Influence and being influential is an interesting thing. As the saying goes, "the innovators don't always get paid," the artists who influence art are always the ones who seem like they're continuously innovating. When it comes to British post-punk pioneers Wire, the four piece has always been about three steps ahead of music and the music industry. Keep in mind, there's no emo core, no modern hardcore, and no modern post-punk without the efforts of Wire. Their first three albums are the road map for other groundbreaking acts like Minor Threat, My Bloody Valentine, R.E.M., The Cure and many many more.
Their latest slew of releases beginning with 2003's Send all the way up to last year's Silver/Lead show just as much innovation while staying ahead of everyone else in music today. Now, with special editions of their classic albums Pink Flag, Chairs Missing, and 154 being released, each with an 80-page hardback book with archival photos, B-sides and more; and with a set at this year's Marfa Myths Festival, the band keeps looking forward while celebrating the past. The Houston Press was honored to chat with bassist and founding member Graham Lewis about the band's history, the band's present, and what people can expect from them at the festival April 12- 15.
In 1993 I was handed a copy of Pink Flag by Bob at Vinal Edge while I was purchasing Fugazi's In On The Kill Taker. "Hey, you wanna' hear who influenced those guys, you need to hear these guys," he said. With the opening notes of "Reuters," I was immediately hooked. All of the posturing my young mind had placed on the '70s was out the window, and I played that first copy of the record daily for over a year. When I realized there were two more gems with Chairs Missing and 154, I remembered being blown away at how different their music sounded without sounding too far from everything in the process. Wire put the guitar in my hand, and their music was some of the first chords I ever learned.
The band, began in 1976 in London, and the way they all crossed paths still seems extraordinary. Though they were partially formed from the ashes of a band called Overload, art and art college are more responsible than anything else in how the band got together. "It is important to note that I wasn't in Overload," notes Lewis. "Something Colin had in art college. I suppose you could say we met through music and the art school is how we met in the U.K. I was at Hornsey Art College, Bruce was dating a girl named Angela who went there as well. We drank in the same places, I'd see them at the same shows. Because I was the social secretary for the school, I'd put on the shows they had there. We talked about art and music, and Bruce introduced me to George and Colin. I initially thought, "oh fuck that," upon initially meeting them. When we started, it was three guitars and a bass through two amplifiers before Robert came on."
"At that time, there was a small group of people interested in what we were doing. Viv (Albertine) from The Slits, the guys from The Vibrators, Adam Ant, we were all pissed at the music that was coming out at the time. Ideas around an art college, it was a limited thing with new stuff, hearing what was happening in New York City at the time influenced our beginnings and meeting each other, hoping to make something different than what we were hearing," explains Lewis.
When you listen, to the band's early work on the legendary and influential debut Pink Flag, songs like "1 2 X U," "Fragile," and "Straight Line," all carry a minimalist approach and almost stop once they get going. When asked if the band's idea back then was to just edit what didn't need to be there, he happily replies "it came out of a working process. When we started, Colin could play but the rest of us had limited skills. Once George Gill left and we started writing our own stuff. We hit up on what worked best for us, and we were good at stopping and starting. "Lowdown" was the first one we wrote. I gave the text (lyrics) of Lowdown and we all agreed that was it. It was all about being precise. Punk was all about speeding up R&B music, and it was messy. We were more interested in not being Americanized."
"Coming from art college, we discovered the more we worked the better we got. Once the text ran out, we stopped playing. We didn't do what everyone else did, and that was interesting to us. Different ways to start and finish "Reuters," and "Pink Flag," making gestures to doing different music. We took out the third chord, two chords were enough. We weren't lazy, we took it all including the text seriously," explains Lewis.
The band, ever the innovators, released two more albums in two years. Chairs Missing and 154, both contain some of the most musical evolution that may have ever existed in music. When I inquired about this, and if the band saw themselves as continuing their evolution or just making the music they were making at the time, Lewis explained, "well, it's interesting. We're re-issuing the first three albums, and we've examined that. The more we worked, there was always incredible ambition. I was looking at a diary from that era recently and there was an entry that stated, "rehearsal-good day-six new songs." That's the pace of how we were working. Those re-issues will include special tracks that didn't make the cut. When we went to record Pink Flag, we already had "French Film Blurred," and "Practice Makes Perfect," and Mike Thorn told us to hold on to them, and use them for the next thing. It was pretty quick, how we worked. Colin recently told me that he saw a set list from the November when Pink Flag was released and we only had two songs from the album on it. The process kept going, the bulk of that material was written in different combinations and individually. We wanted to keep pushing. Around 154, we had toured and recorded it, we were so far ahead that we eventually ran out of road."
Running out of road is an understatement. The band had toured and recorded three albums in three years, and they were already looking past everyone around them, including their label. The band broke up in 1980, something that Lewis was more than happy to explain. "Being so far ahead, we were impatient with the industry and the label didn't know what to do with us. We wanted to work with video, but EMI didn't wanna' do that. I remember them saying "no one will use video for music," (laughs). Our own process got us into a weird situation. John Savage once said of the first three albums that we "walked a fine line between art and commerce." Ending meant we still had ambition to do lots of other things.
When you re-examine the early albums, each release contains something extraordinary. Chairs Missing stands out for many reasons, possibly most notably that there are synthesizers on it in a time when no other punk or post-punk bands would ever dream of doing that. While bands like The Clash and The Jam were influenced by R&B music, it made me ask, who were Wire's Influences. "Speaking for myself, when I was in art college, I was DJ'ing with a guy who introduced me to Kraftwerk, Neu, and Can. I was into the Stones and The Faces, it was an incredible period. Captain Beefheart, Zepplin 4, and early Neu were my influences," Lewis explains.
Influence on some bands is one thing, continuously influencing new music is another thing. While interviewing Joe Casey from post-punk band Protomartyr and Eddie Green of U.K. post-punk band Shame, both remarked how influential Wire was on their starting bands. When I ask if Wire saw themselves as influential and making such an impact when they began, Lewis says, "no, I don't think so. It amused us a lot at the time. We had played with The Jam, and Paul Weller didn't really get it. Where did it come from, why didn't it sound like what he was into. (laughs) For us, there was no repeating the '60s songbook. New, absorb and use it, but make it into something new. What's the point of starting a band if you aren't going to do something different. Otherwise it's pointless and boring. Many years later, Pink Flag has been a blueprint and it's deceptively simple. On Chairs Missing we were making things up in the studio. It was the Summer and we were more relaxed. It was also associated with Fugazi and Scratch Acid. Those guys have been so generous in their adoration towards us."
The new incarnation of Wire from Send on, has the band all about now without relying on the past. In fact, Wire has evolved more and more with each passing release since Send came out. When a band can keep inventing and re-inventing themselves with each album, it made me ask, has it always been about now and tomorrow with Wire. "2004 was when Bruce quit, and that could have been the end. We produced Send, it was so sonic. There was a period we didn't exist, we decided to bring Matthew on in 2010. From then on, he was a natural. We worked hard and it was apparent in how we worked, he understood us. He had strong ideas to sound and a wide taste, just like us. Being much younger, working with him got us on a roll," says Lewis.
The band's new album, last year's Silver/Lead is a work of sonic mastery. While the band worked on it a good while, the releases leading up to it, Change Becomes Us, Wire, and Nocturnal Koreans all sound like a band in their creative peak. When asked if it shocks him that the band can stay so creative 40 years in, Lewis says, "I think you can do what you can do. If the work is good, it can be done. Finding it satisfying, this is the first year in the past four years we haven't dropped a new one (album).
"We want any new record to not got drowned in the re-issues, Matthew and I have a new project called UUUU, and that has a new record. I also have a new project with Mike Watt and Matthew called Fitted. Colin and his wife have a project. All of us working and doing other things is essential. Around 154, we only had Wire. Doing new things is the only way good stuff happens. I met Watt back in 1987 because they were fans of Pink Flag. Recently, we were all in L.A. and I asked if he wanted to start a project and he said yes. The four of us had three hours to write and rehearse a set and we did it."
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The band now curates their own festival with the Drill Festival. Seeing the band at another festival is truly wonderful, though it made me wonder if playing someone else's festival was strange for them. "Not at all. Some are good, some aren't. UUUU is doing some, of course then we're (Wire) playing Marfa which is thrilling. It will be extraordinary to see some of that work. There's a show on Amazon I love called "I Love Dick," and it's based in Marfa. It's quite a series with a feminist aspect to it."
While the band will be at Marfa Myths, Marfa, Texas is a far different landscape than the streets of London or even Sweden where Lewis now resides. When asked what the band has planned for festival attendees, Lewis says "well, honestly we haven't discussed it. When we were in France, the range was between Pink Flag and most of Silver/Lead. Whatever we do will most certainly be appropriate. Maybe Marfa will be like (Bad Bonn) Kilbi in Switzerland. The guy who puts it on loves music and no one goes there by accident. A tiny place where a few thousand come to commune, over music."
You can stream all of the Wire catalog in the usual places, or purchase digital versions from all online outlets. The Special Editions of Pink Flag, Chairs Missing, and 154 are all available to purchase here. Wire will perform at this year's Marfa Myths Festival in Marfa, Texas taking place April 12 through April 15. The all ages festival will also include performances from Tom Ze, Thor & Friends, Jessica Pratt, and many many more. Tickets available here run between $10 and $50 for individual dates, or $200 for an all access pass.