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These days, a real punk band (sorry, Green Day) can almost never find its way onto the pop charts. But back in the day (see: mid-'80s), England's New Model Army released political punk that sold to more than just left-wing extremists. Nearly thirty years ago, frontman/mastermind Justin Sullivan, who has been compared to such punk legends as Joe Strummer and Dick Lucas, named New Model Army after Oliver Cromwell's successful (at least for a while) seventeenth-century anti-royalist forces; Sullivan's intelligent, well-informed and captivating songwriting helped get the group signed by EMI and deliver a string of Top 30 British singles before descending to the worldwide cult status NMA holds today. We caught up with Sullivan recently and asked him about the Clash comparisons and what effect spirituality has had on NMA's music.
Westword: I heard NMA compared to the Clash before I was ever exposed to your music, but from the first song on your new record, the influences are admirably all over the place. What inspired NMA musically from the beginning, and what bands are influencing your songwriting and production more recently?
Justin Sullivan: I think we share with the Clash both a rough, raw romanticism and an internationalist attitude, but I never thought we had much in common musically. As you say, our musical influences are all over the place. We all really like different things. Once we tried to agree on a single album by anyone in the history of music that we all unreservedly loved — and failed to come up with one! I think that's unusual for a band. I think it's probably fair to say that we are a kind of "rock" band, but at least two of us would claim not to like "rock" at all. Influences equal everything.
"Everything is beautiful because everything is dying" [from "Autumn"] seems to point to a kind of existentialism or even Buddhism. How does religion and/or spirituality tie into what New Model Army does?
I was brought up in a Quaker household and still have a lot of respect for Quakerism, while I have also written several of the most un-Quakerly songs ever made: "Vengeance," "The Hunt," "One of the Chosen," etc. The idea that there is a spiritual aspect to life seems to me so obvious that I don't need to question it or join any particular clubs or creeds or cults to express it.
To me, God is nature and nature is God, so I guess I'm a pagan of some sort, but in the end, even the nonsense "Religions of the Book" — Christianity, Islam, Judaism — each have a mystical wing that is interested not so much in the words of some prophet or other, but in the very principles of light and love. So they're all really the same. It's all simple and easy and obvious, and we're all aware of that at some level. It's the power brokers of religion who like to make it complicated, because they have their own different agenda. — Adam Perry
For more of our interview with Justin Sullivan of New Model Army, visit blogs.westword.com/backbeat/qa.