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High On Hopelessness
New Model Army's 28-year war on punk-rock stagnation
Most folks would call New Model Army (NMA) punk or post-punk. True fans of the 28-year-old band know you can't pin a genre tag on NMA. And that's just the way front man Justin Sullivan likes it. As the English outfit hits America to promote its 10th studio album, High, Sullivan takes great pride in such creative volatility.
"Each album," he says, "is a reaction against the [last]. And we're like that as a band. We're obsessed with not being put in a box. We go out of our way to confuse people." Case in point: 2005's obtuse Carnival was informed by tribal beats and drum-and-bass, whereas High is a straight-ahead rock record that dashes toward big choruses and rests only for accessible acoustic detours.
Then there are the lyrics, as emotionally charged as ever yet tough to reconcile. "Like the music, the lyrics are contradictory," boasts Sullivan. He points to the songs "One of the Chosen," written from the perspective of a religious fundamentalist, and "All Consuming Fire," about "the utter joy of the end of civilization as we know it." Sullivan says that while U2 and Bruce Springsteen focus on "human dignity and hope," others are fueled by humankind's hopelessness. "We swing violently between the two."
The level of social critique in Sullivan's songs have earned him comparisons to Billy Bragg, which he doesn't get: "I don't own any Billy Bragg records," he says. "I don't see him particularly as a fellow traveler." The Clash also come up a lot, which makes a bit more sense to Sullivan. "There's something about the way the Clash were at a particular moment in history," he says, "when they had all that attack, and that's what people see in us. I think it's to do with spirit."
When it comes to punk, he's the first to admit that today's version is often a joke. "What I remember about punk is a cultural revolution. Mostly it was about, '[A]nything goes, as long as it's done with spirit,' not about playing three chords badly." Sullivan adds, "People think we're like Fugazi or something, and we're not like that at all."
Produced by Chris Kimsey (Rolling Stones, Jimmy Cliff), High is more like hard-bitten pub rock. Sullivan's gritty lyrics are as sharp as his accent, and his band mates are always churning against one another for plenty of friction. It's slickly produced, expertly played, sonically huge and awfully catchy. Listen close enough, and you may even hear Sullivan's two biggest influences: Motown and northern soul.
"There's a lot of that running through," he says, "[like] the emphasis on the rhythm section. A lot of rock music has a rhythm section that's quite still while stuff is happening on top of it. I like to do the opposite."
Ask Sullivan what current band he likes, and it's none other than Queens of the Stone Age. "Head and shoulders above the rest. There's something about their spirit and their uniqueness and taking chances," he says.
Although NMA never got huge in the States and remain a cult entity in the U.K.—"I was trying to think of another band that doesn't belong to a genre and has been together 28 years without having a Top 20 hit," says Sullivan—the band manage to do world tours fairly often and play to a few thousand people every Christmas in London and Cologne, Germany. Visa troubles last fall delayed the current U.S. jaunt, but NMA arrive invigorated and ready to introduce High to fans live.
Not many bands can say that after such a long run, and Sullivan shows no signs of retiring the act he formed in his early 20s, though he did release an acoustic solo album in 2003, Navigating By the Stars. "I'm fairly free to do other stuff," he says, "but it's kind of nice to get back with a band you know. I like both. There's been times when we're a bit stuck, and there's been times when we're on a roll. And I think now is one of those times when we're on a roll."
New Model Army and Vale perform at Detroit Bar, 843 W. 19th St., Costa Mesa, (949) 642-0600; www.detroitbar.com. Wed., 9 p.m. $15.
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