Wire are soon to release their thirteenth studio album, ‘Change Becomes Us’. It’s a landmark release in a fractured 35-year career that started with 1977’s ‘Pink Flag’. Wire have consistently looked ahead and vastly changed their sound over the years, but Change Becomes Us takes a surprise turn. At the core of its songs are ideas that were first worked on in 1979, after their third LP ‘154’ and before a long hiatus that was marked with the release of controversial live album ‘Document & Eyewitness (1981), where some of the original ideas developed on this latest release were first heard.
In advance of the release of Change Becomes Us (available on their own Pink Flag imprint), Clash sat down with Colin Newman, Graham Lewis, Robert Grey, and Matt Simms to discover why they took this unusual step, what it means for the future of Wire, and what it’s like to survive as a band who still feel they have something new to say after 35 years.
You’re not known for being particularly nostalgic about your old material, so why do this now?
Colin – It’s not about nostalgia, that’s for sure.
Robert – I don’t think ‘Document & Eyewitness’ did us a lot of credit, I didn’t think we should release it after ‘154’. Back in 2000 when we started working again, our friend Mark Bursa, who’s a big Wire fan, asked what we were going to do with the unfinished material we had leftover from the period post-‘154’.
Colin - We’re not even talking about stuff we’d demoed. There was a loose discussion at the time about doing a fourth album, but there was no band to make it, the band was falling apart. We didn’t have a record company, we’d just sacked our manager, we weren’t getting any advice, and we weren’t in a position to do anything.
When Mark made this suggestion I just dismissed it – ‘that’s not where we’re going’ and we went on to make ‘Send’ (2003) instead. But by 2006/7, when there were a lot of ‘Don’t Look Back’ gigs happening, lots of people were saying we should do one for the Pink Flag album. There was no appetite or interest in the band to do that. So I thought, wouldn’t it be funny, and totally Wire, to be a complete pain in the arse and do a Don’t Look Back for a record that was never released, demoed, recorded…or even barely written. A few enquiries revealed no interest whatsoever in us doing that, as you can imagine. It’s a brilliant idea that never quite found its time or anyone to pay for it.
Had you done anything like this with old material before?
Colin – There was an old song called Ally In Exile that turned into ‘I Don’t Understand’ (from 2002’s ‘Read And Burn 01 EP’), and this is not an unusual thing in Wire. We revisit lots of things, there’s a lot in Wire’s DNA that we recycle and come back round to. But as was suggested back in 2000 there was a significant amount of other work from post-154 that hadn’t been explored. There were some fairly good reasons for not exploring it. For the most part the material was half-baked. Some of it wasn’t even baked at all. Some of it was just…raw.
Graham – Some of the songs were just one-off events that we’d rehearse the day before then go and play live. But 34 years of slow cooking later…
Colin - We hit this point after doing ‘Red Barked Tree’ (2011) where we’d toured with Matt for the best part of a year, and we had Ray Davies’ Meltdown 2011 festival coming up. We wanted to put something new and different into the set.
Graham – When you’re playing live a lot, things can get complacent or worn out, you’ve got to keep an eye on that. We were getting to a point where I didn’t know if I could face doing the same songs again, so the only thing we could do was take a chance.
Colin - I’d been thinking about that old material, I identified a couple of songs for us to play- I chose some I thought would be quite difficult to do thinking it would either work or it wouldn’t - and it did.
Graham - The band was invigorated again; we had three songs to learn. They came together in an incredible way; they didn’t sound at all how they’d sounded back in the day. It was very encouraging.
Colin – Not long after we had a second UK tour and we again thought we couldn’t just play the same thing we’d played before, so we took seven of the ideas to work on and built the set around those instead…and that worked too.
So where was all this material? Did you have to sift through boxes and boxes of tapes?
Colin – Some was on Document & Eyewitness, the rest on various bootlegs, the odd home demo…and in my head.
Was it difficult to recreate those old tracks? I’m guessing you’re not using the same gear you were back in the late 70s.
If you’re trying to work something out from a lo-fi recording, it’s not often going to be identical; you may just work out a different way of doing it. Sometimes you’ll take a piece and decide one bit’s good, but the rest of it’s rubbish. We were really ruthless, we’d just use that good bit then figure out something else to go with it.
Graham – Suddenly that idea becomes something new. It’s not what it was before. By taking this old material off the shelf we were able to completely sidestep the harmonic universe we’d been in for that last year of touring. We could use these things that had stranger and more peculiar structures, because that’s what we were into at that time, but bring them into this world. So we had our modern sound and arrangements attached to these older ideas. It’s like dealing with ancient history and trying to position it for the future.
Colin – Once we’d got these ideas to a certain stage we had a week in the studio to record various parts and for Graham to do his vocals. We did everything in a short time because you don’t want to start doing twenty takes of something, you need to get it done in two or three takes and get the energy of it. You can’t get that gold any other way. Once we had that stuff down I could build on it, so I took it away for six-months of production. The production stage is a process whereby the music starts to come together and come alive.
Graham – At different stages Colin would send us where he’d got to, as that went along, the arrangement of lyrics would take on different meanings. A small part or riff would become a whole song. It just continued to develop over the summer.
Would you have been able to work in this way ten years ago?
Colin – There has been a basic shift. ‘Send’, ‘Object 47’ and probably a lot of the latter eighties things were made by assemblage too. When you’re working with sequencing, you stick things together, that’s how you make records. With 'Red Barked Tree', I didn’t want to make it by assemblage, I wanted to record the whole thing as a band, then treat the whole performance as the thing that needed to be worked on.
What I really wanted to learn from this project was how it would inform the next Wire album. The songs on 'Red Barked Tree' were the first I’d written on acoustic guitar in a number of years. They have the quality of someone who’s quite excited about writing on acoustic guitar. Whereas the songs on this album have the quality of someone who’s bored to death with writing songs on acoustic and is trying to do weirder stuff. The next album needs that energy of us needing to do something we haven’t done before.
Do you set yourself deadlines or is it a case of ‘it’s finished when it’s finished’.
Colin – We set the whole thing in advance. We knew the release date, would be March 25th and the festival would be a few days before that, I knew I’d need six months to be delivering the album around September/October. There is an argument that says that in the modern day and age you shouldn’t start promoting a record until it’s out. People want to read ‘new Wire album’ and click buy right then, not in three months time. In three months’ time the whole world will have changed and at least 15 new genres of music will have emerged.
You can preorder the album on your site already though. Is that in part to fund the manufacture, distribution, etc?
It’s a little bit more complicated than that. The band needs to continue to exist when it’s not physically earning money. I thought about going to PledgeMusic and doing something with them for this album, but there was nothing they could do that we couldn’t already through our own mail order. So we set up the whole thing.
We still sell CDs, although they’re kind of going west at the moment. Everybody wants vinyl, but you can’t really make a lot of money on vinyl, especially if you try and make it nice. But if you can make CDs special somehow, maybe people will pay a little bit more for them. They’re not our major market; they’re for the core fans.
It’s a way in which we’re able to generate a certain amount of money. How are musicians supposed to make money, especially if they don’t have their own label? For a process like this you need money at the start, we’re off to Berlin tomorrow to do promo, Brussels the week after, all of these trips have to be paid for. Normally just before an album is released is when you have the least amount of money. You’ve got to survive during that time.
Do you think self-funding like this will be the way forward for Wire?
Graham – It always has been.
Colin – Pink Flag, the label, was started in 2000. Radiohead can talk about having their own label, but they have a pressing and distribution deal with Beggars Banquet. They don’t deal with the level of stuff I deal with. There are no employees, there’s just me. If something’s going to happen, ultimately I have to do it.
You look at somebody like Damien Hirst. Love or hate his work, the guy’s got his head screwed on in terms of business. And that’s a contemporary artist as far as I’m concerned; you have to know how to engage with the medium in which people receive your work. You can’t sit around and say ‘I’m talented, so someone has to look after me and give me money’. You might get away with it if you’re under 25, but by the time you get to our age nobody gives a fuck. The only way they will give a fuck is if you get on and do it yourself. We have to prove ourselves ten times as much as a young band. It’s an unfortunate aspect that we live in a world where bands of our age mainly just play their back catalogue and make a bit of money on their ‘get to see them before their dead tour’. They aren’t really interested in engaging with what they are in a contemporary world. This cannot be Wire’s attitude.
Graham – That world has more to do with entertainment than what we do. That’s what entertainment’s about, giving people what they want.
For much of your career, the only public criticism you’d see of your work would be in the press. Nowadays with the Internet everyone’s got a voice and somewhere to express it. Does engaging with your fans online have any effect on the music you produce?
Graham – I think it does. I’ve met a lot of new friends recently through our forum, real friends. It was the same thing with MySpace.
Colin – I think there is something around the way the Pink Flag.com site has been built where it is quite receptive. We have a forum where we can get a serious kicking at times, mainly about whether things work or not on the commerce side. We’ve done this Legal Bootleg series, and it’s a direct thing the fans really love. We don’t sell vast quantities but it’s a way of taking material that exists out there in an elite world of tape sharers. We’ll fix it up, correct the tape speed for example, then send it for proper mastering and sell it to the fans, but as an enhanced version. People really like that.
One of the gigs in that series was around the time that Rob had left and features extraordinary versions of some songs – a hip hop version of ‘Ahead’ and a beautiful version of ‘Advantage In Height’. Those were directions that never got explored and were it not for that series and fans coming to us through the site with those recordings I don’t think I would have ever heard them. Those things become really special.
Do you ever feel under pressure to push your relevance?
Colin – I think the only way we can do that is by being relevant. Wire is a band that excites high expectations. People expect us to be good. So we’d better be fucking good. Our albums have to be of a high standard. If you’re not any good, then just fucking stop, because nobody wants to see a shit version of something that’s supposed to be amazing.
Graham – We’ve just got standards, everyone’s got so much pride in the work. If it’s not good then it’s a bad idea to keep doing it because it’s embarrassing. It hurts too much, it’s a waste of time and there are other things to do.
You seem surprisingly un-cynical for a band so far into your career.
Graham – I wouldn’t know, because you don’t talk to people like that. It doesn’t do you any good, because they’re always smarter than you are.
Colin – Cynicism doesn’t really help you. I suspect that people who take a cynical attitude don’t really have a lot to do with how they’re presented. They haven’t made the connection between them, what they do, and what turns up in their pockets – there is a very clear connection. Who wants to buy stuff from some cynical old shit? Why would anyone be interested in you if you think everything’s shit? You’ll still meet plenty of people who’ll say that we haven’t done anything good since the 70s. That’s one of the reasons for the festival we’re doing around the album release. ‘Wire makes a new album’ isn’t enough of a story, however strong it is.
Graham – But it also gives us an opportunity to do something we’ve never been able to do since we started which is to say ‘now, we’re going to play the new album in full’. It’s taken a long time to get to that position.
Colin – Change is a very big word in the Wire dictionary. Change stands for Wire. It’s always looking for a new expression, new things to do. The fact that we’ve managed to conjure some fairly decent material out of some unpromising starts is a testament to something, possibly doggedly stupidity. Huge dogged stupidity.
So did that approach necessitate that the meanings of these songs changed too? Surely you have different things to say now than you did 34 years ago.
Graham – Certainly lyrically it’s a complete mix, some songs have a chorus or a few lines that we kept and mixed in with new lyrics. It was a very different lyric-writing experience to what I’ve done before. I don’t think I enjoyed it actually. I’m happy with the results, but it wasn’t easy to do, because it was like second-guessing ourselves in some ways. Like having write and record on at the same time.
Colin – I was quite exacting with Graham at times, things needed to fit a certain rhythm or whatever. He’d send me lyrics and I’d strip them down to what fits and he’d have to tell me whether the meaning was still there.
Graham – With this style of production things are going along in parallel. You can modify as you go along, and personally I think the text is finished when I almost don’t recognise it, in the sense that I don’t feel I authored it when my clichés and weaknesses are gone. You know then it’s time you can let it go, it can speak for itself.
Words by James Barry
Photo Credit: Phil Sharp
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'Change Becomes Us' is out now.