Something strange and wonderful has been happening lately: Ultravox lead singer Midge Ure is spending more and more time in the United States. Tomorrow (August 19), Ure will release Fragile, his first solo album since 2008 and the first solo album of original material since 2001, and a couple of days later he will hit the road on the Retro Futura tour with former Thompson Twin Tom Bailey, Howard Jones, China Crisis, and Katrina (without the Waves), with a few solo acoustic shows sprinkled in here and there. Even better, Ure is planning to return to the States at the beginning of next year. Popdose caught up with Ure at the end of a very long day (he had to take a train from his home in Bath to London, to get a visa in order to do the tour), where we talked about the new album, the Retro Futura tour, and our desire to find a promoter willing to back what we both think would be The Best Goddamn ‘80s Package Tour Ever: Tears for Fears, Ultravox, Simple Minds, OMD, and Thomas Dolby. This needs to happen.
When some artists make solo records, it sounds largely like their day job, but not you.
Yeah, well, I have to say that it’s not really the normal solo album. I spent a long time working on this. Not as long as the gap between my previous solo album and this one – that’s a stupidly long time – but still, I must have spent a good three years working on this, because I wanted to get it right. I wanted to get something I was absolutely happy with. I don’t just knock an album (out) and throw it out there and hope that it’s successful. I don’t have a record company banging on my door saying, “I need the next one in three months’ time, let’s keep the momentum going.” There was no real momentum; it was a great opportunity to sit down and make something that I wanted to make, so it’s got eight-minute-long instrumentals on it and stuff, so it’s a bit indulgent, but it really works, in my book.
They are, definitely. I was playing with a voice, and I suppose the theme of the song would dictate how you would approach it. A lot of it was to do…it was quite an intimate record, a very honest record, a very real record with real subjects. It’s like a diary. During the 12-year period from my last album to this album, I went through some fairly weird, heavy stuff, and I thought that the best way of dealing with that stuff is to write about it, to be absolutely honest. If I was writing a book, I would have written it in the book – in fact, I did (Midge Ure: If I Was, released in 2004) – but this time I took the approach to music. That takes a while to do, so the subject matter dictates how you go to sing it. And it works on this record. It’s quiet, it’s intimate, it’s almost broken, and I think that encapsulates the whole idea of Fragile.
Do you approach the songwriting process differently when writing for yourself compared to writing for Ultravox?
Yes. On the last album we did – in fact, all of the albums we’ve done – that was very much a collaborative effort. Ultravox always has been. I can’t think of any one instance when one of us has walked in and said, “Here’s a song, this is what I want to do, we will do it.” Because that’s not an Ultravox song, then; that’s a solo effort. When I sit down in the studio, you’re looking at a blank screen, and you start building up building blocks, like a child, and you move them around, and you change the picture, it’s like a jigsaw, almost. You keep putting bits in, and eventually you end up with something that has a picture on it, that makes sense as a full creation. You start with a seed of an idea, but without a band, you can’t really jam it. You can’t throw ideas out, and find riffs, and build it up piece by piece. Part of the good side of doing this on my own is that I don’t just throw any bass part down, or throw any guitar chords. Each section of the music is there and designed to complement the other instruments playing, so the guitar parts and there to complement the keyboard parts, which are there to complement the bass part. It’s not something you would do with a band. It’s a very different approach sitting down doing it when you’re in charge of all of it.
Talk about working with Moby (he appears on the song “Dark, Dark Night”), whom I’m guessing has most if not all of your records in his collection.
He probably has a couple. I’m sure he heard some. We share a haircut. You know, we’ve never met, and we’ve never spoken. I believe he saw me play a gig in New York once a long time ago, but he obviously knew who I was, because he approached me with a view to writing, but it was all done via the Internet, and so we’ve never had a conversation, except for the written one. It’s interesting, because it sounds like a very cold way of collaborating, but it’s actually a really good way of collaborating, because the last thing you want to do when you meet someone cold and face-to-face (is to) sit down and be creative. You just throw an idea in, and the other person goes, [skeptically] “Really?” It’s embarrassing, but when you do it the way we’ve done it, that embarrassment’s gone, because you’re in your own comfort zone, in your own studio doing your own thing, taking your time over it. So we started writing, he sent me a couple of tracks that he had been working on, and said, “Do what you like with these, do what you can.” And I chopped them up and changed them, adding some lyrics and vocals, guitars, bits and pieces, and then sent it back to him, and I had fallen in love with it at that point. I asked him if it was okay to use it on my album, and he said, “Yeah!” Hopefully we’ll meet someday.
You know what? No, I haven’t, which is weird, because Roland (Orzabal) lives in the same town. He lives down the road, so I should go and bang on his door. There was talk of Ultravox going on the road with Spandau Ballet at one point, and that didn’t happen. The problem with Ultravox, and it’s not Ultravox’s fault, is that we were away for such a long time that promoters are very reticent to take a gamble on putting Ultravox out there. That’s why it’s been so difficult getting them back to America. And you can understand, in these financially difficult times, that the promoters are going to be very, very nervous about bringing something as [pause] complicated, difficult, not straightforward like Ultravox to America, and nobody comes out to see them. It’s a gamble, and a barrier. But I still have hope.
Well, let’s talk about the tour you’re about to do, the Retro Futura tour with Tom Bailey, and China Crisis, they’re on the bill, which just boggles my mind.
In a good way, or a bad way?
In a good way. I never thought they would play the US again, ever.
I think this is an idea that’s come from the US, isn’t it? America’s the first territory to start putting compatible bands together on a package, and keeping ticket prices down for the audience, so you’re getting a good bang for your buck. And you get to see two or three acts that you probably like from the same era, together. The Retro Futura thing is ideal. It gives me the vehicle to go out and come back to America and do something alongside an interesting, compatible package for once. Howard (Jones) has been a synth guy for a long time, Tom Bailey of the Thompson Twins, what great records, and great writers. And China Crisis, I bought the China Crisis albums back in the ’80s. I was a fan, and (now) I know [China Crisis founding members] Eddie [Lundon] and Gary [Daly] really well. So again, to get all of those acts together in one bill, and go out and play in the States, especially, it’s fantastic. It’s a great opportunity.
I’m still not giving up on the idea of getting you and Tears for Fears together. If we put you together with someone like OMD, and some other bands that straddled the line between commercial success and having credibility in the modern rock community, I think there’s a fit there.
So do I, and I firmly believe that. I wouldn’t talk about it if I didn’t. Tears for Fears were a great band – again, I bought their albums. We just have to convince somebody that it’s right, and that’s a bit of a tall order.
You’re doing a handful of acoustic gigs in between dates on the Retro Futura tour. Forgive me, but I’m having a hard time picturing that. How does one do an acoustic version of “Vienna”?
Initially with great difficulty. The first time I tried it [in 1992], I was doing a tour – in America, funny enough – coast to coast and back again, with four other songwriters, called In Their Own Words, which originally came from the Bottom Line club in New York. I was dragged kicking and screaming into this songwriter tour, which I couldn’t really see myself doing. The whole preface of this was that you had to play three songs that you had written acoustically, and one that you wish you had written, and you’re interviewed onstage. I was out with people like Chip Taylor, who wrote “Wild Thing” and “Angel of the Morning,” great songwriter. Darden Smith, Rosie Flores, Don Henry, really good writers. And I found myself having to sit down with an acoustic guitar and learn three of my songs, because I had never played them on an acoustic guitar before! And during the tour, the crowd kept saying to me, “Why the hell aren’t you playing ‘Vienna’?” “I don’t know how! I have no idea how you’d even attempt to do it!”
By the time we got to Los Angeles, I tried it, and it was a raging success, and I realized that you didn’t really need the drum pattern. You didn’t really need the synthesized bass, you didn’t really need the viola solo. You strip it down to its basic elements, the chords and the vocal, and there’s a song there. So that gave me the push that was needed. My acoustic shows, people rave about them because it’s real and it’s honest, and it’s as raw as you can possibly get. It’s the test, isn’t it? You strip away all the periphery, and if you can stand behind the microphone in a spotlight with an acoustic guitar, and keep people in the palm of your hand for an hour and a half, you’re doing something right. Because then, it’s really down to your ability to sing the songs, and your ability to have written some reasonable ones. And that’s it; you have nothing else to fall back on. So the acoustic thing, I’m going to do some of them on this tour, peppered in between some of the shows, and I’m coming back in January to do a three-week stint of all-acoustic shows, to do more of Fragile, the new album. Because I realized, of course, that I can’t really play the new album on this tour because it just doesn’t fit; it’s the wrong environment to play the new stuff.
The title track of the new album reminds me of late-period Pink Floyd. All it’s missing is a solo from Gilmour.[Laughs] Yeah, quite possibly. It’s kind of like wearing your influences on your sleeve, and I didn’t intentionally do that. I just think that what we all become in our lives is the culmination of our influences, from friends and family to books we’ve read and movies we’ve seen and music we’ve heard. All that stuff which molds our lives, and depending on what combination of those elements you get, you turn out to be a slightly different person than the guy standing next to you. And that’s the same in music, so we’re all inspired by other people. On the Fragile album, I can hear bits of Brian Eno, the Small Faces, the early Beatles, some blues guitar-influenced stuff, a bit of prog rock, and I was never really into prog rock, but it comes out in that record. And you’re right, I can hear elements of that stuff in there, but it’s not…you can still listen to it and think, “That’s Midge Ure,” because of the melodies and the voice. So yeah, I think influences are something to behold, and be enamored with, as opposed to denying them. You hear Eric Clapton’s new album, and it’s all J.J. Cale. That’s a good thing to do.
Shortly after you and I last spoke, we were listening to the Big Audio Dynamite album The Globe at dinner, and the song “Innocent Child” came on, and for the first time, I heard him sampling “Vienna.” Did you know that they did that?
No, I didn’t. [Chuckles] I’ll have to listen to it. He’s a funny guy, Mick [Jones].
I just finished a beat mix, and it ends with a song by the Pet Shop Boys seguing into “The Thin Wall.” I thought you’d be happy to hear that. (Shameless plug: to download the beat mix in question, click here.)
Oh, right, okay. [Laughs] That’s great! We still do “The Thin Wall.” We did some shows with Simple Minds just before Christmas. Ultravox were the special guest – they were Simple Minds shows. Jim and I had spoken six months prior, and I was talking about the package thing as I was talking to you about. And I suggested to Jim at the time, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to get Simple Minds, Tears for Fears, Ultravox, or Simple Minds, Magazine, Ultravox,’ or whatever. And it transpires that Simple Minds had OMD as the special guests on their previous arena tour, and I said, “We should do something (together),” and lo and behold, Jim came back via our agents and said, “It’s a done deal,” and it was an absolute ball. And the great thing is, a lot of the Simple Minds guys who thought they were going to see a bunch of guys standing behind banks of keyboards, sucking their cheeks in, and being really static, saw a rock band that blew them away. The audience reaction was phenomenal. It was what we spoke about; the compatibility element is really important. Get like-minded acts together, and it makes a hell of a package.
Okay, here we go, they’re actually perfect for this bill. I’m not giving up on this. Ultravox, Tears for Fears, Simple Minds, OMD, and how about Thomas Dolby, can we get him on this, too?
Weirdly, Thomas Dolby was almost our opening guest for the last Ultravox tour. We had written down the stage plans, and then Tom changed his mind at the last minute, for whatever reason. And that would have been a great package, because it was him and a drummer and a lot of samples, like his one-man multimedia show. I would have loved to have seen something like that. [This tour] is not a million miles away. It just takes someone with a little bit of foresight to realize it.
It is ten to midnight [his time], and I’m out of questions. Thank you so much for staying up to talk with us.
Don’t be silly, I’m fine.
Best of luck with the new record and the tour, both this year and next year.