Midge Ure talks about touring, The Rich Kids, and “Eddie the Eagle”

When Midge Ure tours, he’s known for performing a crowd-pleasing assortment of solo material, Ultravox songs and even the Visage classic “Fade to Gray.” The last time he performed in the US, it was completely solo, proving that even elaborately recorded songs like “Vienna” could be stripped down to just guitar and voice and still be powerful. Now Ure is returning to tour with a pair or American musicians, allowing him to do expanded arrangements that incorporate synthesizers. In a Skype interview, he discussed what we can expect from the shows, his experience going at it alone last time, and more.

It was just you with your guitar last time you toured, but this time you have a band. What can we expect in terms of instrumentation and material?

“It’s very different from the ‘Fragile Troubadour’ tour of course. For that, I set myself the ridiculous task of touring completely unaided, with no one, no tour manager, nothing. So this time, I have a couple of American musician friends who I’ve worked with in the past. Ostensibly, the band has got to be guitar, bass and drums, but we have synthesizers with us as well. I’m delving into material that I think people will find interesting, and possibly doing some old Ultravox things that haven’t been played live in America for 30 years. Stuff from even the ‘Vienna’ album. I’ll do some of my solo material as well, or course. I’m toying with the idea of maybe doing a David Bowie song, as we lost him this year. It really depends on how we get on in rehearsals. It’s one thing talking these things through and another thing when you get into the rehearsals and realize that it’s too big a task or it doesn’t sound how you’d hoped it would sound. I’ve got great faith in these guys; they’re consummate musicians. I’m really looking forward to the challenge of taking some of those songs and being able to perform them in this format. That keeps me interested, and it keeps me fresh. It keeps me on my toes.”

Are you doing music that you weren’t able to do last time, since it was just you?

“Not really. When I do the acoustic thing, obviously I’m incredibly limited in terms of arrangements, but there’s an intimacy about that which fills in the holes. Something about standing in front of people with just the guitar and a microphone and a spotlight, and it’s down to your ability to be able to pull it off. You’re ability to sing and your ability to hopefully have written some interesting music. With a band, I think it’s a bit more forgiving. There’s something about the volume, and there are plenty of other things to watch. It doesn’t feel like everything is on your shoulders, although of course it is. Some of the songs I’d like to have a crack at are ‘The Voice’ or ‘Hymn,’ things that I think people will recognize. I’d do them in a slightly different arrangement that works for us as well as for the audience.”

How extensively will synthesizers be used?

“Some songs will have synthesized bass, which leaves the bass player to play a piano part or string part or whatever. For some of the songs, we’ll both be playing synthesizer. This is what I have in my head, but we’ll find out in rehearsals. The idea is that we’ll have a couple of synthesizers on stage, so when we’re not playing guitars, we can play synthesizer. Or, perhaps we’ll have a combination of both, maybe starting on synthesizers and moving into guitar or vice versa. So it’s very much an open palate.”

What made you decide to work with American musicians rather than bringing your UK band over?

“I’ve worked BC [Taylor], the drummer, in the past and he’s such an incredibly musical guy, and Tony [Solis], the bass player, is as well. Incredibly versatile. I think for me, it’s like rattling a cage. I’m not particularly comfortable getting off a plane and going straight into rehearsals and knowing exactly what it’s going to sound like because it’s the guys I work with all the time. This to me is exciting. I’m going to go in there and go, ‘Ok, right, can you play this, or can you do that? If I do this part, can you do that part?’ That keeps it fresh and vibrant. It doesn’t really matter whether it’s American musicians or UK musicians; just the fact that it’s different musicians means that I have to look at the songs in different ways. It stops it all from getting stale.”

Does your set list tend to vary by where you’re touring, perhaps relative to how well particular things are in the country you are performing in?

“I think there’s generality in recognition of music. Songs that get played on the radio here in Europe get played in certain areas of America. Ultravox were never that popular in America. We were the oldest cult band. We were known through college radio and stuff, but it was very much a niche market. So we didn’t really get mass airplay. But, when Ultravox used to tour in America, it was fantastic; the recognition factor was amazing, and the response was amazing. That response is still there to a certain extent, and there are people who love some of those old songs.

“It would be remiss of me not to play something like ‘Dear God’ because it got an awful lot of airplay in America. Irrespective of what you’re playing to people or how well you’re playing it, there is a certain element of an audience who wants to hear something they know. I came up with the ridiculous equation a year or so ago. You have to understand that at a concert, 50% of the people don’t really want to be there because they’ve been dragged along by their significant other. And then you think of that 50% who came to see you; how many have got every album and know every track? You can’t even start thinking about that. So what I try to do is a good balance between things that are recognizable to someone who is not necessarily a hardcore fan but also do some of the more interesting music. Because not everything commercially successful is the most interesting music. I try to get that balance going and cover it all. It’s all my stuff, so I shouldn’t have a problem with it, but I’m aware that certain people will want to hear certain songs. I don’t know how I’m going to do it yet, but I couldn’t not play ‘Vienna’ and maybe ‘Reap the Wild Wind.’”

You did a reunion show with The Rich Kids. What was that like?

“It was daunting, because that’s going way back, nearly 40 years for me. And especially a name like ‘The Rich Kids’ because you’re far from being a kid anymore. It was scary. When we were approached about doing this one-off concert to celebrate 40 years of punk, we talked about how we could possibly do it, without Steve New the guitarist, who is no longer with us. When Gary Kemp from Spandau Ballet stepped up and said ‘I’m a huge Rich Kids fan; I know the stuff inside out, and I’d love the opportunity.’ It gave us new vibrancy, so we thought it would be interesting to do. I have to say that the show was spectacular. It was powerful, it was vibrant, and it was a lot better than I seem to remember The Rich Kids being. So, yeah, I was proved wrong.”

Could you talk about the film you did documenting the Fragile Troubadour tour?

“The idea of the documentary came about when I was guesting at Paul McCartney’s music school, the Liverpool Institute of Performing Arts. I was going to a master class up there, and I realized that when the students were asking about multi-album record deals and global touring and I was telling them stories about when that happened, I realized that I might as well be speaking Flemish because it doesn’t exist anymore, other than for a very small percentage of musicians. The majority of them will be lucky to be offered any record deal, if the labels still exist in 5 years’ time. The idea of being signed to a label doesn’t really work anymore. The idea of doing any major touring doesn’t work because it’s catch 22. You don’t get to do the big tour unless you’ve had huge success with your record. Historically, you don’t get signed unless you can do gigs. And you can’t get good gigs unless you’ve had success selling records. As I was saying it to this audience, I realized that it didn’t have any relevance to their future careers. So I then came up with the concept of going out and doing this Fragile tour unaided, completely on my own and documenting it, the highs and lows. The boredom factor. The depressing moments, the fun moments, all of it. Sitting in a car for 7 hours, driving from city to city on my own during a snowstorm. Getting to a gig and finding 70 people out there after I’ve driven for 7 hours in foul weather so nobody wants to come out. It’s the reality of how it is. So to the extent that when I was doing the Fragile Troubadour tour, I wanted something to show people how useless the industry can be. Of course while I was there, my last solo album ‘Fragile’ was out being distributed by E1, who knew I was coming over to tour. As I was on the plane flying back from 6 weeks or grueling touring, I sat talking to my camera, and I said nobody from E1 got in touch with me, dropped me an email, phoned me, absolutely nothing. So that’s the state of the industry; that’s the reality of it. I’m a reasonably established artist, and nobody was interested in the fact that I was there touring. That kind of summed it all up. I wanted other musicians to see this, so I sent it off to various music colleges. It’s something they should be exposed to, to see how difficult this route is.

“I spent maybe a month or so going through the footage, and I laid down some instrumental music and tried to make something that was reasonably interesting. Even if you weren’t an aspiring singer/songwriter, it would have interesting vignettes of what it is like being out there on the road. Stupid things like turning up in Santa Monica to find that the merchandise, the t-shirts and CDs I’d sent over a month before hadn’t actually arrived. Now for me, it didn’t make much difference, but for a struggling musician, those 20 CDs that you might sell that night could be the difference between making a profit and having a loss. That’s what many musicians depend on. I documented all of that, and it’s very fly on the wall, just me talking about my reality and what the industry is like now.”

You did a song for the “Eddie the Eagle” soundtrack, which featured a lot of interesting acts. How did you get involved with that, and what was the experience like?

“Gary Barlow from Take That got in touch with me. He was in charge of putting the soundtrack together and he came up with the concept of getting artists from the 80s to do music in the style that they were known for but modern versions of it. So I thought it was quite an interesting concept, and I came up with a track that sounds quite a bit like Ultravox. I was very pleased with it and even more pleased about the movie. I think it was a very sweet little movie, especially for you guys over there who had no idea who Eddie the Eagle was. The fact that people warmed to the movie and quite liked who the character was, was testament to the fact that the movie did quite well.”

Are you currently working on a new album?

“I have been working on stuff over the past year or so, but I seem to be working live now more than I ever have. To the point that think I’m doing too much. So I need to spend more time in the studio to get stuff none. The last album ‘Fragile’ was spread over a 10 year period, which was just ludicrous. I don’t want to do that again. So as soon as I get this touring out of the way, I’ll be focusing on getting this album finished. Hopefully, I’ll have something out by the end of next year.”