Having not toured in the US since early 2020, Midge Ure is returning for a series of solo acoustic shows. Billed as the ‘Un-Zoomed And Face To Face‘ tour, the name references Ure’s Backstage Lockdown Club, a regular series of interactive online sessions launched last fall. At Backstage Lockdown Club events, Ure answers questions submitted by fans, interviews musical guests, and performs music from his various projects. He also takes requests, which has led him to rediscover material that he hasn’t generally been performing. Some of these songs will make their way into the setlist during this tour.
Best known as frontman for Ultravox, Ure has also been part of Visage, The Rich Kids, and Thin Lizzy. He co-wrote the 1984 charity single ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas’ and co-organized the subsequent Live Aid and Live 8 concerts. In recent years, Ure has been highly active as a solo performer.
Over a Zoom interview, Ure talked about his experiences during lockdown, what to expect from this tour, and future projects.
What impact has the Backstage Lockdown Club had on what you’re doing on this tour?
Midge Ure: It’s odd because the reasons why I ended up doing it are the same reasons everyone’s kind of done this thing. With lockdown, you had to keep some connection going. I suppose the thing that has been interesting for me is that it’s been a challenge because I’ve had to learn songs that I’ve never performed live: songs that were written and recorded and just laid there; just stayed in that particular format. So with the interaction you have with the Lockdown Club members, they do ask for some of the most obscure things. I have to go back to Spotify, dare I say it, and listen back to what I’ve done and relearn the songs.
Because I think everyone seems to think that because you wrote them, you remember them all. It’s not the case, at all; it’s so far removed from reality. I’m trying to remember the lyrics. I’ve actually got an iPad that I download the lyrics to from the internet. If the internet wasn’t here, I’d be sitting scribbling these things down by hand and chord sheets and things. So that’s been a challenge. And of course, some of those songs I’ve rediscovered will be making an appearance during the “Umzoomed Face-to-face” tour.
Could you give some examples of songs that you’ve started performing because of it?
Midge Ure: I’ve ended up doing quite a few Visage songs that I’ve never really done before. I’ve played ‘Fade to Gray’ many, many times over the years. “The Damned Don’t Cry” has appeared quite a few times in acoustic format. But there are a couple of Visage things that I would never have dreamed of performing. Because I’ve done them in this format, this acoustic format, they’re kind of taken on a different life. They were created as electronic, studio project music, never to be seen as anything other than that. And of course now they’ve come out as these nice acoustic songs. “The Damned Don’t Cry” works really, really well, really beautifully without all the synthesizers and production.
Are there songs that people want that just don’t work in this format?
Midge Ure: Oh, many, many ones. I think people don’t understand the nuances of live performance. So you do get a lot of people asking for songs that depend on the production. You shouldn’t really have songs that do depend on production, but some do. Some are just like a single line sung, but then all the rest of the chorus is a melody there’s an instrument playing. And you can’t do that because you’ve only have two hands. Unless I was sitting down at a piano or a pre-programmed synthesizer or backing tracks, which I don’t really want to do. I’d rather do something that’s raw and real. So people do ask for the most obscure, bizarre things that are just totally impossible to perform with just one instrument.
Have you considered using additional equipment at this solo shows, like a MIDI guitar synth or sequencers?
Midge Ure: I’ve done a few things. I mean, I do try and shake it up a little bit when I go out. I’ve tried loop pedals; it’s kind of been done to death now. When you use bits of trickery, because that’s kind of what they are, it gives you different textures. You can use pedals, and you can use echo and loops and things. But it really only works with songs that have very few chords in them, that are repetitive. So the chorus and the verses are the same kind of chord structure. So you can give yourself drones and things to play along with. But more often than not, I like the fly-by-the-seat-of-pants type things.
So I try not to play the same songs every night. And that’s difficult to do if you’ve locked yourself down with pieces of technology that depend on specific rhythms you’re playing or specific songs that only have three chords where you can just loop the chords around and just bring in choruses and verses whenever you feel like it. My songs tend to be a little more complex than that. Not complex as in complicated, just more chord structures, and that stuff just doesn’t really work for me. It works brilliantly for artists who use it, and they use it incredibly well. But I’d lose the looseness of doing a show where, you know, someone on the way in to the show says, ‘can you play “No Regrets” tonight?’ And you go, ‘Yeah, fine. Okay. I hadn’t thought of it, but I’ll do it. ‘ That spontaneity is gone when you’ve got something that’s fixed because of technology.
I know you have toured the US with the electronic band, but you’ve performed here much more solo. For you, personally as an artist, how do the different ways of presenting your music compare?
Midge Ure: I think that to be an existing working musician, you have to be able to perform in many different ways. If I insisted on going out with a band all the time, which would be fantastic, I’d be bankrupt in three months. It just becomes so cost-prohibitive to tour with it. And this tour in particular simply came about because all my touring commitments for the last 18 months all disappeared, and my agent just said, ‘ah, look, you still have your visa valid for America. You know, if you can get a National Interest Exemption to prove that it’s of value to America, I think you’d be able to come over and do some shows.’ I’m desperate to do shows. I’m desperate to perform.
For the first time in my entire career, for 18 months, that particular avenue has been cut off for me. I’ve never not performed live. It’s second nature to me; it’s as subconscious as breathing. You don’t have to think about it. It’s just what you do. All of a sudden, to have that taken away is quite a wrench, so the idea of coming out and performing in America for a month, playing 16, 17 shows is stupidly exciting to me. At my age, I shouldn’t be excited about going out and doing shows, but I am. I am really looking forward to the whole thing. Yeah, it would be fantastic to be able to bring over Band Electronica, but right now, even if I could fiscally, I wouldn’t be able to do it logistically: to try to get exemption papers for ten people because it’s not just a band — it’s not just a four-piece band. There’s an entire crew and technicians and whatever. Trying to get that is just impossible right now.
Beyond the song choice, has the Backstage Lockdown Club or lockdown in general impacted your approach to these shows?
Midge Ure: I think there are probably limitations. You know, singing, the voice is a muscle. It’s human. It goes through good stages and bad stages. I think considering it’s been during the 18-month lockdown, even though I’ve been keeping my hand in, as it were, vocally performing, The Backstage Lockdown Club, it’s not full-on performing. It’s not the same as really opening your mouth and really belting things out. I have noticed that in the handful of shows that I’ve managed to do with my band here in the UK, it takes a human toll. It takes a physical toll. I’ve never really experienced that before, and it’s totally due to the fact that I haven’t been doing this on a regular basis. It’s a bit like asking a long-distance runner to run a marathon across the continent without training, so the idea of going out and doing a full-blown two-hour show, I think, would take its toll. So this is a great way of taking it a step beyond the comfort of doing it in my little studio here. I’m taking it out there, performing some of the songs that I’ve discovered again, and doing that live on stage for an hour and a half to two hours. It’s a great step between what I’m doing now and what I hope to be doing in a year’s time.
So you’re working on three new albums?
Midge Ure: Well, there’s always an album on the back burner. As soon as you finish an album, you start working on ideas for the next one. And I’ve been working on ideas for the last three or four years. I’m not very fast. So that’s there, in very good shape. I’ve got some, I think, very interesting pieces for that. Then, when lockdown happened, I started toying with the idea of doing some orchestrated versions. We did the ‘Orchestrated’ album two or three years ago now. When you take anything that I’ve done and do it with an orchestra, it just kind of fits, it works. It’s a very large palette. What I write is cinematic and dramatic and filmic.
Take just about anything I’ve done – you could play it with an orchestra and it would be a good match. So we started toying with some of the songs that we didn’t include, or we never tried on the original ‘Orchestrated’ album. So that’s the second album that we’ve started working on with Ty Unwin, the guy who, who did all the arrangements for the “Orchestrated” album. Then I did a stint on a classical radio station here in the UK. They asked me to host the late-night radio show, which was normally unmanned, a two-hour music show, most of it classical music. But some of it was left to me to, to find things to put in. And I started discovering all these new neoclassical writers, all these fantastic musicians who’ve all played in bands, and they all make this beautiful, textural, ambient music.
And a lot of them hail from Iceland, like Ólafur Arnalds. And Max Richter, who has a British/German background. There’s a whole slew of these brilliant musicians. And I got totally inspired to go back to start writing instrumental music again. I’ve just about completed an album of all instrumental music. It’s been a joy to do it. It’s been an absolute joy. I’ve been writing and making instrumental music since I first heard Brian Eno and Robert Fripp, and David Bowie’s “Low album.” All of those things were influences, and every album that I’ve made since then has had an instrumental track or two on it. So now I’ve gone the whole gambit. I’ve done an entire album with no vocals on it. I’m not sure how people will react to it, but I’ve loved the whole process of doing it.
When I interviewed you around ‘Fragile’ you talked about how the technology had evolved to the point where you could do everything yourself, including the videos. Have there been any advances since that time that have affected your creative process?
Midge Ure: Well, I think the range of the plugins, the range of soft synthesizers, of the technology you can use within your computer. I’ve just recently moved into my little box here. This is my little totally soundproof studio, because we were having noise issues at my old place out in the garden. And it’s reduced, it’s shrunk a little bit. So it’s even smaller than my previous studio was. So I can’t fill it full of electronic boxes, but I can fill the computer full of soft synthesizers. And this amazing series of sounds you can get: textures, and ambiance, and orchestras, and everything at your fingertips. It’s just incredible. The problem with having this amazing, unlimited access to these really high-quality sounds is that you could spend the rest of your life flicking through sounds for one little passage you’ve written.
So you write one little melody, and then you can constantly change the instrument that’s playing the melody, or create a sound that no one’s ever heard before playing the melody, and then you never get anything done. So it’s a catch 22. The more technology you have, and the more choice you have, the bigger the chances that you’ll never actually complete anything. So I try and limit myself to what I have, and I keep going back to old pieces of technology that I use within the computer and try and do different things with those pieces of technology. And rather than just go out and buy a new piece… see in Ultravox, when you wanted a bit of inspiration you bought a new synthesizer, you’d go and buy a new piece of technology and sit there and explore what that would do and what you could do with it.
And always you would come up with some sound, or some texture, or some noise that would spark off a chunk of creativity that just didn’t seem to be there before. Well, these days I go back to that technology and I explore it a little bit deeper, because in reality there’s no end. With one synthesizer, one piece of technology, you can carry on digging in there and find out what it will do as long as your brain is still interested in exploring it. So I’ve been doing a lot of that. Besides, if you’ve seen The Lockdown Club, you’ve seen the video technology that I’ve delved into in order to do that. So that whole video thing with the multimixer and moving cameras and stuff has kept me occupied for the last year. That’s been my big interest right now.
Do you think that video technology will carry over into other work?
Midge Ure: Yeah. I have the facilities now. The camera quality is ridiculously good now. And the facilities are there to create videos. So what I’d like to do, I think for the instrumental album, is make new videos. Maybe not direct them all myself, maybe not create them all myself, but I’d love to go to young filmmakers and just say, “There’s an album, choose a track that you like: It’s the soundtrack for the film that you haven’t made yet” and get them to make a film that will compliment the piece of music, as opposed to the other way around, when you do a film soundtrack, someone’s already shot the images and it’s up to the composer to write something that compliments the pictures. We’ll do it in reverse. So I can easily do that with the technology I have here. That’s always been an interest of mine, whether it’s still photography, or video technology or film.
Going back to what you were saying about Ultravox using new equipment to get creative inspiration. Can you give examples of songs this impacted?
Midge Ure: I think drum technology was quite radical. The synthesizers themselves had been around since the forties and fifties, with theremins and whatever. But drum technology was a whole different thing. And then we got a thing called the Roland CR78, which was the very first little electronic box that you could write your own drum pattern on. Most drum machines had presets on them. So you’d get a samba, or you’d get a rumba, or you got a cha-cha, and they’d all play these pre-programmed rhythms. And there wasn’t an awful lot you could do with that. It was kind of like the same technology that was inside a home organ, and you’d press a button and it would play a little rhythm, and you’d play along with it.
And so when we got this CR78, Warren, our drummer, explored this. You can only program four sounds in any one pattern, and you could record that, you could preset three or four patterns I think it was. Something like ‘Vienna’ would never have come about unless we had this little box to write that very odd kind of drum pattern. And then, of course, when LinnDrum came along, which were stupidly expensive at the time, they were two or three thousand pounds, I think. These LinnDrums actually used drum samples. So you’d have a proper bass drum and a proper snare drum, and a proper tom and a proper high hat. And you could program patterns there. Well, to get away from just recording and writing a standard drum pattern, which he could play anyway as he was a drummer, he could play it better than the machine could. It was seeing what you could actually do with the machines. So a track like Ultravox’s ‘Lament,’ you know, is a great indication of what you can actually do with a drum machine. It’s got these triplet toms, these kind of clicky rim shots and things that you would never do live with a drum kit, but you could do with a machine. So the experimentation and that side of things was incredible, but you couldn’t do it without the machine. You could experiment until you were blue in the face, but once the newer technology came out, it was how you explored that technology that made it interesting, not the fact that it could play boom-kat-boom-kat, you know, like anyone could. it was what you could actually make this machine do for you.
Did you ever consider getting involved in any of the later incarnations of Visage?
Midge Ure: No, I never saw Visage as a live project. It was always a studio project. I left after the second album, and I had no intention of going back. I’d spoken to Rusty many times about it. He’s asked me many times to get re-involved, even when Steve was alive. And I said no because it had changed. I think, like with anything, when success comes along and money comes along, it breeds contempt. All of a sudden, it wasn’t a bunch of kids in London, twiddling knobs and desperately begging and borrowing studio time to make music. All of a sudden, it became business. And that just lost its appeal to me. So the idea of going back to do it again had no appeal. But the idea of going back and doing Ultravox again after 30 years apart had a weird appeal because I think we hadn’t quite completed the circle at that point. There was something left to explore, and with Visage, I didn’t think there was.
The full list of tour dates and ticket info can be found at: www.midgeure.co.uk/shows.html.