Wire are so protean that writing about them is like trying to pick mercury up with lobster claws. Matters are complicated by the fact that three of its members – past and present – have released some arresting solo work. Colin Newman runs the band’s website and record label, Pink Flag, the experimental record label swim~ (along with his wife Malka Spigel), and he is a founding member of the band, Githead (again with Spigel). Newman also produced the Virgin Prunes’ coruscating album, … If I Die, I Die. Ex-Wire guitarist and sound collagist, Bruce Gilbert, has described Wire as a “living sculpture”, and this seems apt.
Their 1977 album Pink Flag proffered expertly-curated sonic slabs and postmodern pertness. ‘Mr Suit’ was a caricature punk ditty which (amusingly) out-punked the counter-cultural class of 1976; ‘Feeling Called Love’ was ‘Wild Thing’ “played sideways”; and the title track was ‘Johnny B. Goode’ “with one chord”. As Newman himself had it, Wire were “cocking a snook” at rock ‘n’ roll.
The next two albums – the limpidly deranged Chairs Missing and the rock template rehashing 154 showed that Wire could create as well as deconstruct. These outings owed more to Brian Eno, psychedelic rock and Marcel Duchamp than to glam, pub rock and the Pistols. Bands which grew on the site of punk’s ground-zero bands like Siouxsie and the Banshees, the Cure, and Joy Division had their muse nicely recalibrated by Wire’s influence. Others, such as R.E.M., Elastica and Blur, were admirers too.
The unit fell asunder in 1980, leaving the live album Document and Eyewitness (1981), to consider. This offering is a recording from that year of a dadaist/performance art cabaret at Camden’s Electric Ballroom, and a show the year before at the Notre Dame Hall. It was chaotic, but featured thrilling sketches of their unrecorded fourth album. Wire reconvened in late ’84, releasing artful, accomplished albums such as The Ideal Copy, A Bell Is a Cup… Until It Is Struck and The First Letter (as Wir). These records saw the band make something uniquely Wire-like from popular culture; they were something akin to aural readymades. Wire also refracted their song-writing skills through the prism of sequencers, drum machines and samplers, gradually incubating their own strain of intelligent dance music like a cyber-fly in the cultural ointment. They then switched off in 1992, only to re-activate in late 1999.
On the vaporous yet vital Change Becomes Us, Wire use dormant material (from Document and Eyewitness, the People in a Room shows at the Jeannetta Cochrane Theatre in 1979, the Turns and Strokes live album from the same era, and some snippets found in Newman’s shed) as a point of departure. From here they take their chosen pieces to some spectacular destinations. The trip is like a temporally disorientating game of musical Consequences; one that sounds both retro and spanking new.
Since the component called Bruce Gilbert removed himself from Wire in 2004, they have worked valiantly to reconfigure the band’s circuitry into something viable. The three post-Gilbert albums have been highly compelling and, since 2011, Wire have benefited from the musicianship of Matthew Simms on guitar. That said, they have yet to release an album as effective as Send (2003), and one senses that Gilbert’s “withdrawal” will take a while to get over fully. State spoke to Newman ahead of their Dublin show this weekend.
Your voice on Change Becomes Us sounds bracingly warm, despite being quite heavily treated. Was this an effect you aimed for?
“On the demos I used to make at home during the early eighties, I always sang through a chorus effect. I hate the sound of my voice without treatment and, being as I’m the one who got to mix Change Becomes Us, I can make it sound better to me. I have a way with voices; I use lots of different techniques, but it’s based on multi-tracking – but very accurate multi-tracking, so you don’t actually hear that there’s more than one voice. When I want you to hear more than one voice you’ll hear it – spread across the stereo. With me, the lead vocal is normally three voices. Some say this takes all the expression out of the voice, but I’m not really big on this notion of proper singing. I hate all that diva style.”
During certain Wire moments – on songs such as ‘The 15th’ – you have a very emotive voice.
“Ah, it’s subtle emotion. That’s the key to it. You don’t lose human expression when multi-tracking IF YOU’RE ACCURATE!”
It’s complicated with you, because you have multiple singing styles. You’ve got a very tender, rather English, voice which sounds like Ian Lavender from Dad’s Army…
(Laughing loudly) “Ian Lavender!”
Then you’ve got one particular voice that sounds like an exceptionally incensed
“Yeah, ‘general shouting’, is what I call that one.”