Interview: Justin Sullivan 17/11/97
Hey, hey, hey, comrades - Ned Ludd here, and with me in this secret studio location, taking time out from a particularly extended mixing session, is Army frontman, Justin Sullivan. Justin, not a man who is known to enjoy interviews normally, has agreed to answer a few questions for the Site.
NL: Justin, you must have done thousands of interviews in your time as a musician, I mean, NMA's been going for 17 years - why haven't you got used to the interview thing?
JS: I have. Why ask this question?
NL: Well, it seems to me you aren't really comfortable being interviewed - you don't get personally involved - none of the private revelations most "stars" like to give - you're pretty enigmatic . . .
JS: I've been accused of being pathological where privacy is concerned -but really, I just can't see why my private life is of any interest to people, certainly, it's none of their business. Every word I've ever said in an interview seems to have come back to haunt me . . . really, I love music and it's difficult to talk about music, which in my opinion, is one of its great strengths. Then there are the interviews about political issues or the kind of . . . how can I put it . . . the thoughts behind the songs. I always used to try and explain these at great length to journalists, and then when I was mis-quoted, or mis-understood by them (sometimes out of ignorance, and sometimes out of spite) I would try to set the record straight the next time around. Of course, I just ended up digging myself into a deeper and deeper hole. Put it this way, now I'm very happy to talk to people who are genuinely interested in our music, but preferably face to face. Not "filtered" through a journalist.
NL: Would an online interview be a good, or perhaps, convenient way of doing this - since you would be linking up directly with fans?
JS: Yeah - Let's try it.
NL: O.K - I'm sure you'll find it interesting. We'll set it up soon. On a more personal note, which I hope you will forgive - many people were worried about your recent illness - would you mind telling us something about it, it sounded pretty serious.
JS: Oh, this is a case in point to me, regarding the privacy thing - look, I had an operation, it went wrong - I was in hospital for a month - the most interesting thing about it to me was that it gave me a shocking insight into the mismanagement of the National Health Service. As to being ill, I'm getting better now and when the wound in my neck has finally healed up I'll have a great scar - oh shit, I've just blown all the stories I could invent about how I got the scar by doing this interview . . .
NL: Hmm - many people would be worried about having a visible scar but you've got a very easy going attitude about it - also, in the past, you've been criticised by the media for your looks and so-called lack of image - does appearance matter to you at all?
JS: Yes, but only in a perverse, contrary way. Like, when we first signed to EMI, we automatically got picked up by their sister company, Capitol Records in North America. Shortly after receiving the band pictures, they phoned London in a panic to say that NMA could never possibly be successful in North America until I had my teeth fixed . . .if I'd ever thought about it up 'til then, well, from that moment I thought, never, no way, the gap stays. Interestingly enough, they seem to have been right about our chances of success in North America . . .never mind, eh?
NL: Yeah, what can I say? Teeth are big in America . . .but joking aside, you certainly seem to have plenty of fans in America, what would you say to them when they ask if you'll ever tour there again etc., ?
JS: Never say never again. . . I would love for us to be known and respected in America, it's a very beautiful and fascinating place. But things started badly when we were banned by the Immigration authorities in 1985/6. We then had then seven years of constantly being caught in the crossfire between warring British and American record corporations who even went as far as to actively de-promote our last (fifth) tour so that no one knew we were playing. We all feel genuinely aggrieved by this, especially for the many people in North America who love the band - but who knows what the future will bring.
NL: OK, I realise you're very busy at present but the question everyone wants to know is why has it taken so long to make this latest album - I mean, you could re-write War and Peace in a shorter time than this has taken . . .no, but it does seem to have gone on forever . . .
JS: Yes, it's been a long time and we do now recognise that we, the band that is, spent too long on this project - to the point where it became difficult to make judgements any more about where we were going wrong and where we were going right. It began in late 1994, after we'd had a break from being NMA, and Robert and I felt none of our albums had explored a whole host of ideas and musical possibilities that we first touched on when we made the album "Hex" with the poet Joolz in 1986. So we set out to see where we could go. We've been hampered by ill-health, bad luck with some of our choices, too many ideas rather than too few, the exploration of what sometimes turned out to be blind alleys and the obvious difficulty of keeping the whole group committed to a project with so many different strands. We honestly thought we could record thirty or forty tracks and give them all equally our full attention at the same time. In the end we had to concentrate on a much smaller number but I think that many of the ideas we've had to abandon will resurface over the next two or three years. I think that they were all valid but in the end we had to make a choice. The making of this album has been like a journey that we had to go on, it's been a long and difficult trip and wouldn't be something that we'd ever choose to do again, but ultimately we learnt a very great deal from it. Once you master the basics of recording, infinite horizons open up. There are an infinite number of ways of recording every song and we just kept going forward, believing the Holy Grail of the 'Perfect Album' was just one step away and exhausted ourselves in the process. Some bands "reconstruct" themselves, consciously altering their image until there's very little left of what made them great in the first place. We weren't trying to do this - everything we've ever done, for better or worse, has been by feel and instinct rather than deliberation. Strangely, considering everything, we don't seem to have lost in any way the emotional commitment and raw edges that characterise our best work - that pleases me alot - and I don't think that the record sounds like we've been working on it for nearly 3 years, which is good .
NL: So when can we expect the album to be released?
JS: It'll be out in April - and then we'll tour it, which we are all really looking for ward to. Personally, I love touring.
NL: Some musicians say they loathe touring, nearly all complain about it - why do you enjoy it?
JS: Firstly, I love playing live - it's the most direct form of communication with an audience, playing the music is very cathartic for me. Unlike studio work you can't redo songs or refine things to perfection, what happens on stage, happens. It's real. Touring is also a very simple way of life free from everyday worries. Everything is focussed on the night's performance - sure it's tiring and emotionally draining, I find I'm virtually comatose for 22 hours a day and super-alive for 2 - but I never get that boredom thing that other people talk about. I also love hotel rooms, the endless travelling, motorway service stations in the dead of night (which in spite of the food and decor, I still find curiously romantic) and that sense of melancholy that comes from staring out of a coach window watching the dawn rise over a strange landscape, feeling empty and somehow cleansed. And of course, I know that the next day I have the chance do the music all over again - differently or better. It's a long love affair with the road that started years before I ever thought about being in a group. Most musicians get very sick of the travelling, it's one of the elements that causes groups to split up - and I do understand how they feel, but as for me, I'll happily die out on the road somewhere, travelling. I'm aware this may sound unreasonably romantic to some people, but it's how I genuinely feel.
NL: Many interviews I've read in the music press dwell at length on the subject of your politics - in the 90's that's a subject most rock artists strive to avoid - what exactly are your politics and do you think politics make a difference anymore?
JS: People confuse politics with so-called "issues", or the petty game-playing of the elites in Westminster, Strasbourg, Washington, wherever... politics is actually about power, who has it, what they do with it - who hasn't and how they struggle for control of their own lives in the face of this. By instinct I'm a Socialist, I always assumed that all musicians must be, because true music is made by and for people of all races and castes in a spirit of sharing. But of course nowadays a lot of music is made for money, so I guess I was being naive.
As to whether politics makes a difference anymore, that's bizarre question. Politics is a fact of life, in every relationship between everybody and everything. I don't have a blueprint for the perfect society any more than anyone else, but I do believe in structures, preferably reasonably fluid (as democracy was originally intended to be), where those with power can serve the needs of others - share, protect. That, to me, is Socialism. I've never considered myself an Anarchist, despite it being fashionable to call oneself that, because historically every Anarchist society has been overrun and succeeded by a Military dictatorship. A society with no formal bonding and organisation is easy prey to a well disciplined private army and people are easily threatened if they feel unprotected.
NL: I ask the question because many young people these days say they feel that nothing they do, in a political sense, makes a difference to the status quo; I guess they feel disempowered or something.
JS: Oh for Christ's sake, get real.
NL: No, I believe many young people, if not the majority, genuinely feel like that - they feel lost, abandoned, as if they've got nothing to believe in since everything to do with the Governments of their countries is so blatantly corrupt.
JS: OK, OK, I'm being unfair - disingenuous, I suppose. This is a difficult time. 1989 changed everything. It appeared to prove the triumph of capitalism. We now live in a society where that is an unchallenged ideology, except by a few who are ignored and ridiculed. However this financial system relies on unending economic growth, people consuming more and more. As soon as that stops as it eventually has to (either because of obvious ecological facts or because people can only gorge themselves for so long before they become sick), then the whole system crumbles. All the money that appears to drive the financial markets and the whole system doesn't actually exist. It's just a paper chase, it's borrowed time.NL. How do you mean?
JS. OK - It's difficult to talk about this in a few sentences and it doesn't seem to relate to people's everyday lives... but then very little of what's going on does. For instance, this is the so called Post-modern era where corporations, governments, artists, advertising agencies, the media are all corrupt and they know that we know that they are corrupt. It's almost as if they've said "so what? It's all bullshit, nothing matters. Nothing has any more value (other than financial) than anything else. Party on down, consume as much as possible". That message screams at us from every magazine, every work of art, every advert. But I don't believe this is actually people's everyday experience. People do care about injustice. We do have values. Lots of things do matter to us. The fact that we have let it become 'uncool' to say so just plays into the hands of the powerful.
NL. Like the current backlash against feminism, enviromentalism and anti-racism?
JS. Quite so. I think the fact that in many situations it is almost considered laughable to make a stand on a point of principle makes it all the more worth doing. Remember that although nothing we do as individuals seems to make a difference, everything in this web affects everything else. If we accept defeat, then defeat spreads in tiny ripples around us.
NL. How do these beliefs, if I may call them that, effect your music?
JS. Are we talking music or lyrics here? Music is a different language, not of the intellect. Chords, melodies, rhythms just feel right (or wrong). They represent all sorts of things that can't be put into words and I think it's wrong to try. I do think, though, that our music has a sense of tension, commitment and sometimes desperation that communicates how we (particularly Robert and myself) feel inside. As for lyrics, I'm quite literal in the sense that some writers hear words as sounds, as just part of the music, whereas I tend to see words as words with meaning. They tell a story, create an atmosphere, above all try to express a feeling. On the early albums I felt a need to express 'beliefs', but New Model Army was not intended to be a vehicle for a particular philosophy. It is all from an emotional point of view. "51st State", for example, is not meant to be a political statement... it's a gut reaction. As for "Vengeance", that song had us excluded from every 'socialist' event, hippy festival and 'politically correct' gathering in the 1980s because we obviously couldn't be relied upon to say the 'right' things. Well, fine. The point is to be honest about what you feel at the moment of writing. Of course, there are a lot of ideas in the lyrics because I'm interested in ideas but the fact that they're often contradictory is a good thing, because that's being human. It does mean that no one knew where to place us but then we've always been a marketing man's nightmare. They couldn't work it out, especially in the 80s, when bands seem to divide between those on one side, who ultimately sung about human dignity and triumph and on the other side, the 'bad guys' of Rock and Roll, all gnashing teeth and attitude. We're not either. We're just trying to be honest. One moment we were singing "I Love the World" and the next "The Hunt" but then the weren't written at the same time. The point is that some moments you feel positive and some moments you feel like you want to burn down everything, hurt something. There have actually been as many songs about more personal feelings (not necessarily my own - often those of people I meet and empathise with) along the way. It's interesting to me that while the press have always talked about the 'ideas' songs, it's the others that many people hold most dear. The song I've had most letters about is "Ghost of your Father". If I seem to write less 'political' songs these days, it's because I've never been interested in writing the same song twice. As a band, we're proud that in 120-odd songs we have released, we have not done that. There is no formula.
NL. What gives you inspiration, musically?
JS. I have always listened mostly to black music. The Tamla Motown and the Atlantic music of the 60s is my abiding passion; then on into the "northern Soul" thing of the 70s, a big crush on all Jamaican music (with that strange emphasis on beat 3, rather than beat 1, of a bar - which I find completely irresistable) and now 15 compelling years of hip-hop. I think that black American music has always been ten years ahead of its white counterpart in terms of production and lucidity of ideas.
NL. And yet you're in a rock band.
JS. Yes, strange isn't it. I don't like very much rock music and never listen to it at home, although I love going to hardcore concerts for the punk attitude. Actually I don't think that NMA is quite a rock band in the conventional way. We place so much emphasis on rhythm section, having had three great bass players and, of course, a great drummer and if you listen, you'll find a lot of r&b references in the rhythms. But, at the same time, a lot of our melodic sense is very British/Celtic, from our own long tradition. We've touched on this from the beginning but it became very obvious when we did "Vagabonds". After that, the world suddenly filled with folk-rock bands with fiddle players, but it did not interest us to become so one-dimensional, so we moved away from that. There have been a lot of NMA copyists over the years and, of course, journalists, who tried to classify us, put us in a bag. We've been labelled punk, post-punk, gothic (!!), rock, folk, metal - everything, but really they've all missed the point. Like all artists, we're inspired and influenced by everything we hear or have ever heard and make of it something different.
NL. And the new album?
JS. It's New Model Army music with all its tensions and contradictions.
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