These days, a real punk band can almost never find its way onto the pop charts. But back in the day (see: mid-’80s), England’s New Model Army released political punk that didn’t merely sell to left-wing extremists. Almost 30 years ago, frontman/mastermind Justin Sullivan, who has been compared to punk legends like Joe Strummer and Dick Lucas, named NMA after Oliver Cromwell’s successful (at least for a while) 17th-century British anti-royalist forces. Sullivan’s intelligent, informed and captivating songwriting helped the group get signed by EMI—who the Sex Pistols swindled in the ’70s—and embark on a dozen British Top 30 singles before descending (or ascending, depending your worldview) to the worldwide cult status NMA holds today. The Alibi caught up with Sullivan just before the start of New Model Army’s North American tour, which hits the Launchpad this weekend.
I heard NMA compared to The Clash before I was ever exposed to your music, but from the first song on your new record, Today Is A Good Day, the influences are admirably all over the place. What inspired NMA musically from the beginning, and what bands are influencing your songwriting and production more recently?
I think we share with The Clash both a rough, raw romanticism and an internationalist attitude, but I never thought we had much in common musically. As you say, our musical influences are all over the place. We all really like different things. Once we tried to agree on a single album by anyone in the history of music that we all unreservedly loved and failed to come up with one! I think that's unusual for a band. I think it's probably fair to say that we are a kind of “rock” band but at least two of us would claim not to like “rock” at all. Influences equal everything.
Your lyric “Everything is beautiful because everything is dying” seems to point to a kind of existentialism or even Buddhism. How does religion or spirituality tie into what New Model Army does?
“I think we share with The Clash both a rough, raw romanticism and an internationalist attitude, but I never thought we had much in common musically.”
Justin Sullivan, New Model Army
I was brought up in a Quaker household and still have a lot of respect for Quakerism, while I have also written several of the most un-Quakerly songs ever made: “Vengeance,” “The Hunt,” “One Of The Chosen,” etc. The idea that there is a spiritual aspect to life seems to me so obvious that I don't need to question it or join any particular clubs or creeds or cults to express it. To me, God is Nature and Nature is God, so I guess I'm a pagan of some sort, but in the end even the nonsense “Religions of the Book”—Christianity, Islam, Judaism—each have a mystical wing that is interested not so much in the words of some prophet or other but in the very principles of light and love. So they're all really the same. It's all simple and easy and obvious and we're all aware of that at some level. It's the power brokers of religion that like to make it complicated because they have their own different agenda.
As a band that was once on major labels with hits on the U.K. charts, do you always feel “on the edge of something,” or is it actually more satisfying and engaging to play for small crowds that know all the lyrics and take your politics seriously?
Actually, I think we're a very rare outfit in that we don't belong to any movement or genre and we've never had a top-20 hit in any country, and yet we're still here and making great music 30 years later. In that time, much has changed, but the basic principles and reasons we started making music remain exactly the same. We never did worry too much about how we were perceived. One journalist once said to me that his colleagues were terrified to say they liked us because they weren't quite sure what we were going to do next week—and you can't get a higher accolade than that.
“States Radio” is a great snapshot of being weary on the road while in America. You guys have been touring for almost 30 years now—how have your experiences of zigzagging across America evolved over the years?
We played in Albuquerque on the JS and Friends [New Model Army semi-acoustic] tour in 2004 and the audience was great—really up for it and passionate—and included a bunch of tribe lads who brought us all the now famous "Fighting Terrorism since 1492" T-shirts. Very cool. I first zigzagged across America in 1975 as a wide-eyed, hitchhiking teenager and instantly fell in love with New Mexico and the whole of the American West because it's wild and weird and so beautiful. Other than in parts of Spain, we don't have deserts in Europe, so it was a whole new landscape to fall in love with. “States Radio” is indeed a snapshot of Bush's America which, with all the will in the world, the Obama administration will find hard to put right. Actually, when the flag-waving of the post-9/11 period began to give way to serious misgivings about the so-called “War On Terror,” the atmosphere reminded me strongly of 1975: a burned-out, bleached-out era of post-Vietnam and post-'60s "going to ground."
Is NMA’s sustained creativity and activism a result of growing up in opposition to Thatcher’s England or just a result of punk rock and poetry in motion? How do you stay so inspired?
I like that, “punk rock and poetry in motion," and I appreciate the compliment. I'm trying to think of a good answer, but in truth ... it's just what we do.