Sometimes to move forward, an artist needs to take a few steps backward.
It’s what happened with Wire bandleader Colin Newman, who reconvened his group last year in Wales simply to audit obscure concert tapes from the group’s late-1970s heyday – after its brutal punk 1977 debut album “Pink Flag,” the expansive 1978 “Chairs Missing” and 1979’s ethereal 180-degree shift, “154.”
“It was never meant to be the new album – it was just a project,” he says of the experimental session at Rockfield Studio that continued, then solidified, at his own Swim recording facility in London.
“But it was too weird and ridiculous to call it a project, so it just became the new album,” he says.
Wire is backing that disc, “Change Becomes Us,” its 13th, with a tour that hits San Francisco this week.
The group also plays in the British-launched DRILL Festival in Seattle Nov. 21-23, which features like-minded bands such as Helmet and Chastity Belt, and surreal events like the Pink Flag Guitar Orchestra, with as many musicians as the stage can hold pounding out the single chord of the group’s signature set closer “Pink Flag.”
“It has a level of absurdity to it, but it’s fun,” says Newman of the dissonant performance. “We’ve done it once in London with over 30 guitarists, and I’ve never seen so many beaming faces, onstage and off.”
Newman, 59, was phoning from a tour stop in Tel Aviv. It was the first time Wire played the city, and accompanying him was his musician wife Malka Spigel – with whom he records as Githead (and whose solo CDs he issues on his own Swim imprint) while also overseeing the band’s Pink Flag label.
But back in 1979-80, Wire was on fire, debuting unrecorded new songs in concert. “We had a really intense tour, where the band was becoming more interesting, more fluid, and really developing,” he says.
Reviewing those vintage, often poorly-recorded shows, Newman was struck by their kinetic spark, even if it was only in fragment form.
“So we wanted to access that, almost as an exercise, just to see if we could do it,” he says. “But we didn’t want to try and make the record we should have made in 1980, so it was a challenge to make it work as a contemporary album.”
To the singer, hyper piledrivers like “Stealth of a Stork” — which clocks in at an apt 1, minute, 54 seconds – “just sound like classic Wire,” he says, proudly. “Doing this album could have been a very expensive mistake. But within 10 seconds in the studio, any notions about the past disappeared out the window.”
IF YOU GO
Where: Slim’s, 333 11th St., S.F.
When: 8 p.m. Monday