Between Dog And Wolf: New Model Army Interview With Justin Sullivan
New Model Army
New Model Army's new album 'Between Dog and Wolf' is such a far cry from the Bradford band's previous work that it will catch even the most dedicated of the Army's 'family' of fans off guard on it's release on Monday.
Almost consistently dark and ominous, 'Between Dog and Wolf' is a fourteen track journey through a landscape of storms and shadows. It's dark, evocative, flowing and complete.
The rawness has gone. No longer shouting out with anger, this album is poetic and atmospheric. Pared down but beautifully layered, it is vast in it's musicality. Both introspective and bleak, the album demonstrates a positively melodramatic change in both the band's direction and the singer's personal perspective. The rhythmic hypnotic drums are tribal and earthy - almost a call to arms - with singer Justin Sullivan leading us away from the past to horizons that don't always promise the sun.
Rehearsing in Bradford in preparation for their tour that also begins on Monday, Justin talked of the influences and intention behind such a radical change for the band.
Much has been said about the difference in sound of this album - what are your feelings about the change in direction for the band?
"I think it's a really interesting record. I think its a really old fashioned record in a way that you really go into, like a self contained world. It's a strange one in a sense in that we talked about it a lot before we started which is not usual for us -it's normally write the songs, get in the room, rehearse as a band, and then play them.
We talked a lot about the layered drums, and then we thought - one of the problems with New Model Army music is that we like tom tom rhythms, we also like top end of the bass, we also like the bottom end of the guitar, and I've got a baritone/tenor voice so everything is down there. So what we thought we needed was to clear some space if we were going to have the multi-layered drums, so let's get rid of the rhythmic guitar, or if we are not getting rid of the guitars - let's get rid of the bass to make space for the drums. And everyone in the band was very flexible about it so it worked really well."
What made you decide to make such a radically different record?
"I think we just felt we'd made a few 'rock band in a room' albums and it was time to do something different. The thing about New Model Army is that whatever anybody thinks we are we try and do the opposite. We are very conscious of not trying to do the same thing again and again. I remember talking to a music critic in London once and he said,'all my fellow critics are terrified to say they like you cos they don't know what you are going to do next week!' (laughing) And as an accolade for an artist I don't think you can get higher than that.
For this album. two things sonically really helped. We had the opportunity to record the drums in London on tape. And tape just sounds better. Tape has this weird warm fat compression - you can't do that digitally, it just doesn't work.
And the other thing is we decided not to use a producer. But we also agreed we were going to get an A list mixer so we used Joe Barresi and in that awful long winter in February we got to go to LA and spend time with him."
You say that the drums influenced the lyrics, but it is more of a reflective and introspective album. Has that been influenced by your experiences in last four years?
"Possibly yes, but I think there was no need to write Today is a Good Day again. We've done that and didn't feel it necessary to do it again. That's one thing. But yeah the experiences of the last four years and where I am in my life have made it more reflective."
It does seem like you are looking back and also looking at horizons, but they appear a bit ominous... (laughter). I can't tell if you are running away from the war or towards it!
Laughs, "Oh my nature is always to run towards the horizon, even if it is ominous. I like big black clouds - I run straight into them. But I think most people looking into the future probably do think it's a bit bloody ominous, but hey..."
Thinking of Today is a Good Day and then on this album Tomorrow Came - it does sound like you are saying a sad farewell to those days of protest. Particularly the lyric sung to today's children "pray god they'll forgive us"...
"Do you remember the song A Liberal Education? That is a kind of a slag off of the sixties, that way of looking at the world, and I think Tomorrow Came is a criticism of my own generation. We are the ones that knew everything and still we did nothing, we harvested the land and planted nothing, it's kind of a continuation of that. Rock and Roll was the idea of 'I want it now I want everything'. The youth phenomenon of the fifties and sixties - at a time of growth and plenty - was then enshrined - partly by rock and roll -into a kind of way of life of 'I want this now, why can't I have it'. And I think eighteen year olds looking up at their parents and grandparents today are entitled to say, 'fucking hell you spent it all, you spent my future', and that's pretty much what that song's about."
You say something similar in Lean Back and Fall - 'Now counting through these useless empty days. Of standing up so tall against the world'
(laughs) "Yes it is a sad album really isn't it? It's odd, I had an opportunity to see the film that's being made about us recently and I have very mixed feelings about it. It's a very sad and solitary experience to watch your past through someone else's eyes."
The film is out next year isn't it? How did the film come about?
"The film was nothing to do with us, it's not made by us. It's the film maker Matt Reid's vision not ours. We were asked to make one, but we would never do that. It's not a fan based documentary telling the accurate story of New Model Army, in the same sense of Searching for Sugarman - it's a great film but not entirely true. It's the same with this film it's slanted slightly and it's not the whole story, but how would you put the full story of the band into an hour and half anyway.
The album has a pagan sound and many lyrics contain references to nature as metaphor on a personal level, and literal, it's very much set in the landscape...
"Yes, I've always loved wide open spaces. I was born in the Chiltern Hills, South Buckinghamshire and came up here when I was twenty and I fell in love with Yorkshire because of the wide open spaces. I still love Yorkshire. I think the north of England is beautiful in a way that the south east of England is not. And I've stayed ever since. I'm very attached to this part of the world, it's my home now.
I've got this theory that you can see clearly inside yourself in precisely the same proportions than the way you can see externally. So if you're in a desert, or by an ocean or looking across the great landscapes of Yorkshire, then when you look inside yourself things are clear and things go into perspective. And when you are in the cities and you can't see perspective, and it's just wall wall wall, that you can't see clearly, so I've always been crazy about big open landscapes."
This area has a landscape that has a beauty and a darkness that some find threatening...
" Yes, I think that Summer Moors from this album has that, it's dedicated to Yorkshire, brass band and all. It's a personal song .... it's a ghost story in a sense. It's Emily Bronte. I'd never read Wuthering Heights as a kid, but I had to read it recently and I found it amazing, it's like watching a punk band, there's not a single sympathetic character in it, yet it's utterly compelling."
In Knievel the stuntman sounds like Icarus and you ask, 'do they come to see a man fall or see him fly?' which one is it?!
(Laughs) "Well, when Marshall joined the band he was obsessed with Evil Knievel from when thought he was a stuntman at ten years old on his bike, so we started talking about it. And when we went to Montana to Evil Knievel's home town after he'd died, we were in this Chinese restaurant that hadn't changed since the fifties. So we are in this weird windswept desolate place and we asked the waitress about Knievel and she said 'oh that bastard!'(laughter). No one liked him and he wasn't a very nice character but a very interesting one. Nowadays all stunts are very scientifically worked out for safety, but his weren't and half the time he thought he probably wouldn't make it, yet he took off anyway. And of course he didn't always make it. A very interesting man. When I came to write the album I found I'd written a lot in my notebook about him, I'd never read a book, it was just from conversations with Marshall and that line in the chorus was just one of the lines I'd written. It seemed like a good metaphor for a lot of things - all the way down to The X Factor."
You have a lot of falling going on in this album - (laughter) - a joyous, though not overtly joyous- surrender to letting go of the past...
"Yes definitely a letting go of the past. I'm pretty obsessed with that. When we had the studio fire we lost pretty much fifteen years of live tapes among other things and people were saying 'oh that's terrible', and I was saying no it's not, I'm quite pleased actually, I never have to listen to them again, good - the past is dead.
There's a terrible bleak bit in the film actually where Matt wanted me to go back to the Sawmill where we wrote and recorded a lot and it's a clever piece of film making really because I was like OK, yeah I haven't been back for twenty years it'll be good but of course it wasn't like that, it was full of ghosts and I didn't enjoy the experience at all and it comes across like that in the film. Yeah the past to me is a very empty desolate place."
Do you think you have left the past behind and moved forward, personally and musically with Between dog and Wolf?
"I think everyone moves forward whether consciously or not, you find you have left part of your past behind. But then again on this tour we're not just going to play from the new album, we're going to play a mixture of some of the new album and some from the old ones going all the way back to Vengeance."
Are there any songs you wouldn't let go of?
"It's interesting how there are some songs we have let go of and then rediscover them. Recently we've been playing Spirit of the Falklands, having not played it for twenty five years so there are songs you go back to and think yeah, lets play that."
Is there any one track you would pick out from this album that you can't imagine letting go of?
"That's a difficult one because although every song is different musically it sort of holds together as a piece. Everyone said 'oh fourteen songs is too long you'll have to cut a couple out', but there was no consensus between us so we left them all in because they all hang together."
There is so much anticipation of change in the album, do you really see the future as ominous?
"Things are always changing but this is an interesting time. A very good friend of mine who was born and grew up in Berlin said that these last few years remind him strongly of the last few years of East Germany, where everyone knows the system is corrupt but no one knows how to fix it.
I think the general populous has started to realise that the whole system is weighted to support the super-rich. And that basically everyone's lifestyles are a being a little bit curtailed, everything is getting a little bit squeezed, everyone is getting a little bit poorer - except for the super-rich who are now richer than ever. Most people in the world are going 'hang on, there's something wrong here' - finally.
I mean I remember starting the band in the eighties, the Thatcher era which is when the idea came that you set the market free, we'll all get rich together and then thirty years later the whole thing collapses for a second and is propped up by us and people are going, 'hold on a minute.'"
It does seem like people are waking up and being more active about change...
"You're right but it is happening at exactly the same time as the rest of the poor world is being exposed to the Californian lifestyle and thinking perhaps we are entitled to that - we want that too. We see everything from a Western European point of view and - the earth's ability and resources to provide 10 billion people with a Californian lifestyle? It's not going to happen. It's frightening.
"We are going backwards to the 19th Century, to the deserving poor. In fact it's like the feudal era. We are just chattels owned by the great lord, though actually it would be better if we had a lord because there's a chance we might have a good one, one you can actually see and speak to instead the faceless institutions who run the world's finances."
Finally, speaking of medieval times, The title of the album - Between Dog and Wolf, why did you choose that?
"Yes it is a medieval French expression meaning dusk, the time of day when you can't tell if that shape moving through the trees is your hunting dog or a wolf. Not only that, the title track which in a way is about love and passion, it also represents the band rather well - no one really knows what we are. I mean I look around the band and everybody is basically a nice person but none of them are tame. And I think that is true of people generally. Underneath it all we are pretty driven, however clever we are, by pretty primal forces - just the same as we ever were."
Primally, yes we are the same as we ever were, so well represented in this album. It's rooted in the earth with it's eyes on the sky. It's a thrilling shift for the band. The dynamic sound and intelligent lyrics make for an exhilarating and all encompassing experience. Between Dog and Wolf may be anticipated with a little excitement, justified when it reveals it's face from the shadows next week.
To accompany the album, tour and film, New Model Army have produced a magazine. The special full colour 104 page publication is released today and contains a limited edition flexi-disc of the March in September single. The band begin their tour to coincide with the album release on September 23rd, and will play Leeds Academy on November 14th.