Truly one of the wonders of the modern world, Wire’s excellent new album Nocturnal Koreans sees the artful post-punk’s push their sonic envelope still further (incredibly, since it’s their 14th studio LP! Number 15 will soon be on the way). Not only do songs such as ‘Dead Weight‘ and ‘Internal Exile‘ display a keen ear for contemporary sounds such as shoe-gaze textures but the superb title track has, yes, a pop tempo, (albeit with a textured sound bed which makes us wonder which interesting electronic music the seminal four-piece, famed for album’s such as 1977 debut Pink Flag, have been listening to). ‘Numbered‘, meanwhile, keeps them honest with their more fragmentary world-view and jagged sound, viewed from a modern perspective. Here’s our Q&A with the band’s Colin Newman and Graham Lewis.
Artrocker : Was there a feeling Wire were on a bounce with the last year’s WIRE album. So, strike while the iron’s hot with Nocturnal Koreans?
Graham Lewis: We produced 19 tracks from the original recording sessions at Rockfield from which the ’WIRE’ album tracks were selected. In between we’d already had to make a some what arbitrary subjective selection of tracks to develop in secondary over dubbing sessions, as we simply couldn’t practically work on all 19. After a final selection for the WIRE album had been made, many tracks remained in various stages of development. It was to these we decided to apply a further layer of recording at Brighton Electric. The point being that the tracks which have become Nocturnal Koreans were not so much left-overs dressed up but left behinds transformed and transported by a more expansive process.
Colin Newman: It wasn’t a particular plan to end up with 19 tracks in May 2014 but that’s how it turned out, from then on in a lot was dictated by the fact that vinyl has to be a major consideration in our lives these days. The long lead times required, due to the burgeoning market for the stuff opposed to the dwindling number of places it can be produced, mean that decisions have to be taken ahead of when it might make artistic sense to do so. However in my view this worked out well as in many ways. The material divided into pieces it was comparatively easy to get to work and the ones which required more consideration. The latter ended up on “Nocturnal Koreans”.
A : Would you describe this as the WIRE LP’s sister record? It seems to have a similar balance of external observation and personal reflection in its lyrical themes.
Graham: I’m not sure about it’s gender relationship! But I guess my answer above suggests the albums are from the same egg but subject to different nurturing behaviour! I hadn’t thought about the lyrical theme balance but you could well be right.
A : And musically, is this a deliberately abstracted take on the last LP’s more pop feel?
Colin: The main difference from my POV between the two records is the amount of “production” I have applied. In general I tend towards a lighter touch. The finished product of a Wire record should mostly sound fundamentally like a band playing but in order to get the 8 tracks on Nocturnal Koreans to work I had to push that a bit further. I’m not sure that is in a less “pop” direction though. I think there’s plenty of “pop” on both records but there are also pieces that are definitely not pop. This process has been highly instructive for me and has definitely influenced my writing towards the next album which we start to record very soon.
Graham: Personally, I find this album more pop.
A : Colin has spoken in the past about bringing democratic values to the band. How does this work in practice, and is this a reason do you think for the band’s functioning longevity?
Graham: What is needed for any creative collaboration is the will and support of the contributors to a situation where ideas can be explored and developed and that the best of those ideas prevails regardless of self interests and ego…is that democratic?
Our longevity is due in part to periods of Wire non-function! Periods when individuals were able to explore different creative territories, rather than expiring in an empty well.
Colin: There is the opportunity these days for the band to be more democratic than it ever has been. The decision making process can sometimes be slow & rather painful but in some respects what is remarkable about the period since at least 2008 & possibly 2000 is that the natural cycle between “Wire & not Wire” has been well managed enough to not require complete hiatus. The ideal situation for me would be if Wire were able to make a “planned hiatus” in such a way that we do not lose all momentum. For me the key to everything is in effective planning. True, not everything can be planned for but having the space to discuss & plan gives options rather than a series of reactions to events beyond our control.
A : On that topic, ‘Fishes Bones’ seems a good example of democracy, the song being credited to all four of you.
Colin: Without going too much into it, the situation required that we come up with something. Wire, in my view, is always up to the task of finding creative solutions to practical problems. We certainly developed the piece together in order to give Graham a chance to do an “off piste” vocal. My work was to find a way in which the recorded elements could provide a series of subtly & not so subtly shifting scenarios in response to the voice. It seemed only fair to credit it 4 ways as nobody sat down & “wrote” it.
Graham: Perhaps, more about equality of purpose…
A : “Strategies are often good if they play out well/ but you might be better off with a wishing well” Colin sings on the record’s Dead Weight. However, do you use a version of Eno’s oblique strategies in your working relationships to produce tension in the music, for instance. Or would this be telling?
Colin: In general I don’t really talk about my lyrics but the strategies in reference here are not oblique ones. Peter Schmidt, the other partner is “Oblique Strategies”, was a tutor at Watford when I was a student there. Brian, a frequent visitor. This was during the time (75-77) when they were developing what became “Oblique Strategies”. In spite of that I’ve never used the cards. The internal workings of Wire can lead to some fairly oblique approaches without much external influence!
Graham: Eno’s OS was published after the period in which the first 3 Wire albums were released and during the period when B.C.Gilbert and I were making the Dome recordings, where we were engaged in applying our own strategies in an experimental context in the hope of producing surprises and the unexpected, utilising conceptual and intuitive processes. We all came out of not dissimilar art college backgrounds to Brian.
A : How does the band feel about others covering your music and about covers generally?
Graham: It’s always intriguing to hear what some else makes of our songs…generally, homage is homage but transformation is better! Laika’s version of ‘German Shepherds’ is a great example, a fantastic re-invention! ‘Heartbeat’ by Big Black brutally transcendental…Earth mutated ‘DRILL’ into another ‘DRILL’, REM’s ‘Strange’ and My Bloody Valentine’s ‘Map Ref’ respectful…U2’s ‘Mannequin’ unreleased, Jarvis Cocker’s ‘Outdoor Minor’ joyful…On the subject of covers and Prince, ‘Sign of the Times’ is an incredible song BUT so is Kode9 and Spaceape’s version….Covers and versions the blood of dub!
Colin: In general I would say that everybody has the right to cover any song they like. However that does not mean I will necessarily like what they do. I would agree with some of Graham’s choices & strongly disagree with others. He is entitled to his opinion of Big Black’s cover of “Heartbeat” but then he didn’t write it! If find it crass. My favourite Wire covers include – Lush – Mannequin // Lush – Outdoor Miner // Laika – German Shepherds // Bark Psychosis – 3 Girl Rhumba // New Bomb Turks – Mr Suit // Flying Saucer Attack – Outdoor Miner // Fudge Tunnel – Lowdown // Malka Spigel – Drill (small fat drill) // My Bloody Valentine – Map Reference// Fischerspooner – the 15th. Some of these are respectful covers and some are total re-inventions. Each one brings something that isn’t in the original.
A : Are there any plans for Wire to play live again soon? Have the new songs from this record been thoroughly road tested?
Colin: Well the other distinction between Nocturnal Koreans & WIRE is that Nocturnal Koreans (as a result of the production process) contains the songs which are less easy to play as a band (The title track is the only one we can actually play live). There’s always a way to do something if you are determined & have unlimited resources & players but I’m talking about 4 people mainly on guitars, bass & drums. Meanwhile we did actually play ALL of WIRE in sets throughout last year. The other distinction is that we have to accord to our evolved “cycles”. Over the period from 2008 to 2015 we have managed to grow in such a way as to be able to go from a perceived 5 year cycle in UK & North America to a 2 year one. However it is not possible for us to tour per-se every year (2017 will be the “active” year). In fact Nocturnal Koreans can be seen as an interesting precedent, we have never released a record of new material in a non-active year before and it will be instructive to see how the fact that we can’t really tour the album plays out in terms of sales & profile. This may well influence how we do things in 2018 and beyond. Depends on how well we can plan…
Graham: We are playing occasional selected shows through this summer and autumn. Next year 2017 will see Wire touring again.
Nocturnal Koreans is out now on Wires’ PinkFlag label