In just a few hours, young hipsters and aging punks alike will gather at L.A.'s Echoplex to see UK's Wire mystify and confuse, and -- most importantly -- remind everyone just how disinterested in playing "the hits" they are. Nope, although seminal to be sure, Wire considers themselves a contemporary band, thus they could give a fuck about grasping at '70 nostalgia and taking all those "Three Girl Rhumba" requests that will never go away.
When I meet bassist Graham Lewis near the dimly lit bar inside, the old scholar of Wire -- responsible for the lyrics (or "text" as he calls it) -- stretches his jaw, scratches the gray stubble on his shaven head, and with the deepest Englishman's drawl you've ever heard, reminds me that Wire won't be playing my record collection tonight.
"Tonight you'll be hearing us playing five brand-new compositions that have only been in existence for the last few months," he tells me. One of those compositions is the much talked about, never recorded, noise-infused "Harpooned," which Lewis says is his favorite to play live.
Although I understand the band's eagerness to play new jams, this is Wire we're talking about -- a band with three of the most talked-about albums of the '70s. Wouldn't it make sense to, in addition to promoting new record Change Becomes Us, let the catalog breathe a bit? To polish off a few classics and then promote the single?
Bollocks to that. Wire has no interest in bending to musical norms. Nope, Wire is here to create the noisiest shoegazing set since My Bloody Valentine popped their amps (and our eardrums), twice, at FYF 2013 over the summer. I was there. Earplugs or not, you can't prepare for a band driven to pump up the volume.
"You should be able to understand when you cliché yourself," Lewis says, having just gone off on an epic tangent about his disdain for Moleskine notebooks, a renewed fascination with Charles C. Mann's 1493, and lessons learned from the late Doris Lessing (who sadly passed away on the morning of our interview).
"And you know, that's something I've always tried to avoid," he adds, tuning his voice to hit a lower note to emphasize his point.
Between 1977 and 1979 -- when punk rock was waning in popularity and Sid Vicious was cutting Sinatra covers -- UK’s Wire recorded three albums that would transport the pogoing punks of London into the so-called “Post-Punk” epoch of music history.
On those first three records, Wire left behind a trail of baffled music critics at publications like NME and Melody Maker, early reviewers who tried to make sense of it all over pints of Guinness at the former Feldman Swing Club. But defining Wire’s sound -- from their minimalist debut, Pink Flag, to their synthed-up followup, Chairs Missing -- seemed foolish. You can't pigeonhole a band that would spend the next four decades throwing musical curveballs at fans and confusing writers who dared to dub them “post-punk."
If not post-punk, however, what are they? Perhaps some form of art-punk? Lewis would rather you nix that second word all together when describing Wire.
"We're a '77 band, not a '76 band," Lewis says, getting a bit more serious, "so as far as we were concerned, punk was finished by that time."
During the time that Lewis is referring to, the first punk-sounding Clash record was released in the UK, and Wire was recording Pink Flag -- a proper punk album, by all accounts. But when Graham Lewis speaks, you don't dare interrupt -- especially when he's making a larger, long-winded but more profound, point about the ethos of Wire following their debut.
"We certainly didn't want to go back and do what we'd already done," Lewis says. He isn't aiming to provide a revisionist history of punk, but rather to offer the wisdom of someone who was around during the birth of the safety-pin aesthetic. He was there. Who are we to disagree?
Pink Flag (1977), Chairs Missing (1978), and 154 (1979), in perfect musical succession, were all markedly different-sounding Wire masterpieces. The band went from penning short punk numbers to synth-heavy art pieces that would transform what most considered “punk” into rock ‘n’ roll fine art. And, throughout the years, the band has managed to remain contemporary into their current status as rock legends.
Lewis and Co. did reach to the past when putting together 2013's Change Becomes Us, though, digging through bits of lyrics and melodies left over from when the band broke up in '80 and regrouped in '84. True to form, however, they took those old pieces and created something new -- specifically bringing on a long-haired virtuoso guitar player named Matt Simms, who according to Lewis, is "deeply interested in electronic modular synthesis."
You'll never see Wire ossifying into a “Dad Rock” cover band like their fellow Brits, The Rolling Stones.
"At some point they discovered they could make an awful lot of money playing basically a greatest hits set," says Colin Newman, the front-man of Wire, just returning from changing things up at the Wire 'merch table. Malka, Newman's wife, joins us and smiles as she waves a cellphone photo of the Echoplex bathroom, as Newman and I proceed to flush the current Rolling Stones down the toilet. Working the t-shirt and vinyl booth is quite DIY of Newman, and most certainly something Mick Jagger wouldn't dare to do.
Newman, who looks oddly professorial as the moonlighting headmaster of Pinkflag records, is more direct and less interested in chewing the fat than his bass-playing mate Lewis. He's more shrewd and aware of the image he's projecting during the interview.
"We're becoming festival curators," Newman says, speaking over the noisy hallway of drunken college kids following Seattle quartet Chastity Belt, a dreamy punk-sounding band handpicked by Wire to tour with them and help bring their DRILL Festival to Seattle.
On the band's choice to tour with Chastity Belt, Newman says: "We're not just some band from the past that happens to make quite good records now. We know in general what's going on in music today."
Chastity Belt, who lists their inspirations as “sports, college, beer, science, math," opened the evening with an unexpectedly vulgar but brilliant dream-punk-sounding set that included, of all things, a song titled "Giant Vagina," which they dedicated to Wire.
After speaking with Chastity Belt's lead singer Julia Shapiro during an irreverent 'merch table chat between bathroom breaks, I decide that Wire knows how to pick 'em. Shapiro embodies the Seattle aesthetic, and the band brings the youthful elements every modern punk rock tour requires: vulgarity, college humor between songs and giant vaginas.
In October, Wire handpicked West Sussex-based TRAAMS to help support their dates in Europe, and if you've heard TRAMMS before, the Wire influence bleeds through their Modest Mouse-tinged exterior. TRAMMS are just one of the many contemporary bands, like UK's Savages, that seem to borrow from Wire's sound.
"I've heard of Savages," Newman says, looking away as if to say "Savages? Move on, mate," and begins to talk about what's next for his band. Forget all that "Behind the Music" stuff -- the show, tonight, their new music, that's what Newman wants to chat about.
"If you're reproducing the record on the stage, it's kind of pointless," Newman tells me, busting out his his trademark lazy grin, "and if you're not excited about what you're playing, you're just your own cover band, and who wants to be a cover band of themselves?" Not Wire. Unlike some of their compatriots, the guys don't seem interested in stadium rockin' their way into their 40th anniversary by sitting around and collecting royalty checks.
The band has something much more creative in store than a "greatest hits" deal. "The first of April 2017 is the 40th anniversary of our first show," Newman says, "and we're doing an album to coincide with that, and it could be the most important album that we've ever released." The way the guys hustle, it's as if Newman and his band still have something to prove.
"In the last three years, we've definitely been on a roll, and we're set to make a strong follow up to Change Becomes Us," says Newman, looking over at Malka, "I think that's pretty unusual for an older band, and that's the point to prove."
Newman, who once said he doesn't like playing the guitar, is just moments away from doing just that for a sold-out and antsy crowd who haven't seen Wire in nearly three years. That's a long time, especially if you've ever seen Wire live. And when they finally do take the stage, it's electric.
Newman, standing tall behind an iPad retrofitted to punch out various effects through his guitar, can hardly be heard over the grinding down-picking of Lewis on bass and the minimalist machine-gun drumming of Robert Grey, who looks like Pete Townshend and plays like a raging thunderstorm erupting behind a kit. Simms, their 20-something guitar player, stands tall and provides the distorted shoegaze chords that drive some of the noisiest spaced-out Wire numbers, including "Harpooned," the highlight of Wire's transistor radio-pounding closer into outer space.
Despite their reticence to play the hits, the band does dig back into their catalog a bit -- though not as far as the crowd would like. There's "Marooned" from Chairs Missing, and a bass-driven version of "Drill," a Wire early-'90s cut that seems to whip the crowd into a boiling frenzy. There's blood in the water and they want Pink Flag.
And then, like a filmmaker building tension for a big moment -- or a plot twist -- Wire plays a couple of new songs, which all prepare the crowd for the final 12 minutes of bludgeoning noise, atmospheric pressure, and artful tension of "Attractive Spaces" and "Harpooned." The final two songs melt together through a violent destruction of eardrums and frankly, any hopes of sleeping that night.
After a frenzied finish on "Attractive Spaces," which includes Lewis and Newman creating a duel-shock panic on vocals, "Harpooned" slowly builds into a psychedelic, ear-melting closer that ends with Newman unplugging his iPad, waving to the partially deaf crowd, and running off the stage with Pink Flag remaining a distant memory.
The force of sound still vibrating through the crowd, I look to my left and see a disappointed and worn-down Wire fan, who got nothing from Pink Flag, and looks disheveled by noise. The show was a lesson to everyone there, their hopes properly smashed for even hoping they would hear Wire play the hits.
These fans, instead, got an experience devoid of nostalgia -- something new and different and distinctly glittering. And isn't that how it should be? Wire is a contemporary band and there's nothing contemporary about reproducing the '70s on a nightly basis, after all.
"We're going that way," Lewis tells me before the show that just melted our faces, pointing across the venue and towards 2015 and yet another new record. "We're heading to the future."