Wire's Track-By-Track Guide To Red Barked Tree
, December 8th, 2010 09:09
We're already pretty sure that Wire's new LP Red Barked Tree is going to be a favourite of 2011. Here, Colin Newman, Graham Lewis and Robert Grey guide us through the album. Based on conversations with Quietus writer Wilson Neate
Graham Lewis: "Please take your knife out of my back and, when you do, please don't twist it": this lay in my notebook for six years awaiting the right melody. Sarcastic stoic records Pyrrhic victory, employing seductive melody in lethal "fuck-off" song. Let's pass it on for universal usage.
Colin Newman: There's a fantastic, expansive elegance between the three basic elements: the drums, bass and rhythm guitar. If it's not the best Graham song on a Wire album, it's certainly one of the best. I hope it's not about me!
Robert Grey: I was asked to propose a track sequence for the album, and I found it difficult initially. Then I realised that if I thought of the tracks as a series of scenes in a play or a film, it made it easier. I like the idea of the tracks telling a story: the story was the album from beginning to end. 'Please Take' was my choice for the opening track - it has an introductory feel, a sense of trouble brewing maybe....
CN: Rhythmically, it's a bit like 'Brazil'. It came fully formed. Like most of the songs, it was very fast to write; it only took a few minutes. The arrangement is a classic example of what happens if you take something that's just acoustic guitar and vocals and throw it in front of Wire: they don't do what you expect, and they do it effortlessly.
GL: It's about those aristocrats of arrogance, horrible cynical middle-aged men....
RG: I interpreted it as referring to one very specific person...but that particular person could also be part of the general group Graham mentions. It was originally called 'Wizard of Was', which I rather liked.
GL: One of the first texts written for the album. It's a kind of where-are-we, state-of-the-world address: observations about extreme climate change and disaster, the failure of financial markets ("fairness flounders, sincere cheats"), child labour, hollow politics. Even Chekhov gets a name check.
CN: I knew it was a hymn as soon as I'd written it. When I presented the song, I said, "This is a Christmas hit!" I can just hear the St. Agnes Girls' School Choir singing it as a Christmas single! Originally, there was some swearing in it, but I asked Graham to take it out: you can't have swearing in a song like this. There's something absurd about the song, but it's completely beautiful.
RG: After we'd recorded 'Adapt', I forgot about it, and when Colin sent it to me as one of the mixes I thought, 'This is so good'. It's my favourite track. It moves you emotionally and physically. It has a pleasantly melancholic feel - not depressing, though.
CN: This is the one track that pre-dates 2010. It's from 2001. I made the basic riff for Read and Burn 01 but never developed it. I brought it into the studio this year and, as soon as Rob and Graham started playing on it, it sounded absolutely awesome. Then it just needed some random shouting on it. "Fuck" isn't appropriate in 'Adapt', but in 'Two Minutes' it's fair game.
RG: I did think the words were very strange until Colin told me that he'd collected them from random texts. I'm not sure where he found these, but that would explain why it didn't seem to make immediate sense. It sounds like it makes sense to the person who's speaking it, but it's a very odd construction. Although it's odd lyrically, musically it's definitely recognisable as Wire - as one of our heavy numbers.
GL: It disrupts the album nicely, and it makes things a little more multifaceted. Contains "umbilical cord twang"!
GL: It is what it is. Ingredients include compressed 'Fly' frequencies.
CN: It's really got very little in common with 'I Am the Fly'. There's a bit more of a tune to it. It's got that cheeky Wire sound. If you take away the bassline, it doesn't actually sound like 'I Am the Fly'. So you can blame Graham!
'Bad Worn Thing'
GL: It was originally called 'The Overcrowded Nature of Things' but became 'Bad Worn Thing'. Written from observations made during a couple of bloody awful days spent travelling in England or, better put, trying to travel in England: a dreadful train journey that laid bare the inadequacies of the British transport system. Add to that the ambient noise generated by the early morning drum 'n' bass soundtrack for the fevered trade in sex and drugs in London's East End, UK, Inc.
CN: The first time we played it in the studio, the engineer said, "You make a big fucking noise for three people!" I was trying to get across the idea of a mad preacher, with a moronic riff. It's Wire unleashed. Wire always manage to sound like Wire, even though there's no actual brief that says what Wire are supposed to sound like. That's a key element in how it all works.
GL: Or a moronic preacher with a mad riff?
RG: 'Moreover' has intensity and simplicity, and the fact that the studio engineer said he liked it was a very good sign!
'A Flat Tent'
CN: It's quite Wire-like, without sounding like any particular Wire song. I love all the stops in it - they're ridiculous. Only Wire do songs with stops like that.
GL: Its working title was 'Ten'. A new title was necessary. There's a hold in the song on A flat, so I combined "A Flat" with the first title and manufactured "A Flat Tent."
GL: It's where roadkill meets potatoes, hence 'Smash' - as in "For Mash Get Smash" from the old British TV commercial. You are what you eat? A few of the images also suggest something of a perverted Narnia....
RG: How would you like your potatoes with that roadkill? Roast, boiled or mashed?
CN: It's less of a chorus and more of a car crash. I love the way the chorus sounds like something went seriously wrong - like one of those 80s Japanese pop records where it suddenly goes into something you really didn't expect. I like that idea. It has an absurdity to it. For ages it was called 'Spuds'.
'Down to This'
CN: It's about everything being shit, on every level you can possibly think of - and the only thing you've got left is death. Graham thinks it's one of the best songs I've ever written. But I find it pretty depressing.
GL: It projects a creeping sense of doom: urban malfunction... What happens when ALL the lights go out?
RG: Well, it's not cheerful, is it? We all die at some point, and you can't be cheerful all the time. It contrasts nicely with 'A Flat Tent'. You have a diverse spectrum of emotions on the album. That's a good thing, involving the listeners' full breadth of emotion.
'Red Barked Trees'
GL: It's about dismay and hope, and the wonder of technology versus the ancient knowledge of alchemy. Will we destroy rare invaluable flora and fauna before we can research and exploit their unique properties? In the end, is it going to be the red-barked tree that's going to hold the cure for cancer? Or Google: email@example.com?
CN: It's magnificent. It has the quality of a journey. Obviously, there's always more than one meaning, but I like to think of the search for the red-barked trees as a search for the philosopher's stone or maybe soma: maybe an artistic quest for the thing that will enable you to understand everything. The whole album is more lyrical than anything Wire have done for a while, this track especially. It's got an open-eyed beauty to it, looking at the world as a mysterious place. It's more like Pentangle than Wire! Wire have never made a track anything like it: it's in ¾ time, with acoustic guitars, bouzouki and organ. It's an innovative track for Wire -- perhaps the most different. There's nothing in our catalogue that sounds anything like it, and that pleases me immensely.
RG: We stole it all from Pentangle! It's certainly not a rock beat, but is it a folk-rock beat? It's more musical than the average Wire song. When Colin sent me the mix, I commented that it was post-moronic, because Colin always says Wire songs have a moronic element in them, and what's missing here is that essential moronic element. That made it stand out. It's my second-favourite track on the record. If 'Down to This' was like a burial scene in my overall narrative of the album, then 'Red Barked Trees' is a resurrection: it's uplifting and hopeful. It has a sort of healing theme to it. Hopefully, that'll stay with listeners - we don't want to leave them depressed at the end.
Visit the Wire website to pre-order Red Barked Tree