Optimism has never been Justin Sullivan's strong suit, but neither has cynicism. For the better part of three decades, his band New Model Army has made some of the most emotionally powerful and musically potent albums out there, adrenaline-soaked collages of razor-sharp riffs, widescreen poetic imagery and frequently in-your-face politics that are more defiant than dogmatic.
So when Sullivan wrote "Today Is a Good Day," the title track to New Model Army's new album, he wasn't being ironic, even though the song is actually about the economic meltdown that brought Wall Street brokerage firms to their knees.
"'Today Is a Good Day' is a celebration of the collapse of Lehman Brothers and the collapse of Wall Street last autumn," says Sullivan. "It's not meant to be a philosophical statement, it's just, 'Fuckin' hell, we enjoyed this!'"
Buoyed by U.K. hits like "51st State" and "No Rest for the Wicked," New Model Army was lionized by the British music press in its early years. But the band's contrarian inclinations went on to alienate critics, even as it built a following as rabidly devoted as any in contemporary music.
"Everything we've done that has political overtones is just a reaction to something," says Sullivan. "And, as a result, our songs are deeply contradictory to each other, and I'm quite proud of that. Because I think music is about emotions, not bloody philosophy."
Family of Munsters
Sullivan was born in Jordans, a quiet English village steeped in the Anglo-Saxon traditions of famine and cholera. He grew up in a Quaker family, which he recalls in the song "Inheritance": "We line up at the wedding in rows of deep set eyes / In our finest formal dresses and proper suits and ties / Like a family of Munsters in a really bad disguise."
"I think they all chuckled," says Sullivan when asked how the folks felt about that one. "I'm one of seven kids. We all get on pretty well, really. We all do different things, but we're all a bit sort of — I don't know what the word is. We are what we are."
A family of Munsters?
"Yeah, I've got that sort of face, haven't I?"
Sullivan became fascinated early on with Motown, which instilled in him an affinity for the kind of insidiously memorable choruses he writes so well. He was also energized by the arrival of punk rock and still counts the Ruts as the best band he's ever seen: "It was as if someone had taken a scouring pad to my soul," he recalls. "And I always hope that when people walk out of the gigs we've done, that they feel the way I felt that night."
New Model Army went on to make a huge splash in the British music weeklies, from whose covers they stared grimly in the mid-'80s. At the time, Sullivan was still using the pseudonym Slade the Leveller.
"It's a well-guarded secret where the actual name comes from," says Sullivan of origins that could hardly be more embarrassing than the name itself. "It was kind of tradition that everybody around the punk time had alternate names. And the reason, of course, was that we were all getting welfare checks. So you couldn't use your real name, because the dole would find out that you were in a band."
The U.S. government proved a more challenging hurdle to get around, which may be why New Model Army remains more obscure in the States. The band's tours were often derailed by denied visas. (America, as an immigration official once explained to me, has its own musicians who are perfectly capable of playing all kinds of music.)
"My inclination is not to go yelling, 'Political censorship!' from the highest building," says Sullivan. "In fact, what happened a year and a half ago is that they never got around to processing it, although we'd applied four months in advance. I think because of the war on terror — which I find slightly embarrassing, to even put those words together — the government makes more and more hoops for all the civil servants to jump through. But they don't give them any more money or any more people, so everything's drowning in bureaucracy."
Everything is beautiful
As befits the longtime partner of celebrated novelist Joolz Denby, Sullivan's songs lean heavily toward storytelling, although happy endings are hard to come by. Take, for instance, "One of the Chosen," which can be found on the band's new live album, Fuck Texas, Sing For Us.
"It's entirely about the joy of being a jihadi," says Sullivan, adding that his own youthful religion-hopping gave him something of an insider's perspective. "When I was 15, I was in a Pentacostal group and went through all that kind of religious fundamentalist thing. And I thought, 'It's just so wonderful, isn't it?' You relinquish all responsibility and become part of something that's happening — fantastic! The song doesn't criticize, it's just a story. More and more, I just write stories and people can take away from it what they like. It's obvious that there is within New Model Army — you know, that we are vaguely left-wing and all the rest of it — but the songs themselves are just stories."
While Today Is a Good Day has no shortage of musical invention, Sullivan says the group still managed to record it in just 12 days: "Everybody has always said to us, 'You're a much better live band than you are on record.' And I think this is perhaps the closest we've come to getting some of the live thing on tape."
The album does, in fact, pack a punch, from the incendiary "Arm Yourselves and Run" to the mourn-along "Autumn," in which a choir joins Sullivan in singing "Everything is beautiful / Because everything is dying." There's also a reworking of "Ocean Rising," which was one of the moodiest tracks on Sullivan's 2003 solo album, Navigating by the Stars.
"The big difference to me is that the original one is very dreamlike and it's huge, like watching the biggest storm in the world from very, very far away. And the one on the New Model Army album is like watching a smaller storm that is breaking on top of you."
It's also a rare example of the band repeating itself.
"We try really hard not to write the same song twice," says Sullivan, a sentiment which carries through to the band's live shows. "We're aware that some of the audience wants the same old songs, we just don't play them. Tough shit, really. I looked at the set list we did last year and, of the 17 songs in the main set before we got to the encore, there were only two from before 2000. And I think that's amazing for a band that's been together for 30 years.
"I can't think of anyone else who can get away with that."