“Your instinct is grounded in the culture you grew up in and what’s going on around you, and in some ways that’s how Wire isn’t any different now than it was forty years ago.”
It’s been over forty years since Wire emerged from punk’s artistic underbelly, changing the musical landscape with a series of trailblazing releases. Three albums in quick succession, all of which helped carve out post-punk’s knack for experimentation and evolution. The band has just re-issued these records, 1977’s Pink Flag, 1978’s Chairs Missing, and 1979’s 154 with beautifully packaged standard vinyl editions and extended special editions, the latter which include lyrics, photos, and a slew of extra tracks worthy of pouring over for years to come. To top things off, their boxset Nine Sevens, which collects their first 7” releases with full reproduced artwork and remastered sound, was a hot-ticket item for this year’s Record Store Day.
It’s not just a big year for Wire. Colin Newman‘s project Immersion, a fluid collaboration with wife Malka Spigel, will release their latest record, Sleepless, on June 15th. The duo will be touring the U.S. this summer with a series of dates across the country.
We had the honor to chat with Colin over great length about Wire’s past, present, and future, as well as the joys of social media and the upcoming Immersion tour.
Post-punk: While there were several bands flirting with the instrument, Wire was the first “punk” band to fully embrace the synthesizer, which was extremely controversial back then. What drew the band to the instrument?
Colin Newman: There are keyboards even on Pink Flag, Mike [Thorne] just ran them through distortion boxes to blend in with the guitar. I think it was partly to do with Mike being there, and by Chairs Missing, there were conscious choices about things you could do that you wouldn’t be able to do before – like the analogue sequencer in “Another The Letter” and the held chords in “Marooned,” stuff like that is just really hard to do with guitars. It gave an option for a different palette. We didn’t have a keyboard player in the band; I mainly played them. I just liked the additional textures. There’s never been a particularly philosophical viewpoint on which instruments to use or not use-it’s not like when Queen put out a record that said “no synths were used” as if you couldn’t make a proper record, which is just bollocks, you know? It’s like in the 90s when there was a certain school of thought in America that any music made with machines wasn’t proper music. That any music, if it doesn’t have a live drummer on it, it isn’t real. It’s all about what you’re trying to achieve, you know?
Looking back on the three records you’ve just reissued, it’s clear that Wire covered so much ground in just a few short years. What was the catalyst for pushing forward so rapidly?
You have to understand that everything was quick. In the beginning of 1977, we were a five piece and it was somebody else’s band. The person who we kicked out, they wrote the material and were very dominant. It just so happened that that person ended up in the hospital and we started rehearsing without him, and the first discovery was that his songs sounded better without him. So I said I could write songs and Graham said he could write texts so we started writing. By the time he came back, it was already a different band, so then we sacked him.
The first proper gig as a four piece was in April 1977, when we’d written a couple of songs that ended up on Pink Flag. All the songs in that set, even those we never recorded, were written after we kicked out George. By September we were already in the studio recording the record, and there was no sense that we were this band that had been going on the road for years, here was our set and we’re finally going to get to record it. These just happened to be the songs we had. In many ways, Pink Flag is a documentation of where the band was in 1977 as much as it is anything else. So the writing just continued, once we got into the habit of it. By early 1978, less than half the set was from Pink Flag. New material came quickly, and was more interesting to us than the old material. It’s an evolution. It was perfectly natural for us.
I appreciate all the fragments, demos, and alternate versions that are included in the new reissue sets. It really paints a picture of how songs would evolve over a short period of time. What was the writing process like? Did the band work in fragments, or did you “jam” together in the studio?
Graham used to give me lyrics, and I would write songs mainly on acoustic guitar and bring those songs into the rehearsal room or the recording studio, and we just learned it and played it. There wasn’t really a lot of discussion about what sort of thing it was going to be. I never really dictated that songs have to be like this or that outside of the inherent rhythm and structure based around the guitar. There’s all kinds of stuff in terms of the arrangement that the band just kind of worked out as we went along.
That’s cool that everything was written on an acoustic guitar – did you still have the same approach when writing the more electronic records, like Manscape, The First Letter, and The Ideal Copy?
On The Ideal Copy, some songs were written on the acoustic guitar and some on the electric. A Bell Is a Cup…Until It Is Struck was pretty much the same, though there were a few things that were made more on machines. Manscape was a different thing, the material was generated with a different concept in mind, which began with The Drill EP and lasted until after Object 47, where we wrote more by assemblage. I got bored with that and went back to writing just mainly with acoustic guitar ever since. It’s not how I write in other situations, but it seems to suit the band best.
Wire photo by Annette Green
Wire has notoriously never been interested in being a nostalgic band – for example, I can’t ever picture the band playing any single record in full, which is a big trend these days. I really admire that. With that in mind, was it difficult to revisit these records to piece together these reissues?
Again, this is one of those context things. We did license those three albums for North America in the last decade, 2005-2010 when EMI still existed. We had been in discussion to continue that, but EMI got taken over. There’s been a long period and a heavy legal process that finally ended up with us able to release these, with a lot of money changing hands. This has been really tenuous in the making, in terms of getting to it, and the thinking around the releases is trying to put out things which are really curated. As the band’s label there is a duty of care not to exploit. You could be very lazy, not bother manufacturing anything, and just put it all up on Spotify and Apple Music, but we had to pay a lot of money to fully secure these records back for ourselves, so it wouldn’t have been a very smart strategy.
So then the question is, “what kind of products?” Two products are obvious. The vinyl releases and the CD releases. We kept the standard tracklist when we licensed them the last time around. The albums are the original statements. You don’t want Pink Flag as a double vinyl album or even triple vinyl with extra tracks. It’s just wrong.
If you’re going to add to that statement, then you need to do that in a certain context-in this case, the special editions. We did special editions for Silver/Lead and Change Becomes Us so it’s a format which the band and Pink Flag as a label has expanded with, and it’s something that the fans know about. If you’ve not held one before, it’s fundamentally a book. Extending with extra tracks and book content makes for something that’s more than the sum of its parts, to make something that’s beautiful and aesthetic. People who have maybe bought those records before would say “here’s something I don’t have!” I might feel like certain fans are duty bound to buy something just because it’s been re-released, but actually we’d like to give them the option to own something with a lot of content that they don’t actually have.
Meanwhile, if you’re buying Pink Flag on vinyl, it’s pretty much the same item that you would have bought in 1977, it just doesn’t have the horrible Harvest logo. It’s not that Harvest was a bad label, but that lime green label was just didn’t fit with the aesthetic of the records. When we finally got the chance to change it on 154, that was the first time the whole package conformed to something we thought it should look like. I remember the first time getting Pink Flag out of its cover…you couldn’t find a color that went less with the rest of the packaging! Wire always makes aesthetic choices. These things are really important.
Speaking of, the Nine Sevens box set, we’re just winding down with that now as they’re pretty much all gone. I have no idea what Record Store Day in America actually did, because it’s not on any official list there, but it was one of the biggest items here in the UK. They were gone, went super fast, and people were complaining that they couldn’t get one. That their local shop didn’t even get it, or that it’s not on the list and didn’t exist. It’s kind of crazy. We try to do things to support shops, but some organization is a bit dumb, sadly.
It’s complicated for me. I actually went to my first Record Store Day this year, on Long Island of all places. The Wire box was the one thing I definitely wanted to pick up, but the store I went to didn’t know it existed. What’s odd about RSD is that it’s so chaotic, people are lining up early for items, selling them on eBay afterwards, preying upon actual fans of music and the artificial scarcity of these items, and I find it takes away from the purity of the music and cheapens it, honestly.
Yeah, it’s full of problems. If you talk to people who work in the shops, it’s so amazing for them, it’s a day where they can make up for endless wet Thursdays where they don’t make any money at all. You can’t say to a record shop you can sell THIS on an indie label but you can’t sell Bruce Springsteen on pink vinyl, because people will turn up for Bruce Springsteen on pink vinyl.
Oh yes, they will…
Major labels exploit that though, and there’s a feeding frenzy. I mean, to get anything manufactured for an April release is a nightmare.
Yup. My friends and I have had issues getting our own new music pressed to vinyl because of the backups from Record Store Day, yet there are countless new editions of existing records that forever take priority.
Absolutely. It’s kind of a pain in the ass, but on the other side, we have a record shop in Brighton. It’s a great store, they wanted me to come in and sign their copies of the box set. In my head I was like, “dear god, are they going to sell 50?” So I don’t know how many your local record shops got, but I suspect that a lot of shops in America didn’t get the quantity that they could have sold.
Right, which is bizarre because I do think the band does well here. At least in New York, every time I’ve seen Wire play the shows have been packed, and the band’s legacy is cemented, especially by now.
Oh, I’m certainly not saying that none made it to America, we had to make the production decision ages before we knew what we would sell. They were hellishly expensive to make, so we had to come up with a number in advance. In the end, it was very interesting, we probably sold more here in the UK than the rest of the world put together, and that’s crazy. When you think about the population of the USA versus the population of Britain, though getting the box anywhere is a pain in the ass, I mean, it’s a hefty item. You don’t want to be posting many of them, that’s for sure…
Now that the reissue campaign is underway, will you be considering the same treatment for your mid-eighties material?
Well, those are still owned by someone else right now. Ultimately Pink Flag is a label just to release all Wire records, but we have the small matter of money to consider. There’s quite a lot of money involved in these reissue projects, but if the plan pays off and turns into profit, we can start thinking about that. We’d have to consider the timing of that stuff. We’d have to go to the current owners, who might not want to sell it to us, even though they’re not doing very much with it themselves. I don’t want to second guess anything, because it’s not material we own or is owned by anyone connected to us. Fortunately, we are able to see Spotify data, so we can see how different parts of the catalogue do, and actually that’s the part of the catalogue that does the least well, and I think that means if we were going to do it, we’d need to engage with it intelligently and would need to provide products that add value rather than just re-releasing the albums as-is.
I’ve given it some thought in general, as I run the label, but it’s a long-term strategy and I’m a long-term strategy kind of person. Yes, it would make sense though. There was a point where it didn’t look like we’d even get the ex-EMI catalogue, so I thought maybe we should start moving on the eighties catalogue fist. But I’ve always thought that the important catalogue for Wire is what we’re releasing currently and the seventies material, with the eighties catalogue, yeah, maybe later on…
I mean, Pink Flag is a very simple concept, to only release material by one group, and it’s something of releasable quality, then we would release it. We were crazy enough to put out Document and Eyewitness again, how crazy is that? In a way it’s crazy and not crazy. I mean, nobody’s going to get rich putting out Document and Eyewitness, that’s for sure, but it didn’t do any harm and there are some people who really like it. It’s there for all of its faults as part of the catalogue. The more we look at this stuff, it’s why I really like this special edition format, because of that issue of context. How do these tracks relate? When where they recorded? Where were they recorded? Who recorded them? Why were they recorded? Who were those people anyway? Here’s who they are, and you can see pictures of them and the sessions, not just ones that appeared in magazines. It gives a rounder context which I think is kind of nice and gives it a certain seriousness, even though I think Wire has always been treated pretty seriously anyway, I don’t think anybody regards us as being artistic lightweights or anything, though we’re also quite happy to break some preconceptions as well…
I think much of your work is pretty enigmatic, so it is cool to peel away some of its layers and fill it with that extra context you mentioned. I consider it a bit like a puzzle for someone who’s really passionate to get a better sense of what it was like to make these records.
We didn’t necessarily know, though obviously anyone whose involved in an artistic venture who doesn’t believe what they’re doing is fantastic is an idiot, I mean why would you do it if you didn’t think it was great? We have a strong self-belief. We didn’t necessarily understand the more global context or how that fitted with anything else, we just were doing what we were doing. It was pure instinct. Your instinct is grounded in the culture you grew up in and what’s going on around you, and in some ways that’s how Wire isn’t any different now than it was forty years ago. It’s still very instinctive. It’s not something where a lot of people are constantly discussing what it should and shouldn’t be. Artistically a lot of it is quite gut.
It’s like, you thrive on that instinct and you put out this piece of work out, and later on it’s for everyone else to make sense of it, and that’s kind of the beauty of art in a way.
Well, we’re lucky enough that people have made sense of what we’ve done! It feels weird in a way, but probably the time when we were least understood is the time when these first three records were made. One of the shocking things about when we got back around in the eighties was that we would be standing in front of audiences who appeared to love us. It didn’t happen so much in the seventies. Towards the end we were starting to have our own audience, but in the beginning people didn’t really like us very much. They thought we were weird, which made us more determined, really.
I do think that time works in mysterious ways, people catch up to what they might have missed. In your case, perhaps absence made the heart grow fonder and influence became apparent. Everything is cyclical in a way, and I’m glad you were able to enjoy that.
I think the context in America is quite different in that regard. Pink Flag got good reviews in Britain and terrible reviews in America. Chairs Missing got terrible reviews in Britain and completely ignored in America. 154 got completely ignored in America as well, but we got brilliant reviews, perhaps the best reviews of any of the records in the UK, and part of that was journalists thinking “oh my god, we didn’t get the last album, but obviously they’ve left us behind!” There’s been a sort of retroactive viewpoint on Chairs Missing, it’s accelerated its way forward, disregarding those people who think Pink Flag is the only record that Wire have made and that everything after is rubbish…
Does that drive you nuts, by the way?
Uh, well it’s something you have to live with you know? It’s funny now because Chairs Missing has kind of gone up there as being a lot of people’s favorite Wire album from the seventies. The crazy thing is that you not only have all those people who only like Pink Flag there’s another class of person who thinks that 154 is the best record ever made.
Admittedly, I might be in that camp. 154 was the first Wire record I ever heard when I was in college in 2003 or so, and it blew my mind. I’m also very fond of The Ideal Copy, so it’s a bit of a tie for me.
Well it’s interesting too, because when I hear that, they don’t say it’s their favorite Wire record really, they just say it’s their favorite record ever… I never hear anyone say that about another Wire record. It’s one of those weird statistics that you kind of live with. I think in general, amongst Wire fans, they’re all pretty open. They’ve liked the idea that we’ve kept going, releasing interesting records and in many cases, interesting records that are really good. In some ways, one of the reasons why the eighties stuff is less of a priority to be dealt with is simply because there is a general sense that it’s less cohesive work as albums. People seem to like A Bell is a Cup… best out of those, but there’s no one album from that era that’s as regarded. More recently, I think some people pick out Send, and a lot of people pick out others from Red Barked Tree onwards and say these are great albums and are as good as what we did in the seventies.
I’d say the new records that you’ve been releasing have been extremely vital, which is more than most bands with a forty-year career can say. Sorry to throw your statistics off though, in regards to those eighties albums!
In some ways that’s harder for us to second guess. We can’t help having the cultural prejudices of our generation. I remember when we did Royal Festival Hall in 2000, when as it were, we “came back,” even though we don’t really do comebacks. There was a review in the NME that said “it’s so great to see Wire again, but they just play all these bloody eighties songs and it’s rubbish.” It was the only review that was like that but that completely set a mindset, one that appears to be shared by others out there.
But coincidentally, I’ve seen the band live maybe 5-6 times now, and whenever you play “Drill,” it’s one of the best songs of the night, so mileage may vary on that!
Hah! Well “Drill” is good if it doesn’t get too long and noodly.
I love that you guys did “Small Black Reptile” from Manscape last year, which was a real surprise.
That tour set was really based on the idea of the forty years of Wire, so there was a song in the set that we would have played in our first night, April 1st, 1977, and there was a song that would have been in a set had we played a gig on the first of April in 1987. For 1997, we had to go with something from 1999 because we weren’t operating in ’97, and same with 2008 because we didn’t have anything in 2007. That was four songs that were in the set simply for that reason. The second rule was that I insisted we had to play something off Manscape, and the only way to make that happen was to just go through and see if anything could just be reduced to chords that the band could make an arrangement around. When we tried “Small Black Reptile,” we thought “yeah, this one really works.”
It did! It sounded like it could have been from any modern Wire record.
Absolutely. One thing we didn’t do was record it, nor did we record the one song that was supposed to be as close to 1997 as we could, “Art of Persistence,” which was easily the most obscure song in the set. That was the only reason it was there! I think we will eventually try and record those two, but we didn’t mean to release three records in three years, it just happened. At the end of it, my feeling was that by those New York shows, we had to leave it for a little while. The contracts for the re-releases were signed while we were in New York by the way. We did an AOL broadcast, and after we finished, I looked at my phone and there they were.
Well, was it a bit of good news/bad news that you had to put new material on hold for a while?
It was an exciting moment, the good thing about it is that the special editions offer something new, but it was a lot of work too. For three months, we worked on it as a team. Three months, three books…
You’ve always been so prolific, between Wire past and present, Githead, and of course, the new Immersion record that’s due out next week. I’ve always wondered how you had the time to keep up with everything.
Well the Immersion record was mainly done by the year end. We did do little things, but the special editions and Nine Sevens required design as well. Some of the default things, I just do them myself so we don’t have to pay someone to do it for us. Mark and I cleaned up a lot of the pictures for the special editions and scanned artwork for everything, because, as you can imagine, the original artwork doesn’t exist anymore.
Finding time…well, I’m looking forward to a moment after the Immersion tour where I don’t have to think about too much apart from the fact that we have some plan to re-release Malka’s first album Rosh Ballata because she’s doing a performance related to it in November, so this is something fascinating to work on.
How about Minimal Compact? I know there are some recent reissues of that material too.
Well, Minimal Compact has its comebacks. I did some mixes for them, some live recordings of their last shows in 2016. I did some work last year to work in such a way that it doesn’t really sound live anymore. There are two or three tracks that I’m grateful there’s something happening with, but due to some personal issues, it’s made everything go into the mud a little bit, which is kind a pity.
I’m glad to hear you’re still producing music too. I know you’ve been handling all of the recent Wire records. I actually got into a lot of bands over the years after finding out you worked on their records, like Virgin Prunes and Parade Ground.
Parade Ground, my god!
Do you still enjoy producing? I’ve always enjoyed how your records sound.
Well thank you! I’ve probably gotten better to be honest. I don’t think I was quite good when I started. I’ve always been quite good at arrangement, but sonically, I have much more of a handle on it now. It really takes having your own studio to be able to do things on your own time, to just take the time it needs to develop. My process is quite slow and some would say anal. That’s how I learned how to do it, I’m not really a trained engineer but I know how to make something sound okay if I put the time and energy into it.
We’re very excited, also on the live front. We’re very excited to be touring with Immersion in America. Bloody hell, god knows if anyone is going to come!
I’ll be there!
Well all right, we’ve got one person! Well, of course we have friends that will definitely be there as well.
Well, I’m excited. Is this the first Immersion tour in the US?
Well, we played ONE show in L.A. last year. So that was our entire adventure to America. Immersion is really really unknown. I’m actually surprised you heard of it and brought it up! Most times I talk to journalists, we don’t even talk about contemporary Wire let alone any of the other projects.
I go pretty deep with the catalog…
That’s nice to know. It’s pleasing because we have to build everything from nothing, and the experience is that pretty much that Wire is so much bigger than anything else I’m involved in. Seventies Wire, the perception is that it’s the apex of what I can do to have a bit of an impact, and it has created a lot of interest. I’m glad you’re interested, as the people who worked on Immersion work with us otherwise, so no one has to relearn the context of what we’re trying to do. It’s not just about re-releasing the first three albums, there’s much more.
I actually wanted to ask a bit about your solo recordings in regards to Immersion, actually. I’ve always loved the ambient textures and landscapes of Provisionally Entitled the Singing Fish and felt that there might be a bit of a cue from this era with Immersion. Is that the case at all?
Well I think Malka would probably disagree quite violently with that. I think with those early eighties albums, I think Singing Fish is my favorite, but it’s probably the least popular in general. I think there are some really nice moments on it, though. The thing about Immersion is it’s a raw collaboration, and it’s hard to know really who does what, because we’re a couple and we don’t have that ego thing with each other. It just flows, so comparisons with anything she and I have done separately are hard to pinpoint. Of course there are similar elements between Wire, Minimal Compact, and our solo records, but maybe with this album we’ll start to develop a voice you haven’t heard from it before. Certainly the title track, I don’t think it’s like anything I’ve done before. People who know us also seem to think this new record is stronger than anything we’ve done as Immersion before. We feel confident about getting on stage with it, at least. I think New York, L.A., and Chicago will be all right, at least.
Will it be just the two of you performing in the live band?
No, we’ll have Matt Schulz playing drums for about half of the shows. He’s played with us before and is someone we’ve known for a while. Immersion is very open to collaboration and always has been. We’ve been doing a series of events in Brighton called Nanocluster. The whole point is for Immersion to collaborate with another artist or artists. Our most recent was Immersion and Laetitia Sadier. That was very fun. We did an Immersion set for half an hour, she did her own set for half an hour, and then we did a combined set that was all new material, material we made in the few days leading up to it. It’s not ad hoc, it’s proper pieces. It’s very interesting because unless you were at the gig, you can’t hear that anywhere else. You’re either in that room or you’re not. It’s not on the records, it’s not at another gig.
Immersion photo by Toby Mason
Funny enough, it’s amazing how everything is up on YouTube now, it gives people the false impression of feeling connected to experiences they weren’t there for. I feel that while it’s a nice document, it’s not really honest. You really need to be in that room to feel that level of connection to it.
Someone filming on an iPhone, if you were there and just want to have a record of your own experience, that’s ok, but if people really think that would give you any indication of what it’s like to be in that room, you have a very weird idea about life.
It’s just funny that it’s becoming part of the culture now, in a way. People who can’t be bothered to turn up for something try to feel that connection to an event.
It’s just sad, you know?
Photos make sense in that context, as a memento. But you go to so many larger shows, and it’s a sea of phones, recording the same immensely popular songs and it just takes away from the actual experience of being there.
Well, I think you’ve also got the Me Me Me Generation where it’s much more important to take a selfie with their backs to the band, with the band in the photo behind them, it becomes about the audience and not about what’s on stage. It’s always got to be an experience for the audience, but the band is actually up on stage doing something, they’re not just the backdrop for your selfie.
Right, bands are putting so much energy and focus into performing, while some members of the audience are more concerned about themselves and their impressions on social media. I was here, look at me, etc.
I’m not a big fan of social media to be honest. I use it as a way to promote stuff I’m involved with, but I’m less and less on it. I’m less interested in engaging with it. I think it’s kind of sad, really. I know that your president has completely ruined Twitter. Who thought you’d be on the same thing he was on?
I always wonder how bands in the 60s or 70s would have taken to social media – could you imagine if The Sex Pistols and Malcom McLaren had a platform like that? Would they have had the same impact, would they have been savvy enough to achieve their means with it, or would they have been laughed off the internet?
I can’t imagine that would have gone very well for them, no. I really think it’s fine for marketing – this event is happening, or this record is coming out, or buy this t-shirt, or something like that. That’s all fine. I’m just not interested in sharing any particular personal details or ideology in that medium. If I want to talk to someone, I’ll talk to them. I also just don’t have time. I’m far too busy doing other stuff!
I do think it preys on people’s boredom, people refreshing their feed instead of making art, or going outside and enjoying the day. Any possible thing.
I agree completely.
Speaking of pushing forward with art then, and to bring things back to the present, will you be working on a new Wire record now that the reissue campaign is moving forward?
The plan is to put a new album out in early 2020. I wanted to have a bit of a gap in between Silver/Lead and a new album, but I also want a bit of a gap between the re-releases and any new material as well. You don’t want to be a second-hand car dealer you know? I’ve got one in green, I’ve got one in pink over here, and here’s a classic. There comes a point where I worry that maybe we’re putting too many things out, that it spreads us a bit too thin. I want us to go a bit light, but the cut off has to be mid-March for a US tour, because that’s when our visas run out. The tour will have to be in early 2020 and I would love to go with a first Friday in January as the album release date.
Having said that, we talked vaguely about when to record and everyone understands the timetable, but we haven’t agreed on what studio to use and haven’t written any songs yet. I’m quite good at long-term planning, but nobody else in the band really thinks like that. So yeah, the record is coming out in 2020, but what are we doing in 2018?
06.08 – Brighton, UK @ RoseHill (NANOCLUSTER with Ulrich Schnauss)
07.13 – Allston, MA @ Great Scott *