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Arts & Culture

Seminal British Band Wire To Headline Festival In Marfa

Wire_sept_2013.jpg
Fergus Kelly
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Wikimedia Commons
Wire, in 2013.

Plus, an interview with the band’s Colin Newman

On Saturday, April 14th, the renowned English band Wire will visit Texas for only the third time in their career to perform at the Marfa Myths Festival in Marfa, TX. Since their beginning in 1976, Wire has released 16 albums, along with a bevy of singles and EPs, that have all pushed the creative boundaries of popular music into exciting new areas. The band has made it a point to always remain contemporary, and 40 years on they continue to create music that stands strong with today’s best new artists.

A new reissue series is highlighting Wire’s groundbreaking 1970s discography, and on May 19th, each of the band’s first three albums will be released in a special edition CD set featuring an 80-page hardcover book plus B-sides, rarities, and previously unreleased songs. Standard editions of each album will also be released on CD and vinyl on June 22nd.

Coinciding with the release of this material is a rare live performance at Marfa Myths, an annual music festival and multidisciplinary cultural program that takes place in Marfa, TX. Founded in 2014 by nonprofit contemporary arts foundation Ballroom Marfa and Brooklyn-based music label Mexican Summer, this year’s festival also features performances by Dallas Buyers Club actor and Deerhunter front man Bradford Cox, a live film soundtrack collective including Fugazi’s Guy Picciotto, and pioneering Italian sound designer Suzanne Ciani, among many others.

Colin Newman has been a songwriter, vocalist, and guitarist for Wire since they formed in 1976. He has also released six solo albums, and one of his songs, “Alone,” was featured in the 1991 film “The Silence of the Lambs.” In the following interview, taken from a March 2018 conversation with the Wire front man, Newman discusses his history with the band.

Michael Flanagan: In order to provide some perspective on what the environment was like in England leading up to the inception of Wire, could you say a bit about your early life growing up there?

Colin Newman: I’m a child of the home counties, which means I grew up in Southern England. My mother’s family was evacuated there from London during the war and my father was from a nearby village in Wiltshire, which is where I grew up. Basically what happens is that London casts a very heady shadow over that area of Britain and people gravitate towards the city if they have any ambition at all. I met Bruce Gilbert at Watford Art School near London where we created a band called Overload for an end of term party which eventually gave us the idea for Wire.

What were your first musical influences?

Britain had very limited radio, there was just one national broadcaster, the BBC. Before 1967 there wasn’t a full time national pop station. There was a pop element in something called the “light” program, but it also aired comedy, along with music that you didn’t want to hear because it was what your parents liked. But then, for a few precious hours a day, you got to hear all of the music which is regarded as making the '60s classic.

By the time Wire happened, I had also discovered a lot of stuff that was obviously outside of that as well. Whether it was minimalist music like Steve Reich and Terry Riley, or the huge folk boom in the '60s which was very influential. You also had things happening in America in the early '70s like the pre-Eagles West Coast scene, and then of course from 1975 onwards you had “proto-punk,” since there wasn’t really anything called “punk rock” at that point. We were looking for something that was more stripped down, and I guess the first group that really hit that for a British audience was The Ramones.

What was so good about The Ramones was that it was a concept, and they were in some ways the first post-modern group, although they should have never done any albums apart from the first one if they were to truly be a concept. But they had to become a band, you can’t deny that to them. The concept to the first album was so stark and simple, and absolutely brilliant. I think it was a huge influence on music in Britain, and as far as I was concerned, I liked it, but I thought it could be simpler. And that was probably where I took some of the direct influence of what went in to our first album, "Pink Flag."

Colin_Newman_b_nov_2011.jpg
Credit Wikimedia Commons
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Colin Newman in 2011.

I’m interested in what you say about the Ramones' first album needing to stand alone in order to truly be conceptual.

None of them are alive to ask, but I don’t necessarily think they had a group consciousness about it. I think there was somebody very smart, and I think it might have been the drummer, who got the idea that this was a concept. But the thing is it was all sort of a band, and so they had to do a second and third album because the first was successful. The record company says, “Hey guys, do another record,” and nobody can live off of a concept.

Did Wire have a group consciousness in regards to creating a concept for Pink Flag?

You have to understand that you’ve got three art school people within Wire, so the idea of conceptual art is not foreign to the band. But there weren’t designed concepts, it wasn’t like we said, “We’re going to make an album that’s like this.” As a composer, I’m not really big on rock music, I think there’s a lot of empty gesture in it. I was looking for something that was a way of doing music that had elements of rock, but didn’t have to have all that empty gesture to it.

After achieving some success with your first three albums, Wire went on hiatus between 1980-1985, what led to that?

In 1977 we went to EMI and were signed to Harvest by Nick Mobbs, who had also signed The Sex Pistols and Pink Floyd. When Pink Floyd first went to EMI, nobody else in the company got what they were about. But by the time "Dark Side of the Moon" hit and began selling really well, EMI really thought Nick Mobbs had the right idea about spotting talent in bands.

In the beginning with Wire, we didn’t really sell a lot of records and we didn’t have any hits, but Nick Mobbs thought we were good, so maybe we were a bit of a Pink Floyd and after a few years it would come good. But the culture changed towards the end of the '70s and the record labels were less inclined to wait 10 years for a hit.

We had a little bit of money from advances that just about got us through each of the three years in the late '70s. Everybody was getting paid apart from us on the road, and so by the time we wound up in 1980 we were all broke. There was an option for a fourth album in Wire’s contract, but the label said while they’d pay for the album that they would not pay us an advance. So we thought it’s not worth continuing with that and we just kind of stopped between 1980-1985.

Can you take us through Wire’s second period of activity between 1985-1990?

What happened between those intervening few years where Wire was inactive is that there was the development of a proper independent scene in Britain. So by the mid-80s you had Mute, Beggars Banquet, and 4AD. Those kind of labels had resources and treated their artists very well, so it was obvious that we would end up at a label like Mute. They were a natural home for us because the people that liked our music also liked the music that they released.

All of the circumstances around us had changed, and instead of being the odd ones out at a major label, we were the reason why a lot of independent music existed. All of the people who ran those new labels were fans, and Wire was considered a huge influence on everybody.

It was an exciting period in terms of the tools that were becoming available. Sequencing and sampling pretty much became the bread and butter of the second half of the '80s, that is how records were made. A lot of the problems in the '80s were really down to trying to figure out the best way around incorporating this. Our drummer Rob started to feel disillusioned with the whole thing and thought he was being replaced, so he left the band. We did an album without him under the name Wir, but that didn’t really feel like it was going anywhere. It had become more like a production and wasn’t a band anymore. We never announced that we had broken up, but for most of the '90s Wire didn’t really exist. We don’t do “breaking up and coming back,” it just oozes into a sort of activity and non-activity.

What circumstances brought the band back together for this current period of activity?

At the end of the 90s we were approached about doing something at the Royal Festival Hall, part of something called “The Living Legend Series.” Time moves on, you were young rebels in the 70s and suddenly you’re living legends. We didn’t take it that seriously, but it was a reason for doing something and by that point everyone had gotten over whatever they’d had. The idea was that we would go back to being four people playing in a room and do a historic set, something we’d never done before. We did that for a year and it was quite fun, but by the end of it we were getting bored of doing the historic set and wanted to do some new things.

By that point we weren’t all living in the same country, so most of the work was being done by Bruce Gilbert and I in my studio. We did "Read & Burn," which was a sensation, it sold 17,000 copies in the first two months. That’s a lot of records for an independent release by a band that hadn’t been active for quite a long time with no promotion. We realized we were on to something so we went out and toured for about two years.

Bruce was becoming disillusioned with the whole idea of being in a rock band, and in 2004 he left. We started doing albums and touring with just the three of us, and then we built upon that by adding Matt Simms on guitar. We behave pretty much like a band that’s been around for a long time and continues wanting to do new things because that’s where our hearts are at.

What are you most looking forward to about your upcoming reissue series?

The things that should excite fans the most are the special editions of the first three albums. They come with an 80-page hard bound book that’s got pictures, lyrics, and texts about the band. The audio has got the original albums along with a second and sometimes third album worth of material depending on the release. They include every B-side and all of the demos, we’re not saving anything for later.

Ordering information for Wire’s new reissue series can be found here. https://pinkflag.greedbag.com

And tickets for the Marfa Myths Festival, which includes Wire’s performance on April 14th, can be found here. https://marfamyths.com/#tickets-0