Wire Train’s Hippie Conductor

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When Kevin Hunter formed Wire Train he was a punk rocker and his San Francisco-based band was, as he now puts it, a “fabulously hip Clash clone.” But now the shaggy-haired band leader comes across like an eighties hippie.
Hunter, 26, doesn’t live anywhere in particular and says that he’s into “this other kind of organic, fluid spirituality.” He’s all for smoking a joint now and then in order to take what he describes as a “a temporary vacation from your life”. Naturally he couldn’t care less about expensive clothes, record sales, popular success, money – what George Harrison once called “the material world.” “He didn’t eve have a bank account last year,” says 415 Records president Howie Klein, who discovered and signed Wire Train. “All he does is write songs.”

Hunter wanders into Café Flore, an artsy San Francisco hangout, looking more like a scruffy bohemian poet than the leader of a modern rock band. He’s wearing a long black fur-collared wool overcoat with the lining coming undone, a borrowed black corduroy shirt, tight black pants with a rip at the knee and a pair of pointed black suede shoes that could use a cleaning. He orders something to drink, then abruptly tells the waiter to forget it. He has neglected to bring any cash along.

Once seated at a corner table, Hunter is asked if he’s remained true to the punk spirit that inspired him to form Wire Train six years ago. “Punk is as out-of-date now as beings hippie was in 1977”, he says, slightly miffed at the question. “No youth movement has a corner on reality.”

“Punk doesn’t exist. It’s gone. It was just a collection of ideas that were floating around. There was postpunk and antipunk and then there will be – who knows? – the doorknob people. It’s not the name that’s important; it’s remaining sensitive to the world…. I don’t want to be grounded. I want to float down the stream and look at the scenery and interact with it.”

Don’t get Hunter wrong; he’s no space cadet. Sure he’s eccentric, naïve, hopelessly idealistic and out of touch by bottom-line 1987 standards. But who ever expected a poetic rock star to be otherwise? With the wave of a hand he dismisses musicians who are into the cult of ‘let’s have problems with the record company.'” He laughs about people who “want their artists to make sense for them. How boring to have your life make sense.”

Shimmering guitars, oblique lyrics, a rock-steady rhythm section and Hunters Dylanesque vocals define Wire Trains haunting, atmospheric style, which shows traces of Sixties folk-rockers like The Byrds, as well as Eighties New Wavers like U2 and The Cure. In addition to Hunter on guitar and vocals, the group includes drummer Brian MacLeod (formerly of the Sleepers and Group 87), bassist Anders Rundblad (formerly of the Swedish group Mötvind), and guitarist Jeffrey Trott.

U2’s Bono called Wire Train’s debut LP, In A Chamber, the best album of 1984, and their second album, 1985’s Between Two Words, was widely praised by critics. But it’s their brilliant new album, Ten Women, recorded during a three month stay in London last summer with help from members of the Waterboys, World Party and the Alarm, that may finally bring Wire Train commercial success. Hunter is not very concerned. “I’m not obsessed with having a hit,” he insists. “CBS [which distributes 415] knows that what Wire Train does may be very, very low art, but it is art. And they don’t expect us to be Loverboy or The Hooters.

Hunter, who grew up in LA., decided he wanted to be a rock star at the age of seven, the day his sister was born. “That day my mom got a baby,” he says, “and as a consolation prize, I got to see A Hard Days Night. They took me to see the movie, and that was it.”

Seven years ago – after playing in a couple of L.A. punk bands, including the unforgettably named Snot Puppies – Hunter moved to north, ostensibly to study poetry at San Francisco State University. He became friends with guitarist Kurt Herr, and they formed a band, The Renegades, after attending U2’s first San Francisco performance. “Seeing U2 actually do something emotionally direct and honest really touched me,” says Hunter. “That really triggered me and Kurt to say, ‘All right, let’s just go ahead and jump in.'”

The Renegades soon grew bored by the limitations of punk rock. “We couldn’t go on imitating what punk was, ” says Hunter. Musically inspired by The Jam, The Cure and U2 among others, the Renegades’ sound slowly metamorphosed into something quite original. Along the way they changed their name to Wire Train. “It has to do with having a train of thought that isn’t cemented into seeing things one certain way,” says Hunter by way of explanation. “Malleable.”

The makeup of the band isn’t set in stone either. Hunter and Herr went through several rhythm sections; then in 1985 upon the completion of their second album, Herr quit. Says Hunter of Herr’s departure and his own decision to carry on, “You know, you wake up every day, and you decide how it’s going to be. You decide whether its going to be ‘Oh my God, that phone bill is going to come in today, and I don’t have the money to pay for it’ or if it’s going to be a great day.”

“People have illusions about how things are going to be,” he say, “and the more you think about the future, the more you have a tendency to be disappointed. Don’t think about it. Go make the record, but don’t really plan how it’s going to be. Do the tour, and try to enjoy yourself all the time, every day, as though it were the first day. ”

Getting up to go, Hunter laughs. “I’m a hippie,” he says. “I live in San Francisco and I’m a hippie!”

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.”

Wire Train are back

Wire Train has not been together for awhile, but sometimes you’ll find a member or two playing Canadian online slots and other games online.

THERE’S a woman in San Francisco who’s been going down to the Treasure Island Naval Station harbour every Sunday for the last 30 years. Years ago, she went down there to wave her husband goodbye. Before he sailed, he told her he’d be back on a Sunday. They told her that he died years ago but she refused to grieve. Instead she goes down every week and waits for him to come back. “We found out about her when we went there for a picnic,” says WIRE TRAIN’s Kevin Hunter explaining the origins and intricacies of the band’s new single “Should She Cry?”. “I guess you have a collection of things that you find symbolic and in this case I managed to find one, or rather one found me.”
Wire Train are back. Though the Californian four-piece, who at one point were being touted to take over the mantle of rock’s heroic saviours from The Waterboys, have crept in so quietly their presence may have escaped you. A protracted legal battle with their old record label has kept them quiet for nigh on three years, making it necessary to effectively split up and start again in order to secure a new MCA deal. During the lay-off, guitarist Jeff Trott recorded and toured with World Party and drummer Brian MacLeod worked with, in ascending importance, Michael Jackson, Madonna and The Mothers. Individually at least, they’re in demand.

The experience of the extra-curricular activities is reflected on the recently released “California Republic” LP. It’s a funkier, less bombastic more organically folky, at the same time retaining an-up-all night, out-there rumbustiousness. A far cry from the perfectly crafted pop of 1986’s “Ten Women” which largely predated Karl Wallinger and Lenny Kravitz’s mining of mid-period Beatles by three years.

“It’s not really an Irish kinda folk, it’s kinda R&B folk,” says Hunter. “We investigated that Beatles thing and and we were on the front side of the time period when it was cool to do. If more people had listened to ‘Ten Women’, borrowing from the Beatles would have been cool two years earlier. This year Lenny and Karl have had a lot of success with it but we had to do something else.”

It’s always been the romantic observation, the symbolism and the situations and the loving way they’re all put together that’s ensured that Wire Train’s appeal has been traditionally limited to a precious few. “California Republic” signals a straining of the literary chains and Hunter promises the next one will break them completely.

“I’ve been calling the LP we’re writing now ‘Colossal’. Cos it’s my impression that most of the things that you and I love about Wire Train songs are completely lost on the public. So I thought it would be really interesting to do an album completely devoid of subtlety where every word was a capital letter word and where every guitar note was huge. To take the Wire Train aesthetic and push it all forward and make it more available. I’ve done four albums a certain way and at a certain point you have to make a fundamental change, artistically as well as commercially. I give myself credit for waiting this long hoping that people would catch on.”

Wire Train – On The Right Track

rollA hard driving beat with brains is the consensus about Wire Train. With their Felliniesque video / single, “I’ll Do You” clearing the tracks, the San Francisco based band recently finished a sell-out tour with Big Country and is enjoying cannonball chart action with their first album In A Chamber.
While it’s true guitarist/singer/songwriter Kurt Herr wasn’t into music at all until 1980, once he decided to lay the rails for Wire train by mastering the guitar, things moved fast. “I learned the guitar as quickly as I did because I really wanted to,” Kurt says simply. Moving from New York to San Francisco, he met a lanky international poetry student named Kevin Hunter. “When I met Kurt,” Kevin recalls, “I asked him two questions: Did he play music? And did he want to be in a band. His answer to both questions was ‘no’.”

Despite this ironic exchange, Kevin and Kurt began writing and singing together. Eventually the band was solidified by the entrances of Anders Rundblad, a Swedish bass player from the group Mötvind; and drummer Federico Gil-Sola, an Argentine musician with a long history of rock bands before emigrating to America. When legal hassles ensued when they adopted the name The Renegades, Kevin and Kurt remembered a song they used to sing called Wire Train. “We decided to go with that name instead, ” Kurt explains. “There’s a small, wonderful label up North called 415. They have a distribution deal with Columbia Records so we got the best of both worlds,” he says referring to the attention they get from a small label like 415 without losing the clout of a powerful distributor like CBS. “This way we don’t get lost at Columbia because of Michael Jackson.”

“I know our album isn’t simple,” Kevin admits. “One of the things that makes people unhappy is that they expect everything to be laid out for them. That’s not the way it is. Things aren’t pat and well organised. Life is full of subtleties. We want people to go beyond the elusiveness of the song and hear what’s really being said.” It should come as no surprise however that a lyricist who had two short novels published by the time he was sixteen and often inundated himself with the works of Shakespeare, Emily Dickinson and Allen Ginsburg isn’t going to put things forth simply!

“The ideas that run through my head can’t be stated in non-poetic forms,” Kevin muses. I wouldn’t call it poetry myself. I call it a use of language outside the norm that expresses an idea more successfully than just stating the idea.” For Kevin and Kurt, song writing is a delicate process. To Kevin’s unique language, Kurt adds, “the complementary tones and rhythms. I look to the emotion of what Kevin has written and try to express that in emotional tones,” Kurt analyses.

“It’s like adding another texture to a dream, ” Kevin says. “Out of this dream emerges the song. All our songs are like young children, brought up properly for their own individuality. Wire Train deals with the intensity and integrity of real emotion. We defend that with our lives!”

Wire Train to nowhere

SAN FRANCISCO—It was supposed to be just another rehearsal for Wire Train, but that all changed when a guy from the bar across the street relayed a phone message: There’s a big radio station party tonight. Wanna play?
After a few phone calls to the club and to the band’s sound-man, they decided to do it. But there was still enough time to warm up a bit by running through a few songs from In A Chamber, Wire Train’s debut album on 415/Columbia Records, which they recorded last fall with producer David Kahne.

Guitarists Kevin Hunter and Kurt Herr started the band three years ago when they were both at San Francisco State University. Hunter, with his sharp features and brooding look, is considered teen idol material by 16 magazine. Herr, with beret and goatee, looks like a troubled artist from San Franscisco’s beat past. Drummer Federico Gil-Sola, who moved here from Buenos Aires when he was 12, was a veteran of the city’s punk scene when he joined Wire Train (then called the Renegades) a year ago. Bassist Anders Rundblad auditioned for the band about the same time, but he’d just come from five years of playing rock ‘n’ roll in Sweden.

With a nod from Gil-Sola, they slid into the easy pace of “Never,” Hunter’s song about promises that can’t be kept. “Saturday belongs in silence/ Beside these rooms we sit and chatter endlessly, possessively/ And when she talks her words keep falling/And when she fights with me she fights with meaning and not me” he sings.

“Never” was one of three or four songs Hunter once translated into French as a joke, but he liked it better that way, so he sings it in French on Wire Train’s European EP. which includes “Chamber Of Hellos” and a cover of Buffalo Springfield’s “Mr. Soul.” After a few more songs they carried their gear out to the sidewalk. While waiting for their ride to Wolfgang’s in North Beach, they were joined by Anita and Lula from the rehearsal studio across the hall. The girls, members of an all-girl rockabilly band, decided to go along for the ride. “Wait a minute,” said Rundblad. “I want a picture.”

Finally unloaded and as ready as they’d ever be to go before the free-drinks-sipping crowd, the band’s two songwriters took a minute to talk about the group’s changes since their early days as the Renegades, when Hunter and Herr scored a Bay Area underground hit with “451.” when it was one of the only three songs they knew. Though they still get requests for “451” at every show, the two cringe at the thought of playing anything from that era. “When we started, it was just a matter of being able to play.” said Herr, who, by the way, didn’t play when he teamed up with Hunter. “We’ve gotten better and our music has changed. The old stuff just doesn’t hold up. We’ve worked hard to have our own sound,” said Hunter. “Any time we’ve come up with something that sounded different from what was already out there, we’ve followed it up.”

Then it was time to go on. Starting off with “Slow Down,” they brought out each song from their album. Filled with hummable melodies over edgy guitar-dominated rhythms subtle in their power, Wire Train’s music may not grab you at first, but it’ll stick with you after a few listens. One of the best songs is “I Forget It All (When I See You),” a charging number punctuated by Rundblad’s cool bass runs. It was written and recorded at the last minute after the rest of In A Chamber was finished.

They ended the set with “Chamber Of Hellos,” on which Herr, obviously a quick learner, pulls fluid sitar-like guitar lines from somewhere up his sleeve. A half-an-hour later, the gear was back in the truck and only a few people were still huddled around the bar at Wolfgang’s, determined to consume as much free booze as their bodies could hold. The aforementioned Lula, all smiles, emerged from the stage door with a hundred or so helium-filled balloons in tow. She doggedly stuffed all but one—it escaped heading toward the Transamerica Pyramid—into the truck, and Hunter, who was sitting on his amp, was buried in the plastic sea of colours. “This is fun,” said Lula.

Wire Train – Rocking Along the Railroad.

TopThe reason behind forming a rock ‘n’ roll band is usually quite simple – it beats getting a job and, above all, it sounds llke fun. Overnight success and fat cheques, they do happen, but generally only when the moon is blue. Much more common are the backpacking bands who take the rough with the smooth, giving the music an extra corrugated edge. This route tends to sort out the men from the sensitive, or more aptly, the sensible, the hardy bunch for whom the trip, no matter how precarious and potholed, is the adventure, not the actual arrival. Although not the most enthusiastic of gig junkies, Wire Train would undoubtedly slot into this category – sampling the ups and downs and swings and roundabouts before finally hitting a winning formula.
Wire Train first set off back in ’82 when vocalist Kevin Hunter was at college in San Francisco “majoring in big hair”. Describing himself as a “skinny, freaky, white male” he advertised for a bassist and found himself with Swedish partner, Anders. By ’84 they’d achieved a minor record deal, and recorded a debut album,In A Chamber, knocked off in a miserly 17 days. Suffering from the perennial problem of the vanishing drummer, they hooked up with the sticksman Brian, a useful performer who’d previously worked on material with one Michael Jackson.

A second LP, Between Two Words, was made in ’85, a third, Ten Women, was produced two years later with guitarist Jeffrey. Success came in moderation and time out was called before the recording of their fourth LP, Wire Train, Californian Republic or Darwin, Prince Of Feet, depending on who you believe. This was 1990.

Now they’ve signed to a big label, MCA and Kevin and Anders are seated in their record company offices prior to playing in a tent at the Reading Festival. One wonders how they manage to keep your enthusiasm.

“We always try to keep things different,” Anders offers, “all our records have a different sound ‘cos we all have diverse tastes. We get together when we feel like it, usually try out new stuff at the Paradise Lounge (medium-sized sleazy rock venue in San Francisco). When we want to have one of our quiet periods, we’re away doing our own things, maybe up a mountain somewhere, depending on the mood.”

Wire Train’s latest release,No Soul, No Strain, (MCA) comes under the broad umbrella of power pop. Produced by Bill Bottrell, whose previous credits include Madonna, the mix is one of strumming guitars, hummable tunes, uptempo rockers and coolly melodic ballads. They even get quietly funky on “How Many More Times”. Tom Petty springs to mind now and then and overall it’s a classy formula that deserves to be heard.

“There’s a lot of really good pop stuff around at the moment,” Kevin pipes up, “and I guess in some weird way we’re part of it. But what is it with you guys over here? There’s this obsession with Courtney Love’s pussy.”

Pardon? You mean the girl Hole, wife of a Nirvana. Kevin doesn’t seem in the mood to discuss music, more to reflect on past dangerous liasons with Mrs Cobain. “I mean she’s got a face like Goldie Hawn after a car crash. Apparently she’s going around at parties lifting up her shirt, saying, ‘Hey, look, Kurt just bought me a new pair’.” “The thing about Nirvana,” Anders interjects, “is that they’re just a club band, they never really wanted to be big.” That’s two things they’ve got in common with the Seattle monsters.

The following day I venture to Reading to see the live Wire Train. Whilst not exactly bringing the tent down, they are received politely enough. At least that’s what I think, until I meet Kevin afterwards. “That’s the thing about you British,” he says, “you’re so rude, you just stand there and stare with your mouths wide open.”

Lifting up his shades he concludes. “Time to try and find myself a squeezil.” (California slang for snog). And with that he disappears into the muddied masses. One thing’s for sure, they’ll never be as big as Nirvana, but Wire Train are sure to keep on coming back. Next time be sure to keep your mouths closed and your ears wide open.