Interview with Wire vocalist/guitarist Colin Newman | By Nick Harrah
April 1 marked the 40-year anniversary of Wire’s first show at The Roxy in London. To commemorate the occasion, the post-punk legends released their new 10-song album, Silver/Lead, and headlined their own fest, DRILL Festival, in Los Angeles the same day before playing a string of West Coast shows.
Vocalist and guitarist Colin Newman, keen on keeping things fresh—now, with young guitarist Matthew Simms settled into the lineup after a few albums, along with bassist Graham Lewis and drummer Robert Grey—stops to chat about how the more things change, the more they stay the same.
April 1 marks 40 years since your first show in London. You think you’d make it this long? How special is it to be playing a show on the anniversary and have the new album out?
Yeah, I didn’t think anybody imagined we’d do it this long. I mean, you do it for laughs, don’t you? There was a band that existed in ‘76 also called Wire, and the problem was that it was somebody else’s band—and that person, we weren’t really excited about their material. It’s a long story. We basically kicked him out of his own group.
So, April 1, 1977, was the first time the four-piece that went on to make Pink Flag—that was when a lot of that material was debuted. To be quite honest, we didn’t even know that was going to be recorded that night at The Roxy Club. It was part of a so-called punk festival at The Roxy that was recorded for an album [The Roxy London WC2] which came out later that year for EMI, both nights, and rereleased later on [Wire’s label], Pinkflag.
But, to be really honest, we were bottom of the bill. April 1, 1977, we were bottom of the bill in a club that held 100 people, that maybe had 50. It was half full. It was mainly empty. It wasn’t an auspicious beginning. Nobody would have looked on that stage and thought, “Hey, yeah! They’ll be going strong doing this 40 years from now!” It was what it was.
I think, interestingly, after we made 154 [in 1979], I was sitting in Rye Saloon, in Norwood, in West London, and [producer] Mike Thorne was around, and someone asked him, “Do you recognize the band that made 154 as the same band that made Pink Flag, the one that you met at The Roxy?” And he said, “Yes. Absolutely, it’s the same one.” Maybe he was claiming hindsight already, but he was kind of giving the impression that he felt the band he met in 1977 was fully capable of going on and maturing into a group that could make an album like 154.
The thing was, that the recordings for [The Roxy London WC2] was what EMI heard, and that’s why, that’s the reason that they signed us. So, there was something. They knew they were hearing something in what was going on. So, we thought it was really good.
But that is really not that unusual, I think, if anyone is in a band, and they don’t think they’re really any good, just, why the hell are they doing it? [Laughs]
Moving to London in 1976, coming out of art school, starting the band, how exciting a time was that to be a part of?
Well, you know, I think people view the past with rose-tinted spectacles, to be quite honest. A lot of the ‘70s was pretty miserable. I mean, we had the “Three-Day Week” in Britain, we had electric going on and off in the middle of winter, and rubbish was piling up in the streets. I mean, the government was at war with the unions—or the unions were at war with the government, depending on your viewpoint. It was not a completely happy time.
Britain’s post-war period was not that prosperous, and London was the kind of home of the swinging ‘60s, but there was a lot that was miserable about London. There were areas in Stockton, Brixton, areas with rows of houses boarded up, people were squatting, it was a kind of place that people had left behind.
It wasn’t like now, with the thing in London where it’s really expensive to live in. It wasn’t in those days. So, in terms of the music, there was a definite feeling by ‘74 or ‘75 that something had to change. I mean, there’d been a continued development of music from the ‘60s, and that culminated or hit a pinnacle with the beginning of prog rock.
It was like, our music had expanded to the point where these groups that we liked were getting kind of massive, but they were also getting boring, you know? So, bands that were interesting and great in the late ‘60s were uninteresting by the mid ‘70s. So, there was a sense that something new had to come, and, in a way, the style happened even before the music.
I mean, there was definitely a sense that you were supposed to have short hair and wear straight trousers and like loud music, but there wasn’t anybody providing it at that point.
Then the Ramones came along.
The Ramones were interesting because they were a concept. I mean, the Ramones didn’t do—[sighs], I mean, you could never say this to a group at the time, but, I mean, they really didn’t need to make more than one record, because [their 1976 debut, Ramones], was perfect. They probably really didn’t need to make more than five songs, to be quite honest.
It was very simple. It was very straightforward. But, you saw, totally contained within it, it was not naive. This was smart. Maybe some of them were dumb, but some of them really weren’t dumb. This was clever, conceptual shit. They were taking a concept—this was bubblegum pop, all amped up through a kind of, I don’t know, a kind of methodology which became punk. But I don’t know, it was heavy rock meets bubblegum basically, to describe it in terms of the day.
So, they were catchy tunes, they were simple tunes kind of amped up real fast, and they set a template for a generation. I mean, that had a very different effect in Britain than what it had in America. It was an interesting time for that—but for a very, very short period of time, rather interestingly, because it became very boring. Because what happened in Britain was the Sex Pistols, who were—what you would call these days—generational-defining. They were a band that you were either into or you hated. If you hated them, you were too fucking old, basically. That’s how it was.
But, within a year, people who had been into groups and wanted to be the junior Sex Pistols, they couldn’t be the Sex Pistols and they all sounded the same and they were really boring. Punk rock was dead. Punk rock was dead by the end of 1976.
So, 1977, April [of] ‘77, when Wire were starting to perform the music that we became known for, actually we were already at odds with what was going on. Because not only were there four and a half people in that Roxy Club, if they maybe didn’t even like us, the management of the club thought we were fantastic. But the punkers that came in, in the beginning, they didn’t really like Wire at all; they thought we were too artsy, they thought we were too conceptual. You know, we would play fast, but we would play fast for 30 seconds. What’s the use of that? We can’t even get a couple pogos going.
And then, we’d play slow, and playing slow was one of the big no-nos. One of the rules of punk was you weren’t allowed to play slow. We didn’t give a toss about the rules of punk, so therefore, we played slow. We didn’t pretend to be something we weren’t. We were just kind of—people didn’t really know what we were. But I think, probably around ‘78, there was an audience for us, people who got who we were and what we were doing.
After the first three albums, Wire went on a bit of a break. How did that allow you to grow or progress as musicians as you might have begun to experiment with a more electronic sound?
There have been periods where Wire famously ceased operating. The band, I think, has never “broken up” per se. No one has ever used that word. Wire don’t do breakups and we don’t do comebacks, two things which are kind of genuinely annoying about groups. So, there have been periods of operation—you know, from ‘77 to ’79—and then, there was a break from ‘80 to around ‘85, and then there was from ‘85 to around ‘90, and then there was another break, to around ‘94, and then it started again, and there have been a couple of hiccups in that period.
But it’s not like it’s “Hey, there was that record that was, you know, six billion years ago, and then there’s this one, which was new,” and then, you forget about everything in between. I mean, you do different things. I would say, the opinions I hear most are of what Wire is like of the last 10 to 12 years. That’s what they kind of know. Because the ‘80s stuff tends to get overlooked, but that’s partly to do with the way the records were made. Maybe there would’ve been more attention paid to them at a later date, I don’t know.
But there are, you know, critics—people who write about music, they can kind of make judgements. As an artist, you just do the thing that you do, and you do what you feel comfortable doing. It’s not a hard job. It sounds really, really boring, but you kind of just have to be true to yourself. You have to do your own thing.
How did Silver/Lead fit in with or jump off from your more recent releases, and how has the chemistry or process settled as you’ve welcomed young guitarist Matthew Simms in over the last few albums? Where and when did you record the new album?
Well, [2013’s] Change Becomes Us, [2015’s] Wire, [2016’s] Nocturnal Koreans, [and] Silver/Lead were all recorded in Rockfield Studios, which is a studio in Wales, quite a famous studio—actually, it’s two studios, and we recorded in both. Basically, you know, what happens is we record as a band. I come usually with songs, the band plays them, Graham will also bring some stuff, and then we have a pile of material. I do stuff here in this studio, the one I’m sitting in right now, and I work on the material, maybe have a second go ‘round, maybe do a bit more work, then finish the mixing here. I do my vocals here; every extra overdub, I do here in this studio.
In terms of chemistry, there’s really—some things about Wire just haven’t changed at all. I mean, throughout the ‘70s—and it started again with Red Barked Tree in 2011—I’ve always written a song from the same acoustic guitar, pretty much. It’s, um, [pans camera] can you see that guitar hanging up there?
What I do is—I’ve learned over the years, it’s pointless sending demos to the group, because they don’t listen to them, and all they hear is me playing acoustic guitar. It only matters when the band has to do something. That’s the point, so actually, with Silver/Lead, it’s an album where practically every track started in this studio with acoustic guitar; even with the title track and the vocals, I worked on it here, then took it to Rockford, the band worked on it, and I brought it back here to finish. It’s a way of working, but the arrangements are done super fast. There’s not a lot of discussion about what it’s supposed to be. It’s more about what notes, where the change and the chorus comes, and “1-2-3-4,” and that’s kind of how we sketch it out, and it’s done super fast without any discussion.
That’s always been true about Wire. We only truly even think about it if there’s a problem.
What about your relationship with Graham Lewis over the years, with him writing lyrics and you guys just working on arrangements—how close are you two?
Well, Graham and I don’t always get on that well. That Graham mainly writes lyrics and I mainly write the songs is not entirely true. Sometimes, he has a vocal melody and I help him work the song out or other people in the band help. Matt helps a lot these days. He’s a very, very different character than me. I tend to be, um, fairly straightforward, and Graham—Graham, I feel, and it’s just my opinion that he’s much more of what people expect of an artist than I am.
I’m kind of boring. I’ll always tell people exactly how you do something, and I don’t really have a lot of space for mystery. I don’t really know how to do mysterious very well. Graham is very good at presenting things in a certain kind of way to make it sound interesting. We can both be describing the same thing, and I make it sound dead boring and he makes it sound really interesting—but I don’t know which is closer to the truth. I always feel I’m closer to the truth, you know?
But, I don’t know, I think you need that silver and lead, you know? You need those relationships in a band. Bands are like dysfunctional families. I mean, all families are, to some degree, dysfunctional. That’s how a band is. We don’t actually write together. Traditionally, he’s given me text, and I write tunes for them. Because, also, I’m quite lazy when it comes to writing text. It’s not that I can’t write, it’s just that, if I have an idea and I want to get it down, I want to just have something that will remind me of the tune, and that means words, words will give you the vocal melody. So, there, I’ve got something going, and he’s got the words, let’s shove those in and see if they fit. That’s why a lot of Wire songs have that characteristic of the words being quite illogically placed within the music. We’ve already got the melody, and I’m trying to get the words that weren’t written for that to fit.
So, it’s a sort of methodology, and Graham gets so annoyed with me about it. Then, he realizes it’s ours. Now, he tries to write in a way so that it doesn’t really matter what I do to the words, I’m not going to ruin it. I’ll just pick out one line, and that line is suddenly the chorus. It wasn’t written as a chorus, but it came at the right place in the song, so then that becomes the chorus. I do stuff like that. Sometimes, I move things around, I’ll leave out verses and choruses if he’s written too many. I take liberties with his text, but the idea is I’m not making any judgements on whether I think it’s any good or not, I’m just trying to get the pieces to work. I think, ultimately, everybody understands that it’s about getting a piece of music to work.
And you did ask earlier about Matt: he’s just a member of the band. I mean, there’s really no other sort of thing you can say about Matt. He’s quite a lot younger than us. He started off as someone who was just playing guitar with us in a live setting, and I realized after he’d been playing with us for about six months—or actually about 10 weeks—that he was just way too good.
So, I kind of thought, “Well, we should at least get him into the band,” and it has worked. Matt is like everyone in the band, they’ve got their own opinion—you’ve got four people in Wire who very often have four different opinions about the same thing. People say we’re strong characters. To get on with all the members of Wire, you have to be a strong character. There’s no way you can be some kind of shrinking vine. You’ve got a corner, and you’ve got to fight it. There’s no saying, “I don’t care,” you’re just going to get steamrolled, you know? So, Matt is just as good and bad as everyone else. He fights his corner, he’s a pain in the ass sometimes, but it’s been great, and he’s a great guitarist! What can I say? He’s the only proper musician in the band. I mean, Rob isn’t a guy who started out as a musician, but Rob works really hard. He was unconfident when he first started playing the drums, that he could cut it as a drummer in a band. So, what he’s done since then is—he’s just practiced and practiced and practiced. I don’t practice playing guitar, I don’t even touch a guitar when I don’t have to. [Laughs] I mean, lazy ass, you know, on one level.
But the thing is, I don’t write songs when I don’t have to. My attitude towards it is, I like something to be fresh. I like something to feel fresh to me, and I like something to feel new and to feel different. I like to get excited about something. I like to have a feeling like there’s something going on, and it hasn’t quite been that way before. I don’t know, people—people have all kinds of weird or different expectations about what a band like Wire should or shouldn’t produce. It’s totally organic. We produce what we produce. That’s just how it works.
How cool is it to have these DRILL Festivals that you’ve been doing since 2013, to spotlight these kinds of bands and music?
The DRILL Festivals—we did the first one in 2013, in London. One of the issues with Wire has always been that Wire has always been a contemporary band. In the ‘70s, it didn’t really matter, because everybody was a contemporary band. I mean, we were in our 20s. Then, in the ‘80s, we were in our 30s and “Yeah, we can still be a contemporary band,” then we went in a little electronic direction, like other groups went. That was what was happening in music.
By the time we came to the end of the ‘90s, we were in comeback territory. Most groups of a certain age were doing comebacks, or they were doing the heritage thing. They weren’t doing new work. And, as we’ve got older, we’ve become more and more in a minority in that we do new work. We’re not the only band—I mean, look at Swans, look at The Fall, they concentrate on new material. But that’s not the case with the huge number of groups that have made comebacks, who didn’t do anything for 20 years, and [inflects faux awe] come back and play big shows and the audience will sing—and they’re just a cover band.
For me especially, this has been a very conscious decision to go in this direction. You can make a killing playing huge festivals on a comeback in year one. It’s gonna be year eight before you can do it again—if they’ll have you back. So, you gotta go eight years on the earnings of one, even if it’s a good year. Why not just do what naturally comes to the band? Which is: keep doing the things that you want to do. You’re not going to make the big killing, you’re not gonna play the massive comeback festival kind of headliner thing, but that’s OK, because you can play lots of other shows.
The high point about doing a festival is this is the kind of festival that we’re interested in. It’s an interesting set of contemporary groups ranging from people in their 20s to people our age, or whatever, who have something to say. It’s not offensive—it’s a city festival. It’s not massive or anything, so we can’t slide anyone in, so the lineups will always be very realistic. They represent, usually, local bands.
Doing this, it’s about context. It’s about the kind of context that Wire is seen in. So far, we’ve announced four so far, but there will be more; we can’t quite announce them yet. It’s the most we’ve ever done in one year. We’re doing L.A., which is a big deal. L.A. is a big city for us.
We decided to hold it over for the anniversary, and it seemed like a good thing: the idea that on the first of April, 2017, 40 years from that day at The Roxy, instead of being in a basement in Covent Garden, we’re on a stage in Los Angeles, half a world away. It’s like, there’s something. It’s like, “We’re not going back. We’re not trying to recapture the past. Here we are. We’re still here, and this is us.” And I would think that’s what our audience expects of us. We’re not playing a number on anybody. People who are Wire fans, they know what you get from a Wire show. It’s not gonna be theater or a nostalgia trip. But yeah, it won’t be exclusively stuff from the new album, there’ll be stuff from the entire history of the band—but it’s not going to be about the history, you know?
We’ve seen so many groups, you know, start off with a few tracks from their new album, and they’ll get into the set, and it’s basically all old songs. If we do old songs, sometimes we really like to surprise people, we like to do songs that nobody would ever expect to hear. And certainly, I mean, because we’ve never really had any hits. People or fans will argue or claim that this or that Wire song is more popular than other Wire songs. To be quite honest, I think, apart from looking at something like Spotify, there isn’t really any way to know the most popular Wire songs.
That’s the other thing: it’s really important when the band play live, if we play something old, it’s got to sound convincing. There’s got to be something to it. Because, I mean, look, I’ve stood in a rehearsal room with Wire, and we’d play a song and we’d all look at each other and go, “Yeah. It sounded just like a cover band. I don’t think we’re gonna be doing that one,” you know? It’s that we couldn’t find—we’d know how to play it, but we couldn’t find anything different to say with it in a different reality, in a different life. So, that’s kind of where we are.
Looking at the changes in the music industry, from your perspective, how much better or worse is it to be a band these days? You set up your Pinkflag label in 2000—between having to work with labels and sometimes a press that didn’t get what you were doing in the past, how much of a luxury is it to be able to put out your own music?
From my own history, there was a period when Wire kind of stopped working in the early ‘90s. During that summer, I was in Brussels, and then I moved to London, but while my wife and I were in Brussels, we had a small studio, we started the studio there. I don’t live in London anymore, by the way, but we moved to London and set up the studio in our garage.
The original idea was we were going to make productions and we would take them to the record company. I sat and had a very long meeting with [producer and Mute Records founder] Daniel Miller, and he said, “Why don’t you start your own record label?” We’re talking ‘93, and it was just at the point when there were lots of new electronic labels starting in London, and it was very innovative and a really good period for that.
And I thought, “Well, if I have someone like Daniel tell me how to do it, the least I can do is give it a shot,” and so, we started releasing stuff. Through the ‘90s, we actually had some good records that sold; it was all underground, but it was possible to put out records by an artist, and for them to earn royalties, um, to have things at least in DJ charts without spending a lot of money putting something out. Through that, I learned the economics of the music industry, the basics of how to run a record label.
I was involved in the late ‘90s with something called PostEverything; we were very, very early as far as delivery systems, and we were way too ahead of our time, and we ended up losing our artists. But I kind of understood the industry from lots of different angles. I knew everything about digital that was coming, all that kind of stuff that was happening in music. By the end of the ‘90s, Wire started again, and it became obvious to me in the end that Wire should release on their own label. So, I elected to run it. I already had the studio. I could finish and mix a record. I had distribution, I could do mail order, I understood how to get stuff into iTunes and all that kind of stuff. So, I kind of had a basis for what we needed to know.
Pinkflag, when it started, was a runaway success. The first serious record we released, [2002’s] Read & Burn 1, sold 17,000 in its first month with no press. We had nothing. We didn’t do any press, we didn’t do anything. We thought we’d sell a couple thousand, then do another one, and then compile it into an album. Well, that all went a bit astray [laughs]. But Pinkflag has had a charmed life from the beginning. We’ve always done well with it. We continue to do well with it.
Obviously, these days, you can’t bundle records out anymore. You have to be thinking, now, about all of the different formats. You have the two physical formats, you’ve got your CD and you’ve got your vinyl. You’ve got your downloads, which is going away; you’ve got your streaming, which is going up. Streaming will eventually dominate the market and provide income streams to the artists; it doesn’t quite yet.
But in the end, the total amount of music that is consumed doesn’t go down. What changes is the format. Understanding the formats is really, really important. I think a lot of people are blinded by their bias. As an artist, I shouldn’t care about the format. I should only care about the music. I’m highly suspicious of people who think that, you know, they make good music and the only valid format it should be heard on is vinyl. That’s just bullshit.
From influencing so many bands and musicians over the years, from the lulls in output through seeing the changes in the music industry, how satisfying is it to know that you have that kind of impact or influence on rock ‘n’ roll over 40 years?
That’s a very difficult question to answer. Because, like, when people say, “Isn’t it great to have influenced all these artists?” I always say, “Well, it depends on who it is.” You know, if it’s some artist that we’ve influenced and I think, “God, if we’re gonna be responsible for that, we should be shot.” [Laughs] It’s a double-edged thing. Um, of course, it’s very flattering. It’s flattering to think that you’ve done something and other people thought that it’s a good thing.
But that’s not the reason why you do it, and it can never be the reason why you do it. You do it because you do it. You do it because it makes you feel good, and if other people see some value in it, that’s great. The people that you admire most are the people who take the influence, “Thank you very much,” they produce something and it sounds absolutely nothing like what you did. But they see something in what you do and think, “Yeah, that’s interesting” or “That attitude is good, that way of going about things is good.”
So, if we’re nowadays able to have younger bands look at us and think, “Well, hey, maybe there’s a way to last longer than five minutes by sticking to what you do”—I mean, in some ways, it’s so different now. The whole world is so different. Most people that I know who are in bands, they’re making music that is so far from the mainstream market. They don’t imagine that they’ve ever been in it. They don’t imagine that they’d ever have a record that would be on any kind of chart. Most of them have no idea what is in the charts, you know?
I mean, really, if someone had asked me at any point during the ‘60s, ‘70s, or most of the ‘80s, “What’s number one?” I wouldn’t know what it was. I wouldn’t be able to tell you 10 records that were in the top 20. I have no idea now, and that’s not just because I’m old.
You can purchase Silver/Lead via Pinkflag here.
Top photo by Mathias Coral