Justin Sullivan from New Model Army

talks to eGigs about a 30 year life in music on Monday 15 March 2010

Justin Sullivan the frontman and lyricist of New Model Army spoke to eGigs about his life in music, the tour, tornados, and more.

What are you up to at the moment?
I'm in Hamburg.

Are you on tour?
Yes, we've been on tour for a long time actually, it's been quite a long tour for us. We started off in France, and went back through Germany, we went around the East, all the way down to Romania and Bulgaria this time around, and now we're kind of on our way back to the UK slowly, and we'll be back in the UK next week doing shows there.

You're celebrating 30 years together.
Nearly 30 years in October, the 23rd.

Did you think the band would last this long?
No, I thought we were only designed to play 2 gigs in a pub in Bradford in 1980. It's been quite remarkable actually. If I think about it, it's been incredibly remarkable. We try not to think about it a great deal, certainly at the moment because the anniversary special stuff we will be doing is in the autumn, but at the moment we're still on the 'Today Is A Good Day' tour.

Have you got new material on the horizon as well, or a best of album?
Probably sometime early next year, yeah, but not this year. The 'Today Is A Good Day' album came out in September, and we're still on that tour and we'll be doing festivals in the summer and then special gigs in the autumn.

You're confirmed for Bearded Theory which last year got his by a tornado, how do you remember that happening?
It was hit by a tornado twenty minutes after me and Dean came off stage. I did it with Dean, as the current two piece that we do sometimes, last year. There was this interesting black circular cloud that started to form over the site. Dean looked at it and said, "That's not good." And I looked at it, and just thought it was very, very beautiful, and then this harsh wind started. It was quite amazing, it was like watching everything being sucked into a wind tunnel which was the stage, and then the stage blew away. Fortunately, no one was hurt seriously, it was quite remarkable really.

You're the folk/rock voice of revolutionary England, what do you say to those people who say that politics is pointless?
(laughs) There is a sense, in which they are absolutely right. It's pointless in the sense that the same things come around again and again, and power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely, and all the things that poets and writers have written about the nature of politics from the beginning of time, which of course is all true.

So, I'm just interested to paint stories about the world, and politics, and power relationships between people is just part of the world, and it's interesting. Do people get better? No. Are there better or worse political systems? Yes, there probably are. We live in a democracy. I tend to go along with Winston Churchill saying that democracy is the worst possible form of government, except for all the others.

I think the interesting thing that I notice about power relationships is that 95% of the time people without power will do a certain amount to get it, but won't do as much as the people who have already got it will do to hold onto it.

But people make a mistake if they think that New Model Army formed as kind of political front. There were bands of that time who did like The Redskins or Chumbawamba that had a political agenda that they were trying to push forward. We never ever did, it just interested us to write about stuff that was going on. But, we've always written about it from different points of view, a song about people righting a wrong, vengeance, or being one of the chosen are written from the point of view that we might not even necessarily agree with, they're just about human emotion. I think that's one of the reasons that they've lasted a long time.

If you are trying to push a philosophy, you've only got one album. We were never trying to push a philosophy, we were telling stories, and making howls of outrage from time to time.

You made some good howls of outrage during the 80's about Tory policy, do you think a return of Tory politics is on the cards?
Yes, but I don't think we'll notice much of a difference. The trouble with the current, lovely, government we have is that being a Labour party they are meant to be a government for and by the people. On the contrary, they absolutely hate people, they despise people, they don't trust people. Four people meet in a restaurant in Islington, and discuss how untrustworthy people are, and then they make policies accordingly. I think that's desperately sad.

As I get older I believe less and less in any of it, and I certainly don't think it's the government's responsibility to save us from ourselves. It's no business of the government what you eat, or what you smoke, or what you drink. It's kind of pathetic this desire to control the little things in people's lives because they can't control the big things – like the climate or the economy.

When you're on tour in place like Romania, and Eastern Europe, do you get a chance to talk to the people living there?
Yes, but I don't talk politics much of the time, it comes down to the same sort of thing. It's interesting watching Eastern Europe change. I went around Eastern Europe when I was a kid, a very, very, long time ago in the deep dark communist days. And we actually played in Poland before the wall came down, so we've watched the changes, hopefully for the better, some for the worse. Change is the stuff of all things.

You've got such a wide set of themes you've covered over the years, what are you particularly passionate about at the moment?
(Laughs) All the same things, what are we passionate about? Beautiful sunsets, women, the sea, nice people, pasta! Life, I think we really are passionate about music. Somebody spoke to me and said, "They'd never seen a band live music in quite the same way, when they were playing it." And I think everybody in the band really believes in the magic and the power of music, and everybody is passionate about it.

Years ago the Levellers got famous supporting you, and went on to hold their own festival. Are you ever tempted to do the same?
No, we don't really operate like that. We never really had a business brain to start with. We're very different people, we don't have a centralised brain, everybody is different, everybody has different lives, and has got different interests, and we come together and make this music which is a strange hybrid of all the kind of music that we all love, which is a huge variety and we're very passionate about that. Any business concerns are kind of secondary, like starting a festival...or. .. although, we did think about it years and years ago, a long time before the Levellers actually did it. All credit to them for doing it, but it wasn't the sort of thing that was high on our agenda.

If it was I suppose it would be a clog festival.
Ha. There's this strange word association that people still have with New Model Army. You know, that was a long time ago. People talk to me about the 80's and us being an 80's band or something, and we can't even remember the fuckin' 80's, and as for us being an 80's band in terms of success we were probably at our most successful in the early 90's. These days we barely play any songs from the 80's, and we've got an audience that accept that completely.

So there's no chance of 'No Rest' then?
There's always a chance of 'No Rest'! It's just there's nothing we feel we have to play.

How do you go about selecting what you are going to play in a set?
It's difficult, and also the songs are complicated and therefore we can't expect the band to set out on tour knowing more than forty or fifty, and so there's 200 they don't know. We draw from the forty or fifty that we do know. Obviously there's an emphasis, because we have a new album we like playing, because we're into what we're doing now, as opposed to what we've done in the past.

I thought most bands did that as an agenda to try and sell the new album.
No, not at all, if you've written a new song that's the one you want to play. You don't want to play one you wrote 20 fuckin' years ago. In terms of selling records no one buys records anyway. .. and actually this record's done rather better than our previous ones, so that's pleasing. But, we don't think we must promote the album.

We're lucking in the sense that we became sort of solvent in 1985, and since then we've remained solvent. So, we don't have to worry about where the next meal is coming from, none of us is that rich, none of us is that bothered. There appears to be food in the fridge last time we looked. It's been a life in music. There's this association now in modern culture of an association between music and fame and fortune. The two things really have nothing to do with each other. If you make a living from what you love doing, then you're a lucky person, and so we're lucky people.

The set you present on the current tour, does it change each night you play?
Ish, it's pretty much the same. What we do is because a set is not just a collection of songs, it has to be a journey through a number of different moods. We can't go, "Here's one of those 'Poison Street', everyone dance songs," and then play something really dark, and then play something really light again. I like to go different moods in the course of the set emotionally. Go through a bit of darkness, and all the rest of it, and then come out the other end.

Then there's all the different things to take into consideration, like key changes, and gaps where people have to tune up and guitar changes, and stuff like that. So, when we find a set that basically works, and does feel like a continuous journey then we tend to stick pretty close to that for a while, so, we'll change the odd song. The encore is always different of course, we always come off stage and say, "What shall we play tonight?" That's always made up on the spur of the moment. Sometimes we do change the set in the middle, just on the spur of the moment but not that often.

So how would you describe the journey for those going to see the tour?
I see rock music as cathartic, you bring all your emotional baggage to a rock concert, and it's got to be loud, and it's going to pin you against the back wall, and at some point it's going to be fuckin' serious, and then once you've been through the fury and screamed your head off, you get past that, and it somehow becomes joyous at the same time. Those are the great gigs, and that's what we are always aiming at. That catharsis thing for people, and on a good night we're as good as anyone as a live band. We do off have off nights occasionally.

You were involved in the Reverend Hammer 'Freeborn John' project, any plans to do something like that?
Dunno really. I was involved in that in the sense that it was kind of started with the Jessie James album that Glenn Johns made in the late 70's early 80's, and Rev had this idea to do that thing with John Lilburne, and then he needed a band to be the backing band and he needed a band that was flexible, and knew each other, and so he asked us and we said yes. It interested us to do it for a while, I don't think we'd be in a rush to do it on a long tour. 'm not saying there won't be more shows, I just don't really know.

Who was the first band you ever went to see?
Oh, I can't remember. I saw various hippie bands in the early seventies I guess. I can't really remember now. I always refer to this gig that change my life in 1979 by The Rutts, which remains my template for how a perfect gig should be. 200 people in a little pub in Bradford, The Royal Standard, and it was just the best gig I've ever been to. In fact all my favourite gigs have been gigs with a crowd of less than a thousand people. Which I do think has some sort of bearing on why when we were poised, in the early nineties, to become quite a big band, we never actually did it. Maybe, subconsciously we didn't really want to.

You were on the front pages of the music press back then.
We had our 15 minutes of England in 1984, by 1985 they were sort of burying us, but they survived.

Does it irk you that they did try to bury you, and that you're pretty much ignored these days by the mainstream media?
Does it hurt? Yes, I'll be honest it hurt a little bit, but we're terribly used to it. We worked out early on as a band that the world begins at Calais, it doesn't end at Dover, that Britain is a very small, and unimportant island off the west coast of Europe. It thinks it's really important, but actually it's desperately parochial once you step outside.

The British music scene is terribly inward looking, but we never subscribed to that, just like we never subscribed to many other things about the British music scene.

So are you more popular over the Channel?
No, we're not much more popular anywhere, we're a kind of cult band everywhere, that's the thing. We've got audiences everywhere.

Where's the most weird place you've ever played, where you didn't think anyone would turn up and the place was packed?
I think the first time we went to Turkey, I remember that being a shock. We played some gig in Istanbul, a while ago now, some club, and first of all it was full. But more to the point at least half of our audience appeared to know all the words to all the songs and I remember that being a real shock. Brazil was a bit of a shock like that too. To think people knew us so well over there. And on this tour we've been down to Bulgaria and Romania for the second time in both cases. There's people that know everything down there, and go "You are, our band" it is a strange thing.

Which dead band would you like to see return?
Dead? Or Defunct? I don't want to see any defunct band reform because I think reformations never work. But who would I love to see again? I'd love to see The Rutts again. That was a band that changed my life, and maybe I'd like to even more, because I know they never will. But, as for reformations of old bands in middle aged incarnation, most of the time it's fuckin' sad to be honest.

Also because they know the audience are going to want to hear stuff from way back. And we're amazingly lucky in that respect because we're going to go out tonight and play in Hamburg, and we will be safe in the assumption that the audience are going to accept that they are going to get recent stuff, plus a couple of old things that we will chuck in, but not very much at all. We are able to play exactly what we want, and they'll accept that. That's a fantastic position for any band.

So with 30 years coming up how long do you see NMA rolling on for?
I dunno, I don't really look ahead, life's unpredictable, and about change. So I don't really know. What I would say is that this version of the band is the best version of the band certainly since 1985. The current line-up, we've been together five years now, and we're a very good, forward looking, happening outfit.

eGigs is offering four of our readers a chance to win New Model Army goodies. The four lucky winners of the New Model Army competition will each receive a copy of the new album 'Today Is A Good Day' along with a pair of guestlist tickets for a gig of their choice. To find out more, click here.

The New Model Army tour dates are as follows:

Tue 16 March Fiddlers, Bristol
Wed 17 March Sub 89, Reading
Thu 18 March The Leamington Assembly, Leamington Spa
Fri 19 March O2 Academy, Leeds
Sat 20 March O2 Academy, Liverpool
Mon 22 March Sin City, Swansea
Tue 23 March Pavilion, Falmouth
Wed 24 March The Brook, Southampton
Thu 25 March Ryde Theatre, Isle Of Wight

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article by: Scott Williams

published: 15/03/2010 13:59

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