Throughout their 20 year history, New Model Army have never really fallen into a clearly defined musical genre. That’s one of the reasons why nothing on “Great Expectations,” their new singles collection, sounds the least bit dated. Existing just outside the mainstream, the group has consistently put out fantastic, emotionally charged rock music with highly intelligent lyrics and a slightly dark edge. “Great Expectations” is really just a small sampling of what New Model Army are about, but it serves as a great introduction to the band. The group recently embarked on their first US tour in a decade (performing with a scaled-down line-up consisting of Justin Sullivan on guitar/vocals and Dean White on guitar/keyboards/vocals). Shortly before the tour began, we got Justin on the phone for an interview.
How does it feel to be touring the US for the first time in a decade?
Justin :”Good. We’re very much looking forward to it.”
Why has it been so long?
Justin :”It’s a mixture of things. It’s partly to do with money, and partly because if you don’t have sort of obvious industry presence in America, it is actually quite hard to get in, legally.”
What effect will the scaled down line-up have on the sound?
Justin :”Well, obviously it doesn’t always sound like the records. But we have actually made records as a two and three piece. It’s just as emotionally intense. We can’t make as much noise with two people. If anything, I find it to be a really interesting creative challenge to make just 2 instruments, 2 people, sonically interesting for an hour and a half.”
Are there songs that you’d like to do that don’t work in this format?
Justin :”Yeah, there’s certainly some. There are about 150 songs released by New Model Army. I would say that we do versions of maybe 50 of them. Obviously, there’s certain songs that wouldn’t work, but we do know an awful lot that we can do in this format. We’ll vary it as we go along.”
Will you be focusing on material from the new singles collection, or mixing things up?
Justin :”It will completely mixed up, from very old stuff to very new stuff that isn’t even widely available in the States. To be honest, we don’t really think about that [the singles collection.] We just put together shows that we think are really musically interesting and intense. We don’t worry too much about whether people know a great deal of the songs. We certainly won’t be focusing on the singles collection.”
Are you doing any unreleased stuff?
Justin :”Yeah, there’s certain songs that have never even been recorded that we play a lot in this format. And with New Model Army, our B-sides have historically been better than our A-sides. The songs that we haven’t put on any of our albums at all are probably best in the lot.”
Did you have any idea that New Model Army would still be going after 20 years?
Justin :”Oh god, no. I thought it would be one show.”
At what point did you realize that it would be a long-term project?
Justin :”Last week? I guess it sort of turns into a life, and I’m not sure about at what point that happened. We literally started the band to play one show at a pub in Bradford and we never had any sort of great ambitions. It was always just for the joy of playing. One thing led to another and another, and here we are.”
Will there be a new New Model Army album in the near future?
Justin :”Yeah, we’ve started work on one that will be released next year. It’s been a while …. there’s been live ones and compilations of lost songs and stuff like that. But the last actual studio album was 3 years ago, so it’s time for a new one.”
What can we expect from the new disc?
Justin :”It’s always a difficult one, that question. You write songs, but until they’re actually recorded … songs have a life of their own and our influences at all times are very wide. We all listen to very different kinds of music; we’re all into very different things all the time. Which is probably why our music sounds like lots of things, but not quite like anything else. And each album has been different from the previous one. In the middle of the 90’s we did an album where we were locked in the studio for 4 years and sort of recorded millions and millions of songs and bits of music. I think every band does an album like that. That album, called ‘Strange Brotherhood,’ came out in 1998. The following album, ‘Eight,’ which came out in 2000, was deliberately a reaction against that. It was written and recorded really fast and not done in a really produced way. So I think that this album we’re working on now might be a reaction against that, it might go back to being more produced.”
Do you have your own studio set-up? What are your thoughts on digital recording technology?
Justin :”We now have our own set-up, we have for about the last 4 of 5 years. With computers, you can fix any mistake and make anything happen. There’s a great art in learning not to do that, and we’re learning that, I think. All musicians … when you learn to play, you’re trying to play the right notes and not make mistakes. There’s all this technology now to fix any mistake, so it’s very easy to get very involved with that. But I think most musicians turn around at the end of it and say ‘oh no, it sounds so boring.’ So we know when to leave all that technology alone.”
What do you think of the internet as a promotional and marketing tool?
Justin :”I think the internet is great for bands like us, if you want to exist outside of the industry and the media. We never were a media band …. we weren’t on MTV, we weren’t on the radio very much, partly because no one has been able to define us. We don’t fit into a genre; we’re not a rock band exactly, we’re not a metal band. What happens is that people hear a song and they think ‘I love that’ and then they want to find out what it is, who the bands is, and so one. The internet makes that possible on a worldwide basis. And that’s been great for a band like us.”
Based on the feedback you’ve been getting, do you think it’s mostly long-time fans visiting your site, or are you getting a lot of people who’ve recently discovered the band?
Justin :”It’s a mixture. I think all of us who love music are constantly looking out for new bands and inspirations who we haven’t heard before. And that might come from someone brand new, but it equally could come from someone who’s been around for 15 years that you’ve never actually come across. Like I discovered Queens of the Stoneage on the second album, not the first.”
Getting back to not easily fitting into a genre, was there ever any pressure from labels to try to change that?
Justin :”Coming out of punk, we were very cynical about the business from the beginning. People would come to us and say ‘why don’t you try doing that? You’ll be more successful.’ And we always kind of shrugged and went ‘yeah, whatever’ and ignored them on principle. Because success for its own sake was never our primary goal anyway. We were always just trying to do stuff that sounded right for us. I think we’ve made probably every mistake a band could make over the years, and I’m kind proud of that. I’m glad we made our own mistakes. Maybe we should have taken advice when given, but generally speaking we never trusted outsiders and always followed our own star.”
Can you give an example of something you’ve learned due to making your own mistakes?
Justin :”It took us a few years to learn that speed isn’t exactly the same thing as power. The faster you play doesn’t actually make it better. I think generally the thing that musicians learn eventually is that less is more. And to be honest, I think that music has changed quite a lot. Everything is dynamics now, and I think part of that is the massive influence of hip hop across all styles of music. Space and dynamics. When we started, it was everything full-on all the time for a kind of really intense experience. I think the best thing is change … we never really found a sound and stuck to it. We found a sound and did it for one album, and then when everyone said ‘oh, THAT’S what they sound like!’ on the next album we’d do something completely different. And that keeps you creatively fresh and interested.”
Do you ever scrap material because it sounds too much like what you’ve already done?
Justin :”Yeah, we do sometimes. I’ve very conscious about that as a songwriter. I’m very proud of the fact that I’ve never written the same song twice.”
What’s next, after this US tour?
Justin :”A few days after that, we’re going a short full band tour of Britain, Germany, and Holland. And then it’s pretty much getting the next record finished, and then a full tour maybe in the summer or fall.”