Train Going Round the Bend

“There are so many bands in California who just want to sound like a 1971 Neil Young record – well we’re not one of them. Any group that plays a twin reverb just cos that’s what they played in the Sixties is full of shit. You gotta take your influences and make them yourself. I don’t want anyone to listen to a Wire Train record and say they’ve heard it all before.”
Wire Train’s lead singer and guitarist Kevin Hunter mouths off with a conviction that screams “pigeon-hole at your peril.” So remember, Wire Train are not just another American band. When Bono made their debut LP “In A Chamber”, his favourite of 1984, most people in the UK said: “Wire who?” Hunter stifles a wry smile when I tell him this.

“At first I was deeply moved”,he says; “Then after the hundredth person asked me what I thought about it I began thinking – that and a quarter will get me a phone-call. All it means really is that now us and The Alarm are friends of U2. It doesn’t help me write a better song.”

Wire Train’s foundations were laid in 1981 when Hunter met guitarist Kurt Herr at a poetry class in San Francisco. Together they formed The Renegades, an early prototype – more of a wired train in fact.

“Man, that band never slept”, Hunter laughs. “We had to be in high-school by nine, we’d get off at 4.30, then I’d work in this scuzzy homo-porn theatre till midnight. We’d all meet up at about one then rehearse until about four in the morning, go home, go to sleep, get up, take some speed and do it all over again.”

We’re in Berlin, packed tight into the band’s groaning tour bus, doing a kamikaze tourist run of all the best the city has to offer. In between bursts of Tracey Thorne and Television, Hunter is filling me in on the story so far. The Renegades made a demo with drummer Federico Gil-Solo and bassist Anders Rundblad, an ex-Swedish conscript who’d swallowed a tube of toothpaste to convince the draft board he was a tad bonkers and shouldn’t really be given a loaded machine gun to play with. In time-honoured fashion the demo was picked up on by college radio and Wire Train was on its way. Hunter acknowledges the band’s debt.

“Without college radio, music would be where it was in 1974. It really has been a lifeline, it may not break or make the Top 40 acts, but without it groups like Simple Minds and Tears For Fears would never have got to the Top 40.”

Following their initial success the band signed to Howie Klein’s Bay Area indie, 415 Records, and released “In A Chamber”. The LP was remarkable in going completely against the overriding buckskin-and-beads mentality of the day. Hunter made his intentions clear from the start.

“We didn’t want to sound psychedelic or like the New Western movement and because of that I think a lot of people were surprised by the LP. San Francisco is such a hip place that people who have record contracts are almost looked down upon, but I think we’ve proved that you can make it and still walk away with one of your testicles.”

With balls intact the band’s second LP “Between Two Words”, has just been released in the UK. Along the way they’ve lost Kurt and Federico and have been joined by Brian MacLeod and guitarist Jeff Trott, formerly of San Francisco underground band The Lifers.

The old adage about judging a band by its covers seems to hold true in the case of Wire Train. “Between Two Words” spans a remodelled version of Dylan’s “God On Our Side”, the crusading nature of the lyric mirroring many of the band’s own songs – but more of that later. Hunter is quick to point out, however, that the band’s relatively apolitical stance was not borne out of apathy.

He drawls from beneath a blanket at the back of the bus. “It has a lot to do with what we are. Americans are not political beings. In England oppression comes in the form of government or class bigotry. In the States there are no classes, no politics – all there is is business and business is the great oppressor. Dylan was one of the first to realise that.

“He said ‘I’m not gonna talk about the political stuff any more cos that’s not what the battle is any more.’ In America business affects your subconscious – it’s a war. They spend billions of dollars figuring out how to conduct their attack on the subconscious mind of the American public, as a result they’re so far beyond politics, politics is just bullshit. Reagan doesn’t run America, the Rockefellers do. The only way to remain safe is to be yourself and control your mind, then that stuff can’t seep into you and they can’t take you over.

“Americans have this compulsion for sex because TV tells them that if they have sex tonight they’ll be happy. That’s bullshit. The reason Wire Train aren’t political is cos America is a place where they’ve taken the law up another notch. Like I said, Dylan was the first to realise that.

“There are people who at every opportunity want to advance their cause. The Catholic Church are a prime example, they don’t miss a trick – every time you are weak they attempt to take you over.”

This coming from a man who has the sign of the cross taped to the back of his guitar? Hunter is quick to dispel misconceptions.

“That’s just an insignia which is copyrighted and belongs to a corporation called the Catholic Church. Yes, I am deeply religious but I get wound up by organised religion. It has to come from yourself. Dostoyevsky went through his life being a decadent twit and suddenly one day it snapped – the same happened to Dylan. There is no organisation that isn’t corrupt.”

In the distance a lone jogger plods breathlessly alongside the Berlin wall. Her pink tracksuit merges garishly into the mess of hip-hop art adorning the wall.

“I bet the other side’s pretty clean,” Jeffrey observes dryly. As we pull away there’s a distinct feeling of unease. Nobody says a word as Bowie belts out “Rebel Rebel”, the irony of the song lost on the East German border guards.

Later that evening a recharged Wire Train blast out the song as an encore. As The Alarm, who are headlining, take the stage of the Quartier Latin hall, Anders puts Wire Train into some sort of perspective.

“When R.E.M. started breaking, all a sudden there was an interest in America. Everyone was looking for next American band. Somehow we managed to avoid being the next American band which I guess we’re grateful for.” Kevin nodded in agreement.

“They made R.E.M. a success but now they’ve paid the price – you listen to their third album and you know what kind of a once they’ve paid. They tour all the time and get interviewed 17 times a day – I don’t think they have much time to write songs anymore. They’re still a good band but when you set a standard that high it gets hard.

“I’m not so sure how we’re gonna be seen in England, though. It’s always been a musical community that feeds on itself and in the last three years things have gotten real incestuous. Long hair and spray painted Doctor Marten boots can be really vile when they follow Mohicans and Sam Jones boots. It’s the old romanticist versus classicist thing. England is in a real classical period right now – you have to have costumes and choreography.”

Outside Wire Train, Hunter has a separate publishing deal with CBS and has written tracks for The Divinyls, The Go Go’s and …Eddie Rabbit. “Eddie Rabbit!” The rest of Wire Train scream in disbelief. “You’re fired!” But how does he define his work with Wire Train?

“We sing songs about humanity and hopefully represent a lot of different opinions. Our concept is so broad that people can’t see it. I think it could be described in a way so that people would understand that what we’re talking about is not drunk Saturday night not sex Sunday night, not religion Monday night – we’re talking about the whole fuckin’ week.

“I don’t wanna be pinned down to one level. We sing songs about life and hopefully keep people from falling into the same traps we did.”