A bit of give and a bit of take
New Model Army celebrated twenty years making music at The Palladium in Cologne in December last year. Casey Campbell had the fortune of catching Justin Sullivan not long after he'd stepped offstage on the last night in Cologne (read a review of the gig).
The seemingly tireless frontman and founder of NMA has a ton of projects lined up, leaving little time for nostalgia. However, the anniversary performances at the end of last year, reuniting past members of the band, were an interesting experience for Justin.
"To me, the real 20th anniversary was actually in Nottingham on October 31st. We did a big show at Rock City, and it was webcast. It felt special… a really special night. I've always felt that the stars of New Model Army are the songs, and we've got 150 odd tunes released. So, I had this idea that we would do two sets a night with different songs each night. A brilliant idea on paper, but 28 different songs each night for two nights running, [laughs] in real life, it's slightly less of a good idea from our point of view, because it's just an awful lot to remember!"
They did it in London, and they got a great response from the audiences, but it was tough on the band. Then they came to Cologne and tried to do it all over again. By the end of the second night, Justin says they were pretty frazzled and that, to be honest, they were not playing their best, but it probably didn't matter.
"It's not about that; it's about the event. In terms of an event, I think it was great. I will never do it again, I think. More to the point, I promised my band that I would never do it again.
"The point is, I looked at the list of songs we've released, and knew that my band know 80 of these. That's long-term memory. That's a quick run-through, and 'yeah, I can remember that'. But that's different from 60 songs, instant recall, no chance to run through it, and you're gonna play a different set tomorrow. That's more than is fair to ask of any musician, I think, unless you're playing three chord songs. But all of our songs have key changes, a billion notes per bass line!"
It was hard for the members of the band, but they said "we'll go for it," and it happened. Justin says that, though he wouldn't choose to do it again, it was a good experiment. The setlists were chosen by consensus, rather than democracy or a Justin-led dictatorship. Whoever felt strongest about a particular thing got their own way.
"It's like in families, or in any relationship. It's a bit of 'give' and a bit of 'take'. There's no formal structure that can make a band work. There are apparently some bands that are actual, formal democracies. I can't imagine that. This band, from day one, has worked by consensus. You know, I'm very strong-minded, so most of the time I get my own way… but not always."
New Model Army is planning to release some of the performances of the tour. The Nottingham show is going to come out on video, with the sound remixed from what went out on the web. The two London shows were formally filmed by a French film crew with five cameras, in comparison with the Nottingham that was just shot at the moment. Justin has looked at the film and listened to the tapes and is planning to put together a "really classy DVD" out of the footage, "something with real class". He points out that the Nottingham video will be a bit "bootleggy", because the actual footage can't be altered now.
The shows will be the last chance for fans to hear the band play some of the songs, unless or until there's another anniversary show in ten years time.
"There's a limit to how many songs you can go on playing. I know that I always wanna play the new ones. We've performed a lot of new songs, for the anniversary shows, but we've also done more old tunes than we normally would."
In a way, history has come around again and the old tunes have a refreshed relevance. During the show, Justin said that Reagan, Thatcher, and Kohl are gone, but New Model Army is still here. But…
"Now we've got Bush, Jnr.! We're back to where we started! We've got Bush, Blair, who is not that different from fuckin' Thatcher, and we've got Schroeder, who isn't doing so great here! So, yeah, I know… terrible, isn't it?"
But he agrees that it should give him plenty of material with which to work. However, Justin has since taken a break from NMA, but not from working, concentrating on touring with one of his side projects, Red Sky Coven.
"That's a different sort of thing altogether for me. My oldest friends are Joolz, Rev Hammer, and Brett Selby (fellow Red Sky Coven members)… we've been best friends for 20 years. Red Sky Coven is for me… just the best time. We do it once every two years. We get together, and we do this tour. Rev's a singer/songwriter, but he's also a great comedian, tells jokes with that kind of Irish cockney flair. Joolz is a poet and tells great stories. I'm a serious singer/songwriter, not inclined to tell a lot of jokes, but we really complement each other. We all take turns at the mike and support one another. It's magic."
Justin's main contribution to Red Sky is acoustic versions of New Model Army songs; while he also plays the same songs live with Dave Blomberg as Big Guitars in Little Europe.
"Big Guitars in Little Europe, New Model Army, Red Sky Coven… none of it's any different to me. I just write songs. Some work with a band, some work without a band, and some songs work both ways."
Justin was also looking ahead to his trip to the States, touring the places where New Model Army has always been strongest. New York, up the East Coast to Canada, around Chicago, maybe a bit around Texas, and then to the West Coast. However, he didn't seem to be looking forward to it.
"There's nothing for us in America. We were always shafted by the business there. That's no great criticism of America. There are European bands that arrive in the US with great hype, but if American business doesn't want to swing in behind them, they'll do their eight-week tour and leave having made no impression whatsoever. Which is what happened to us two or three times.
"If you're an American band, you go round-and-round-and-round, and you do it the hard way. We had that option, but we've been through that here in Europe, and our lives are too short. I don't know any band who has done it the hard way in Europe AND the hard way in America. It's not possible."
Justin has no idea of the size of their US fanbase. He knows there are people dotted around in cities. It's strong in New York; it's strong in Orange County, Los Angeles, and in Chicago, and parts of Texas. One guy came to the shows in London from Omaha, Nebraska, and he told them that he knows for a fact that no-one in Nebraska has ever heard of New Model Army. He had to fly to England to see them.
"With New Model Army in America, you're always counting how much money you're losing. When we go over, we've got a certain standard for our live performances. Musicians expect to be paid, and these are fucking good musicians. Our crew, and, we wouldn't go without our crew, expect to be paid. They are a fucking good crew. We're not gonna ditch everything. Instead, what we're going to do is go with Dean and one crew, and we're gonna do New Model Army kinda 'stripped down.'
"As far as I'm concerned, the Big Guitars in Little Europe idea has all the power, passion, and intensity of New Model Army without the rhythm section. Emotionally, it's still as powerful. I can do that in America without having to worry about how many dollars we're losing, because we don't have many dollars to lose, to be honest. I'll be quite happy to spend weeks on the backroads of America, if that's what it takes."
With twenty years behind him, Justin Sullivan is showing no sign of slowing down. Here's hoping the New Model Army will continue to march for another 20!
Interview and photos by Casey Campbell