The Band who Invented Crusty?
Sorted magAZine continues to march to its own beat and interviews the band that nobody else will - New Model Army.
"I remember a guy came up to me and said 'I hate the Levellers and it's all your fault.'"
New Model Army's Justin Sullivan rightly points out that this was a bit unfair. NMA have a long-standing reputation and, unfortunately, it's neither a good one, nor is it all their own fault. Recently described by one newspaper as the band who invented crusty, much of their renown comes from those who followed in their wake. They, themselves, have been called punk; post-punk; Goth; folk-rock; and socialist rock at various points in their career, but one thing they've never been called is popular. That term has been reserved for those they've influenced.
"Isn't it always true that people create things and then don't tend to be the people that become successful. What happens on the whole with creative humans is that they create something and then they move on to the next thing before the wave breaks. And then bands come along doing an element and make it pay, make it sell. That's happened all the way through, we've resisted being drawn into any box."
The most obvious incident of this was with the aforementioned Levellers. It was with 'Vagabonds' and the "Thunder & Consolation" album that NMA acquired the 'folk-rock' tag because they played slower songs and the band included a violinist.
"Just when that wave broke, we took a right turn and went back to rock with 'Love of Hopeless Causes'. They [the Levellers] supported us in '91, which was just about the time we were moving away from doing this slow-pokey sort of thing. We were, kind of, 'we've done that, right, we're moving away.' And, they came in with this heavy folk formula and did very, very well out of it."
Not that he holds any grudges, the two bands have played together a few times since, most recently last year in France. New Model Army are content to continue making their own music the way they want to.
"We do what we do. It's not as if individual musicians are doing amazing things that have never been heard before, but it's a combination of things that different musicians throw in the band that's strange about New Model Army. It's that combination that nobody seems to have copied successfully."
The fact that the band doesn't fit snugly into any particular category means they have a handicap when it comes to media attention - they don't get any! No press, no radio play. Even in Germany, where Justin says they're quite a big band, they get very little.
"We are utterly, not by our own volition, the ultimate underground cult band. We didn't intend it that way, but it seems that's how it turned out. I mean, we knock on the door of the music industry going 'here we are, we make some fucking brilliant music, wanna hear this?' And everyone goes, 'No we don't wanna hear it, go away.' So we do, we go away and plough our own furrow and we've sold well over a million records, been around the world a few times and do what we do. We've got this cult audience in every city in the world."
New Model Army is one of a dying breed of bands that could, with no publicity or press, always draw a crowd whereever they played. Through the late 80s and early 90s, there were a few bands who represented true democracy in the music biz, allowing the fans to make up their own minds in defiance of hype and fashion. Now, with the tragic demise of Dead Can Dance and the imminent fall-out from Chumbawamba's chart success, NMA are one of the last ones left. Fortunately, they are unlikely to stop any time soon.
"Generally speaking, I love touring. I've always loved touring. I hate studio things; I got really fed up over the last couple of years doing studio stuff. Musicians hear music playing in their heads the whole time. Then, when they try and put it on tape, usually it never comes out quite as wonderful on tape as it does in your head. You're always trying to search after that elusive thing. Whereas live, there's none of that. It's a much more direct form of communication. You go out there and do it. You go for stuff and sometime they're brilliant, sometimes they're not quite as brilliant. But, once you've finished it, it's done, you can't change it."
The main reason for the band's enduring popularity, especially live, is conversely one of the reasons they're not covered in the press. They are an English band and there is something very English about their sound, but there is something else there too, something appealing that doesn't quite fit in. Justin says it's to do with irony, or lack thereof.
"British culture, and I think I'd include Ireland in that, is obsessed with irony. They love irony, never be too serious, always have your tongue slightly in your cheek. We're not like that. We're kind of innocent and kind of načve, and passionate in a kinda open way, and it's very un-British. I think that's been our problem in Britain, people are going, 'My God, they mean it.' It's a bit fucking weird, a bit uncool to actually mean it. I think in other countries in the world, like Brazil or especially Poland last year, it was amazing. The audience want to mean it, they love a band that means it, not a band that are deeply ironic."
Their passion is something that comes across as much in their recordings. They are a politically aware band and have never been afraid to stand up for what they believe. However, they dislike one aspect of the perceptions people draw from the 'political band' tag.
"I did a couple of interviews in Germany and they said, 'you started the band to be against Mrs. Thatcher.' No, we started the band because we like music, even in the early days; not all of our songs were political. Far from it, if you went through the repertoire of 130-odd New Model Army songs, you would find some political songs in there, but by no means the majority. But, being in Northern England in the early 80s, you couldn't not have some idea of what was going on around you. I think the important thing was that, I've got my beliefs and so on as a lyric writer, and I've stuck my neck out, but what I've never believed in is using New Model Army as a vehicle for a political philosophy."
One of the big arguments among bands that have something to say is whether it is better to stick to the margins or try and spread your message further by courting success. Years ago, NMA's signing with EMI was the inspiration for anarchist punk band Conflict's "Only Stupid Bastards Help EMI" (a take on the "Only Stupid Bastards use Heroin" jacket featured on the cover of "Ghost of Cain"). Coming from a 'been there, done that' point of view, Justin is now very cynical about the benefits of major label attention. One band in particular that's recently gone down that route share a lot of history with NMA, having come from around the same area, fought the same fights and played many of the same festivals, are Chumbawamba.
"There's always that thing where it's useful to have a number one hit because then three more people will listen to you. But, I'm not sure how that works. The Chumbawamba success was interesting - you heard them talking and they were very much using the success of the single to sell anarchy. Meanwhile, back in the offices of EMI, who I also spent time with, they were talking about using anarchy to sell the single. I don't think political music changes the world; I never really thought that, even in the early days. I don't think that you write a song and the world changes 'cos somebody heard it and thought, 'I'll behave differently'. What you do is give people that feel a certain way a strength, because you're telling them that they're not alone in, not what they think, but what the feel. It's about what you feel. Which is my argument against bands that have got a political position and put it across the whole time, because feelings aren't like that."
The band's stance on emotional politics has led to a feeling of distrust of the band in many political circles. Because they say what they feel, they have a reputation for unpredictability and refuse to toe any party line.
"We've written songs that are deeply politically incorrect, like 'Vengeance', 'My People Right or Wrong' and 'the Hunt'. They're genuine emotions that people feel, and emotions are not politically correct. Music is about emotions and not about philosophies."
As a result, the band has been disowned by the left wing in Britain, despite the fact that Justin describes himself as a Socialist. Even the generally politically eclectic environmental movement doesn't trust them, as evidenced by a series of Greenpeace concerts in London in the late '80s.
"We said, 'we'll do that, we're really into that, we will support that and we'll go and play.' And a message came back, they considered us unsuitable, basically because we couldn't be relied on to say the right things."
However, they are not likely to 'moderate' their opinions to fit in. Many of the political groups have learnt from experience that the band, and their associates, can be loose cannons. One example Justin cites is a gig by the anti-racist collective Red Wedge, in '86/'87 in Bradford. Red Wedge was aligned with the Labour Party, so the band themselves obviously weren't invited. However, Joolz was.
"She was given a long lecture beforehand about what was the party line, and, of course being Joolz, she went completely the opposite way with a tirade against the local Labour Council for being inefficient and corrupt."
Not exactly what you'd call the best way to make friends and influence people, but Justin is unrepentant. He feels that to toe the party line then, as a band, you're dead.
"You can do one album, like the Redskins [a blatantly communist skinhead band in the mid-80s]. They did one album, great album - that's what they believed, that's it, you can't go on doing it. Whereas, if you basically write a song from an emotional point of view, emotional politics, then you never run out of subjects."
However, it is in Ireland that the band could be seen as most politically incorrect, because of their name. Quick history lesson: the original New Model Army was Oliver Cromwell's parliamentary army during the English Civil War. In English history, they were the army that broke the power of the monarchy and kick-started the development of British democracy. In Irish history, however, Cromwell and his army have a reputation that is a few degrees worse that that of Old Nick himself. After the Civil War, the New Model Army, under Cromwell, made a concerted effort to solve the 'Irish problem' by rampaging across the country in the 1640s, killing and routing the entire population. It was his actions in the town of Drogheda, in particular, that cemented his demonic reputation, as he ordered the slaughter of ninety-nine percent of the population of 3,000. A sensitive issue in our history, to say the least.
"The name not only means fuck all outside of England, but it's also deeply unfortunate in Ireland. I'm not unaware of that. I remember Joolz did an interview with a radio station the first time we ever came to Dublin. They said, 'so, what about Drogheda?' to which she said, 'yea, New Model Army and Drogheda, bit of a problem that!' But, let's say that the name comes from the nearest thing we ever had to a revolutionary army in Britain. The fact that part of that army was later involved in oppression in Ireland - remember that a lot of the army didn't want to go and were executed for not wanting to go. So, if you can draw parallels, we would identify with the dissenters."
In these days of the peace process and reconciliation, we couldn't but accept that.by Donnacha DeLong.
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