Interview: Justin Sullivan About The Carnival 05/09/05
With the new album "Carnival" in the shops, NMA leader Justin Sullivan talks to NMA Online about it:
People are already talking about 'Carnival' as the new 'Thunder and Consolation'. How would you characterise the new album?
Well, it certainly doesn't sound like 'Thunder and Consolation'. That was 1989 and this is 2005. I think that 'Thunder' was more obviously anthemic in style and heavily influenced by folk melodies (partly setting off the whole folk-rock thing of the early '90s). 'Carnival' is stranger, darker and more dense. But in the sense that it marks a strong change of atmosphere and truly captures the band at a particular moment, then yes, maybe there are comparisons to be drawn.
More than ever, this album is driven by rhythm section. I think that it's this emphasis that has always marked us out as different from most rock outfits. We were born not only of 'Punk' but also of 'Northern Soul' [the 1970s Northern British phenomenon of all-night dance clubs featuring obscure Soul records from Chicago, Detroit etc.] so the idea that music should be founded on driving rhythm was our first principle. We've been incredibly lucky to have had three amazing bass players and two amazing drummers; this is an album where Nelson and Michael Dean both step out of any remaining shadows of their illustrious predecessors. Guitar-wise, Dave (Blomberg]), Dean (White) and I all get a chance to lead the line. We are always open to great ideas whoever or wherever they come from, so each one of us gets starring moments.
In terms of lyrics, the album opens with generality, ends with the intensely personal and visits all kinds of themes and places in between. I've always been determined not to write the same song twice and the world has changed a great deal since I started writing; of course I have changed too. Youth tends to see things very much in black and white but as I grow older, I see it not so much as 'shades of grey' but more as a kind of chaotic Carnival of bright conflicting colours. Hence the title. I've tried to capture some of the poetry of this idea on the album.
You're always had the reputation of being a political band - how is this reflected in 'Carnival'?
Politics are as much part of human life as anything else, so of course there's a political element in the album. But even our most 'political' songs have been less statements of philosophy than emotional responses to situations.
Who did you collaborate with as producer?
We worked for much of the album with Chris Tsangarides who has a long list of rock credits going all the way back to Thin Lizzy. This collaboration wasn't always easy for either of us but it did have many productive moments. The album was mixed by Nathaniel Chan who after years of apprenticeship with many famous producers in New York and London is just beginning to make his own name. We were also helped along the way by Ty Unwin who produced my solo album and has become a good friend to the band.
What were your personal favourite moments in making the album?
I think the song 'Red Earth' was definitely a moment: Michael and I began early one afternoon with a blank piece of tape and one of his tribal drum rhythms and then we just kept adding ideas. By that evening we'd created something truly great. It was a seamless process - as if all the planets were suddenly aligned for us and the track is on the album pretty much as we found it the following morning. We'd written 'Island' deliberately to feature what we knew Nelson could do on the bass and then when he came in and did his thing, that was another moment. When we recorded it with Chris, Dean was filling in on guitar and unexpectedly snatched his moment to do a great, unplanned solo on the end. Although I do a lot of the writing, there are plenty of spaces left for the others and I never know quite what they're going to come up with. Dave's playing on Carlisle Road and LS43 and Dean's on 'Prayerflags' were revelations.
Finally after months of working on the album track by track (and getting lost in a few blind alleys, which is normal for us), we got the chance to put the whole thing together. This was perhaps the biggest revelation of all.
How do you think it will be received by fans and by the media?
I have no idea. I don't suppose any band thinks about those things when they are creating. But to our fans, we've never promised anything other than to make truthful music and I think there's plenty to love on this record. With the media we've always had a troublesome relationship, especially in our home country. They've never really known where to 'place' us, so we've been happily operating for years completely outside the 'music scene'. But I have always believed that sooner or later they will re-assess our twenty-five years (and counting) and realise that we're rather a remarkable outfit.
What happened regarding the departure of Dave?
It's sad to lose someone after so long. Over the past few years, the fact that he lives at the other end of the country has made rehearsing and recording difficult, but both he and us have tried really hard to keep the thing going. Now though, we're in a position where we want and need to do some serious touring and his family commitments mean that he can't spend weeks away from home so there's no real alternative to him leaving and us finding someone else.
Yes. He's going to be great.
How was the experience of being a backing band for Freeborn John?
I think we all really enjoyed it. I think everyone thrives on new challenges and doing different things - especially musicians. Although I had to read a short piece and also sing/front one song that Rev had asked me to write especially for Freeborn John, I was mostly at the back of the stage and able just to think about the music. I loved it. I think we also enjoyed being part of a wider team - with all those who sang or played or put a lot into the project. We did quite a bit of preparation but the actual rehearsals and performances was just an intense eight day wonder.
Are There plans for a CD or DVD or further performances?
I believe there is both a CD and DVD planned. As for further performances, I'm not sure. It's good now to turn our attention fully into the coming tour, which we're all really looking forward to and will include a few surprises...