Though initially identified with acts such as The Sex Pistols and The Damned, the British band Wire quickly abandoned punk and delved into the world of experimental sonic exploration. The band's first three albums—1977's Pink Flag, 1978's Chairs Missing, and 1979's 154—sounded years ahead of their time, and even now few have matched Wire's mix of pop hooks, punk attitude, oblique song structure, and art-student savvy. Perhaps it's fitting, then, that the band recently reformed for a short tour, where it will play songs from throughout its career, which it had abandoned in favor of esoteric side projects—or, in the case of drummer Robert Gotobed, organic farming. There are even plans for a studio project with producer Steve Albini. The Onion A.V. Club recently spoke with Wire members Bruce Gilbert (guitar) and Graham Lewis (bass and vocals) about the past, the reunion, and the foreseeable future of Wire.
Wire, Pink Flag
Wire, Chairs Missing
Wire, The Ideal Copy
Wire, 1985-1990: The A List
Colin Newman, A-Z
The Onion: Throughout Wire's career, you guys have always progressed, for better or for worse. But this tour may be your first step backward.
Bruce Gilbert: Well, we're totally aware it's not a step forward. Basically, we decided to… We only came together again to do one show, really, which was the Royal Festival Hall, and the first thing that fazed us was, obviously, what should we do? There was the issue of practicality: limited rehearsal time, and so on. None of us played guitars anymore, that kind of thing, and we were using a live drummer. Robert was going to play his drum kit and he wasn't going to do anything else. [Laughs.] We decided the drums-and-guitars form was the one we were going to use, and it occurred to us that it could be interesting to do something we had never, ever done before, which was to play old material. So that became the approach. The fact that we're going to do a little bit of touring probably comes from the notion that, having made this retrospective object, it could be fun to use it for a little while and explore it. And, obviously, while one is touring, one gets slightly better at playing these things: They're old, but you have to remember that we haven't played them for 20 years, and they might get more interesting as we progress through the tour. There's an element of curiosity here, as well as fun.
O: Discounting rehearsals and the few shows you've done so far, when was the last time you played these songs?
BG: As a four-piece, it was more than 10 years ago, I think.
O: How often have you actually thought about the songs when you weren't playing them?
BG: Never. Don't listen to them. It was all rather strange. Very, very strange. Because we looked at what our recorded output had been and went through and decided what was achievable, given the orthodox line-up, and what we actually enjoyed, as we struggled through it trying to remember how they went.
O: Before you began touring again, rumors spread that you would just be doing material from the first three albums. But you've also included a great deal of '80s material. Why did you decide to excise the electronics from the latter songs?
BG: Like I said, we were looking for achievable ends, and Robert was the one who said, in the end, yes. Without him, we wouldn't have even started thinking about this. He plays acoustic drums, and there it is. There's no escape from that. [Laughs.] This current activity is not what I would call creative activity. It's more like a retrospective exhibition.
O: Is it still fun for you?
BG: In certain ways it is. I was not looking forward to playing the guitar again, it has to be said. But, having been forced to do it, it's quite nice to get in touch with a far more physical way of approaching sound again. It's playing with other people in a much more visceral way.
O: I'm intrigued that you would name fun as one of your goals. Wire was one of the few bands that actively sought to challenge its listeners and force its listeners to progress along with the band. I never thought fun was part of the equation.
BG: We have never done anything unless it's been fun. I mean, there are all sorts of different ways of having fun. Sometimes it is by disturbing and challenging an audience, but internally it's always been a question of fun with a large "F," I think. I think we may be challenging the audience by playing old things. At the Festival Hall, there were some very disappointed souls who thought we were somehow traitors for playing old things. [Laughs.] But these are people who have never seen us live, and they've never seen us when we were playing the old things. It's an idea we had given them, and we took it back, thank you.
O: I see that the British press has already driven the knife in after praising you to the heavens.
BG: [Laughs.] Nothing new there.
O: What was the reaction to Wire in the late '70s, as you began to move away from punk and into a more unusual direction? Was there much crossover between your audience and, say, that of The Sex Pistols?
BG: You have to remember that our audience has always been slightly confrontational, even when we were in the earlier stage. We appeared to be playing a style of material where they might recognize the, shall we say, texture. We've never really satisfied any audience; we've always satisfied ourselves. I don't think we've ever considered the audience at all, so that crossover situation has something to do with the internal creativity of the group and nothing to do with the audiences. It's not something we've ever thought about.
O: What did you think keyboards, synthesizers, and drum machines could offer that acoustic instruments could not?
BG: For starters, we're not really musicians, and we all have an interest—at least most of us do—in sound for its own sake. With technology, obviously one has more options for forming different textures and different ways of creating music, or creating sound itself. For my own purposes, I've always viewed the guitar as a way of exploring sound, and to switch to technology is completely natural. In fact, before I picked up the guitar, I was using tone generators and loops, so I don't see a whole lot of difference between guitars and technology, except that they're operated in different ways.
O: There have always been two sides to Wire's music: pop songs and experiments. Since the songwriting was at least partly collaborative, did you know beforehand which direction a song would progress?
BG: I think there were so many ways of coming up with material that very few of these things were predictable in that way. There were a couple of occasions where Colin [Newman, guitar and vocals] had a chord sequence of some kind which was attractive in some way. But everything that somebody has brought in in the past has always been mutated in some way, or kicked around like a football. Some of these things became more simplified and turned to more sonic pieces, and some became more active or had a strange pop quality, which always made us laugh. When that happened, and the things sounded more like pop, it made us laugh so much we felt it was kind of inevitable to pursue it as a pop-styled song. Irony comes very easy.
O: Do you think it's more difficult to challenge somebody or please them?
BG: It's very strange: I think in some ways it's easier to challenge. I hate to talk about generations, but it seems to me—perhaps it's always been like this, but I never noticed it—that "younger people," if I dare use that phrase, seem to be much more easily shocked. Not because something's new, but because it's something they haven't expected. [Laughs.] It's not laid out for them.
O: You need modesty to take risks, because you can always write Pink Flag over and over again, even though it might not be satisfying. Still, it must be constantly inspirational that Wire's older material has inspired so many others.
BG: Yes, it is flattering in some ways. But the way I always view it is that it's more flattering when somebody mentions the fact that they started a project because they heard we weren't really musicians. I think that's a far more interesting thing, rather than taking a stylistic element from the material and then exploiting that. But that's okay, as well; it's part of the pattern. That's always happened in music and every other form of art.
O: A lot of contemporary musicians have taken your work as a mandate to write new rules. No matter what anyone says, musicians have yet to hit a wall in terms of creativity.
BG: The idea is a strange one, isn't it? The idea that change is desirable broke out of the little experimental areas into slightly more overground areas because of things like punk. I think that's healthy, but we all know that some people thought punk was a style that was entrenched and something one could pursue as a career. [Laughs.]
O: Will there always be people bucking the system?
BG: I think there's definitely still a notion, especially in Europe, of creating hybrids out of existing things and progressing that way, especially in the club music and dance music. There's always an air of competition, that you can create the strangest hybrid. I think that can only be good. It may be tricky in America at the moment. I don't know what the club scene in America is about, or if it even exists, but I think once this creative approach has a moment, the approach becomes more and more inevitable. It becomes part of a general cultural picture, a desire to progress. It is desirable.
O: How aware are you of what other musicians are doing?
BG: I have to admit that I don't consume music at all. I seem to be exposed to quite a bit of it. But I made a decision a long time ago to stop consuming music when I had the opportunity to start making records of my own. I found that the records I gravitated toward were in an area I found I might be working in, so I stopped listening to that material immediately. But I do go to see live groups. I've always preferred to do that rather than listen to records. In the environment I live in, London, one is constantly surrounded by things one can go and see. Also, I do DJ from time to time, and although I don't listen to the material before I mix and execute it, my approach to these things is obviously another way I get exposed to people's music. The different genres and subgenres of club music are something I have no real knowledge of. I just react in a very simple way to these sorts of things: Some things I find very exciting, other things I find quite lame. That's my approach to other people's material.
O: DJing allows you to work with music within a set of parameters: You can't change the music, but you can change aspects of it. Obviously, there are similarities in how a band approaches its music live: You don't have the unlimited benefits of the studio, but you do have the benefit of spontaneity. In what ways do you think playing live benefits Wire?
BG: I think we always… This is one of those questions that's not answerable now; I can only answer from what we've done in the past. Playing live has always helped, because as one becomes more proficient in executing the items, or one gets bored of a particular part, you have more confidence to change it because you are so familiar with it. On the other hand, mistakes have always been very instructive for Wire. When something's gone terribly wrong in a Wire song, quite often it's been incorporated in the next evening, the next club. It's live, so it's uncontrollable, so it's always interesting. In my own electronic work, I never know what I'm going to do. I want to keep those moments strictly in real time. I can't repeat a good mixing moment when I'm DJing, or a bizarre collision of things or settings when I'm doing my electronic stuff. I like to live that particular moment, and playing live with three other people, there's more opportunity for things like that to happen. So it can be good.
O: Is proficiency the enemy of spontaneity?
BG: I think it depends, really. Some people would argue that proficiency allows more spontaneity. I think it depends on what your original approach to these things is, really. There are what I would call "proper" musicians for whom spontaneity is of no interest, and proficiency is all.
O: Which Wire album has aged the best?
BG: I really couldn't say. I'm tempted to say the first time I heard Wire was when we played it about three months ago, when we started
rehearsing. [Laughs.] That was the first time I had listened to the material in ages, almost only for technical purposes. I recognize it when I hear it, but I don't know it. I can't look back on it. I certainly don't consume my music.
O: It must be interesting to approach your music as if it were not your music.
BG: It has been very useful to be able to say, on a practical level, "Can I play that? Can I copy that?" [Laughs.] We've never copied other people's material. We're in this very strange position of learning songs from records. [Laughs.]
O: You're the world's best Wire cover band. Which member of Wire do you think has aged the best?
BG: Robert has. His drumming is as good as it ever was, if not better, and he's strong, fit, and healthy. He has an even healthier approach to music, because it's not something he spends his time worrying about.
The Onion: Is it strange that this Wire reunion seems to have come together so quickly?
GL: Well, what can I say? Yes and no. I did an interview about a year ago with a guy for a university radio show here in Sweden, and I ended it with an emphatic, "No, there will not be another Wire. I don't think there's any necessity for it at all." [Laughs.] Which seemed to almost do the trick, really.
O: Obviously, there's a Wire again, but is there a necessity for it?
GL: [Pauses.] Yes.
O: What does Wire have to offer now that it didn't offer 20 years ago?
GL: Digits. It's 20 years later, really. I know that sounds a bit facile, but that's the truth of it.
O: This seems like the first time Wire has stepped back rather than progressed.
GL: These words are highly charged. "Progress" is a sort of peculiar one in this day and age. I think to have the opportunity—because it is something we've never done before—to actually review the body of work that we have, retrospectively, was a good enough thing in itself. But included in that was what we're doing now. Really, it's about interpretation, isn't it? I think if you were to go back and try to slavishly reinvent or facsimilate the past, yeah, it would be a waste of fucking space. But that's not really what we're up to. There's material that we haven't played for 21 years. That's kind of strange. I don't think that happens very often.
O: When you go back and listen to the old material, are you distanced from it enough that it sounds like listening to someone else?
GL: No, I still feel completely guilty about it. What did happen when we started this process was that we wrote up a list of things to consider, that we wanted to play. Then it was, "No, yeah, no, no, no, possibly." We listened to things and went, "No, never, no interest in that, that's done, that was then, that was about then. That kind of harmonic, that kind of construction was about then. We did that. We got that. Can't do that anymore. Not interested." Then, when we actually got down to playing and arranging things, of course we had a very, very different perspective of rhythm, of the sonic landscape we now live in. So basically what we've taken is those compositions, and sometimes some things are very close to the original arrangement and other things aren't. But there's never been an attempt to do the record, you know? It's always been an interpretation of something that's very much for the moment.
O: One of the more interesting aspects of Wire was the band's attempt to mix obvious pop songs with more challenging pieces. That strategy makes some of the music pretty timeless. How did Wire balance those disparate approaches to songwriting?
GL: It was never the way it just ended up. It always became apparent pretty quickly [which direction
the music would go], regardless of what it was that actually started it off. At that time we were very… Particularly Colin and I were very interested in that form of music, because that was what we grew up with. So we were very fascinated with that "thing," the pop song.
O: At what point did fans of the band, attracted to the punk elements the music initially shared with your peers, begin to suspect you were up to something different?
GL: About 1985, probably.
O: Once the electronics were incorporated?
GL: [Laughs.] No, what I meant was that I don't think they were aware or gave a fuck, actually. The Pistols made some good singles, but musically it was always rock 'n' roll. And The Clash subsequently proved that to be the case, as well, very quickly. And The Damned produced probably one of the best punk singles, "A New Rose," and they got their album out first, but we were always separate from it. We never felt that we were part of that scene. We didn't socialize with those people. We were getting on with what we were doing, really. We were far more aware of what everybody was doing, but what interested us more was the experiments Eno was doing with Bowie, very much the work that was coming out of the States. Pere Ubu, early Talking Heads, very early Devo. Obviously, stuff coming out of Europe on the other side—Kraftwerk, stuff like that. That was what was informing us.
O: That's why I think Wire has continued to sound interesting: Even the old records don't sound dated.
GL: I do have to say that, though that is true, there are certain things that are very much of their time. But I think right from the beginning everyone was conscious, and there was a great deal of effort made—with the collaboration with [producer] Mike Thorne—that we were trying to make something that would last. It wasn't like, "Oh, we'd better get this out and then we might be rich and famous." It was simplicity.
O: Very few bands have progressed quite as radically as Wire.
GL: It's not what careers are made of, no.
O: But you've made a career of it.
GL: I think what everyone has done is defined their lives by their work. That's what artists do. It's a serious consideration: You try to do what you believe is right at the time. It's not following the carrot or whatever that might be.
O: What did electronics offer that drums and guitars couldn't?
GL: New sound. Possibilities. Things you can't do. But the technology really developed in the '80s, that explosion of possibilities. That was what was going on, so that's obviously what one is interested in. What can we do with this, you know?
O: On the current tour, though, it's back to basics.
GL: Yes. It's a very obvious process, really. We had a relatively short period to organize this, to come together to do what we're doing, and guitars-and-drums is a very direct way of doing things. Robert likes to play the drums, and technology has moved on in the area of how guitars sound. It seemed to be the thing to do. We didn't want to get too encumbered with loads of technology. We wanted something pretty mobile, something we could go to places with and travel light, rather than saddling ourselves with a machine that takes a lot of high maintenance.
O: You've all played many different styles of music since the late '70s. Was it easy or difficult to return to just guitars and drums?
GL: It was quite hard, actually. Having made music for a long period of time, 10 years or so, with one finger and a brain, there was the physical aspect of it. But there is something very special about guitars. You get a very instant result.
O: Does it help or hinder the composition process to be proficient?
GL: I don't know if I'm equipped to answer that question. [Laughs.] Let's put it this way: Virtuosity has never been a problem, because it's never been attained. [Laughs.] I think it's conducive to a certain kind of work, yeah, but for us being musicians… We've had to be musicians in order to create, or recreate, the ideas we had. It's not the number-one thing, but you have to acquire skills in order to realize the idea. That way around, rather than, "Wow, I have this incredible technique; now what am I going to do? I think you write songs with these things…" That's not really the way we see it.
O: Would you consider Wire subversive?
GL: I think it was always in the brochure. I think the attitude was one of… One wants to encourage people to do things for themselves and do it the way they want to do it. If that's subversive, then absolutely.
O: Most people in America haven't had a chance to see you live.
GL: There's another generation, yeah.
O: What do you think of the lasting effect Wire has had on new generations and new musicians?
GL: Obviously, it's flattering. It wasn't our intention, but it's flattering. One hopes that one's work is useful and informative, and inspires people to do things, and that they find uses for it. People continually tell me about uses they've found for it. [Laughs.]
O: Though you've generally continued to move beyond the material most people have found most useful.
GL: It's the nature of the beast. That was in the brochure from the very beginning. We meant it when we said we wanted to change. That's what it's all about. You want to grow and you want to change. You want to change as a person. You want to be a better artist. And the only way you can do that is by confronting new problems and trying to incorporate new influences.
O: How do you think Wire has changed the music around it?
GL: In a way, I think that's for other people to answer. In some ways, what I hope is that it's sort of raised; if you're involved with this thing called music, if it's something you take seriously, then you've got to be part of it, because it's an incredible artistic tradition. Of course, it is marvelous if you can actually leave it in a better place than you thought it was when you came upon it.
O: I'd say you've proven that you can sustain a career by challenging people. That means people have changed with you.
GL: Well, not all of them. I think what happens over time is that there are people who stay and people who go. People return and new people come. That's the organic process. But, yeah, there are people—the fundamentalists—who stayed. [Laughs.]
O: There are bands that shouldn't continue to make music…
GL: [Laughs.] God, I don't think we have enough time to name all of them!
O: But Wire should continue, because you're all so likeminded in your quest for new ideas.
GL: Likeminded? Well, I think it's like you said at the beginning: How can it come back together again, and is there a need? I think you have very different individuals with very different views, and when there is a Wire, there is a possibility to have a conversation, a discussion with some common ground. I think there were periods after the first three albums where it got to the point where there were various reasons around it—with regard to record companies and things like that—but the biggest problem we had was how to get a gallon into a pint glass. It doesn't work. People have ideas, and if you don't pursue them, you get frustrated. And if you get frustrated, you don't work very well, you know? I think every time the Wire process has come to a stop, everybody's gone for what they themselves needed to do. It's free in that way. You don't have to like what people do, but you have to do what you think is right.
O: What lies in Wire's future?
GL: We're going to stop off in Chicago for a few days to put
something down with Mr. [Steve] Albini in his studio. We just saw Steve, and we all talked and went, "Yes, we'll give it a go." I'm not really sure what it's for. If we keep doing the set we're doing now, it could be for a full-length, but everyone's keeping an open mind about it. The plan is to make the recordings. Making product at the moment is a very secondary thing. We've put out one EP, and there's going to be another one which is sort of a sampler record of the Royal Festival Hall show that we did, with the different aspects of the things we did there, not just Wire. That's the next thing, and if it goes well with Steve, there'll be another thing.