In conversation, as in many of the songs he writes for New Model Army, Justin Sullivan is purposely controversial and often contradictory--as he freely admits.
Take his stand on vigilantism, a theme that the English trio--which plays the Spirit in San Diego tonight and the Variety Arts Center on Saturday--has touched on a few times since forming in 1980. Both 1983's "Vengeance" (which includes the line "I believe in getting the bastard") and last year's "The Hunt" not only describe vigilantism, but urge it.
But ask Sullivan--whose nom de rock is Slade the Leveller--about so-called "subway vigilante" Bernhard Goetz, and you see why no one's going to accuse him of being too bland or consistent.
"He should have been found guilty," Sullivan declared during a recent phone interview. "Not necessarily be sent to jail for x number of years. But to let him off and say he wasn't guilty was just ridiculous. That's terrifying."
This, from the composer of pro-vigilante anthems?
"Well, in some ways, I am on his side," Sullivan replied. "I understand the fact that he shot the (victims)--I'm not saying he shouldn't have. Many people would have done the same thing. I might have done the same thing if I carried a gun, which I don't. But, having shot them, he's got to go through law."
Singer-guitarist Sullivan and his Army buddies--bassist Jason Harris (a.k.a. Moose) and drummer Robb Heaton (they're assisted on this tour by guitarist Ricky Warwick)--have hardly shied away from polemics on the new EP "New Model Army." One side comprises live versions of such older barn-burners as "51st State"--a verbal torpedo aimed at American imperialism--and "The Hunt."
The centerpiece of the new material is "White Coats," a blistering indictment of scientific research.
"At this very moment, there are people in white coats (working) away in laboratories, learning how to clone people, irradiate vegetables, make nuclear power, whatever," Sullivan said. "They really think they're doing humanity a favor and they're not. They've brought us to the brink of disaster."
Sullivan rejects the notion that research can aid humanity by yielding life-saving medical advances. "The net results of all those kinds of things is that we're horrifically overpopulated," he said.
Then, right on schedule, came the contradiction: "At the same time, If I had a kid that was dying and there was the technology to save his life, or her life, I would . . . use that technology for my child."
If you're getting the impression that Sullivan has never met a controversy he didn't like, you're reading the message loud and clear. Even views few would dispute can take on a shrill edge--the band has a vehement anti-drug stance, for instance, and Sullivan often steps on stage wearing a T-shirt with the message "Only Stupid Bastards Use Heroin."
But while Sullivan admits that he sometimes intentionally stirs things up, he doesn't want message to be the main focus.
"The point of New Model Army is not to put across the answers to world problems or the New Model Army philosophy," he explained. "Our songs contradict each other all the time. And I don't think there's anything wrong with that at all, because people are contradictory. Our songs are just like a 3 1/2-minute microcosm of an emotion. Not some intellectual argument, just an emotion. That's all we've ever tried to do."
For a colorful outfit that's been around several years and released two of its three albums in the United States, New Model Army has a rather low profile in this country. One key reason: Until recently, they weren't permitted to tour here. When the band applied for visas in 1984, the rock critics at the U.S. Immigration Department decided the trio had "no artistic merit" and rejected the application.
Press accounts and the group's biographical information suggest the threesome was refused entry twice; Sullivan says it was four times. At any rate, New Model Army finally entered America late last year, and in its local debut in December at the Whisky the band blazed through an impressive set of galloping rockers, propelled by Harris' melodic, busy bass lines. Crucially, the trio's whip-crack intensity helped offset its tendency toward self-importance and soap-box pronouncements.
That handful of U.S. shows was in support of "The Ghost of That handful of U.S. shows was in support of "The Ghost of Cain," a post-punk gem of an album produced by Glyn Johns (the Who, the Clash, et al)--one of last year's best overlooked LPs. But it made a few American critics' Top 10 lists, and it won some notable new fans--like David Bowie, who asked New Model Army to open some of his European concerts.
Sullivan's feelings about success are typically mixed.
"We opened for David Bowie in front of 65,000 people in Berlin about a month ago," he related. "And playing to that size crowd is very dull. Just like being in that size crowd is very dull. . . .
"I don't think that (headlining stadium shows) will ever happen to New Model Army. And, in a way, I hope it doesn't. But at the same time, I'm very ambitious and I'd like New Model Army to be--successful, I suppose."