Bradford’s New Model Army have always gone their own way musically – and now they are featuring in a film. Sebastian Oake reports.
You won’t often hear them on the radio, see them on TV or read about them in the music press but New Model Army are still on the march more than 30 years after they burst onto the post-punk music scene.
The Bradford rockers are the antithesis of everything you might think a successful band should be. Usually ignored by the media and with a deep distrust of the ‘music industry’, they have made their mark and earned their stripes by putting their fingers up to convention and doing things on their own terms.
Viewed from a distance, New Model Army might seem a throwback to times when music and scowling went hand in hand but once you open your ears, your heart opens too. The songs may often be dark and brooding but they are also frequently intelligent observations on life and rich in emotion. And the pounding drums and guitars are always subservient to beautiful, often haunting, melodies.
Justin Sullivan has fronted the band since it was formed in 1980 and says they have never fitted into expectations.
“We had a completely bite-the-hand-that-feeds-you attitude from day one. If you want to get on in the world, that isn’t particularly advantageous but it’s our attitude and we can’t seem to shed it!”
Justin proudly relates how in 2010 they played folk, gothic, metal and hippy festivals on consecutive weekends with the same set-list. It sums up the eclectic, genre-defying music that has created a passionate following not just in Britain but in countries like the Netherlands, Germany, Sweden and Brazil.
Last year’s album, Between Dog and Wolf, was their most commercially successful in 20 years, climbing a respectable height into the UK album chart. With it’s more complex overlay of rhythms, it marked a departure from the ‘rock-band-in-a-room’ approach taken in previous albums. It has inspired the band to produce a live collection this month of songs from the subsequent tour with an added bonus – a mini-album of brand new songs.
“Dog and Wolf was very much a studio album,” says Justin. “We thought that when we played the songs live they were going to change and take on a different life, which they did. So we thought it would be an interesting exercise to bring out a live album but in the process we happened to write a bunch more songs!”
The new collection, entitled Between Wine and Blood, ranges from the pop-grunge of According to You, through the intense Angry Planet to the dreamy Happy to Be Here.
It’s not the only coming landmark on the horizon for the band. Next month will see the London première of a movie about New Model Army, put together by respected documentary maker Matt Reid. It’s called Between Dog And Wolf – The New Model Army Story.
Justin explains: “Matt came to us and said ‘I want to make a documentary about you’ and I said ‘Okay’ without thinking about it too much.
“From the very beginning, he set about not trying to tell the story of 34 years of New Model Army, because how can you in an hour and 20 minutes? He’s tried to create a story that won’t just appeal to New Model Army fans but to a wider group of people. We’re all interviewed in the film and there is something about Dog and Wolf in there but there is an emphasis on the past.”
There is certainly much for the film to have drawn on. New Model Army have already released 14 studio albums with several additional live albums and collections – altogether featuring around 220 songs – and over the years 14 or so different musicians have played in the group. There have also been more than a band’s fair share of ‘rock and roll moments’, including the inevitable musical differences along the way, the death of Justin’s former right-hand man and talented all-round musician Robert Heaton, a serious fire at the band’s Bradford studio that destroyed not only equipment but keepsakes and archive tapes, followed by the theft of much of their remaining equipment and instruments after a gig in the West Midlands. And then there was the time in Switzerland when Justin spent three minutes technically dead. He is able to be light-hearted about it now: “It was the best three minutes of my life,” he says of the moment when he was electrocuted on stage. “It’s all true what everybody says about a near-death experience – the floating, the white light, a feeling of absolute peace.”
Even so, it would have been no way for one of Yorkshire’s musical icons to go, although it should be said that Justin is more of an adopted Yorkshireman. He moved to Bradford from Buckinghamshire to go to college almost 40 years ago and stayed.
“I like Bradford,” he says. “I’ve fallen in and out of love with it but I think it’s got a lot going for it. The geographical situation is great – you can see the hills up above you all the time and I never feel claustrophobic here. I remember we did move to London in 1983 because we thought we needed to be there for the music industry but I couldn’t write songs there – I felt hemmed in – and so we came back. Another thing I like about Bradford is this: no matter where you’re from, you can quickly become a Bradfordian. No-one really cares where you’re from, everyone belongs in Bradford.
“And the architecture and legacy of the wool industry is all around. I love the stone of the old mills. When the sun shines at particular angles, all the crystals in the sandstone light up and sometimes the buildings go into complete gold. Compared with brick cities, Bradford is beautiful.”
Just like New Model Army’s music, that is something we should hear more often.