Take the early Cure's dark, post-punk pop soundscape--minor keys, burbling basslines, strummed acoustic backdrops, slashing keys and guitars. Now add a drummer out for blood, kicking the whole thing up several levels of intensity, and place it all behind a lead singer not besotted by existentialism and surrealism à la Robert Smith but, rather, articulating a fiercely humanist, anti-establishment agenda. If you've never heard New Model Army--which is no big surprise--now you can begin to imagine its sound.
Named after Oliver Cromwell's populist fighting force in the English Civil War, New Model Army emerged as an underground post-punk sensation in Britain's aimless '80s--dark days for independent musical and political voices on both sides of the Atlantic. Yet the band has sustained a loyal following overseas for 20 years without ever charting a hit, and a vital Stateside cult despite not touring here for a decade. When NMA first tried coming to these shores, its members were denied visas by Reagan-era immigration authorities. They're back now, in acoustic form, to promote Great Expectations: The Singles Collection (Superfecta). I spoke to leadman Justin Sullivan via cell phone as he and his comrades crossed the border into President Bush's home state, at the same moment that W. was landing in London.
Willamette Week: Your countrymen are welcoming our president today, though not all of them necessarily warmly.
Justin Sullivan: He's gone to England to "get across his message," I think they say. We're going to Texas to get across ours. Perfect timing.
In the Thatcher/Reagan era, one of your songs called England "the 51st state of America." Today, that could be said to be truer than ever. Why pick this moment for a return to the United States?
Dotted around North America, there are these small pockets of people who love this band. And sometimes they get really, really desperate and save up all their pennies and fly to Europe to see us. We've been conscious for a long time that we owe them the respect of coming here in some form or other.
I think in the old days we used to have pretensions of doing it the "business" way. We used to have a big label here who'd say, "We're going to break America, we're going to do this and that, everything's going to be great and we'll sell millions of records." We've long since realized that that isn't real. And this time, there's just four of us on the road, in a little van, and it's wonderful to be here. It doesn't really matter, when you do it like this, whether you turn up in Kansas City, as we did last night, and play to a very, very small crowd, or in a really wonderful club in Chicago or D.C. and play to several hundred people. You're not worrying about the money or the business side of music or anything--it's really about coming here and playing to people that want to see you.
So it was once an ambition of yours to "break America"?
Well, I suppose it was once an ambition of ours to "break Europe." But actually, we're this very strange worldwide underground minority taste, and that's how it is. We get letters from places like Volgograd, in Russia, where we've never been, from four people, and we're their favorite band in the world.
It's like the group of friends from Arkansas who drove hundreds of miles to see us in St. Louis. They're the only people in Arkansas who've heard of us, but we're their favorite band.
Of course, many Americans first heard of you when you were denied visas to tour here in the '80s.
We applied for visas two or three times through '85 and '86 and were denied entry on the grounds of having "no artistic merit." That's all they ever said. You could say it was political, or whatever; we have no proof either way.
When we did the Ghost of Cain album with [former Who and Rolling Stones producer] Glyn Johns in 1986, we tried to enlist his help in getting into the United States. We had a letter from him stating, "I, Glyn Johns, producer of everybody in the world, have decreed that this band has artistic merit." And we eventually got in; I'm not sure if it had anything to do with Glyn or not.
That experience seems like a foreshadowing of today's political chilling of artistic freedom.
Well, it's relative. I mean, we've said what we've said on stage every night, and no one's gotten up and thrown anything yet. Maybe they will in Texas, who knows. But I don't feel as if we're about to be shot for it.
New Model Army plays with Antiworld and Statch & the Rapes Friday, Nov. 28, at DV8, 5021 SE Powell Blvd., 772-2907. 9 pm. Cover. 21+.