Halfway through their North American tour, Modern English touched down in Toronto on May 9th.
They signed to the latest incarnation of the imago label and released album number six "Everything's Mad" two or so months back. The only original member remaining from the 4AD days is vocalist Robbie Grey with the current touring band featuring five new members, most of which are friends of Robbie's.
If you've heard the new album then you know it's far from the style and standards that were evident on the 4AD and Beggars Banquet albums. However, with repeated listenings, it does grow on you. Songs like "I Don't Know Anything" have the same feel as "Hands Across The Sea" or "I Melt With You". Technically, the new album sounds rich and lush; production from lead guitarist Ted Mason shines on the album's ten tracks. Keyboardist Matthew Shipley rounds out the core of the group.
At the concert itself, which was held at a venue way too large, the crowd was mainly confined to the sides of the room with twenty or so of the more adventurous fans getting out and dancing. There was a mix of newer and obviously "Melt With You"-era fans; a very diverse mix, indeed!
They started the show off with a kick-ass version of "Sixteen Days", followed by a song from the new album "That's Right", which pretty much gave way to a "best of" set from the 4AD period. "After The Snow", "Gathering Dust", "Hands Across The Sea", "Ricochet Days" and of course, "I Melt With You" were among the the highlights. Only three songs from the new album were played and none from "Stop Start" or "Pillow Lips".
After the relatively short set I caught up with Robbie and some of the other members to get the obligatory CD booklet autographs. I was able to ask some of the types of questions you'd expect from the anally retentive 4AD guy that I am. It's late as I write this but here's what I'm able to recount from my meeting with Robbie and company...
I asked Robbie how they hooked up with 4AD and he said it was due in part to Ivo's liking of the Wire-ish style and the live shows. Shortly after "Swans On Glass" came out the band was signed to 4AD long- term and was asked to contribute a track to the label compilation "Presage(s)" (BAD11), a song called "Home", which later was reissued on as part of the "Mesh And Lace" CD.
Of his This Mortal Coil collaboration, he remembers being in the studio with Simon Raymonde to record the Colin Newman cover "Not Me" as a good experience. He describes the track as the only song where "something happens", which is sort of accurate since "Not Me" sticks out as the sole rocking-out song on the "It'll End In Tears" album.
I asked about the departure from 4AD in 1984 and Robbie likens it to the way Cocteau Twins felt when they left the label. There wasn't any sour feelings in the spilt; it was just deemed to be time to leave and explore other labels and expand. A single "Breaking Away" was planned for spring 1984 but scrapped in light of the departure. Robbie even admitted that in hindsight, leaving 4AD at the time probably wasn't the best thing to do.
After 4AD, Modern English signed to Beggars Banquet in the UK and to Sire in the US, who they had aleady been distributed by for the last two 4AD albums. Sire exerted a great deal of control over the group and the overall lack of promotion given to the first official Sire album "Stop Start" led to a bad feeling all around while on a US tour. The "Ink And Paper" single did OK but apparently, not good enough and the group was given the Sire pink slip. Go ahead, just ask Robbie's opinion of Sire!
After essentially breaking up, it wan't until Robbie got a call from New York based TVT Records in 1990 that Modern English came back to life. Robbie recruited former bandmate Michael Conroy and friend Aaron Davidson to become the new model Modern English. The deal was, TVT would pony up the bucks for a new album only if they re-recorded "I Melt With You", which they did, in almost the exact version as the 1982 original, for the "Pillow Lips" album.
Well, Robbie has some nice things to say about TVT as well. Another gap of six years goes by and a deal is struck with the imago label. Robbie then recruited three friend's to join him in the new version of Modern English, with three others for the touring band.
With virtually no advance fanfare, imago releases "Everything's Mad". Robbie made mention during the concert "This is our new single "I Don't Know Anything" from the new album." Truth is, there wont be a single, other than a radio promo. It's little wonder Robbie has dubbed imago "the indie Sire". He should've talked with Amiee Mann or Henry Rollins before getting involved with imago!!
And now the Colourbox connection... I was in the midst of getting introduced to the various band members when I met Ian. It didn't dawn on me initially that it was in fact Ian Robbins, co-founder of Colourbox!! Colourbox are a fave 4AD group to me and even though there will never be another record from them, I dream of how it would sound.
Had I known Ian would be here, I'd have brought all my Colourbox stuff to get signed. It turns out he probably wouldn't have signed it anyways as he's not entirely comfortable with the musician-fan relationship. I think he was a bit cheesed at all the attention I was throwing on Robbie, saying "all it does is enlarge their egos when you do that."
The attention was all on Ian now as I down-loaded every Colourbox question from my memory onto him. He's a very modest guy, that's for sure!! I complimented him on "Breakdown" and the work he'd done on the next several Colourbox releases. He casually dismissed the group as a whole saying "do it yourself; start your own band, anyone can do it."
Michael Conroy, bass player in the 4AD days for Modern English, has a brother in the biz, Roy Conroy who managed Colourbox and Ian is still roommates with Colourbox-er Steven Young! It's a 4AD family thing!
Ian was quick to downplay the comments I made about the 1985 self-titled Colourbox album. I was telling him I thought it was one of 4AD's more memorable albums that I love still today. He replied how it was just a bunch of different styles "manufactured to be this pop album". I told him that it was the diversity of styles that made it such a great album. As much as he dismisses Colourbox, they still remain one of my favorite 4AD bands.
What is your take on the whole "Pump Up The Volume" madness? Ian seems confident that the single shoud have been credited to Colourbox, citing how C.J. and Dave went on to greater successes due to the popularity of the single. He remembers it being a very dark period for Colourbox, 4AD and AR Kane, with all the relationship-sapping legal difficulties surrounding the out-of-the-blue worldwide hit single.
So, where is Debian Curry now? Ian replies that he, Martyn and Steven had to boot her out because she could only sing one song, which was "Breakdown". Guessing my next question, Ian says "...and Loritta Grahame did some work with Bomb The Bass and others and then probably ended up singing in some cabaret act." Really, now?
I don't think he's too bitter. Rather, I think he's very, very modest and not ready for the adulation of the appreciative fan. I'm not sure how relevant talking about Modern English or Colourbox is in 4ad-l but hey, they used to be the foundation of 4AD and if it means getting a chance to have some autographs signed, I'm all for it!
After all, when Red Atkins launches his comeback, I'll be first in line at the concert venue to hear him do his "Hunk Of A Punk" duet with Warren Defevers...
Jeff in the meantime via [email protected]