Throughout the band’s nearly 40-year career, Colin Newman and Wire have been iconoclasts, innovators, and outsiders. From 1977’s Pink Flag forward, they’ve done things their own way and waited for the rest of the world to catch on and catch up. The quartet was essential to the development of art punk, emphasizing that punk could be something more than the straight-ahead formula that had existed, that it had room for chaos, jazz, noise, and the like. Wire evolved over time, changing as new passions and ideas struck Newman and his compatriots.
This week, Wire will be hosting the latest edition of their Drill Festival in Chicago, a three-night celebration of the band’s expansive, multi-faceted identity. Alongside support from local jazz legend Ken Vandermark to cult heroes Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, from rabble-rousers White Lung to composer Tim Hecker, Wire will perform classic, mutable compositions from their catalog, including the titular “Drill” alongside guitar genius St. Vincent. With the festivities looming, we spoke with Newman about expectations for a legendary band, Wire’s plans for the future, and the plan behind Drill.
I’ve read in interviews that you’ve had offers to play albums straight through and things like that, and that you’ve passed on them. Is that an active stance that you guys have against that sort of nostalgic listening, or is it just that that sort of thing can overwhelm creativity?
It doesn’t really suit the mood of the group. We’re really just not that interested in just living in the past. You know you come from art or entertainment. It’s true, you kind of see yourself in that way, and you feel that that’s your kind of role. We see ourselves as artists, with an artistic nature. I just think that under those circumstances, if [playing classic albums] was all that we were willing to do, then we’d do it. But it’s not really a matter of how you listen, or pioneering. Just, literally, it doesn’t feel right. And also, you know, there is something, a sort of depressing thing about the whole nostalgia industry and the expectation around it. There are people who have been saying to us, “Well, you’ve been on tour,” and they see older bands that come around, and they always play their old stuff. And then they play their new songs and the new songs just sound like the old songs.
Yeah, it also could potentially set up that constant expectation, too: Is this as good as the last album? Or is this as good as, you know, the first album?
Absolutely. I mean, we’re always going to be judged. We’re always going to be judged against our past. But we have to be working to try and just make the best things that we can and to work within a context that we understand, which is almost being pretty much a contemporary band. You know, you’re allowed to be a contemporary band if you’re over 20.
Has that changed any now that you’ve been around for so long? There are kids that are fans of your first albums that didn’t have the opportunity to see those songs played live. Is that something you consider?
First off, it’s not that we don’t play old material. We do. You know, we mix it up. It’s not that we won’t, but we won’t do exclusively old material. That’s the point. And the older material that we choose, we choose things that we could make an interesting twist on. Just make something something new, just bring some energy that’s new to it. I just think that, basically, time travel is not available. It’s not been invented yet. If you wanted to see Wire play those songs as they played them in the ‘70s, you kind of have to be in the ‘70s. But actually, that’s true of everyone. Really, the best that you can do, is be a really good cover band or yourselves.
It’s a difficult area because I can understand how some people say, “Well, I love those records, I wanna hear them live.” But, you know, this is not a restaurant. This is an artistic venture. It’s not, like, “Well, I paid my money and I want this, this, and this, and you have to give it to me, or else you’re breaking some contract, you’re not delivering the goods or services for which I paid.” It doesn’t really work like that.
Do you think that it works for some bands? Or is that really just a decision to go towards entertainment rather than art?
It’s where people feel comfortable. And I’m not going to criticize people for being more entertainers than artists. You know, for God’s sake, it’s not our place to make that judgment call. It’s more about what you as an artist feel comfortable doing. And it’s about when we’re putting something out to the audience, it’s really about that what we consider to be good is to actually be really doing it for real, on the stage. What we gain, the feedback that we gain from doing this tour, is that it is the best time they’ve ever seen Wire. We’re hearing that from a lot of different places. And it’s important that if you are taking a stance like this, you’ve gotta walk the walk. It can’t be like, “Not only did they not play any old songs, they weren’t very good at playing the new songs, either.” That’s the worst possible thing.
Does something like Drill allow you to split that difference? To have something that can be sort of a thread that runs through your career, but also is constantly changing and depends on the space that it’s produced in?
Yeah, it’s interesting because actually we’re not playing “Drill” in our regular set right now. It’s one of those songs that goes in and out of the set, and we’re kind of preserving it really for the festival. So, that will be the only time we’ll play it on this tour. We’re bound to come to it in a fresh way because we haven’t played it for, you know, however many gigs. It seems like forever we’ve been on tour but it’s only been a few weeks.
I don’t think anybody would ever accuse you of being anything but innovative, but does that ever stop you when you’re in the recording process or the writing process for the new album? Do you ever consider whether something sounds like something you’ve done before, or whether something is different enough?
Actually, to be quite honest, I think the less you think about it the better. I think it should an entirely organic process, both the writing and the recording. I mean, this is the making of the arrangement between the band. There shouldn’t be too much thought involved. If people think it sounds like something else, then maybe it does, maybe it doesn’t. So, there’s not sort of set rules for not to do this or not to do that. It’s just really how it feels when it comes out. I mean, it’s not an intellectual process, actually. We talk intelligently about it, but ultimately the process is not an intellectual one. It’s about the feeling.
Is it difficult to keep finding ways to challenge yourself, nearly 40 years in?
I don’t know, I think that’s kind of almost a trick kind of question. Nobody is standing anywhere, saying, “Oh, we need to challenge ourselves.” It’s just, we actually get bored of doing one thing and then we do something else. I mean, it’s just part of the process, changing, growing, and how people, a group of people will come about something creative. I mean, we’re all so different and we come at things from such different angles, so the idea of change, the idea of evolving somehow, is something that we all kind of agree with.
Is there a point at which, going into a new album, that you would sort of say, “this is enough?” Do you have that sort of end-point in mind? Or is this something you plan on doing forever?
At the moment, my sort of plans are up to 2017, which is like, the 40th anniversary of the band. I’d like to have an album come out the nearest possible day to that, and then I haven’t really thought beyond that. And, the last sort of mark this whole time has really been towards that date, and what we do and how we would kind of celebrate that. And I think the best way to celebrate a kind of anniversary like that is to do something big. We also planned another release sort of early April next year, because we actually worked on more pieces for this album than we ended up using. And the choice about which got used and which didn’t get used was not really about which bits are good and which bits aren’t good. It was more about which conform to a certain aesthetic. So, we’ll do a second release, which will be a different aesthetic. People may or may not make a connection. It will be finished and we’ll release it.
It almost feels as if the music world has been playing catch-up with you throughout your career. People were coming around to things you were doing five to 10 years prior. Did it ever feel like that as time went by or was it sort of distanced?
I mean, there’s an element to that and I think not just in terms of the music, but in terms of how we do the business. You know, we started on a major label, but in the ‘80s we went to an indie. And, really, since the backend of the ‘90s, we had our own label, and the work is produced pretty much in-house. You know, we go to recording studios these days because we can afford to, but all the mixing and finishing is done in my studio.
But, now people think self-releasing and self-recording is really a good thing and we’ve been kind of practiced [in it], and we are always looking at how we can do this better, how we can do this more effectively.
So, how did you choose the other acts to play in the Drill Festival with you?
The thing about Drill Festival is we always have a partner. As we did for Seattle, we’re in collaboration with Billions, the booking agency. They have their own process, working with promoters so they know who’s on tour who’s around. So that’s just source material. It’s all very well having lists of this person, this person, this person, and this person. But they’re either not available, don’t live anywhere near the festival is, or just aren’t playing right now, or they’re recording. So you know, you can’t have it all. It’s all about the world of the possible, so we find out who’s available and we go through lists, we discuss it.
We always start off with friends, but that’s what Drill Festival is. It’s always sort of a constant thing, where if it’s not someone we know directly it’s someone we know on a second level. And that kind of personalizes it a bit, really, which makes it more interesting for us. And the connections may seem strange. Why would we choose this artist, why would we choose that artist? But, actually it’s all about the connections to a person.
So the choices for the Chicago edition are very diverse. You’re bringing in St. Vincent, but then also the jazz legend Ken Vandermark. Was that diversity a conscious decision when you were putting together the lineup?
Oh, definitely, definitely. We go back to the very first Drill, which was March ’13. The format was different. Over three nights there were two venues. One was more the rock and one was more the experimental venue. There’s always been those two sides of the festival. We always have the more experimental side to it and then the more pop and rock side, and to have those things coexist because those things coexist in the band as well. So, obviously, we’re doing something so we can paint a map, which will be revealed when we get there. It’s daunting and exhausting.
Last year, I talked to Buzz Osbourne from the Melvins about them being together 30 years as a band, and the two things that he really stressed for keeping that energy going were fighting against bored, at any cost, and just doing the work. Would you say that those are elements of your longevity as well?
I think they do play a very big part. I was talking to Ian MacKaye last night and he was talking about still having an enemy. I think, in a way, because of the nature of the band, we’ve set ourselves up with an enemy too. It’s nothing new. Wire will come and play new material, we’ve been doing it forever.
People are young fogies and old fogies. They want us to just play stuff from the ‘70s. That’s not really so much in the audience as it is people who look at it from the outside, and they don’t listen to the new stuff because they think, “Oh, they couldn’t possibly do anything as good.” But I think what they’re really doing is just revealing their conservatism. They’re just saying they’re not using their ears. But that stance gives us a way, gives us always something to fight against, gives you a certain amount of energy. And if it’s not fun at least some of the time, then there isn’t very much point in doing it.