Back On the Track – Wire Train’s Return To The Rails By Marsh McCall

“I don’t have a clue how we’ll be received in San Francisco now,” says Wire Train singer/songwriter Kevin Hunter. “What if there’s no interest?” It’s hard to know how seriously to take Hunter’s comments. After all, while Wire Train – the acclaimed San Francisco band that virtually disappeared three years ago after a record company dispute – has hit -some career peaks and valleys, these days the group is definitely back on track, with a provocative new album, a new contract, a new manager, and a more seasoned perspective on the music business.
“When the lawyers got involved, it was trouble. It’s not in their best interest to get it over with quickly’ explains bassist and founding member Anders Rundblad. “You know, you start playing guitar when you’re 13, you get together with your buddies and form a band, you work hard at getting somewhere – and then you find yourself talking to lawyers all the time. It hurts the creative flow!”

Creative flow is what propelled Wire Train to the top of the Bay Area music scene in 1984 with the groups debut release In a Chamber, an exciting record that combined finely crafted pop melody with gritty guitar-oriented drive and soulful vocals. The band packed clubs, earned some national radio play, and steamed ahead with two more records – Between Two Words in 1985, and Ten Women two years later – before the trouble began. The group’s San Francisco record label, 415 Records, was sold, and suddenly the members of Wire Train – Hunter, Rundblad, guitarist Jeff Trott and drummer Brian MacLeod – found themselves talking to strangers when they telephoned the office.

“We decided it didn’t make sense to stay with a small label,” Rundblad says. The label, however, begged to differ. The resulting legal battle, while freeing Wire Train from its contractual obligations, left the group drained and disillusioned. “There were a lot of times when we were feeling pretty down and out,” remembers Rundblad “There were times when we almost said, ‘The hell with it.'”

Enter Los Angeles manager Robert Richards, who offered the group fresh enthusiasm and – more importantly – a fresh contract, with MCA Records. Things have moved quickly for the band since then. The new record, released in August, has outsold all other Wire Train albums combined, Hunter says. And the group has had an opportunity to hone its new material while opening for Bob Dylan on a recent two month tour of the Midwest. Performing mostly on open-air stages at state fairs, the band describes the experience as a very hot tour – literally.

“The temperature on [the outdoor] stage was regularly over 100 degrees,” says Hunter. In Phoenix, the temperature was l37 degrees. And Bob [Dylan] went on wearing two sweat-shirts and a fur hat. He’s a strange guy.”

If Wire Train has learned a lesson or two about the business end of the music business, the group has also moved forward on the music end. Unhappy with the results of their third album (recorded in England, and painstakingly layered track by track), band members hooked up with co-producers Don Smith (Tom Petty, the Travelling Willburys, Keith Richards) and David Tickle (Prince, U2) for a fresh, live sounding approach.

“If a band sounds good playing together,” asserts Hunter, “then the only way to record is to put some microphones in a room and play together. If there’s anything special there, they shouldn’t try to change it.” Adds Rundblad: “For a lot of people who have been growing up listening to techno-pop, this may be a new sound – hearing people just lay down a groove.”

As always, Wire Train’s creative process remains a true group effort. While Hunter is credited with most of the lyrics on the new album, the finished product stems from four distinct points of view.

“Anyone who tells another musician what to play is a fool,” says Hunter, never a man to mince his words. “For one thing, that musician will never be able to play it well enough – it will never be the exact idea the first guy had – and then you lose whatever idea the second guy had.”

While Hunter is reluctant to analyse the twelve-song record (“I can’t get Inside my own head”) fans and new listeners alike shouldn’t be disappointed. From spirited rockers like “Spin” to the ambience-laden “She” to the sing-along “Oh Me, Oh My,” Wire Train is more than a convincing comeback. Meanwhile, a video of the track “Should She Cry?” is slated for rotation on MTV.

Years of touring have left Wire Train with a mixed bag of memories. In the early days, there were sold-out clubs and ever-increasing recognition, times when band members would vie with the likes of Chris Isaak to set weekly attendance records at Wolfgang’s and the Kennel Club. But the gigging – both here and internationally – began to take an emotional toll. The low point may have been in 1987, when Wire Train flew into Gatwick Airport in London to kick off a British tour, only to discover no work permits waiting for them. All four were thrown into a detention centre before being booted unceremoniously out of the country.

“I miss the festive atmosphere, the excitement of our live shows,” Hunter says. “But I got tired of the ‘get to the top’ mentality”. He hastens to add, however, that the group will be in top form when it does return to Bay Area stages. “We’ve improved a lot as musicians over the past years,” he says. “And I’ll always love to play live.”

It will remain to be seen, of course, how Wire Train fares upon returning to the spotlight. Three years, after all, is a long time in the San Francisco music scene. Is Wire Train still viable? Hunter answers the question, sort of, by recounting the only time he attended the Bammies, in 1985. At the ceremony he witnessed Eddie and the Tide beating out Wire Train in the “Best Song” category. “It pissed me off, Ill admit that,” Hunter says. “But my attitude is: where’s Eddie and the Tide now? “