Since 1984 and their debut album Vengeance, New Model Army have moved forward on their own terms. The band has a reputation built up due to their truthful attitude towards the music press which left them being cast in an awkward light, and arguably created a distraction from the music that was being created. Lyrics which touched on political issues, family relationships and spirituality flowed to an earthy musical backdrop which felt edgy at some points and perhaps melancholy during others. Thanks to their hard work and longevity, these UK-based rockers have gone through line-up changes, many tours and have gained a lot of respect in conjunction with a very loyal fan base. Described by some as a post-punk band and by others as an alternative rock outfit, the band has certainly retained their own distinct sound and consequently identity.
The only original member left standing within the ranks of New Model Army is the voice, Justin Sullivan. Looking over their back catalogue up to their most recent release, you can count 12 studio albums which represent an impressive body of work. Talking to Sullivan regarding their latest album Between Dog and Wolf, his pride and sense of accomplishment is tangible. Two of Sullivan’s favorite albums are Hounds of Love by Kate Bush and Quadrophenia by The Who which he cites as being complete pieces of work musically speaking, despite the albums being made up of different songs. This latest album by New Model Army he feels possesses the same results musically, as each song works to create a whole piece of music although the 14 songs that make up Between Dog and Wolf are separate. “It’s a concept album musically, not lyrically, but musically it is. We thought about it as a whole.”
“I think the title track is very good, Ghosts is very good, I think it’s exactly what we intended.” This is Sullivan’s response when asked about whether the songs on the new album came out as well as he had wished. “We were very tired of making records that, you know, were very promising, but at the end of the day they just were slightly, they weren’t particularly sonically pleasing. They weren’t really well mixed or they weren’t really well mastered or something. And we just decided this time we were going to make a record that was sonically fantastic. We thought about it from the very beginning.” Sullivan continues with this thread of thought as he reflects over Between Dog and Wolf. “We spent the summer basically rearranging a lot of these songs to be played live; yeah, interesting. I mean a whole new creative process, and actually one that involved us all at the same time . And it was great; the atmosphere in the band’s really good.”
Despite running out of time during their rehearsals and efforts to rearrange these songs from the new album for the live arena, only two were left out of the party. This only goes to reiterate what a strong album Between Dog and Wolf is, when the band are ready to take 12 out of the 14 songs and add them in to their set list.
Following on from this talk about how the songs were assembled in the studio in comparison to how they would work in the live environment, what was Sullivan’s outlook when it came to preparing the set list and what to communicate to the audience? “The thing about set lists to me is that it really matters. There are so many different criteria that you have to think about. First of all there’s a kind of, you have to draw the audience in to something; you have to set up a mood. So you can’t chop and change moods. You have to go through–if you’re in a really, really dark mood you can’t chuck a pop song in the middle of it and then go back to a dark mood, or I can’t, you know because I’m in a dark mood.” The vocalist continues, “Then there’s all the different beats. You have to keep the music changing and developing, all the different beats, the different instrumentation we’ve got that’s now quite complex, different keys of the songs. And then the fact we don’t tend to like to stop very much between the songs, we’re one of those bands that like’s just to go bang, bang, bang.”
Regarding the album, immediate highlights in the shape of March in September (there’s an official video to accompany this song if you get a moment to check it out online), Knievel (song about the famous daredevil) and Qasr El Nil Bridge which is the longest track on this recorded set; all showcase the sonically improved aesthetics and overall quality on Between Dog and Wolf. “One of the mistakes people make about New Model Army is that they think because sometimes we’ve written about politics or had gut-reaction songs which are about stuff happening in the world–and there’s one on the new album about the Egyptian revolution obviously–but people sometimes make a mistake of thinking that we exist for political reasons. The music’s kind of a backdrop to some agenda, but actually that’s really, really not true.” Sullivan finds the words in which to elaborate on his point about where lyrically the songs come from. “Sometimes we write from the point of view of things we don’t even agree with. Going back to the very, very first album Vengeance; deeply politically incorrect. I believe in justice, I believe in vengeance, I believe in getting the bastard! I do sometimes, and sometimes I believe in forgiveness you know. Emotions are contradictory and music is about emotions, so there isn’t an agenda, a political philosophy that we’re trying to peddle with New Model Army. It’s just about what it’s like being alive; spiritual, political, relationships, families, everything.”
So how do New Model Army compose a song? “The way we tend to write is that we collect musical ideas from everybody, you know; bass lines, chord sequences, bits of melody and the odd jam session, whatever. Especially, drum beats, and we put them in a cupboard called ‘musical ideas’, and then in the other cupboard there goes lyrical ideas which is stuff that I want to write about. I’ve got notebooks full of stuff which are stories that people have told me or things I’ve read or things that have happened or things I’ve seen, or whatever. That goes in to the stuff I want to write about, and then you have to stop doing everything else. You have to stop thinking about touring; you have to stop playing, touring, thinking about business, thinking about anything except music.”
The momentum that Sullivan has at this point of the conversation is admirable as he shares the inside world to their creative process. “The important thing is to wait ‘til the cupboards are really full. If you start with the cupboards a bit empty then you quickly run out of ideas and you’re kind of staring at a blank sheet of paper going ‘what shall I do?’ But if you’ve got cupboards absolutely bang full of musical ideas, you can just go ‘that didn’t work, let’s try this.’” Since New Model Army have been plying their trade for around 33 years, this creative approach to their song-writing is a tried and tested formula and has certainly befriended the results found on Between Dog and Wolf.
Sullivan acknowledges that his physical environment near the Yorkshire Moors in England plays an element in being part of his muse. With its picturesque, almost rustic qualities, it’s easy to understand how the imagination feeding off the space and natural identity that has been shaped by the weather and by those who inhabit the region could create the atmosphere in some of the band’s songs. On this new album there’s a song called Summer Moors which Sullivan explains is a direct tribute to the beautiful scenery and character of Yorkshire. “But I also think there’s a frustration that creates the thought ‘we’ve got to get out of here!’ We’ve got to get out of this small town England sort of thing, you kind of feel that as well.”
You may well be justified in saying that New Model Army are a successful band, the epitome of success within the parameters of what it is to be a band. To be a band like New Model Army…they’re touring the globe, releasing albums which don’t compromise in artistic integrity and they’re not tied to a dead-end job. But how does Sullivan view such an opinion? “Success when you’re a musician is making a living from it.” The vocalist then adds “As for artistic success, well, the benchmark keeps changing, doesn’t it? It’s like when you make something you think that’s good. And then after a while you want to make something else, so that never stops. Have we made the best New Model Army album ever? I don’t know, I hope not!”
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