Seminal English post-punk and avant-pop group Wire opened its 1977 debut Pink Flag with the tense and bleak dirge "Reuters" -- a reporter's desperate final transmission from the dystopian future. Outside of history from the very beginning, "Reuters" is a prescient nod to the rest of Wire's maverick discography. Once its classic three late 70's records caught on, Wire stopped playing the earlier material live. Instead, Wire abandoned guitars and produced new material as if those albums, punk, and post-punk never even happened. Wire repeatedly defies each decade's musical conventions, and then swiftly moves along before others catch up.
For 2011's Red Barked Tree, singer Colin Newman returned to composing songs with guitar. Earlier this year, Wire worked with UK music website The Quietus to arrange the Drill music festival across several small clubs in London. Completely unannounced, Wire joined other artists on stage to reimagine older material and the event led up to the release of Change Becomes Us, an assortment of previously unrecorded songs originally intended for Wire's fourth album mixed with new material. As he prepares for a West Coast tour toward the second Drill festival in Seattle -- including a stop at Slim's on Nov. 18 -- we spoke with Newman about the festival meat market, digital drawbacks, and the creative potential of boredom.
You're going to Seattle for the second installment of the Drill festival. What inspired Wire to curate a festival?
It partly comes from frustration with festivals. There are so many festivals that become this sort of meat market. I don't know how else to describe it! You normally get a bunch of young people out in a field, who are completely out of it, for a bunch of bands getting paid way too much money. The organizers are trying to get the biggest bands they can so they need corporate sponsors to pay for everything and the whole thing turns into something that doesn't have anything to do with music. I thought it would be interesting to do a city festival in clubs that are small, but the ones that people want to be in.
How did the first one go earlier this year in London?
It went amazingly well. I couldn't believe it. We supported a band called Toy, a younger upcoming band that could've filled the venue 10 times over and we were the unannounced opener. It was completely frantic. We played there and then we went across town to another filled venue with a different band playing and we pushed our way to the front and played "Drill" with them. It was amazing because there were two venues packed with people to see bands we chose and no one knew they were going to see Wire, but they did. We finished the festival with a live performance of the Pink Flag Orchestra, which was a big high spot. We ended up with about 30 people on stage! It's very easy to play, since we reduced the song to just one chord.
"Pink Flag" is a rather tense and minimal song, but you performed it in a very maximal way.
It's maximal in a way, but I don't really see it as a dichotomy, because "Pink Flag" in its earliest incarnation was about making a big guitar noise and we can do that better with a lot of guitars. Other people have done stuff like this. Actually, a lot of guitars just playing the chord of E -- I don't think that's been done before, but it's not about the originality. It's about the moment, taking something and putting it in a different context.
How much Change Becomes Us material are you playing on this upcoming West Coast tour?
It will be the core of the set but we won't play all of it. We try to balance our set between older and newer stuff. You don't need to know everything about Wire to enjoy it live, but it's good not to have too many preconceptions about what you're going to hear. If everyone had the same expectations maybe you'd radically change again. Well, not necessarily. It's not about upsetting people, it's the other way around. It's about what works the best. I don't want to be a cover band, there's nothing worse than doing bad cover versions of your own material. No band should ever do that. It's about a living object, passion, and having people on stage who are still very interested in what they're playing. Some people come with a list of what they expect, thinking they've paid money so they want this and this and this, but it doesn't work like that.
Red Barked Tree marked a time when you returned to writing songs on guitar. How did that album morph into your decision to revisit the Change Becomes Us material?
There is a link but only to level up the competition. Red Barked Tree was interesting because I hadn't written songs on acoustic guitar for years, literally. A lot of people are making records where they play a bit, produce it and put it together on a computer. When they come to a live band they have to reinterpret what's made on the computer and sometimes it's not that successful. You can't go to a rehearsal with something half-written on Pro Tools and expect people to play along with it. You have to go with the voice of a guitar so they can hear your song and hopefully it's an invitation for them to join in.
The songs on Red Barked Tree sounded like someone hadn't played an acoustic guitar in a long time, which is absolutely true. I wanted to get to the next album by means of converting that process. I thought, what if we worked on a bunch of material that was also written on acoustic guitar but quite a long time ago? Maybe that would subvert my writing.
How different would Change Becomes Us be if you recorded it in 1980?
There's no connection. It wouldn't have been the same record. Half of the songs are substantially reworked; you can't really say it's the same music. You can't live in the past. In 1979 the band was quite inventive and certainly it forced me creatively, but the band was actually falling apart in quite an awful way. The band was disintegrating, so there wouldn't have been a record in 1980. Change Becomes Us wasn't about rescuing our own history. The impulse was really because we thought, what a ridiculous and absurd thing to do. Who would be interested in material from over 30 years ago?
Wire is often characterized as a band bent on not repeating itself. Do you remember that being a mission from the very beginning?
I think it's a product of boredom. There was a period in the 70's when groups would have to tour what would turn into their first album before anyone would be interested in having them record it. By the time they made it, the material would be old and the fans wouldn't be able to grasp the next thing because the band would have completely changed by the next album.
For Wire, we started in April 1977 and recorded Pink Flag in September '77, so we wrote the album between April and September. By the next year, we'd dropped most of the set because we turning out material quite fast. Ultimately it's incredibly organic -- people getting bored and then looking for something else. It's not like, here's a rule: Don't repeat yourself. There are kind of rules, but the rules are not rules.