Monday, October 19, 2009

New Model Army in Vancouver, October 8th: Today Is A Good Day

...and it was a damned good night, too, at the Rickshaw on the 8th, as the New Model Army returned in full force to Vancouver after what Justin Sullivan estimated - not counting a solo "Justin Sullivan and friends" acoustic set at the Cobalt awhile back - was a 16 year absence. Beginning with "Here Comes The War" and ending with "Get Me Out" - albeit somewhat annoyed that they'd been told that they had a curfew to observe, when they still had a half hours' worth of music in them - the band played with passion, fire and intensity, and a relatively full house seemed to have a good time indeed - with various folks singing along to the songs from the pit, or at least mouthing the lyrics. Since The Skinny elected not to put it on their website, here's my New Model Army article on their new album, Today Is A Good Day (title track available for download here).

New Model Army: Today Is A Good Day
By Allan MacInnis

Photos by Femke Van Delft

Justin Sullivan by Femke Van Delft. Not to be used without permission.

When I ask Justin Sullivan, the New Model Army’s singer and primary songwriter, if he agrees that Today Is A Good Day is a singularly dark and apocalyptic album, he replies, “I think they’re all dark and apocalyptic in their own way.” I know what he means: another good example of the bands apocalyptic streak would be “I Love The World” off Thunder And Consolation, which imagines the singer half-dead after a nuclear apocalypse, shouting to “no one left at all,” “I told you so!” as he takes his final stroll. “I don’t know if people are apocalyptic by nature,” he laughs from his home in Bradford. “I loved apocalyptic stuff when I was a kid. I don’t know that I’d like living through the apocalypse any more than anybody else, but I’ve got a couple of friends who like going out into the wilderness and surviving on stuff that they build and can find to eat. There is a part of me that finds that quite appealing,” he says, citing Into The Wild as a film he enjoyed (though the use of that phrase in “Wired,” off 2007’s High, is a coincidence, he tells me).

There still seems something singularly savage to me in the revelry of “Today Is A Good Day,” the title song off the new New Model Army album, dealing with the ongoing global economic meltdown; does he mean it, that the situation is somehow good? “Everybody keeps saying to me about the terrific irony of the song ‘Today Is A Good Day,’ but it’s not, it’s an absolute celebration,” Sullivan assures me. “Complete celebration. The day after Lehman Brothers collapsed” - Lehman Brothers were a global financial services firm that filed for bankruptcy in September 2008 - “you must have had a toast. You must have enjoyed the moment, no? I enjoyed it hugely! Not because - ‘oh, the bankers are going to fall.’ The bankers are going to be fine; they’ve been bailed out by the rest of us. It’s not that. It’s just that you get sick of being lectured - particularly since the fall of communism - that ‘market economics are the only game in town, and bankers have to pay themselves because they’re intelligent people; we have to get the best people to be bankers, because they really are amazing people who create this wealth.’ You got sick of being lectured like this - because we all knew it was a fucking lie! So when the whole thing is exposed as a lie - the whole thing was a big floating Enron; the whole of the western economy was one big Enron - there’s a moment of fucking great joy, because those tosspots can never come and lecture us again!” Cause for celebration, too, that we no longer will be allowed to become “what we despised,” as the song says. “We were all like Stepford Wives running around the supermarket, wondering what we could buy, and now - that’s kind of over, isn’t it? So today is a good day, because that stops us from becoming that horrible creature that we were all becoming. Because in the long run, we’re not going to be able to drift weightless down the supermarket aisles in quite the same way as we could before.”

Sullivan suggests the crash should be particularly educational to the “wannabe-at-the-top” class of people, “who bought into this idea that you could pluck wealth out of the sky, and it’s inevitable that it would go on growing. Your house that was worth 20,000 pounds last year, would be worth 25,000 this year, and et cetera. Well, actually, most common people never bought into this. Most people have an ancestral memory that you have good harvests and bad harvests. And the nature of nature is, some things go well for awhile, and then they don’t - then they fuck up. You have a bit of calm, and then you have a storm. It’s absolutely in the nature of all things.”

Fitting, then, to use natural imagery to comment on the crash, for example, in “Autumn,” which proclaims that “everything is beautiful/ because everything is dying,” which, Sullivan says, is absolutely intended to connect to the meltdown. Makes sense - it was in the autumn of 2008, when the panic was most severe, that the new album was put together.

“It was written very fast,” Justin says. “The whole thing was written in pretty much in three weeks in October,” when the band wasn’t touring. “I don’t write on the road, because I find that songwriting requires even more psychic energy than gigs, to be honest. You’ve gotta be really focused, and when you’re on the road, you’re basically tired all the time. So you don’t write songs. What you do is, you come up with an idea - you’re sitting around playing guitar all day, and you come up with a riff. You think: ‘oh, I like that. I’ll remember that.’ Or Michael” - Michael Dean, the New Model Army’s drummer - “is soundchecking drums and he’s coming up, ‘oh, I’ve got this rhythm - what do you think?’ So we remember all these things, and we put ‘em all in a cupboard called ‘musical ideas’ - bits of bass, bits of melody; we’ve all got Dictaphones on our phones these days. And then, like all writers, I’ve got a notebook and I’m always scrawling bits and pieces - a rant, a nice running couplet or something - lyrical ideas, stuff I want to write about. And then we have to stop; we have to have no gigs coming up, no nothing: ‘It’s writing time, guys.’ And all I need to do is go down to our studio. I like to have Michael around, because I like working with drummers, but basically ideas come from everyone. And I start to pull out all the ideas.” The trick is to make sure the cupboards are very full, Sullivan notes (unlike Strange Brotherhood, he admits, which saw the band writing when the cupboards were half-empty).

Sullivan goes into a bit more detail in talking about his songwriting, in regards another “terrifically apocalyptic” song of his, “Red Earth,” off 2005’s Carnival. “I like ‘Red Earth’ because it was a glorious 24 hours, the way it was put together. We’d been to South Africa, which we all found quite difficult, for obvious reasons. And anyway, basically, Michael had this beat, and I was tired of guitars. So I went over to the piano. ‘There are your chords, love those chords, and I’ll tell you what - I’ve got lots I want to write about Africa - put some percussion it. Oh, I got this little marimba that I got in South Africa; you play that Michael, do you?’ So he played that and I went home for me tea, and came back to find he’d played some marimba and something else, and then he went home for his tea, and I took over and sort of designed a vocal idea, and then this thing of guitars coming in and taking over at the end. And then he came in the next morning and put some drums on it and then we came back together again and went, ‘That’s great! Done, finished.’ We never even re-recorded it.” The song on the CD is the very demo that they “stuck together in 24 hours, pretty much the two of us.”

Coming back to the new album, what about the mention, in “States Radio,” of a tattered Barack Obama flyer, “hanging by the side of the road/ Like a long last prayer?” Obama was elected in November; was the song a late addition? “That was very much a song that I’d been meaning to write for ages. In a way, it’s out of date, because it’s a portrait of Bush’s America. But I think that it still has relevance.” The tattered flyer seems to suggest an “advance cynicism” on Sullivan’s part about Obama, I suggest. “The cynicism is not to do with Obama himself,” he corrects me. “The cynicism has to do with time. I wrote the song in October, then the election comes along, and everything changes, to some extent; I have to acknowledge that there’s been a change, I have to acknowledge Obama, but I also have to acknowledge that it’s a pretty safe bet that when the album comes out nine months on, that everybody’s idea that Obama is going to save the world will be slightly tempered. That doesn’t mean that the hope that went into it is unjustified. I’m not cynical about hope, and I’m not cynical about the election of Obama, either,” he says. “It was Lincoln who said ‘You can fool some of the people some of the time,’ and so forth, right? To me, the election of Obama is absolute proof of that. The right wing religious fundamentalists - the New Right - who thought that they could always use a kind of visceral paranoia across America to get their man in, suddenly found that they couldn’t. And I think that’s a wonderful moment. The right’s only policy is just a sort of paranoia - and people wouldn’t buy it this time. I think it’s a wonderful sign.”


Joolz Denby - Sullivan’s partner, as well as being a spoken word artist, novelist and tattooist in her own right - designed the cover for the new album, like the art for almost every New Model Army album or EP. At first I think the image - a somewhat bloody-looking flower - is a poppy, but in fact, “it's a Japanese cherry blossom,” she tells me by email. “It symbolises the beauty and fragility of human life - which is why today is a good day, because who knows what tomorrow will bring?” Though she won’t be joining the band on tour, she has a new album of her own out, Spirit Stories, with music provided by Justin and other band members and Joolz reading narratives and poetry. Though she seems a bit less angry than the savage young red-haired Pagan first heard in Vancouver on the cable access show, Soundproof, in the 1980’s, it’s nice to note there’s still a slight snarl in her voice, for example, in “The Wolf Girls of Midnapore,” which tells the story of two feral children found in India with whom the poet seeks a common inhumanity. Joolz dismisses arguments that Amala and Kamala, the wolf-girls of the story, weren’t feral at all, merely mentally disturbed children being exploited, by saying the idea of feral children makes “modern thinkers uncomfortable - better there's a 'scientific' answer than the fact we are really all animals and that the veneer of civilisation is awfully thin.” She finds a similar commonality with the too-loud laughter of “common little bitches acting up” in a later narrative, “Under the Bridge,” with Joolz observing lower class teenage girls at a cafĂ© in Bradford. There’s also “Born Dead,” which is so excessive in its darkness, and set to such a catchy beat, that it borders on funny: a violent, Lynchian cabaret, with Joolz swaggering as she boastfully declaims, “I wasn’t born, I was disinterred;” and “Boy, You Need The Road” - the closest to a full-on song on the disc, with Joolz taking an almost maternal, protective stance over desperate, restless male energy that she would spare the fate of suburban mediocrity. Spirit Stories can be ordered through the band’s website.

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

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