Creativity Can’t Be Stopped: A Conversation With Wire’s Colin Newman

Wire, the absolutely legendary English rock outfit (among many other things), started as a band in 1976. Think about it! They have, on and off, produced new music for 40 years. When many of the bands formed in the 70s are just thinking about the heyday and some are trying to capitalize from songs that were written 40 or 30 years ago, the quartet composed by Colin Newman, Graham Lewis,  Robert Grey, and Matthew Simms, is celebrating the band’s 40th anniversary with Nocturnal Koreans, a brand new mini-album, and most importantly with something that keeps adding value not only to their extremely rich catalogue but also to rock music in general. They never wanted to be treated like a legacy act, they never wanted to stop being creative, and they were always up to challenge themselves and the audience. The brilliant Colin Newman talked with us on the phone about Nocturnal Koreans, pop music, the importance of DIY, and Wire in general.

You’ve said that the self-titled was “quite respectful of the band” and “Nocturnal Koreans is less respectful of the band.” I’m curious to know what you mean by that.
It’s kind of a way of talking. It was a kind of classic why situation how the last album, the self-titled album, kind of came about. We ended up with a lot more material that we’d initially planned to have. So, we actually had 19 tracks. One of the problems with these days is: “A” – first of all, it’s not a problem, it’s a plus thing but it makes you more aware – we have our own label, so releasing things on your own label you have to be aware of timetables, you have to be aware of the timetable pretty much of when the record is going to be released even before you recorded it because it has to fit with a lot of other things and the lead time for vinyl is very long (vinyl has become a very popular format so we can’t ignore vinyl). We knew that actually the self-titled album really should have been delivered in December or early January. In the end it got delivered a bit late, in early February of 2015, and it was recorded in May of 2014 – and this might seem a bit over technical, but it’s worth explaining it. We had a situation really where I actually moved, that year of 2014, and I didn’t have an operative studio for probably two months, or maybe a bit longer, which made working on the record quite difficult. I didn’t really seriously start working on the record until early October. We did a bit of recording on it in December… With the best will in the world 19 tracks are not going to fit on a single vinyl album. And we took the decision to do a single vinyl album because this was the first record where we’d actually gone back to design it as a vinyl record – figured as a vinyl record and the CD was an additional thing. The previous album, 2013’s Change Becomes Us, ended up being a double vinyl, which is… It’s nice but in the end – and this is a record company’s argument – you are spending much more in manufactory because you have to manufacture two vinyl and a double sleeve, but you can’t sell it for twice as much because people won’t pay that. The single vinyl is actually… that’s the definition of an album. The definition of an album is not a double album, the definition of an album is an album and an album is a single vinyl. We should be conscious about that and do it like that.

Therefore we had to decide what material should go on the record. This couldn’t just be a decision taken when all of the work was done because there wasn’t time to work on all of the tracks. It had to be a decision taken somewhat before the end to say, “This is what should get finished.” By various means of discussion between the band we ended up with a slightly ridiculous [laughs] but still… you got to have some kind of concept when you’re going about things like that. Because it wasn’t a case of “this track is better than this track so this track should go on the record, “ it was more like a case of what fits with the aesthetic. The aesthetic of the self-titled album was… everything on the record had to be based on the basic performance and with nothing clever done to them, the tracks. By that I mean… especially things like drops. You can compare and contrast the drop on “Nocturnal Koreans” and the drop on “In Manchester” [a track from the self-titled album]. The drop on “In Manchester” was played, that was part of the arrangement. We actually played like that whereas the drop on “Nocturnal Koreans” was not played, it was created. It might be a subtle difference, but actually in a way of thinking about it, conceptually, is a big difference. Conceptually creating something artificially that the band didn’t play or a variation that the band didn’t actually play is “production”, it’s taking a production decision. So, in a way, is less respectful of the band. That’s kind of the concept behind it. If you go through all of the tracks on the self-titled album, those arrangements are pretty much as we played them. They’ve been added to, but the basic shape of the pieces are pretty much as the band played them. There’s nothing clever and everybody plays on everything whereas on Nocturnal Koreans it’s quite different. There were tracks where some people don’t play very much on, there’s stuff which wasn’t really played as a band, which was kind of ensemble by people adding takes. It’s less of a “band’s record”. That’s what I meant by “less respectful”.

I remember reading Graham saying, about the self-titled album, “I think the mix that Colin made is very poppy. I think it could have been heavier.” I was wondering how difficult and challenging can be that part of the process?
The thing about it is that the sound of the self-titled album is the sound of the band. [laughs] There are things done on Nocturnal Koreans… I mean, the drums are unnaturally beefed up with distortion, which is not used at all on the self-titled album. I think Graham is taking a viewpoint which I’ve heard him express before, but I think is people taking it with not a great deal of understanding of actually how the record was approached. The record was approached to sound as much like the band as possible. With Nocturnal Koreans… yeah, it’s heavier. There’s definitely more distortion going on, in the drums and in the guitars, which makes it sound heavier, but it’s not so true to the way the band actually sounds. Look, we’ve been doing this for a long time and communication can get complicated and doesn’t always happen in the way it should happen… It’s a group of individuals who all have a radically different idea of how something should be. Graham is way more theoretical than me. I try to be practical how I do things. In the end, I can only mix how it makes sense to me that the piece is going to sound best, you know?

wire“There’s definitely more distortion going on, in the drums and in the guitars, which makes it sound heavier, but it’s not so true to the way the band actually sounds.”

Do you find that the success of Wire comes from that balance between your approach and Graham’s approach?
I think it’s the balance of the four people in [the band], and I think is everybody. Everybody has lot of different opinions in the band regarding what we are and how we go about things. The agreement that we come to is ultimately Wire itself, is something that kind of breaks a lot of rules about how you’re supposed to be. We do not behave like a so called classic band. It’s just not in our nature to do that. We have the attitude of a contemporary band, we always have, and we’re not really very interested in doing the nostalgia thing. Those are the things that we really come together on, as a band. I think it’s in some ways remarkable… This is the longest time that a version of Wire has existed. If you count basically from 2005, which is when we started talking again (Bruce [Gilbert, guitar] left in 2004), and we started seriously working in 2006. That’s ten years, from 2006 to 2016. Wire has never existed for a ten-years-stretch before. It’s not the fact that Bruce isn’t here anymore, it’s the reason why it kind of keeps going. It’s because we have achieved something in these ten years. We’ve come somewhere where a lot of bands of our generation just haven’t… For good and bad. We can’t do the mega comeback tours playing for thousands and thousands of people for huge fees because we’re already here, we can’t comeback. [laughs] We very often get treated like a young band, like a contemporary band, in terms of the kind of offers that we get, the kind of things that we’re asked to play, and the places we’re asked to play, which is kind of great. Although a lot of young bands wished they were getting what older bands are getting. It’s an interesting position to be in, but it’s the position that we feel most comfortable in.

I’m curious about the meaning behind the mini-album’s title, Nocturnal Koreans. Can you please explain what’s behind it?
The part of the lyric refers to an American tour, in 2013, that we did and we stayed in a hotel near Boston that was a kind of hotel where they put people who are on benefits and don’t have… It was like a really nasty hotel. It was just one of those places, the travel agent had booked it and we weren’t going to find another place quick so we kind were stuck with it. It wasn’t dirty or anything, it was just that some of the people there were kind of low life. But amongst the people that were there was a family of Koreans who’d missed their flight and Graham – I’m sure he would explain it better – just doesn’t sleep very well very often. He was well aware of them marching up and down the corridor having missed their flight. [laughs] “Nocturnal Koreans are walking the halls / They missed their connection / They’re climbing the walls,” I mean that’s literally something that actually happened. I was blissfully unaware of all of this, but I remember the hotel very well. I will never forget it. [laughs]

These songs are, for the most part, very short. Did you end up cutting some fat, sort of speak?
Yes, a couple of them were edited down. I think “Pilgrim Trade” was edited. I took a verse and a chorus out because it was too long, but that wasn’t something we’d played live so we literally played around it for the structure. “Numbered” is completely… There’s a lot of natural play in it, but that’s not in the way the band played. That’s completely created and you can hear it. It’s kind of meant to sound like that, it’s quite jarring the way it goes between very different styles of music within the same song. I think short tracks are a bit of a Wire specialty. If you can say all in one minute and thirty seconds, why take three minutes?

I remember Rush saying that they improved as songwriters when they decided to aim for shorter songs, and they were of the opinion that is actually harder to write shorter songs as opposed to very long songs.
I’m not sure if I agree or not. It depends on how you write. My favorite way of writing is using an acoustic guitar and a set of lyrics in front on me, and the tune tends to end when the lyrics run out. Sometimes it feels there are too many words and very often I’ll… There are songs were I took the first half of the lyric and I made one song and with the second half I made a second song, which is kind of a Newman specialty. [laughs] Actually we’re just preparing new material for the next album, which we will be recording in May, and there was one piece that I looked at and thought there were just too many verses and before I had a chance to say to Graham that I had made it into two songs he says that we had too much and I would made into two songs… yeah, I had in fact done that. It’s a bit of synchronicity there. I think once you get into a flow, they just kind of come out. I would rather do that, make two pieces, than make one piece and then just remove two verses and two choruses because you’re writing those words and they’re not even getting used.

wire2“We do not behave like a so called classic band. It’s just not in our nature to do that. We have the attitude of a contemporary band, we always have, and we’re not really very interested in doing the nostalgia thing.”

I’ve noticed that from the opening and title track to “Forward Position” you are gradually decreasing the tempo of the songs and then there’s an explosion with “Numbered” that personally I find it spectacular. I was wondering if you were aiming in that direction, to throw a left punch, sort of speak?
[laughs] That’s not deliberate, well spotted though. Actually not at all, but that’s kind of interesting. The running order sort of made itself. We had way less discussion about it than we had about the self-titled album. But I quite like the idea of Side 1 kind of graciously slows down in tempo and then speeds up to Side 2… I think that’s great! Maybe it wasn’t conscious, but maybe it is the idea of putting the slower piece at the end of a side is always a sort of bit of a classic one. It was kind of obvious that we needed to finish with “Fishes Bones” so then it would make sense to have “Forward Position” at the end of Side 1. They’re clearly fairly standard thoughts, to be honest. I have no idea how everyone else puts records together, but you try to think about the aesthetic of the people listening and their experience. If that makes for a good experience then we did a good thing.

Pop music was always a part of Wire’s musical vocabulary. Sometimes pop gets a bad reputation, but what do you – you had the chance to witness, almost first hand, the entire evolution of pop music – think pop has to offer, perhaps more than any other genre?
This is an interesting point. Those words… Rock is a word which almost has no meaning at all. Pop is something that changes its meaning all the time. If you think of pop as being popular music then obviously that doesn’t really amount to very much. If you think of pop as something that gets in the charts, well if you look at the charts nothing that’s in the charts is anything like what Wire sounds like. I think the idea that pop… you define pop in a way which a lot of people define it. You start with kind of 60’s guitar pop and that connects to sort of indie 80’s and 90’s kind of pop. People had various concepts about perfect pop. In many ways pop is a vehicle for production. Whether something by J-Lo or something like that… those are the places where you hear kind of effects and kind of ideas and you hear a producer going all around it. I remember reading something by Paul Morley where he said, “Actually all the innovation goes on in pop not in rock, rock is just reproducing the same thing all the time.” It’s all semantics and you have to be really careful because people do think different things when they hear the word pop and some people just don’t have a positive definition of pop. I personally… if you’re viewing in that way I think that pop is the medium which definitely gets the more attention in terms of what kind of production gets used and the ways that the music is kind of putted across. But there’s a lot of Wire’s stuff that isn’t really pop, it’s very far from pop. And I think that’s also a good thing. If you back to the 70s the classic single with “Outdoor Miner” on one side and “Practice Makes Perfect” on the other side… There you have, they’re both my tunes.

If you get it right is very effective. In a way if you don’t vocal music then you don’t have a good tune, and then second to that you don’t have a good arrangement. Those are the things that are kind of important. If you’re not doing vocal music then it can be abstract. It can be anything you like. It doesn’t matter. For me not everything has to be pop, but I think Wire is quite good at doing it. But on the other side is the furthest thing from pop that you can imagine because we don’t look like pop stars and we’re not a pop group. I mean, actually if you look at pictures from Wire in the 70s, we weren’t a terrible looking band but most of the band are in their 60s now… We don’t really look the part. [laughs] But I kind of like the idea of making music that you don’t really know what it is.

Are there any artistic and musical expressions, or even different ways to approach your creativity, that you would like to explore or spend more time in the future?
There’s always something. I released a 10” [Analogue Creatures] this year with a project that I have with my wife, Malka Spigel, called Immersion and it’s kind of abstract electronic music. It’s a project that we haven’t work on since the 90s actually. I’m really interested to do more with that now because I like electronic music, I always have, and I think there was a kind of space opening up for that kind of thing and also we figured out a way to do it live, so we can actually play it live without computers and just make something kind of interesting. In terms of Wire I think every album is going to be, and is a different approach. We’re going in the studio in Rockfield with a different kind of consciousness. It will be some more material and it will be whatever it will be. I’m always interested and on the other side… I really like folk music. [laughs] I’ve never done anything really with it although there’s much more acoustic guitar in things that I’ve been involved in the last five years than there ever was before. I think in a way is about the collaboration, the people that you are working with and what’s appropriate. In the end Wire’s biggest strength as a band is its ensemble playing and the pieces work out how they work out between us. That’s really the basis of it.

How important was and it has been having your own label, Pinkflag? Many people in your position wouldn’t even want to get close to running a label. Let’s be honest, it’s a lot of work.
Yeah, but you’re looking from that point of view. You have to look it from the point of view of we’re a band and we could be in a situation where we were signed to a label and making records… If we were making them in the way we are making them now I guess we would get some money to cover the recording but there would be the issue of how I would get paid for the amount I spent on the production of the records. We would be just another band on the label, not necessarily a priority for the label… It could sort of work, but not really financially. The band doesn’t really makes that much money out of the records and then the touring is the only income. It sort of puts you in a more difficult situation. The way that is setup now the band gets the maximum out from the records, which is a really great thing. That means you’re not wasting efforts. I’ve been running labels since 1993, when Graham and I started swim [label], so I already knew sort of the history of doing it. I was a bit reluctant in the beginning to take on Pinkflag, but it just seemed so logical. I’m pleased that I did it because I think we’ve made it work. It’s quite a lot of work but it’s not as much work as you might imagine because – and that’s one thing I’ve learned from swim – you pay for services. Basically a lot of the stuff is not done in house. All the promotion is done by other people, we have a distributor, we have designers, and we have people who do things for the service of the records and the music. We can make it work without necessarily having to have an office with staff. You only need that when you got a whole bunch of bands on the label, but there’s only one band on Pinkflag. It’s responsibility more than anything else. That was something that I was able to bring to the band because at some point I knew how to do this. I know how to put a record out. It’s not that hard. It is way easier putting out a Wire record than virtually anything else because you don’t have any problem with selling it. [laughs]

Words by Tiago Moreira //Pictures by Owen Richards – Nocturnal Koreans is out April 22nd via Pinkflag.
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