Karl Hofer catches up with New Model Army’s founder and lead singer Justin Sullivan ahead of the band’s gig at the Electric Brixton.
So you’re playing another new venue in London, the Electric in Brixton, are you excited about that...?
Yeah, looking forward to that. It’s a good size as well. All those gigs of about 1,000 – 2,000 with a balcony and a nice stretched out dancefloor, I really like those kind of gigs.
2010 was a massive year for you, the band’s 30th anniversary and a tour playing two nights at each venue with completely different sets each night. Was it everything you expected it to be or hoped it would be...?
It was actually. We had the idea in the early part of the year, we were still on the Today is a Good Day tour right the way to the Summer. Then we had quite a busy summer in 2010 and we were talking about what we should do about the anniversary shows and I come up with this slightly ambitious thing and to my surprise everyone was like ‘Yeah, let’s do that’. Which meant learning a lot of material... And I remember we rehearsed for about 10 days – 2 weeks and the first one was in New York, and we flew off to New York and we were nervous actually. The New York one went just perfectly. It was just really, really good. The audience was fantastic, the four sets over two nights worked great. The next weekend we were in Sao Paulo in Brazil, and we went somewhere every weekend from then until Christmas. By the time we reached The (Kentish Town) Forum it was no longer as thrilling to us as it was in the beginning. Usually when you start out on a tour the beginning is thrilling but a bit ropey, and then the middle is really brilliant, and then towards the end you kind of get a bit like you’ve done it too many times. On a tour you kind of jiggle about the sets and stuff when you start to get bored or start to do some new material. But having learnt 60 songs for that we weren’t about to learn more!
And what plans are there for NMA in 2012...?
2012, yeah. 2011 has been very quiet actually. I thought that the beginning of 2011 would be a little bit quiet for a while and then get stuck into the next album, but to be honest there wasn’t that much appetite for it. With Today Is A Good Day, you know, writing the record, making the record, touring the record and then straight into the anniversary stuff left everybody kind of going ‘can we cool of a bit this year, go and do other things, side projects, have a holiday’. And the other thing is I think that certainly the last two albums have been very much band-in-a-room albums, they’ve been rock albums, a rock band in a room recorded playing pretty much live, which is fine but I don’t wanna do another one like that immediately. I’d like to do something that sounds a bit different. And we’ve got quite a bit of stuff on tape but we haven’t really started recording an album yet. It’s in its embryonic stages but very exciting. So they’ll be something coming out next year and there’ll be a tour and all the rest of it.
In between that I do this show with one of the guys out of the band, Dean who is the keyboard player in the band but actually he’s a great guitar player and we do this kind of duo which means that the two of us and our tour manager-come-sound engineer get in a car with all the gear and drive. It’s very easy and great fun. We can sort of easily wonder around anywhere in the world doing that and it’s very tempting just to stay on the road doing that. And I’ve done a bit of that this year and there’s a bit more to come next year.
So even when the band aren’t touring, you’re touring!
Yeah! I like touring. I think a lot of musicians tour because they have to. They love music and they know that touring goes with it and it’s an evil necessity to put up with and after a number of years they go ‘Oh I’ve had enough of this’ or they write that song, you know ‘I’m so lonely in this hotel room baby, it’s so hard on tour’. I’ve never written that, I’m never going to write that one. I love being on tour, I love hotel rooms, I’m quite happy in airports. Staring out of the window of a moving vehicle – what could be better..? Time to think, most people aren’t blessed with that. Most people’s lives don’t allow them time to daydream and think. And touring involves a lot of time not doing very much. I love that time.
Well you’ve done 30 years of it, is there a particular city or venue that is a personal favourite that you love playing at...?
There’s a few personal favourite venues. I’m sorry to say that every time we get one in Britain it closes down! Starting with the original Marquee in Wardour Street which was a wonderful place. The Astoria, I was sad to see that go, and Queens Hall in Bradford. I would say the Markthalle in Hamburg and the Maroquinerie in Paris are probably my two favourites. But my favourite country to go and play in and visit is Brazil. There’s something about that place - just a certain magic to it.
The music industry has never been as commercial, corporate, manipulative and fake as it is today. Where do you see NMA in all this, what role do you have to play if any...?
Ha ha! Interesting. I think the music business is fucked. And very, very hard for bands that are starting off now. I’ve been working with a young band for a bit over the last few years and its just a really, really hard time to try and make a living from it.
I think with New Model Army we’re very lucky. People used to try and tell us how to make money and be successful and we used to tell them to fuck off cos that wasn’t our primary interest and it really wasn’t. We actually thought we were gonna save the world - you know, a little bit (laughs). There was a little bit of that kind of zeal we had when we were young. And then that zeal turned into a kind of artistic zeal and we’ve still got it. So the principal of how to have a ‘hit’ is a bit irrelevant. Well you know what, actually we’ve never had a top 20 hit in any country ever, but we’ve had a career where we’ve sold records into the millions, you know what I mean? Just because we just do what we do and we don’t care what other people think we ought to do.
And existing outside the music press...
The music press, well we had our 15 minutes of fame in 1984 when everybody loved us, for literally about 15 minutes! And then by 1985 it was over. The British media have ignored us since 1985. That’s 26 years of ignoring quite an interesting phenomenon – or presuming its some kind of weird 80’s throwback. That’s the thing that probably annoys me the most in the sense that if I think of any of our contemporaries, you know, who we started with, those that are still going are obliged to play large quantities of their back catalogue and we’re not. And I can’t think of a band that’s got an audience 30 years on that comes to see them that are quite happy if they don’t play much of their back catalogue. That’s an amazing privileged position to be in. And I’m very grateful.
But has existing outside the music press the way you have done helped or hindered the growth of the band..?
It’s helped our longevity completely. I saw Neil Young doing an interview the other day and he said that if you just stick at what you believe in then eventually what happens is that people learn to trust you. Takes a long time but they learn to trust that you are genuine, you’re the real thing. So basically we’ve got this worldwide cult audience that know we’re the real thing. It doesn’t diminish, it doesn’t go away. They don’t care about whether we’re playing the old stuff, new stuff, whatever. They’re just interested in what we’re doing.
And that’s the other thing that’s sustained us is that very early on we worked out that the world didn’t end at Dover it started at Calais.
Britain is very weird, it’s an island and... you know the Germans call us Inselaffen, which means island apes and they’re right, island monkeys. We are very island orientated and that’s quite nice in some ways but there is this thing to do with British music; I remember when we were starting it was all about being in the NME and we were ‘Well, what about being in the French equivalent or the Spanish equivalent?’ It’s a big world...
NMA seem to fall into a number of different categories and labels, from punk, alternative, goth, rock, new wave, folk, etc. How would you describe the band’s sound...?
Emotional (laughs). No, let’s not say that! In the summer of 2010 we actually played a straight folk festival, a straight gothic festival, a hippy festival and a straight metal festival – All in the same summer with basically the same set.
I don’t think anybody else could do that could they..?
I can’t think of anyone else that can do the same set, no. Literally, folk, metal, hippy and goth. As well as doing Glastonbury and Beautiful Days and all those and other things we did that year.
Have you deliberately explored different genres over the years..?
I don’t think it’s that really. I think we’ve always been open to different ideas musically, all the different people that have ever been in the group. The current group is pretty stable, been together quite a long time, and everybody likes different stuff. I remember when we were making an album in ’98 or something, we had a conversation around the table where we tried to agree on one album in the history of music that we all unreservedly loved and we couldn’t come up with one that we agreed on. And I think that’s pretty rare for a band. We have such different musical tastes and yet make something together.
There’s plenty of evidence of that in the last album actually.
Yeah, everyone likes different stuff but we’re a very cohesive band, a really together unit, as much as we’ve ever been, if not more.
What artists do you listen to...?
So difficult... I don’t want to leave out someone... but I suppose my first love is Motown. I used to grow up with the Northern Soul stuff and the Motown stuff of the 60’s. Black American soul music. The purists always go for the Atlantic stuff but actually I love Motown. I just love James Jameson let’s face it. The Motown bass player who was the greatest musician that ever lived by miles.
And there’s millions of others… I buy anything that Josh Homme does whether its good or bad and it’s both. It’s the same with Polly Harvey actually. Killing Joke, Neil Young is another one. I buy what they do not because it’s always good cos it isn’t always good but it’s always really interesting. And always genuine, it’s always the real thing.
You live in Bradford, a city touched by riots a few years back. What did you make of the recent riots that took place in Brixton and also Croydon and Bromley...?
Everybody is just copying Bradford! What happened in the summer was very like what happened in Paris about five years ago actually. It’s just a slightly inarticulate howl of rage and lets grab everything while we can. The fact us there aren’t enough police to police every street in the country, the line between absolute anarchy and civilisation as we know it is very thin.
I think riots tend to lance boils. Boils grow up in sores, really deprived places. I call increasing amounts of this whole island deprived in many ways. And all of it in relation to the City of London. There has to be a kind of explosion. It’s containable, these things are usually containable and everybody goes crazy for a few days and people get very harsh sentences as they did in the rioting in Bradford a few years ago, you know people caught on film got ridiculously harsh sentences and everything dies down for a bit. In comparison to the two years before the riots I’d say everything is calm but that isn’t to say it always will be.
There’s like a natural cycle of events.
Yeah, there is a natural cycle of events. I’d say that Tottenham and places like that will be very uneasy for another couple of years and they might settle down for a few years and then explode again.
Almost exactly the same thing happened in Paris. Police killed somebody, there was a protest, protest turned into a riot. They burnt cars, looted what they could. Very similar. And a few years later not much has changed.
Where are you happiest, sitting on a rock looking out at the ocean or on stage with a guitar in your hands...?
Both those two are pretty high up there (laughs).
You said before that the older you are the better it gets, but can you see a day when you don’t have an album in the pipeline or a tour to embark upon...?
Erm, no. Not really no. Why..?
There’s something about the search of trying to make something great. Whether it’s a gig or an album, whatever, that never finishes.
Is that a search for perfection then...?
Yeah. It is the search for the perfect moment. I’d say that live that every now and again New Model Army hit that moment, but you obviously can’t hold on to it so you keep wanting to hit it again.
To be honest that’s what most religions do. There is this religious experience perhaps that people talk about, though it’s not just to do with religion, its an experience people have when they suddenly have for a fraction of a second this amazing revelation that everything is one, and they sense that everything is one and their ego disappears. And I think people get that at gigs, I certainly do. And people get it in religious experiences. The whole of most religions is trying to hold on to that moment, but you can’t. To me it’s a bloody waste of time. Let that moment go, but be aware that it will come again and be open to it arriving again.
You come from a religious background, don’t you..?
I do, yeah. Can’t help it (laughs). That’s in me. I find it all perfectly well satisfied by a nebulous kind of nature worship which I started to pick up in the middle of the 80’s when it was me and Joolz and Rev Hammer and Brett and were all talking about Red Sky Covenant and nature worship, paganism and stuff.
The only thing about the neo-pagan stuff, it all started to go into more groups, where you had to do this and that ritual, you know, and I’m not really up for that. Just that there is nature and we are a tiny, tiny, tiny bit of it. That’ll do me.
A modern pagan...?
I guess, but I don’t like the labels very much.
People are too fond of labels aren’t they...?
Yeah, yeah. The whole thing about New Model Army is that it was almost our raison d’etre to jump out of any box that anyone would put us in. I always quote that Groucho Marx thing, you know, we refuse to be a member of any club that would have us as a member! And I think that very much sums up New Model Army.