Down to the Wire
Veteran UK punk subversives Wire retool themselves for
their first Japan tour in 12 years.
|from left to right: Robert
Grey (drums), Colin Newman (vocals), Bruce Gilbert (guitar),
Graham Lewis (bass)
Some bands-this week's visitors Kraftwerk are
a good example-are so far ahead of their time that
it takes decades for the times to catch up. After
years of relative public indifference, the German electro-savants
are currently being lionized by the dance community for pioneering
the synthetic form of music now called techno.
Parallels with this can be found in the three-decade career
of British band Wire, which emerged out of the '70s
UK punk movement but whose members were already reformulating
the clichés of rock at the time. With the new waves of
stripped-down neo-garage and post-rock finding commercial
success in the first years of the century, the times seem
also to be catching up with the quartet.
In London and New York it became clear that the new
energy in music was going to be coming from rock music,
says a slightly manic Wire frontman Colin Newman by phone
from his London townhouse. There was an energy that
came up at the millennium's cusp that was kind of available.
If you believe in a cultural gestalt, there was an energy
that was available for artists that could tap into it. And
that's how it felt for us."
Spinal tapping into it is what Wire have done
in the past few years, as they rekindled their career around
the re-energized rock scene. They've headlined the
signature All Tomorrow's Parties indie/alt-rock events,
and had a burst of creativity that resulted in the release
of last year's insistent Send.
But unlike Kraftwerk, who stuck to the model they pioneered
in the early '70s, Wire, as has been the case throughout
their career, felt the need to reinvent themselves.
What we needed to do was catch that moment, elaborates
Newman. As far as I was concerned, it was about taking
the model of electronic music and engaging it with rock music-it's
a car crash aesthetic.
Listening to Send makes this abundantly clear. The elements
of rock-the distorted guitars, the driving bass and
the insistent backbeat of the drums-are there. But
they've been subverted. Sampled, looped and cut-and-pasted
back together techno-style, the rhythm-and-blues-based clichés
of rock sound as if they'd been turned inside out.
It's all made out of bits, Newman continues.
There's no band that actually plays. It's
a different way of doing it. The aesthetic is to do with taking
rock music but actually working at it from the standpoint
of dance music, using the technology and methodology.
In the meantime, not only the recording process but the entire
nature of the music business had been turned upside down by
the introduction of the computer. For Wire, this meant that
they could for the first time take control of their affairs.
Newman now runs two record labels and an Internet business
out of his home office: Pink Flag for Wire releases, Swim
for emerging bands (including among them some Japanese acts),
and a music download website still in development.
Wire started out in the '70s with EMI, at the time
the largest record company in the world, and spent the better
part of the '80s and '90s with independent label
Mute before recently going it alone. Newman says that the
move has allowed Wire to get more revenue back out of their
sales than ever before.
I think the world has changed in a dramatic way, in
that artists that do have a name, do have a recognized brand
they have the capital to do something on their own, they're
going to do much better than if they go through a larger label...If
Wire was on EMI now, we would do extremely badly because,
A, people wouldn't understand why and, B, they would
think frankly [that] it's some old group being marketed
by a major label-not interested.
But Newman does note that the move is not necessarily for
everyone and that the majors still have a role even in the
post-Napster era. You need a larger label if nobody
knows who you are and you need to find an audience. The payoff
for that is that the biggest audience is going to be found
for the most general kind of music.
Despite Wire's recent digital direction and Newman's
occasional stabs at DJing, he's quick to stress that
Wire won't be hiding behind laptops in their first
tour of Japan in 12 years. Rock has traditionally been
a stand-up-and-play kind of music, and Wire live is very much
a stand-up-and-play item-and does it well. Fans
may rest assured.
We've been playing for the last year or so a
set of the Send material, and have managed to get that to
a high level of intensity. And because we haven't been
to Japan for a very long time, that's what we want
to bring and that's what they deserve to hear.
Wire play Club Quattro on February
29. See listings for details.
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