Somewhere On the Cusp
If Wire’s chief goal had been to simply make a lasting impact they could have called it a day before the ’80s had even dawned. Even they might have been surprised to know how vital they would sound 35 years later.
Now a three-piece with founding members Colin Newman (guitar, vocals), Graham Lewis (bass, vocals), and Robert Grey (formerly Robert Gotobed-drums), as guitarist Bruce Gilbert is not currently involved, the band has released Red Barked Tree, their 12th studio album. Alternately stirring and subtly intriguing, the 11 tracks manage to summarize what the band has accomplished since their three influential punk/post-punk ’70s albums (Pink Flag, Chairs Missing, and 154) and to point out the jarring possibility that this band’s finest work may lie ahead.
Hays Davis: Where are you today?
Colin Newman: Somewhere in the top left bit of Italy, traveling on the longest continuous drive of our European tour: Barcelona – Rimini. The sun is shining and it's mild outside the bus.
Graham Lewis: On the cusp. When touring and traveling one finds oneself in the now, on the cusp, learning to sleep as a shark, in deep sleep but always in forward propulsion, scrubbing the oxygen from the experience. Capturing the illusive in word, sound and image.
Did you go into the writing and recording of Red Barked Tree with any different approaches in mind compared to your work on Object 47?
Colin: Absolutely! Really, the story of Red Barked Tree begins in 2006 when we got together as a three-piece after Bruce's departure in 2004. We took a decision we wanted to continue and would continue even if Bruce didn't want to come back. There had been a lot of destructive stuff happening around the band—not Bruce's fault—but we took a clear, positive decision to move forward. I think in many ways a lot of positive things have flowed from this. When Bruce left there was pretty much an album's worth of material in some kind of form. Those things that Bruce had taken some kind of part in went towards Read & Burn - 03 and the rest plus some new things went to Object 47. In the period spring ’08 to spring ’09 we did a lot of shows with Margaret Fiedler as our live second guitarist. This period really built our confidence in playing and really set the scene for Red Barked Tree.
My feeling with Red Barked Tree was that we needed to get beyond assembly as a process. Most people who don't record in major studios end up using some kind of assemblage to make records. It's very convenient but I felt we could make a better record by employing a different method, which was to actually to write the songs first! I wrote a bunch of songs on acoustic guitar, some with Graham's words and some with my own. Graham came with four pieces, which were augmented bass and vocal. We booked four days in a studio in London and learned and recorded the basic arrangements, just the three of us with an engineer. We had a further two-day session in another studio; the rest was me working through the material and making it sound good. Everything pretty much stays faithful to the basic arrangements. There are appropriate additional sounds but I really wanted to represent the band in the production.
Graham: Good songs written before the studio, [with] the opportunity of refining and re-editing until the text appeared as written by another's hand. I think this gives the tracks a universality which Object 47 was unable to aspire to because of the creative health of the group. With Object 47 I wrote and edited much of the material in the field whilst we recorded in Rotterdam. Twelve texts in five days. Brutal and sleepless, barely time to form the question let alone compose an answer! Red Barked Tree's universality is its strength. It's aware. It's knowledgeable, yet innocent. There's a strong emotional integrity. It tries to speak with truth.
Considering the songs on this album, are there certain styles that you personally would prefer to lean toward and spend more time with? Or do you prefer the variation between these songs? I wondered if the album might have been different if you or anyone in the band might have indulged themselves completely, or if anyone felt the need to turn toward any particular directions as a concession to either fans or to the band?
Colin: The process is in essence very simple. Each piece, however fragile its beginning, has its own little world to inhabit. The production process is all about exploring that world and rendering the most faithful account of what is discovered. I'm personally pretty style-agnostic and the band doesn't really think in terms of which particular styles need be present. It comes out like it comes out!
Graham: The only style one can aspire to is “good.”
Which songs on the new album did you spend the most time with, where the band felt moved to put more care into their development?
Colin: The process above does not really allow that way of working. In production I will spend more time on the pieces that haven't quite gelled. We had also a second recording session where we specifically focused on a few tracks that needed to find a new modus operandi.
Both of these questions seem predicated on two, what I would think of as, rather cynical approaches to the art of record making. One being that the product is designed with the market in mind and the second being that potential "singles" are given full production weight while others get skimmed budgets. I personally think that the world has had far too much of these methods. Wire inhabit the world of the particular: it's about finding your own voice or voices and working to your own logic to make something which has veracity within your own world. It's always been a central tenet that there is no way you will ever please anyone else unless you can please yourself first!
Graham: The phrase “Please take your knife out of my back and when you do, please don't twist it” lay in a notebook for seven years awaiting the melody which might articulate it. This came to me one night whilst walking Iggy Pup, my dog.
At this stage, is it difficult to make arrangements to work together, or is that much of a problem?
Colin: From my point of view it comes down to the writing. Writing, as I did for this record, on acoustic guitar leaves a lot of space for the three of us to work out arrangements. I write very fast, five minutes max, in this mode, and the band arrangements take a similar amount of time. There's not a lot of thinking or tailing involved; it's a pretty organic process. As I said, we came back around a couple [of songs] when I'd gone through the initial production stage when it becomes obvious what works and what doesn't. A couple we dropped because they needed something more basic. They'll appear later on in some context or other.
Graham: As Colin said, the process was: fast 14 songs, written arranged and basically recorded in four days. Not much thinking, very much doing!
I think anyone who is familiar with a wide range of your work would see that you don't feel bound to maintaining creative ties to any period of your career, though you have still managed to develop a distinct personality. Have there been compositions written for the band over the years that have been set aside or passed over because they didn't fit within Wire's context?
Colin: To be honest, we don't really think like that. On the current album, a track like “Red Barked Trees” is way outside anything that could be considered a “Wire aesthetic” by all but the most diligent fans yet it is totally Wire! I think what we've discovered through this album is that what is required to make Wire music is basically Wire! To put it in the simplest way: we are Wire and this is what we do!
Graham: Wire does Wire music. Not much else!
Was there ever a concern at any point over the years that the band might be falling into a stage of arrested development, or have your creative inclinations always naturally prevented any kind of stasis?
Colin: The latter part of the Send period was very difficult for many reasons. It has been fantastic to find our feet again.
Graham: Yes, Send could have been the dark, claustrophobic cul-de-sac from which Wire never reappeared. We had to exert all the energy we could muster under trying circumstances to reverse the gravitational pull which would have seen Wire disappear into oblivion.
Do you find yourselves these days recognizing newer bands, or some that have been around a while, as being like-minded peers?
Colin: Of course, anyone who is good transcends the moment that threw them up. I'm also enjoying a lot working with our current live guitarist Matt Simms. He is very much of our mindset.
Graham: I have never been as involved with as many different and extraordinary collaborators. Matt Simms is 25, roughly the same age we were when Pink Flag was released.
I still love the idea of taking Ex-Lion Tamers on tour to play your early material. If you could make a similar selection now, is there any particular album that you'd like to have an opening band perform? Would it be because you welcome the prospect of not having to play it yourself or maybe more for the thought of seeing someone else have a crack at it?
Colin: That's not quite the story. The Ex-Lion Tamers were not a regular band; more a concept, in fact. They played Pink Flag in its entirety, with the gaps and an announcement from the bass player when ‘side two’ was to be played. It was kind of unique as at that time there was no such thing as “Don't Look Back” shows. Nobody played classic albums in their entirety and nobody has had someone else do it. Truth was, it was their concept, not ours. We just asked them if they wanted to tour it! I think doing that again would seem a tad forced.
Graham: “The Ex-Lion Tamers Play Pink Flag” was a freestanding work of art. We appropriated/curated it in order to solve a specific problem at the time: we didn't play any old material. The Ex-LTs were like a Duchampian ready-made. They fell out of the sky into our lap! The premiere of the show on that American Tour was in Philadelphia, where Duchamp's collection is permanently installed. I had goose bumps the first night! There's something strange going on tonight!
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