Sunday, August 09, 2009

The New Model Army: Tribal Warfare and Western Civilization

New Model Army photo by Femke Van Delft. Not to be used without permission.

So, the New Model Army plays The Rickshaw on October 8th. Not only are the New Model Army a long standing favourite rock band of mine - ever since, in 1985, I saw them perform "No Rest" on Soundproof, Vancouver's much esteemed cable access punk show, which also introduced me to tattooist, poet, novelist, songwriter, and NMA affiliate/ artist Joolz Denby - but I'm kind of responsible for this show happening. I saw that the band was touring North America; they had a Seattle show booked - where Femke and I caught them a little over a year ago; they had a two day window AFTER Seattle; but I saw they had no Vancouver date. Leaving aside an acoustic three-piece gig at the Cobalt in, I think, 2004 or 2005, the band hasn't played here in some years, and I thought I could interest Lowdowndirty in the show, since Dave knows I'm good to write about it. Bingo! Now the band has a several-hundred mile detour - instead of finishing in Seattle and going straight to Denver, Colorado, where they gig on the 9th... They get to come to Vancouver, instead!

Hey, Justin SAYS he likes being on the road...

I will have a couple of new New Model Army pieces coming up in The Skinny, but in the meantime, here's my big Justin Sullivan interview from a couple of years ago. Portions of this ran in Razorcake and have been cannibalized for The Skinny articles, but I've also talked with Justin about Today Is A Good Day, the band's potent new release, and at least one upcoming interview will be based on all-new material. Besides reading about the band and checking out the many Youtube clips of them, you can also download the overwhelmingly tough title track from the new album FOR FREE on August 17th, if you like...

Didja know Justin Sullivan lost his virginity in Vancouver? It's true! Also, check out the New Model Army contest The Skinny is putting on - you can win an opening slot for the band!

Justin and I spoke on his mobile phone on May 18th, 2008, as he drove from his home base of Bradford to London. Most of the songs discussed are off the band's (absolutely excellent) 2007 studio recording, High.

New Model Army: Tribal Warfare and Western Civilization
by Allan MacInnis
(with the generous help of Justin Sullivan and Joolz Denby; also note that departed NMA manager Tommy Tee - whom I met in Seattle - was instrumental in setting this show up; RIP, Tommy).

New Model Army by Femke van Delft, not to be used without permission.

Allan: There’s an abundance of driving images in your songs... Since you’re driving, maybe we could start there.

Justin: When I was a kid, my Mom used to say, if she was ever going to the shop or anything - anytime she was getting in the car - I used to want to get in the car with her. I just wanted to be moving all the time, all my life. It’s a kind of ongoing theme, really.

Allan: Some of your song lyrics suggest you drive quite quickly...

Justin: Yeah, on occasion.

Allan: What do you drive?

Justin: Anything that gets me from A to B. I haven’t got the kind of money where I can pick my dream car out of a showroom, so I get whatever I get.

Allan: Okay... I gather there’s a large Muslim community in Bradford, and I was going to ask you about that and your song “One of the Chosen.” I assume that song is about Islamic fundamentalism - has there been a reaction from the Muslim community?

Justin: Strangely enough, it’s not written about the Muslim community at all. It was a lyric I wrote a long time ago, and actually it was written about a fundamentalist Christian group. But the thing is, when I was a kid, I used to religion-hop a lot, among all sorts of different religions, actually, and I remember the glory of just surrendering yourself to some great truth. And being right: “we’re right, everybody else is wrong” - that kind of thing. But of course it applies quite well to fundamentalist anything. I actually have a friend who is a Pakistani Muslim, and she’s very religious, and I gave her a copy of the album, wondering what she’d make of it. The one she wanted - she demanded some kind of explanation for was “Into the Wind,” where we “take all the holy books” and we burn them. That was the one that disturbed her much more.

Allan: Why are you burning holy books in “Into the Wind?”

Justin: Well, I think anyone who looks at the modern world sometimes thinks, “Why don’t we just take the Bible and the Torah and the Koran and oh, fucking burn the lot?” Because the endless arguments and conflicts over which God said what to which Prophet are all nonsense, and people know it’s nonsense.

Allan: But you say that as someone who has come from a religious background.

Justin: Yeah, I am from a religious background. By the time I got to about 19, I’d been through quite a few religions, and what I had worked out quite early in my life was that they were all the same. And interestingly enough there’s kind of a mystical element to all of them, which is about light and truth, and not about words. So in Islam, it’s the Sufi element, which is not really interested the words or the deeds of Mohammed; it’s interested in the mystical idea of God. I was brought up as a Quaker, which is kind of the same idea, and the Qabbala is a bit like that... They’re all the same, at the top end, once you get past the “We’re right and everybody else is wrong.” The thing about the religions of the book, and, up to a point, the other great religions of the world, is that they’re all cults, and the reason that they survive is that they’ve got a built-in hostility to outsiders. So in Christianity, it’s the book that’s written sometime afterwards, Revelations, that is the “sting in the tail” of Christianity. Christianity is all about love and truth and light and beauty, and blah-blah-blah, and then there’s the sting in the tail: if you don’t join us, you’re in trouble. And of course, that’s also written into Islam, because Mohammed had to protect his little cult from attacks from the outside. The reason these religions survive is because they have this protection mechanism from outside attack. Therefore they’re all equally capable of hostility.

Allan: Mm-hmm.

Justin: But that’s why they’ve survived, the great world religions. Probably much more enlightened small cults die out.... The thing about “One of the Chosen,” it’s not a criticism.

Allan: No, it’s extremely sympathetic.

Justin: Yeah, it’s about how good it feels.

Allan: I mean, that’s something that really interests me about the New Model Army. A lot of punk bands - not that you’re technically a punk band - are really openly and overtly hostile towards religion; but you’ve always had a more complex view of things, talking about what the world is like “now that we’ve killed God,” in “Drag It Down,” for instance.

Justin: I’m pretty ambivalent. I’m ambivalent about everything. When it comes to lyrics, I reserve the right to write about anything. We started in the early ‘80’s, and there were these rumours about this red-hot socialist band coming out of Bradford: “the New Model Army - wow! Really left-wing.” Then the first thing we released was “Vengeance” (a song about taking vigilante action, if necessary, to punish the guilty, from people who push drugs on teenagers to escaped Nazis; the rousing chorus is “I believe in vengeance/ I believe in justice/ I believe in getting the bastards”). It confused the fuck out of everyone, because it’s the most politically incorrect song ever written by anyone! I remember, though the ages, we were completely disowned by the left because we wrote that song. Later on, we wrote a song called “My People Right or Wrong,” which is very sympathetic to a kind of nasty nationalism, in a way, if you look at it. But I reserve the right to write songs about feelings: not about what’s right and wrong, just about how people feel. It’s quite interesting: one journalist once told me that all his fellow journalists in London were utterly terrified to say they liked us, because they didn’t know what we were going to say next week. I don’t think any artist can have a higher accolade than that, can they, really?

Allan: [laughs] No! It’s great praise... Coming back to religion, though... Is Neopaganism something you’ve explored?

Justin: Yeah. By instincts, I’m a Pagan. Basically, to me - I was brought up religious. The idea of God or the Other is entirely part of my life. It seems so obvious to me that there is a whole other level of things going on simultaneously to the material world. I don’t really question it, and I don’t really have to do anything about it; to me, God is nature and nature is God, and we’re part of nature, therefore we’re part of God. It’s all one and the same, really. If I had to name what I believe, it would probably be Paganism. But I don’t feel the need to join any groups, you know what I mean?

Allan: Do you feel the need for any sort of religious practice?

Justin: I go to Quaker meetings sometimes. I don’t know if you’ve ever been to a Quaker meeting...?

Allan: No.

Justin: Basically, you go in on a Sunday morning and you sit in silence for an hour, and that’s it. If anyone at all is moved to speak - about anything at all - they just get up and say something. Then somebody else can speak, but it’s understood that there has to be at least four or five minutes silence before anyone else can speak. And that’s it, that’s the only rule. That’s quite a rare thing - a shared silence between people is a pretty rare thing in the 21st century. I kind of like it. So I go sometimes, but not often, you know?

Allan: What sorts of things get said between the silences?

Justin: Oh, a lot of times it’s about stuff that’s going on in the world. Quakers have a history of peaceful involvement with the world. If you ever see an anti-war march, there’ll be a couple of grey-haired old ladies at the front, and they’ll be Quakers.

Allan: As a kid, did you go to - is there a Quaker church?

Justin: Meetings. Quaker meetings. I did go there when I was a kid sometimes, yeah. But the whole thing about Quakerism is, specifically, you’re not allowed to proselytize - I’m probably breaking the rules now! Neither are you allowed to favour Quakers over non-Quakers, if you know what I mean. It’s basically sort of a universalist cult, if you like.

Allan: How do people get involved, if you’re not allowed to proselytize?

Justin: They hear about it, go there, and think, “Yeah, this makes sense.” Its roots are the same roots as those of the English Civil War (Note: the New Model Army takes its name from the revolutionary army of Oliver Cromwell in that conflict). Basically: the King was head of the church, and they killed the King. You have to remember that in the 17th century, religion and politics were very tied up, rather like a lot of what’s going on in the Islamic world at this moment. The two things ran very hand in hand. The scene was dominated by Presbyterians, who said, “Well, there you have it. The Word of God is in the Bible. Therefore you do what’s in the Bible, no questions asked.” And then you have some preachers who interpret the word of God for you. And then along came this guy called George Fox who said, “Oh, no, there’s a part of God in every person, and you answer the part of God in yourself, and you have to become quiet and listen to the part of God that’s in yourself. And it’s your conscience, and if you become quiet and you listen to your conscience, that will guide you in the right way through the world. When you meet other people, you’re meant to meet the part of God in them, rather than whatever they appear to be saying. It’s really kind of hippie-ish, really. And obviously they were persecuted very heavily in the 17th and 18th centuries and so on.

Allan: I don’t know much about it, to be honest.

Justin: It’s not that important to know it. I’m very interested in it, and it’s part of my life, without being a dominating part. But no one has ever written as unQuakerly a song as “Vengeance” or the “Hunt,” or “Here Comes the War.” As a writer, I reserve the right to write about anything that I find interesting.

Allan: Right! ...but as I understand it, at various points, you’ve pulled “Vengeance” from the set, and that the band hasn’t played it since 9/11. Or has that changed?

Justin: Ahhh - we did once on a particular occasion, actually. I was doing an acoustic show with Michael and Dean from the band, and we were in a small town, and right opposite the gig was an openly Nazi regalia shop, run by Nazi skinheads. And so we played the song, and actually we went and did vast amounts of physical damage to the shop after the gig. So there you go...

Allan: Ooh.

Justin: Better not write that in your paper... Ah, you can if you like. I don’t care. We played the song that night. I think the song is really about how justice needs to be done, but having said that, the world is so full of people screaming for vengeance at the moment that, generally speaking, I don’t feel the need to add my voice.

Allan: Right.

Justin: Having said that, I haven’t said we’ll never play it again. I think, y’know, as an artist, you always have to be true to yourself, and there are moments when you really want to do something. It may not fit into your political philosophy, but it’s emotionally true. I think the point about music is that it’s not about philosophy, it’s about emotions.

Allan: Right, although you have very intelligent lyrics -

Justin: But what I try very hard to do is not to write about myself. It’s not all my views, do you know what I mean? The character in “One of the Chosen” is not me. Well, it could be me - but it’s anybody, in that particular situation.

Allan: You’ve said that you’ve written songs based on interviews with other people, capturing other people’s feelings in your songs. Can you give an example of some of those...?

Justin: Oh, hundreds - probably the majority of them. Let’s start with recent stuff. The song called “Breathing,” on High, is written about - originally this was quite secret, but it’s become well-known - someone who was very close to the band, that was on the next door carriage to one of the ones that was blown up on the subway in London two years ago. “Breathing” was pretty much word-for-word what she told me when I asked her, when I phoned her...

Allan: How has that been received?

Justin: By her, okay! By everybody else, okay. A lot of people haven’t got a clue what it’s about. In interviews, occasionally, I’ve told people. Among the people close to the band, everybody knows. Like I say, I reserve the right to write about what I like; and everybody says what they say, they think what they think. Sometimes you put a song into the public domain and people read it completely differently from what you intended, but I don’t mind that either.

Allan: Is there an example of that?

Justin: “Ghost of Your Father,” that’s an interesting one.

Allan: I don’t actually have any of the B-sides compilations, so I don’t know that song...

Justin: Well, it was written about somebody else and his relationship with his father as I understood it. And everybody has interpreted it in their own way, according to their relationship with their own father. Which is always interesting.

Allan: Let me ask you about political involvement. “One of the Chosen” could also apply to a terrorist cell or something.

Justin: Yeah. So could “The Attack.” Again, it’s told from the inside, told about how exciting this feels.

Allan: Have you ever -

Justin: Have I ever committed a terrorist outrage?

Allan (laughs): Uh, no.

Justin: I had to answer that on my US application form. The answer is no.

Allan: Okay, but - have you ever been really politically involved? In the song “You Weren’t There,” off Eight, you talk about “walking arm in arm in the sun...”

Justin: Yeah, I do that quite often. I quite like doing that sort of thing.

Allan: Going to demonstrations?

Justin: Yeah, I love doing that. I think it just feels better than throwing bricks at the television in your living room. You go out and you realize that you’re not alone in your fury at the government, or whatever it is. The most famous example being the anti-war demonstrations in London just before the Iraq war. Over one million people went on that. The organizers say closer to two million, the police say less than a million, but certainly more than a million, which is by far the biggest demonstration in the history of Britain. And sure, I was on that. It felt good to know that there were a million people who felt the same way I did. It’s a kind of strengthening thing.

Allan: Yeah.

Justin: I don’t think it changes anything, except, in the end, that it gives you a sense of strength. You’re not isolated. You’re among other people that feel the same way.

Allan: I think that’s the draw. But okay, you’ve never committed a terrorist outrage, but - in terms of music, how do you feel about groups that advocate a sort of aggressive activism, say - Crass, for example?

Justin: I’ve been involved in aggressive activism, yes I have. In various situations. However, I never kind of liked the Crass thing. There’s two or three things I just don’t go along with. The whole anarchy thing: there have been plenty of periods of anarchy in history, and they’ve invariably been followed by military dictatorships, without exception. Anarchy sounds lovely when you’re young and fit and male and strong, but when you’re pregnant or old or vulnerable in various ways, it’s not quite a great idea. You don’t feel so secure, you know what I mean?

Allan: Mm-hmm.

Justin: It’s a no-brainer as far as I’m concerned. The anarchists have got their lovely dream, and it’s a lovely dream, but it hasn’t worked, because people are people... So that’s one reservation. My next reservation is, one of the things about Crass was that it was utterly confrontational. Like a lot of modern art: deliberately confrontational and ugly. Their argument would be that the world is ugly and they’re displaying the world as it is, without the filter of television or something to make it appear other than it is... But I disagree that the world is ugly and that people are ugly and so on. I can see that point of view completely, but I’m basically, by nature, a romantic. I think that if the world is ugly, why not put something beautiful into it? And I think that New Model Army treads that strange line: it’s very direct, and it’s quite angry, and it’s quite emotionally blunt, sometimes - passionate. But it’s never ugly. There are songs like “One of the Chosen,” which is not a particularly pretty song, I’d agree, but if you take “High,” or even “Into the Wind” - it’s quite bitter, but in a way, it’s musically beautiful, musically romantic.

Allan: Okay.

Justin: The third thing about Crass and that whole politico-punk thing, is that they believe in their philosophy, and the music is there as a background, to put across the philosophy. Now to me, if you do that, you’ve got one album where you lay it out, and that’s it. Why go on? It’s sort of pointless, in a way. I don’t believe that music should be used as a background for anything - I think New Model Army exists for musical reasons, not political reasons. I’m interested in writing about the world, but we came together in the first place for the joy of playing music, and still, when we go out onstage, it’s the joy of playing music, not the message, that’s actually the thing to us. The abstractness of music, not the philosophy. And also, the philosophy, as we’ve established, is very jumbled-up. We’ve got songs that completely contradict each other: “I believe in vengeance.” “I don’t believe in vengeance, I believe in forgiveness.” We can go through both views in the same set quite happily.

Allan: The one thing that stood out at the Seattle show is that I don’t think I’ve seen a performer who was more passionately engaged. You had an amazing look in your eyes, of engagement with the language, with the music. How does it feel to you, when you’re performing?

Justin: Well... I have good days and bad days. I remember liking that gig. What do I feel? It’s strange, I don’t know.

New Model Army photo by Femke Van Delft. Not to be used without permission.

Allan: You could be a fanatic preacher. You’re not, but...

Justin: Oh no, no - I’m well-aware, I could have turned New Model Army into this kind of fanatical cult. I could have done, but I don’t want to do that. That’s not what music’s for. I’m very much lost in the music. If we can talk about music for a minute, my favourite music and my background for music is, more than anything else, northern soul. I used to go to Wigan Casino and all those kind of places in the 1970s -

Allan: Sorry, the connection’s not that good. You used to go where?

Justin: A famous club which was the king of the scene in the north of Britain called northern soul. Which is all the obscure records that came out of Chicago and Detroit, which were largely copies of Motown. Uptempo soul/ dance music. It’s a scene that kind of still exists, and it involved clubs that used to open at midnight. People danced til 8. People didn’t drink; they took, basically, blues and other upper pills, and danced all night. And there was a lot of skill in the dancing. That was the difference between that and raves, which came kinda ten years later: it was all about being a cool dancer. And it was all based on American soul music of the 1960s. So that’s my first love, American ‘60’s soul music, which is all about rhythm sections. And that’s one of the things about New Model Army. People say punk and people say rock and people say folk melodies, but kind of what they miss is that all the albums have this one thing in common, that the bass and drums are really doing stuff. That’s what I like. We’ve had three different drummers and three different bass players. They’ve all been phenomenal. And when I’m onstage, it’s a little bit, for me, like driving a truck down a hill. All the power is coming from behind me. All I’m doing is steering it. I went to this gig in 1979 by this group called The Ruts - I don’t know if you remember them... New Model Army photo by Femke Van Delft. Not to be used without permission.

Allan: Yep. “Babylon’s Burning.”

Justin: Yeah. “Babylon’s Burning” being their most famous record. And they would have become a huge band, but the singer died of heroin in 1980. But I went to a gig in 1979 - there were 200 people in a little pub in Bradford. And I went into the gig, and I didn’t really know what I wanted to do with my life. And in the hour and a half or whatever they played, it was everything wonderful and terrible and scary and musical and exciting about being alive, and I just felt completely exhilarated by the whole thing. I remember walking out of the gig thinking, “That’s what I want to do. If I could ever, ever make people feel as tense and amazed as I felt tonight, I will die a happy man. And that kind of gig remains my template. Every time I go on stage, I want people to feel how I felt that night.” That’s pretty much it.

Allan: Let me ask about something non-musical, then. In terms of intense engagements with experience - I know when you were in Vancouver, you talked about going whale watching; we’ve talked about driving; you did your container ship trip across the Atlantic (the inspiration for Justin’s solo record, Navigating by the Stars), I think you’ve done some mountain climbing, based on what you said onstage in Seattle...

Justin: I smuggled a truck full of stuff into Pakistan once. That was quite an interesting one. And I lived in Belfast for a year, at the height of the troubles. I’ve done various things, you know? I get bored if I’m stuck at home for more than two weeks.

Allan: How did the Pakistan thing come about...?

Justin: It was a long time ago. It was a Pakistani Mafiosi that I fell in with. This was back in the late 1970’s. The return leg, I wasn’t interested in doing that at all - they never asked me. But I was basically driving a truck from Bradford to Pakistan with videos and boots and shoes and engine parts and just stuff in it, in a convoy of other trucks with all-Pakistani drivers, to what they now call the tribal homeland. It’s the area of Pakistan that the United States is panicking about. It’s the area of Pakistan that’s actually Afghanistan. The people there are Pashtuns. They’re completely tribal. They’ve never been controlled by anyone. It was them that I kind of ran with, and there were three or four of them that I got on really really well with, but the leader of the group, I fell out badly with, and it turned out later that he was a killer, and stuff like that. A business-killer, rather than a religion-killer. So I got out of that.

Allan: I wonder how that’s going to look in a US magazine...

Justin: They’re tribal people. As we all were, once. Their loyalty is to their tribe. I think if times get really hard, which they might in the future, we’ll find that this veneer of liberal civilization - which has its roots, really, in the English revolution, more than anywhere else - is thinner than we think. People for whom life is hard, which is most people in the world, revert to tribal loyalties. Because if life is really really hard, who are you going to rely on? Your family are the most reliable people.

Allan: And that comes into your songs, quite often. You’ve talked about family...

New Model Army by Femke Van Delft. Not to be used without permission

Justin: I’m fascinated by this clash of loyalties, because I come from that liberal individualistic background, where you kind of listen to your conscience and act accordingly. But 30 years ago, when I met Joolz, her parents on both sides were army people, and when I met her, she was married to a Hell’s Angel. Her instincts were all kind of gang-or-tribe related. And all through our relationship, we’ve had that kind of clash, between your first loyalty being tribal, or your first loyalty being self-righteous, shall we say. That interests me. I don’t think either is absolutely right or wrong, you know what I mean? I think there has to be a sense of loyalty between small groups of people. I don’t think either absolute tribalism or absolute individualism is right - they’re both right, and they’re both wrong. In tribalism at its best, you have a system of support for all people. At its worst, you get petty tribal squabbles and warfare which ends in years of slaughter. And in individualism, you get the sort of freedom which especially North America particularly values, but in the same way, you walk over the people who happen to be sleeping in the street, because it’s not your responsibility.

Allan: What’s the situation in Bradford between Muslims and the non-Muslim community? Is there violence, tension, anger...?

Justin: Okay, I’ll be honest, there’s a level of tension. But if you talk about the “Muslim community” - anybody who lives in Bradford, really, knows that there isn’t a “Muslim community.” There’s about seven hundred different Muslim communities. The Islamic world at the moment - it’s a little bit like the 17th century in Europe, or something, where there’s virtually a division between Sunnis and Shiites. And then there’s a division between those people that believe the Koran sets out a political system, and those people who believe that religion is about spirituality and not about politics. And then there are middle class Muslims and working class Muslims, and rural Muslims and city Muslims, and they all see the world pretty differently. If you look at Muslim families in my street, their attitude as towards what is haraam - forbidden - and what is not, is pretty different. There are Muslim girls in Bradford who would consider that they should wear the full hijab, niqab, the whole lot. They’re not forced into that, they choose to do it, as a statement of their aesthetic. And actually, it’s quite fun, I would imagine. If you’re a teenaged girl, wearing a niqab, it’s absolutely fantastic - it’s like wearing dark glasses. You’re sheltered from the gaze of the world - you can sit in there and be self-righteous and cool. Fantastic! And everybody looks at you and tuts and tuts and tuts, but what could be better if you’re a teenaged girl? In the same way there are plenty of Muslim girls who don’t wear a hijab and look like Bollywood queens in their stilettos, and they look absolutely gorgeous. They wear their hair free... They would probably not wear short skirts, they would cover their legs, but as long as they did that, they’d be pretty much free to do what they like. So every stage gets represented. The idea that there is one Muslim way of life is nonsensical as saying there’s one Christian way of life, you know? The west is utterly paranoid and completely stupid about Islam, really.

Allan: Ah.

Justin: There are a small number of nutty fundamentalists, it’s true. Do they pose a threat? Well, yes, there’s going to be some bombs going off in the next twenty-thirty years. Is there going to be Sharia law in Britain? No there is not. You know what I mean? All this kind of panic about it is kind of ridiculous.

Allan: It’s the tribal thing asserting itself, that you were speaking of earlier...

Justin: Yeah.

Allan: If we can go there, then - the cancelled US tour (in late 2007): did that have anything to do with politics?

Justin: I have no idea. We’ll never know. They don’t really have to tell us very much. They told us it was on account of a technicality, but we’ll never know if that’s true or not. We’d be stupid to speculate publicly.

Allan: I had read that the band was banned from playing in the US in 1985-86. Is that true?

Justin: But again, we’ll never know why. I don’t believe anyone in the State Department gets the records out and listens to them. Maybe it’s the name of the band, who knows? Maybe it was the technicality - someone didn’t dot an eye on the form. They’re not obliged to tell you very much.

Allan: It’s too bad. I know you lost a lot of money because of it.

Justin: Yeah. Justin Sullivan photo by Joolz Denby. Not to be used without permission.

Allan: If I could ask about Joolz, I gather you’re somewhat private, but you’ve been a couple for a long time, right?

Justin: Yeah, kinda.

Allan: Let me ask about tattoos, then - as something you’ve got in common...

Justin: Well... I have tattoos, which I really love, but I’m not heavily tattooed. Which Joolz is. She’s also a tattooist these days. I think there’s two or three reasons for that. She told me once that when she was a little girl, she read an adventure book which she’s never been able to find again, about a little girl that was shipwrecked in the South Seas, and was taken to an island and tattooed by the natives and given the status of a true island tribal native, in a very romantic, Kiplingesque sort of way. Secondly, she grew up in Portsmouth, which is a naval town, so the front of Portsmouth was filled with tattoo parlors, where all the sailors would get tattooed. These two things fuelled her imagination as a young girl, and she became fascinated with it at a very early age; but also I think, as an artist, she was interested in the possibilities. She had about the first or second Celtic armband ever done. In about 1979, she met a Welsh tattooist called Mickey Sharpz, who has since retired, but was a very influential tattooist in the rebirth of tattooing which has happened in the last 25 years. She had his first Celtic tattoo, and so on. She’s a bit of a trailblazer in that whole world.

Joolz Denby, photo by (or at least courtesy of) Joolz Denby. Not to be used without permission.

Allan: I remember seeing her on TV here in the 1980s, on a cable access TV show called Soundproof. She read some of her poems and showed a black rose on her ankle - there was a famous Vancouver tattoo artist called the Dutchman who she wanted a tattoo by, though she tells me now she never got one...

Justin: I don’t think she had any in Vancouver. I can’t remember. She certainly had a very famous Samoan do a tribal piece on her when she was in New Zealand.

Allan: Oh, really?

Justin: She has a lot of tattoos collected from different artists.

Allan: Has she done any of your tattoos?

Justin: Yeah, she has - she’s done a fish on my foot, a hand tattoo on my foot, which, I have to tell you, was immensely painful, but I actually really love it. Rather like I love all Joolz’ artwork, which - not unlike our music - is very organic. It’s never quite graphically perfect, you know what I mean? She doesn’t have that thing as an artist about graphics; she’s quite into a sort of “tribalistic iconography” style of art. And the other thing is, she’s always - rather like the band - looking to do something new. When she started to do Celtic artwork in the middle of the 80’s, it was all quite new, y’know what I mean? There had been this big Celtic revival at the end of the 19th century in Victoriana, but since then it had been not very fashionable. It had a lot to do with her that it became very fashionable in the mid-1980’s - the Thunder and Consolation cover and so on. When that wave broke, and it became really big in the ‘90’s, she suddenly moved on to doing very different things. As a tattooist, as an artist, you know... when something she’s done becomes kind of mainstream, she’s already moved on to something else. “Done that, move on.”

"Shadow Skulls," by Joolz Denby. Not to be used without permission

Allan: Okay. The songs that you’ve written about relationships - things like “Poison Street,” or Joolz’ song “Love Is,” off Hex... I’ve assumed some of them are about your relationship with her.

Justin: Ahhh - some are, some aren’t.

Allan: They seem very, um, tempestuous.

Justin: (laughs).

Allan: Based on songs like those, it seems like it might be a stormy relationship, I don’t know.

Justin: All relationships are stormy! Aren’t they? I mean, a little bit. I have to say we’re not that stormy these days, but... we have a complicated relationship, which I don’t particularly want to go into. I think the important thing is that we started a conversation about ideas and art and God and beauty and the world and everything in 1979, and we’re still involved in the same conversation. This is the secret of a long relationship - you never run out of things to talk about.

Allan: It helps that you’re intelligent, creative people, as well, I’d imagine.

Justin: It also helps that we don’t do the same thing. So she does tattoos and artwork and illustration work and writes novels and poetry, and I write songs. If we were doing the same thing, I think it’d be more difficult, because then we’d be in direct competition.

Allan: You have sometimes done the same thing - the Red Sky Coven albums, you’ve worked together on, for example.

Justin: Yeah, but she’s doing what she does, which is reading her poetry and telling stories, and I’m singing songs. It’s not quite competition.

Allan: I’ve never seen those albums anywhere in North America.

Justin: They’re not released. We just kind of sell them at the shows, though we haven’t done a show [as Red Sky Coven] for about five years now. And we do them on the internet. It’s a kind of cult within a cult. But it’s based on the fact that myself and Joolz and Rev and Brett have been best friends for 25 years.

Allan: What’s your visibility outside North America like these days? In Seattle, it didn’t seem like you had a very big crowd. It was a devoted crowd, an enthusiastic crowd, but pretty small... I’ve heard you play to huge audiences in other parts of the world...

Justin: No! No no no. We’re a pretty small cult everywhere. It depends what you call huge - what do you call huge?

Allan: Well, I don’t know. In Seattle it looked like there might have been 400 people there.

Justin: Yeah, okay. If we play Manchester, there’ll be 1000. If we play London, there’ll be 1500, 1600, 2000. If we play Hamburg, there’ll be 1500. When we play Köln every Christmas, there’s usually about 3000. So we’re not a huge band anywhere. We’re a cult band everywhere.

Allan: Do you ever make the decision to pull songs, when you’re going to a particular country, because of the history or the political situation in that country?

Justin: Very rarely. I remember, a couple of years ago, we played a festival in Holland which is a yearly festival to celebrate the liberation of Holland from the Nazis. We only had a short set and we thought “Here Comes the War” was probably the wrong song for the occasion. So we didn’t play it. But generally speaking, we don’t do that.

Allan: Let me ask you about the album High, then. I’ve never seen your lyrics as being very pro-progress -

Justin: Yeah, I come across as a bit of a Luddite. I’m not really, actually - here I am, speeding down the freeway talking to you on a mobile phone. So, not really, no...

Allan: But on this album in particular, in “Rivers,” in “Into the Wind,” there’s almost an awe at human progress. There’s a horror, but also an awe. It seems somewhat of a changed perspective. But I don’t know if I’m reading that right...

Justin: Maybe... Yeah, I think people are pretty amazing. Our capabilities our pretty amazing - we’re clever monkeys.

Allan: So many of the songs seem to fit thematically - partaking of an attempt to rise above the current situation and look around...

Justin: Almost disengaged. I think High is quite interesting in that half the songs are very engaged with the here and now, you know - “All Consuming Fire,” or obviously the one about Iraq, “Bloodsports” - although actually it’s written more about Bradford than Iraq, really. They’re very engaged. And then there’s songs about disengagement, like “High.” And yeah, that’s very me. Sometimes I’m very engaged, and sometimes I’m very disengaged. Sometimes I live in the timescale of people, and sometimes I live in the timescale of nature, which people are obviously a little splinter of. In which case, all of this is just the blink of an eye. And there’s part of me that has the sense that I was born on earth three and a half thousand million years ago, or whatever - whenever life started - and I will die, and you will die, when life on earth finishes, which is a long, long time away. Life on earth will survive human beings very well... And so part of me sees things in that kind of timescale.

Allan: Was there a conscious attempt to develop that theme on the album?
Justin: No. As I get older, I’m pulled both ways simultaneously. I think that’s a pretty common thing: people who are very politically engaged when they’re young, there’s a pretty common journey to elsewhere, you know. Most famously, I suppose, Malcolm X. I’m not gonna say that I’m Malcolm X, but one of my favourite stories - certainly I love the movie very much - is that journey, of someone who starts very materialistic, then finds radical politics, and then eventually finds something much deeper and longer-lasting...

Allan: Yeah.

Justin: And is killed for it! (Chuckles). In his case... but I think it’s very common. There’s a guy called John Liburne, who is the founder of the Levellers movement in the English Civil War.
Allan: Freeborn John.

Justin: Yeah, Freeborn John. This is a classic example of a revolutionary who actually ended up as a Quaker, almost renouncing the revolution as a failure and turning to God. It’s a pretty common thing, I’m afraid.

Allan: But not necessarily a bad thing...

Justin: I think, it’s in the nature of getting older, this thing about acceptance. Which is a large part of religion, actually. There’s that famous prayer, isn’t there - I don’t know where it comes from: “Please God, help me to change the things I can change, to accept the things I can’t change and give me the wisdom to know the difference.” As you get older, you realize it’s the relations with the people around you and so on that you have any kind of control over - that the wider world, you have no control over. And I think that goes along with this thing that happens to people at some point in your life. You know how, when you’re young, you say, “I don’t care what anyone thinks about me,” but actually you do very much deeply care what people think about you. You want people to think you’re clever and sexy and brilliant and, y’know, all those things. There comes a time at some point in your life where you think, with the exception of people you’re nearest and dearest to, actually, you don’t give a shit what anybody thinks about you. It hit me when I was about 40. And this kind of huge weight falls off your back. I remember waking up one morning and thinking, “Actually, I don’t give a shit what anybody thinks, apart from the people close to me. I don’t give a damn.”

Allan: I’ve read you talking about the romanticism of being on the road - maybe we could talk about that a bit...

Justin: When I was a kid, I left home, and I got a job in London, saved up a bit of money, and I got a plane to New York and put my thumb out. And I spent three and a half-months hitchhiking around North America. I was always in love with that whole thing, the road thing.

Allan: Do you think of retiring the band at any point?

Justin: In terms of writing songs and going around the world singing them for people, I can’t think of anything I would rather do until I die, y’know? It seems to be something that I love, basically. All those musos who complain about hotel rooms and airports and stuff - I don’t mind any of it, I like it all of it. I like that way of life... It changes if you have children. I don’t have children. Michael, who is my main partner in the band, since Robert left in 1998 - since I like working with drummers - Michael has two young children. And to be honest, when we go away on tour for three months, it’s not something he likes doing. And I understand that. We’ll see.


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Unknown said...

Great interview!

Unknown said...

Justin always gives great interviews! Thanks for posting this.