Music interview: Justin Sullivan on the resurgence of New Model Army
New Model Army's latest album Winter might have sent the Bradford rock band back into the UK top 30 for the first time in 20 years but singer Justin Sullivan isn't getting carried away by the upturn in his seasoned outfit's fortunes.
“I guess we’re happy,” he says about the group’s resurgence, noting ticket sales have increased on their current tour of Germany. “I don’t really think about it actually, to be honest.
“I think we got more serious about making records. In the past we went through some of the world’s greatest producers, in the 80s and early 90s, and then we got slightly sidetracked into writing good songs but not really being serious about albums. I think that High, Carnival and Today is a Good Day were well conceived, well written but not particularly well delivered and we just went ‘We’re tired of doing that, let’s go to the top. First of all let’s make an album which is really an ‘album album’ and not worry about how to play it live and do something conceptual then go to one of the world’s greatest mixers to mix it’, and that was Dog and Wolf.
“Having done that very successfully twice, with its little brother Between Wine and Blood, it was like ‘OK, let’s do the opposite. We’ve just done the amazing sonic soundscape, which sounds very expensive and beautiful to listen to, now let’s make a record which sounds like being in a very small room by a very loud and angry band’ – which I think we did.
“I am very indebted to Jamie Lockhart and Lee Smith at Greenmount [Studios] in Leeds. We found Greenmount by accident and it turned out to be our ideal place to be. Lee and Jamie are great because they’re musicians and they’re not jaded by the experience of trying to run a studio – or not yet anyway – and it’s a bit like a punk rock studio in the sense that there’s all this old gear lying around except unlike any other punk rock studio I’ve ever been in everything works. It’s really nice to work there. We did actually take it away somewhere else to mix and the person we took it to – who was quite a well known English mixer – he was obsessed with trying to be Joe Baressi. He listened to Dog and Wolf and said ‘This sounds amazing’, which of course it does, so he was trying to copy it. We were going ‘Look, if we wanted Joe again we’d go back to Joe but we don’t, we want to go the opposite way’.
“Then Lee said ‘Give me a mix’ so we gave him Part The Waters and we went ‘Yes, that’s it’. Everything was very dry, very little effects, it’s a sort of intimate album.”
The death of New Model Army’s longtime manager Tommy Tee, the departure of bass player Nelson and a blaze which destroyed the band’s studio in Bradford along with many of their instruments around the turn of the decade might have broken a lesser group. But Sullivan feels it made them more committed than ever.
“When Tommy died I feel that did bring us closer together,” he says. “We were just about to make Today is a Good Day, then we went ahead and made it, but Tommy’s absence from it almost did make us more committed to it, I think. Then we had to manage ourselves and that’s been a bit of a nightmare. We’ve had other people helping us but we’ve never found someone to replace Tommy.
“The fire was kind of refreshing. We lost lots of stuff. I think Ceri [Monger]’s arrival has been good.
“Somebody was talking to me the other day about how New Model Army managed to go on making interesting and not repetitive records after 36 years and I think it’s got something to do with that very slow and organic turnover of members. I can’t imagine being in the same band with the same people for 36 years because what would happen is you find the areas of conflict between you and you try to avoid them which means that you turn in smaller and smaller circles. In my experience one new person arriving changes all the dynamics in the band – it happened with Marshall [Gill] too. All the relationships change, it’s like being in a new band, and I think that’s been very good for us. Every five or ten years someone new arrives in New Model Army and it’s always good for us.”
Two years ago the band were the subject of a documentary film, also called between Dog and Wolf. Sullivan quickly points out the film is very much vision of director Matt Reid, rather than the band’s, but adds: “I think it’s better for not being a vanity project. There’s one obviously wrong aspect of the movie, which is there’s 20 years missing, but there’s two aspects that I do like.
“One is that I think he did capture this bloodymindedness that’s gone through the core of the band from day one – whatever it is they want from you don’t give to them – it comes from punk rock, everyone of that generation’s got it. Joolz [Denby, the band’s longtime collaborator and record sleeve artist] has got it in spades, you can tell in the movie. Interestingly even Ceri who was born when we released our third album has still got this attitude in spades, so that did come across in the movie quite well.
“And the other thing is they used the music very well. When they were editing it they had all the instrumentals to Dog and Wolf, which is quite good film music in a sense anyway, but I think his choice of songs was quite interesting and the way that they edited the music. In the end it’s about a band and as far as I’m concerned the band is just there to make music, the rest of it’s not interesting. It’s not the personality, it’s the music – and the way he used the music I liked.”
Back in the 80s and early 90s New Model Army were signed to major labels and seemed on the cusp of becoming big if only, Sullivan once reflected, they hadn’t repeatedly shot themselves in foot. Today he recognises that may actually have contributed to their longevity.
“When I think of those bigger gigs in the 90s I was at my most miserable then, really. It seemed to be that you were a machine in a bigger machine and we sort of got ourselves out of that partly by being bloodyminded.
“We had this period in the middle of the 90s where myself and Robert [Heaton] were trying to make an album which didn’t really work – what we didn’t realise was that all the way through the process he was getting iller and iller – but I think it was a good thing [that they didn’t complete it together].
“Looking back, I can’t think of any other band who never had a top 20 hit single in any country ever that 36 years later are able to release whatever music they like. There’s nothing we have to play. Here we are in Germany and coming into England, we shall be playing a lot of the new album not as fillers but because that’s what we’re doing and if somebody wants to hear an old song – well, there’s 240 songs we’ve released – we do play some old songs but we play the ones we want. We just do what we want and enough people have stayed with us to keep it ticking over, to allow us to do exactly what we want in any way we want. So I think something went very right as well.”
New Model Army play at Leeds University Stylus on Saturday November 12. www.newmodelarmy.org