A band apart: New Model Army return to Nottingham's Rock City
Founder and lead singer Justin Sullivan reflects on his band’s 37-year history of music which veers from in-your-face to achingly tender, as well as what the future holds.
“Rock City is a special place – it’s resisted the clutches of the horrible O2 arena thing,” the singer declares. “There’s a terrific sense of history. We have played Rock City more than any other artist – even though we stopped playing there for a decade.”
The band’s fiery and confrontational sound was forged during the political upheavals of the 1980s, and in particular the Miners’ Strike, but Sullivan resists being typecast as a political mouthpiece.
“Myself and Joolz (Denby, poet, artist, novelist and long-term collaborator) met a group of miners wives collecting money at Glastonbury. When we signed to EMI, one of our conditions was that the record company made a donation to the Miners’ Strike fund. I’m sure it was a pittance, but it was a symbolic thing.
“I do remember playing a gig where the audience was half Nottinghamshire, half Yorkshire. You could have cut the atmosphere with a knife.
“It’s strange how people get us labelled as a political band. I don’t really consider that we are. Less than five per cent of our 240 songs are directly about politics. They’re a small minority.”
I mention their electrifying 1984 track “Vengeance”, which became the subject of some controversy for demanding retribution for heroin dealers and war criminals.
“Vengeance is a good song but it has cast an over-long shadow. It was written in about five minutes after I watched a programme about the Nazi war-criminal, Klaus Barbie. Much of the time in life, I actually believe in forgiveness but I also believe that justice has to be seen to be done for this to begin to happen.
“The first couple of albums are about making a statement. But if you’re only making statements you won’t be able to make many albums.
“When I think about political bands, I think of bands whose purpose is political, like Crass or Chumbawamba. The purpose of our existence is and was entirely musical.
“Lyrically, the songs often start with “I”, but it’s someone else’s tale altogether. The songs appear to be very personal, but I like writing inside other peoples’ view of the world.”
“In the early 90s I was interested in hip-hop because I really liked the music. I didn’t really agree with some of what was being said. The devil often has the best tunes.”
A recent track like “Winter”, from their 2016 album of the same name, with its haunting refrain about “the age of consequence”, suggests that politics is an unconscious part of the band’s identity.
“We knew the referendum was coming,” Sullivan says of the recording. “And I kind of guessed the result. The rise of nationalism all over the place. The rise of the tendency to blame outsiders for problems.
“None of the problems this country faces are anything to do with the EU. Since Thatcher, there has been a steady flow of money from public hands to private hands which has been absolutely catastrophic for most of us - this is not the same in most EU countries. Britain is the biggest money laundering state in the world. I understand the howls of rage but the EU is just a convenient scapegoat.
“By nature I am religious. I was brought up in a religious family. It runs through all the music. It’s so obvious to me. But it’s for other people to draw their own conclusions.
“We were hated by the press and I can see why. We didn’t care. We considered ourselves as a little gang. We were bolshie for the sake of it. We do have that tendency.
“There’s been quite a turnover of people in the band, but we have all shared this attitude. Whatever it is that people want, we won’t give it to them. It’s like a principle.
“Material success was always quite a long way down the agenda. It’s terribly idealistic and innocent. It goes back to that quote from Groucho Marx – “I don’t want to belong to any club that will have me as a member.””
This inability to tow the party line even meant the band was excluded from Red Wedge – a 1980s coalition of pro-Labour musicians who toured with an overtly party-political aim.
“We were as red as hell but we couldn’t be relied on to be on message.
“One journalist told me “A lot of my fellow journalists really like the music, but they’re terrified to publicly like the band because they don’t know what you’re going to do next.”
And this difficulty extends into the problems faced by critics who seek to categorise their music...
“A few years ago we played a folk festival, a metal festival, a hippie festival and a gothic festival on successive weekends – all with the same set! It seemed to go down pretty well...
“Musically, the band all comes from different places. We tried to agree on one album that we all loved and we couldn’t. My first love is Northern Soul and Tamla Motown. Marshall is a blues-man and Michael a rock guy. Ceri comes from a hippie-folk family tradition, but is really metal. Dean is a psychedelic 60s guy. Actually we’re all pretty open to anything.
“We nick from anywhere!”
At the Nottingham gig, New Model Army will be playing two sets; the first will feature “stripped down slightly altered versions” which go “all the way back” as well as “some songs we’ve not played for a long, long time”, while the second will be “more full on”, but will include material from “mixed eras”.
When the band played their 30th anniversary shows, they picked four songs from each of their then 13 albums and Sulllivan was struck by “how well they all sit together.”
“The songs come about in really weird ways. When we write we often start with drums,” he said. “That’s pretty normal to me. In New Model Army everybody except Michael (our drummer) plays the guitar. On the albums the guitar parts are played by whoever comes up with the best one. On “Prayer Flags”, off Carnival, there are four different people playing different sections of the guitar part. It all comes down to who plays it best. We’re all hands on deck. We’re just musicians.
“I don’t really believe in democracy in bands. I don’t think you can take a vote on things. It’s up to the person that feels the strongest to persuade the others. It’s about consensus. We argue and fall out like any band, but the current line up is my favourite.
“We have been very busy but we’re taking a little bit of a step back at the moment. I’m using the time to go on a solo tour - though I have been thinking about the next NMA album.”
He described their 2013 release “Between Dog and Wolf” as “a sophisticated multi-layered studio album,” while 2016’s “Winter” was “the sound of a very loud live band in a little room”.
And he confides that he is preparing for a “very unique special project in April” which must, however, remain a secret.
“We’ve always been multi-faceted lyrically and musically,” Sullivan concludes. “It’s a band about ideas – but it’s so wide you can always find something.”