Wire: Colin Newman on not looking back, and not being bored

Wire (Photo by Matias Corral)
Wire (Photo by Matias Corral)

It’s early Sunday afternoon, and Colin Newman is jet-lagged. He’s only just settled into his downtown Los Angeles hotel. But even after a transatlantic flight, Wire’s singer, guitarist and, along with Graham Lewis, songwriter is ready to talk. Soft-spoken and thoughtful, he remarks that the band’s entry into the U.S. was friction-free, their visas having been all sorted out. And like nearly every conversation these days, the talk turns to the new U.S. president. “It’s the hair,” he says. “It should have tipped people off.”

But there are more pressing matters on his mind. Wire, the British art-punks whose debut “Pink Flag” has to be considered among the best from 1977’s bumper crop, is in town not only to promote their impressive new album, “Silver/Lead” (their 15th and out Friday), but also to stage the latest iteration of their DRILL Festival, running tonight through Friday at the Echo and Echoplex. Its mantra is “celebrating 40 years of not looking back” — and indeed Wire’s headlining performance on Saturday comes on the 40th anniversary of what the band considers their first performance.

Newman chatted with Buzz Bands LA on what makes Wire still tick after 40 years, and more:

It’s been 40 years, and Wire still sounds fresh and relevant. That’s quite an achievement. How have you managed that?

Colin Newman: It’s all about process. I don’t mean the systems of work. We’re constantly moving. Wire was a different band from 2002 to 2008. Then, we were recording for somebody else. Now we have formed our own (Pink Flag) label, and we’re masters of own ship. We do things in the way that we want to do it.

How does that change things? How does that manifest itself on this album?

It starts with a number of considerations; there are cycles to take into account. We wanted this album to come out on April 1, the 40th anniversary of our first gig. That means it has to be finished by the end of October, so it can be marketed and promoted. Luckily, because we’ve released albums the last two years, we’re still on people’s radar.

When you talk about the process, how does that manifest itself in the material? As Wire’s sound has evolved over your career, how much of that is organic, and how much comes from a desire to not repeat yourself?

It’s not really a case of somehow choosing not to repeat oneself, [it’s] more like you just don’t because it’s boring! Also I never really think about it personally as an [evolution] of sound. Certainly in the last few years it has been very straightforwardly about the material and what it requires (or what I/we feel it requires) The answer may not be straightforward, of course, but it really about which way up you look at it.

You’re releasing the album on vinyl. What do you think led its resurgence? Does the technology people use to listen to music change their relationship to it, and if so, does that affect the way you produce, sequence, or market the album? And how do you listen to music these days?

This is something that could take a whole book to answer! People need belief systems and the “church of analogue” is as good as any other. There are so many elements that go into what can be described as a good or great “sound.” Anything from the quality of the amplifier to the acoustics of the room will subjectively affect what you hear. In that sense, format is kind of immaterial. There is, however, enough demand for our stuff on vinyl to make it worthwhile for us keeping its requirements under consideration.

Also, the vinyl album has one good thing going for it. Length. The length of a single vinyl album is a good length for an album. The old concept of extra tracks on a CD was always a bit bogus and now people don’t expect CD albums to be 80 minutes just because that’s how much music you can get on it!

And since you’re now label owners, what are you thoughts on streaming?

Streaming is just another format. I’m not a format snob.

Like so many of your albums, “Silver/Lead” feels very cohesive. Do you start off with a concept and work from there?

No, we follow the material. To be honest. there is very little that is out-and-out planned. We try to keep it organic, and don’t have any set ideas. Don’t do the concept first, unless you’re working from a specific text.

We took the title from Mexican drug gangs. They have a saying: “Either we get the silver or you get the lead.”

So much of the album, from the title to the lyrics, deals in binaries. Was this a conscious decision?

Graham does the lyrics; he likes to play with language, and pair opposites. We took the title from Mexican drug gangs. They have a saying: “Either we get the silver or you get the lead.”

The album begins with a burial in “Playing Harp For The Fishes,” and ends with “a mute undertaker,” in “Silver/Lead.” Was that something you took into account when sequencing the songs? And could that “mute undertaker” be seen as a swipe at your previous employers? Or am I reading too much into things?

Graham likes to leave things open to interpretation.

Let’s move on to the DRILL Festival.

We started it in 2013 in London; we’ve done of a few of them in different cities. It’s very much a city festival, it’s not in a field. It has no fixed form; it’s never the same. It’s more fun that way.

So why choose to do this one in L.A.?

Because we were asked. When we were last in Los Angeles, we played the Echoplex, and the people there approached us. We liked the idea that there are two stages in one venue. And since it falls on the the 40th anniversary of our first gig, we liked the idea of not spending it playing in a basement club in Covent Garden London (the site of our first ever gig). L.A. was too good an opportunity to miss.

||| Stream: “Diamonds in Cups” and “Short Elevated Period”

Do you think there’s a relationship between a city and the music made there? And if so, how does it manifest itself?

Yes, there should be a relationship, although we have to be careful, as outsiders coming into a city, to not be too presumptuous about imposing our view of what a particular city’s culture represents. But to be honest, a city like L.A. is so vast, I think there is little danger of us being any more than a little ripple in a very big pond. I would be hard-pressed to know what the music culture (or really simply the culture) of any big city actually represents. We can only pick a few flavors and hope they make some kind of sense!

How did you choose the acts?

We don’t fly anyone in, so they either have to be local or people who happen to be in town at the time. Laetitia Sadier (from Stereobox) was going to be in Los Angeles before she started her tour, so we invited her. We also like to have unique, one-time experiences. Mikal Cronin is from L.A., but he’s going to be playing with strings and horns, and FITTED is a one-time only collaboration between Graham (Lewis) and Mike Watt.

Any acts you’d especially like folks to catch?

I’m not sure who people in L.A. know and don’t know, but Noveller is Sarah Lipstate, and she builds songs layering her looped guitar; Mild High Club does very wonky, ’70s-styled music. And Immersion is a project with my wife, Malka Spigel.

And the Pinkflag Guitar Orchestra consists of some 30 guitarists. What song do you think they’ll be playing?

I have an idea.

There are different group of musicians every time. This one is very diverse in terms of gender, age, and famous/non-famous musicians.

It is anything like Rhys Chatham or Glenn Branca?

No, not at all. I’ve spoken with Rhys, I love his music. This will be more song-based. It has a very formal side. There’s all this noise but you’ll still hear the vocals.

What can we expect from Wire? You’re famous for not playing earlier material.

We’re going to focus on the new album. But it’s not true we don’t play any older material. In fact let’s just say there may be some gaping mouths this time.

||| Ticket information for DRILL Festival: A three-day pass is $46.50; Thursday only is $32.50; Friday only is $18.50; and Saturday is $23.50.