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New Model Army - Interview

  by Helen Tipping

published: 23 / 11 / 2007

New Model Army - Interview


In our second interview with New Model Army, Helen Tipping chats to frontman Justin Sullivan about his band's tenth studio album, 'High', and recent line-up changes in the group

Two years ago New Model Army celebrated twenty five years of making music with a gig at La Locomotive in Paris. This year sees the release of their tenth studio album, 'High'. They have also released two albums of previously unreleased material. Pennyblackmusic caught up with Justin Sullivan at the Leeds date on New Model Army's latest European tour to find out more about what the influences were for the new album, how the band were getting on with recent addition Marshall and how Justin Sullivan came to be working with new Bradford band New York Alcoholic Anxiety Attack. We found him in an enthusiastic mood, about this incarnation of New Model Army, his work with This is Menace and also New York Alcoholic Anxiety Attack. PB : You had a five year gap between you eighth album 'Eight' and ninth album 'Carnival', but only two before releasing 'High'. I wondered if there was any particular reason for that, other than you were working on your solo album between 'Eight' and 'Carnival'. JS : It's mainly to do with that. After 'Eight' we did the 'Lost Songs' thing (2002 unreleased compilation album-Ed). That was meant to be a quick two month project to finish off the songs that were unfinished from the 'Strange Brotherhood' sessions (New Model Army's 1998 seventh album-Ed). But of course it turned into a six month epic, like these things always do, and then my solo record, 'Navigating By the Stars', which was meant to take two months to record and three months to tour turned into a year to record and two years to tour. Then 'Carnival' took longer than it was meant to as well. It took a long time to record and find the right people to mix it. This time, at last, we came off tour on New Year's Eve last year. I mean we're not on tour all the time, but I find it really difficult to concentrate. When there's stuff coming up I like to clear the boards, so there were no gigs until we'd done an album. Tommy Tee, our manager, said, "Right I want the album by the middle of May." And I went, "Uh?" 'cos it's very unlike us to do that, but it was done by the middle of May. I spent two months writing which was very fast. PB : You didn't have any stuff left over from 'Carnival' that you had in mind? JS : I already had the lyrics for 'All Consuming Fire' left over from 'Carnival', but I didn't like the tune so I just held onto the lyrics and wrote a new tune. And then 'One of The Chosen' is a lyric that I wrote a long time ago. Musically though I don't think we did have a lot left over from 'Carnival'. It was all fresh. But it was a really fast process writing 'High'. We had the whole thing written in six weeks and recorded twelve songs in twelve days. PB : Having listened to 'High' and 'Carnival', there does seem to be quite a difference in the style of music. 'Carnival' has more of an acoustic sound whereas 'High' is rockier. JS : 'Carnival' was like a big bass and drum solo from beginning to end. It's quite a tricky album. The problem with that was that Dave (Blomberg, guitar-Ed) wasn't around, because he lives in Devon and he has a small child that he was the sole carer for, so we could never get him, so it's not really a band album. We started with me and Michael (Dean, drums-Ed), a bit like 'Eight', and then it wasn't recording right and we struggled to get it right. The songwriting’s quite esoteric on 'Carnival'. There are a lot of songs that haven't got choruses at all, which I quite like. I like messing with things like that. 'High' is kind of the opposite. 'High' is a very easy album where it's just very melodic, very guitar driven. It's very angry and it was just pretty straightforward song writing wise. I think a couple of things happened, Marshall Gill came into the band on guitar at the beginning of the 'Carnival' tour and that was really good for us. He was the right guy at the right time and that gave us a new lease of life in a way. And the other thing was that Chris Kinsey, who I've known for a long time, and who we had only worked with when we did the 'Gimme Shelter' thing (1994 charity single recorded with Tom Jones-Ed), finally produced an album for us and he was good. He's from the Glyn John school of production. He's one of Glyn's protégés really and I like hard men, or women, to produce. I find a lot of the producers I work with I can walk all over them. I don't really want to do that. I want them to stand up to me. I don't mind working in an atmosphere of conflict if it's going somewhere. I quite like that. And I have to say that he's the first producer I've worked with for many, many years who I really trusted when it came to singing. Whilst I say we recorded twelve tracks in twelve days, I did the singing later back at his little place just me and him, and he only used two criteria - I'd do a vocal take and he'd go, "I believe you." Or "I don't believe you." And that was his criteria for judging a vocal which was actually really, really good so I've learnt to trust him. I learned to trust his judgement about singing. Most other producers I've found difficult to trust. PB : Do you think you'll work with him again given that? JS : I don't know. There is a tradition with New Model Army that we keep working with new people, you know, different sounds so we don't make the same album twice. I don't want to make another 'High' really. 'High' is good but I don't want to do it again. PB : I felt that 'Carnival 'seemed to be very much about water elements and change, whereas 'High' is very fiery. You sing about fire a lot on it. JS : Yeah, you're right, yeah, one's very watery and the other very fiery. Yeah. And there's one song on the album that doesn't belong there at all, 'Sky In Your Eyes'. I wrote that for a solo album actually. Well, I just write songs, and I was sitting one afternoon and I just wrote that song and said, "I think that'll be on the solo album", and everyone in the band said, "No, we want that on the album." PB : You did do quite a bit of solo work, and there is your work with Red Sky Coven (Acoustic side project which also features Justin's partner, Joolz Denby). Can we expect any more of that? JS : I'll do another solo album eventually, but not in the near future. I think the band's on a bit of a roll. We're on a roll. It feels both live and on the record like a very cohesive band. It's very difficult to compare it with the original band, me, Stuart Morrow and Robert Heaton, which was a very good band in its way and of its time, but of the last twenty years this is the best band I've had. Everybody trusts everybody else musically and it's really quite free. Everybody contributes. It feels like a real band. PB : How have things worked out with Marshall ? Last time we spoke he had only just joined and was just learning the songs. JS : Yeah, that's worked out really well and he's good to have around as a personality as well. He's an amazing guitar player. He comes from a more rocky blues thing than me, but that's alright. PB : Saying that 'High' is a very fiery album, is that because you're fired up about political issues at the moment? JS : I don't know why. It is a particularly fiery album. I don't know - maybe. I'm just fired up. The last song, 'Blood Sports', is a very obvious song and it's almost a song I tried not to write because it's so obvious to write something about the war. But it was really as a response to living in Bradford. It's a city where a third of the population is Muslim and, if you buy into this lie that there's a great clash of civilisations going on and it's Islam versus the West, then we'd all be shooting each other in the street and we're not. I refuse to buy into it because it's a fucking lie. And I really like the last words on the album, "I am not at war". 'High' has got a foot in both camps. It is a bit like me in that there's a lot of songs about here and now and there's also a lot of songs about other worlds. Like the title track itself, you know, fuck the world there's another world which is the 'Navigating by the Stars' world, the world of nature that will last a long time past our civilisation, and of God, however you choose to see the idea of God, and that's very me - I've got one foot on either side really. PB : How do you choose to see God? JS : Oh, God and nature are the same thing to me. PB : Is that the Gaian thing? JS : It is a sort of a Gaian thing. I've never joined Wicca or any of those things because I don't really feel the need. It seems to me basically obvious. PB : I'm not a great believer in organised religion. It seems to be more about power. JS : Yes exactly, if I had to label my beliefs it would be sort of Pagan-ish but I don't feel the need to define them. It seems to me obvious that we are part of nature. I'm quite pleased that I put 'Vanity' (from 1990 album, 'Impurity'-Ed) back in the set. I'm pleased that that's worked out because I really like the lyric - all this stuff about we're going to save the world. Eh? What? The world will save itself perfectly well. PB : On the political side of things, do you actively get involved in any campaigning? JS : From time to time, I go and do bits on the streets of Bradford occasionally. I do it on a bit of an ad hoc basis. I like going on demos from time to time. We're the Groucho Marx of bands. We refuse to belong to any club that would have us as a member. So we don't belong to any genre, and politically and philosophically we don't feel we have to. We're not pushing across a philosophy, far from it. It's just what you feel. There's a song, 'One of the Chosen', on the new album which looks at what it's like to be in a religious cult from the inside. It doesn't condemn it. It just says this is what it feels like and it's worth bearing that in mind when you talk about religious cults, whether they be fundamentalist Christian or Jihadi or whatever. It's what it feels like when you're inside. And it feels great, I remember, because when I was a kid I used to religion hop. I was in loads of cults when I was a kid. PB : How did you escape ? JS : Oh easy, I've got a kind of sceptical thing. I got involved in a Pentecostal thing when I was about 15. Mostly because there was a girl there that I fancied, but anyway I started going to this Pentecostal thing and I got quite into the vibe and then there was a question and answer thing one day. The only way to God is through Jesus Christ our Lord, blah, blah, blah. I said, "What about supposing you're a Buddhist or a Muslim ?" and they said, "No, no, no" and that just struck me as so stupid that I couldn't be bothered any more. And that was a thing when I was young, but I do remember what it felt like to be part of that - 'One of the Chosen'. Part of an elite, part of something special. You know there's a very beguiling sensation. PB : In my brief involvement with that kind of religious organisation, I did feel a bit as though I was on the outside looking in, that I wasn't quite a part of it mainly due to scepticism. Was that something you experienced? JS : Maybe, but the song was definitely written from the inside deliberately and people are slightly confused by it because they don't know whether I am saying my people right or wrong. Politically it is very dodgy but sometimes people feel like that. If you go through New Model Army lyrics looking for a philosophy you won't find one. You'll just find lots of emotions about what life feels like. I think that music is not about philosophy. It's about emotions, and emotions are contradictory and just because you think you ought to feel something doesn't mean you do feel it and vice versa. PB : To take you back to the UK tour, how do you go about choosing your support bands? JS : It varies. Tonight there are two supports. On most of this tour, Demander, who joined us in Rome, have been the main support. Demander is a band we played with twice in New York. We kind of became mates with them, and they asked us if they could do the tour so we said yeah. They're going round in a car - they're doing it the hard way. They're quite enjoying it and they've learnt lots and seen a bit of Europe and they're pretty good company. And also there's New York Alcoholic Anxiety Attack. Joolz has been managing them and trying to help them along and we produced their first record. I just think they've got something special. I haven't seen a young band that make me as excited about music as they do for years. PB : I wanted to ask you about them. How did you originally find them? JS : I originally found them. The singer, Mik Davis, works in the shop where I get my clothes in Bradford, and he said, "I've got a band". And I went, "Oh yeah, okay yeah". He said, "I'll give you a tape" and I thought, "Oh God " you know. I listened to it and it was bloody awful, but there was something about it that I liked and I couldn't explain what it is. I've sort of watched them grow up and sometimes they're still not right, but there's something about them that's exciting. PB : They have changed from when I first saw them at the Love Apple In Leeds to more recently. They seem more mature. JS : They've just got better. When you're in your 50's your musical development is not as easy to measure, but when you're 19, your musical know how, well in just a few months you learn so much, and they've played a lot of gigs so they've become quite a tight little band. They're learning all the time. PB : Did you enjoy producing them? JS : I produce every now and again. I'm not a great producer. I'm a great producer if I've got an engineer. I find it very difficult producing and engineering at the same time because producing is musical. You're feeling and trying to help them and you're thinking about music but engineering is the other side of your brain. It's what plugs into what and I find it really difficult jumping between the two things. One is all instinct and feel and the other one is logic, and getting the computer to work. Then they're a young band. They've got a lot to learn. I'm used to working with the musicians in my band who are very seasoned musicians, technically very good and obviously young musicians have got technical issues still. So you think, "Come on, you can play better than that" so there's a bit of that. But I do like them. They thrill me still. I hope things go well for them. PB : You've also worked with This is Menace, which from the outside appears to be a band who bring in guest vocalists. Is that how it works or is it more involved? JS : Yeah, you'd have to ask them about it more. They're a couple of guys out of Pitchshifter who I sort of vaguely know, but don't know particularly well, and they've got this project where they sort of do metal tracks and they send them to the singers. Then the deal is that you can do whatever you like on it, which I like actually because sometimes people ask me to sing on something and they send me stuff to sing and I think the lyrics are awful. I'm picky about lyrics. I find it difficult singing other people's lyrics if I think they're crap. So their thing, they just sent me two tracks, and told me, "Choose a track and do whatever you like over the top. Make your own melody. Write your own lyrics." It was quite fun actually. It was a great track. For the metal genre they're a good band. I have to admit that I haven't sat down and listened to the whole of their album. 'The Scene is Dead', but I quite enjoyed doing it. It came just at the end of 'High' and I kept putting it off because I was still doing the 'High' recording and then it was a bit of a rush job at the end and I was a little bit spent at the time that I came to do it. I wish I'd been a little bit fresher. But it's alright - I like doing stuff like that. PB : Going back to the tour, you were refused visas for the US leg of the tour. Has it got harder for artists to get visas for the US? JS : It's getting more complicated. You've got to jump through more hoops and things take longer. I'd like to sit here going oh it's political censorship, but I don't actually think it is. I think what's happened is, it's ruled by tabloids, which is what we all live under. We've got a media-ocracy where the tabloids write stuff and the politicians go, "Oh God, we've got to do this and this and this". So then they say to the public servants, "Right you've now got to do this and this and this" but they don't give them any more resources to do it with. It's like the prison officers. There's a quarter more prison population but there's no more prison officers, so no wonder they get pissed off. Government by decree, but they don't issue any more resources to deal with stuff. PB : Yes, it's reactive Government. At the moment it's all about excessive alcohol consumption which I'm sure has been going on for years. JS : Oh God, people do what they do. I'm a life long Labour supporter, but I've stopped voting for them, I wasn't here in '97 so I missed that one and ever since then I haven't voted for them. I can't stand this Government. Go to Scandinavia where they've got a massive drink problem. They've tried all sorts of banning, state off-licences, making it really expensive and people just make their own stills in the woods. People do what they do. They should legalise everything - all drugs and then there'll be a few more junkies and a few less alcoholics but most people will still get up and go to work on Monday morning. It just seems absolutely crazy. Apparently drugs are now the second biggest worldwide economy next to oil. It doesn't make any sense to allow this huge thing to fall into the hands of organised crime. It's bizarre. Legalise the lot. We've come across it. We had our little moment of being puritanical back in the 80's. That was a reaction against everything that was around us at the time, but people just do what they do. People are not stupid. Governments treat people as if they are stupid. PB : Thanks you for answering my questions. I'd better let you get off now for the sound check. The photographs that accompany this article were taken by Neil Bailey

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