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New Model Army on their way to Cambridge

For Justin Sullivan, singer and guitarist with long-standing rock collective New Model Army, fame and fortune were never the primary goal. “We didn’t want to do what you have to do to be a big band,” he says.

Formed in Bradford in 1980 and still going strong, New Model Army – led from the front, as ever, by founding member Justin – put out their 16th studio album, Unbroken, in January.

New Model Army. Picture: Tina Korhonen
New Model Army. Picture: Tina Korhonen

Expect to hear a number of songs from it when the rock quartet’s tour rolls into Cambridge next week.

“Lots of new songs to play, which is always nice,” says Justin, speaking to the Cambridge Independent while driving “somewhere near Haworth” (don’t panic, readers, he did pull over for the call).

He was referring to the rehearsing that the band had been doing for their tour, which kicked off in Northampton on 27 February.

The tour was then scheduled to continue across several European countries, returning to the UK towards the end of April.

An appearance at the beautifully-named Bearded Theory Festival in Derbyshire is in the diary for May and then it’s off to Latin America in June.

Does the sixty-something frontman feel that he is as ‘hungry’ and full of energy as he ever was?

“Basically, when you start, you get in a room with some other people and you make a noise that you love and that you’re proud of, and 43-44 years later it’s exactly the same, really,” he says.

“And we never really had a plan; it was never a ‘means to an end’, we were never trying to get rich and famous or anything, we were just trying to make a noise we loved.”

The band started writing the new album in 2021. They decided early on that their number one choice to mix it would be Grammy Award-winning producer and sound engineer Tchad Blake, who has worked with the likes of Sheryl Crow, Arctic Monkeys, Peter Gabriel, Vanessa Paradis, Pearl Jam, and Tom Waits.

He accepted and said afterwards: “Not much hits me as genuine these days. New Model Army hits it for me. Wonderfully recorded and produced by the band themselves, mixing this album felt like a gift.”

Justin says of the band’s sound: “It’s just music; if anyone ever tried to put us in a box, our primary goal was to jump out of the box.

“And no-one really knows what it is that New Model Army does exactly… It’s got a couple of characteristics: I think one is my voice, which unfortunately I can’t change, even if I wanted to, and the other one is that emphasis that we’ve always had on bass and drums.

“We decided early on that rock music, or music in general, is about the bass and drums – and with an awful lot of bands the bass and drums sit in the background and keep the rhythm going, and then the interesting stuff is the guitars or pianos or whatever.

“With us, we’ve always just put the bass and the drums right in the front, so it’s all about that driving rhythm, dirty bass, powerful drums, interesting rhythms.

“It’s a weird thing where we touch on the fringes of all sorts of other worlds, including metal. We’re not really a metal band at all but we touch on that.

“We’re not a punk band but we touch on it, we’re not a folk rock band but we touch on it – and all these different sub-genres. We don’t fit into any of them but we fit into all of them.”

Justin confirms that the group will “definitely” be playing tracks from the new album on the tour, alongside the classics, which include Brave New World, 51st State, Stupid Questions, Poison Street, and Vagabonds. Their debut album, Vengeance, was released 40 years ago this year.

“We’re rehearsing as if we’re going to do the whole album,” he says, “we might not do the whole album…

“It’s a strange thing that bands that have been around a long time, when they get to their 16th album they’re doing two songs off the new album and they’re playing the hits.

“We’ve never done that, we just do what we want. We’re not really too worried about what the audience want, we just want to do something that we think is good – and we’ve always, when we do a new album tour, we play a lot of the new album.”

Justin adds: “I like the record, it’s an interesting record. Somebody said it was a bit like a greatest hits, not in the sense that every song was like a hit, but that it was like all the various different representations of New Model Army over 40 years seemed to be on the album somewhere.”

New Model Army also released a live double concert album Sinfonia in September 2023 – a unique collaboration with the Sinfonia Leipzig Orchestra at the Tempodrom in Berlin.

The longest-serving member in the current line-up, after Justin, is keyboard player and guitarist Dean White, who’s been in the band since 1994.

“Michael [Dean, drummer] started working with the band as Robert [Heaton, former drummer]’s drum tech in ’93 and he became our drummer in ’98 when Robert was ill and left,” recalls Justin, “so that was kind of an organic change.

“So Dean and Michael have been with me a very long time… Ceri [Monger, bass guitarist] joined about 12 years ago. He’s really grown into the band and he wrote a lot on this album.”

Justin remembers a time in the early ’90s when New Model Army were poised to go from being a popular group with a large following to something bigger.

“It was starting to... lots of different buses and a big crew and a much bigger operation,” he notes, “and I quite like the fact that we wouldn’t actually back down, in the sense that we travel on one bus with our crew; it’s like a family, it’s 12 people, and that’s kind of how we like to be.

“Some people have said to me ‘What went wrong? In the early ’90s you were set to be quite a big band, something must have gone wrong?’

“And I think that in some ways we didn’t really want it; we didn’t want to do what you have to do to be a big band – which is please an audience, we just wanted to do what we wanted to do.

“We’re in an amazing position really, which is 44 years after we started we’re in a position where we just do what we want, in the way we want, when we want, with who we want – and we go round the world and last time I looked in my fridge there was food in it. Beyond that I’m not bothered.

“It’s a funny thing about success, which is when you’re a starting musician you talk about ‘making it’; we used to talk about ‘when we make it’.

“And there is a line you cross, and that’s to make a living from it so you don’t have to have a boring day job that you hate.

“We crossed the line in 1984 – after that it doesn’t really matter where you are in the charts or any of those things, it’s irrelevant.

“We’ve made a decent living at it. We do what we love in the way we love and we make a living from it. What more could you ask?”

New Model Army will be performing at the Cambridge Junction (J1) on Tuesday, 23 April. Tickets, priced £31.50, are available from junction.co.uk. For more on the band, go to newmodelarmy.org.

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