Music Etc. - Wire: Turn the Page

Brian Eno once said that everyone who bought a copy of the Velvet Underground’s debut album went on to start a band of their own.
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Brian Eno once said that everyone who bought a copy of the Velvet Underground’s debut album went on to start a band of their own.

Wire’s latest, eponymous album is the band’s third in the last five years.Brian Eno once said that everyone who bought a copy of the Velvet Underground’s debut album went on to start a band of their own. That claim may or may not be true, but there is no denying the vast influence that experimental rock band Wire has had on many other artists since forming as a punk band in London in 1976.

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The Cure, R.E.M., Sonic Youth and Manic Street Preaches are among those who have cited Wire as an important influence, and perhaps this has to do with the band’s unrelenting principle of moving forward and never looking back. Despite having legions of fans both here and in the U.K., Wire refuses to play songs from its back catalog during live performances. The band has emerged from the studio yet again with another innovative and challenging record, simply titled Wire. Pro Sound News caught up with singer, guitarist and writer Colin Newman during the group’s European tour.

ON CONCEPTION:

The whole idea of this project came about with a few microphones and an acoustic guitar; I wrote some of the songs with the others. This is quite unusual for me, since I normally write on my own. But we had left on tour and we needed some material quickly. Graham [Lewis, bass player] said he could give me lyrics, and we ended up writing a few songs on the spot. That’s how “Blogging” came about—that was written in Chicago at the beginning of the summer tour. Then there was “Swallow” and “Harpooned,” both of which came from the autumn tour that year. Then we reserved some time to record the album, and I thought I’d better start writing more. So the month before the sessions, I started to write a bunch of material, and I ended up more material than we possibly could have used on the album. So some of the material was written before we went into the studio, and some of material was written while we were in the studio. In the end, I wrote about 25 or 30 songs and recorded them with vocal and acoustic guitar. Then we listened to them for first time in the studio together.

ON LAYING IT DOWN:

The process is very peculiar to Wire—you get the song, then you suddenly play. You give the band a pass: “OK, here’s this song, let’s get on with it and play it and record it.” It seems to work very well, because you get the freshness and the energy of everyone, and that is the point where everyone is there concentrating on it. If I send it beforehand it, they may listen to it and only hear me playing acoustic guitar and singing. That’s how we work, and we’ve always worked like that. It isn’t an abstract thing—as soon as the band is presented with material, we figure out the arrangements and I don’t tell anybody what to play. Basically, the whole production happens after the basic tracks: it is a process of taking everything apart and putting it back together again. For this album, it wasn’t about whether the music was good or not; it was much more to do with what fit the aesthetic.

ON ROCKFIELD STUDIOS:

After we tried a few different studios, more than one person said to me, “Why don’t you try Rockfield?” I come from a background of self-recording and home studios, and the idea of paying for a top-line studio is usually out of reach financially. It is more expensive, but you can get a deal in these studios if you choose your timing well. Also Rockfield included accommodation, so it worked out really well compared to a London studio. And a studio like this has natural acoustics that you can’t buy; in a nice studio, that is what you are paying for. They’ve got a decent board and gear and all that, but you don’t need to mix there. You take away the sessions that you’ve recorded and mix somewhere else. For the band, recording in Monmouth was great. It’s a lovely little town, but there’s not a lot going on, and there are no distractions. You are there for one reason, to make a record. Our own label is paying for this, so we’re well aware of the fact that it’s costing us money to be there—but it is a very good working atmosphere.

ON STICKING TOGETHER:

We are still together partly because of the fact that we’ve always achieved some measure of success, but have never really been as successful as we might have been. It also has to do with the ambition we have as a band. It is a good thing that we have our own label and we have made a lot of progress, especially over the last five years. We’ve put out three records, each of which has sold well and which were reviewed very favorably, and we are now able to tour with increasing regularity. Ten years ago, the idea that we would tour America more often than every five years would have been absurd, because the market wouldn’t support it; now we’re touring America every two years. We enjoy what we are doing and it is very interesting for people of our generation, because we are of different roots. The conventional wisdom is that if a band wants to make money, the only thing they can do is play their back catalog and shut up, basically, and we just don’t accord to that rule. I notice quite a few other bands of our generation who have created new material by really pushing themselves forward and being innovative within the realm of where they are working.

ON THE BIG PICTURE:

I think people can get too close to the recording process and become obsessed about detail, so I try and step back. Details are important, but ultimately, it is about hearing how the whole thing sounds together. Did we choose the right tracks? Is the flow and the aesthetic right? These are the important things.

Jacques Sonyieux is a devout explorer of recording studios and the artists that occasionally inhabit them. Please send any tips or feedback to Jacques at: jacquessonyieux@gmail.com.