Interview with Suggs of Madness
Madness have gained a legion of fans spanning over three decades. Their inventive and pioneering 2 tone ska not only put them on the map but has cemented them as one of the top 20 selling UK artists of all time.
Back in 2017 with their 12th studio album Cant Touch Us Now, we speak with lead singer Suggs about the record and his spoken word performance in Suggs–My Life Story In Words & Music
Hi and thanks for taking the time out to speak with us at AMNplify. Can I begin by asking, what does the new album Can’t Touch Us Now say about your lives / world view right now?
It’s not particularly thematic, I mean we did an album a little while ago called The Liberty of Norton Folgate which was very much a concept album about London. I remember then even our guitarist saying, what do you think the rest of our songs are about? So they are just songs about everyday life. The people we see when we are walking up and down the street. The cant touch us now thing I suppose is a bit tongue in cheek really. We got to the point where we can do what we like, we aren’t really in the confines of the music industry anymore.
You know no one could have seen this coming because right now I am standing out front of this pub where we started nearly 40 years ago and I certainly would not have thought we would still be going at this point so it’s been a miracle in a lot of ways. In the early days of the band we were seen as a bit, not novelty but jokey and of course we were, we always enjoyed a laugh and we have a good sense of humour but we did put a lot of work into the music as well.
The recording process for the album was lighting fast, done in just under 3 weeks. Was this due to having all the tracks meticulously fine-tuned before entering the studio or perhaps sped up by having Charlie Andrew (ALT-J) on board?
To a certain point. We wanted to record quickly to record an atmosphere. I mean in studios now there is so much technology, you can spend months fiddling about. The studio (Toe Rag) where the White Stripes cut a record, so we just wanted to sit around and be able to look each other in the eye and do some recordings which it I think it went well as a consequence.
Have some of these tracks been sitting with you for some time now and only just seeing the light of day or was this all very recent material?
For most of the songs. Sometimes you just have an idea that’s lying around and then someone will suggest something else and it will remind you that you had a verse or a chorus that might come in handy, so it was a mixture. What we tried to do was collaborate more because the people that used to be able to write music can now write words and vice versa. This time I would write words and send them to people and they would send me a tune so we just tried to collaborate more.
Lyrically speaking throughout the LP, what subject matters does it address and what lines of continuity does it share with your earlier releases?
On this record I wanted to write very specifically about people. Certain people I would see in the street or have met and paint very specific portraits of people and places. This is something we used to do on the early records and I was starting to find that I was writing in a more abstract way in the last few years so I went back to a more narrative style of song writing which is what we loved as kids like The Kinks and Ian Dury, that kind of attention to detail about the small things happening in everyday lives. I think that’s the continuity really, I mean everyone goes on about us being a London band or quintessentially British or something but I think if we had been born in Sydney we would be doing the same kind of thing, just about a different set of people in a different place.
Having meet so many amazing individuals over the years and having shared the stage with so many great performers, can you recall any instances that really resonated with you and altered the way you approached your craft?
The first one that springs to mind is The Specials when we started out in 1979. There was a 2 tone label and a big ska revival with The Specials and The Selecter we all went on tour together and we were quite younger with a lot of older musicians. The Specials were a lot more publicised than we were so we learnt a lot from them for sure.
The word seminal gets tossed around a lot but Madness played a pivotal role in shaping the ska scene. With 20/20 hindsight how do you see your sphere of influence and what has Madness achieved?
We are very proud of that but it wasn’t just us when you think of The Specials and other bands like that but we played a festival last summer in London and we got Toots and the Maytals to support us and a lot of old friends came out of the wood work that I haven’t seen for 30 years and it wasn’t to see us! But I thought that was a great privilege to bring some of these artists back to life because some of them were disappearing and they got the credit for what they did.
Moving from the present to the past for a moment, any fan of Madness and for that matter great British comedy is well versed with your performances (Our House, House Of Fun) on The Young Ones. I have to ask what was it like not only being a part of something so iconic but also working with Rik Mayall and the gang?
It was just such fun you know. I mean it was just such an amazing period of creativity that time. They were being called alternative comedy because up until this point, comedians just tended to be a fat bloke telling slightly sexist jokes and all of a sudden this bunch of kids burst out and they said to us look do you want to come onto our program, do whatever you like. So we said ok, we would like to just smash up a load of police vans and they said yeah that will be fine. There was something surreal about singing Our House while smashing up a load of police vans, it’s something that stays in the memory.
Coming back to the present. After a string of capital city shows you will be finishing off your tour by performing at Bluesfest in Byron Bay. Having once caused seismic activity recorded at Glastonbury in 1992 with 36,000 people jumping in unison can we expect to feel a little earth quake created here in Australia?
Well let’s just say a little one. You don’t need a big one. It’s pretty amazing because at that particular point we hadn’t played for about eight years and people just got so excited.
Well it’s been eight years since you were here last and aside from playing Bluesfest, you will also be performing some spoken word. This type of performance has its own set of requirements and challenges, can you elaborate a little bit on what you will be covering and what spurred on the desire to tackle this unique form of performance art?
I got to 50 and my kids had all left home and on the morning of my birthday my cat died and a strange sort of feeling of fatalism came over me and I thought it was about time I pieced together my own erratic, rollercoaster of a life. So I do and 1.5hr monologue, funny, sad and I fit a few songs in with my mate on the piano. I just tell that story which could be of any kid but it is a remarkable story because for anyone to survive this long and still be doing it. It has gone very well and I am pleased to be doing it in Australia because Australia is one of the few places that would get it and I am looking forward to it very much. It’s been therapeutic because I never knew my dad as lots of people didn’t, especially all around where I grew up and its guess it’s bit like the band because they are all very universal stories. Everybody has some sort of lose in their lives and all the ups and downs and having kids and all the rest of it. I mean I never knew my dad at all and I didn’t know what happened to him.
Lastly, in your book That Close, you touch on fine line between success and failure and such concepts can be defined in various ways but as one of the top selling UK acts of all time you would have to say that Madness has cemented themselves as one of the most successful UK bands of the modern era?
Yeah I suppose, I mean it’s hard to imagine these things. You start off and you are happy to get a gig at the pub, then you have to make a record and you think that’s enough but its keeps rolling along and here we are playing the closing ceremony at the Olympics on the roof of Buckingham Palace and so it keeps going. We are very privileged and we appreciate that, it’s a great job being in a band. We went through enough up and downs to appreciate the ups.
MADNESS: CAN’T TOUCH US NOW
FREMANTLE ARTS CENTRE
MONDAY APRIL 10 SOLD OUT
FREMANTLE ARTS CENTRE
TUESDAY APRIL 11
THURSDAY APRIL 13
SATURDAY APRIL 15
SUNDAY APRIL 16
SUGGS: MY LIFE STORY
ENMORE THEATRE, SYDNEY THURSDAY APRIL 20 (all ages)
ASTOR THEATRE, PERTH SATURDAY APRIL 22 (ages 18+)
COMEDY THEATRE, MELBOURNE MONDAY APRIL 24 (all ages)
TICKETS ON SALE NOW Suggs is also touring with Madness – tickets on sale now:
For complete tour and ticket information, visit: www.livenation.com.au