Art school daze
Post-punk legends Wire and latter-day successors Milemarker spring from the same art-rock lineage
What would rock music be if not for the influence of art schools? Less pretentious, perhaps, but probably wallowing in piles of meat and potatoes as well. While art schools — particularly the more loosely defined "art colleges" in the U.K. — don't actually teach musical inspiration, bands that formed after or during their members' enrollment have defined the cutting-edge of popular music for decades.
In fact, the "art school band" is as venerable a rock fixture as dark shades and messy hair, tying conceptually oriented acts from the Who, Pink Floyd and David Bowie to later groups like Gang of Four and Talking Heads and current bands U.S. Maple, Chicks on Speed, Les Savy Fav and Milemarker. Not a style per se, art-school bands have applied a similar aesthetic temperament to whatever genre they're playing.
Formed at London's Watford Art School in the mid-'70s, Wire are no doubt the classic example of this tradition applied to punk rock, and their influence continues to show in all manner of post-punk music to this day. When Wire debuted with Pink Flag in 1977, its members — Colin Newman (vocals, guitar), Graham Lewis (bass), Bruce Gilbert (guitar) and Robert Gotobed (drums) — quickly established that, despite its punk basis, Wire had no intentions of recreating already proven endeavors. Wire merged punk's spontaneity with prog-rock's artsy impulses to create something altogether new.
"There is an important fine art element in Wire," Newman says, of the recently reformed group. "Basically you are either entertainment or art, and although there may be entertainment in Wire, it's not done from the point of view of being entertainers. We position ourselves pretty firmly in the art camp."
With two more early releases, Chairs Missing and 154, Wire moved even deeper into post-punk exploration, fusing pop, punk and art rock with a minimalist approach. When Wire called it quits for the first time in 1980, the group had left a legacy that would have lasting effects on acts from the Cure, R.E.M. and Sonic Youth to recent groups like the Rapture and the Liars. Minor Threat offered a live rendition of Wire's seminal punk anthem "12XU"; Elastica pillaged a guitar riff from "Three Girl Rumba" for the song "Connection"; and R.E.M. does a cover of "Strange" on its 1987 album, Document.
Wire reformed from 1986 to 1991, this time taking on a more electronic approach to its self-described "monophonic monorhythmic repetition" — otherwise known as the "dugga dugga" sound. While this second phase in the group's history wasn't as influential as the first, it showed Wire pursuing the same progressive instincts that had driven it from the beginning.
"There is a general feeling that we got a lot of things wrong in the '80s," Newman says. "However, the things we got wrong don't include the necessary embracing of what were the newly available and affordable tools of the time."
After another eight years away, Wire reconvened in 1999 for a one-off show at the Royal Festival Hall in London. Having been away long enough for its legend to have blossomed, Wire found itself in front of a larger audience than it had even drawn — about 3,500. The warm reception precipitated a full-scale third incarnation, complete with a series of projected EPs and U.S. tour.
The group's first new release in over a decade, Read & Burn: 01, came out earlier this year. In true Wire fashion, the band has once again completely reworked its sound. Industrial strength guitars plod through the otherwise minimalist assault, while Newman's voice takes on a more aggressive bark than ever before. The presence of keyboards or any other electronic sounds are noticeably absent from the recording, and the production quality is surprisingly sharp.
"Hopefully the crispness of the sound is down to the fact that I've mixed a fair few albums and gradually improved my technique," Newman says. "The sound of R&B: 01 has its roots in the re-appraisal of our historic material — but the way it's made couldn't be more different. You could say that, in fact, there is no songwriting going on. These are not pieces someone could demonstrate on acoustic guitar in any even slightly convincing fashion. On that level, they are beats and noise with voice added. For us, it became obvious by late 2000 that a vibe of loud and fast was on its way. Wire should never be considered separate from the culture in which it is operating."
As chance would have it, the night before Wire arrives in East Atlanta for its first-ever local concert, Chicago quartet Milemarker — a prime example of the current culture's crop of art school acts — performs in the neighborhood as well.
Although Milemarker's sound is choppier and more transgressive than Wire's, the lineage is clear. Like Wire, Milemarker combines punk, electronica and art rock with icy minimalism and a ceaseless ambition to avoid recreating the past. While the group did not form while attending art school, most of its members come from that background — including Rhode Island School of Design alumni Roby Newton (keyboards) and UNC-Chapel Hill art student Dave Laney (guitar). In bringing an electro/ hardcore ethos to the art-school palette, Milemarker mirrors the fusion that sparked Wire more than two decades ago.
"Milemarker started because we were frustrated by playing within genres and hearing people say, 'You can't do this,'" says the group's bassist, Al Burian. "The motivation has always been to push things to where even we feel uncomfortable with it. To where we're questioning if we're allowed to do this."
Milemarker recently released an EP that stands as a testament to its ever-reaching ambitions. Satanic Verses pits the group against the vanguard of musical technology while advancing its sound considerably. The release features new and drastically reworked older material, videos, and computer files that allow the end user to remix two songs from the recording.
"Milemarker gets called a new-wave hardcore band, and as a group we've always stood against replicating the past," Burian says. "We're tagged new wave because we use keyboards. Hardcore implies an attitude or ethic — you've got hardcore punk, hardcore rap and hardcore pornography, and what binds these things together is that they're all pushing the limits. With Satanic Verses, what's previously been classified as our new-wave components become more mechanical and really push the limits of what we're capable of doing."
With Wire's influence felt, perhaps, more strongly than ever, now would seem a perfectly appropriate time for the group to reconvene. Then again, Wire has never been a group to ride on former glories. Carrying on in the manner that has propelled the group from the start, Wire's sets during the current U.S. tour consist only of new material.
"Wire is in no way attempting to recreate its historical sound," Newman says. "We are at a moment in time, and someday we'll see what it all means. But Wire aren't hanging about."