Interview: Justin Sullivan 03/03/99
3rd March 1999
Mornin'. Nedd here. After much waiting here goes with a new interview with NMA frontman Justin Sullivan. Interviewed at home he speaks openly about the past, the future, Robert and all things NMA.
NL : How was 1998 for you?
JS : The quick answer is LONG. It was a joy to back on the road properly after all those months in the studio. Live gigs are such a direct form of communication, such a release. I've never minded all the stuff that goes with it - trying to sleep on bumpy tour-buses, hotel rooms, the hours and hours of hanging about, the weird food at weirder times, the gradual and then terminal slide into complete nocturnal living. It does feel, though, as if that's all I did last year (apart from watch the World Cup and mix and compile the live Red Sky Coven album, which took much longer than originally planned). Any kind of normal life has gone by-the-by. In this I'm lucky in living with people that understand and participate in this way of life. I think it's probably harder for the others to readjust to coming off the road...
NL : What were the highlights?
JS : Obviously favourite gigs; every now and again I get really high during a gig and stay up for hours after... that feeling is as great as anything I know.... then of course there have been a hundred small personal moments - the morning our cat waltzed back in after disappearing for six weeks, Joolz winning the crime writing prize, watching France v. Italy in the French Embassy in Bratislava....
NL : Favourite gigs?
JS : Well, that's completely subjective. Even between different members of the band there is plenty of disagreement about which the best shows were but I would mention the Paris Cigale show as being one that everyone agrees was special. To that I would add Manchester, Bielefeld, Mannheim, Vienna, Nottingham, Madrid, Mainz, Salzburg, Rostock and all three Polish gigs as being particular personal favourites. In the
summer, the view out from the stage at the Karlsruhe Festival onto that steep bank filled with 70,000-ish people was really something. Unfortunately it coincided with having no voice, the frustration of my body letting me down just when I needed it most - that remains one of my main regrets of the year. I really enjoyed the short solo tour in the summer, too, but I felt that it stopped just as I was beginning to get into it, so there will probably be more of those tours in the future.
NL : And the low points?
JS : Well, Karlsruhe for reasons I have explained. Trier, Scunthorpe, - a couple of duff gigs. Towards the end of both tours, we got a bit tired. On the last couple of nights in Sheffield and London, it was quite a physical effort to do the gigs at all... we all felt that the spirit was still very willing but the flesh was exhausted. Playing music of this intensity night after night takes its toll mentally as well. Nelson thinks that no NMA tour
should be longer than three weeks and he has a point...
NL : How do you feel about the departure of Robert?
JS : This is a long and complicated subject, but I'm asked this quite often so I would like to put down a few thoughts and clear up a lot of misunderstandings. All those things about touring that I mentioned earlier, Robert, like many musicians, came to dislike; being away from home for long periods - all that stuff... That became an important difference between us.
Secondly, as writing partners, we began to pull in different directions. This happens in all such relationships. If I look back, I think that we had a golden period at the end of the ‘80s which began with writing and producing the music for Joolz's "Hex" album and ended with the writing of "Thunder and Consolation" when we took each others' ideas and made them special. Bang. Every time. An almost 100% hit rate. It was an amazing time. But the actual recording of "Thunder and Consolation" was long and arduous and fraught with difficulties and after that, for any number of reasons, we began to grow apart. This wasn't for lack of will from either of us and we wrote plenty of great songs together after, but our trust in each other's sense of direction became diminished. We are both crusaders by nature, crusaders after that unnameable, inexplicable cause that is great music and we are both very passionate. So, yes, of
course we had arguments. He wanted to go in one direction and I wanted to go in another.
There were personal things too; we are very different people with different outlooks on life. The one thing we had together was that we both truly loved New Model Army. To the extent that in working on "Strange Brotherhood", we spent all the money we'd ever made and drove our loved ones, not to mention the other members of the band, mad with exasperation, because we were desperate to make something brilliant. In the end we had at least thirty hours of music on tape and would probably still be in a studio if... well, it had to finish somewhere. We did a remix of "Aimless Desire" just after Christmas last year and driving home afterwards, we agreed that, after the tour was finished, it was probably time for us both to explore different things, different
writing collaborations, different ways of doing things, to go our separate ways;
A few days later, he was diagnosed with the brain tumour, which came as a terrible shock to everyone. The night before the operation, he called me to suggest that whatever happened, Michael should do the tour; it was obvious that, even if the operation was successful, which thankfully it was, he would be in no condition for a long tour - even if he had wanted to do it. So that was that. We didn't announce that Robert had formerly left the band until the summer, although we all knew, just in order to reduce some of the pressure on Michael. As it turned out, Michael has been more than able to cope with any pressure and performed brilliantly all year.
I still see Robert often and I think we probably get on better now that we are no longer being forced to continually compromise with each other. He is happy and making music. While, obviously, there is a lot still linking us together, the separation feels like a release for both of us. I think that change is the natural stuff of life and that you must let old things go in order that new things can happen.Sometimes it does seem strange that there is now no one left in the band that shared the trials and joys of the early days. Fortunately though, much of the crew has remained the same since the mid 80s, which is important for me. At the same time, I think that it has always been the constant injection of new people, new ideas, new influences, new energy that keeps the music and the performances fresh and committed.
NL : There has been a lot of speculation on the Website Noticeboard that
you wrote "No Pain" about your relationship with Robert.
JS : Songs are songs. They are not a definition of anything except a certain
feeling at a certain moment.
NL : Where does New Model Army fit into the current music scene?
JS : It doesn't. Never has. Probably never will... that isn't to say that we aren't interested in current music. We all listen to a wide variety of stuff (of course everyone in the band has completely different taste) and we're influenced by all sorts of things and take inspiration from all kinds of other artists, many of them ‘current'. There's always good music being made. And there's always lots of crap and copies and soulless rubbish, too. But I do think we're different. I just can't think of any other band
that would have Vengeance and Here Comes The War in the same set as Marrakech and Lullaby, that tries for the range of musical and emotional experience that we do at the same time as remaining entirely themselves. We've been labelled us punks, post-punks, goths, metal, folk - the lot, but we've always been beyond those kind of style confines. I think people that try to define us miss the point completely
NL : Some people have missed the violin in your current material.
JS : Ah well, that's a case in point. After we did "Vagabonds", the world filled up with bands playing electric celtic folk music. I love the song and I think that the one or two other tracks we recorded with violin also worked, but to go further down that road felt like being drawn down a cul-de-sac, to find ourselves locked in a particular style. So we moved on, looking for new ideas, just as that particular wave broke. I wrote the
"Vagabonds" and "Purity" melodies on a keyboard but they were obviously string parts, just as I wrote the "Gigabyte Wars" riff on a keyboard but it was definitely a brass thing. It's no big deal, really. I think some people get very hung-up on cultural reference points rather than just feeling the music.
NL : How do you feel about "Strange Brotherhood" in retrospect?
JS : Too early to say. We put together the final version last January and I have only listened to it once since then. It usually takes me about a year before I can listen to an album we've made, but it may take a little longer with this one because we worked on it for so many months, through so much hope and trouble. I don't think that it's the defining moment that me and Robert desired so much, but I think that it's got a lot of depth, a lot of ideas and many moments of true inspiration. We did make the selection
of tracks in an odd way. Rather than making a selection of songs that would hold together or had a lot in common, we did the opposite: we chose a couple of songs from pools of four or five ‘types'. In other words we made as diverse a collection as possible. Looking back, it is inexplicable to me (and others) that "Brother" is not on the album, perhaps "Southwest" and "Rainy Night" as well. But then you could say the same about "Ghost Of Your Father" and "Modern Times" not being on "The Love Of Hopeless Causes" or "Prison" not being on "Impurity". If there is a true representation of the creative history of this band it's probably on "B-Sides and Abandoned Tracks".
NL : All part of the Masterplan?
JS : Yes really.... Actually, when I look back, I sometimes think that almost every decision we've ever made, outside of creating music, has been the wrong one. We've never had any real interest in the "music industry", just as the powers-that-be in the "industry" have always misunderstood us. But it really doesn't matter. We're still here, still full of ideas, still committed to our music.
NL : There is a lot of talk on the Website about "The Following". What are your thoughts about this?
JS : The "Following" is an idea - not a fixed set of people. None of those that followed the band to every gig in the beginning, were still around at the end of the 80s. They got lives and jobs and children like everyone does (though many people that I remember from that time, still often come to gigs local to them). Then a different group of people appeared and then another... and another. Following a band is something interesting to do for a while - you get to travel, have adventures on the road, you get to meet different people with the one great thing in common - that you love the same band. You get to make a family for a while. But it's not a vocation or a passport. I'm honoured that so many people have chosen to follow us for so many years. But within an audience as a whole, we don't think of anyone as more special than anyone else. Sure, there are groups of friends who travel together or only meet at our concerts. We
understand the "family" thing very well. We've created it, sung about it. But the New Model Army family is inclusive of everyone who loves the band no matter how they dress, whatever colour or gender, from whatever country, no matter "how many concerts they've seen", no matter what they do in their everyday lives. It's about music and feelings and passion and it's open to everyone.
NL : More recently, how was the Red Sky Coven tour?
JS : Special, very special. There is no other show like this in the world. Joolz, Rev Hammer, Brett and I are firstly friends. We are also great admirers and supporters of each other's work and truly enjoy each other's company on stage and off. We've got the same beliefs and the same sense of humour. Because we all have separate careers and lives and we don't see each other that often, these tours are precious times for us. I think those people that come just to see one of us in particular are missing the point. The show works because of the chemistry between us; a perfect
unity of different approaches, no competition, no headliner but a completely holistic evening of music and poetry and stories. And perhaps, because we don't do it very often, the show retains a particular freshness.
NL : What are your plans now?
JS : There's the short series of Red Sky gigs in England in March, but generally speaking, this is another new beginning which always feels exciting. However there are a lot of planned projects. To begin with there will be a live NMA album. (This is not to be confused with the EMI "All Of This" album, which is something they have been planning for sometime - and will release with or without our blessing). We taped a lot
of shows during the first tour last year, when we were doing the double set. And we've only recently had time to listen to these - hours and hours of material. Generally, I'm not a fan of live albums and always had doubts about Raw Melody Men. But the "Big Guitars in Little Europe" album changed my mind because it felt true to that tour and had a lot of character. Some of the live NMA stuff from last year is phenomenal and
I'm now convinced we can make something great with the true atmosphere of those gigs. This will take a few weeks to put together. There are two further albums to record this year. One will be a solo album, which will be a collection of acoustic based material. We've always put one or two of these kinds of songs on NMA albums but I have a lot more written and stored away and now seems a good time to record them. Then, of course, there will be a new New Model Army album. Some of this is already written but I cannot say what shape it will take because I know, from past experience, that albums take on a life and feeling of their own. I will say, though, that I feel as excited about this as I have ever felt about any project. There is no definite schedule to all this recording but I will promise that it will not take even half as long as Strange Brotherhood.I'd also like to produce some of Rev's new songs. I'm a big fan of his
writing - partly because it is so different from my own - but obviously time is going to be a problem.
NL : How about concerts?
JS : We're not planning anything much at the moment, although we are doing a couple of NMA gigs in Turkey in March and I expect we will be doing a few gigs in the summer. I do also plan to do some more solo concerts - perhaps including some in places where the band have not played recently...
NL : Where do you plan to spend the millenium?
JS : Somewhere that's not England.
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