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ULTRAVOX INTERVIEW [2009]

IT'S THE FIRST TIME THIS LINE UP OF ULTRAVOX HAVE PLAYED TOGETHER SINCE LIVE AID, AND THE FIRST TIME YOU'VE BEEN TOGETHER PUBLICLY SINCE YOUR SPLIT IN 1986. HOW HAS THIS REUNION COME ABOUT?

MIDGE URE: I think it started from the fact that it was 30 years this year since we wrote 'Vienna', which made it a celebratory thing. If we were going to do anything on a musical level ever again, then this would be the year to do it and that's what got us all talking and contemplating the idea.

CHRIS CROSS: I think even up until about six months ago none of us thought it would ever happen though!

HAD YOU EVEN TALKED TO EACH OTHER IN THAT TIME APART?

MU: To varying degrees. Not really. I'd not spoken to Warren in 23 years. He's lived in Los Angeles for most of that time. I'd been in touch with Chris a few times, and Billy and I had spoken but never about this. It was always just about generalities or technical things to do with the past about contractual nonsense, but not in any positive musical sense. It was never planned, never even thought of. Of course, people ask you all the time whether you would – but everyone just sort of avoided the issue.

HOW DID YOU GET BACK IN TOUCH?

MU: It came from our old manager Chris. He sent us an email all at the same time and said, what are the chances? If there was a negative somewhere down the line then it wouldn't have gone any further, so it was a protective way of doing it without actually having to pick up the phone and ask what people thought. We already knew EMI were going to re-master and repackage all the old material anyway so we had been trying to keep a close eye on all of that. Then they had asked me to go do some radio promo when 'Vienna' came out and on one of those radio programmes, they asked me if I fancied doing something live, so I phoned Billy up and asked him to come play on the piano and that was it. As soon as we did that, the websites just crashed and people went crazy that we were in the same room not only talking but playing. That made us realise it wasn't the horror we thought it was going to be! It was easy.

WAS EVERYONE KEEN FROM THE START?

MU: I think everyone's initial reaction was, well, I don't want to say I want to do it in case other people don't!

CC: I hadn't thought about doing it and then suddenly when it came up, I thought well I suppose we could!

MU: Once you get positive feedback from someone, you think ok, well, I'm not being crazy, I'm not the one thinking it could be possible and everyone's going to laugh at me. Once we all realised that, then all of a sudden we were over the mental hurdle of doing it and it was just the emotional hurdle and the musical hurdle, which we've all come through quite easily.

CC: It would have always been an option to pretend we hadn't got the email!

HOW DID YOU START TALKING?

CC: There were a lot of emails and Skype, because obviously Warren was in LA.

BILLY CURRIE: Then Midge and Chris came round to my place quite soon after we'd been speaking. Chris phoned me and made that suggestion and my immediate thought was 'yikes! I'm not sure about this.' Then I realised, why not? Let's move things on. So Midge and Chris came to my house and we had a good chat. There had been talk of the tour at that point but we hadn't actually decided to do it.

WARREN CANN: Then I came over at the beginning of March to meet everyone and start rehearsing.

WAS IT DIFFICULT BETWEEN YOU INITIALLY?

MU: Only before we met. As with any relationship, when you've been apart for a long time, it's difficult. If you imagine going back to your first boyfriend or girlfriend after 23 years, you would worry what you were going to say to each other, let alone whether you'd get on. But we had this common bond so we just walked in and started talking like the 23 years apart never happened. I think the nervousness was there before we walked through the door, but as soon as walked in, it was gone. It only existed in our heads.

CC: It's so bizarre. It does feel like yesterday in some respects. Yet there's a whole 20 years to catch up on.

MU: The only difference is that this time, Chris pointed out that we'll save a fortune on hairspray! I think we've all mellowed and I think anyone would say that. We're probably more tolerant of each other. Naivety's a wonderful thing. It gets you an awful lot of stuff and when you're young and naïve, you feel as if you can achieve everything that you dream of. But further on, the naivety disappears and it makes you more tolerant of other people.

YOU MUST HAVE PLENTY TO REMINISCE ABOUT. WHAT DO YOU REMEMBER MOST ABOUT THE VERY EARLY DAYS IN 1979 WHEN MIDGE JOINED THE BAND?

MU: My outstanding memory was that we were completely skint, I'd just joined the band and we walked into a rehearsal room with incredibly basic equipment. We plugged in and we played a couple of old Ultravox songs, because we hadn't written anything new by then, and the sound we made was magnificent. It was just like nothing else I'd heard before. It was huge and powerful and dramatic. And that hasn't gone away. At all. In fact, I was wondering whether we would still be able to make that noise this time around, and we can. It's weird because I've played these songs before in various forms over the years and it's never ever sounded like Ultravox. That invisible element, whatever it is, isn't there. It's become very apparent that Ultravox are these four people.

BC: We started playing live straight away. I remember immediately feeling energised by just being these four people. I know three of us were in the previous line up but it was suddenly like an injection of life and we started writing right away and went out and performed those tracks straight away. We were just keen to get on with it.

CC: It was also a bit to do with the spirit of the times. There was a load of other stuff going on around us and it seemed like a rollercoaster where it just took off.

BC: I felt that the timing was definitely right. We were in there moving along with the fast moving time.

WC: I remember how focused we were. We were quite manic about it. We were completely into what we were doing. There were no lines of demarcation. Midge would suggest a drum part; I'd suggest a keyboard part and so on. That fluidity between the four of us was the first thing I remember about what a magnificent noise we were making.

MU: In a very short space of time when the four of us were together as a working unit, we wrote the entire 'Vienna' album in a couple of months. It was an incredibly vibrant, exciting period.

WHAT WERE YOU LIKE AS A BAND AS YOU STARTED TO BECOME SUCCESSFUL?

MU: We would make things very difficult for ourselves. The great thing was we weren't desperate about it. We were quite happy just making the music and playing live. We spent a lot of time getting the album right and we knew that a deal would come. We weren't going to jump through hoops for any label that wanted to sign us. We wanted to do things our way because we knew what we were trying to achieve. And you could see it reflected in the graphics, the artwork, the videos – I mean, we made ground breaking videos before people even knew what videos were. So if we didn't have a label who gave us the space we needed to do all that, it wasn't going to work.

HOW DID YOU FEEL ABOUT THE NEW ROMANTIC PERIOD OF THE TIME?

WC: There were a lot of people who wanted something more than punk. Just as the punk thing formed as a reaction to other stuff, so to – for lack of a better phrase – the New Romantic period formed as a reaction to punk. People were tired of it. We wanted something else.

BC: We had to be careful with that though. You could embrace it and go a little bit nuts because for the first time from my point of view, everyone was interested in keyboards whereas the previous year, playing keyboards was a bit of an uncool thing to do in the middle of the punk period. I thought it was great that the New Romantic period embraced music from the heart, but it was extreme so you had to be careful.

WC: We continued doing what we wanted to do but this time; we were in the position where the majority were actually on the same page as us. Before, we got slagged off for using keyboards and a synthesiser when everything was guitars and a million miles an hour and two chords if that. Then we got slagged off because we didn't use all synthesisers but we had guitars as well!

MU: We didn't fit in aesthetically, we didn't fit in musically. It's interesting because we were part of the forming of the mould because we used electronics, but we also used violins and piano and acoustic drums. The problem was, at the time, because Billy and I had done the Visage project, we were tagged with the New Romantics brush. They tried to tie Ultravox in with that then and it didn't fit visually. You look back at the old photographs - there weren't any frilly shirts or anything like that!

AND UNLIKE A LOT OF POP BANDS OF THE TIME, YOU CREATED MUSIC WITH A FILMIC QUALITY.

MU: Yes. We created atmosphere and we would pride ourselves on the fact that if you went to your local equivalent of Hammersmith Apollo and saw a dozen bands a year, when you came to see us, it would completely transform. The stage set, the lighting, the atmospherics. Everything we did was an extension of the music. The music came first and everything else would follow on. We were holding the reigns all the way through. We designed the stage sets, we directed the videos, we worked on the art work. All of that was important to us but it was a secondary thing. Most bands would make the record and then not give a toss about the video – they didn't really even know what a video was back then – and they certainly didn't care about the artwork. The record company would just stick it in a bag with a photograph of the band on the front. We found that dull and it's not because we were arty, we were just interested in photography and architecture and all those things. All that stuff comes out in the music so it was cinematic and grand, and a lot of people got it wrong thinking we were being pompous, but it wasn't pomposity, it was just what it was.

CC: In those days, it just wasn't done to have that control. You really were servants to the label. It's different now.

WAS YOUR COMMERCIAL SUCCESS A SHOCK?

WC: We weren't surprised. We knew it was a great record. We knew that there would be a certain amount of people who agreed with us but what did surprise us was how many people. So it was a matter of degree.

CC: It's one of the great things about being in a band. You do the music and then anything can happen. Or not.

MU: We make something we think fits and is a good record but the reality is that that could have disappeared completely. 'Vienna' wasn't a radio record at all. People say now, of course that wasn't going to be a huge hit, but that wasn't obvious at all. It was a great piece of music but a commercial record? No.

WC: We just knew we could put this out and look at ourselves in the mirror and say we were proud, whereas if we'd compromised or done a three minute, twenty second – which was suggested – we couldn't.

MU: We made things difficult because we believed in it. We'd give the record company the record, the artwork and the new video and say there's the campaign, that's what the advertising should look like.

WC: We used to hear four words from them a lot which was – you want to what?!!!

WAS IT DIFFICULT TO FOLLOW THE 'VIENNA' ALBUM?

WC: It was really difficult, but we used the success to give us the opportunity. We knew it was a great position to be in – to have a hit record behind us giving us a bit of clout, so we decided to really stick our necks out and do something we always wanted to do, which was to not be well prepared before we went in the studio, but use the studio fully as an instrument to make 'Rage In Eden'.

MU: It was three months in a farmyard in the German countryside!

BC: On the 'Vienna' album, we played the songs live before so we had a chance to get a feel for them and work things out and you transfer that energy by almost playing it live in the studio. But with 'Rage In Eden', we were writing in the studio. It was an interesting experience.

HOW DO YOU LOOK BACK ON THAT ALBUM NOW?

BC: I'm proud of it.

MU: It achieved everything we wanted it to. It has a feel and an atmosphere that we wanted and it couldn't have happened any other way.

WC: In studios, you're always aware of the clock ticking and the fact that time is money, tick tick tick. So you don't have a lot of time to experiment or waste on ideas because you always have to move on. But that was a big part of it – to put ourselves in a position where whatever we wanted to experiment on, we could go as far down that avenue as we wanted to go.

MU: We were fortunate that we had generated a lot of income from 'Vienna'. We'd earned the money and we were spending our money on what we wanted to do. We decided to invest in it.

WERE YOU ENJOYING YOUR SUCCESS BEYOND THE STUDIO?

MU: Oh God, what's not to enjoy? Young, free and single, doing everything a young man should with a hugely successful record. Touring the world for nine months at a time! It was fabulous. Every place we'd go to, the album was already successful, so we were turning up to sold out crowds. It's the best feeling in the world. People knew our stuff and had bought the ticket and were there for a reason and that was great.

YOU WORKED WITH GEORGE MARTIN ON YOUR NEXT ALBUM, 'QUARTET'. WHAT WAS THAT LIKE?

MU: It took a long time to do. We spent quite a bit of time in Air Studios in London and it was great, it was a very different experience again.

BC: It was much more organised. He came up a few times to see how we were doing writing the material and when we went in, it was more set. We did it in a set amount of time - I think only four weeks in Air Studios, then we went over to Montserrat to finish it off.

WC: As a professional endeavour, it was done at probably the highest level we'd ever worked at. I wasn't disappointed with the album but I was very disappointed with a certain element that criticised us for using George Martin. They completely misunderstood. They saw it as being safe and conservative and thought we'd sold out by going dull and commercial and we just scratched our heads at that. This man recorded 'Sgt. Pepper' – he was the most ground-breaking producer ever.

THAT WAS QUICKLY FOLLOWED BY 'LAMENT'...

MU: We grabbed the reigns again for 'Lament'. At that point, we had our own studios. We'd invested in equipment so I had a studio, Billy had one and we ended up spending a lot of time doing it. It was an interesting process, being so in control of the scenario to the extent that you actually owned the studio. Our own space, our own time and we didn't feel obliged to rush it and get it out there. There was a lot of development going on in a short space of time – three years really from 'Vienna' to 'Lament'. The band moved on huge amounts. Our song writing got better; we were looking at different areas and atmospheres. It wasn't until after the 'Lament' album, that we started to lose the focus. It was fairly intense. We loved what we were doing so we'd write, record, tour and as soon as the tour finished, we'd go back in the studio and we did that over and over. So there was a constant stream of output until after 'Lament'.

LIVE AID FOLLOWED. HOW DID THAT AFFECT THE BAND, CONSIDERING MIDGE'S KEY ROLE AS ORGANISER?

MU: Looking back on it, I can see how Band Aid and Live Aid made a serious dent in the band. It took me away from it. And again, with any relationship, if one of you disappears for a while and comes back, you've changed. Everyone changes and it didn't feel as right when I came back. We'd lost the focus. Ideas were coming from all over the place and we weren't a concise unit any more. I couldn't see it at the time but I can look back now and see that the whole Band Aid/Live Aid scenario really affected us badly - not our actual performance as we were one of the only bands in tune on the day - but we were splintered and pulled apart by circumstance. When we got back together again, we weren't the same people.

BC: It was little bit going pear shaped in the middle of 1984. I felt personally disconnected because we were very successful and we seemed to really be establishing ourselves in Europe and yet we were aware that cracks were showing. It did put pressure on us, as Midge said. Something else was going on and you feel a little bit out of things.

MU: It took its toll without a doubt and I can look back now and blame that for the major cracks that appeared because we couldn't quite recover.

HOW DO YOU REMEMBER THE DAY OF LIVE AID ITSELF?

CC: Brilliant.

WC: Townsend walked past me and said 'nice set', and I thought that was great.

MU: People forget that even though you're in a band, you're still a fan of other people. So when you're backstage at somewhere like Live Aid and there's people like David Bowie and Freddie Mercury around, you're like a kid in a toy shop.

CC: You never think, ooh, I'm in a band too!

MU: But if that element ever disappears, you've had it. You've died and you just don't know it yet. So the excitement on the day was huge but the funny thing was everyone had 18 minutes on stage and there was a traffic light system so when the lights on the side of the stage went amber, you had two minutes and you wouldn't see it go red because they'd pull the plug. That was the big threat. It was the only way they could keep it to time. So our 18 minutes flew by. It just evaporated but it was great. The whole thing was fantastic.

CC: I remember walking on and it was really sunny and everything came together so well and then you remember millions of people are watching it on TV too.

MU: I remember during 'Vienna' – pre Queen going on – everyone did the whole clapping in the air thing and it was just a sea of hands clapping the 'Vienna' drum beat.

BC: I'd forgotten about that! Bloody hell. They did, didn't they? It was amazing. It was such a massive crowd and it was just a fantastic day.

THEN CAME THE FINAL ALBUM, 'UVOX', AND THE SPLIT. WHAT HAPPENED?

CC: It just unfolded really. Fell apart. It was like everyone lost interest.

MU: It was splintered before we even made the album. And the album sounded splintered too. It had everything on there from us doing a track with an orchestra to us doing a track with The Chieftains on the same record. I think if I remember rightly, for the first time we took a 6 month break and we all started doing different things. I was working on a solo record and in the middle of doing that, the Band Aid thing happened so the six months turned into a lot longer and it just frittered away. Suddenly, we weren't together in the way we had been for the four or five years previously, and as Billy said, it's easy to feel left out. It just felt weird, even when we got back together again. It just wasn't the same.

CC: It literally just fizzled out.

MU: There was an element to which I think we all thought that if you cease to enjoy what you're doing then you shouldn't do it anymore and I think we just ceased to enjoy it. Whatever made it work, wasn't there for whatever reason and so we had to say, that's it. It's time to move on. We didn't do any final tour, we didn't do any farewell, we're breaking up or any of that stuff, we just kind of walked away from it. And it's been hanging in mid-air for 20 odd years waiting for a moment like this.

BC: It seemed strange at the time to do that to the fans but if you're falling apart, the last thing you want to do is do a farewell tour. That would have been absolutely dismal.

DID YOU FEEL A LOT OF RELIEF WHEN IT WAS ALL OVER?

MU: There was a sadness because it was a major part of our lives. It had been an incredibly successful intense period and there was a regret that it had not been fulfilled. It wasn't scratching that itch inside and doing what it used to, but there's also a form of relief. You think, to hell with it, now I can do something else. It was naïve in a way. We all walked away from something that was incredibly successful and incredibly powerful because it didn't feel right and I think that just shows the fact that everything we did was passion driven and because we loved doing it. You would not sit down and think 'I'm going to direct the next video' or write the story board, because that stuff is mind- numbingly dull. You only do it because you're passionate about it and because you want to do it and everything we ever did through that period was like that, up until the end when it just felt like a bit of a sad release.

HOW DID YOU FEEL ABOUT THE FAN'S REACTIONS TO YOU REFORMING AFTER ALL THIS TIME?

CC: We couldn't believe it.

MU: You tend to think that what you've done serves a purpose for a moment in time and that's it. We didn't sit down and think we're going to write some material that we knew would span a 30 year period or more. We would have been petrified about that. At the time, you just do it and you think it's interesting for that moment in time and that's it. But at this stage to find that some of the stuff we recorded is still in the top 100 records of all time… it's ludicrous. It's the same with the tour. To find that the response we had from the websites and the fans has been so positive at a time when it's difficult out there to go and buy tickets, it really is great.

HOW HAVE YOU FELT PLAYING THE SONGS AGAIN?

BC: It's just nice to play the songs again out of the context of the hyped up feelings of the time they were released. Back then, you were right in the thick of it and it really is quite refreshing to be out of it and just do the music for what it is.

MU: The interesting thing about this as well is we're not trying to sell a new record. Every time you went on tour in the past you had a new album and you wanted to play the new album and this time we haven't so we're looking at an entire body of work and we can pick our favourite tracks, which is great. You're not going out there to try and educate, you're just saying, this is what we do, this is what we've done, these are the ones we like and enjoy playing. So in a way it's very powerful. In a way, it's a whole new experience for us.

WHAT CAN WE EXPECT FROM THE SHOW ITSELF?

MU: Well the music's very evocative so it lends itself to haunting, atmospheric images on screens so we're trying to come up with those but trying do it in a slightly different way. Everyone's got screens and lights. We've always gone out of our way to try and make it seem slightly different and if that means less is more, that seems to work. So a lot of the songs themselves are very moody and very haunting and it will reflect that. So sometimes the band will almost disappear into the set and we won't be highlighted. We're there creating the music and the visuals on stage will take over, while at other times, it's the antithesis of that. So we're trying to get something more flexible.

ARE YOU LOOKING FORWARD TO HANGING OUT TOGETHER ON TOUR?

MU: I think that's where we'll catch up. There's really not been an awful lot of down time yet when we've been rehearsing to slob out and catch up but when you're travelling up and down the country, that'll be the time that we can sit down and chat. We'll just be able to sit down and catch up as friends.

HAVE YOU HAD A CHANCE NOW AFTER ALL THESE YEARS TO REFLECT ON WHAT YOU DID TOGETHER AS A BAND?

MU: I think it probably takes a few years to think it through and realise what's happened, especially when you start to see that what you've created as a unit affects people. I think the great thing that I've discovered is that when the internet appeared, I got a chance to read stuff from fans. When people sent fan letters back then, you never saw them. They'd go to your agent or the record company. But now we get emails from people. There's a guy from Lebanon who's now a doctor in Paris but his way of getting through the war in Lebanon as a kid was to put his headphones on his Walkman and play Ultravox. That's how intense it is. Or you find out about people who've buried parents or buried kids or there's been a bit of conception going on - these hugely moving, massive moments in people's lives and they tell us that the soundtrack to those moments was something that we did. That's just weird. That's just too powerful. So when you start to realise all that, that's when the regret kicks in.

YOU'VE ALSO HAD AN IMPACT ON BANDS WHO FOLLOWED YOU...

MU: That's lovely.

CC: It's fantastic.

MU: When you read interviews with other artists and they cite you as an influence, it's great. The great thing is the core of what you've done is still there even when you're not. The music is around forever. It's in the ether and it will always be there to influence people, so it's fantastic when people will stand up and cite you. That's fabulous.

AND WHAT ARE YOUR HOPES FOR ULTRAVOX NOW? COULD WE SEE SOME NEW MATERIAL YET?

MU: I think the main thing right now is this. We're looking at this as the year to do whatever it is we're going to do. Anything beyond that is too far down the line for us at the moment. But considering that six months ago, this wasn't even possible, it shows you that we're just a bunch of old tarts! We can be swayed one way or the other! Seriously, though, six months ago this was never going to happen so we can't even comment on what we're thinking of doing in six months’ time. We're just enjoying being back together, making music and seeing what happens.

APRIL 2009

INTERVIEW COURTESY OF ULTRAVOX

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