Written by: Dave Cantrell
Perhaps appropriately in terms of syntax, Stereo Embers ‘sat down’ on Memorial Day via Skype with both Graham Lewis and Colin Newman in separate interviews to discuss the making of, the meaning of, and the legacy of 154, Wire’s remarkable – and remarkably enduring – album this year celebrating its 35th anniversary. The intention was to ask both musicians the same set of questions in hopes of getting a sort of stereo response but in each case the discussion wandered happily off course. We begin with Graham (you can see Colin’s interview here), speaking to us from his home in Sweden. Interviews have been edited for clarity.
SE: Obviously the leap in expansiveness between Pink Flag and Chairs Missing was quite remarkable and in fact was commented on by just about everyone I knew back then. Can you talk about how you/the band approached the recording of 154?
GL: I think the truth of it is that everything was a huge leap. From the point the band became the four-piece that it was, things just accelerated. We worked a lot, we rehearsed a lot, maybe four times a week, we practiced quite hard. So, what Mike Thorne [producer of the first three Wire records – ed] originally had us do was go in to a couple of studios, to just do demos, just to see how we were going to behave and see if we could actually hack it. Things just kept jumping. So when we came in to record Pink Flag, for instance, we were still extremely inexperienced, we were still learning how to play, really, but we had a lot of motivation. So, on Pink Flag, we not only learned how to make a record but we learned how to play. What happened after that, what seemed the natural thing to do, was to continue at that same rate. There was a whole ‘nother album’s worth of material which came after – or even before – we recorded Pink Flag. There were certain things that had been written before Pink Flag and Mike, one of the important things he did for us was he said “Slow down. You’ve got enough material here to make a really good record. You save the other things, because you’re obviously going somewhere else,” which was obvious to us that we were already going somewhere else with [the material]. As has often been said, the real key to Chairs Missing was the first time we played “Practice Makes Perfect.” When that came along it was just bloody obvious that any of the material that related to Pink Flag was finished, that’s done, we can’t be there anymore, so we better follow that, follow the material. Follow the work.
SE: All for the better, I would suggest
GL: Well absolutely. That was the fantastic strength of the group. We really did have a brutal policy towards the material where if two people got tired of something, thought ‘Well, y’know, that’s just not as exciting as it used to be,’ well, that was it.
SE: That’s a quorum.
GL: (laughing) That’s a quorum, exactly. Being in the situation we were, there being three people who were writing, in various combinations, there was always an incredible competition within the material itself. Space was at a premium when it came to put a set of songs together to play live.
SE: Well that leads quite neatly into the next question. With four very strong individuals in the band, three of them writers, I know the tension inherent in that situation began to manifest a bit more clearly during the 154 sessions. Would it be safe to say that the band learned not only how to survive that tension but to thrive on it? And specifically so far as 154 goes, would the end product have been as good without that tension?
GL: (pause) I don’t know. It just manifested itself, it was just there. There were an awful lot of things going on outside and around the group at that time, particularly with regard to the record company [EMI – ed], with the management we had, people’s personal lives etc. I think in the past we’ve been a little hard on ourselves in the sense that we’ve said “Yeah, we fought and we argued about things” but we always did. It was inherent in the process, it’s what music-making is, it’s some kind of discussion as to a point of view, and of course that’s very subjective. We did have the situation where – we were traveling at speed at that point, y’know what I mean. The velocity had increased over those years and I think we’d come to certain conclusions before we went into make 154. We toured with Roxy Music on a very big European tour and we really didn’t like what we saw, because we’d all been really big fans of that band at the beginning, and to see something which you’d thought was so fundamentally great reappear as something fundamentally, umm, awkward, that was really hard to take. When you saw the specific become epic, it was just..not good. So there were all sorts of things going on. I mean, I could answer ‘yes’ to your question, in the sense that, with the three of us writing, there were so, so many ideas kicking around and it was inevitable that you weren’t going to be able to get everything on to the record, it was as simple as that.
SE: You weren’t going to do a double or a triple record
GL: (laughter) I don’t know. I don’t think that even came up. By that point it was considered a very unhip thing to do. I think in the end, what you end up with is an extremely intense piece of work. A lot of content and an awful lot going on. Even with Mike Thorne and his relationship with Paul Hardiman, the engineer. Paul was growing, wanting to run his own ship as well, so, y’know, there was a lot of ambition around and I think that’s good, that’s what you want. You want things to be hot, you want people to be ambitious for the work. However, I think because there were so many circumstances beyond our control outside of the studio, I think that exacerbated the situation and led to a lot of tension..(laughs)..a lot of tension.
SE: But as you say the cauldron atmosphere certainly did produce some pretty fine results.
GL: Well, I think it’s the way it should be. At the time it was the best way we knew how. In retrospect I guess you could say that we could have done it in a different way but of course it’s very easy to say that. It’s one of the strange things about the recording process. There are so many different ways of going about it, finding the one that’s appropriate to the time, yeah, that’s difficult. It’s very rare that it’s easy and you get fantastic results. Having fun is easy but to write about it or to use it, that’s difficult.
SE: Getting a bit theoretical maybe, there’s a great feeling of transcience, both physical and emotional on the record, while at the same time there’s an almost constant undercurrent – if not a current right there on the surface – of existential dread. Do you think there’s any connection in any way, as if movement and mobility is our only hope of offsetting our ‘certain doom,’ a hedge against our mortality?
SE: Sorry to get heavy (laughter)
GL: Well the simple answer would probably be to say ‘yes.’ (laughter) I mean, of course. It’s the kind of work I’m attracted to. It’s gotta be something that’s got some sort of vigor and some sort of heft. Some sort of weight to it. I dunno. I was trying to think about what I was reading at the time. I suppose Sam Beckett and people like that had come into my life by that point, so, y’know (laughing), I’m sure it was around…Silly frothy pop isn’t that interesting..well, it can be interesting I guess, but it wasn’t what we did. We were always looking for an ambiguity, and I think it’s ambiguuity that makes things intriguing. It allows you to make other readings of the work, and that keeps it alive.
SE: I was reading through “Read And Burn” in preparation for these interviews and in it Colin, discussing 154‘s content compared to Chairs Missing, makes the comment that there wasn’t going to be any more “jolly dolly” on 154, which made me laugh since I wouldn’t have characterized Chairs Missing that way, but anyway..
GL: (laughter) Well that just goes to show you, doesn’t it. Chairs Missing was a breeze, so far as I remember. I think it’s interesting that when we kind of discussed making Chairs Missing no one could really remember anything. It was relatively easy. It was fun, it was the summer when we made it. Everybody was happy. I think when we came to make 154, as you say, existentially everyone was in a very very different place. I think a lot of our, how to say, illusions had been modified somewhat. I think also at the same time we were aware of what we were actually doing. I think we understood that we were doing something that was pretty special. It was quite a lonely place to be, if you like, there weren’t many people that we thought were doing work which was as serious or as good. I think basically what Bowie and Eno were doing and obviously the stuff that Scott Walker was doing with the Walker Brothers with, y’know, Nite Flights. That was the only thing you could possibly compare what we were doing to, I think.
SE: I love that record.
GL: His tracks on it are incredible and the rest of it’s just fucking rubbish. (laughter) Sorry, guys.
SE: (laughing) I’ll edit that part out.
GL: (laughing) Oh I don’t mind.
SE: I know, I’m kidding (laughter). So…
GL: It’s very funny. The person..there was a very strange synchronicity about that, because I was introduced to the album – to digress, I suppose – by Russell Mills, illustrator, artist, friend, and Russell was very close to Eno at that time, he did a lot of work with Brian. It was that feeling of ‘It’s a small world’ in that strange way that there were very few people that were aware of what Scott Walker was doing. I think it’s fantastic that he’s had such a renaissance, that he’s being reexamined, because he did some really fucking important work.
SE: Agreed, Scott I – IV not the least of it.
SE: Could we talk a little – though we have to some extent – about the decision not to tour 154? Was it based solely on your experience on the Roxy tour, or..?
GL: Well..really that’s a question that you should ask Colin. It was Bruce and Colin that didn’t want to tour. I think for both of them it was for personal reasons, because of their partners. I’d have been perfectly happy to tour. I thought the Roxy thing, though there were aspects of it that were really awful, very difficult to deal with, but, what it did actually do is produce the group that made 154. And I tell you, that was a really armor-plated beast. We went on that tour with 45 minutes of material and when we came back it was 30 minutes of material. It was really knocked into shape. In terms of whether you want to call it character building or some such, you were going out in front of 8000 people every night who fucking hated you, and we didn’t care (laughs)
SE: There must have been a handful in the audience who..if that tour had come anywhere near me..I mean I loved early Roxy but based on the album that had just come out, Avalon or whatever it was [Manifesto, in fact – ed.], I’d have been there almost exclusively to see Wire.
GL: Well have you seen the Rockpalast from then? You can see how we were from that tour. How prepared we were already before we went into the studio to make 154. We were in fighting form, and we needed to be just to have survived it.
SE: The sense I got in terms of a reluctance to tour came not so much from the Roxy experience as a distaste for revisiting the same material night after night.
GL: Well, we’d come up with a policy to kind of avoid that. There’s work that has to go in to making new material. You take it to the forge and you hammer it into shape. There’s no shortcuts on that. But, y’know, we did have some fun with it as well. We put together a set with Roxy Music that got more and more exciting in a sort of classic ‘rock’ way and then the last number we’d play is “Heartbeat” so every night you’ve got 8000 Germans whistling and booing. It was fantastic (laughter), y’know what I mean? It was orchestrated.
SE: A little art terrorism.
GL: Well, whatever you want to call it, you might as well get a reaction, an interesting reaction, that you want rather than pandering to something which is not going to get that.
SE: So, despite the strife and tension that surrounded its making, the record has endured incredibly well. Is that a surprise to you at all?
GL: Umm….no. Our intentions were always serious and we always made work which we intended to last. You went in as if you were making something that was meant to last and that’s your one shot at it. Sometimes you succeed and sometimes you fail but with that record it was very apparent to us…as I said, just look at that Rockpalast DVD you can see we knew what we were doing. The performances [in the studio], everyone gave what they could to it, and I think it stands up.
SE: To my mind it hasn’t aged a bit. There are many records from that period that haven’t aged to me. Entertainment! hasn’t aged to me. Perhaps sonically a little but most of the Joy Division material hasn’t aged, and certainly chief among them, 154 hasn’t aged to me. To my mind, thematically, the texts, if you will, being covered, those themes never go away. We’ll always be dealing with emotional dislocation, alienation, it’s all there and it’s there in such vivid form on 154.
GL: (pause) Yeah, well, good! I suppose one could say that, stylistically, the snare drum is still too loud, or something (laughs), That’s probably the thing you could maybe locate from that period. Perhaps that’s a bit disappointing. Perhaps there should have been more interesting things to come out of that period, I dunno.
SE: OK, final question: Is there a single song or moment on 154 epitomizes Wire either as you were then or as you’ve evolved over the decades?
GL: Umm…I think there’s a lot. Lot of essence there. What I’ll always remember is standing in the large room at Advision when Tim Souster, the viola player, played his viola solo against the bass solo which I’d played on “A Touching Display.” The hairs on my arm are standing up on end right now just thinking about it. It was the loudest and most glorious thing I’d ever heard. It’s things like that, if you’re fortunate enough to get to experience them, those are the sorts of things that sustain you through, shall we say, less thrilling times. (laughs)
SE: Right. Any time you can get time to stand still.
GL: That’s it, that’s exactly it. It’s that kind of thing, you couldn’t possibly dream of being in a better place, y’know what I mean? It was the absolute moment, it’s an extraordinary thing. It’s like Bruce playing that solo on “Feed Me” on Ideal Copy at Hansa, it’s the same thing, it’s just this unbelievable power. It’s that moment where you think you actually understand something about it.