New Model Army formed in England in 1980. Led by singer/songwriter Justin Sullivan, the band covered the same political territory as peers U2 and The Alarm but, at least in the U.S., never gained the notorietyâ€”or experienced the record salesâ€”that those two bands did. Mixing a punk ethos with a pop sensibility, New Model Army has influenced bands ranging from trash metal masters Sepultura to Irish folkies The Frames.
In the fall of 2006, the band inked a deal with U.S. indie label Devil Doll Records to release the BD3 EP. I had a chance to speak with Justin Sullivan at the tail end of the year while he was on tour in Portugal. Let it be said that Sullivan is one of the most well-spoken musicians I’ve ever had the pleasure of interviewing.
With a recently announced rare tour of the U.S., I thought it might be a good opportunity to dust off this interview (which first appeared in Skratch Magazine earlier this year) and unleash it to a global audience.
No disrespect intended, but New Model Army really seems like a dinosaur in context of the modern music world. Age doesnâ€™t matter when it comes to listening to music but Iâ€™m wondering if youâ€™re at all interested in gaining new, younger fans or if youâ€™re content with the fan base youâ€™ve built over the last 25 years?
Justin: We donâ€™t really think about â€˜fan basesâ€™ or â€˜gaining fansâ€™. As you say, this has been a long journeyâ€“some people have followed us for a very long time as if weâ€™ve made the soundtrack of their lives. Other people have traveled with us for shorter periods of time and then moved on. Others are just discovering us now. We do what we do and have long given up on trying to dictate how itâ€™s received. Actually, you can never tell whoâ€™s going to fall in love with NMA music. It seems to be completely randomâ€“like whoâ€™s going to pick you up when youâ€™re hitchhiking.
If there is a 20-year-old kid reading this interview and wondering which New Model Army album he or she should purchase first to provide a greater insight into the band, which album would you recommend?
Justin: One of the things that weâ€™re most proud of is that all the albums are different. We donâ€™t really feel like â€˜dinosaursâ€™, as you so sweetly put it, because we never really got stuck at any point (not having had â€˜hitsâ€™ has been a help in that sense). I think the New Model Army and Nobody Else double live album from 1999 is a good place to start or last yearâ€™s live DVD, Thunder and Consolation, is also often thought of as a particular landmark. We once asked on our Website for peopleâ€™s top three NMA songs and 120 different ones got mentioned, which is an indication of something.
Youâ€™ve always been rather outspoken in your lyrics, dealing with politics head on. Is it safe to say that as long as there is a government, youâ€™ll have lyrical fodder?
Justin: Yes, you have a pointâ€“and there will always be a bloody government! But itâ€™s not always about criticising governments. Getting older and studying history, you begin to see longer-term patterns of power, culture, the movement of people, and so on. That said, it has always fascinated me that the lengths that powerless people will go to to achieve power are usually less than the lengths that powerful people will use to maintain their power.
Iâ€™m wondering if you have any thoughts and opinions about the current state of affairs in America?
Justin: America sometimes makes me think of Britain in the second half of the 19th centuryâ€”global power, unmatched military might, and strong sense of self-righteousness but simultaneously a rotting from withinâ€”as an Empire forged with confidence, hunger, belief, and energy becomes a settled regime run by mediocrities who are mostly concerned with keeping their jobs and positions on the gravy train. Meanwhile the poorer people at home are entirely excluded from the benefits of Empire and are just used as cannon fodder. This appears to be an inevitable process of every great power in history.
New Model Army has experimented with different musical styles over the course of its history. Do you look back and think you made any mistakes along the way as far as the actual sound of the band?
Justin: Yes, definitely. I can think of a couple of blind alleys weâ€™ve been up where we tried things that didnâ€™t quite work but thatâ€™s fine. One of the truest homilies Iâ€™ve ever heard is that in life itâ€™s pretty easy to forgive yourself for your mistakes. The things that you regret and cannot forgive yourself for are where you wanted to try or say or do something but were too lazy or scared to do so.
Youâ€™ve never had the success in the U.S. that youâ€™ve had in Europe. Was there a point where you decided to give up on attracting attention in America or with each release do you treat the U.S. the way you treat every other country where you release records?
Justin: There was a time when we used to come to America with large budget tours in the expectation that it would be like Europe. After weâ€™d lost our shirts a few times, we decided to stop and there was a long period when we didnâ€™t come at all. But then Americans who loved the band would keep flying to Europe to see us and we began to feel that we should repay their loyalty by finding a way of coming back. So we did and have done several short North American tours over the last five years.
Could you provide a bit of an insight into the EP that Devil Doll Records put out?
Justin: Itâ€™s a bit of an odd release really in the sense that itâ€™s really eclectic. The lead track, “BD3” is taken from our last album Carnival and lyrically is a snap shot of Bradford, the city where we are based with its long history of immigration and fascinating and occasionally turbulent multi-culture. This is accompanied by “Rumour and Rapture,” a commissioned song about the period of anarchy immediately after the English Revolution of the 17th century and told from the point of view of a disillusioned soldier. Then thereâ€™s another story song “One Bullet,” an acoustic ballad, “Caslen,” a dub remix of one of the other Carnival tracks and three full-on live tracks from a German Festival this summer.
Are there contemporary bands that you place great faith in?
Justin: Thereâ€™s a young band from Bradford called New York Alcoholic Anxiety Attack who are all about 19 or 20-years-old, who are totally original, passionate, and are going to be brilliantâ€”so weâ€™ve been helping them along a little bit. Of all the rock bands to emerge in the last ten years, Queens of the Stone Age stand head and shoulders above the rest for me. Iâ€™m happy to see the recent revival of guitar bands and punk attitude in the UK and U.S. but for the most part the actual content is mostly stuff Iâ€™ve heard before in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s.
As youâ€™ve been doing this for 25 years, I donâ€™t imagine you have an end in sight. Will you be writing and recording music until the day you die? And, when itâ€™s all said and done, what would you most like New Model Army to be remembered for?
Justin: Yes, I hope until the day I die. As for our legacy, I donâ€™t get to choose that. I donâ€™t think of an audience, as a single animal, rather as individuals with different lives and emotions and different needs from our music. But I think weâ€™ve always stayed true to our desire to tell our version of the truth (whoever it upsets), to not repeat ourselves and to put creativity above everything else.