WIRE TRAIN’s NEW ALBUM, ‘TEN WOMEN’, IS AN INSPIRATIONAL CHOIR OF SONGS FEATURING SUCH LUMINARIES AS THE WATERBOYS AND THE ALARM. MAT SMITH WENT TO SAN FRANCISCO, FLICKED THE FLOWERS FROM HIS HAIR, AND GOT DOWN TO SOME SERIOUS DISCUSSION ABOUT POP AMERICAN STYLE.
From the street below, strains of Scott Walker stray up and down into the hotel room, blown by the same breeze that carries the faint clanging of bells as another cable car hauls its way up the seemingly endless hills. The streets of San Francisco, and Lieutenant Stone is nowhere to be seen.
He’s not down by the piers where the waves lap gently against the breakwaters, dolphins surface and dive in the bay and the glare from the sun silhouettes a clutch of skyscrapers in your eyes. And he’s not up an the cliffs later that night, high above the Pacific where a lighthouse flashes its warning and you stand on what seems like the edge of the universe, the wind blowing the flowers from your hair as the thought occurs: “If the idiots pushed the button now, I’d vaporise with a smile on my face.”
Kevin Hunter often thinks the same thing: “I remember the first time I went up there, it really affected me. It was like so pure, so real, so infinite and indescribable that nothing else mattered.”
That deep-rooted sense of wonder, that long-lost lust for life has always been at the heart of Wire Train’s music — now, with their third LP Ten Women looming large, its previously quiet, introspective innuendo has been crystallised into a raging pop inferno. In the cold light of day, of course, it’s all very different. Haight Ashbury has become a tacky Carnaby Street-type emporium of cheap punk and hippie memorabilia, one-in-20 people are AIDS carriers and, if you need money quick, you simply walk in front of a car, hope you break something, then sue the driver and retire on the profit.
In the midst of all this, Wire Train have been around in one form or another for seven years. Originally called The Renegades, they were formed by Hunter and guitarist Kurt Herr at San Francisco University in 1980. For his conceptual design class, the singer had drawn the artwork for a fictitious LP cover. Then he thought up some titles for the sleeve, then decided he’d go the whole hog and set about writing songs to go with the titles. Thus the Wire Train tracks were laid.
Sitting opposite me in a downtown bar, the normally lippy Hunter is a little reserved, still tired from a mega-delayed flight home from New York the day before and still nursing the lonliness left by a break with his long standing girlfriend a few weeks back. So Kevin, why Ten Women?
“Why Be Bop-A-Lula? The more time you spend thinking about it, the more reasons you come up with, but it just sounded good and right at the time.”
“We were thinking about titles”, offers Jeff Trott, the baby-faced guitarist who replaced Kurt Herr in 1985, “and we came up with Ten Women. Then we though ‘Oh, hold on, some women are gonna take offence at this.’ But then we thought, ‘Why censor ourselves, there are plenty of others willing to do it for us.’ It could mean 10 journeys, or whatever.”
“Rather than 10 songs about 10 different women, I think I saw it as 10 aspects of a woman,” Hunter adds. “Or it could have been what you see first in 10 different women. I mean, any quality you can attribute to a woman, you can attribute to a man. Except child bearing of course. But they’re working on that!”
The songs on “Ten Women” are more specific, less poetically diffusethan those on its predecessor, “Between Two Words”, they are also less prone to forced sentimentality and sincerity. “I don’t feeel this LP is in any way more closed down than the last one,” Hunter shouts, motioning the barman to turn down the jukebox, “It’s just open in a different sort of way. This LP is sincere whereas, with hindsight, I guess the second LP talked about sincerity.”
Ten Women also presents a fresher, more outgoing face to the world, concerning itself with the affairs of the heart rather than the dogmatical preoccupations with religion that formed the backbone to Between Two Words. “I’ve been thinking about that a lot,” Hunter reflects, “and I think that, at the time, God and happiness and the point of living was a very foreign thing to me and, as a result, the frustrations I felt towards it came out in pseudo sarcastic religious meanderings about what I thought religion should mean. While we were working on this album, I started to become aware in my subconscious of what God really was and, as a result I don’t have to poke fun at what I think God is anymore. I feel more responsible to just describe what we need and what my ideas about God are.”
“I think it’s all still there but, instead of using recognisably religious images to make aggressive statements about things, I’m using simple straightforward language to describe a situation. If you look at the new album and a song like ‘She’s A Very Pretty Thing’. I’m using smaller images to make a much more precise picture. In other words, this person is cherishing the body of Christ in all of us. Like a man who treats a woman’s soul with disdain but treats her body with reverence.”
Last year Wire Train toured the length and breadth of this fair isle with The Waterboys. The increasingly earthy music Mike Scott is getting into seems to have rubbed off on them and, to their credit, they’ve shaken off that onomatopoeic giant rock bluster that occasionally threatened to overwhelm the more precious aspects of their muse.
“We did learn a lot from that tour,” Jeff admits. “I don’t think we thought they were better than us or had more to say than we did, but we came to realise there are a lot of people out there who are willing to care about a band that has feeling.”
If nothing else the continuous gigging in front of British audiences established the band as a force in their own right and gave them an identity. The new album is the first to truly shake off the U2 comparisons that used to plague them. “I think the U2 thing had a lot to do with Kurt,” Jeff explains. “He was really influenced by the Edge.”
Oddly enough, there are parallels to be drawn between Wire Train and their CBS lablemates, The Bangles. Both had beginnings rooted in Sixties harmonies and conceits, both have distilled their collective strengths into an Eighties Ameri-pop package. Hunter, bolshy bugger that he is, is having none of this of course.
“I can’t realty make a relationship between The Bangles and us. I can relate to what you’re saying about time but, when I listen to our record, can’t really place it. There are some Sixties harmonies there but I don’t think there’s any part of it that sounds very Eighties. Maybe our conceptions of what Eighties music is are different.
“When I think about the Eighties, I think of Phil Collins and Peter Gabriel, that sort of stuff, and I feel that our music is a little more rustic and a little more oversimplified than theirs is. Again, an era is usually dictated in the end by what was the most popular thing in it, so I imagine those things will be remembered as the Eighties sound and I’m not sure that this record has those characteristics.”
“Peter Gabriel said something interesting lately.” I find this extremely hard to believe but Hunter continues anyway. “Somebody asked him why he called his new LP So. He said because ‘So’ is a word which looks very good when you write it down but it doesn’t mean very much. Maybe that’s what Eighties music is. I mean, even rap has lost it’s pioneering streak. All this macho around with heavy metal – why for God’s sake?”
Jeff thinks he has the answer: “Cos heavy metal is dead end and so is rap so, since they’re both so dead end. they might as well meet and burn out together — it’s just gimmickry — it’ll last as long as the joke does.”
“Anything that’s hip has a grace period of about four years,” Hunter continues. “Then it’ll be immensely popular. In ‘64, it was cool to be a hippie, by the time Woodstock come along, most of those people didn’t know what the hell it was about but they loved the smell of patchouli. I think people who are buying rap records now don’t remember ‘White Lines’ or, if they heard it, they wouldn’t know who did it. At the time it was really meaningful and aggressive and now you have guys talking about taking away their girlfriend’s credit cards in rap records and I’m not sure that was the point.”
“Most of the hit records in America right now sound like an advert for passion fruit drink,” laughs Brian, the band’s drummer.
“TV is also why America’s in the political state it’s in,” Jeff continues. “Cos it’s easier to reach all those voters through TV and that’s why we ended up with an actor for president. The whole curse of TV is turning America into a homogenised mess.”
“The thing to remember is that the psychological studies and merchandising profiles that have been done by American companies to use TV are astounding. It’s the cutting edge of psychology and they use every trick to make you want to be the person on TV. If there’s somebody wearing a grey sweater and they want you to buy that grey sweater there’ll be a penis in the background or rather something subtley shaped like a penis — I’m not joking. They’re using phallic symbols — everything they can to make you wanna be that person.”
Despite the forthright views, Hunter admits to being a basically happy person, though he says he’s desperately trying not to be. “With happiness comes complacency. You can’t let down your guard. You can’t say ‘This is good’. you have to say ‘That last thing I did was shit and I have to do something good or my life is worthless’. If you’re a musician, your job is to write and-say things that you need to say. If you get stuck on one youth movement, you’re hurting yourself as an artist. Punk is dead. Post-punk is dead. Imagine if in 1977 you walked around talking about the Jefferson Airplane you’d be laughed off the street cos that wasn’t what was happening. Well it’s 1987. Anyone who comes up to me and says The Clash are the greatest band in the world, I gotta say, ‘What happened to you? When did you stop growing?’ Camper Van Beethoven are here now.”
AFTER the uneasy atmosphere in Vienna during the recording of “Between Two Words” with Hunter decorating the studio walls with crosses to stave off his creeping paranoia, Wire Train decided to record “Ten Women” in London.
“We just met a lot of people in London who liked us and whom we liked so we guessed we could have an open door if we went over there and we did. Some of The Waterboys are on the LP and Dave Sharpe from The Alarm is too. There are same of our friends who aren’t actually on the album though they rub off an it cos we were hanging out with them – people from The Thrashing Doves and World Party.”
The Waterboys track is called “Compassion” and, according to Hunter, is a “drunken folky jam” with Mike Scott offering his by now customary whoops and yells and Hunter crooning in his best whispered Dylan voice. Jeff had previously jammed with The Waterboys at their Hammersmith Palais show and there was even talk that Mike Scott wanted him to join the band so he could concentrate more an piano.
“I think it was cos we all got along so well that they would just as soon have me in the band than as a friend. But I think they’re pretty set on being The Waterboys. I could be an honorary Waterboy but I don’t think that I could ever really join the band cos what I have with Wire Train is, is, is,…”
“More than honorary!” Kevin laughs.
“It’s also legal man,” Brian clarifies.
The track that The Alarm’s Dave Sharpe appears on is the LP’s tour de force. “Breakwater Days” starts off simply enough, then builds slowly and surely piling on layer upon layer into a thrashing crescendo of nerve-wracked guitars and anguished vocals
“It is a bit more epic than the other songs,” Hunter admits. “The feeling that I’d like people to get from it is something that precise language and precise narrative would destroy. In general, I think it’s about the fact that youth and life is a fleeting thing and, in the end, the best you can do is have a beautiful time trying. Life’s gonna be a tie and, if it’s gonna be a tie, you can either appreciate it as a tie, or you can hate it cos you didn’t win.”
“I think sometimes you feel that you’re just a breakwater. That you’re just a wall against which the surf is beating and the best you can do is keep out the surf, you can never stop it. I think the key line in that song and the one that sums it up is the ‘Wait for it, live now / Wait for it, live now / Wait, live. Wait, live’ sequence at the end.
“The really weird thing is that I write lyrics and, at the time, I haven’t a clue what they’re about. I was writing about my girlfriend leaving me three months before she did. I guess it’s not from personal experience but from personal understanding.’
Outside of Wire Train, Hunter still has a separate CBS song-writing deal but doesn’t know who’s bought his songs until he hears them turn up on the radio. “I don’t ask who’s got them. As long as they’re pretty, they can have them.”
However, it’s Wire Train in general and the new LP in particular where his heart lies. “I want people to listen to this record without bias. Sit down, clear your mind and I promise it will be a healing experience that will be more good than it is bad and those kind of things are rare to find. It’s a really honest record and it can help people feel better about their lives if they’ll just listen to it without bias.”