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A Quietus Interview

Dog Soldiers: New Model Army Interviewed
Marc Burrows , October 1st, 2013 05:19

At the weekend veteran alternative rock band NMA scored their first hit album in 20 years. Marc Burrows talks to Justin Sullivan, frontman of the perennial outsiders

Photo by Francesca Sullivan

It's been five years since the last New Model Army album, five years in which events have forced the long running band to draw a line under their past. Some of these were celebratory - an extensive 30th anniversary tour, a comprehensive reissue of their debut album - others less happy, such as the departure of bass player Nelson after 22 years of active service. More tragic was a fire in their studio that destroyed years of live recordings and most of the band's instruments, and most awful of all the death of their long serving manager Tommy Tee, just prior to the recording of their last album, 2009's Today Is A Good Day. All of this enforced not only a long break between records, but an audible attempt to forge forward, rather than looking back. New album Between Dog And Wolf, while just about recognisable as New Model Army, throws out much that we know about them: the earnest punk, much of the overt politics, the world-muso folkiness and most of the guitars. What's left is a lean, textured record of murder ballads and gothic Americana led by tom-heavy rhythms.

"It got delayed by the fire that took our studio out," explains founder member and driving force Justin Sullivan, "but all the time we were collecting little musical ideas, we were always talking about this album we were going to make - we'd made a few band-in-a-room albums, you know, write the songs, arrange them for a band, record them, and that works very well, but we wanted to do something that a was a bit different. We wanted to make an 'album' album, which we can't necessarily perform live but would be a sonic treat [nonetheless]."

The idea was fairly simple - the band would produce the record themselves, record the drums in a top studio to get a decent base, then work on the rest on their own, using all the money for an "A-list mixer", rather than on producers and facilities. It paid off - Between Dog and Wolf is easily the best thing New Model Army have done in a decade.

There's a thing with New Model Army where people say you're quintessentially British, but to me there's more of an American and African feel to the rhythms on the new record.

Justin Sullivan: A lot of people that ask me about this record have used the word "tribal". Why is it tribal? Is it because we've layered up floor toms? Does using four floor toms instead of one immediately make it "tribal"? It's slightly easy. A lot of the rhythms on the album are all rhythms we've used before, what we've done differently is layer them up. We really like complex tom-tom rhythms, we really like that pounding [feel]. We often write starting with drum beats, it's a very common thing for us to do. We did that on 'No Mirror No Shadow', but I don't think we did it as well.

Away from the rhythms, I felt there was more of an American than British folk feel.

JS: I like Americana and American folk a lot more than I like British folk actually. I find British folk a little bit twee. I understand why Mumford and Sons have been so successful, but it doesn't do it for me. The most played artist on my iPod is Gillian Welch, I was slightly surprised to find that, but it's true. I went to see Crazy Horse the other night, and that's as full on rock & roll as you can get while still being Americana as well. That's deep in me. Everybody in the band comes from a different music background though. There was one time, some years ago, when five of us were sitting round the dinner table. We tried to agree on one album in the history of music that we all unreservedly loved. We couldn't agree on one. I think that's rare for a band. Even now we all have really different tastes Marshall [Gill, guitarist] is a blues man, his hero's BB King. Michael Dean [drums] comes from a rock background but he's interested in all sorts of rhythms, as drummers tend to be. Dean [White, guitar] is really interested in American psychedelia, my first love is Tamla-Motown, and Ceri's [Monger, bass] family are folk musicians but he comes from a metal background. One of his brothers is the drummer in Extreme Noise Terror, and the other plays the harp in Florence And The Machine. So he comes from that kind of wide, diverse family. Everyone comes with a different thing. The single, 'March In September', that's based on a thing that Michael came up with. It's got the double kick-drum rhythm, I'm sure he felt it as a kind of metally thing, then my first instinct was to take it in a Motown direction. Then we worked on it together and it became what it is - which is New Model Army, isn't it?

Is there a lyrical theme to the record? In the past you've written quite heavily themed records...

JS: The songs get written one by one. There's an awful lot of 'people' songs, there's not much about what's happening in the world. Partly because we did so much of that with Today Is A Good Day, written against the backdrop of the financial crash and what we thought would happen - which is what happened. Instead there's a lot of personal songs - perhaps a few more than usual. There's lots of songs about other people too. People songs.

Does the reputation as a political band bother you? It's always been one facet of what you do, but far from the whole...

JS:I think sometimes people think we're Chumbawamba, or Rage Against The Machine or Billy Bragg or one of those bands where the music is basically a backdrop to the message or the agenda. I don't think we ever had an agenda. Let's go back to the beginning - to the very first album. In theory we were this very red hot left wing band come out of Bradford, but actually the title track of our first album [1984's Vengeance] was deeply reactionary and, politically, desperately incorrect. That had us barred from every right-thinking, left-leaning thing in the eighties, because we'd written 'Vengeance'. Also on that album you've got a couple of very personal, relationship-py songs. So it's always been wrong to say we've got an agenda as such. It's certainly a mistake to think the music is a backdrop - the music comes first to be honest. There are just things it interests me to write about, but then it does interest me to write from different angles, to write from the point of view of people I don't agree with, 'The Hunt' or 'My People, Right Or Wrong' are deeply politically suspect, but that's real. That's how people feel. It's worthy of a song.

Given the political situation we have now in the UK, and the fact we have a far more politicised culture than we've had in quite some time, people might have expected a more angry record?

JS: You might be right. But then that's typically New Model Army- to go the opposite way. When 9/11 happened the first thing I did was [solo album] Navigating By The Stars, which is an album entirely about the sea, so it doesn't necessarily happen like that. We never have an agenda outside of making music that pleases ourselves. A few people have asked, "Aren't you worried about what the fans will make of it because it's so different?" Well no, not really. I never worry about that.

I don't think it's radically, radically different - there are elements of this right through your stuff, going right back to the eighties

JS: I'm glad you think that, I think that too.

Your fanbase seem to enjoy the way the band moves forward anyway - you don't seem to play many songs from 1984 these days, and people seem to enjoy the sets all the same…

JS: You have to follow your own star. I remember reading an interview with Neil Young and he said that eventually people learn to trust you. It takes a long time, but eventually they let you do what you want. When I saw Neil Young and Crazy Horse they played for about two and a half hours and they played about four songs that anyone knew. It was still fantastic.

Maybe it's because we never had a hit single. That's quite a good thing in some ways, because there's not one song we have to play. We know there's ten or twelve songs people want and it's advisable to play at least three of them, but which three is down to us.

Presumably there's a parallel universe New Model Army that did have that massive hit and became a bigger thing…

JS: There was a period in the early 90s when we seemed to be on the brink of being a 'big' band, but we shot ourselves in the foot so many times it never happened. Perhaps that's what we wanted to do. That gave us the freedom to be where we're at now, the freedom to do whatever we want, whenever we want, in the way we want. That's about as good as it gets really. Somebody said to me about 15 years ago, I was talking to some journalist, and he said among his fellow journalists they were terrified to admit to like New Model Army, because they could never tell what we were going to do next week. Which, as an accolade for an artist is about as good as it gets. It does mean we've struggled to be part of the Jools Holland queue, but again that was never our primary motivation. Being loved was never the point. The point was to make something we loved.

It feels like you're in a position now where you don't need to care about radio play and telly and press and all that, would you say that's true?

JS: It'd be nice to be on Jools Holland of course, because it's the only live music TV show and we're a shit-hot live band, but we've long got used to the fact we haven't been invited in the 20 years it's been running. Who knows, maybe we still will be? We now do have a manager again and he's very much, "We need to do this and this and this to get you back in the public eye" and we'll do whatever, but that doesn't effect how we're making music.

Everything that happened in the gap between records seemed to either be indulging in your past (re-releasing Vengeance, the 30th Anniversary shows) or separating you from it (the fire, Tommy's death)...

JS: And more than anything else, while all this has been happening, Matt Reid [film maker] has been making a movie about us, which obviously involves a lot more looking back than I really wanted to do. So there has been a bit of a reference to the past, but then one of the things we lost in the fire was ten years of live concert tapes, which I'm really grateful for - it means I never have to actually listen to them. I've always been one for burying the past, but you're right that the last four years has brought the past back up. Watching the movie - I saw a first draft about three weeks ago - that was a bit like watching your life flash before your eyes. In the end it's about people. Maybe there's a reflection of that in the record. 'Ghost' is very much written about Robert [Heaton, long-serving drummer who died in 2004], so I do acknowledge that we have a past, but there are two things about that - one is that I'm not very interested in it, and the other thing this that the current band weren't there [then], so they're not interesting in it either. To be honest I've been the only original member of this band since 1985, because Robert wasn't an original member. Stuart [Morrow, original bassist] left in '85 and I was the only original left. People think it's just me and a bunch of musicians now, but that's not true. It functions as band as much as it did at the very beginning, which means we fight, we argue about how it should be, how we should present ourselves, what things should sound like - it functions like a band.

Is it quite frustrating that there's a preoccupation with your past?

JS: Yes, a little bit. I'd be lying if I said no - but I'm sure that's true of everyone. I did a press day in Berlin a week ago and I went round two or three radio stations, as I walked into each they were all playing 'Vagabonds'. But that's how it is.

I wanted to ask you about 'Knievel', on the new album - where does that come from? Have you always had a fascination with him?

JS: Not at all. It came from Marshall actually. Marshall had a childhood fascination with Knievel, and has some priceless stories about being a ten-year-old stuntman. Marshall's body is almost as broken as poor old Evel's. So he had a fascination with him. Then there was a documentary which I saw entirely by chance, which was the bloke from Top Gear going to interview him. It was a fascinating documentary because Richard Hammond works for the BBC and thinks he's terribly important, like all television people, and it was a fascinating thing to watch him go to Butte, Montana to interview Evel Knievel who couldn't care whether he lived or died. Richard Hammond is there, interviewing his childhood hero, and it's his big moment and he was coming across this character that genuinely didn't give a shit. I found that interesting and really funny in a way. Was he a nice guy? No he wasn't. Was he an interesting guy? Very. This is a guy who, when he took off on the ravine jump they'd had two tests without him and they both failed, and he still got in the machine. He failed as often he made it. We went through Butte, Montana after he died, and we went into this little Chinese restaurant where the waitress told us what a son of bitch he was. I'm quite proud of the song because I think some of that mean, dare-devil spirit is in there. I really like Marshall's motorbike guitar in the background. The chorus, "do they come to see a man fail or see him fly?" works in so many ways. Especially with reality TV and everything. It's literally car crash television.

There a sense of flying too close to the sun…

JS: It's an ongoing theme isn't it? There's a song on Carnival called 'Flying Too Close The Sun'.

The one moment on the album that delves into politics is about the Arab Spring and Egypt, right?

JS: That's 'Quasr El Nil Bridge' which is perhaps more what you'd expect from New Model Army, but my sister lives in Cairo so I was there.

The fact that the situation in Egypt has changed so much recently is fascinating

JS: Well all revolution is an ongoing process. It's still going on. You tell me one revolution that didn't wasn't followed by chaos and a military dictatorship? I can't think of a single one. In a way I'm quite please when I look at the song, and it was written two years ago when I was in Egypt in 2011, but there isn't a line in the song which is wrong, because it's about the people, not the wrong and right, the goodies and the baddies, it was about people.

New Model Army's Between Dog and Wolf is out now