Two such artists in particular, Depeche Mode and Modern English, have given us new albums in 2017 - Spirit, DM's fourteenth CD, comes out at the end of the week. And only weeks earlier, Modern English (best known for the new-wave hit, "I'll Melt With You") quietly dropped the engaging Take Me To The Trees, marking the first new music by members of the original group in nearly three decades. My reviews of those albums are forthcoming, but let me just say in passing that Take Me To The Trees is surprising on several fronts - least of which is how much the new album wears like a sonic postscript to ME's auspicious AD label debut, Mesh and Lace - bearing a musical kinship to early Cure and Joy Division rather than the pop-accessibility of 82's After The Snow.
I sat down with frontman Robbie Grey prior to their appearance at the iconic South By Southwest festival (where you'll find them this week) as they embark on a North American tour that will make stops in Boston, Seattle, Denver, New York City and Toronto - to talk about the band reunion, the new album, the miracle of crowdfunding, and the current political landscape:
© Mike Hipple
DG: What was the impetus for you guys to get back in the studio and record after so many years? After all, the original lineup hadn't done anything in decades.....
RG: That's a good question (laughs). What happened was, the bass player (Michael Conroy) moved close to my home in England, and he dropped me a line via email. Shortly after that, we met up and talked about old times and such, and he suggested getting the band back together. After I stopped laughing, I asked him, "Are you sure? You're talking about all the original members?" and he said, "Yes." So over a period of several months, we tried to get in touch with everybody. Initially, the idea was to see if we could create some new music together - and we put a tremendous effort into doing just that. This all happened about six years ago in terms of us reuniting - the only person from the original lineup that we couldn't get was Richard Brown, our drummer.
DG: Did the new album emerge as a result of those jam sessions? Sort of as an outgrowth of how well you were all getting on?
RG: Yeah. It was definitely a nice moment when we started rehearsing in a ring together, and realized that nothing had really gone away as far as our chemistry goes. And as we began putting pieces together and writing songs, we found ourselves working in the exact way that we had always done. It became a really satisfying creative process that we all enjoyed. At the same time, we started going back out and doing gigs again - in the back of my mind I suppose I had been thinking about us coming up with a new album.
DG: What is the significance behind the album title, Take Me To The Trees? Ecological subtext, maybe?
RG: I wouldn't necessarily call it a 'conceptual album.' After the Snow was probably our biggest record, commercially-speaking, and was a more controlled approach to our songwriting than its predecessor Mesh and Lace, which was more about atmosphere and sound. Nature plays quite a big part in where I've been living: we all grew up around London, which is very cosmopolitan, and now the majority of us live outside of a bustling city. I also have a home in Thailand, where I'm surrounded by birds and nature and abundant sunshine. And trees. I think Nature is our link between the past and present, so perhaps I'm suggesting a return to something almost spiritual - the track "Moonbeam" I wrote while I was at my home in Thailand, and that environment certainly contributed to the song, lyrically-speaking.
DG: I find it interesting you note similarities between After The Snow and Take Me To The Trees - in fact, you tell me you see the new album as sort of a companion piece to ATS. Yet for me, I don't hear anything reminiscent of the poppish overtones of "I'll Melt With You." Did you feel as if there were any pressure or expectation to reprise your biggest selling tune when making this recording?
RG: Oh no, not at all. That's one of the good things about the album - it doesn't have the pressure of a record company pushing us to drive the sound in a certain direction. The album was funded by a PledgeMusic campaign, so it's our fans who rallied behind us to make the record happen. They allowed us the freedom to do what we wanted to do. There was never any pressure on us to write another "I'll Melt With You", which frankly, we wouldn't be able to do anyway. If we turned around and tried to write "I'll Melt With You" again, let's face it - it wouldn't work. That isn't to say that other tunes on the album don't have a more commercial appeal to them, "Moonbeam" certainly qualifies - it's being picked up on major market radio stations in England, while the song "I Feel Small" is now getting airplay in the States.
DG: Previewing tracks on your Soundcloud page, I was particularly taken by the single, "You're Corrupt." Upon first listen, it hearkened to the mood and feel of "A Viable Commercial" from Mesh and Lace...
RG: Yay! It's funny that you mentioned "A Viable Commercial" - you caught us in the middle of rehearsals, and we were just practicing that song to be part of the setlist on tour. We'll be playing a bunch of Mesh and Lace tunes when we hit South by Southwest: "Commercial", "Sixteen Days", "Moving Lights", "Swans On Glass."It's gratifying to me that you picked up on us wanting to get back to the urgency that you can hear on those songs with the new disc.
DG: Getting back to "You're Corrupt" - I also sense a little political subtext lurking beneath the surface of that tune. Given the current political climate, globally speaking, I'm wondering if any of that found its way, either directly or covertly, into that song, or the album as a whole?
RG: I'd have to say that this album has no 'agenda', per se - what was of utmost importance to us was that we write and record songs we could feel good about, and that it be recorded in a live setting, versus getting caught up in overdubbing and multi-tracking stuff. I think the energy of that process is what you're hearing on the album - we miked a lot of the tracks in an art gallery setting with us all playing together. Lyrically, I was reconnecting to a lot of the anger and disillusionment I used to feel in the early days when we were starting out, and sadly very little has changed in terms of the social landscape.
When we first toured America in the 80's, you had Ronald Reagan as your President. And now, we're coming back to the States - where the clown known as Donald Trump is your President. So in that respect, there's very little difference - if anything, things have taken a considerable nosedive. What happened to the "Great Black Hope" of Obama? What happened to the "Clinton Years" of the white middle-class? It's unbelievable what a joke it's turned out being....and I'm not just singling out America here. Europe is no better, really - I mean, we've got the thing with Brexit, where you have the underclass who are fighting to be heard - but no one listens anymore. Politics has always been about jobs, about money, about power, about favors. It's never been about helping people.
DG: Then would you say on some level, "You're Corrupt" is a rebuttal to those things, or am I being a typical journalist who's reading too much into it?
RG: Oh no - it's absolutely about that. It's about everything we've been discussing in terms of what's going on in the world today. And for some reason, the majority of modern musicians don't seem to be addressing these things. Looking back, in my time - that was something musicians always addressed.
DG: And how much of that complacency is abetted by the music business? I mean, I can go to Billboard.com on any given week, listen to the Hot 100, and virtually every single tune there is musically indistinguishable from one another (Robbie laughs). Does it make things harder for artists who use outside means and more alternative avenues to get their message to the people?
RG: I think we have a variety of demographics in our audience - there will always be that segment of the audience that we know is just waiting for us to launch into "I'll Melt With You", and probably came looking forward to hearing that song. And then there's a segment loyal to Mesh and Lace who will be waiting on us to do "Sixteen Days" and "Gathering Dust." But as a captive audience, at least you can expose them to other tunes that they'll come to appreciate. In terms of what's 'hot' these days, I really don't listen to what they're doing. When the era of X-Factor and The Voice came along, I pretty much gave up on the contemporary music scene. Because I've got some money, I can afford to do what I want - not meaning to sound high and mighty, it's just that I have the freedom to pursue my creativity and not have to worry about things. Modern English is no longer a business - we're just a bunch of guys doing what we love, and that's making music.
The dates for Modern English's "Take Me To The Trees" US tour can be found at the link below:
The new album is available through iTunes and most digital outlets: