they didn't get enough ticks on their checklist.
The rest of the audience is there because they've heard that we're good, or they've seen us before, and they want us to impress them, they want us to blow their socks off. So they're going to come away going, "I knew some of that stuff, but I didn't know the other stuff, but it was bloody great. I don't care what they played, because it was good."
And if you're going to take that tact then you've got to be good. The tunes you choose have to be things that you can effectively put across. And that's what it's all about. It's about what you can make work in a live context.
Any plans to bring back the Ex-Lion Tamers back to appease that 5 percent?
[laughter] The Ex-Lion Tamers don't exist, and they are unlikely to exist. It was very much a college thing. I think they did it because they were Wire fans, but also because they thought it was a good concept. And that's very much in the spirit of Wire.
I don't know if you know but the original lead singer of the Ex-Lion Tamers was an African American guy who was the biggest fan. The main drawback with him was that he couldn't sing and he couldn't dance, so they had to ... We were so reluctant because the idea of having a black guy do that job ... it would have been totally brilliant. [laughs] Because it was about Wire. These guys were Wire fans and they totally got the concept. And they did it as a concept, and that's what was so brilliant about it. They weren't a cover band, that's for sure.
I don't think if they existed now that they'd be pleasing anyone. They'd be doing Send all the way through or something like that. [laughs]
what's your live setup like these days in terms of gear? It looked like you had a pretty extensive pedalboard on stage with you.
I've actually changed now. I was using a Line 6 board for convenience, but I've sort of changed to a fully analog setup, which does sound better.
My main guitar is this Eastwood Airline Map, which I got for the same reason I get any other guitar: it just looks amazing. For me, a guitar is a fashion accessory and if you don't look good with it, then what the fuck are you doing with it? It's got to look good.
Of course, the other thing about it is that it sounds great. It's got a shitload of overtones in it somehow. Matt and I were trying to work out quite why that is. It's not a hollowbody but the body is somehow hollow, so it rings. It's got a kind of richness in it.
A lot of times when I go to record something and come back later to work out how I did them, I can't work out what it is, because the overtones are as loud as the fundamentals. So I've got no idea what I played. It's the advantage and disadvantage of the guitar that you get more than you put in for.
You mentioned moving to an analog pedalboard. What is on it?
There's a couple of pedals I'm totally in love with. The Hot Cake, which is made by Crown Audio in New Zealand. I've got a double one. They are so boutique that you can only order them by sending the guy an email. He doesn't even have a website. It's an overdrive, just a totally brilliant overdrive. I'm not really into fuzz; I'm into this sort of overdriven, bluesy kind of thing. That's the kind of distortion I like.
Then I've got — it says on the front that it's an MXR Distortion Plus, but it actually isn't. It was once, but somebody in Japan took all of the insides out and put in better components and then silkscreened a skeleton on the front, like you do.
The combination of that and the Hot Cake gets most of my distortion.
The other thing I totally love is the Malekko Ekko 616 analog delay, which is just the best delay in the world. I wish it was in stereo, but that's another discussion.
One thing I use a lot in my Wire setup is my original MXR Phase 100, which is a pretty good phaser. I haven't quite found a chorus yet that I like a hundred percent yet, apart from an MXR stereo chorus, so in order for it to work you need two amps. I'm trying to figure out a way to use it in a live setting by getting a custom amp that's got a stereo in and stereo out, but that would be probably the only way of doing it.
How about your main amp on stage right now?
I'm using a [Roland] JC-120. That's because it's got a simplicity about it that I like. It's in stereo — well, it's got a stereo out but no stereo in. But if you mic up both of the speakers, you do get a stereo picture.
Stereo is quite important to me. Most of the guitars on Red Barked Tree and other Wire records always are all stereo. I love stereo guitars. I think having one guitar on the left and one guitar on the right mainly sounds stupid. If you want to make a wall of sound, stereo is very good.
The stereo chorus you get in the Roland JC-120 is the same kind of stereo chorusing you get in the MXR stereo chorus. This is a Seventies chorus. It's completely different to the kind of Boss pedal chorus, which is kind of an Eighties chorus where you hear the chorusing sound. Seventies chorus is all about making something wide. You don't necessarily hear the chorusing, you just click it on and suddenly it just sounds bigger.
Wire is still as critically successful as ever — particular with Red Barked Tree — and certainly as influential. In fact, you seem to have outlasted a lot of the bands you've influenced. What's the secret to maintaining that sort of relevancy?
The thing about older bands is that you've got this dynamic. There's one thing with the "back from the dead" kind of touring when a band that hasn't been around in twenty years suddenly comes back, and everyone has to see them because they best see them before they're all dead. And it's like, Yeah that's all very well, but you can only do it once.
And the thing with the "back from the dead" sort of thing is that they're pretty good but they're not really as good as they were back in the day. They weren't really as exciting.
I don't want to be in that position with Wire. I would rather people think we sound like crap because we don't sound anything like what we did then rather than than for people to think we sound like a pale imitation of what we used to sound like.
We've been quite assiduous in the way that we've worked over the years, so that we've climatized our audience to the idea that Wire isn't going to lay down and just do the old dog tricks. We're going to keep coming up with new things, challenging ourselves and the audience. And people respond to that. They like it. Our core audience loves that as a concept.
When we have a record like Red Barked Tree that can get to another audience, and they know we're supposed to be good, but they haven't heard much else — maybe one or two other records from the Seventies — and they come across this record and think, "Oh, that's pretty good for a band that's however many years old." And that kind of gets us to different places where wouldn't have gotten any other way.
It's a very interesting and exciting dynamic.
So is it safe to say we'll hear more from Wire in the near future, particularly in terms of a new album?
Absolutely. I have to keep a bit under wraps what the next project is, because we're going to astound the world with the next thing that we do. It will be so classically Wire, so completely and utterly illogically, and completely brilliant. I hope. [laughs]
But I know it will be because we've been field testing and I know that this thing is going to work. We have in many ways a lot of freedom. We're very lucky. We have Pink Flag [The band's own record label. — GW Ed.] and we have our own productions, and obviously a lot of that is bound to me.
The band does make a living. It gives us a freedom in doing stuff that perhaps other bands don't have, and we can make interesting and sometimes radical decisions about what it is that we want to do. And that's kind of exciting.
With the freedom you now have, and the multitude of ways bands are putting out music these days, have you considered taking a different approach to releasing new music or is the album still a viable format for you?
I think we all like albums. I think that tracks are kind of useful. It almost gotten to the point where you have tracks that you sort of give away, because any kind of single's not a viable option for a band like Wire.
We have done different different kinds of releases — archival releases. In 2010 the "Legal Bootleg" series came out where we took a bunch of fundamentally bootleg recordings of the band from the earliest days up until 2003 or something like that, and released a series of them digitally on a subscriber model. We didn't sell huge amounts of it, but it was nice for the fans, because there's a sense that — it's nice for fans to know that when they buy something that the money is going to the band and not to a corporation of some sort.
Speaking of archival releases, the only Wire live album out of print is the infamous Document and Eyewitness. Any chance of that seeing the light of day again?
It's very interesting that you ask that question in the midst of what we're doing this year. The thing is that we're going to release it this year, but when you see what we're doing, you'll understand why we haven't released it quite yet.
That may be too much of a massive clue, but ... No, I can't say anything more without tying myself up in knots or giving away too much. [laughs]