New Model Army – Writing A Song Was Never Gonna Change The World

We asked to be misunderstood from day one so nothing has changed there” – Niall McGuirk talks to New Model Army‘s Justin Sullivan.

The first time I interviewed New Model Army I got the bus into Dublin City Centre. The band were due to play in the Bakers Trade union hall HQ also known as the TV Club. the building is long gone but the memory of that interview will live forever. The band were nothing but courteous to a young punk like me and accommodated my request to disrupt any plans they may have had between their sound check and set that evening. I have since crossed paths a couple of times over the intervening 28 years and that accommodation hasn’t changed.

This interview seemend to be one dogged by misfortune. I missed the first appointment due to a more pressing engagement with an MRI scanner. No problem, re-arranged for the same time the next day. I’m sure my employers were happy with my late lunch break as I tried to grapple with technology and figure out how exactly to record phone calls over a mobile phone. Numerous software and apps later I had settled and tested Skype with its add in. Would it work with this interview? Would it ever? And so – old school – I rang Justin and asked my questions and typed. Frantically!

My preparation for interviews has changed down through the years. Obviously with the advent of finding out information over the web, questions can be more specific as we can now read about bands’ every movements. Previously it was questions about Thatcher and the miners’ strike, whereas now I am trying to find out more about the people I am interviewing. After all, they are only people.

Can I go back to a young Justin Sullivan Where does your love of music come from?
My brother and sister brought records into the house, and I used to listen to these. I was also switching between Radio Caroline and Radio London… The Beatles, Stones and Kinks on one and Tamla Motown on the other. Tamla Motown is my first love. 

What inspired you to pick up the guitar and want to write lyrics ? You started in 1980?
I was that 8 year old with a tennis racket. Then in my teens I went on summer camps which were organised with a mix of middle class kids paying and care home kids which were sponsored. We were sent to the wilderness to light fires and I associate that with the romance of singing around a camp fire. I never had dreams of being a musician, like all kids I wanted to be a footballer. I went to college and people in the youth club down the road were looking for someone to play guitar. Stuart Morrow was there and we got together and played there.

Is it a case that you want people to read your lyrics and act on them?
Lyrics are a bit in the family, my great grandfather went to Canada, his son was a writer who wrote romantic tales in a Kipling way about the Inuits in Canada so it must be in the blood somewhere.

I don’t think I ever wanted to be a musician. I was in my 20s when I started playing in the band and was already a seasoned political campaigner at 16. Writing a song was never gonna change the world. Our opening gambit, Vengence, was the most politically incorrect song and we established the right to say what we want. We were on the edge of the anti-Thatcher campaign and we were never asked because we were the loose cannon.

Thinking back now the line “I believe in Justice, I believe in Vengence, I belive in getting the bastard” probably justifies peoples opinions of them being on the edge. They never felt that way to me. Is it difficult to pick up your guitar and write songs now 34 years on? Do you find it difficult to find topics to sing about?
No. The Most recent record (Today Is A Good Day – ed), which we released 4 years ago was very political, but the new one (Between Dog And Wolf) is about people and relationships and stories. We go wherever we are led by our wilfullness.

I had read previously that you spent some time in Ireland, do you have connection with this country? Did music make an impression on you over here?
I do have an Irish name, so when I come over I talk about Irish heritage. My great grandfather was an itinerant preacher who went around preaching Methodism apparently. I don’t claim Irishness, though I lived in Belfast in 1975 for a year. It was a very interesting time, it was just after internment and the failure of the Sunningdale Agreement. There were two civil wars going on at the time – One between the IRA for control of money, and one between the UDA for control of money. Organisations then started to turn on each other. Music wise I listened to quite a lot of Planxty, but I listened to them before I lived in Ireland.

The last 5 records have been independently released, Before that it was 5 albums on a major label. The question of independents vs major labels is a long ongoing discussion, have you a view on this?
The music industrty is a hard struggle for lots of reasons. It is almost impossible to make a living from it these days. I have great sympathy with young bands. It’s a weird accident of economic history, that there was quite a lot of money floating in music. This has now dried up. It is going back to a time when musicians were paid like scum, treated like scum BUT they live interesting lives. It is now a hard life for musician, that gravy train is over. As for majors, it never had much impact on what we did. We asked to be misunderstood from day one so nothing has changed there.

Earlier this year I saw new Model Army for the tenth time. It was at the punk festival Rebellion. The festival itself is a very interesting experience when 5000 punks of all ages descend into the decaying town of Blackpool in North England. It is a town that has a definite 1970’s feel, ignored by the boom of Thatcher’s Britain. How was Rebellion festival for you?
We have a contrariness by nature, no-one knows what we do, we played folk festival, goth festival and hippy festival close to consecutive nights all with the same set. We will play to any audience, some people will get the feel – its all about feeling. Our songs are a weird mixture of primal and romantic. Some people won’t get it. It’s like hitch hiking you never know who will pick you up… you can’t judge it by the look of a person.

The gig in blackpool was no less intense than any of the previous 9 times I’ve seen the band. Is it difficult to keep playing to that level of intensity?
Reasons for doing it haven’t changed, we have just been on the road for two months and may need a rest. This particular set is very intense. Our new bass player has brought a different presence.

Can you tell me a bit out the new album? Firstly, has the recording process changed much down through the years? Did you spend a comparable amount of time in the studio on it compared to other records? Do you ever get to the point when you are completely happy with the sound, is it hard to let it go?
The recording proces for every record is different, depending on who it is with. Our last two were rock and in the room albums – get in and record. We felt we needed to do something different this time. We approached this more conventionally this time and have layered drums. One of the reasons we have Ceri (Ceri Monger, Bass player – ed) is that he can be a second drummer. We were going down that route. We had to make space for pounding drums so we thought about sound before we started. We recorded drums for a week using tape, which isn’t cheap. We then took it back to our own studio to do ourselves and then went to LA to give to Joe Baresi to mix. There came a time when we had to say thats it. Generally speaking I’m quite proud of it. It’s an album, it makes sense together. You can listen to it one sitting, it fits in together.

New Model Army play Whelan’s on Friday December 6th with Paranoid Visions.

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