Colin Newman, Wire

And now for a lesson in music history.

It wouldn't be a stretch to say that Wire has had a considerable influence on rock music.  I say "rock," because as songwriter Colin Newman told me, their music "takes the axe to 'rock n roll' and leaves the 'n roll' part out."  Wire has been cited by bands like U2, The Cure, R.E.M., Guided By Voices, Minor Threat, and Black Flag (among countless others) as an influence.  They are one of the innovators of the punk scene of the 70s and 80s, be it punk rock, art punk, post-punk, whatever. With releases like their 1977 debut Pink Flag and later Chairs Missing, Wire were era-defining; if you listen to indie rock in some form today, chances are there's a Wire influence somewhere. 

Wire's new album Red Barked Tree is due out January 10 in the UK and January 11 in the US on the band's Pink Flag label.  It has set music critics' hearts atwitter everywhere, and for good reason. It's fantastic.  The band is supporting the release with a world tour.  So kids, consider this interview a musical history lesson.  It's a fascinating look at the band's creative process from the perspective of songwriter Colin Newman as he talks about their songwriting process from the 1970s onwards.  We spoke last week through the miracle of Skype.  Read the interview after the video. And sure, it's a little long, but when you've been around for over thirty years and still make good music, you have a lot to say.

Did you have any other artistic endeavors before songwriting?

I don't know that I consider myself a songwriter, but I guess I am. I started off wanting to always be in a band, but I went to art school because I thought that it was a way to get into a band.  I turned up my first day of Foundation--the first year before the specialty year--and went up to everyone who looked like they might be in a band and asked if they wanted to be in one.  Everyone thought I was crazy.

I ended up on a course of illustration.  I can't really draw, so that was a bit of a drawback. I have some graphic design training and was told in Foundation that I should pursue fine arts.  I was very arrogant; I thought that anyone my age who claimed to be an artist was an idiot, because you couldn't have experienced enough to actually convey anything and couldn't have anything to say to anybody. 

Why don't you consider yourself a songwriter?

I am not a player in any sense of the word.  I was rubbish as a guitarist when I was 16, and I don't think technical virtuosity comes into it in any way.  I play as well as I need to play, which is not that good.  But it's enough to do the things I want to do.  Because I had an acoustic guitar, I used to write songs that used a very bad finger picking style. 

I don't like rock n' roll very much, certainly not 50s rock n roll.  I come from psychedelia more than anything else, where there's an idea beyond the song. The tape flanging on the drum roll on "Ichycoo Park" by the Small Faces was something which I thought was amazing when I was a kid.  And the organ, how all the sounds fit together. It wasn't just a matter of of going from E to A to G. 

How did you become the songwriter for Wire?

Wire started as a five piece, as someone else's band.  He wrote the material, which I didn't particularly like.  But I was just a singer.  And when we got to a point where we realized we were going to sack this guy and go it on our own, Graham came to me with lyrics, and I said that I can write the songs. I thought that I would have to write a kind of un-rock.  I've characterized it before as taking an axe to rock n roll and leaving the "n roll" out.  A reductionism, really.  I realized that I could write a song that consisted of one chord and shouting.  It was perfectly acceptable.  Back then, you had to have a second chord, but it was absolutely the wrong one.

Through the 70s, the stuff I wrote for Wire was on acoustic guitar, the same one I've always owned.  The fact that I could get excited enough by just strumming or playing peculiar rhythms on the guitar--and that could lead to a song--was the basis for most of that material.

Did your songwriting change for the new Wire album?

The last Wire album was written that way, and I did it after years of not doing it that way.  I do everything really fast.  I have zero patience.  There is a creative muse concept that I sort of subscribe to.  Creativity doesn't happen with any rational part of the brain.  You don't think, "I am going to do this" and then you do it.  You do something, then you figure what it is afterwards.  That's being an artist.  And anyone who does the former cant really be an artist, because they are merely following a plan. 

I still write songs on the same acoustic guitar that I used back in the 70s. If the song isn't written in the first five minutes, it's not going to get written.  Back in the 70s when I wrote a lot of songs with Graham, he'd give me the words and I'd somehow jam them into the tune.  I didn't have a way of recording it since I didn't have a tape recorder, so I had to play it a lot of times.  I'd want to fix the melody and words as fast as possible. 

The way we wrote Wire songs in the 70s was unusual: the person who sings the words doesn't write them, but writes the melody and accompaniment.  The words come from a different place, not being anything fitted with the music.  But I managed to jam them in somehow, much to Graham's annoyance.  I would take a lot of liberties, to the point that he will only deliver words to me now that I could do almost anything to and they will still make sense.  I don't care if something makes sense. That's not a big point to me.

Do you call songwriting work?

I have decided that because I am in two bands that operate differently, in oder to get the best out of Wire, we must have written material.  Wire has never really jammed.  We've been without one member since 2004, Bruce, and in order to make the best possible Wire record, I had to write something on acoustic guitar, and this is not something that I had done since the 70s.  If anyone had asked me what my main instrument was, I would say Mac Pro. Production is a big part of my life since I also run the label for both bands.

This notion of being a songwriter is not something I do often.  What happened with this album was an accident.  Graham was supposed to give me a pile of lyrics and I was going to work through them and write a bunch of songs.  We were supposed to do the original recording around December 2009, but we didn't end up recording until the following February.  We had booked four days in the studio.  I thought we needed 12 to 14 pieces to work on; the band would learn the songs in the studio, then record them. 

With a week to go, we only had four sets of lyrics.  So I wrote for about ten minutes a day and came up with the rest of the material.  The writing was very much done from a perspective of necessity.  And I haven't written a song on acoustic guitar since.  I've no reason to do it.

One song "Two Minutes" is a kind of construct lyrically.  It's a bunch of Tweets, completely abstracted out.  Somebody wrote a review saying the words are really stupid.  And yeah, they are really stupid.  So fucking what?  You want intellect as well?

photo by Phil Sharp

photo by Phil Sharp

It sounds like you don't see yourself as a lyricist, though.

I don't push myself as a lyricist.  I want to leave space for Graham to write.  I tend to write stream of consciousness stuff.  I'm not obsessed with meaning, and I think that things can make a lot of sense without following a direct narrative.  I like emergent narrative from words, the fact that meaning may emerge where you did not entirely intend it.  A lot of my process is about allow the unconscious to speak.  But I don't want to come from there.  As an artist I am really stupid.  Because I come from an arts to school background and probably should have done fine arts, everything has to have a conceptual basis.  I have to understand something and know how things fit together. 

Do you know what a song is going to be about before you start to write it?

The topic is something I never think about at any part in the process.  Even "Down to This," the lyrically heaviest song, is about the fact that we are all going to die and things will never get better.  It's very miserable.  But I have no idea where that comes from, because I am not a miserable person.  I am not one of those people who thinks about advancing years and lost youth, crap like that.  Even when I listen to it, I still don't know why I wrote it. 

Songwriting has a lot to do with playfulness.  People can't believe how I manage to get away with it.  I'm very green when it comes to resources.  A lot of things I write are musical jokes; the classic Newmanism is that the chorus and the verse are exactly the same.  There are no different chords; I just think something different. 

I don't consider myself a songwriter, because to me that conjures images of Tin Pan Alley and a piano.  I don't think I could write a song for another person. Maybe five percent of my songs could be covered by someone else. There's an album of covers of our song "Outdoor Miner" from Chairs Missing, and not one song managed to get the chorus right.  I'm not talking about interpretative skills.  I'm talking about the fact that the chorus is way more simple than they think it is.  They think it's more complicated. 

Wire, from 1977

Wire, from 1977

How do you think you've grown as a songwriter over the years?

Where I am in songwriting now is that I notice detail. There's a girl out here named Ellie Goulding, and she covers Elton John's "Your Song." She does two things that annoy me, but they make me understand why Elton John was such a good songwriter in his early days.  She flattens a note in the first verse, which is just wrong.  She thinks it's interpretation, but it's just wrong.  And then with the transition from the verse to the chorus, the last chord of the verse is actually the first chord of the chorus.  Elton John manages to do it in a way that you don't realize that.  But when she does it, you realize that, and it just flattens the thing down. Elton John's skill was such a skill that you would never notice. 

Has technology affected your creative process?

There were many years when Wire was obsessed with process, and now I am rather bored with it.  We had a bunch of material, we'd take it on the road, then record it when we got back.  In the 80s it became less about the song and more about where you might take the music.  You had no focus.  I spent the 90s and 00s writing the other way around, using Pro Tools to build pieces where I could sing on top of tunes.  

I've been working with sequencing since it was a part of computers.  I never really worked with analog sequencing. As soon as Pro 24 came out--the second Steinberg sequencer on the Atari, in the mid 80s--I liked it. I also liked Cubase 1 when it came out, which I bought for 500 quid on a floppy disk.  It was an outrageous amount, and it looked like a tape machine.  And its approach to the notes was very much like a piano keyboard. It was designed for a keyboard player recording to a tape machine.  I played with that for a long time, but it was never as good on a Mac as it was on an Atari.  For audio, I bought the first Pro Toolsthat you could run on cheap hardware.  I was hooked from the beginning.  There was a huge jump in the quality of the sound.  It's made for producers and engineers.  It's not musical, which suits me fine. 

Once I get a piece of music to a point where I can mix it, I start listening to it.  And I listen to it until something annoys me, and at that point I can either turn that thing down or get rid of it.  I'll keep doing that until I can listen to the whole thing without anything annoying me.  And at that point it's mixed. 

It may seem old fashioned, but I'm still interested in making more than tracks.  I'm interested in making albums, something that can stand repeated listening.  The world is very much around the live performance now, and that's how bands make most of their money.  It makes it easier for us because we have our own label, but I believe in the form of the album.