Words: Steven Ward
Even if you’ve never delved very deep into the historical roots of the budding punk scene that developed in the UK during the 1970s, chances are if you’ve been a fan of rock music in the last four decades, you’ve had a taste of Wire. Attributed to expanding the sonic limits of punk and eventually rock music as a whole, Wire has characterized itself as an experimental force unabashedly capable of timeless reinvention–which has allotted them a never-ending relevance over the course of fifteen albums and forty-years.
Reminiscent of the four-piece structure that was dominating the decade they released their first album Pink Flag. Wire is comprised of three of its original members, Robert Grey, Graham Lewis, and Colin Newman, with Matthew Simms replacing longtime guitarist Bruce Gilbert around their thirtieth anniversary. Aging gracefully has never been a goal for Wire, nor any real acknowledgment of their long-stretching influence upon the punk and rock scenes that emerged in the 90s and early 00s–for them, their history is much less a lesson on the nuances of styles and genres, and much more a blur of a band just trying to make riveting music.
“When Wire started there was no such thing as ‘post-punk’ and punk was already becoming passé. The concept of niche rock or anything like it was totally alien to us. People just didn’t think like that in those days. In the 70’s-90’s when there was some kind of obvious timeline in music, we always responded to what was going on around us, at least in Britain,” Newman explained of the band’s origins. “Sometimes that put us at loggerheads with US audiences who saw the musical universe very differently. My viewpoint now is that since I discovered (a long time ago) that Wire sounds like Wire whichever combination you throw it in, the idea became basically not to care too much about style and to just make it as good as it can be.”
While today it’s easy to look back for many bands, like The Cure and Blur, and say that Wire influenced the creation of certain albums or even sparked their first interest in music–for the band themselves, it’s a tad bit more complicated than that. It’s always been about moving forward, not cashing-in on past glory. Ironically, Newman relents that in 2017 it is virtually impossible to list the Wire’s early influences because none of them are no longer relevant. But this idea of relevance, which is often tossed around as a sort of big question for any band that enjoys long-term success, is something that Wire has yet to seriously consider in their four-decade pursuit of making music. Trace all the pioneering points you want, draw attention to their knack for reinvention, point out their smooth transition from the raucous punk of the 70s to the synthesizer craze of the 80s and 90s, or pin it all on the band’s experimental nature; these are all theories offered in retrospect to explain phenomena that, the more we try to explain, the less we understand.
If you are striving to be relevant then you are probably not succeeding. I think it’s up to others to decide how relevant we are anyhow! I think people come at the business of making music from so many angles and what is most important in my view (apart from talent obviously!) is being authentic to yourself. You have to realize that genre is just another concept, only those who create and break genres will be remembered so genre rules are for the most part irrelevant,” Newman said. “It’s ultimately about finding your own ‘voice’ and if you don’t know what that means then no one can help you! What I find interesting is that uniqueness exists in so many forms. How many bands with two guitars, bass, and drums could you instantly recognize? Probably hundreds if you are a music fan. In a way that’s quite incredible and although electronics and other instruments increase the sound palette, the distinctiveness of different artists is, in my view, not so much based on instrumentation but more things like harmonic and rhythmic worlds, and of course voices. That’s the thing with Wire, once you understand that it’s going to sound like Wire whatever you do it makes you quite free!”
So what does finding their own voice sound like? Well for one thing, on Silver/Lead, their upcoming fifteenth studio album due out March 31 in anticipation for their fortieth anniversary, it sounds nothing like punk-rock. Wire left those tastes behind just as they were starting out, and Newman admits the band hates punk music and writes it off as a “generational thing.” Over the decades, Wire has subscribed to just one fundamental notion: that anything they create in an organic earnestness is a Wire album or song, not tied to any specific genre itself, other than the fact they were the ones who created it. Without giving too much away, Silver/Lead is a sonically nuanced album that takes broad strokes in highlighting the band’s eclectic moods, ranging from a wild brandishing of guitar-pop to dazzling, scene-setting atmospherics–but here, no deed goes unnoticed and the smallest of sounds are a source of bliss.
With fifteen albums under their belt, Wire has scarcely felt any pressure to “deliver,” spending the last forty-years “maneuvering” themselves into a position where they could do whatever they wanted with their music. The only deadlines and constraints they ever face are practical ones related to how records are released and promoted, not creative ones. There is always that faithfulness that the band can “cook up something good” between themselves in time, but in Newman’s eyes, they always have something new to bring to the table, whether it’s something they never tried before or something that evolved from what was a struggle on a previous release.
To celebrate the release of Silver/Lead and their forty-year anniversary, Wire will be making a return to Los Angeles to headline the city’s boutique music festival DRILL: LA at the Echo and Echoplex. In recent years, LA has been a city Newman has developed a great fondness for, due in no small part to its growth in the downtown areas since their first visit decades ago.
“2013 was especially memorable. We stayed in Little Tokyo from which downtown is walkable. I love the feeling of the city coming back to itself as the downtown area becomes more a place to be (hopefully that has continued apace). It wasn’t always like that. In the 80’s we’d stay in hotels you couldn’t walk anywhere from. It seemed to be a place you never seemed to arrive at, all freeways and low rise buildings and everybody seemed like an out of work actor. I think LA has so changed for the better. The freeways are still there and not beautiful but I think the city has a great energy! One of my favourite US cities!”