Wire is your favorite band’s favorite band.
Guided By Voices’ Robert Pollard professes reverence. My Bloody Valentine covered a song on a Wire tribute record. Henry Rollins characteristically enthuses about them. And Robert Smith has pointed to them as a direct inspiration.
If you haven’t heard of them, they’ve lived up to their cult status and you’ll soon be initiated. It’s almost like a music-listening rite of passage: Once you discover Wire, you achieve a certain milestone in your palette — a failsafe to rely on in case people find out you like something sonically abhorrent. But really, what better way to find music you’d potentially like than by seeking the favorites of your favorite?
The experimental quartet emerged with their influential first LP, 1977’s Pink Flag, now the sacred text for any musician with an affinity for streamlined serration and snark. From there, Wire released 1978’s Chairs Missing, an enhancement of their sound that went less visceral and more notional. And the following year’s 154 — which leaned more into noise and atmosphere — was the last installment of their early era. “I prefer a bank of knobs. I’ve always been more interested in the effects than the guitar itself,” former guitarist Bruce Gilbert tells SPIN.
After an eight-year hiatus, 1987’s The Ideal Copy signified the start of the band’s synth-centric, avant-dance second era, which continued until 1990’s Manscape, the final LP before Wire’s breakup. At the time, it was thought to be their last. Then in 2000, by some stroke of luck, a music event curator invited Wire to play a “living legends” gig at The Royal Festival Hall. There was some dissension within the group at first, but they eventually accepted, and it turned out to be quite a fortuitous moment for the reunited four-piece.
“We’d been a band that played in universities and clubs in the ‘70s,” says singer-guitarist Colin Newman. They’d never performed in such a sizable venue before, but they weren’t so keen on the idea of endlessly playing their old timeworn material for a nostalgic audience. “Wire’s always seen itself,” he adds, “as a contemporary band.”
Immediately after the gig, they vowed not to rely on bygone classics any longer, so they fully reformed and began recording — marking the watershed of Wire’s third major era. This culminated in a pair of 2002 EPs, Read & Burn 01 and Read & Burn 02, which were then compounded and reprised along with four new songs on their 2003 LP, Send. Then came PF456 Redux, an edited version of Send slimmed to fit within a vinyl format. But there still remained a yen for the whole thing on vinyl.
The call has been heeded, intrepid fanatics.
Wire is releasing PF456 Deluxe, a Record Store Day exclusive of two 10” and one 7” vinyl LPs housed in a 44-page hardbound book (which is pretty much like long-form liner notes). It features the lyrics, previously unread interviews and unseen photos of the original band members and a 6,000-word essay by writer Graham Duff on the music and its context.
The full-length version of Redux also contains previously omitted songs and a couple of Newman’s own remixes of a throwaway live version of “12XU.” The “12 Times X” mix is a sped-up compression of the venerated track, and “12 Times U” is equally hyperkinetic but dropped in a dance infrastructure of a pulsing bass backbeat and wacky kazoo-like oscillation.
It’s available on June 12th. Go obtain a copy and experience a concentrated, white-hot sensation between lockjaw and levitation. Or don’t — it’s your loss.
Gilbert — who’s been media-mute about Wire since his departure after these very recordings — and Newman recently dusted off their nearly 20-year-old memories about the rehashed recordings with SPIN.
SPIN: You’ve been totally silent with Wire press for over a decade. Why did you decide to break that now?
Gilbert: I suppose because the thing that’s going to come out is a worthy project, and I think the material deserves to be heard in a slightly different context.
And I understand you went on to other musical endeavors after your exit from Wire. Was that the only reason for your departure? And was it an amicable one?
I can’t say that it was completely amicable because obviously I left them in the lurch a bit, but it was necessary for my sanity. I was just feeling tired, tired of the whole group thing and traveling, touring. I just had enough, really.
Most of Send features your riffs as the base the songs were then formed around. Do you feel as if you’ve contributed the most to the record or have earned most of the credit for it?
Oh, no, this has always been a collaborative project, and, I suppose because I had so much fun doing it, I don’t deserve anything really. I was exploring and having quite a good time. Colin would cook up a rhythm, a drum track, and I would just free flow, extemporize riffs to my heart’s content until we found something that was a little bit convincing or compelling.
Both you and Colin have a fraught relationship with the guitar. You’ve said that you don’t play it at all and you don’t consider yourself a guitar player, but you “operate” the guitar. So why “operate” the guitar instead of playing?
Ah, well, for me it’s the fact that you have to use two hands to operate it. I prefer a bank of knobs. I’ve always been more interested in the effects than the guitar itself. Though I used to enjoy kind of a physical aspect of playing rhythms, I find that twiddling knobs is far more satisfying.
There’s supposedly a long-held belief that you were the generator of the avant-garde aspect of Wire while Colin was of the pop aspect. Do you suppose that’s true, especially in the band’s postmillennial material?
Uh, I’m not sure about that, but I know Colin was always interested in pop, or twisted pop. So I’ve always been more interested in the more avant-garde side of things. But so is Graham, and to some extent so is Robert and also Colin really. But I think he’s had a previous incarnation where he was involved with groups or a group, so he perhaps had a bit of a more musical background with it than the rest of us. Hence his interest in pop, in pop art. So it all kind of mixes together like that.
Instead of guitar solos, you perform something you call a “guitar event.” So why does the band eschew guitar solos?
For myself, I’m simply not musically adept enough to actually play solos. It’s very simple, really. [Laughs.]
Do you have any new music brewing?
I’ve been a bit lazy, but I am starting to work myself up into a more productive period. What I like to do is have a new effect or a new toy to play with, and that always stimulates me, and I’m about to purchase a new effect. So let’s see what happens.
SPIN: Did Send feel like a renaissance for the band at the time, something that would likely lead to more work? Or was it like reanimating a corpse for a short dance?
Newman: I guess there’s what you thought at the time and what happened. Wire did a performance at the Royal Festival Hall in very early 2000. This was quite a big deal. We’ve never played anywhere so big before, and it’s a national venue. We’d been a band that played in universities and clubs in the ‘70s. But we weren’t a band that played in proper venues that major artists or special events happen in.
We came up with this idea that Bruce would come over to my studio two or three times a week. And we would just work on stuff sort of hip-hop style, basically taking bits and putting them together, and it proved to be an interesting process. I’d never worked like that with Bruce before. Wire never worked like that. It was like school. We just sat in the studio and fiddled about and came up with stuff.
Did it feel like a reaction to the band’s original sound from the previous noisy, atmospheric stuff from the ‘80s?
No, not really. I felt it was more like it was coming off the back end of drum’n’bass. Rock music at that point was either sort of indie, you know — boys in baggy trousers — or it was old men with beards playing music that sounded like… just…old. Everything was old about it, and nobody was doing anything fresh, and nobody was using the energy of dance music in rock music.
I never knew that you guys actually had written up a manifesto, though. Did the recordings faithfully honor that manifesto?
The manifesto was only ever theoretical. Naturally you have a bunch of people who can barely agree on anything, but the only thing that they can manage to agree on is what they don’t like. That’s sort of how that comes about: Keep things short, no solos, no key changes. All those kinds of things that are kind of annoying. Wire has always tried to be music without the annoying bits.
You used the studio as an instrument to remix “12XU” into a dancier dub to see “what it would sound like if Fat Boy Slim made punk rock records.” When did you first discover a love for dance music? Did you feel hesitant to incorporate it into Wire?
It was just a natural thing. [This] may seem almost pretentious, but Wire’s always seen itself as a contemporary band. Somehow the self-image of the band is of a band that’s operating in the now, and if you’re operating in the now then you have to understand all the other music that’s going on around.
You and Bruce have a fraught relationship with guitar. You’ve said it’s unseemly to practice it and don’t play it as a regular thing. So what is it about the guitar?
Yeah, it is a very, very weird thing. It’s very hard to explain to an American because Americans have a different attitude towards that. It was actually the most shocking thing when we first went to America. We played in CBGB, and it split the audience. Some people thought we were fantastic, but a lot of people hated us. I remember one girl coming up and saying, like, “My 14-year-old brother can play better guitar than you can” because it’s un-flashy; there isn’t anything clever about guitar playing in Wire. It’s riffing, or it’s chords, or it’s simple note runs. It’s just simple, easy stuff. You don’t have to be a great player to be able to do it. I don’t even admire guitarists particularly. It’s a means to an end.
I read that instead of guitar solos, you perform something you call a “guitar event.” Why does the band eschew guitar solos?
We all just thought guitar solos were a bit naff. The early ‘70s were full of promise, but then [in] the mid-‘70s the whole musical world split and suddenly you had later prog and three-hour guitar solos or whatever. This was the music that was not interesting. Soloing is weird…it’s a bit egoistic unless you’re really, really good. It’s just like, “Look at me!” It’s just not very interesting.
I asked Bruce, and he said he just simply couldn’t, so that was his reason why.
That is a really good answer, and I could give exactly the same answer. Yeah, we’re rubbish at playing lead guitar. There are some songs where you have a really short and very effective guitar solo that really rips it up in 10 or 15 seconds, but for the most part the extended solo is not an interesting thing. I think “guitar event” is just a way of describing it really.
The record follows in the same spirit of sampling, remixing, modifying and repurposing that’s found in electronic music, hip-hop and most of pop music today – it’s a global trend in contemporary music. What is your view of this new technique and its effect on the perception of music?
In general, I’m interested in pop production. I know quite a lot of what’s going on across many, many genres. It’s really interesting to hear how people do production, how people approach music. There are so many ways of doing it.
The thing about assembly is that it’s deliberate; you hear that it’s assembly. That’s the whole point of hip-hop. You’ve got this bit from here and this bit from there, and they don’t really belong together, but you jam them together and they somehow work. That’s the hip-hop dynamic. And that was interesting to employ that with a band – to have a band record in the studio but employ exactly the same mechanical technique of cutting, and you can really change anything in any way, shape or form, but have it based around an original performance.
I think that that’s what happens with every kind of methodology and technology, especially anything to do with computers. They lead to refinement rather than radicalism. You can’t really do anything radical with that way of working. What you can do is endlessly refine things that you’ve already got. All the possibilities are there, but in the end, it doesn’t really matter how you make it. If it isn’t any good, it isn’t any good. It’s only any good if it’s actually good.
Something I’ve always loved about Wire is the austerity of all the songs. You guys are subtractors, reducers, minimalists. What is it about this way of playing that aligns with the vision of the band?
You want to do things in simple building blocks. It may end up being quite complex when you layer the different building blocks, but it is based on a very straightforward way of looking at the world. If we’d been trying to do jazz, we would have been sunk. I think it’s also the idea that somehow technique will cover over the fact that you haven’t got any ideas.