It was against the backdrop of London’s early punk boom that Wire emerged almost thirty-six years ago with its seminal debut Pink Flag, an album that was at once part of a movement and already moving past it. “Post-punk,” John Savage would come to call it later, a catch-all descriptor that I imagine probably elicits the same reaction in 1977 as it would today: a shrug. “To be honest, as a set of people, we predate the notion of deciding what music you want to make before you make it,” bassist Graham Lewis told BYT recently. “That just didn’t exist for people of our generation.”
Wire called it quits three years after the release of Pink Flag, but not before it had released two other classic records – 1978’s Chairs Missing and 1979’s 154 – and not before it had written and performed a handful of additional songs that were subsequently abandoned with the band. When Wire reformed a half decade later, those songs would remain in the rear view mirror, the band opting to focus on creating fresh material for 1987’s The Ideal Copy. Twenty-five years later, however, in a surprise move from an act that has refused to succumb to the temptations of nostalgia, Wire began playing those songs again. And a few months ago, it released that material as its thirteenth full-length, Change Becomes Us.
But it would be a mistake to interpret Change Becomes Us as nostalgic or even backward-looking. Wire has taken the sketches of those songs – some of which were performed only once – and made possibly its most vital and immediate record since its most recent reboot in 1999. I had prepared to ask Lewis about the record twice, but both conversations failed to materialize, first on account of the telecommunications in his Swedish home being knocked out, then because he had visa issues to address. I e-mailed a dozen questions to the band’s publicist, and, a few days later, an MP3 appeared in my inbox: It was twenty minutes of the three remaining original members — Colin Newman (vocals, guitar), Robert Gotobed (drums), and Lewis — somewhere on the road, discussing those questions, as read to them by guitarist Matthew Simms.
How did the idea to revisit these post-154 songs come about? Was there any resistance to doing so within the band?
Graham Lewis: I think everyone was signed up for it, really, so there was no issue of resistance. It seemed like a good idea at the time. There had been such a long history. It’s been around as an idea – of something unresolved – for donkey’s years. But just because you can do something doesn’t mean that you should. The time just became appropriate. After we’d done all of that touring with young Matt, I think everyone felt like we were in good shape to do something, to record something.
As it happens, we had a second UK tour that we were asked to do, and we wouldn’t play the same set twice – we wouldn’t play the same set that we had played in earlier in the year, so we had to find some new material. We didn’t actually have any new material, but we had been thinking about this anyway, this project, as something that we might want to engage with. We thought, “Well, step one to engaging with it would be to take some of those things into the rehearsal room and see if we can figure out how to play them, see how we can develop them and take them somewhere interesting enough for us to want to work with them.” We did that, and it all seemed to happen quite organically and naturally. Then we put [the songs] in the set. People loved it! A lot of people had no idea what it was, but they seemed to think it was extremely good. It just seemed logical to go on from there.
In what sort of ways did these songs change?
Colin Newman: There’s a huge range of change. There are some things that are completely unrecognizable from their original source, and then it grades through to perhaps something like “Doubles and Trebles”, which uses the plan of the original, but it doesn’t really bear any resemblance sonically. I think the same goes for the lyrics – the text. In some cases, there’s completely new lyrics; in other cases, there’s a bit of cannibalism. In some cases, basically, we kept the good bits, and other things which I didn’t really like any more or felt weren’t really developed at the time, which is not surprising because a lot of those songs we only played once. They were far from honed or edited, which is what we do tend to do with material. It was a complete mix, really.
Lewis: It’s more like taking that material and inserting it into how I engage with any sort of material, whether it’s a new piece or something that we’re bringing into a live set from an older album. We just engage with it. It’s all about making something which is alive. We’re not interested in the museum aspect of Wire history. This certainly has not been an exercise in trying to realize a record that never got made.
Newman: It’s not emulation.
Lewis: There’s no intent to try to think about what kind of people we were then. I can’t remember, anyway, to be quite honest. If you were really there, you don’t remember.
Newman: I do. You’d be glad you changed.
Lewis: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Lewis: Anyway, enough of that.
How is your approach to writing and shaping songs different now?
Lewis: There are so many ways in which you can approach writing. More recently, I’m favoring something which is, basically, written by hand, using the simplest tools – a guitar, a voice – to make a song. For many years, I liked making a production upon which you would sing. That’s not a good way to make songs. It’s not a bad way for making music, but songs and music are two different things. Wire is for the most part song-based. You would actually try to make the songs as strong as possible before engaging the wondrous effects that the band can bring to it.
How does that process of reexamination color your perception of what an album means? Is there ever a definitive version of a song, or is any recording just a snap shot at a given moment?
Lewis: That’s very much a philosophical point of view. I think there is such a thing as a definitive version of something, even if it’s not perfect. My approach towards production is try to make the definitive version. If I do a remix for someone, I usually try to do something that is more edited, more straightforward, more up-front than the original, rather than something that’s more dubbed out and weird. That’s just my personal approach.
Newman: When I do a remix, I like to dub it out and mix it as weirdly as possible.
Are there ways that you think Wire is better today than it’s ever been?
Newman: Almost every way.
Lewis: I think the word “better” is totally inappropriate. The word is “different,” and is it different-good? I think so.
Newman: There’s just so much that you can say about that. I would say simply that the band’s in a very, very good place right now. It’s in a better place since I can ever remember, in terms of its creativity and in terms of just getting along. It’s all good.
What sort of mistakes do you think the band has made over its run?
Robert Gotobed: We don’t have enough time to answer that.
Lewis: [We’ve made] many, but does it matter? I don’t know.
Newman: Of course, we’ve made lots of mistakes. I think the answer to that question is always whether they were good-bad mistakes to make, or whether they were stupid-bad mistakes. Stupid-bad ones are bad, but some of the mistakes you make turn out to be for the good. It’s related to what we’ve been talking about all the time with this new album: We made some serious mistakes in 1979 and ’80, but if we hadn’t made those mistakes, then we wouldn’t have left material on the shelf, so to speak, and we wouldn’t have been in the position to do something quite unique, which is make this record out of some basic material that was left lying around, un-researched and unedited.
Lewis: There’s so much potential with Wire for what could have been and what should have been. You could say that if we hadn’t imploded or stopped at the end of ‘70s, we might have gone on to be way more successful than we have been, but maybe that might have destroyed the band. Who knows? Maybe it would have been fantastic. Maybe we would have been the biggest rock band in the world right now.
Lewis: Who knows? All those things are completely and utterly unknowable, and of course we all have this amazing, 20/20, lazer-like, uh –
Lewis: Hindsight vision. Too much is made of that sometimes. Ultimately, as I said in the beginning: So what?
Gotobed: I think now one’s able to look down the tunnel and actually see the carrot –
Newman: At the end of the stick.
Lewis: Oh god. [Laughs] The carrot at the end of the rainbow.
Gotobed: I can now see the carrot at the end of the rainbow.
After decades stylistic shifts, do you think you’ve settled comfortably into a more stable aesthetic?
Gotobed: We’ve never settled. That’s the whole point of it: Change is what it’s all about. It’s the only thing that’s guaranteed for us. “Stylistic”? We weren’t doing “stylistic.” We were doing what Wire was doing, and that’s what we continue to do. I think we leave it up to other to place it in whatever bin – well, not bin. That sounds bad, doesn’t it?
Lewis: Category, yes.
Gotobed: Whatever category you wish.
Lewis: To be honest, as a set of people, we predate the notion of deciding what music you want to make before you make it. That just didn’t exist for people of our generation. I wish that more contemporary, young artists had that viewpoint and just threw out the window the idea that they have to know what kind of group they are before they start making music.
Gotobed: Yeah, that’s about marketing.
Lewis: It’s pointless and stupid. But we’re well aware of that fact that if you were to see us play live, I think we encompass quite a range of musical styles. Yes, it is all vocal music. We don’t do 12 tone –
Newman: Or 12 bar.
Lewis: Or 12 bar. We don’t do techno. We don’t do dub step.
Newman: Country and western.
Lewis: We don’t do opera. But that’s not to say that those other styles of music aren’t interesting. We’re not really into the idea of mashing about of styles together, like everybody does. They try to imagine that it’s somehow original – it isn’t.
Given the broad sonic palettes of the band’s side projects, has there been consideration given to taking Wire’s music further away from guitars and drums?
Lewis: We do have quite a bit of synths on the new album. We’re not touring right now with a keyboard player, but it’s something that we have under consideration for future shows. We’ve done one show with a keyboard player and that worked out really well.
Gotobed: It was great.
Lewis: It’s never been exclusively about guitars. If we want to use different mean, that’s kind of part of it. But it’s really important for Wire that we are what you would call a “stand-up band” live. As soon as you start having machines that you play along with, then it becomes miming along to machines and trying to reproduce records, and that loses the essence of a live performance. What people want out of a live performance is energy – the energy of people on stage, people striving to get it right using their skill, their memory, their sense of balance, even. Getting all of those things right and pulling all of those things together – that’s the energy that people want from a live show. People are not really excited by somebody running the whole show from one machine and the band more or less miming along with it. It’ not exciting. That’s a “personal appearance,” as they used to say in the ‘90s, which is fine, but it’s not what we do.
What excites you most about making music at this point?
Gotobed: Being in the moment.
Newman: I think I can go with that.
Do you hear Wire’s influence in music being made today?
Lewis: Usually, when I can detect it, it’s not something that I’m altogether… I think that if you can detect it, then you’re suspicious of the skills of the people who’ve stolen it, because, as they say, genius steals. Average people borrow stuff, and it’s borrowed when you can really detect it. Speaking to people who’ve said they’ve appreciated our work, I think what’s best is the attitude that they’ve copped. I don’t think it’s a good idea to copy anyone, really. I think it’s good to absorb what’s good and make it your own. But, yeah, people say so, and that’s flattering, I guess.
Gotobed: It’s kind of your job to say that something sounds like something else, in order to guide a reader to perhaps an appreciation of something that they may not have appreciated before. There are lots have bands that have name-checked Wire, and for varying reasons. Some of those reasons are very good and pure and noble, and some of those reasons are just that they’re checking a box and saying what they’re supposed to say. It’s kind of bit pointless. Wire is famous for having influenced a lot of bands. Yeah, and so have the Rolling Stones.
Newman: When we stopped working together in about 1980, it was quite interesting then when Wire became an adjective. Things were being described as Wire-esque. I liked that at the time. I never thought that we would become an adjective.
Are there bands that you think have incorporated elements of your sound well? Or, perhaps more broadly, are that acts that you feel have displayed a similar approach in creating music?
Lewis: The Rolling Stones.
Newman: Elastica? [Laughs]
Gotobed: I think David Bowie did pretty good.
Lewis: But most of that’s really old hat, really. I mean, Elastica is twenty years ago, or God knows how long – Britpop is just boring. To be quite honest, it’s more about commonality. We did a show as part of our festival earlier this year in London. It was called Drill London – it was our own festival, which we curated. We supported a British band called Toy, which don’t sound really at all like Wire, but they have a certain commonality of attitude. They just happen to younger or better looking than us.
Lewis: Harrier, yes. I think you see all kinds of touchstones between different artists. Sometimes there are people who do work which is really, really, really different, but they kind of admire what you do, and you get something and you think it’s really good, and when you end up meeting the people, you discover that they know what you do and they know what you do.
Is there anyone that stands out who you were surprised were Wire fans?
Newman: It’s a bit elliptical. Sometimes people will say that they like Wire, and when you talk to them, you understand that the reason that they like what you do is that they also like something that you like. For instance, the dreaded word Krautrock thing, which is rather trendy at moment. That was music that very influential for me in the early ‘70s, and inevitably that goes into your work. Then you talk to someone who say they like what you do, and you find out that that like Neu! or Can or whatever it is. It’s more of river of influences.