“In the end, its got to be about subtlety.”
It’s interesting hearing that take on songwriting from Wire frontman Colin Newman, especially since his band has built its iconic reputation on experimenting and cutting against the grain. But after four decades of pushing the envelope, it’s amusing that the most interesting and novel thing for Newman to do on the band’s 13th studio effort was retreat to a more personal, songwriter-based manner of penning new material. Wire is arguably the English band’s most pop-oriented and melodic affair yet, something decidedly more streamlined but no less exciting than the angular art punk of classics like Pink Flag and Chairs Missing. We caught up with Newman by phone ahead of the band’s show at the Sinclair to talk about what’s in an album title, the evolution of the band’s songwriting approach, and how the little things can make all the difference in a song.
The new record is self titled, which can carry some presuppositions. How did you arrive at just calling the 13th record Wire?
Well how do you read it?
A lot of times a self titled record reads like a statement of purpose, as if to say “This is who we are in 2015.”
Both yes and no, to be honest [laughs]. You go through the usual process of coming up with song titles, lyrics, and other ideas, absolutely none of which anyone agreed on. We worked on 19 pieces, and we were doing track selection at the same time. The tracks that we chose weren’t necessarily better than the ones that we didn’t choose. It was more that they fit into a certain kind of a setting. We tried coming up with ideas for a title, but there was nothing that really stuck with everybody. We couldn’t come to any sort of agreement. Then our graphic designer who did the cover said “Well why don’t you self title it? It would work out graphically.” I’m trained as a graphic designer, so that immediately appealed to me. A couple of other people in the band were also like “That’s not a terrible idea at all.”
But we had to go through a process where we all understood what the ramifications of [calling the record Wire] were. One thing we considered was that self titled records are usually used for debuts, but that’s not entirely true. Peter Gabriel actually called his first four solo albums Peter Gabriel, which is a bit much [laughs]. It gets confusing. But also what struck me immediately was the album The Beatles, which is known as The White Album. It’s a bit of a high art statement that subverted the name and meaning of the band. That band had a terrible name. I mean they’re a great band, but the name is terrible, just a really bad pun.
It strikes me as something they came up with very early on and it just stuck, kind of like the Beastie Boys. There’s no way they’d call themselves that if they knew they’d be playing music together into their 40s.
Oh yeah, of course. Absolutely. They probably had a gig and had to come up with a name quick. But we opted for a strong image for the cover. Wire is like a logo, a brand. It works more on that level. But also this is the first album that’s been conceived since [guitarist Matt Simms] has been in the band, so it also in a way feels like a new band. It’s a redefinition. There are people who think this is the best combination of people who can make up Wire today.
How did Matt’s addition to the band affect the music itself? A lot has been made about how this is one of the most melodic and pop-oriented records the band’s made.
I think Matt brings a certain amount of musicality, yes. He is quite capable of being incredibly left field in his approach as well. He’s very similar in his way of thinking as the rest of us are. Despite the age difference, there is a sense that he’s one of us. It’s always been that way, and it was almost sort of ridiculous to imagine it when we all started playing together. Now it’s developed to a point where nobody really thinks about it anymore. Matt’s just part of the band. This is how we do it. I think our development in this direction began three albums back with [2010’s] Red Barked Tree. I see those records as sort of a three album package. I see them as a trilogy of sorts. Together, they’re definitely a step away from what we were doing before. We wanted to get back to songwriting, and Red Barked Tree was the first record in a really long time where there were songs before any band members got involved. The band learned the songs and played them, and that became the basis for the production. It’s a different way of thinking about music, but it’s more fluid and better suited to a band if a band works together.
You’ve called the songs on this record “stand up and play” type songs. Is that what you were referring to, the way they work best as performed by a group?
Yeah, yeah. Absolutely. These songs came together at some point when we played them together as a band. On Red Barked Tree, I wrote songs on an acoustic guitar, brought them into the studio and we did them together. Those songs were intended to be a distraction or a diversion. They weren’t meant to make up the next album, so that parked people’s expectations of what the next album would be. But we just thought we should present it as a new album, and that’s what we did. On this album, it’s going back to that same approach of writing entirely new material for the band. Making Red Barked Tree, I thought, “I haven’t written songs on an acoustic guitar in so many years; I’ve become unsophisticated at it. I’m not bored enough at my own ability.” I realized I can’t progress unless I start to put myself in more situations where I’m exploring other options. I wanted to put myself in more contact with myself the way I did in the 70s, when I was writing more songs on an acoustic guitar, when I was jaded with more things and bored with more things. I thought that maybe that energy would help spur some progress. I have no idea if it did or not, but it’s a theory that sounds good on paper.
Have you come to appreciate that songwriter approach more than the way you used to do things before? Is this your new mode?
I don’t touch a guitar unless I have to. I don’t sit around all day writing songs. I actually find that really tedious. I’m not that interested in craft. Some people come at songwriting with a level of craft, which works if you’re in that craft tradition. If you do a style of music that you study, then I can understand that. I’m completely agnostic when it comes to musical genre.
But that’s why we’re still talking about your band after 40 years.
It’s just a free spirit sort of thing, really. When I write a song I try not to think too much about anything. If it’s not done in two minutes, then it’s not gonna get done. I’m not gonna label it. I operate from the point of view of limited technical ability, so I’m never inclined to do something that’s based on high dexterity. Everything has to be simple. It might lead you into the simplest thing. You take a song like “Swallow.” I play one note, one string against another string, and I play the same thing, same rhythm, all the way through. That sounds incredibly boring, but you find your way into it and you make it work. You make it beautiful. Some people want more fireworks in their music. For me, I love the repetition. I love getting into the detail of things. There’s a lot of subtlety there, especially on records. On record, it’s all about subtlety.
A lot of the best songs come from something very simple and basic.
And they should. This genre, which you could call in a very generous sense pop rock, you have 80% of the bands making music with two guitars, bass and drums. How many combinations can you make out of that? It’s basically limitless. You can have two songs that play the same chords the same way, but you put a different vocal melody over it and it’s a completely different song. That’s where the magic comes in. Rock music can be over the top and theatrical, but in the end it’s got to be about subtlety. That’s where it becomes interesting. In a musical world where the changes are often small, taking a different angle or approach means a lot.
WIRE. THE SINCLAIR, 52 CHURCH ST., CAMBRIDGE., TUES 6.2 7PM/18+/$22.