New Model Army are back on the road (including a stop-off in beautiful Sheffield on Saturday 11 May, playing Plug with a series of UK and European dates (including a clutch of festivals across the summer). Their 14th studio album is in the process of being finalised (they’re giving NOTHING away about the title and the tracklisting) and they are the subject of a forthcoming documentary (looking over the whole of their 30 year career) which is being put together by director Matt Reid.
Taking time out from all of this, lead singer Justin Sullivan answered some of our questions…
Backseat Mafia: Is there a song/album that you are proudest of having written ?
Justin Sullivan: Of course it changes all the time. “Modern Times”, “Ocean Rising”, “Dawn” – but like most artists I’m most into the new ones or the next ones. I’m very proud of the new record.
BM: Where do you draw your inspiration from – and has that changed much over time ?
JS: It hasn’t really changed because from the very beginning I was drawing from a really wide selection of influences – everything I see, everything I read and everything I hear – whether it’s ‘real’ or not – are all processed somewhere. I think the important thing for NMA was that we have always steered away from ‘orthodoxies’ of any kind and retained the freedom to write about anything from any point of view – including sometimes points of view we don’t agree with.
BM: Do you have fond memories of playing in Sheffield from previous tours ? any particular gigs here that stand out ?
JS: There was one in particular on a tour many, many years ago when we turned up in a big van with a big entourage only to discover it was the wrong day…
BM: And any particularly favourite places in/around Sheffield ?
JS: I don’t know Sheffield particularly well but I have always liked the vibe there. I love cities built on hills – San Francisco, Rome, Sheffield, Bradford… it gives a sense of openness and connection with nature.
BM: Have you ever thought about quitting ?
JS: Quitting what? I left NMA loads of times in a kind of slamming the door in a moment of rage kind of way. But it never lasted more than 24 hours. Quitting music, writing, traveling? Never.
BM: How did the documentary come about ?
JS: Matt Reid came along and said I make documentaries and want to make a documentary about you so we went “er, OK”.
BM: What has the experience of making the documentary been like ?
JS: Well, I haven’t really been involved in it that much apart from being interviewed and I haven’t seen anything either. I suppose I feel a bit nervous about it now as my life has mostly been dedicated to jumping out of any box that I’ve been put in and a documentary movie is a pretty deep box.
BM: Has there been much rummaging through group/personal archive material ?
JS: Yes although not much from me or Joolz [Denby] as we forgot to keep anything. We were always so concerned with forward momentum that we never really thought about ‘posterity’. Fortunately fans and other members of the band did keep some stuff.
BM: Did it enable you to bury the hatchet over long-standing issues ? Or did it bring some of them back up again ?
JS: I’ve always believed in the maxim that happiness is best achieved by good health and a bad memory and I’ve been blessed with both. I honestly don’t really care too much about what’s past and gone. When we had the fire that destroyed our studio 18 months ago, we lost a huge archive of live concert tapes. I’m kind of glad really.
BM: Is this going to be like “some kind of monster” ? or more like ‘no direction home’ ?
JS: Your guess is as good as mine!
JS: That’s an interesting question. But it does presume that New Model Army’s primary purpose is political activism when actually it’s not at all. When I have been involved in political action (various demonstrations, Newbury, Fairmile), I’ve deliberately stayed away from cameras lest it’s thought that I’m using the cause and the other people involved for my own agenda. My experience of all TV and film-making (and this is interesting in context of Matt Reid’s film) is that it’s an artificial landscape in which you create what you want. But it’s entirely manipulative. You might say the same about music but music is different because it’s purely about feelings and imagination which makes it less immediate but ultimately more powerful and closer to the soul. How many times can you watch your favourite movie/Youtube clip? 20, 30 times. How often can you listen to your favourite music? Thousands of times.
BM: As a pretty political band do you feel a bit isolated or on your own ? There doesn’t seem to be very much political rock out there right now…
JS: We’ve always felt isolated – but then that’s the route we have chosen because of the freedom it gives us. Even when political music was more common we were not included (Red Wedge didn’t ask us to be part of their campaign in the 80s… Greenpeace refused to have their address on the back of an NMA record..) because we couldn’t be relied on to say the right thing. We followed the Groucho Marx thing of refusing to become members of any club that would have us.
BM: How has your approach to making music changed over the years ?
JS: I think we’ve learned a lot about a lot of things in exchange for losing the absolute innocence and full throttle naivety of youth. It is the journey of everyone.
BM: I came to you through Thunder and Consolation – like so many people I suppose. Does that album hold special memories for you ? is there a favourite song from it and if so has it always been the same one ?
JS: Wonderful album. Written very fast in a few weeks at a time when Robert and I were in perfect sync and recorded slowly over several months while our relationship sadly fell apart. It’s not really about the individual songs for me – I think that it sits together very well and has a strong overall atmosphere like nothing we’ve done since until this new one!
And finally, some questions from our celebrity interviewers:
Billy Bragg: Which side are you on ?
JS: The other one.
Gil Scott Heron: Who’ll pay reparations on my soul ?
JS: Some unwitting bystander who does not have the education to understand that they are prisoners of history.
The Minus 5 – where will you go ?
JS: To the blue of the ocean…