By Lee Zimmerman
By many people’s estimation, Modern English could be considered an ideal example of a one-hit wonder. It was that singular hit and FM staple “I Melt With You,” released just under 40 years ago and culled from their second album, After the Snow, that established their kinship to their New Romantic brethren and made them a musical staple long after the rest faded away. In truth, it was one of several inventive milestones for the band, one that marked a trend towards consistent creativity and deeper designs that began with their debut effort Mesh & Lace and continues even now through their latest offering, After the Snow: Live From Indigo at the O2, a resilient revisit to the album named in the title.
The band’s 40-year run never faltered, although any elevation to mainstream status remained sadly beyond their reach. A series of shifting record company alliances and changes in their membership roster didn’t help matters, but regardless, singer and mainstay Robbie Grey remained at the helm from the beginning, when the band went by their initial handle, The Lepers. Along with the band’s other original members that are still in the fold — Michael Conroy (bass), Gary McDowell (guitar) and Stephen Walker (keyboards) — he remains justifiably proud of the group’s legacy, and if it were not for the pandemic, they would have initiated a U.S. tour this September.
“Did you have to mention that?” Grey responds when asked about the cancellation of the pending dates, feigning irritation at the same time. “It's not a subject I’m particularly pleased to be speaking about, although I'm speaking to everybody else about the postponement. It’s causing a great a great deal of confusion as to what we can do and what we can’t do. So what can I say? We should have been doing about our third concert tonight, something like that. The first concert would have been on the 31st of August in Minneapolis. It sold out. So it's a pain in the ass. What you have to know, what you have to do to get on a plane, what you need to worry about when you're at the airport, and what happens then. What are you gonna do when there's 600 people staring at you or breathing their fumes towards you. And we're sharing ours with them. We wanted to play concerts, but we unfortunately had to cancel them.”
Having sensed that the conversation might have gotten off to a bad start, it’s a relief when, with all due graciousness, Grey emphasizes the logic and consideration that went into coming to that decision in the first place. “We were worried mainly for the fans being all crammed in together,” he insists. “That's the thing. If you’re right next to somebody it can be dangerous. Because there are some festivals that are obviously 90% outside, you worry a little less there, but I don't know. It's just a ball of confusion.”
At that point, the discussion was steered towards the band’s latest release.
GOLDMINE: Your new album certainly serves as a reminder of what we would have heard had the tour proceeded, but since we can't hear the music in person, we still have the opportunity to enjoy it from the comfort of our homes.
ROBBIE GREY: Yeah, it's a shame because we have the same film you see on the DVD behind us when we’re live. We'd have had that on the road too, so it would have looked really good. Very arty, you know what I mean? It would have been amazing. But that wasn't to be either. No music. No film. But it will happen later. When, we're not sure, but it will happen. We've got like a year’s worth of work next year, so it's gonna be crazy.
GM: So why did you choose to revisit this particular archive album at this particular time. It's not quite the 40th anniversary. It’s more like it's the 39th anniversary, which is not exactly a nice round number.
RG: We had performed the first album in full prior to this, and it was a bit darker and a bit more edgy. It was good to take it out and play it to people. And then we just thought that the natural thing to do would be to carry on and do the next album, which is After the Snow, which as you know, was the biggest seller we've ever had. Plus, we were just looking forward to performing a couple of songs that we haven't ever played before.
GM: For those of us who might be unawares, what is the symbolism behind your oft-repeated phrases, “Mesh and Lace?
RG: I purposely put that lyric in ”Melt With You” just to tie it all together — the dark and the light. The contrast.
GM: Those who have followed the band’s career know that there’s so much more to Modern English than that one song. Do you find it takes some education for those who may be unawares?
RG: We're doing that now. We're still educating people now, all these years later, four decades later, but it is still good fun. There's definitely a sort of split audience — people who prefer Mesh and Lace over After The Snow and vice versa. There really is. But we didn't want to make the same album over again. We certainly didn't want to go down the same road of, you know, everyone wearing black and getting a similar kind of feedback with another album. So we went the opposite direction. We got violins and classical instruments, and started playing acoustic guitars for the first time. That's the real difference between those two albums. But it's still important for us to do original material, even though it's very difficult to go back and rewrite a song.
GM: Still, when you've had such a high peak early on. In your career and achieved that level of fame and acclaim, does it set a higher bar, a higher standard that you need to b e cognizant of when you’re ready to record a new album? Does that ever enter your mindset at all?
RG: Most definitely, but the most important thing is to put creativity first. If you're being creative and following the path you want to follow with that creativity, then you hope that this popularity thing follows. But it's not the most important thing for the band these days, because nobody has to worry about the bills. Musically, we can just do what we want. And we do do that. We don't have to worry about having pop songs for the radio, or whatever it is you have these days. We just do the music we want to do. For instance, we'll be recording a new album next year. And when we do it, there's going to be a lot of noise again, and a lot of energy. So we’re almost kind of going backwards.
GM: When you’re going back and revisiting those first two albums, does it feel kind of nostalgic? Does it bring you all back to the time when you were originally recording them?
RG: The parts changed so quickly because they were all so diverse, and we were winging it back then. We were almost doing orchestral music where we would just put pieces together of music, and put that piece with this piece and this piece with that piece. That's why it's such an original sound, because we didn't know how to write verse, chorus, verse, chorus. It was only when our producer Hugh Jones came along that we kind of went, “Oh, that's how we get to be more traditional in our style.” It was a hard habit to break. I'd quite like to get back to the original stuff where we didn't have the knowledge of songwriting, because it may in some ways be a lot more interesting.
GM: Ignorance can be bliss. It appears that the current Modern English lineup is pretty much back to where it was in the beginning, aside from your drummer. That’s pretty remarkable in itself.
RG: We trying to get Richard Brown, the original drummer, as well, but he couldn't do it. We wanted to go the whole route, you know, get the whole five mad bastards together, but it didn't happen. The fact is, that the rest of us still want to make music together, and we're quite driven really. Everyone's got quite comfortable lives in their own ways. So we don't really need to do it, but we want to. It sort of seems to be something we have to do. I don't know why.
GM: At the same time, how do you keep that excitement and enthusiasm and chemistry intact, even after 40 years?
RG: We've all known each other most of our lives. We've known each other for so long that it's not difficult to get together in a room and make a good noise. We're quite good at it. So I think that's really why it just comes fairly naturally. It can be hard work sometimes, because we're a bit older. You get a bit more tired, a little more cranky. Your brain starts closing down earlier in rehearsals. But the creative process is still the most enjoyable part of all. Not the what you get from the end of it, but rather it's about writing the songs and getting bits and pieces together. For me, that's the most important bit really.
GM: Do you still have the same enthusiasm for playing live, and, at times, having to endure the rigors of the road?
RG: Yeah, definitely. But I do have to always have words with the agent. I say, “Look, maximum five-hour drive a day. We’re not doing 15-hour drives to get to a gig. We stay in hotels these days.” As long as you've got enough time to get some rest during the day, then you can still have a brilliant time. Playing music live on stage with the response we get to songs like “I Melt With You” is really incredible. It's really unbelievable still how that song touches so many people. But if you've got an agent or a manager that's pushing you to do as much in a week as possible to get as many dollars in the bank as possible, you just have to say no. No, we're not going to try for 15 hours in a row to get to gigs. It's just crazy. But as long as you can use your time well, everything's still really good, fun and enjoyable. And we have a lot of fun on the road. That's for sure. A lot of laughs.
GM: Even with the hassles that accompany traveling these days?
RG: Traveling is a pain in the arse. Yeah, that's what I'm talking about. I think I've seen the plains of America more times than I can actually remember. I've woken up after being asleep in the van for four or five hours, and find it’s not the same landscape. It’s crazy. America is a beautiful country. Don't get me wrong. We've been over many times to the U.S. and Canada. And obviously Europe as well. We went to the Philippines a few years ago. We've been all over the place. We played Mexico City about two years ago as well. That was amazing. And we’ve been to every state of America apart from Hawaii.
GM: When you were writing those early iconic songs, did you have any idea how indelible this music would become? Did a light bulb go off and say, “We've done it! This is going to stand the test of time?”
RG: When we actually finished recording “I Melt With You,” we all looked at each other and thought it was a bit commercial. We weren’t sure we actually liked it, and so we were looking at the producer and saying, “This is a bit of a pop song, isn't it?” We’d never written a pop song before, really. So we were a bit confused by it. But we got used to it once we listened to people who were talking about that song. I didn't shout into a microphone like I usually did. If you listen to it, it’s got like a real talking feel to it, which I think is my favorite part of its charm, really. The producer said to just stand in front of that microphone, and just act like chocolate, that whole melting thing. I thought, “What does he mean? I'm used to shouting and that kind of thing.” But it turned out really well. It was just so different for us.
GM: Does it still carry the same emotion for you now when you sing it on stage?
RG: I really sort of just look at it as another song. We did the lockdown version of it, and that's over a million views already. It's quite good fun. You can find it on our Facebook page [or view below]. I loved reading all the comments on it. It's really amazing to have people get married to a song, to make love for the first time to a song, whatever those things are that people do. What’s really nice is this thing what happened the other day when a guy said, “I've just been to work for 16 hours. I'm really tired. I've never really connected with this song like I am at the moment. This song is now my No. 1 song.” He was just spent after working all day and it made his day. And I just love that. I mean, that's fantastic. Nearly 40 years later. When we play it live, it's like the roof comes off — if there's a roof on it. I mean, it's incredible. But then we also get people who'd rather hear “16 Days” or “Gathering Dust,” and so we’re equally as motivated by those songs as well. What we're hoping to do on the new album is to have a mixture of both of those kind of things, where you can have the song craft, but with some energy and atmosphere.
GM: How did the new music that you were speaking of come about?
RG: This past May, when we were in lockdown again, here in England, we began to start writing again, and straight away, it was coming out really good. It was lovely. It just happened with about six or seven songs that just fell out, songs that Michael had written. It just happened really well. So we already know it's going to be a really good album.