Legendary and highly influential UK post punk band Wire are in Australia on a tour which kicks off today. Tone Deaf’s Anaya Latter had a chat to drummer Robert Grey ahead of the shows.
What drives you to create the music you do? Is it an inner catharsis or just as natural as breathing?
Well I suppose for me its loving playing drums you know I suppose that’s my starting point. But just loving playing music, and looking for something new that’s never been heard before. And also through the working process, putting together a jigsaw and just finding the pieces which fit the best.
The idea of making something new that nobody’s heard before that even the members of Wire haven’t heard before is so – you’ve got something that didn’t exist before and you made it.
It’s the excitement of creativity I suppose. And also – well, it used to be four but now it’s three of us, but if it was one person creating on their own there would be less possibilities of the way things turn out, but with three people there are so many variations… it can veer off in unexpected directions which just make it all sort of exciting.
Despite the fact that you have evolved creatively far beyond the first three landmark albums Pink Flag, 154 and Chairs Missing; do you feel any connection to the ideas explored in those albums or is it a closed chapter to you now?
Colin was talking abut this the other day, because somebody said that Red Barked Trees was referencing Pink Flag to a certain extent and I think they played ‘106 Beats That’ to support their argument. Colin said that instantly you could tell it was the same band. We have evolved but then the same foundations are there.
There is definitely a connection, there has to be a connection- between the early songs because it’s the same people. But now we’re more experienced there are many more options ways of working open to us. I think the first thing you record is the unforgettable experience… when we recorded Pink Flag, we just went into the studio and recorded our live set because we didn’t know how a studio worked or how it could shape the songs you were doing.
But things are [still] based on our live material – virtually everything we record will be played live, so there’s the same sort of connection that we had with Pink Flag.
That’s sort of an additional interest to the way of working that it’s the same people and you’re basically working from the same standpoint but you’re trying to bring new things to the way you do work. There’s an infinity of things you can do, potentially, but what do you come down to choosing? We try to be harsh critics of what we do, so we do discard things that don’t work. That’s part of the process [also], the constant search for things that fit and things that are new and things that you haven’t heard before.
What is Wire’s creative process of song writing like? Do you have very clear ideas before you start playing or do the songs take shape as you rehearse?
In a way the working process has gone in a full circle because Colin’s starting point is that he gets the words from Graham and then he comes up with some chords and probably some sort of song structure which he offers to Graham and I before we go into the studio. His original method was always starting things on the acoustic guitar and then presenting them to the group and then we’d work from there, but that evolved when we became more knowledgeable about using the studio. Red Barked Tree has come back to that point of starting from Colin’s acoustic guitar playing – and I suppose in the intervening period from Pink Flag we’ve got more experience in the options we can offer to that process.
What are some of the themes you were exploring in the new album Red Barked Trees?
I don’t write lyrics – the themes and stories are more in the lyrics which is more Colin & Graham’s area. ‘Two Minutes’ is sort of interesting because it’s an oddity the lyrics are sort of lifted from Twitter – I think [Colin] lifted other people’s comments that he found on Twitter.
He sort of sampled their words and then he and Graham sang or read them out. So I suppose that’s got to do with modern communication, the phrases are lifted from other people’s thoughts and communication giving you a more detached, or more open broadcast of ideas.
First of all they’re secondhand and they’re not thought up by the person singing them. So they’re like the objet trouvé of the lyrics world. I like the effect of that. When I first heard it I thought “this doesn’t mean anything, does it?” But after you’ve listened to it a few times it is sort of interesting hearing somebody else’s words used in Wire’s lyrics. Do you know the song I’m talking about? Do you agree? I suppose you wouldn’t have known how it was put together. They were sort of lifted from other people’s communication they have a sort of abstract or disjointed feeling to them.
Wire has broken apart and been joined back together, with various incarnations and side projects. Why did you decide to reform and how has your music making evolved?
We’re on the third reform of Wire. We reformed in 2000 when we played Festival Hall after having being apart for 10 years, which is quite a long time. I always thought in the past when Wire separated at the end of the 70s and also in the 80s I thought that was the end of it really and it wasn’t going to go any further, but there always seems to be something that make us think that the project is worth pursuing. The recent regrouping after Bruce left, that’s probably biggest problem we’ve had to overcome because Wire has always been the same four people and if one of the four is not there, we can’t honestly say that it’s Wire doing what it did before.
But on the other hand if there’s no Wire at all that’s not very satisfying either. So we thought we’d try it for one album and see if we could produce something we were satisfied with… And we did find, it sort of surprised us in a way, that we could work with the three of us and we were happy with the results.
When you get to the point when the group separates you think whatever it was that kept us going is not there anymore and people want to do other things. My way of looking at it is that there’s some sort of peculiar bond formerly between the four of us but now between the three of us, which makes this thing we call Wire, that something is we ought be on a stage together playing music. It probably has something to do with the way the group started we hadn’t really done anything in music before. We’ve grown up through the process of working in Wire which [led to] this strong bond for performing and producing music. It is probably only in my imagination but then it’s not, because it does happen and we’re still going…So it’s sort of indefinable. Even when we’re not on speaking terms I think the bond is still there.
Your music to me as a listener, and a massive fan, has always evoked very visual experiences. What is your experience when you are playing?
For me it is audible, aural experience. I try when I’m playing to be as much a part of the music as I can and I find if I do think of other things that’s a distraction – usually when I’m drumming I tend to close my eyes because I find it easier to concentrate without the distraction of visual things. I do open my eyes to see what the others are doing, but I find concentrating on music is easier with your eyes closed.
It’s different for me to be playing the music, for someone purely listening to the music they’re in a position for their imagination being stimulated and get into the music in that sort of way. To be playing it, I find that you want your feelings of the experience to come through in what you’re playing. So anything visual about it I would find a distraction.
It has to be something audible and heartfelt at the same time. Playing is very different to listening it’s a different concentration.
Do you see art as being political?
I don’t think in the way that Wire works. I don’t think we have a political message I suppose you could find politics in it. But I don’t think that’s one of our reference points for working. I don’t know if we have any message. It’s just communicating what you think and seeing how other people react. I think as a whole it’s fairly abstract sort of stuff. The same thing can mean different things to different people and you can be surprised by their reactions. It has a sort of universal content in that anything can be included. It’s people’s life experiences that they want to share. But yes, I suppose politics is part of that isn’t it? I don’t know really.
Genres and labels are inevitably attributed to any person making music today – are there any in particular that you take issue with, or are you generally happy with the summation of Wire’s sound?
Well its sort of journalist speak isn’t it? In a way it’s all music but I suppose it does have to be categorized in some sort of way, but once you’ve been categorized, I suppose it depends how long your career is but you don’t really want to be stuck in post-punk for thirty years. The longer you’ve been put in that category maybe the less relevant it becomes. But is post-punk a recognisable type of music? All it means is that it appeared after punk, post ‘76.
But I suppose Wire and Magazine have defined a sort of sound, that has a certain quality to it…
Yes it was called new wave at the time there has to be a word for it to separate it from what came before. Then you had post-punk and new wave, and power pop was another one knocking around at the time, but not applied to us I don’t think. I suppose they have their uses.
Have you ever felt constrained by it, these definitions, or have you simply just followed your creative process?
You’ve got to have your own creative process. The category has only been imposed on you anyway it’s not like you woke up in the morning and said I want to be in a post-punk band. You’ve got to do what you think is good, what you think is rewarding.
Really you would like to transcend any of those sort of categories and just be seen as your group and what you produce. Hopefully it could be more timeless than being stuck in a category 77-79. I mean, we shouldn’t be here now, if that’s our category, we should’ve already stopped – I’m not sure what we’ve gone into now.
We were bound to get it, if that was the year that you started in. What was happening at the time gave us an opportunity to play. We couldn’t play our instruments in the sense that we weren’t musicians but because that was permitted at the time that punk started then that gave us an opportunity to play you have to be grateful for that – that gave us a starting point, and we can’t deny a connection with punk in the ideas sense but not in the musical sense, we wouldn’t want to be doing punk revival or something awful like that.
What is your favourite thing about playing drums?
It’s just the experience of rhythm, for me it’s the best instrument. I don’t play any other instruments and also because you’re playing with your hands and your feet, so more of your body is connected with playing than if you’re playing guitar and it’s just your fingers. so it has more – the feet are the grounding part of the experience and the hands are potentially more decorative. I suppose it expresses more about me as a person than another instrument. Having said that I’ve read in drumming magazines that you should play other instruments to experience playing melodies but I haven’t done that. It’s just the experience of playing rhythm for me that’s the best thing in music.
What is the weirdest fan experience you have had?
There was a woman in… I’d better get this town right – I think it was LA – she worked in a gun shop and she was quite small, probably Chinese origin I should think. I think we saw her two or three times at different times that we visited and she would always appear and make a point of talking to everyone.
I don’t know anyone else who works in a gun shop, it was just an unusual experience. I suppose for an American a gun shop is like a supermarket over there, so for them it would be more normal but coming from England and finding that somebody who works in guns is one of your fans – well I’ve never met anyone else who works in a gun shop and when you asked the question that popped into my head.
What sort of live experience can we expect from your Australian tour? Will it be mostly new material, because there was a time when you weren’t prepared to visit older songs in your live performances.
We just play Wire songs don’t we? We try to include more of a cross section now, when we first produced send we did a send set that didn’t contain any other material but we’re not quite as pure – not pure. [It’s more that] we’ve done that, and we can be a bit more relaxed and we can play other things. If the song is still interesting, if people want to hear it and it’s interesting for us to play it then that can be in the set. We try to include things from every era of Wire and make it balanced. You could hear something from the seventies and you could also hear something that we’ve only just released.
Check out Wire live:
Wednesday, January 19 – The Corner Melbourne
Thursday, January 20 – Beck’s Festival Bar, Sydney Festival, Sydney
Friday, January 21 – Mona 2011, Hobart
Sunday, January 23 – Mona 2011, Hobart
Tuesday, January 25 – The Bakery, Perth