Wire's Colin Newman is pissed off.
"'Octopus' is about Paul The Octopus," he starts, referring to one of two tracks on the new Wire album that see the band taking a deft and timely swipe at contemporary culture. "It's about the Paul The Octopus-isation of modern life."
"You remember the story about the South African World Cup? It was quite a story – South Africa has been through this whole incredible journey in history and they were finally staging World Cup, they were proud, they did it really well and then suddenly the only thing people were talking about was some octopus that predicted the scores. People see anything that's popular and they kind of muscle in on it.”
Newman letting rip like this is, judging by the rest of our conversation, uncharacteristic. Generally he's friendly, open and relaxed, his delivery carrying a sagely, been-round-the-block-and-know-the-pitfalls air of genuine wisdom. Perhaps it's the move from London to Brighton, as documented on last year's 'Waiting For A Sign' by his other band Githead; perhaps it's the fact that he knows that Wire have a special relevance to punks, art-punks, post-punks and anyone even dimly aware of their influence; or perhaps it's simply that he knows, with the band's thirteenth album – 'WIRE' – that they've got one of their finest latter-period works in the bag.
'WIRE' is an album that finds Wire in a much more melodic place than they've been for some time. It recalls their mid-80s period where releases like 'IBTABA' – 'It's Beginning To And Back Again' – attempted to capture a more natural, live sound compared to using the studio to add complexity to proceedings. And if you listen carefully to 'WIRE', you'll hear little gestures that recall tracks from that period like 'Eardrum Buzz' or the classic 'Boiling Boy'.
You'll also hear, in the two long, slow tracks that end each half of the album, a much darker, more textural sound – one that takes you right back to the audience-baiting slow-motion artsiness of Wire's first gestures – back when a supposedly punk band doing such considered tracks was an invite to bottles of piss being hurled forcibly from the pit.
The more melodic angle, says Newman, was an accident. "There was no plan for it to be like that," he says. "The engineer who worked on this and the two previous albums said that he thought it was 'more pop and more dark' because you can talk about it being more melodic but then you've got tracks like 'Harpooned', which quite melodic but is really very much a black hole of doom. 'Sleepwalking' is also rather tuneful but at the same time pretty dark. The song 'Shifting' is strange as it's almost a soul song, and that's a big departure for Wire."
Some of this questing approach comes from Wire's recording process, something that Newman describes as continually evolving. "How do you make a Wire record?" he asks himself. "If you're a band that chooses to do it any way that they want, given the financial constrictions placed upon it, what would be the best way to get to a Wire album?"
The answer, in part, is in how the tracks on ‘WIRE’ were conceived: some of the tracks were first aired at last year's DRILL : Brighton mini-festival – named after Wire's signature amorphously-lengthed 1980s track – while others were built up elementally in the studio.
"We wanted songs that sounded like they were 'band' songs," he explains. "There's no cleverness going on in any of those pieces. The arrangement that you hear is the arrangement that the band has played, just with a few overdubs added. There's nothing artificial." Newman says it's intended that the band be prepared to play every track on 'WIRE' at their upcoming Drill : Lexington five-night London residency. "'WIRE' is really a collection of stand-up-and-play songs. At least in theory. I mean you can always manage to forget them. There's always that risk. But we are going to try and play all of those songs during the gigs."
Many years ago I asked Newman about the lyrics to 'A Serious Of Snakes', one of the best songs to emerge during Wire’s 1980s second coming and a track that contains more confusing word pictures and combinations than more or less anything else they'd released. He told me that I'd need to talk to Graham Lewis, the band's somewhat menacing bassist, to understand the words, confessing that even he himself didn't know what he'd been given by Lewis to sing. Nothing, it seems, has changed. "I don't write most of the lyrics," he confesses. "That adds a further level of obliqueness, as I don't always know what Graham's going on about either."
The opening track, 'Blogging', turns on the phrase "blogging like Jesus". "It sounds like a Christian question," Newman explains, "but I don't think it's meant like that. It's basically saying that if Jesus was around he'd probably be a blogger, he'd be spreading his gospel on the Internet because he'd get a lot further than preaching to three men and a dog, wouldn't he? It's a funny line, a really funny line."
"The song was originally called 'Blogging Like Jesus', but we dropped the 'Like Jesus' because someone copied one of our set lists, and put in online. He said we had a track called 'Blogging For Jesus'. That's really only changing one word but suddenly you're somewhere you really don't want to be, and we're not there. We don't have anyone who's religious in the group."
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Aside from being one of the more 'pop' of Wire's thirteen albums, 'WIRE' also contains some of the wry humour that often gets overlooked in favour of the art quality that occasioned Graham Lewis to comment, way back in the 70s, that the band were influenced by Marcel Duchamp. One of the most strangely funny moments here comes with 'In Manchester' – a song that has nothing whatsoever to do with the city.
"The bit that became 'Split Your Ends' had a fairly obvious chorus," says Newman. "I think Graham had intended that, whereas on 'In Manchester' the chorus I picked out – the line 'In Manchester' – took everybody by surprise, because only one line in the song has anything to do with Manchester, and the rest of it doesn't."
"It's absurdist, in a way," he continues. "It just seemed right. My process of songwriting doesn't involve a lot of thinking. It's just reacting. That line 'in Manchester' came at a certain point in the song. It just leant itself to the idea that it would come back again as a chorus. And it really was the rhythm of it and the sound of it a much as the meaning of it. I'm well aware of the fact that you could imagine some sort of party political conference in Manchester and the BBC suddenly choosing that song as the theme for it."
"We're a band that doesn't come from Manchester, doesn't really have very much to do with Manchester at all. I lived in Manchester for a very short period of time, we've been to Manchester lots of times, we know people in Manchester, it's a nice place, but we don't really have a strong connection, so it works on an absurdist level. But I kind of like that."
Endurance, when it comes to Wire, is critical. This is a band who have lasted – on and off – for forty years, a band who could have easily fizzled out almost as soon as the punk movement that begat them began to fall apart; a band that reinvented themselves in the 1980s and made more or less a clean break simply out of the dugga-dugga-dugga rhythm of the track 'Drill'.
Discounting the hiatus that occurred in the wake of guitarist Bruce Gilbert leaving the band in 2004 (he was replaced by Matt Simms), the current incarnation of Wire has been the one that's lasted the longest – some fifteen years since they made a surprise return for a live spectacle back at the Royal Festival Hall in 2000. Newman puts this down to constantly looking for new ways to challenge themselves.
"That's how it should be," Newman enthuses. "It'd be tedious if it wasn't like that. The stakes are so much higher than they used to be because we have to make the point very strongly that we're not part of the heritage industry. When Bruce left it was very, very, very messy. But it wasn't a point where the bus went hurtling off the cliff. It was just a point in which things got messy. We genuinely didn't know what was going to happen next, and certain events galvanised us into action and we ended up re-re-starting, or maybe re-continuing."
Harmony in this band has often had its ups and downs. In the early days it was possible to draw a line down the middle of the band, with Gilbert and Lewis as the artsy, antagonistic half and Newman and drummer Robert Gotobed (now back to plain old Robert Grey) as the more businesslike pairing. Of his seemingly productive current relationship with Graham Lewis, Newman says that they still "have their moments".
"I watched that documentary on Genesis a few weeks back," he says. "The body language between the keyboard player and Peter Gabriel was just extraordinary. They obviously just absolutely detest each other. It's not like that between Graham and I. We certainly do have our moments, and we do very often disagree about things, but Wire is a family. We try to take decisions together."
"I try to bring the band the idea of democracy," he continues. "Back in the day, especially with Bruce, he'd like to have him and Graham in the pub take all the decisions and then we'd just got told afterwards. That caused an awful lot of resentment. Now we try to take decisions in a joint way."
Newman reveals that the writing process for 'WIRE' left the band with a healthy surfeit of songs. "We're going to do a second release, probably early next year," he says, indicating that the band might put together an EP containing some of the songs that had a different character to the live-sounding songs that made it to the album. The band worked on some 19 songs for 'WIRE', something that most bands on the cusp of entering their fifth working decade would be hard-pressed to emulate.
"You don't want to be on stage being a rather bad cover version of yourselves," he says, voicing the challenge that lots of bands who've been round the block for this long face. "You have to bring some new energy. Wire would be unable to do that with pieces that are nearly forty years old. It's a question of survival really. That's really what it comes down to. I don't think the band would Last five minutes if it had to go off and just play old stuff. I think it's problematic to get out if that once you're in that rut. Once you're in that, I think you're in it forever. There's no route out."
"Recognising that has given us longevity," he concludes.
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Words: Mat Smith
Photo Credit: Owen Richards
'Wire' is out now. Catch the band at DRILL : Lexington this week:
14 London DRILL : LEXINGTON w/ Karen Gwyer
15 London DRILL : LEXINGTON w/ Tomaga
16 London DRILL : LEXINGTON w/ Boothroyd
17 London DRILL : LEXINGTON w/ Orlando
18 London DRILL : LEXINGTON w/ Xaviers