I caught up with Suggs from the legendary ska-pop institution that is Madness about their new album, some of the biggest perfomances of their lives, and what the future holds.
WE’VE SEEN A LOT OF MADNESS THIS SUMMER WITH YOUR PERFORMANCES AT THE QUEEN’S JUBILEE AND THE CLOSING CEREMONY OF THE OLYMPICS. HOW DID IT FEEL TO BE ASKED TO PERFORM AT BOTH OCCASIONS?
Extraordinary. It’s such a strange thing, Madness. As you know, the fickle nature of popular culture can leave you on a park bench within a couple of years. A few years ago we were trying to make a new record that was supposed to come out last year, and then we didn’t finish it, and then we were going to do a tour that got postponed. And suddenly the Queen decides to have a 60th Jubilee and invites us to play on her roof and the Olympics decide to come to London town and invite us to perform at the Closing Ceremony. These are things you just couldn’t foresee. I don’t know whatever God it is that looks down on us, but he said “All right Madness, we’re going to give you one last chance, you better behave or else we’re going to take it all away!” The coincidence of the album coming out around those two events was beyond our comprehension really.
YOU’VE PERFORMED FOR SO LONG – WERE THOSE EXPERIENCES NERVE-WRECKING OR DO YOU JUST TAKE THEM IN YOUR STRIDE?
Both of them were very nerve wrecking. At the Jubilee we edited “Our House” a little bit and I had to remember what edits we’d done as I’d been singing it for 35 years. Equally at the Olympics, we were in this holding shed before we were unleashed into the stadium on the back of a lorry. On our right were One Direction who I’m now great friends with (laughs), and on our left were the Pet Shop Boys on bicycles with traffic cones on their heads! It was all quite surreal, as though we were all being slowly asphyxiated by carbon monoxide. Then the doors opened and it was like something from Close Encounters as we were let into the lights of the stadium. And I actually forgot the first line of “Our House”! Fortunately, off camera, I said to the other singer in the band, “What the f*ck is the first line!” and I just about managed to turn around as the cameras came to me. The combination of being on the back of a lorry with nothing to hold on and performing in front of 75 trillion people did get to me a little bit!
I REALLY ENJOYED YOUR PERFORMANCE, IT WAS ONE OF THE HIGHLIGHTS.
There’s such a good feeling for the band at the moment, and such a good feeling within the band. There was a black hole of 80s revivalism that we were being sucked into about 10 years ago, and we really had to get away from Star Trek and Red Dwarf. We made an album called The Liberty Of Norton Folgate and it gave us a new lease of life. We realised that we are some ridiculous psychedelic national treasure but at the same time fulfilled in the notion that we’re heading to planets anew.
YOUR NEW ALBUM IS CALLED “OUI, OUI, SI, SI, JA, JA, DA, DA”. TELL ME ABOUT THE TITLE?
We wanted the artist Sir Peter Blake to do it. We’ve all known him for some time. He was Ian Dury’s tutor at art college, so via Ian we got to know him and he likes the band. And he said he really doesn’t like doing album covers because a band always decides on a title and then the bass player comes in two weeks later and says “We’ve changed our mind”. So we promised we wouldn’t do that. The album at that time was called “Circus Freaks”. He started on this enormous painting of circus freaks, and we decided to change our mind! And again and again and again. So Peter said, “I’m just going to write out all the titles that you have changed your mind on and then just cross them out until you get to the one you want” and it just seemed perfect – it’s just “yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes”.
WHERE DID YOU DRAW INSPIRATION FROM WHEN YOU WERE WRITING THE TRACKS FOR THIS RECORD?
From the things we see around us. I tend to write about ordinary situations but hopefully in a slightly filmic way. We have the fortune of being very well-known but we’re not really bothered in the way that some pop stars are, probably because we’re old farts, but it does mean I can sit about in cafes and bars and watch the world go by. That’s the sort of thing I like to write about. I think there’s a risk as you get older of getting a bit self-indulgent as a musician. We’ve really stayed away from that, trying to write pop songs like we did when we were younger.
WHAT TRACK ARE YOU MOST EXCITED ABOUT OR PROUD OF ON THE NEW ALBUM?
I’m very fond of “Powder Blue”, a song that I wrote. A ballad. I think sometimes you can capture a moment in time – it’s not an easy thing to always do – but sometimes you can, and something that is very small and personal can become universal, that we all share. The song is about lying on the sofa after a party and wishing that the new day wasn’t coming, and you didn’t have to go to work and all that.
DOES THE SOUND DIFFER FROM PREVIOUS RECORDS?
We always try to capture the feeling we get live on record, which is very, very difficult. We also worked in 8 track studios, which means you’re very limited on what you can do technologically but that’s what we like – to record the song as it is without messing around with it too much. To put the work into the song-writing, and the rehearsing and the arranging, and spend as little time in the studio is ideal. Nowadays people spend years in the studio farting around. We try to capture the live atmosphere.
THAT’S REALLY THE ANTITHESIS OF A LOT OF WHAT IS DOMINATING THE CHARTS AT THE MOMENT ISN’T IT? YOUR PHILOSOPHY REALLY DIFFERS FROM THOSE TRACKS WHERE THE FOCUS IS PRIMARILY ON PRODUCTION, AND LYRICS, FOR EXAMPLE, ARE AN AFTERTHOUGHT. WHAT ARE YOUR FEELINGS ABOUT THE COMMERCIAL SUCCESS OF THOSE KIND OF SONGS?
I don’t hold it against anyone who has a hit, but I do feel that when I listen to a lot of songs they go in one ear and out the other. It’s like any technological advance – it has its advantages and disadvantages. The computer was liberating because it meant that kids could make music in their bedrooms but now it’s got to the point where you can have 5000 tracks of backing vocal. People can’t resist if they’ve got that option. It creates this sonic wall of noise which doesn’t touch the sides, it just rushes through your head like an empty tsunami.
BEING ON YOUR 10TH ALBUM, AND AN INSTITUTION IN THE INDUSTRY, WHAT IS YOUR RELATIONSHIP LIKE YOUR MANAGEMENT AND RECORD LABEL? DO THEY GET TO TELL YOU WHAT TO DO ANYMORE?
We get the money and we do with it what we wish. The band have the artistic freedom to do what they want. We don’t have an A&R person, or anybody really. Everybody chips in with what they feel and it’s very much a group effort.
WAS IT ALWAYS LIKE THAT?
You get more experienced with what you want. We were never told what to do – there are too many of us to be told what to do. When we started we weren’t really bothered. We weren’t trying to be anything. We had a good producer and we all write – that’s the complicated thing for us. You can get into big arguments about who wrote the best song, and ultimately that is a very subjective thing.
IN YOUR OPINION WHAT IS THE BEST MADNESS SONG THAT HAS EVER BEEN WRITTEN?
For me, it’s “The Liberty Of Norton Folgate”, the title track of the album before this. It’s 15 minutes long and I wrote the words, so I’m obviously a bit biased, but I think it’s an amazing piece of work. I have nothing against all of the songs we’ve written, I think they’re all great or else they wouldn’t make it on to our record.
DO YOU FEEL THERE ARE ANY NEW BANDS OUT THERE WHO ARE “THE NEXT MADNESS”?
No. I think to have 7 people in a band all playing instruments who have known each other since we were kids is probably not feasible anymore. It’s so hard to get a band going these days – the lifespan is so short. The opportunity to get up and running and afford to get 7 people fed… I don’t think it’s possible these days.
ARE THERE ANY BIG GOALS LEFT THAT YOU HAVEN’T ALREADY ACHIEVED?
ARE THEY NOT UP TO SPEED WITH THE MADNESS BACK CATALOGUE?
No, but they’re getting there. I don’t know you know! The goal is just to keep going. As they say, it’s not the destination, it’s the journey. Every day in the journey gets more exciting, I certainly feel that.
AND WHAT DO YOU HAVE COMING UP OVER THE NEXT FEW MONTHS?
We’ve got a really big tour. We’ve got an album that’s hopefully going to be smashing it a bit. And we might start writing an album next year. I’m doing a one-man show which I’m going to be doing next year, which is a theatrical spoken-word thing. I’ll do maybe 5 songs and tell stories about what it is to be me.
YOUR TOUR SEES YOU PERFORMING AT HUGE ARENAS, INCLUDING 2 NIGHTS AT THE O2. DO YOU PREFER PERFORMING AT BIG VENUES LIKE THAT OR SMALLER MORE INTIMATE STAGES LIKE AT THE ITUNES FESTIVAL IN SEPTEMBER?
It sounds like a cliché but each one is rewarding in its own way. We have the good fortune of being unsuccessful enough in some countries to play as small a venue as we want. We enjoy them equally. I’ve always said you should get the same pleasure out of performing at your kitchen table to 4 people as you do to a million people. They’re just different experiences. I’d hate to always play in big venues, I’d hate to always play in small venues, that’s the great luxury.
WHO ARE YOUR IDOLS?
The bloke that sweeps my road, the postman, Sean who works behind the bar at my local pub and my children.
Original interview for IDOL Magazine
[contact-form][contact-field label=’Name’ type=’name’ required=’1’/][contact-field label=’Email’ type=’email’ required=’1’/][contact-field label=’Comment’ type=’textarea’ required=’1’/][/contact-form]