Colin Newman of the English punk band Wire uses the words “interesting” and “energy” a lot when he talks about music. “Interesting” can often be a backhanded compliment, but Newman uses it literally because he tends to approach pop as an intellectual endeavor.
It shouldn’t be surprising. In their long, punctuated history, Wire has always maintained a progressive approach. The band’s first three albums, released between 1977 and 1979, were art punk that appealed to pop people: fast, minimalist, angular and ahistorical. Lyrics were witty and impressionistic and pointedly avoided the sexual and social politics that fueled the punk of their contemporaries. The band broke up and then reunited in the ’80s with a more dance-oriented style, refusing to play old songs that had influenced some of the decade’s most important bands, from The Minutemen to Sonic Youth to R.E.M. After another break that lasted some 13 years, the quartet — Newman, guitarist Bruce Gilbert, bassist Graham Lewis, drummer Robert Gotobed — again reunited in 2000 to cash in on ’70s nostalgia, which should have been anathema to the band and in fact was. As Newman points out, opportunism doesn’t have to be regressive.
“In the dying days of the ’90s we were asked to do a gig at Royal Festival Hall, 2,000-people capacity, part of a series of living legends,” Newman says without a hint of irony over the phone from his studio in London. “It’s a kind of honor from your culture. Wire have always been critically acclaimed, but we’ve never been acknowledged in that way, on a high culture level. Obviously, it’s a mixed blessing. The Royal Festival Hall is where you have your national film festivals, that sort of thing. So we’re suddenly this important cultural institution and we’ve been invited to do a recital. It’s like they want to give people a chance to say, ‘Oh, yeah, I saw them before they died.’ “
For a band who thinks of the presentation of their work, whether in recorded form or live, as “curating,” Wire suddenly had to deal with the question of oldies. “Pink Flag,” their debut record, is a concept album that works best as a whole, but they still had to think of a way of making it new. “We did something last year at the Barbican called ‘Flag: Burning.’ It involved huge video projections of brightly colored aerobics dancers; in other words, totally the opposite of the kind of dancing that might have been associated with Wire.
“We were dwarfed by these absurd smiling people doing step aerobics. The finale was having real dancers come out and do step aerobics alongside us playing. It had quite an effect. A lot of the older folks had left by the end of the first half. We were playing ‘Pink Flag,’ which is what they’d been waiting all their lives for, and then they get these step aerobics. It just undermined everything they brought to the show.”
One would think that if these people were fans of Wire, then they should expect the unexpected. Newman couldn’t care less; only the context matters. “The step aerobics was a subversion,” he explains. “In London, we can be subversive, because we have some kind of legacy. It wouldn’t necessarily mean anything in Japan. There, we can just play the songs. If all we did was play guitars in London it would be boring. And also, playing concerts like the one at Barbican doesn’t have the impact it would have in a small club. Our songs as rock songs work very well in a small club, because they’re loud and in-your-face. You can’t be in-your-face in a large venue.”
Wire’s newest album, “Send,” is very in-your-face: As loud and fast as their ’70s punk material, but erected as a huge wall of sound that can be overwhelming at times. It is very much a guitar album, but, as Newman claims, “it was made the same way you would make dance music.” Newman isn’t entirely comfortable with the “rock” label and is happier when the word “visceral” is used to describe the record.
“That was the thing. We wanted to have that energy, which came out of the back end of the ’90s. The whole energy of rock music was supposed to be progressive after punk, but it’s not the way things worked out. Instead everything became retro.”
Retro is another anathema concept to Wire. Newman says he appreciates the way The Strokes and The White Stripes “added some new energy to the time, even if the style wasn’t particularly original,” but finds subsequent bands like Kings of Leon and Jet “utter rubbish.” He likes the New York dance-punk band The Liars and the Scottish art-party group Franz Ferdinand because “they’ve moved the line a bit forward.”
But fundamentally, music is only half the story. As complete artists, Wire consider marketing just as central to what they do as songwriting is. “Send,” is not so much an album, but rather one step in a “process,” as Newman calls it.
“We did our old material at Royal Festival Hall and then an American tour of festivals, and realized we needed new material. But since we didn’t have a label or backup we had to figure out how to do that. I have a label [Swim Records] and a studio, so there was that capability. And during 2001 we developed a whole set of material that ended up as two EPs, ‘Read & Burn 01’ and ‘Read & Burn 02.’ We wanted a different way of sliding this new music into the public’s consciousness, and it was much more successful than we imagined it would be. They actually went top 10 on the American college radio charts, even though you could only buy them on the Internet.”
Newman is all for downloading MP3s, though he insists that “it has to be done correctly,” and thus controlled by the artist to a certain extent. The “Read & Burn” EPs were meant to be experienced as EPs, and if they had been made available as downloads, then people might have downloaded only individual tracks.
“Wire isn’t about songs. If you’re talking about Britney Spears and Robbie Williams and the mega-mainstream, you’re not talking about albums as albums. But there are people in dance music producing tracks that make sense on a continuous track-by-track basis. What’s more interesting is when artists and listeners re-evaluate what an album is. It’s not just two singles and filler, which is a very ’60s idea. Artists have to conceptualize: Why would people want to listen to my music for half an hour? How do I make my music interesting so that people will give it that much time?”
Newman understands human nature and how it might contravene the intentions of the artist. In terms of downloading, he seems less worried by copyrights than he is by being misunderstood. All he has to do is look in his own home.
“My son is 15. He listens to stuff on his computer. He rips CDs and downloads songs, makes compilations. Last night I think he was up listening to his stereo all night. It was really loud. [laughs] He chooses the tracks he really likes. What’s that band, enormously popular here now . . . Red Hot Chili Peppers! I mean there’s one song on their new album that’s good and the rest is rubbish. So he will make the effort to get that one song because it’s something that his friends are listening to.”
Curiosity is what he looks for in both artists and audiences, which is why the band’s tours are more like expeditions. Newman appreciates festivals, because he can sample the latest trends. A few years ago, Wire played the All Tomorrow’s Parties festival in England, which is noted for its underground artists, and in a past interview Newman noted that, except for the Japanese band Melt-Banana (who, coincidentally, will open for Wire in Japan), his was the fastest band at the event. Newman suddenly understood how postrock had altered the underground landscape.
So he’s excited about coming to Japan. “The last time we were in Tokyo was 1988, and I wonder now how ‘Send’ scans on the cultural radar there, whether it’s something that is very underground or something that people may already know about. It will be interesting to find out. We do think of Japan as the future.”