New Model Army frontman Justin Sullivan talks Neil Young and Irish humor

If you listen to frontman/bandleader Justin Sullivan tell it, it's a surprise that New Model Army is still around at all. Formed in 1980 with the intention of playing just two pub gigs in the band's hometown of Bradford, England, NMA is still heralded today for its politically engaging lyrics and the passionate fury underlying its acoustic guitar-based attack. Twenty-eight years later, the band endures in spite of numerous personnel shifts, visa problems, and flagrant stylistic changes. New Times caught up with Sullivan just as he was leaving a Neil Young show.

New Times: How was the show?

Justin Sullivan: It's the first time I've seen him, and he's one of those people that's been with me since I was 13 or so. Wonderful. He just is what he is. I think he's my favorite guitar player now.

New Model Army still has that old punk spirit.
New Model Army still has that old punk spirit.

NT: After seeing him tonight, you mean?

JS: Well, he's been creeping up my guitar players' charts over the years.

NT: Many Americans aren't especially aware of British politics. Most of us know little, if anything, about Oliver Cromwell.

JS: Well, with the band name, I don't suppose people outside Britain know anything about it at all. Why should they? Much more embarrassing to me is that lots of British people don't know anything about it, either. Basically, we had a revolution in the 17th century, and the New Model Army was the army that won against the king. From that army came all the first ideas about democracy. It's actually a very important part of American history as well. But the name, for instance, in Ireland, means something completely different, because Cromwell later took the army to Ireland and committed all sorts of atrocities.

NT: How do people receive you in Ireland?

JS: Fortunately, the Irish have got quite a bit of a sense of humor [laughs]. The interesting thing about revolutions is, they all follow the same pattern. There's always a revolution followed by a period of anarchy — with a huge ferment of ideas and idealism — followed by a military dictatorship.

NT: Just like punk!

JS: If I think back about punk, it was a little cultural revolution. It then turned into a style of music, which is actually not what it was at the time. The principle was that the spirit with which you play is the important thing. This comes back to Neil Young's concert; Neil Young is absolutely a punk. Punk rock didn't just mean playing three chords badly. At the time, it meant poets getting up in pubs, or singer/songwriters doing basic stuff with a banjo and a washboard — anything. It was basically an anything-goes era. And then, sadly, it turned into a style, in which you've got to play very basic music. It was the spirit we were interested in, and have still taken with us, I think. We still go up onstage every night believing "this matters, this is about something, this is for something," but it's not to do with a particular style or music.

 
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