Thursday, 12 September 2013

Music: Interview with Colin Newman from Wire

They are one of the most influential rock groups of the late-1970s, and have inspired bands as diverse as REM, Manic Street Preachers, My Bloody Valentine, Interpol and Minor Threat.

Formed in 1976, Wire has been characterised by their absolute refusal to be pigeon-holed into a genre or defined by their past achievements.

“One of the things that characterise Wire is that we don't really have a sound,” says vocalist and guitarist, Colin Newman. “Our aim from day one was to be a contemporary band and we've really stuck to that all the way through as a project. We haven't stuck to a formula of any kind.

“Sometimes it's hard to push the idea to the fore that we are a contemporary band, because people want us to be something else. There seems to be much more of a desire for us now to be what we are, because that's the best thing we can be. What we are is a contemporary band with a fairly decent history.”

Over the years, critics have tried to label the band with terms like 'post-punk' and 'art-punk' but Colin rejects these terms, believing them to be of little use.

“Describing us as punk probably isn't a good idea – it's a word that's become almost entirely meaningless,” says Colin. “It means different things to different people at different times, but I don't think Wire were ever a type of punk band.

“We never wanted to be a punk band – we wanted to take something from punk and take it somewhere else that had a different agenda. Punk became very formalised by the end of '76, and we're very much a '77 band.

“We were latterly given the label 'post-punk' - as it was some kind of movement, but it wasn't. There were a lot of people who were energised by the idea of punk, but were appalled by its formalism.”

For Colin, music is something that needs to be exciting and evolving. Once a musical style begins to define itself in terms of what it is or isn't, that is when it ceases to be interesting for Colin.

“Formalism in music is what kills it. With any genre of music, it's at its most exciting when it starts and when it's breaking down. When people start breaking the rules, that's when it gets exciting,” he says.

After the release of their debut album Pink Flag in 1977, Wire became a cult hit with the American hard-core punk scene.

“That was more of a fluke of distribution than anything else,” says Colin. “A lot of the British music from that period didn't get American releases. They got the Sex Pistols, but there wasn't a lot more that came out in America from Britain.

“Wire was on EMI and on Capitol in America – they didn't promote it particularly hard, but they made it available in the shops.

“I got the impression the people in America saw the Sex Pistols as being style over substance. For a lot of Americans, they didn't come across as being very real – they saw them as a bit of a cartoon.

“The initial reactions to Wire were even worse – people thought we couldn't play and that we didn't have any proper songs, but for that generation it was something different and exciting,” Colin added.

“One chord and shouting isn't a proper song, you're right – it wasn't meant to be. It might not be a song, but it is sure as hell a lot of fun.”

The band became influential on a particular sub-culture of the hard-core scene known as 'straight edge'. The straight edge scene continues today, and promotes strict abstinence from cigarettes, alcohol and drugs.

“We've always had quite a clean-cut image,” says Colin. “We're not known for the usual rock and roll indulgences. We're more famous for being quite disciplined and quite tough about what we do. I think that played quite well with the straight edge element of hard-core, but we're not living that lifestyle to be honest.”

From the no-nonsense rock of their debut, Wire's sound became increasingly complex, with layered guitar effects, the inclusion of synthesizers and innovative song structures.

When they perform live, Wire aren't the type of band to stick to a tried and tested set of popular songs and fan favourites.

“Putting together a live set for Wire takes the complete opposite of the focus group approach,” says Colin. “It's all about what we can do effectively. If something has become boring to play, we drop it, it doesn't matter how famous it is. If we can't make it sound good, it's pointless.

“Performing live is about something different to a record. A record has to stand repeated listens – that's the whole point of a record. But a live performance is all about the moment, and mistakes aren't necessarily that important. What is important is the energy that you can bring to a live show.

“In this period where you can get anything off the internet, you can't download a live performance. You might be able to get someone's recording of it on their phone on YouTube, but it's very far from being the same thing.

“There's something about being in the room, in front of those speakers, with the sweat and the crowd that you just can't get anywhere else.”

Wire formed in London in 1976 comprising Colin Newman (vocals, guitar), Graham Lewis (bass, vocals), Bruce Gilbert (guitar), and Robert Gotobed (drums).

Their debut album Pink Flag, released in 1977, has been lauded as one of the most original albums of the period.

Their 1978 album Chairs Missing saw the band move away from the minimalist rock of their debut, adding layers of synthesizers and making the music more atmospheric.

In 1985 Wire announced that they would no longer perform older material at shows, and hired a Wire cover band as a support act.

In March 2013, Wire released their thirteenth studio album Change Becomes Us.

This article was originally published by the Yorkshire Evening Post on September 12, 2013.

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