BY: Jim Villanueva
Midge Ure laid the foundation for his musical legacy as a member of two visionary bands, Visage and Ultravox. It’s fair to say that in the late 1970s and 1980s the native Scotsman was at the forefront of what has eventually evolved into EDM.
“Back in the late 70s, early 80s when we started using electronics when we put Visage together, that was pretty much European white dance music, and it was deemed quite radical and a bit odd,” said the musical boundary-bending singer/songwriter/guitarist/producer. “These days, electronics is a major part of what people do. Now it’s totally accepted. What they do with the electronics is so beyond what we could even dream of 30 years ago. It’s just amazing.”
Ure, who is currently crisscrossing the country on his Fragile Troubadour acoustic tour in support of the release of Fragile, his first new solo studio effort in 13 years, almost abandoned the idea of reentering the studio to work on another solo set in light of the seemingly unrecognizable changing landscape of the music business. We spoke to Ure about that and many more sonic and social subjects last week at the Sacramento, CA stop on his tour.
I’d like to start our conversation, well, at the start; your start. Looking back, was there a moment – a song that came on the radio, an album you heard, a concert you went to – that you can point to now and say that was the moment you knew music was going to play as important a role in your life as it obviously has?
I don’t think there was a particular show. I’m from Glasgow and our link to contemporary music would have been the BBC television show Top of the Pops. That was a lifeline. We used to watch that religiously on a Thursday evening and you’d hear whatever was in the top 40 at the time. So watching bands like Gerry & the Pacemakers or, slightly later The Small Faces, I absolutely adored because you were seeing and hearing exactly what was going on at the time. Radio back then; we had one station one national station – and they played everything from Frank Sinatra to The Beatles. Once you got out there and you started delving into music there was a wealth of stuff that really, really excited me.
I hear often in these conversations that Radio Luxembourg played a big part in budding musician’s lives?
Luxembourg was kind of naughty radio you’d listen to at night when you were supposed to be sleeping as a kid. But they played pop music long before we got Radio 1, so we’d listen to things like [The Tornados’] “Telstar” or early Rolling Stones and it was just so exciting – it was great.
Let’s talk about Fragile, your first new album in over a decade. You’ve said one of the reasons why it’s been so long in between records is that “Maybe I was quite possibly disheartened by the state of the music industry.” What about the music business might you have been disheartened about?
I think in the music industry as it stands right now there’s a lot to be disheartened about. Every era in music has had homogenized, no brainer disposable pop music, and there’s nothing wrong with disposable pop music – it’s great, it’s lovely – but the balance has never been so one-sided. Right now we have all these celebrity TV shows and talent shows and it serves a purpose, but it’s not gonna find the next John Lennon or the next Bob Marley, the next Kate Bush or the next Peter Gabriel or the next Sting. Its just not gonna happen. They’re out there, but they’re in bedrooms; they’re sitting making music for themselves that no one will ever hear. So I kind of got disheartened about that, thinking do I really want to be part of this industry anymore – is there any point in writing what you think is interesting that doesn’t necessarily fit that format. So it took me quite a while to gear myself up again and finish and complete Fragile, but I’m kinda glad I did. While I was going through that whole debate in my head Ultravox made an album – out of the blue. That gave me the strength, will and desire to finish my own album.
In light of your longevity and how influential you’ve been to other artists, the album begins with what I believe to be the aptly-titled “I Survived.” How have you managed to survive the changes in this musical landscape that we’re talking about?
By most of the time ignoring it, to tell you the truth. Especially with Ultravox, we never really did it here in America. We were kind of out there, using electronics at a time when nobody understood what electronics was over here. But we kind of ignored the fact that when we came to America first all we could hear was corporate rock; Boston, Styx and Foreigner. I always felt like Ultravox were like fish swimming upstream. We were dogmatic and determined that we were gonna reach the spot that we were going in, irrespective of everyone else. And sometimes when you do that, little bits of genius come out. Every so often you hit a little landmark and think because I’ve stuck to my guns I’ve changed something in the landscape.
And isn’t what you’re talking about – going against the grain, swimming upstream – how rock and roll started? Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, The Beatles did something that hadn’t been done before and stuck to their guns and came out on the other side pretty damn well.
Absolutely. If bands like that, artists like that didn’t do something that was radical and rattle the cages everything would still sound like 50s cabaret crooning. And you need that rattle; you need that shock to the system. And we still need that today. I need to hear new music as much as anyone else because new music and new ideas and new approaches to things are the lifeblood of our industry.
I think we are connected in some ways and completely isolated in others. In a world that has this interconnectivity we do a lot of talking, we do a lot of saying things, but not a lot of sense comes out of it. We’re still reeling from the shock of what happened in Paris. One faction of people don’t talk to another faction of people and their way of dealing with it is to go out and kill somebody. It’s just insane. So, are we connected is the question. We have all the tools, we have the cellphones, we have the internet, we have our computers, we can talk to anybody in the world, but sometimes we just got nothing to say.
You more than most would know more than a little something about connecting people in your roles as cowriter and producer of the Band Aid global hit “Do They Know It’s Christmas?,” co-organizer of Live Aid and Live 8 and most recently executive co-producer of Band Aid 30. How as humans do we get reconnected, and what role can music play in that reconnection?
Well if you think about what Band Aid leading up to Live Aid did, it transcended creed and color and race and religion. All the stuff that causes wars, all the stuff that causes conflict because people use it in the wrong way. So when the Band Aid and Live Aid thing happened we used the medium that people understood. You don’t have to understand the lyrics of the song; you understand the sentiment of the song. So we used something that would cross borders and cross cultures and bounce around the world. This thing just started to connect because it was something that young people understood. And it kind of made charity cool, it made it okay, it made it good to care.
“Become” may be the best example of electronic dance music on Fragile. To me it’s New Order-meets-David Bowie-meets-Arcade Fire. Is that fair to say?
Absolutely. I say about this album it’s an album that wears its influences on its sleeve. I look at this album and I can hear little bits of [Spiders From Mars’] Mick Ronson; I can hear his style of guitar playing. There are just these elements that I’m quite proud of and I’m quite pleased that I can hear them in there. It’s been a long climb to get to that point where I can go I’ve made something that I’m absolutely happy with; I don’t care whether anybody else likes it or not, I don’t care whether the media slag it. This is me, this is what I do, this is what I’ve spent 40 years honing; I’m quite happy. And “Become” is about that; to become who you are.
You’ve said that most of the lyrics on this album center on self-doubt. A case in point for me is the opening line of “For All You Know” which says, “For all you know you still know nothing.” Despite all you’ve accomplished, what doubts do you still have about yourself as it relates to music?
I think if you scratch below the surface of any musician, irrespective of how cocky and self-assured they seem, they’re fragile characters. And that’s the title of the album, really. We are full of self-doubt; we don’t think anything we do is worthy. We certainly don’t think anything we do new is as good as something that’s been successful in the past because we all gauge – whether we want to or not – we all gauge what we do by commercial success. And we shouldn’t. It’s a very different world now. You cannot expect an album that you release today to sell as many as something that sold 30 years ago.
You note that much of modern music is missing “heartfelt honesty.” Why do you feel that way?
I think a lot of pop music is contrived. You invent scenarios to write about. I kind of stopped doing that a few years back. I don’t have to sit down and write about Johnny and Mary and mythical characters; mythical scenarios. I write about me; I write about what I’m going through – good and bad – and I try to be brutally honest about it. Part of the reason this album took the amount of time that it took was that I had a huge problem with alcohol; I got myself in trouble. So I was brutally honest about that as well. “I Survived” is part of that; [the title track] “Fragile” is part of that; I sing from the heart, I write from the heart, and if you’re honest about what you do, without even trying, someone somewhere in the world is gonna connect to that; they’re gonna connect to you and say you’re singing about my life.
Finally, your current Fragile Troubadour solo acoustic tour runs through March 7 in Chicago. What can fans expect to see and hear at these shows?
I would be loath to go out and play an entire new album. I think that’s just wrong. Artist have to understand that the majority of people who are gonna come and see you will be there because of something they’ve heard from their past; something they want to hear you perform. So I’m gonna do a cross section of the music that I’ve been partly responsible for; from early Ultravox, Visage, right through the solo years, right up to Fragile. So I try and put in an interesting mix because it has to work for me. I can’t just go and do it parrot fashion. I have to put in songs that I want to perform and they’re not necessarily the most commercially successful songs but I think probably the best songs.
Midge it’s been a pleasure. Thank you very much. I appreciate the time.