Wire :: The AD Interview
In 2000, post-punk legends Wire reconvened, after a nine-year hiatus, for what was intended to be a one-off gig at London’s Royal Festival Hall. Instead, what the four original members of the group—singer/guitarist Colin Newman, guitarist Bruce Gilbert, singer/bassist Graham Lewis, and drummer Robert Gray—found was a reignition, a relighting of the torch that guided them through three masterworks of art rock and angular punk (1977’s Pink Flag, 1978’s Chairs Missing, and 1979’s 154), and a run of records in the late ’80s/early ’90s that brought in elements of dance music and pure pop.
It was Newman and Gilbert who took the tightest hold of that torch. The two spent weeks in the home studio of Newman and his wife, musician Malka Spigel, using recordings of jam sessions and gig rehearsals to stitch together new material. The subsequent EP releases—Read & Burn 01 and Read & Burn 02—were an abrasive blend of Wire’s various eras with astringent guitar meeting overdriven drum loops and harshly programmed beats. The return of the band was a welcome one, too, as the first run of EPs quickly sold out and a loud call for more live dates.
The demand for the music resulted in a rather knotted up portion of the Wire discography. Portions of the Read & Burn EPs were included, along with some contemporaneous material, on the 2003 album Send. And there was a vinyl release PF456 Redux that crammed all of the above onto one lp via some very rough edits. The situation for collectors will be rectified on the June 12th for the first 2021 Record Store Day Drop, with the release of PF456 Deluxe, a set that includes all the music from that period, including a repress of a short run 7” featuring the band deconstructing “12XU,” and a booklet featuring interviews with all four members.
This music on PF456 also represents the final word on the original lineup of Wire. After going on an extended tour for Send, Gilbert decided to leave the band to avoid the slog of necessary promotion and performances, as well as to concentrate on his own more experimental music. But while it has been nearly 20 years since he was part of Wire, Gilbert agreed to do some interviews about the release PF456 Deluxe, owing to, as he put it, the “more personal” ties he had to the project. He, along with Newman, spoke with AD about this brief moment in Wire’s fascinating and still ongoing history. | r ham
Aquarium Drunkard: Wire hadn’t been a going concern for almost a decade when the band decided to get back together for a gig at Royal Festival Hall in 2000. And it seems like everyone was wary about doing it. What was it that convinced you to give it a try?
Bruce Gilbert: I suppose because everyone else wanted to. And that was it really. That was the way we made decisions in the past. If the majority wanted to do something, then that was it.
AD: It also sounds as if, when you were set to release the first Read & Burn EP, that no one in the band was convinced that anyone would be interested in hearing new music from Wire.
Colin Newman: In the history of pinkflag, the label, Read & Burn 01 was the single most important record we had. Other records have sold more copies, but we sold an awful lot of copies of Read & Burn in a very short time. And we were totally shocked. We had no idea. We were pleased with Read & Burn 01. It all felt good. But we didn’t have any money for promotion. We literally just put it out. And it flew out the door. Wire doesn’t seem to ever go away, whether we’re doing it or not. There seems to be an audience for it. Certainly in the decade that preceded Read and Burn 01, Wire had been topical in terms of being used in the whole Britpop thing—Elastica and Menswe@r and the rest of it. But you would think that people wouldn’t necessarily be interested in new material.
AD: Bruce, it has been some time since you’ve been a member of Wire and since you left the group, you really have done a lot of interviews about your time in the group. What made you want to do that with PF456 Deluxe?
Bruce Gilbert: I suppose I consider this project more personal because of the way it was made. It was quite an intense period of going to Colin’s studio two or three times a week and cooking up material. We were never really that close before so it was interesting for us to be collaborating that closely. In the old days, the method of cooking up stuff would be in rehearsals. The stuff would be merged from all four of us together. It was much more of a collective effort in those days.
Colin Newman: It was a very specific little moment of me and Bruce, sitting in Malka and I’s studio, cooking up stuff with no money. That was the basic aesthetic: we didn’t have any money at all to make it. We couldn’t fly anybody anywhere. We couldn’t bring anybody into the studio to record. We recorded a bit of rehearsing, when the band was rehearsing for some gigs. But we mainly used that for drums. It wasn’t necessarily lo-fi in terms of the sound, but the finance involved. The only cost was his tube fare. I would give him his tube fare and a bit extra so he could have a pint when he got home.
And we were kind of having fun. There’s always been a grim humor in Wire. Something of the brutality of the mode of music is a kind of humor. There’s many levels to the record although it seems quite austere and quite grim. It’s the kind of thing that would make Bruce and I laugh. It’s like how guys kind of relate. They lean towards each other and their foreheads almost touch when they’re looking at the same thing. I certainly saw a side of Bruce I hadn’t seen before. He didn’t feel threatened in any way. He didn’t have to defend himself. We were just fiddling around, having a laugh.
AD: There’s a really brutal, abrasive quality to the sound of Wire at this time. Was that something you had in mind from the beginning of this project?
Bruce Gilbert: The way it worked was that, I would cook up a drum track that consisted of Robert’s drumming and I would freeform extemporize until something emerged that was convincing or satisfying.
AD: At the time, Colin, you had taken a stronger hand in the production side of Wire. How did the rest of the band feel about that? Were they happy to let you handle things or did they have concerns?
Colin Newman: It’s complex. What I learned working on Send was that I’m quite good working with a person who has a lot of ideas and letting them do everything that they want to do. That’s why Bruce loved it. He didn’t have to worry about the details. For him, it was just, “Oh, can we do this? Let’s do this.” I would take everything we’d worked on together and add another layer of refinement or addition, and then bounce it back to him. Then he would show me by means of the fact that he’d lost interest in it, that he didn’t have anything more to say. Therefore, I might as well mix it. The way it’s developed with the current band is that I let everybody record everything they want to record. The important thing is to allow everybody to do whatever it is they want to do and then try to make something out of what everyone’s done. It doesn’t ever work out quite as simply as that.
AD: The material that is on this new release came out before on a single LP and you had to make some pretty rough edits to the songs to get them to fit. As I was thinking about it, that did fit well with releases like The Drill and last year’s 10:20—albums with re-recorded or remixed versions of your songs.
Colin Newman: It’s all grist for the mill. It’s just stuff. You’re going to find it really hard to revisit “Practice Makes Perfect” because it kind of is what it is and it’s hard for it be something else. The edits that ended up making the PF456 Redux were a bit more than the tracks could take really. They’re fine. It’s a different statement. But it was like putting two years’ of work in a blender. I quite like those 10:20 type of ideas. I mean, I’m fascinated with Manscape because it is known for being Wire’s worst record. Mainly what’s bad about it is the production. It’s impenetrable. But there’s some great tunes on it. Why not revisit them?
AD: How was it then to revisit your older material for the gig at the Barbican Theatre that you discuss in this RSD release—where you played Pink Flag in its entirety?
Bruce Gilbert: From a personal point of view, it was a bit tricky because it meant I had been using an open tuning in the latter part of the Wire experience through sheer laziness. I had to relearn how to play in a normal tuning. That was tricky to say the least, as I’m not a virtuoso by any means .
AD: Since so much of the material on PF456 was constructed using ProTools and in the studio, how was it, then, to develop it for live performance?
Colin Newman: Technically, it wasn’t that hard to do. The difficulty was that there was no bass in most of it. So, that was a complexity. Then, as we engaged more with the machine of touring and promotion, Bruce became less and less interested in it. We toured Send for 2 1/2 years. We played exactly the same set. And there was a point when it was obvious that this wasn’t going anywhere. It was a dead end. And then Bruce left. It ended in a very, very strange way. There were a lot of contributing things to that. I don’t think it was down to the relationship between Bruce and myself. From being sitting in my studio fiddling about with no money and no expectations, suddenly there was expectations. We’d sold a load of records, so people wanted to see it. It became a thing. Suddenly we became a thing.
Bruce Gilbert: Increasingly, I became extremely uncomfortable with touring. I wasn’t getting any younger. I just got really tired. I just more and more exhausted. Especially things like festivals where you turn up as early as you can in the afternoon and then you’re not on until 11 or 12 o’clock at night so you’re just stooging around for so many hours. You just get sick and tired. I found it very hard.
AD: Did you have a sense during that tour, Bruce, that your time in Wire was limited?
Bruce Gilbert: I suppose I did have a slight sense of that. It kind of grew. I didn’t want to feel like that but my body was telling me otherwise. I think there was a breaking point when we were talking about press and stuff, and my eyes went to the top of my head. I thought, “Oh, here we go again.” It’s the process I find the least interesting. I think the music speaks for itself. Obviously, logically, you have to do some press. I always had mixed feelings about that.
AD: Was it an easy decision to continue doing Wire even after Bruce decided to leave?
Colin Newman: It was complex. There were two things, basically. We’re not letting Bruce dictate whether we can do it or not. I think the way I would have described it at the time was that, when Bruce left, it was a bit like he took his ball home. And there was a whole thing with our ex-manager Paul Smith, which was a huge legal battle. We ended up uniting in a way that anyone would have expected. We just decided to do it anyway. You wouldn’t have given a lot of hope for it, given past form. Wire had been four people for the entire history. Suddenly, we were just three. And it wasn’t even the three that anyone would have imagined. Somehow we got through that. And the rebirth really happened with Red Barked Tree. I realized we needed to record an album as a band and I would take that and work on it. And that’s how it’s gone on since then. Red Barked Tree set the parameter for how you could possible make Wire records in the ensuing years.