I recently had a chance and gab on the phone with Justin Sullivan, singer and founder of the British band New Model Army. The idea was to do, well, questions and answers, in short, an interview. But it turned into something more like a casual conversation and lasted a lot longer than I'd anticipated. Here is the first part of the conversation, in which Sullivan discusses Between Wine and Blood, the band's just released part-live, part-studio recording, the creative process and a few other unplanned topics. I'll be posting the rest of the transcript of our conversation in the coming days.
John Sevigny: Justin. Good afternoon to you, good morning here in El Salvador, how are you?
Justin Sullivan: Yes, how are you?
Sevigny: I'm doing OK. It's Independence Day across most of Latin America so it's kind of a lazy day here.
Sullivan: Do they all get independence the same day?
Sevigny: Yes, kind of because you had the Spanish Peninsular War, France invaded Spain, and Spain got distracted and lost control of the colonies. So that's your history lesson for the day.
Sullivan: You're right. As you were speaking I was thinking about how little I know about the history of Latin America.
Sevigny: I was thinking last night that you guys haven't done much here, have you?
Sullivan: We've done very little. We'd like to do more. We've been to Brazil every now and again. We were meant to be in Brazil at the beginning of this month but we didn't. We have been to Brazil three times before but we haven't been anywhere else. The problem is in most parts of the world they want to know what it is in order to sell it. If it's metal they sell it to the metal audience. If it's punk, they sell it to the punk audience. If it's goth they sell it to a goth audience but no one knows what we are.
Sevigny: I thought about that last night when I was scrawling down questions for this. If you're sitting on an airplane next to somebody who's really never heard your group and they ask what you sound like, what do you say?
Sullivan: I try to avoid the question. I say something like "emotional." We've had various interesting descriptions along the way. Somebody said we sound like a cross between Leonard Cohen and Killing Joke, which I thought was interesting. Somebody said Bob Dylan meets, I think it was Thin Lizzy, I can't remember now. We've heard them all over the years.
Sevigny: I wanted to ask you about the new record, Between Wine and Blood, which I've only heard the parts of which that have been put up on Youtube by whomever and it sounds really different than Between Dog and Wolf, the last record.
Sullivan: It does?
Sevigny: To me it does. It sounds faster, like it was done faster.
Sullivan: The thing about the previous record, the Between Dog and Wolf record, is that it was very much 'of a piece.' You can put the songs in any order and it kind of works but if you take out any of the 14 songs it doesn't work. You have to take the time to get into the mood of it and once you're in the mood it kind of stays. Whereas the new one is much more typically New Model Army, very eclectic, so there's one song that sounds like it's off Vengeance almost and there's one song that sounds like it's off Navigating by the Stars. All the extremes. There's a couple of sort of guitarry, angry songs, and there's one that does sound a bit like Dog and Wolf and there's one very sweet song called Sunrise. They're all really different. When we put this one together we weren't thinking of an album really, we were happened to be writing songs in the absence of Michael being able to tour, with the view of putting out a couple of extra songs to go with a live album and then it turned into six (Drummer Michael Dean has been sidelined after knee surgery).
John Sevigny: I was going to ask you, of the three or four songs I've heard, they're all very strong. Do you feel sort of the way you did when the album Eight came out. Do you feel rejuvenated after doing a very studio heavy album to be back to doing a fast, quickly done project?
Justin Sullivan: This was done exactly the same way as Dog and Wolf actually. The intention was to write some songs, get them to the stage of Dog and Wolf and then, undo them, and then have them much more "bandy" so they had an element of live performance in them. But because Michael couldn't play, we couldn't do that, so we had to build the songs up in the studio exactly the same way we did with Dog and Wolf. We recorded the drums first on tape then we went back and recorded everything else.
John Sevigny: I always wonder ... it's interesting because I met you when I was 17 and I'm 45 now so think about that. But, how much of it is written collectively, and how much is written by you sitting down with a drum track or an acoustic guitar?
Justin Sullivan: The way we tend to write ... it's a generalization but the way we tend to write is as follows. We have two cupboards. One is marked musical ideas and into that goes me strumming a guitar, chords, melody, or, a drumbeat, or a bass riff, or some keyboard chords, or a bit of a jam session, but especially drumbeats I have to say. Michael comes up with beat after beat after beat. In the other cupboard goes "stuff I want to write about." So all the time I've got notebooks and stuff and people tell me stories or I read something in the newspaper or something happens in my life or something and I start writing and it's all very variable. Sometimes it's whole pages of rant, sometimes it's two lines that I think feel really good. And the trick is, you have to wait until those cupboards are pretty full. That was the problem with Strange Brotherhood (1998). We got into the studio before the cupboards were full so we were sort of coming up with ideas in the studio. That doesn't work. You have to have lots and lots of ideas laying around and then you pull them out and then you pin something together. So we try that chord with that drumbeat and that idea for a lyric and the first thing you write is always rubbish so you throw that away. Then the second thing you write is mostly rubbish but it's got the grain of something good so you throw away the rubbish bits, go back to the cupboard and say, well let's try this idea. And then what happens, because you're feeling creative and getting creative because you're basically using all these ideas that you've put away over previous months, you get on a roll and then it's easy.
John Sevigny: Interesting.
Justin Sullivan: You just work at it. You know this as a photographer. But the more you do the easier it gets as long as the cupboards are full of ideas, which they usually are. They were very full before Dog and Wolf. And there were two songs from Wine and Blood that were left over from Dog and Wolf, that weren't finished in time for Dog and Wolf. There are another two songs that were written for Between Wine and Blood but we didn't finish in time, but they'll turn up next time. Or sometimes there are songs that get buried. There's a song called Arm Yourselves and Run which is on Today is a Good Day. And it says "Written on a Belgrade wall in 1991,"and I wrote most of that song in 1991 or 1992. But it didn't kind of work so I put it away and 20 years later I fished it up.
John Sevigny: That album, Today is a Good Day is really interesting to me because it's not a concept album really, but it all holds together in a really strong way, you know, dealing with the (2008 stock market) crash.
Justin Sullivan: Written very much against the background of the crash.
John Sevigny: I just did a quick perusal of the conversation board on your Web site to see what people were talking about. One thing was what happened with the Angry Planet video? There was all kinds of speculation about it being too violent or that you scrapped it for ethical reasons or something.
Justin Sullivan: Funny you should say that. I'm just sitting here talking about it with Dean White who did most of the video editing. It was done really plundering Youtube and we set out to make something which was sort of a video with the band and footage from Youtube. Basically it got very difficult to avoid the charge of "well this is just sort of a rock video." It's a rock song. You're putting band footage in it, and yet you want to put all these really horrific images off Youtube in it. Some people saw it and said, a) it's a bit obvious, but b) it's impossible to avoid ... I remember going to see Crass when I was a kid and they would play their Crass music on stage and on the side of the stage they'd have screens showing Belsen. And I remember thinking that's really unnecessary. You know what I mean?
John Sevigny: Yeah.
Justin Sullivan: And it was impossible to avoid that sort of feeling about what we were doing, although that wasn't the original intention.
John Sevigny: So basically it just didn't come out right?
Justin Sullivan: And the other thing is there's a certain pornography in watching violence. What happens is the first time you watch it, it's really shocking. And then you put it on again because you want to hear the song again. And I know there are some people out there that love going through Youtube and watching beheadings. We didn't actually have beheadings in it but it was going that way, do you know what I mean?
John Sevigny: Yes.
Justin Sullivan: Because that was the illustration of the song. I'm telling you too much really, more than I want to tell the world. But the idea of the video was the same as the idea of the song. It was entirely nihilistic. It's not a call for more peace in the world. It's just a summation of the angry nature of nature itself and how people are just part of that. People are violent.
John Sevigny: Yeah, that seems to be a strange conclusion you've come to, if indeed it is a conclusion: "I know it isn't personal. I just live on an angry planet."
Justin Sullivan: I think that people sometimes like to know where their artists are. They like to know what they stand for. You get U2 and Bruce Springsteen, who in the end, they ultimately want to be on the side of ... good? Or something?
John Sevigny: Right.
Justin Sullivan: Ultimately they're about human hope and dignity. And of course on the other side you get the bad boys of sex, drugs, and rock and roll, blah, blah, blah. And I think if you're true to yourself as a writer then that's ... you know what I mean ... I'm not ... You know some mornings I wake up and I think people are alright, the planet is beautiful, you know, life will be OK, it's a beautiful morning, I'm alive, I've got all my arms and legs. Things are OK. And some mornings I wake up and think, you give me the button, the nuclear button, and I will press it now and destroy everything with a great grin on my face. And I think that's kind of more natural. It's like if you think of Bob Dylan's catalog, he'll have a beautiful love song next to a particularly bitter, vitriolic hate song. Because that's kind of how people are. But I agree, if feeds into that thing of "Nobody knows what New Model Army are." Let's go back to the beginning ... the first thing we did that reached anyone's ears was Vengeance, which is possibly the most politically incorrect song written by anyone, ever. So even from the very beginning we couldn't be trusted to say the right things.
John Sevigny: That brings up an interesting point. I started paying attention to you guys quite early on, from around the release of the Ghost of Cain, through Thunder and Consolation and a little bit beyond that and then I sort of lost the thread after the Love of Hopeless Causes. Then six or seven years passed, or ten, and then all of a sudden you as a person were far less preachy, and far less dogmatic though I hesitate to use the word. Was there a moment where that changed suddenly or did it happen over time?
Justin Sullivan: I think it was changing as we made Thunder and Consolation, actually. When you first start writing there's a need ... I grew up very politically active and with very strong opinions about everything, and of course when you're young you think you know everything about everything. You know what's right and what's wrong. So there's a kind of instinct to say "I believe in this. I believe in that." But once you've said it, you can't go on saying it. If you're an artist you get more interested in the more complex things of life, the stories, the things that aren't actually "on message." I think that started by Thunder and Consolation.
John Sevigny: I was talking with someone recently about this, and you've become sort of this icon, whether you like it or not. At the same time, you're extremely private, and yet at the same time you're one of the most accessible musicians out there. How do you balance all that?
Justin Sullivan: (long pause)
John Sevigny: Did I just confuse you?
Justin Sullivan: Yeah, yeah, really. I have no idea. I've always been quite private, you know, in that sense. But if it comes to talking about idea or talking about music I'm very open. I'm just not very open to talking about my private life. It's pretty much that simple.
John Sevigny: But at the same time you walk this really thin line where on one hand you're completely approachable ...
Justin Sullivan: I think that's in part because we never got too successful. I think we handled that rather well, although I don't know if it's entirely an accident. It's nice to have, in various cities in the world, very occassionally, someone out of the blue will come up to you and go "Oh, I really liked your last record." But it's very rare so when it happens it's quite nice. If it happened all the time ... I can't think of anything worse than actually being mega-famous. It's like living in a palace of mirrors I think. I think that would be hell. We sort of worked that out early. I remember in the early 90s in Europe we were kind of set to be a very big band. And people have asked me, "What happened? Where did it all go wrong?" And I think that perhaps it didn't all go wrong, that perhaps what we wanted was this, which is, we're known enough to make enough money to go on, but we are not so known that there's much pressure. So we just do what we want, when we want, in the way we want. There's a really big German band called Die Toten Hosen, and they're huge in Germany and a few other countries and they do sort of stadium, punkish rock and they do the stadiums brilliantly. They're really good. We played a stadium with them last year in Switzerland somewhere. And I watched them and "how to do a stadium." You know, you have to do the big thing. You have to make it operatic in a sense. You have to try to get the people in the back to sing along and clap, you know what I mean?
John Sevigny: Yes.
Justin Sullivan: And I never really liked that. I never had that kind of will, to do that. And I've got a lot of friends who are singers or front-people and they always talk about the audience as if it's one animal and I never really think of it like that. I think there are lots and lots of people out there and they've all got different back-stories, they've all got different reasons for being there, they all like different songs. They're all going to make different responses. They don't want to be told what to do by me. And they don't want to be told what to think. I'm not going to say, "Hey, everybody say yeah!" We were never willing to do that.
John Sevigny: Was there a sort of precise moment when you went from being a guy with a guitar who wanted to make a lot of noise, to saying, "Holy fuck, I'm a really good songwriter"?
Justin Sullivan: No, I think that everyone who's involved in anything creative, and this would include yourself, you have moments when you look at something you've done and you go, "That's really good. That's really what I meant it to be. I'm really proud of that." Then there are times when you look at something and say, "Hmmm, it's a bit ordinary really." So there are times when I've written a song and thought, yeah, it's really good, just for me, you know? And there are other times when I think, well, I missed that one. That wasn't quite right. I did that wrong. I've known a few songwriters and poets and artists who think that everything they do is fantastic, but they're very rarely that good and very rarely successful.
Sevigny: Then there's that thing where you do something that you think is wonderful and three days later you go "What the hell was that?"
Sullivan: (laughing) Yes! Well that's a little bit like playing when you're stoned. Everything sounds fantastic.
Sevigny: I was going to ask you some topical things, given that as you say, you write a lot of songs about "stuff." What are your thoughts about Scottish independence?
Sullivan: I really hope they vote yes. If I was Scottish I'd vote yes. Just because I think it would be a big kick to the status quo. It'll make things change, maybe not for the better but at least change. I honestly did believe that that would happen in 2008 but it didn't. If anything, people got more wilfully blind than they were then and it was terribly disappointing.
Sevigny: There's always this thing where these movements spark counter-movements that are far more conservative than whatever existed before.
Sullivan: Well I think that whether Scotland goes independent or not, the next election in the UK Independent Party are going to do terribly well. Which is a kind of a populist, old-England nonsense party. But it's basically, it's simply a reaction to the fact that all mainstream politics is in the pocket of Wall Street and the City of London. I fear that instead of saying, "Let's re-organize the world for the benefit of all people," that people are going to be turned against each other easily.
Sevigny: I also wanted to ask what your feelings are on ISIL, ISIS, or whatever the name might be and what seems like the sixth or seventh or eighth Iraq war. Any thoughts there? On one hand you have some people doing some really terrible things. On the other hand you have President Obama and some other people, who to me, appear to be saying, "Fantastic, they have just handed us our next war wrapped in ribbons."
Sullivan: No, I don't think that's entirely fair on Obama. I don't think that America are going into this terribly willingly. I think that America would have loved to have escaped from the bloody hands of what Bush did with a clean conscience. This is absolutely what Bush and Blair did, and it's come back to bite everybody.
Sevigny: It's almost as if the war never ended, that we just took a break.
Sullivan: Yeah. And the politics in the Middle East are immensely complicated. Because you've got all the natural divisions between the Sunnis and Shias, and Persians and Arabs to start with and all the sort of tribal wars in between and the Kurds and everyone else. The whole thing in 2003 is that Britain, certainly, with a long history in the area and America, both have got plenty of good advisors. There are lots of people that study this part of the world and know a lot about it. And they all said "Let's be careful here." 2003 ... this was always going to be an absolute disaster from the word go. My sister lives in Cairo, hence the Egyptian song on the last record, with a sense of what's going on there. And I remember when the anti-Kaddafi thing was taking root in Libya, and the West was deciding to back the rebels. She said to me, "Do the West actually know who these people are?" I sometimes think that Western leaders all watched Star Wars. Or they watched lots of Hollywood movies. They think the world is divided into goodies and baddies.
Sevigny: That goes right back to Reagan.
Sullivan: Oh, and further. You know it's arguable that the Second World War was a fight against fascist tide. So we were the goodies and they were the baddies. So that's now written into everything else. But actually the world isn't made up like that. It's made up of lots of warring interests. The bottom line in the Middle East is that for a long time America's best friend and Britain's best friend have been the Saudis because they buy lots of oil and keep the weapons flowing so they're our best friends. And actually it's all the money we've given to them, and oil and stuff, that they've used to spread their particularly nasty version of Islam across the world. The idea that the Saudi family is our ally in the Middle East is absolutely ridiculous. To put it in another way, Saudi Arabia is not even really a country anyway. It's just a small number of people with a lot of oil and some slave labor. There aren't many of them anyway. But Iran is an old civilization with an old history that's a natural ally for the West. But recently we've been in like a proxy war with Iran backing up Saudi Arabia and we've got it entirely the wrong way around.
Sevigny: Going back to yourself, has touring gotten more difficult with age?
Sullivan: Hmm. No. Not yet. Not yet but it will. I'm not a big ... I don't do lots of fitnes, but then I'm not a massive drinker or drug-taker or anything, so I don't punish my body that way. I like to feel reasonably healthy. I think the other thing is that in recent years we've got Marshall on stage, and most recently Ceri, and Ceri brings all that energy and youth so I don't have to do quite as much. There's lots going on onstage without me having to do much but actually, I'm really, really into what we're doing as a band at the moment.
Sevigny: Something else ... for many years you've mentioned Modern Times as your favorite New Model Army Song. Has that changed?
Sullivan: It was for a while and it's definitely up there. I've got quite a few really. I think Dawn would be my current favorite and I can't make any judgements yet about the last two records.
Sevigny: Ah, there was one other thing I missed that I wanted to ask you. You guys used to take like a million years to make a record and all of a sudden you turn this new record around in 13 months.
Sullivan: Uh, yeah. It's all accident. It's all accident. There's no planning.
Sevigny: Is there any sense of urgency on your part to get as much done as you can in the time you've got?
Sullivan: Yes but it's not all related to the band. You know if I'm lucky I've got another 20 years on the planet. Do I want to spend it all on the road? No. But are there albums that I want us to make that we haven't made yet? Yeah, definitely.
Sevigny: What about the concept of fate and destiny. And it appears quite a few times in new songs and you obviously have an older song called Fate. What areyour thoughts on fate and destiny? I know it's a huge, enormous, philosophical question.
Sullivan: (laughing) Yes! It's a huge philosophical question. I just think that life's unpredictable. So it's inevitable that people... it's the starting point of religion, isn't it? I mean you accept that you're not in control of everything. So you say this is the will of god or it's fate. Each one is as good as another for explaining why this happened and that didn't.
Sevigny: You have know idea where you're going but you're going somewhere.
Sullivan: Yeah, you really, really don't know what's around the next corner. It's completely unpredictable.
For more on Justin Sullivan and New Model Army, check their Web site here.
The Shandiz Ensemble plays during an exhibition of Nomads at the Muiderkerk in Amsterdam this week. Special thanks to my dear friend and ally C. Cornell Evers, who arranged the exhibition.
here. Special thanks to C. Cornell Evers and the folks at the Muiderkerk who made this show possible.
Extremely pleased at the attention this project is getting so far. Read about it:
here, at the Schpilman Institute for Photography blog, Israel. (In Hebrew here)
here, in the newspaper Diario El Mundo, El Salvador
and in fltr magazine #039, which requires an iphone.
To schedule an exhibition or talk about this work, get in touch.
SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador -- Very pleased to learn that four photographs from my new series Tropicalisimo have been included in ESFOTO, this small country's big, national photography event. The month-long event aims to present the 100 most important photographs of the year from this region, which is apparently growing as photographers from Peru and Mexico participated this year.
Two pictures are up at PhotoCafe in San Salvador, a unique space for people like us which is run by Edgar Romero, who puts his heart into what he does and contributes great things to the art scene in this country. All four photographs will appear in the exhibition catalog, which I'm told is on the way.
A very special thanks to PhotoCafe, ESFOTO, and everyone who attended.
"1914-2014," from the series Tropicalísimo, 2014
In a career in which every year seems stranger than the last, 2014 has been particularly bizarre. A string of personal issues along with out-of-nowhere curses from the angry gods have conspired to create a dearth of exhibitions and cancellations, which feels odd given that I'm known to show 10 or 12 times a year.
On the other hand, my work is getting more attention in the press than ever before, which seems to back up the thought that I'm the best known, unknown living photographer. I don't claim to understand these cycles but here are a few 2014 articles, one in English, two in Spanish, that cast at least a little light upon what I do:
Trama Mag, Mexico City, John Sevigny, Cazador de Belleza
Real Politik, Oaxaca, Mexico, John Sevigny y la particular belleza de lo cotidiano
Fuse Visual, USA, Profile: John Sevigny
I'm always thankful for press and willing to talk to anyone, pretty much anywhere. Just get in touch.
As for the future, regarding publicity, at least two more interviews in two other countries are set to be published within the next few weeks. I will also be taking part in ESFOTO this month, El Salvador's big, national photography event. More details on that to come as soon as they are available.
Finally, I expect to confirming several 2015 exhibitions in Wisconsin within a few weeks; and I am very much looking forward to the exhibition, "Flowers for your Altar," set for March in Pomona California at Space Gallery. We are also pushing very hard to exhibit Tropicalisimo anywhere and everywhere, and a few things should be bubbling to the surface on that front very soon.
Best to all of you, and see you out there.