Some Dreadful Old Musical Tart: OX meets Midge Ure
"You wrote crap songs until you starting writing good ones"
Midge Ure rose to prominence in the mid-seventies as vocalist and guitarist in the soft rock band Slik. The Scottish multi-instrumentalist has enjoyed a career spanning decades, having performed in bands as diverse as Rich Kids, Ultravox, Thin Lizzy and Visage. He continues to write music and released Fragile, his most recent album, in July 2014.
We caught up with Midge ahead of his performance at Rewind Festival in August.
I know that you’ve got an honorary doctorate, should I call you Doctor Midge?
Well, it would have to be “Doctor Doctor Doctor Doctor Doctor Midge”, I’ve got five honorary doctorates! I’m collecting them.
You’re playing at the Rewind festival this summer, which will mean revisiting a lot of your old material and your back catalogue, so what can we expect to hear from your performance?
Well, that type of festival is a very specific thing, you wouldn’t go on and play your entire new album; it’s the wrong demographic and the wrong audience. People buy their ticket to go along and see something that they know. Whether they know who’s on the bill or not, they know that something’s going to come on that’s going to tickle their fancy, and they expect to hear as many hits as possible. I think that’s what you gear those shows towards, so there’ll be some Ultravox stuff in there, some solo stuff, maybe even a little bit of Visage who I worked with and produced, so it’ll be very hit-led.
When you’re performing, do you prefer to do your old stuff and your back catalogue, or is it more creative for you to perform your more recent material?
I think it’s a bit of both. When I’m doing my own shows, I’ve got to find a balance with the hits which people expect to hear, which is understandable: When I go and see an artist, I want to hear the songs that I like that artist for. There’s an element of that, but you have to balance it with what an artist would think of as the more interesting songs, the ones that weren’t necessarily commercial hits but musical hits. I think I probably prefer finding that balance but when you’re doing shows like Rewind, you’re on stage for half an hour and that’s it. You’ve got to go on there and make your little dent in the overall event, and the best way to do that is to play ‘Vienna’ and ‘Dancing with Tears in my Eyes’, all the stuff which people will expect to hear.
Your last album was Fragile, released last year, which you wrote, arranged, performed and produced single-handedly. Does your creative process change in a solo situation compared with playing with a band?
I think it gives you more freedom but also takes ten times longer. I didn’t do it all myself just because I’m ego-driven, but the way I work in the studio seems to be easier when I’m doing it on my own. It’s a bit like a painter painting a mural: Sure you could do it much faster with ten painters all doing it at once, but then you don’t have one man’s vision. When you’ve got your own idea of what you want to achieve you’re probably better off doing it yourself.
Saying that, being in a band was a very different thing, you have a lot of give and take in a band. The bad side is having to give up what you think is interesting to appease the others, but the good side is that when you have no idea what to do, there’s someone there to take over from you and take it in a direction you hadn’t even thought of. It’s horses for courses really. It’s very different doing things completely solo to doing it in a band.
Over the years, you’ve played in such a range of styles, from the post-punk of Rich Kids, through Ultravox, to working with Bob Geldof and so on. When you’re writing your new material, do you draw on these past influences?
Well it’s no different from any work, whatever you’ve done in the past is part of what you are right now. You can’t separate yourself from it. You may go through periods in your life where you think “I don’t want to delve into the world of electronics on this project because I did that last time and I’m more interested in exploring another area”, but that doesn’t mean you cut it out completely.
It’s a bit like if you were an author and you were writing your tenth book, you wouldn’t think “I don’t want to use that word because I used it in the third book”! You can’t limit yourself in that way. You have a blank canvas, but everything in your past has led you to the point that you’re at right at this moment. It’s all knowledge accrued.
I think when working on a new piece of material, you try and make it as good as you can possibly make it, and if that means it resembles something you did thirty years ago, it doesn’t really matter. You have to give it the right approach, which means delving into everything you’ve ever done.
My history does look like I’m some dreadful old musical tart, jumping from one style to another, but the reality is that there’s a path that runs all the way through everything I’ve done. When I was in the Rich Kids, it was a guitar band but I bought a synthesizer! In the seventies I wanted to work with a synthesizer and merge these sounds but I couldn’t do it with Rich Kids but I did it with the next band, which was Visage. That led me to Ultravox, and that led me onto a variety of other things. There is a path that meanders through everything I’ve done.
Seeing as you’ve had so much success with bands in the past, is there less pressure on you when you’re writing new material? Does it give you more scope to be creative?
I suppose it’s the “grumpy old man” syndrome: When you get to a certain stage in your career, you’re not there to write three-minute pop songs or compete with Taylor Swift. I’m not here to vie for a position in the charts. I have a hardcore following of fans that want to hear what I think, do and say, and the whole idea of “I have to fit certain parameters, it has to be a certain style” doesn’t really matter these days. It’s a very different playing field that we all inhabit, so in that way I suppose it lends itself to being more creative. You’re not thinking “Will this get on the radio? Do I have to put the chorus thirty seconds into the track?”, which are all the things that they used to pressure you into doing back in the day. Fortunately for Ultravox, we never listened to any of that stuff at all and came up with ‘Vienna’! We did stuff that was so radically different, and we never adhered to that principle. In a way I think these days you can expand a bit and do what you think is interesting rather than doing what you think will be successful.
On the subject of modern music, are there any recent artists that you enjoy? Why do you enjoy them?
Well there’s a few artists that you hear (and I have to emphasize a few). Our radio system in the UK isn’t great. In America you can tune into a variety of stations that play specific types of music, adult-oriented music or whatever. You could listen to a station that plays Radiohead, Bowie, and so on, whereas over here you mostly have stations that try and cater for all tastes, but weighed down in the commercial top 40. If you want to hear new artists being played, you need to listen to BBC 6Music. If you want to hear stuff that is not going to get that mass-media platform, you have to go and search for it.
It’s an oddity that when you listen to daytime radio in the car or whatever, you’re going to hear the same song repeated every hour. There’s 20 or 30 songs that get played on the radio, and they repeat them and repeat them and repeat them. Maybe if you’re lucky you’ll hear something that wasn’t designed for the radio, and they’re the ones that make your ears prick up. I like the Icelandic band Sigur Rós, which is like soundtrack music. That kind of stuff definitely tickles my fancy.
But of course, music like Sigur Rós won’t be played on the radio very often because it doesn’t fit, as you said, the format of thirty-second chorus and so on.
This is true, but Sigur Rós came up with a track [‘Hoppípolla’] which was played non-stop on television. They made beautiful instrumental music which just about every wildlife program or feel-good program used. Good music will find its area to be exposed.
Do you think that, because of the one-sidedness of radio and saturation of music on the internet, it’s more difficult for a budding artist or new band to reach the levels of success that you reached in the eighties?
I had a conversation with my friend Mark King from the band Level 42 about the state of the music industry. He said that we might have been the last generation to do this for a living. Maybe we were the last generation to carve out a career in music. That side of things doesn’t seem to exist anymore.
Only a small minority will have a career beyond a five-year span, and that’s a very scary thing. Is the state of the industry better now for aspiring artists? I don’t know. It was always difficult and there were always too many people trying to get into a very elite little club, the elite club being the ones to get on Top of the Pops and all of that stuff. It was always difficult to get there but I think it’s even more difficult now because “there” seems to be moving. “There” isn’t a fixed point. There isn’t a route map to get there.
Back in the day, you played everywhere you could possibly play to learn your craft, you wrote crap songs until you starting writing good ones, and then you sent them off to record companies. If you were lucky enough somebody came and saw you and you were signed to a label, then you had a chance of making it. These days, there are no labels, there are no A&R guys coming to look for you.
I don’t know how you’d do it. I talk to up-and-coming musicians at music colleges up and down the country and the story that I tell them is radically different from the experience they’re going to have. I don’t know how any young artist can break into the music industry, all I can say is you have to be true to yourself. You have to write what you think is interesting, and hope that somebody somewhere might buy what you do and come and see your performance, but certainly don’t think of it as a life-long career.
Do you have any new material on the way yourself? Are you back in the studio at the moment?
I’m in the studio but I’m doing different projects. I’m not writing anything right now for my next record because my last record took so long to make and I want to think about it before I go in and start churning stuff out. I’ve been working on various bits of collaborative music with a variety of friends. By the end of the year I should be geared up to get back into the studio to start writing [solo material] again.
Can I ask what friends you’re collaborating with?
Well you wouldn’t know them! There’s some film music I’ve been doing, I’ve been doing some work with a Mexican artist who’s very popular there. He’s very influenced by a lot of the music from the eighties so he’s been collaborating with the guys from Thompson Twins and Glenn Gregory from Heaven 17. They’ve all been working with this guy long-distance, these days you can collaborate over the internet in different continents and email the parts to each other, its incredible.
You can catch Midge Ure performing at Rewind Festival on Sunday 23 August. Rewind runs from Friday 21 to Sunday 23 at Temple Island Meadows, Henley-on-Thames. Tickets are available here.
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