Not A Punk Band: Interview with Wire's Colin Newman

Eastwood met Colin Newman from Wire ahead of their DRILL: Leeds gig at the Brudenell Social Club, last April 22. It was a fantastic opportunity to hear from the punk rock legends... who don't see themselves as a punk band!

Colin Newman, live

There's a classic 1977 interview with Iggy Pop, which you can find on YouTube, where Iggy says he hates the word "punk", because it's a "term that's based in contempt." He had a point - after all, until the word was associated with a particular musical genre and fashion style, it was used to describe someone who was deemed lowly, worthless. 

When you consider this, it shouldn't come as a surprise that Colin Newman, lead singer and guitarist in Wire, don't see their music as "punk". Despite being released in 1977 - the same year the Sex Pistols and The Clash released their first albums - Wire's debut 'Pink Flag' was a far cry from anything else being done at the time in Britain. Wire were inspired by the punk attitude, but they went musically further than the usual punk rock music - and theirs was certainly not worthless.

Wire in 1977

More New York Than London

Crucially, even though coming from London, Wire always had more of an affinity with the arty, New York scene that spawned not just the Ramones, but also Patti Smith, Television, Richard Hell, Suicide and Talking Heads.

Colin told us he thinks the British punk scene of the Seventies, by comparison, was just a "big empty box" that generated few truly great albums. Of course, 'Pink Flag' was one of them, and it's now considered one of the seminal records of the era.

When we sat for a quick chat with Colin, he explained that "punk" in Britain meant, most of the times, simply playing amped-up 60's rock music. Hence his assessment of how Wire fitted in the punk scene:

"Wire really never were a punk band... we happened to be there at the same time. You could list the Ramones as one of our influences, but we were never interested in just doing that genre."

Wire's sound was their own - from the beginning, they were intent on always looking ahead.

"Genres are only interesting at the point where they get invented, and at the point where they get destroyed" said Colin, "Everything else is just noise in-between." 

40 Years of Not Looking Back

Wire - today

Wire's new line-up (from left): Matt Simms, Graham Lewis, Colin Newman, Robert Grey

One of the most remarkable things about Wire, today, is that they still manage to sound fresh - like a new, current band. Listen to any of their most recent albums, such as Change Becomes Us (2013), Nocturnal Koreans (2015) or their most recent, Silver / Lead (2017), and they don't sound like a 40-year old band overstaying their welcome, or trying to revive the past. 

"Genres are only interesting at the point where they get invented, and at the point where they get destroyed" Colin Newman

Colin explains Wire's musical longevity by the fact that they are still pretty much interested in new music, and he doesn't agree with the notion that a rock band will only produce their best music when they're young.

Which leads us exactly to the reason why we met Colin: we're attending Wire's own mini-festival, DRILL, which this year celebrates "40 years of not looking back" with a lineup curated by the band and which attracts not only the veteran fans from the past, but a younger crowd, too.

The band first came up with the idea to do a DRILL festival when it was time to promote Change Becomes Us, and it's now a more-or-less fixture in the band's calendar - but with no fixed city, date or format! Always changing, like Wire.

This year, it takes place in four different cities, also to coincide with a new album: the first DRILL was the launch for Silver/Lead in Los Angeles, then followed by Leeds (UK) where we met Colin. The next DRILL dates will be in Berlin (May 7) and Brussels (May 13).

Asked if he sees Wire as an influential band today, Colin is modest about it:

"I think we are quite lucky to be existing in a period when the kind of music we do is considered influential. Music could have gone on an entirely different direction, you know... we're lucky."

So are we, for still having Wire around.

Wire: Early Years and DRILL

Wire

You mentioned Wire had more affinity with the New York scene than the British scene. Why?

Colin: "Well, the Ramones laid out the blueprint for what punk rock should sound like. They didn't look like a British punk group, but they had the sound and the attitude. They were the main group that made you think 'yeah you can do something with that'. But you need to take that somewhere else, it can't be the same thing... it was still only three-chord trick rock'n'roll. The idea of taking it further seemed more interesting. A lot about British punk was very backward-looking.

"When you think of British punk rock as a genre, it was a big empty box with virtually nothing in it... there was very little you could say was really good and lasting. It's a bit depressing."

British punk seemed to just be following a new rule: you need to sound like this, look like that...

Colin: "I think the Americans tend to feel the British thing was style over content. I'm perfectly cool with the idea about something being about fashion. But the way Wire started, it was actually somebody else's band, and the four who ended being Wire basically kicked the founder member out of the band, and re-invented the band. We were playing his songs, and that's why Graham [bassist & occasional singer] and I started writing songs together, because we needed material - we didn't have any material!

"So it was a very unusual process - it was not like someone playing in their bedroom for years then finding a band to play their songs."

How long did it take between you guys writing those first songs and then playing them live and recording that first album?

Colin: "No time at all. I think we sacked the former member in January or February '77 and had our first gig as a four piece in April. That set you can hear on our double album Live At The Roxy / Live at CBGB's - half the set we played at The Roxy ended up on Pink Flag! That'd been written in a month and a half, then the rest of it got written between then and September when we recorded Pink Flag. By the time Pink Flag was released in December, we were already playing a set which mainly consisted of material which came out after Pink Flag."

How was the reaction of the audiences like back then? Because in a way you were as punk as it gets, but on the other you didn't do the whole Sex Pistols thing...

Colin: "At the beginning the audiences didn't like us very much. But there's basically two views of Wire: you either think we were not a punk band, or that we were the best punk band ever because we broke every single rule of punk." 

Some people point out influences like Syd Barrett, even.

Colin: "Yeah, I always wondered about that, because I never listened to Syd Barrett much before the mid '70s. So I was already doing songs which people thought sounded like Syd Barrett before I knew Syd Barrett records. So maybe it was a bit of strange synchronicity. 

"I find "influencing" very strange as a concept. Because many bands when they say they were "influenced by" they just mean "sound just like". I think you can be influenced by something and not sound like it at all, but be influenced by it because of the attitude, or the way of doing it or because people maybe just inspired you to do something, made you feel it was possible."

Did you ever feel like an outsider in the music scene?

Colin: "Yes... pretty much always! I feel like we've never really fit with anything,  we've always done our own agenda. And if you do your own agenda, it means if you fail it's all your own fault, you can't blame anyone else. Fortune favours the brave, I think."

A few years ago, we were listening to the radio and a song came out, we thought it was a new band... but it was 'Love Bends', by Wire! That pretty much sums up that '40 years of not looking back' slogan.

Colin: "I think the whole point has always been, as a band, to be interested in new things rather than old things, and not really not much interested in worrying about the past. I'm a strong believer in the concept of taking something which already exists and use it as a means to flame something new, so he concept of "not looking back", of being a forward-looking group has always been inherent in the band, but we never expressed it... now we do, it's like our "USP" (Unique Selling Point)! What's different about Wire is that we are an older band who doesn't sound like an older band, doesn't have the attitude of an older band."

Why do you think some older bands willingly put themselves in a corner? Can talent just fade away? 

Colin: "I don't understand why it has to be true... it shouldn't be true. Maybe people get lazy. When you're in your twenties, you have this amazing self-belief, that you can conquer the world, and as you get older you realise your own fragility.

"But that doesn't mean you can't be good! I mean... it seems very strange that with painters, sculptors, choreographers, people who work in other arts, nobody says they're too old to be doing that. Get over thirty, and you're in a band, and it's like "yeah, you must've done your best work in the past." I will personally try to challenge this notion, always."

Do you think this somehow led to DRILL festival, perhaps as a way to connect with new audiences, too? How did it come about?

Colin: "Yes, of course. We launched DRILL festival in 2013, in London, to launch Change Become Us. When we did the previous album, Red Barked Tree, in 2011, there was a big plan on the back of that: we launched the album, did a load of dates, it was a textbook album launch - a whole year. And I was convinced that we were on a 3-year cycle, and that it would be two years until we could do another album. Then I had this idea for Wire to revisit the fourth album that never got released, the material from 1980 which would've ended up on the fourth Wire album.

"And it was like: what if we were able to take that and work on it like we'd work on material now, treat them like new songs and make an album like that? It could be interesting... I doubted whether anyone else would be that interested but we'd do it anyway, sell a few copies and cover the costs, and it'd be alright. Almost like a side project. But by the time the album was finished, just a few months before it was released, the label liaison at our distributor pointed out that most people would just think it was a new Wire album, but I thought it was too early to release a Wire album,  so we had not organised a string of dates or anything like that!

"I thought... what can we do? Why not do a festival? It was a bonkers idea, we thought everyone would think that was stupid, but we wrote to a couple of people, said "why don't we do an indoor festival, in a few different venues". I expected to get replies like "yeah, if you want to lose loads of money", but the replies were "yeah, who should we have on?" and I was like - my God, what did I let myself in! Graham came up with the name DRILL and then it was born!"

Do you always do the festival around a new album?

Colin: "Not necessarily, but it tend to be more frequent around a new album, it's logical. Doing  LA with Silver/Lead just seemed obvious to me: how do we celebrate 40 years of existence in Wire style? New album, headlining a festival on the other side of the world! That makes sense to me, you know..."

Colin Newman Talks About Guitars

Colin has been using an Airline MAP for a few years now - it's now such an important part of his sound, that we're developing an Airline MAP Colin Newman Signature guitar, which will hopefully be released later this year. (Side note: bassist Graham Lewis plays one of our instruments, too - the Eastwood EEB-1 bass.)

Airline MAP

He's also a keen user of effects pedals and has an enviable pedalboard, so we had to conclude our interview talking about gear, of course!

How did your sound and style as a guitarist change, over the years?

Coli: "I basically started with an acoustic guitar, and I never thought of myself as an electric guitarist. I've always chosen my favorite guitars entirely based on how they look. So my first one was the Ovation Breadwinner, with that futuristic look... which was marketed as a "country & western" guitar! I don't know why... country & western from Mars? It was a terrible sounding guitar, but looked great. I used to play it through a Music Man amp, but it was all about the effects."

What kind of guitar fx did you use back then?

Colin: "My approach to playing guitar - and that was very much the Wire thing - was to always have a clean amp, and make it dirty with the effects, and use the pedals to get the sounds you want. My main pedals were a MXR Distortion +, and a MXR Flanger... MXR made the best pedals at the time. In recordings we used a lot of different things."

Wire gig finale with guitar orchestra

How did you find the Airline MAP?

Colin: "Mike got in touch saying he was a Wire fan and just told me to pick one. When I saw [the Airline MAP] I though - "I want that!". I loved the color. And I discovered I loved the sound, too... and it became my main guitar. I've used it more or less on every gig, since. At the moment, it's the only guitar I use in the set. But I have retrofitted it with a piezzo pickup. I still have that "acoustic guitar" thing, and I like to be able to do something that matches acoustic tones, especially on recent Wire stuff."

What amps and effects do you use now, on stage?

Colin: "I had a Roland JC120, but now I use a JC40 which is smaller and cuter! In terms of pedals, we have a really good relationship with Malekko in Portland, so both Matt [Simms, the new-ish guitarist] and I use a few. A Hot Cake overdrive, I love that. I have a version of the MXR Distortion +, which is basically one of the newer ones, done in Japan, by one of those pedal makers... they took all the old components out and replaced with high-spec ones, then silk-screened a skeleton in the front. But I've always liked overdrive more than distortion. I have a bunch of exotic things, too, like the Eventide H9, which I'm totally under-using at the moment, just to make 12-string sounds."

- Article by Ivan S.

Colin Newman's pedalboard 

Colin Newman's pedalboard. Some of the pedals include: MXR Phase 100, Electro-Harmonix B9 Organ Machine, Electro-Harmonix Micro POG, MXR Distortion+ (custom), Electro-Harmonix Superego, Malekko Ekko 616 analogue delay, Crowther Double Hot Cake, Malekko Diabolik fuzz, MXR Stereo Chorus, Eventide H9.

NEXT WIRE LIVE DATES:

May 04: The Garage (night 1) , London, UK 
May 05: The Garage (night 2) , London, UK 
May 07: DRILL : BERLIN ,Volksbühne, Berlin, Germany 
May 09: Loppen, Copenhagen, Denmark 
May 11: De Helling, Utrecht, Netherlands 
May 12: La Maroquinerie, Paris, France 
May 13: DRILL : BXL ,AB Club, Brussels, Belgium

FIND OUT MORE:

Wire Reflect On 40 Years As Punk's Ultimate Cult Band

Wire official website


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