Interview

Move In Light | An Interview With Robbie Grey of Modern English

England’s Modern English has always been a forever favorite for us here at Post-punk.com. Formed in 1979 in the wake of punk’s initial wave, the band were among the first acts signed to the seminal 4AD label, where they quickly issued a string of early, caustic singles before releasing their debut album, 1981’s Mesh & Lace, a powerful, dark, and experimental record that sits nicely alongside peers such as Wire and Bauhaus. The band followed up with After the Snow in 1982, which expanded their sound to include organic strings and more sumptuous, romantic arrangements. With this record, Modern English scored a massive hit with “I Melt With You,” a perfect pop song that encapsulates love during the Cold War era and remains the band’s most well-known track to date. Their third record, 1984’s Ricochet Days, was their last for 4AD and expanded on After the Snow’s lushness, featuring singles “Chapter 12” and “Hands Across the Sea.”

While the band would change members throughout the late eighties and early nineties, the original core lineup of vocalist Robbie Grey, bassist Mick Conway, guitarist Gary McDowell, and keyboardist Stephen Walker have been recording and releasing a string of incredible records in the modern era, with their latest, this year’s fantastic 1, 2, 3, 4 earning massive accolades across the board. The band are about to head out on an expansive tour that takes them across the world, joining both The Buzzcocks and Thomas Dolby at various points.

We had a chance to talk to Modern English vocalist Robbie Grey about the band’s history, the new record’s political leanings, and the secret to keeping a band together over the years:

1, 2, 3, 4 cover art – design by Chris Bigg

Your latest record, 1,2,3,4 has the same vitality as any of your work – it truly sounds like Modern English in the best way possible. How did the record come together?

Well, what you’re getting there is the live feel of the record. The first thing we thought about when recording this album was to consciously get away from that homogenized radio sound where everyone’s using Pro Tools and splicing things together. We wanted to make a live recording as much as we could, so you could feel the movement from  the verse to the chorus. When we first started writing the record, it would have been right around when the pandemic hit in 2020. In England, we were only allowed to go outside for a couple of hours a day, unless you were going to a workplace, which you could go to three days a week. So, we would go over to Mick’s studio, which was nearby in Suffolk. We all gathered there to write the record, but we always knew that we wanted to keep it raw. We had done that for a while and we wanted to get a producer who would allow for that. So, Mario (J. McNulty) came along and we talked about sticking to that live feeling. We then went to a great studio in upstate New York in Rhinebeck and it all just came together really well. It doesn’t always work out like that. It’s like a painting, I suppose. You can either do a really bad one or a really good one, and all the pieces just really fit together for this album…

That’s cool you were in Rhinebeck. I actually grew up in Goshen, which is only an hour or so away from there. It’s such a beautiful area.

Well, Mick lives in Hudson now, I believe. He’s been living in that area for quite some time.

So were any of the songs written before you entered the studio, or were they all written there? 

No, no, we never really come in with a full record ready to go. Actually, for the first time probably ever I wrote a full song for the record in advance, and that was “Long In the Tooth.” When I wrote that song back in my little studio room to when it was recorded and released it’s not changed at all really. Normally though, we start things off with just pieces of music that we develop. We don’t really have complete songs generally. “Not Fake” was another song that was already kind of written, and Mick’s song “Not My Leader” didn’t really change all that much either from the beginning. So, I suppose there are a couple of songs on there that were written from the start, but generally we kind of fiddle around quite a lot as we go.

The lyrics seem quite political – can you tell us a bit about them?

Yeah, I mean, I’m just pissed off with everything, you know? It’s just crazy that people in power just don’t give a shit about anybody else and that’s so frustrating after all this time that the decent side of humanity never seems to get very far but the corrupt people and those who generally crave power seem to be much nastier. It seems to me that if you want to stay in power, you have to be that way, and decent people on the street are just sort of fed up with it. I am at least, anyway. When we first started and came to your country, we had Margaret Thatcher and you had Ronald Reagan. Fast forward from the late 70s and early 80s and it hasn’t changed all that much. In fact, you’ve got a clown like Donald Trump who is very likely going to be your president again, from the looks of it…

Ugh, no one learned anything. It’s kind of maddening.

It’s not even funny, is it? It’s just crazy.

The only way I can survive is to laugh, sometimes. I just can’t believe how surreal it all is most of the time. 

Right! So, a lot of the lyrics on the album, like “Not My Leader” are all about that. “Not Fake” is about things becoming less and less rooted in true humanity really, you know people wanting to have different faces, different bodies, and different brains. Everyone wants to be something else all the time, it’s about that deconstructed sense of nature. I spend a lot of time in Southeast Asia and I live in the countryside in England. Both are near the beach, and seeing the amount of garbage in the ocean inspired another song on the album called “Plastic.” It’s maddening – they clean the beaches daily but they’re filled with trash again in the blink of an eye.

In “Voices” – it’s interesting that you namecheck Billie Holiday and Karen Carpenter – two of the saddest and most tragic figures in pop music. It makes me wonder, what’s that song about in the context of the political machine and how do those lovely singers factor into the story?

Well, I just know that they’re too the best voices I’ve ever heard of my life. That song to me is about gun culture and how young people are brainwashed into believing that the only way out is to go out and blow people up. The song is about someone sitting in their bedroom with a gun in their hands and the internet in front of them, and being disturbed enough to actually go out and hurt someone. Perhaps if they heard a voice like Karen or Billie’s it would help them and they could find some solace in the music. Maybe if they listened to these voices they could hear the beauty and loss they sing about and it could soothe their soul…

That’s really beautiful, and that track is such a standout.

Thank you, thank you.

I love how active Modern English has been over the years, I’ve seen the band several times and you’ve always been one of my favorite live acts. Your energy on stage is unmatched, and you always have so much passion, no matter if you’re playing new music, deep cuts, or the hits. I’d love to know what the secret is to keeping a band together in harmony after all this time.

Well, as you get older, you do tend to let people get away with a lot more than you would have when you were younger! You don’t end up fighting with each other so much. Really, we’ve known each other since we were teenagers, we came from the same town and lived in London for over 30 years. We went through so much together in the eighties and nineties that at this point, we can just sort of take the piss out of each other and people won’t get offended, which is a good thing. Otherwise, the energy level on stage is just how it’s always been. I guess I don’t know what else to do apart from what we do. I feel that energy and react as I always have.

Photo by Sheva Kafai

I’d love to hear more about the formation of the band – what brought you all together in 1979? 

Well, that’s brilliant you should ask that because you know, we’re not jaded yet! The creative process is the most important thing about music. The rest of it, once it leaves your hands, is business, really. That part overshadows the creative process a lot, but as long as you can keep writing songs and keep that creative energy flowing, you’re doing all right.

As for  the start of things, it was just an amazing time to be in the UK. Punk happened, and you had people like The Clash and the Sex Pistols on TV which was all very new and very exciting. Before that, we’d listen to Bowie and Roxy Music, things like that, but we never dreamt that we could play music. We thought it was something that other people, these immense talents and virtuosos, could do and that we never could. So when this punk thing happened, we felt empowered, we became part of that whole thing. It just swept over the nation and changed the whole landscape of music almost overnight. After a bit, it got a bit boring, playing just this fast and furious music all the time, so everyone started experimenting in that framework, forming what everyone now calls the post-punk thing. This is where bands started going off on their own and exploring their own ideas, carving out more soundscapes and doing what they wanted with that punk energy. It was such a brilliant time around 1978-79 with all the bands that came out around us. Joy Division, The Cure, Wire, Gang of Four, and so on. This all shaped so much of England’s musical culture, so we were able to put our band together to do something similar.

It’s kind of amazing to think about all the bands that formed and quickly embraced this sound more or less independently from each other, yet still there was this unified movement of sorts…  

Well, John Peel had a lot to do with that. He championed a lot of the bands around that time would play play bands on the BBC that nobody else would go near, at all this kind of crazy wild music by bands who never would write a love song or make music that was like everything else on the radio. He had a lot to do with that unification, but also in general, the whole country was on fire and we were all reacting to that. It was brilliant. There was no money around, the UK was a very poor country outside of those who were in power and who were already rich. Most didn’t have anything at all. We used to steal microphones from concerts, and Gary’s first guitar was worth only $30 or so. Most of these bands, including us, really started from the ground up, and it was all very exciting. That energy was present from the start, you know?

Yeah, and with that in mind, Gary got such a unique sound out of that guitar. To me, those early Modern English guitar textures are otherworldly – so atmospheric and intense. 

Yeah, you know, stick it through a chorus and a flanger and it sounds brilliant!

Can you share any stories about your time on 4AD?

Well, it was if you remember Vaughan Oliver died, you know, I think five years ago now… I think his first artwork was the “Gathering Dust” single in 1980.

Gathering Dust 7” single artwork by Vaughan Oliver.

Right – with the shadow figures sitting next to the television set! 

Yeah! So that was the first artwork he ever did for the label… His last ever work was the re-imagining of Mesh & Lace and After the Snow, which came out just a few years ago. So it’s a real sense of synergy with 4AD there.

Otherwise, Ivo Watts-Russell and Peter Kent were the guys that signed us. We sent them a demo, and you know, it was just a wild demo we made of our earliest tracks, and they liked it and picked up on us. We were one of the first bands who signed with the label, along with Bauhaus, and then of course it all built up from there with Cocteau Twins, The Birthday Party, Dead Can Dance, and so on…

So we were kind of in at the beginning, at a time when Factory was also operating in the north with all those bands – Joy Division, A Certain Ratio, Crispy Ambulance, and of course Mute Records were doing their thing with Depeche Mode, Fad Gadget, and Daniel Miller. It was such an exciting time… All of us used to play with each other quite a lot – we did some gigs with The Birthday Party and so on. It was a wildly creative period, that 79-81 era…

I really liked that first 7” you recorded – the “Drowning Man” single. but the band really took it so much further out once you locked in with 4AD. Was that where you were heading naturally, or did 4AD’s early lineup and mission statement influence your sound? 

Well, the simple answer to that is we just became better musicians rather quickly. When we recorded “Drowning Man,” we couldn’t even really tune our guitars. We didn’t know how to do that. If you listen to that single, you might notice that we’re out of tune completely! That said, it’s got a certain quality to it that works. Mesh & Lace however, we went in the shooter. We did that record live as well, actually. A lot of that’s live. It’s a very experimental record. Ken Thomas who worked with Throbbing Gristle, engineered it and Ivo was in the studio with us as well. We were in the studio for only two weeks. It all very quick, you know, there was no back and forth, no debating about what was right and what wasn’t. We just went for it without too many overdubs, and it gives it that kind of quality. Everything’s a bit wild. We always enjoy using atmosphere more than musical playing, if you know what I mean… We’d rather explore the texture or do something more abstract than worry about a guitar solo or a beautiful musical passage or anything like that, really.

I think even your more pop-oriented works have that sense of experimentation and abstraction. Even “I Melt With You” or “Chapter 12” have some really interesting counter melodies and production techniques that elevate those tracks. That’s something I’ve always loved about your body of work – that you’ve never lost sight of that knack for experimentation, even on Soundtrack and Take Me to the Trees, and of course, the latest record. 

Yeah, that’s just how we operate overall, you know?

So, I still think it’s kind of wild that one of 4AD’s most beloved projects was birthed from covering two of your tracks – the live medley of “16 Days” and “Gathering Dust.” I love that you were all involved with This Mortal Coil in one form or another. Can you tell us more about your experience with that project? 

Well, really Ivo just felt that those two songs were such classic tracks and he wanted to re-record them the way we were playing them live. It was around that time that more electronic drum kits and samplers were being utilized a bit more. Ivo asked Mick and Gary to play on the This Mortal Coil version. They agreed and then Robin from Cocteau Twins and Martyn from Colourbox played on it. Liz came and did the vocals with Cindy, and the rest was history. I did that Colin Newman song “Not Me” on the first album, It’ll End In Tears. It was just Ivo’s hand’s-on project where he wanted to really celebrate everyone’s music and have his own project. He would get anyone he fancied to come in and play, whether it be us or Cindytalk, or Simon Raymonde, really, whoever was around at the time…

After the Snow really felt like more of a romantic record, though you still retained some that core energy in songs like “Life in the Gladhouse.” I’d love to hear more about that record. Was it a conscious decision to explore a more lush sound, or did that come naturally as well? 

Well, I mean, we’ve never been the sort of band that do the same exact thing twice. That’s been a bit of our downfall in some ways because we’ve confused a lot of people that way. A lot of other acts are happy to do the same thing, but we’ve never really been like that.

With After the Snow – a lot of that sound you mention is due to our producer, Hugh Jones, who encouraged us to focus more on our songwriting. We didn’t even know what that meant at that point, you know? He showed us how to string together a verse and a chorus and then a verse and a chorus and then a middle eight, and those things. His influence was massive! We were all interested in bringing in different instruments to change things – acoustic guitars, violins, and so on. We also tried different things. For instance, “I Melt With You” is probably the first song I never shouted on. I was so used to shouting into the microphone before that…

Did you approach that song from that perspective at first? Did you shout on earlier incarnations of the track? 

No! This, this is a good story actually. I was told to go up to the microphone and just speak into it…and I was like, “what? What the fuck are you talking about? You want me to go up to the microphone and just SPEAK into it?” But that really helped the song, it helped change it up to give it that sort of spoken word sort of feel in the verses, and that makes the chorus work so well.

…and then somehow between trying to softly speak the verses and then adding this lush, soaring chorus, you created one of the most beautiful, perfect pop songs ever recorded. Does it ever shock you how much that song has meant to people over the years? I mean, it’s truly timeless in that way. I almost hate to admit it, but in a previous life, that song was my wedding song, and it’s always funny, since the lyrics are both romantic but also about nuclear fallout and war, and a similar sense of dread that has always been present in your work. 

You know, you’d be amazed at how many times I’ve been told that! There’s definitely that idea of a couple you know, during the Cold War era. When I wrote it, I was staying in a cheap housing complex in London, freezing my arse off, stoned and scribbling down lyrics on a piece of paper, and within ten minutes, the lyrics were finished. It was like poetry really, I used stanzas, and of course, it’s basically about love. I was writing about the bomb dropping while this couple were making love, melting together… I’ve always said that it was a dark love song.

Otherwise, in some ways, it’s just another song for us on the album, you know? At one point we were wondering if we even liked it, or if it was a bit too commercial sounding compared to our other work.

I wondered if you struggled with that in the moment, especially when comparing it to songs like “Swans on Glass” or “Move In Light” which were written not long before that by comparison, you know?

Yeah, we did for about ten minutes, but Hugh was like “don’t be ridiculous – this a good song” you know, blah blah blah. In fact, going full circle, “I Know Your Soul” on the new album is a bit like that. We weren’t sure whether we’re going to put that song on the album, you know, because it’s the most crafted really of all the songs on the out on 1, 2, 3, 4, but Steve Walker, the keyboard player, was a big champion for that for that song. Mick, Gary, and I weren’t too sure about it, but we put it on there…

Did you leave anything on the cutting room floor? Are there any leftover tracks from the latest sessions?

No, no, pretty much everything’s on there!

So, one thing I’ve always admired about Modern English these days is that you always seem to have your finger on the pulse and have taken a lot of newer, underground bands on tour with you, bands like Entertainment or Bootblacks. A lot of older bands don’t seem to be as in tune with what’s going on in modern music and I was wondering what informed that. 

Well, I think we just, that’s just how we are. We’re no different when we started as people, making the kind of music that we want to and seeking out bands that are similar. It’s no different for us now than it was in 1979, except that we were lucky enough that “I Melt With You” gave us the security to carry on however we want to. Mick and Steve are more in tune with music than I am even, and they find that same energy in these bands that we feel we have.

As for me, I’d say I listen to more English music than anything these days, whether it be Fontaines D.C. or Idles. However, Mick would find these new, still obscure bands from Brooklyn and Steve would find some from Poland. We’re always looking for bands that are younger to come on the road with us mostly because we’d have wanted the same thing when we were younger, you know?

That’s great that you do that – I’ve heard so many conflicting stories over the years, some bands have shared stories of scene camaraderie, but others have told me that it was actually more competitive and cutthroat, not as romantic as all that. It’s interesting to hear your perspective on that and to see you lifting up other bands these days. 

It’s really true, though. People in America romanticize about this scene with all these bands hanging out in the pub, but it wasn’t really like that. Everyone was just doing their own thing. You might bump into somebody in the studio somewhere and have a moment with them, but you’re too busy doing your own thing to hang out really. That said, we did tour with Cocteau Twins and Bauhaus, and support Matt Johnson of The The when he started out – 4AD felt more like a family-oriented thing. Outside of that, it was often about getting a drink at the bar, you know?

What are your touring plans for 1, 2, 3, 4? What do you have planned for the year?

Oh my god, we’re not stopping this year! I mean, once I leave Thailand, I’m flying to Mexico City for rehearsals and a show. We’re playing with The Buzzcocks there. After that, we’re going back to America to play in Tucson and LA, two sold out shows with The Buzzcocks again. We’re going to go to Disneyland as well, but then we fly back to England. We’re doing a radio show for the BBC before linking back up with The Buzzcocks again for a few dates in Europe, plus a few on our own.

After all that, we’re going back to America as part of the Totally Tubular festival with Thomas Dolby, The Romantics, and other bands like that. We’re doing a six week run as part of that tour.

I’ve always enjoyed those tours, it seems like they aim to recapture a certain era, but for me, being too young to have seen many of these artists in the eighties, I always have a great time basking in that energy. It’s always great to see your band, whether it be a full headlining set or part of these tours. How long will the set be in the States? 

It’ll be about 25-30 min.

So you really have to carefully pick and choose, then! I imagine you’ll have to balance the new material, some early deep cuts, but I’m sure you have to play the hits, right? 

Well, you know, if we didn’t, we’d probably be hung! You know, it’ll be “I Melt With You” plus five or so other tracks.

I was sad to miss the After the Snow tour. Do you think you’d come back around to the States for a full tour for the new record? It’s always great hearing a full set, being able to enjoy the range and intensity of your material…

Oh yeah, whenever we get the chance, we’ll be playing. For some of these shows, we’re planning on playing three or four tracks from the album. I imagine even on this tour in the States we’ll throw one or two of them in.

Well, I’m a fan of the whole catalogue and anything you play at this point would go over well in my book. Have you found that other fans have been embracing the new material in the same way? 

Yeah, absolutely. It’s been incredible! I get stuff sent to me, you know – press clippings and reviews. It’s been brilliant, the response has been absolutely amazing. It might be the best critical response we’ve ever had if I’m being honest! §

1, 2,3, 4 is out now via InKind Music and available via the band’s Bandcamp page, as well as other outlets. For a full list of tour dates, visit the band’s website here.

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Header photo by Sheva Kafai.

Frank Deserto

Bassist of The Harrow, curator/writer at Cherry Red Records, and blogger at Systems of Romance.

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