New Model Army is one of the best post-punk outfits Great Britain has ever produced. Led by the larger-than-life Justin Sullivan, the English rock band has been playing politically-tinged rock anthems for three decades, a journey that goes from 1984’s Vengeance to 2009’s Today Is a Good Day. Settling in on 30 years of artful, aggressive rock & roll, NMA is planning a number of summer shows for its 30th anniversary. Alas, there will be only two shows in the U.S. and both are in New York City, but since NMA is one of the few rock bands whose balls are as big as its visions, we decided to ask Sullivan a few questions to get his insights on the tour, the band’s latest album, and our future membership in New Model Army. —Keith Gribbins
Hey, happy 30 years New Model Army! There aren’t many bands with such longevity. So congrats — we’re big fans. It looks like you have a slew of 30 Anniversary shows playing (mostly) all over Europe this summer. Tell us about the tour.
We’re doing various festivals through the summer (including Glastonbury) — pretty much as normal. When it comes to the Anniversary shows, we’re doing a series of two-night stands. The format of the shows will be two sets on each night — the first starting acoustically and building up over 50 minutes or so. Then a short 20-minute break before another full-on set of up to 100 minutes. The following evening we will do the same but with 100 percent different material. Our promise is to play at least four songs from each of the 13 studio albums — not in any in chronological order. It’s possible that we may also feature guest appearances from one or two friends and former members on some nights, but nothing is fixed at this point. We hope also to include a display of at least a small part of the New Model Army “One Tribe” Exhibition of original artwork and memorabilia — depending on the nature and geography of the venue and other “logistics.”
Alas, I see you’re only playing one show in the States — The Bellhouse in Brooklyn, N.Y. (Sept 3 & 4). Hmmm…..How can we convince you to perhaps play Cleveland, Ohio? We’ve been waving the NMA flag here since my buddy’s big brother let us borrow a cassette of The Ghost of Cain. Why aren’t you touring America more (still having visa problems)?
It’s just going to be the weekend in Brooklyn. We still have visas from the Today Is A Good Day tour but they run out a couple of days after Brooklyn. U.S. working visas are really expensive and we’re never sure if we’re going to get them anyway given our various visa problems in the past. All I can say is that it’s a one-off and will never happen again so, for anyone that ever loved the band, these will be the shows to get to. And it does already look like there’s going to be quite a gathering from people all over the states (and beyond).
You’re also touring on the heels of 2009s Today Is a Good Day — another awesomely raucous set of NMA’s anthemic politically-tinged punk rock. This is your 13th studio album — is that right? At this point can the band just whip up a 12-song set of fists-in-the-air rock hymns in a weekend? How do you challenge yourselves?
Actually it was written in a month and recorded in 12 days. We went through that thre years in a studio phase in the mid-‘90s. Never again. It was written in the wake of the Wall Street Crash, and in autumn, which is when I always feel most creative…
What’s changed from 2007’s High? For starters, the production work on Today Is a Good Day has a crazy-smooth polish, but those guitars (whoa) have some really sharp edges (it almost sounds like metal on the title-track opener, which melts faces). How do you hear NMA’s sound evolving on the new record?
I reckon Today is a continuation of what we were doing with High in the sense that’s a pretty straight “rock” record but this time it was recorded almost totally live without any click tracks, etc., so there’s much more in the way of true performances. Expect the next one to be totally different though.
Where does the title come from — Today Is a Good Day? The album opens up with a snip-it of newscasters talking about the Wall Street mortgage bank crisis. I get the feeling the album is feeding on the opportunity for change in this ugly economic recession — the idea that sometimes things need to fall apart before they get better.
It was going to happen anyway. We’ve had a couple of decades of “good living” (although not for everyone of course), all based on a complete accountancy fraud. The people with their noses most in the trough knew it was a fraud but convinced the rest of us to sanction their greed. So the day that Lehman Bros. collapsed was just a process of ripping the smiley mask off the face to reveal an ugly truth. I enjoyed it — very much. The shit that has happened (and is going to continue happening) since was inevitable if you let the pursuit of wealth become the most important value in society.
NMA is infamous for its political personality. New Model Army is named after Oliver Cromwell’s antiroyalist military force and NMA songs from the “Spirit of the Falklands” to “51st State” have been fierce emotional responses to big political situations. What themes did you tackle on Today Is a Good Day? Tell us what a few of these tunes and their lyrics are aimed at.
There is a belief that we exist for political reasons, solely as an agit-prop outfit like Fugazi or RATM. This is not true. We exist for musical reasons. It just sometimes interests me to write about power relationships. The overtly political songs are a small minority of what we actually do. I think of it all as a continuation of basic human culture at least 40,000 years old — you know — singing stories around a fire.
The track “States Radio” has some teeth. In my opinion, a much-needed attack on the apathy of U.S. radio and media to cover anything important (whether it’s playing innovative music or reporting much-needed news). What inspired the song?
“States Radio” is just a photo-documentary of America that I’ve been writing from the back of a van for six or seven years. I used the radio station tag just as a writing device to organize a set of pictures. On our last trip I have to say that I found America heartbreakingly sad — miles of empty ex-industrial wasteland where you could feel the ghosts of the post-war energy and prosperity. Even great empires decline, like Britain in the late 19th Century — one stupid, expensive, little war too many, the people at the top just taking so much and giving nothing back and the middle-men/women re-organizing everything just to protect their own positions. Perhaps more than anything there’s the lethargy brought about by litigation culture. There’s a certain irony that the land of the free has been paralyzed, just as much as any totalitarian state, by the freedom to sue. No one dare to anything unless they have permission in triplicate and their backs covered, so all the fantastic energy that created America has been crippled, castrated. It’s almost impossible to work out how that trend might be reversed. There are a lot of things I love about America so it is sad to watch this… Perhaps in Europe we’re more used to the sense of decline — at shrugging our shoulders at how nothing really works and everything’s a bit corrupt. But of course America is made up of the descendants of people who left to create something better. So I think it’s doubly hard for the American psyche to deal with decline and decay. It’s also sad to see how it’s the vested interests and wealthy who are most able to harness the fury of the dispossessed.
New Model Army is an English rock icon to many Americans (no argument there), but have your political associations hurt your ability to reach the American listener? There are definitely a lot of people who have never heard a NMA record. Is that just a sacrifice of the aggressive style of your art?
We do what we do. We’re grateful to people like yourselves who are listening and speading the word. But if we had audience figures, commercial success, market strategy or any of those kinds of things at our heart then we wouldn’t be New Model Army.
Odd segue: A year-plus in, how do you feel Barack Obama’s doing?
Why do you ask a foreigner? Well, he’s a relief from years of cowboy gung-ho (which actually was just another clever disguise while the rich got on with the business of robbing the poor — again). But he’s a bit cornered. It’s interesting how every politician who comes to power always writes in their memoirs that they’re surprised by how little power they actually have.
In fact, most American’s didn’t know Today Is a Good Day came out last year; easily one of your best, showing NMA is still reaching its musical zenith, yet somehow lost in the shuffle over here in the U.S. For folks who haven’t heard about the album, what would you have them know about it?
Well it’s easy in this day and age to listen to anything — torrent sites, Spotify, Myspace. But the guy who predicted that using the Internet for information “will be like trying to fill a glass of water from Niagra Falls” had it about right. After a gig we played in a little club in Ljubljana in the spring, the local DJ spun song after song that I didn’t know. There’s tons of wonderful music being made out there and most of what gets “promoted” is the worst of it — copies of copies of something that’s already been successful, which is why DJs, good journalists and good radio become really important.
I heard there is also a film of the band’s past and present being planned. That’s exciting. How is that project progressing?
NMA always seems busy with side projects. Is there any news of a new Sullivan solo album (Navigating by the Stars is a personal favorite). What are the other lads up to?
The current band is the best lineup of NMA since 1985, so I’m a bit loathe to go off and do more solo stuff at the moment. We’ve got a lot of momentum and togetherness right now, but who knows what might happen in the future. Meanwhile, when we’re not playing, Marshall plays in some outfit or other every night of the week in and around Manchester and Nelson is also always active with other bands. In particular, he has a very cool new surf outfit called Surfquake…
New Model Army is one of the best post-punk outfits Great Britain has ever produced. Reflecting on 30 years of making music, where do you think NMA has left its mark? What impact do you think NMA has had on rock and roll?
Oh that’s not really for me to say.
You have always touted NMA as a band concerned with looking forwards rather than backwards. SO, what’s next?
Coffee and a cigarette and then something amazing.