IT’S been a difficult few months for New Model Army.
On Christmas Eve, their Bradford studio, part of a former mill on Thornton Road, was devastated by a fire that ripped through the building.
“We spent Christmas Day biting our nails because we had everything in there,” says Justin Sullivan, the band’s charismatic singer-songwriter.
The blaze, which started in a neighbouring furniture store, caused widespread damage with the band losing equipment and instruments, as well as months of song recordings. They also lost several heritage instruments, including a drum kit belonging to former drummer Robert Heaton who died in 2004.
“The firemen fought the blaze from inside our studio. But it could have been worse, the whole place could have gone up,” says Sullivan. He’s quick to praise the bravery of the fire crews and his long-time friend and collaborator Joolz Denby, who has worked with the band for 30 years, created an artwork out of a charred guitar found in the debris which raised £350 for the Yorkshire and Humber Fire Fighters Charity.
Despite all the damage, repair work started in January and remarkably the band have already moved back in.
But if the fire wasn’t traumatic enough, they’ve also had to contend with losing their bass player Nelson, who’s leaving for personal and family reasons after 22 years. Sullivan admits he’s sad to see his friend go but says they’ve been inundated with applications, including several from experienced musicians in the US, Germany and Finland.
“The problem is finding someone who is able to do what Nelson did, which is technically demanding, but the thing about New Model Army is we’ve had a lot of different members over the years and each new person who joins brings a new energy, which I find really helpful.”
The band was forged in punk’s dying embers back in 1980 and it’s almost 30 years since their debut album Vengeance was released. In the intervening years they have defied being pigeon-holed and continue to eschew music trends in favour of ploughing their own furrow.
“We’re the only band I can think of that has played a folk festival, metal festival, Gothic festival and a hippy festival with the same set,” says Sullivan proudly.
But, by his own admission, their idiosyncrasies – the band was once described as “Leonard Cohen meets Killing Joke” – make them a marketing team’s worst nightmare. “We don’t have an obvious target audience so we don’t fit into any genre, but that’s because we draw on all kinds of musical influences. That’s who we are – you don’t see us on MTV but we’re a bit of a cult band and we have a very dedicated following, especially in places like Europe and South America.”
This refusal to conform to expectations has meant they have lost some fans over the years. But Sullivan is philosophical about it. “We’ve been going 32 years, but we’re not stuck in the past and the people who just wanted to hear the old songs have stopped coming. We’re fortunate, though, to have fans who are interested in what we’re doing now.
“The mistake some people make is they think we’re one of those bands still doing the rounds and playing all our old stuff, which isn’t true. People think we’re a political band but, although we have done some political songs, we didn’t form for political reasons; for us it’s always been about music. Back in the 80s left-wing organisations didn’t get involved with us because we couldn’t be relied on to say the right thing.
“I remember a few years ago, talking to a journalist and asking him why London’s music press never came to speak to us and he said it was because they didn’t know what we were going to do next. As an artist, I think that’s the highest accolade you can receive, to be seen as unpredictable and still considered to be dangerous.”
So has age mellowed them? “As you get older you lose the unfocused aggression, but as an artist there is nothing more satisfying than being creative and we still have something to say.”
New Model Army are looking for a new bass player and applicants are asked to contact firstname.lastname@example.org
The story of Bradford’s model rockers
The band was formed by singer Justin Sullivan, in Bradford, in 1980
They are named after Oliver Cromwell’s revolutionary English army
NMA’s debut album, Vengeance, was released in 1984
Bradford writer and artist Joolz Denby was the band’s first manager
The band’s line-up currently features Sullivan on vocals and guitar, Marshall Gill on lead guitar, Michael Dean on drums and Dean White on keyboards
New Model Army’s 11th studio album, Today is a Good Day, came out in 2009