For New Model Army leader Justin Sullivan, punk’s not dead as long as it keeps evolving.
By: Saby Reyes-Kulkarni
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. 28 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. Highlights from that conversation follow:
New Times: How was the show?
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.
NT: After seeing him tonight, you mean?
S: Well, he’s been creeping up my guitar player’s charts over the years.
NT: Many Americans aren’t especially aware of British politics. Most of us know little, if anything, about Oliver Cromwell.
S: 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 guys in Ireland?
S: Fortunately, the Irish have got quite a bit of a sense of humor. [Laughs.] We’ve never played Drogheda, though, the town that Cromwell razed. 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!
S: 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 principal 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. For example, we sat down and had a meal together one night, and we tried to come up with an album in the history of music that we all unreservedly loved. We didn’t have one that we had in common. I think that’s pretty rare for a band. My personal background is in soul music. I’m a Tamla-Motown, Northern Soul fanatic. Michael [Dean], our drummer, comes from very much a rock background, although he’s very interested in tribal rhythms. [Bassist without last name] Nelson is from the artier end of rock music; he loves Sonic Youth and PJ Harvey and that sort of thing. Marshall [Gill], our guitar player, is absolutely a blues fanatic and worships B.B. King and Dean [White], who plays keyboards and guitar with us, is a late-‘60s psychedelic garage man. So we don’t have very much in common as musicians. What we do is try and take all these kinds of things and make something that’s individual. All our albums have been different, and all our songs have different vibes. We’re just open to every idea from wherever it comes. People say “oh, you’re a punk rock band.” Well, in terms of a spirit, I think we retain quite a lot of that. But in terms of style of music, not at all, really.
NT: Similarly, the whole term “alternative” in the early ‘90s literally meant the records you couldn’t find a section for because they were too different from everything else. Then, five years later, alternative becomes a style of music.
S: It’s strange. When I was growing up, R&B meant “rhythm and blues” whether it was played by... whoever it was played by. But then, through American marketing, it became ‘music that was played by black people.’ I remember going through a record store and not being able to find Stevie Wonder under “W” or “S.” And they said “no, no; that would be under R&B.” And I thought “huh?” That’s soul-cum-jazz. R&B. I wouldn’t have thought so. It’s strange how these terms come... they’re all pretty ludicrous in the end.
NT: Looking back on the punk movement, having been through it, what were your feelings on how quickly it immobilized itself? Why do you think that happened?
S: It’s a word that means so many different things in different ways to different people that is difficult, but it was an era. I suppose, like all eras, it passed on into another era. And then the particular cultural set-up that caused it to happen in the first place was altered. I mean, the idea that you would take influences from everywhere and apply a punk spirit to everything, that went on and still continues. In the early ‘80s it led on to that kind of post-punk thing in Britain -- Killing Joke, the Banshees, and the Cult and so on. The Cult turned into a rock band; Killing Joke turned into an incredibly interesting, if slightly self-defeating in the end, amazingly influential, sort-of metal band. I’m not sure how you’d describe them. We turned into...I’m not quite sure what. We got interested in folk melodies for a while. In the late ‘80s, there was that kind of folk-rock thing, and people said ‘oh, you’re a folk band.’ [Laughs]
NT: There are two aspects of the band that kind of go hand in hand. First, this whole idea that acoustic guitars and a more folkish approach can be just as powerful as electric guitars. That you can still have an attack with some measures of restraint.
S: Actually, there were acoustic guitars on our very first record. I don’t think we every thought about how tough we had to be. It’s almost the problem with metal things, there are certain requirements. There are almost no requirements in New Model Army. We do whatever we like. Melodically, I think there is certainly a folk influence in there. That’s just my sense of melody, I guess. But, in terms of what instruments we can or can’t use, anything goes, really.
NT: The second thing was, there’s sort of this underlying sense to the band that destruction isn’t constructive, as opposed to, say, intellectual development. It seems like the band’s sense of rebellion is more sharply honed, and less reckless.
S: Possibly. Although if you just take the last record [High], there are a couple of songs that are about hope and dignity, and there’s a couple of songs which are just about the glory of destruction. I think that bands tend to divide themselves between the bands that sing ultimately about hope and love and human dignity and so on and bands that sing about destruction, sex-drugs-rock and roll and so on. I think we veer violently between the two things. “All Consuming Fire,” on the last album, is absolutely about the joy of the utter destruction of human civilization as we know it. At the same time, there’ll be a song like “Dawn.” Basically, people get up... you get up some mornings and you think “I love the world. Things are going to be okay. I love live. I love love.” And then some mornings you think “fuck it, I hate everything. Give me a button and I’ll press it now.” That’s kind of the truth of being alive. So we’re prepared to write songs from both points of view. One journalist once told me “journalists are terrified to say they like you because they don’t know what you’re going to say next week.” And I think that’s a wonderful position to be in, because we reserve to write deeply politically-incorrect songs. Songs like “the Hunt” or “My People Right from Wrong.” Or, on the new album, there’s a song called “One of the Chosen,” which is about the joy of being a religious fundamentalist. It’s sung from the inside -- what it feels like to have that amount of faith. ‘Cuz I remember what I feels like, because I used to religion-hop when I was a kid. As a lyricist, I feel free to write about anything from any point of view. As it adds up as a body of work, it starts to make sense, but if you take individual songs, they’re completely contradictory. But then, I think life is pretty contradictory, and human emotion is contradictory. Music is about emotion, not about philosophy. I would separate us completely from bands like Consolidated or Fugazi, because at the end of the day, they have a particular political philosophy and we don’t, actually.
NT: So yours is more of a reaction, an emotional response.
S: An emotional response, yes. Emotional responses are kind of variable, aren’t they? So our lyrics are pretty contradictory. And I’m quite proud of that, really!
NT: With that in mind, what is your feeling on how effective music can be in bringing about awareness or more social/political engagement?
S: I think it definitely can. There’s a couple of people that have come to me and said “your music altered my entire mindset,” but I don’t think that’s very common. I think what music does is it gives people a sense of strength and unity; a bit like going on a demonstration. If you feel something about the world, and you suddenly hear a lyric or a song that really expresses what you feel, it’s a very strengthening thing. That’s happened to me. I’ll hear a song by somebody that puts exactly what I feel into words and I go, “Yeah!” That’s what music does for people. Like all musicians, I’m a fan of music, so I’m inspired by stuff that I love, just as some people have been inspired by stuff that we’ve done. It’s kind of a chain of inspiration. [Laughs.] We take stuff that we love and make stuff, and then some people love what we do and turn it into something else.
NT: Speaking of the chain, how much does the music of people who on the surface seem like-minded -- like Billy Bragg or Robyn Hitchcock -- strike a chord with you?
S: The two aforementioned, not at all really. Of course, I know ‘em both and I like some of their music, but I can’t say that either has been a big inspiration.
NT: A lot of times bands don’t really listen to things that other people put in the same sphere as what they do themselves.
S: Yeah, I think you’re probably right about that.
NT: A friend of mine who plays put it like this: if my band is sausage made up of this band and this band and this band, why would I listen to other sausages? I would rather just go straight to the things that went into those sausages and listen to that.
S: [Laughs.] Most of my favorite music is American. And American folk music I’ve always really loved...Bruce Springsteen, Gillian Welch, and Neil Young’s folk stuff. British artists are much more into the kind of wild thing you get in Britain which takes from everywhere including classical music: Kate Bush, Killing Joke.
NT: What new ground would you say the band is covering now or striving for? How would you say this record High stands apart? Where is it pointing to?
S: [Laughing:] I don’t know! Each record we’ve made has been quite different; a strong reaction to the one we’d done previously. On Carnival, we decided to try and experiment with all kinds of different song structures. There aren’t many choruses but in many ways some of my favorite stuff is on that record. But it’s quite an esoteric record. It’s not very instant. And then High, in a way, is a reaction against that. It’s full of chorus and quite a straightforward rock record. So I don’t quite know what the next one will be like.
NT: And you won’t know ‘til you do it?
S: That’s right. We tend to write in blocks and collect ideas while we’re on tour or out and about. Occasionally I’ll write a whole song with a guitar on my own in a singer-songwriter way, but that’s quite rare. And I like particularly to work with rhythm sections. I love rhythm sections. We’ve always had fantastic players in New Model Army. That’s one of the influences of soul that’s in our music. The emphasis on a moving rhythm section. The bass and drums are quite free and quite busy and quite moving rather than keeping a kind of simple thing going while the guitarists show off. I like it the other way around, the guitar parts to be quite simple and the rhythm section to be moving.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene with music features, additional online music listings and show picks. We'll also send special ticket offers and music promotions available only to our Music Newsletter subscribers.