Veteran band Wire have had a new lease of life with their Drill Festivals. Duncan Seaman reports ahead of the Leeds event.
The approach of your 40th anniversary might seem an appropriate juncture for many bands to cast an eye nostalgically over their past. Not so Wire.
Always one of the most forward thinking groups to emerge from the post-punk era, they would rather mark four decades since their formation with new music and series of curated international festivals – called Drill – that bring together artists of like mind.
“If you’re going to make a point of it then I think it’s the only way to celebrate it,” says singer and guitarist Colin Newman, who along with bassist Graham Lewis and drummer Robert Grey has been Wire since their inception.
“It basically says everything we want to say. What we’re about is the new material, the collaborative world which the Drill Festivals show up; this is where we are and we’re not really dwelling on the past.
“It’s not that we’re not proud of what we’ve done in the past; it’s not very interesting [to look back]. Whatever you want to call this kind of music in a general term – pop or rock or whatever – it’s not very well suited to being a museum piece, I think it loses all its energy. So the idea that it’s always about the new is I think inherent in the music.
“Historically you wouldn’t have done it in the 70s anyway but certainly there has been a period since the 90s onwards when groups would say ‘We need to have this, this and this element in order for it to be our music to exist within our genre’ and we’ve just never done it like that.”
The last six years, following the arrival of guitarist Matthew Simms, have been particularly productive, with a string of well received albums – the latest of which, Silver/Lead, came out at the end of last month.
“It’s a combination of accident and design how it’s ended up like that,” says 62-year-old Newman, beginning a lengthy explanation of how the band “hit a brick wall” for a couple of years following the departure of founding guitarist Bruce Gilbert in 2004 before regaining some of its focus when an ex-manager threatened to sue them. “Then we did an album called Object 47 which in hindsight is not the best record we’ve ever done but it was very much a transitional record,” he says, adding: “If anyone close to the band had said which three members would survive as a three-piece, choose three members that would be able to carry on, I think nobody either within the band or outside would have chosen the three that we ended up with, but the three we ended up with proved to be the only possible way it could have worked.”
Initially Margaret Fiedler McGinnis joined the band as a touring guitarist before Matthew Simms took her place on a permanent basis. “I started to feel this vehicle could really go somewhere,” says Newman. “When we were planning what became Red Barked Tree I had the idea that what I wanted to do was return to writing things on an acoustic guitar and presenting them to the band and us making music like that rather than the production method to arrival at the final product and this proved to be an interesting turning point because we were able to put together records that didn’t owe anything to layers of stuff that had been worked on before, it was all completely new material. With Matthew Simms we started to get good live. We’d always been OK but the level of ambition was starting to rise all the time. It was not ambition to be famous or to sell lots of records, it was an ambition to be really good.”
If anyone close to the band had said which three members would survive as a three-piece I think nobody either within the band or outside would have chosen the three that we ended up with.Colin Newman
Since the world tour they organised to coincide with the record’s release in 2011 they haven’t look back.
In 2013 Wire curated their first Drill Festival in London. Further events followed in the UK, US and the Netherlands. The event at the Brudenell Social Club in Leeds from April 21-23 will include appearances by Warp Records’ Shobaleader One, Clinic, Bilge Pump and Richard Formby.
“If there’s any guiding principle to Drill it’s that there’s no guiding principle,” says Newman of a festival that seems endlessly flexible. “We don’t do it in the same city, we don’t do it at the same time, it’s not got the same format, the only thing it’s got in common is the fact that it’s called Drill and it’s our festival. That’s partly me being eminently practical. Why make something for which you have to fulfil a set of conditions that you’re not going to be able to fulfil more than twice? So it has really varied between something like Drill Brighton, which was a big city-wide festival, to something like Drill Lexington where we had a week of Wire playing with a different support band every night, to Chicago which certainly had some bigger names involved with it. We’ve got a few more planned for this year, including ones that haven’t been announced yet, so it is an interesting thing.
“Not every proposal has actually happened. People have come with really bonkers ideas of where we might do it including very far-flung places. I think people are attracted to the idea. Being canny, rather than cynical, I do understand that for people who write about it, people who talk about it, however good a new album is how much can you say about this, this and this has got a new record? Having something like the anniversary or having a Drill Festival gives a bit of a narrative around Wire. In a way it’s us saying, ‘Look, you might think we’re some group from the 70s and it is when we started but just like everybody else, we don’t live in the 70s any more and here’s the context we operate it, here are the groups that we could relate to’.”
Newman says he has “no idea” what his younger self would have made of the Wire of 2017.
“When we did that first gig [in 1977] doing a gig and getting paid for it was already a big deal,” he says. “Did we imagine it was going to last for very long? I think by ’78/’79 I certainly had an idea it was going to last more than five minutes. It was a sense that this was something that could work over a long term. But I come from a generation [for whom] the ubiquity of music in supermarkets, in cafes...didn’t exist. Nobody in the 60s was interested in music that was even five years old let alone 50 years old. So the idea that someone would be listening to what you were doing 40 years later that is quite extraordinary. I don’t know what it speaks to. Is it a negative thing? Does it speak to lack of innovation?
“We live in a culture of refinement, we don’t live in a culture of massive sea change. The generation that had gone through the war their lives had been completely disrupted, they didn’t have youth, they just had war. My wife’s parents are Holocaust survivors. The generation gap between them – she was into punk – whereas our son understands similar musical references to we do.
“Working in a band with someone in their early 30s, he is just as familiar with all of Kevin Ayers’ releases as I am. There isn’t that generational gap any more when it comes to music. It’s more the ten per cent thing – ten per cent of the people who consume music are actual music fans, they make an effort, they know about stuff that other people don’t know about, they’re not passive, they make choices, they actively hate things – and the other 90 per cent of people who consume music do it in a fairly passive way. There’s nothing wrong with them, they have other areas of expertise. But if you belong to that ten per cent it just goes across generations, really.
“I think that’s the same with our audience. If we were relying on an audience that was our age then there wouldn’t be anyone there, people our age don’t go out to gigs for the most part. I would say the average audience of everywhere is probably in their 40s – that’s 20 years younger than we are – and in the bigger cities we have a big percentage who are in their 20s and they’re not here to see the freak show.”