Midge Ure is a man who lives up to the name of ‘troubadour’. His career in the music industry started back in Scotland in the 1970’s with his involvement with punk outfit The Rich Kids, a band whose members spilt – with 50% of them adding an electronic sound and forming Visage. Soon Ure would become involved in Ultravox, one of the defining bands of the New Wave sound, a band that had it’s breakthrough moment when he stepped up and took on front man duties.
Since then there have been countless other projects – he’s a humanitarian, a champion of the Arts and he continues to work with young artists, helping them navigate an uncertain industry in ever-evolving times.
Enjoying the success of his most recent album Fragile, Ure took a tour of America on the “Fragile Troubadour Tour” – an endeavor that saw him traveling alone and playing shows with no crew, no manager, and no support – filming his journey as an educational documentary for artists who ask, “What’s it like in the music industry?”
ARTISTdirect caught up with Midge just before he took to the stage in Germany to discuss the many projects he’s currently working on, his continuing work with African charities, and the upcoming tour of the USA which will see him return with a full band to perform all the greats from Ultravox and his solo career.
Christopher Friedmann: We’re speaking today because you’ve just wrapped up one leg of a tour – you’re heading out again, and it feels like you’re endlessly busy. You’re in Germany today; why not let’s start with having you explain where you are, and what you’re doing there?
Midge Ure: Germany, weirdly, is the second biggest consumer of English music in the world, after America. They’re incredibly loyal fans, so I’ve been coming to Germany since 1976… and it’s an annual thing, more or less, it’s just part of that thing you do ‘The European Tour’ Although now Europe, stupidly in my opinion, is not what it was…. But they’re still my neighbors and you don’t just do a UK tour, you do Scandinavia, Germany, Austria, Italy and Spain… all of that. So this tour is part of the annual outing that I do!
CF: You’re heading to the West Coast of the USA in early 2017 – can you tell us something about your relationship with America, and why the audiences here remain important to you?
MU: I’ve been touring in America since early Ultravox days. I think I first came over there in 1979, and we toured quite consistently there, we managed to build ourselves up to being able to play up to 3000 capacity theaters, and because of the technology that Ultravox used on stage pre-gig soundchecks took five hours! We couldn’t take the obvious next step which would be to open up for larger bands in the larger venues, so we kind of stale-mated and stalled there, which is quite interesting because we were one of the first bands, along with The Police and Squeeze, along with the New Wave bands to come out and crack America.
Although we stumbled and fell, a lot of the other bands who used similar technology came out and did incredibly well; Erasure and all of those guys all seemed to come in, in out wake and take over and leave us behind! (Laughs) So our relationship with America has always been very good, but it’s seemed to college radio, mainstream radio just wouldn’t play Ultravox, they didn’t know what Ultravox was, it was alien to them. It was an interesting process.
CF: Your method of touring was documented in “The Fragile Troubadour” a film that followed your solo tour. Can you talk a little on why you wanted to allow audiences such an intimate view of your life on the road?
MU: I was doing a think in the UK, at the Liverpool Institute of Performing Arts – which is LIPA, which is Paul McCartney’s set up with Sir George Martin – they asked me to come and talk to up and coming musicians, and producers, writers – about life in music. They do this a lot, they ask many people to do it, so I went to teach at the school, and they come and ask questions, the kids would ask all the obvious questions, y’know, about multi-platinum albums and “What’s it like to tour the world?” and “Any pointers for us” and I’m answering the questions and all of that stuff, when I realized that none of those kids, probably none of those kids will see none of that because the world has changed so much. The industry I was talking about, and the one which they were asking about doesn’t really exist any more.
Being bright eyed and bushy tailed and playing in a band and being spotted by and A&R guy, and being signed and being allowed to make an album – which flops – but then you’re allowed to make a second album, and it starts to do something… that world doesn’t really exist anymore. So, I thought about it long and hard, and I began to wonder “What can I do to show the reality of this?” So I chose to come out on tour in America completely solo – no manager, no tour manager, no musicians, no crew… nothing. There was me and a suitcase, and a guitar in a case and a hired car – and I just set off, dealing with stuff I had never dealt with before, and I showed people; this is what you can hope to expect… this is what, in your wildest dreams if you achieve, you’re doing well!
It was spawned between those conversations with those kids and reading an article about fairly established musicians in America who cannot make a living because it’s so cost prohibitive, touring makes no money, they make no money selling records unless they sell them at gigs – they have to sell all that merch, the CDS, the t-shirts at a gig in order to make enough money to keep their head above water. I was realizing I was incredibly fortunate that I’d never been in that situation, so I put myself in that world to see what it was like and to document it.
CF: That tour was very much an acoustic endeavor – the next leg promises to see you plugging back in and bringing back some signature sounds to the material. Has performing the songs acoustically taught you any fresh lessons about the material?
MU: I’ve been doing various acoustic performances over the years. It was a scary prospect, and I think the first time I ever tried it was in America, I was doing a tour called “In their own words” Which was a tour with various established songwriters about songwriting, and we all sat on stage and played, and I had to learn three of my songs to play, and do on this tour! (Laughs) I’d never played my songs on an acoustic guitars! Without all the studio trickery, without all of the production values, if you don’t have that you better have written something interesting!
I don’t… the way I write songs is different to anyone else I know. Most people write a on a piano or a guitar and finish the song and then take it to the studio where they record it and produce, I don’t. I don’t do that, my writing and production is all one process. I write and I’m not sure how songs are going to finish until I’ve finished them, so to then go and play those songs acoustically i think “Well, if I take everything out, I’ve got a song!” (Laughs) I do it backwards, so it’s an interesting process. Coming back to America again in January I don’t have to worry about that, because I won’t be doing that way, albeit with a small band I’m doing it in a band format. It’s much more comfortable having someone making a noise behind me!
CF: You recorded “Touching Hearts and Skies” as part of the soundtrack to Eddie the Eagle. Can you tell us how you became involved in the project and why it seemed a good fit for you?
MU: I was in Australia when I got a phone call from Gary Barlow from Take That, and I Gary’s a lovely guy and a great musician and he started telling me about this film he was involved in and that he’d been asked to do the soundtrack. He suggested to the director and producers that in order to make a good soundtrack, he thought ‘why not get into touch with people from that particular period?’ This movie was set in the ‘80’s, so he got in touch with me and those songs become the soundtrack to the film, and it sounded quite interesting.
I put something together and lo-and-behold one of the songs was used in the movie. This album came out to coincide with the movie, it turned into quite a different animal in the end, but the concept was to write something that we’d have done back in the day, back in the ‘80’s but with modern technology, so that’s what we did.
CF: You are currently working on a new studio LP. You last released Fragile in 2014, can you tell us anything about the forthcoming record and how it extends from the last one?
MU: In true Midge Ure style I have a few things on at once! I started working on new material as a follow up to Fragile, but I’ve also detoured myself and I’m going to do an orchestrated album of Ultravox and solo songs, but doing them as cinematic sounding stuff… so I’ve been getting into that for the last six months, and I’ve been working fairly consistently on that, so the other stuff has been left on the back burner. I’m quite excited about this process, the orchestrated material, because it’s kind of the reverse of what Ultravox was.
Ultravox used modern technology to replace what and orchestra would do, y’know – string machines and the like, and now I’m taking it back the other way, and I’m doing what string machines and synthesizers would do but with proper instruments, still with that big cinematic feel that Ultravox and my solo stuff always has. I’m finding it really interesting process and I have a dreadful feeling that that album will be complete and released before the other one is done! (Laughs)
CF: So, in the completely different direction from cinematic sounds, like talk a moment about a different genre. Recently you paired up with former Sex Pistols and Rich Glen Matlock for a one off show about to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the birth of UK punk. For someone who was more directly associated with the new wave movement, what is it about punk that you find to be so essential to music and artistry? Follow up: Is punk dead?
MU: I think the attitude was great, I mean, musicianship was secondary – but that was the whole punk ethos; anyone can do this, anyone can have a bash at it. When you take that attitude and replace the guitar bass and drums that all punk bands had, and put a synthesizer and drum machine into the mix, which is why the Rich Kids broke up in the first place – I introduced a synthesizer to the Rich Kids in 1978 and half the band hated it, and the half who liked it went on and formed Visage.
So if you take the early on, electronic pioneers were doing in the late ‘70’s were doing, Human League, Ultravox… they weren’t wondrous keyboard players, they used technology to make a type of music that nobody had created before. So it was the same punk ethos, the same punk attitude of “I can do this myself, I can do this in my bedroom, I can make this synthesizer sound like a bass drum, or a snare, and if I can build this up I can turn it into a song.” So it was the same immediacy that went into those New Romantic records… I think that attitude was very important. If you think back to the late ‘70’s, especially in America where almost rock was almost corporate and had gone very stale. Even ones who were groundbreaking, who were doing something different, all had elements of being too polished, of doing things safe… they needed to change, to develop some of that attitude to escape – and that followed through into the early days of electronics, so I think it was a very important period.
CF: I don’t know if you saw that earlier this week Malcolm McLaren’s son burned a huge amount of punk memorabilia and in his statement he was saying how punk rock was dead. So, I’m wondering how you feel about that, as someone that were informed by it, and were integral to the New Wave scene that followed it – since you especially see it as being beyond the normal sense of guitar and bass and drums?
MU: I don’t know! I mean, is it dead?! It’s very easy for someone to come and say that. There are some periods when you look at the current music scene and you think ‘it might as well have never existed, the whole Punk, New Wave thing’ but it does… it’s just one level… if you want to think of it – the music industry as a multi-faceted thing with many strings, where one string is just funk and another string is just folk music and another string is drum and bass, or jungle – but it’s not like that. All of these things, they resonate at the same time. They all run in completely different lines, but they all belong and affect each other.
I don’t think you can say ‘Punk is dead’ It changed attitudes and it changed music, and you see it coming through even to now, you see bands that have still got that attitude, still wanting to do something interesting… not everyone wants to be Coldplay, not everyone want to make y’know really beautiful Pop music. There are bands out there who want the opposite and that’s as punk as you can get, but then Coldplay would also probably say they were influenced by punk, and what they listened to as kids – which was probably the whole Punk, New Wave thing… maybe they were listening to Ultravox or Visage, or whatever!
Cf: You seem to be very interested in philanthropy – your work with the students, we just discussed, your show which helped part-time bands find a stage, and an audience – what drives that interest in helping bands?
MU: I’ve learned so much from this job, I’ve been given so many opportunities – it’s not a hardship to turn around and do something for somebody else. I’m endlessly fascinated by the music industry and what it does and what it gives people. I think it’s hugely underrated how big it is, and how important music is to us all. I remember talking to someone who said to me “I can imagine a world without shoes, but I can’t imagine a world without music” Because it’s everything, it’s in everything we do. It lifts us up and it takes us down and it’s an incredibly powerful thing.
It’s a strange time for the future of music, because we now have a generation, maybe two generations who have never purchased a piece of music because they think that music is just in the air to be taken. The knock on effect of that is absolutely devastating to our industry because without the wherewithal for the industry to go out and find the next great artist; the next Kate Bush or next Led Zepplin or the next Jimi Hendrix or whoever, they’re not going to be there… we’re all going to be listening to old music because no one will have the funds to make new music. So, it’s just very scary that we’re teetering on the edge of something like that.
I like to spend a little bit of time, and a little bit of effort looking for younger bands, doing things like the Fragile Troubadour Tour – that’s not a major hardship, that’s not someone asking me to y’know pilot a rocket to the moon, which I don’t know anything about. This was my hobby that turned into my career, so why wouldn’t I do this? I think it’s just an extension of what I do, rather than just taking a little bit of it.
CF: Speaking of philanthropy – you were a co-organizer in 1984’s Band Aid and Live Aid events, you continue to work with the organization, and as an ambassador for Save the Children. Can you speak a little on the progress these organizations have made, and also any new challenges that have arisen as the world has become one one hand smaller – via the internet – and also seemingly disconnected?
MU: Sometimes you wonder about progress, and if it is progress. It’s 32 years this year since Bob [Geldof] and I wrote “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” and the whole thing started. 32 years, every year that record gets played on the radio, 32 years of royalties go directly to the Band Aid Trust which funds the multitude of organizations that are set up there, so it’s very much an ongoing thing. So you feel disheartened every year when you hear of people waiting for the rains to come, and for the crops to grow, but they never quite happen at the level that they happened back in 1982, and 1984. It doesn’t quite happen that way anymore because the infrastructure has changed, and that infrastructure has changed because of Band Aid, and because of USA for Africa and Northern Lights – all those organizations that put music out there. I think attitudes towards other people’s plights have changed.
We were fortunate to be in an industry that young people were influenced by, the subsequent generations know the Band Aid song… and they are more compassionate. And I think the kids are more turned on, I know when I was a kid I thought charity work was something that you do when you’re really old… and here I am really old and still doing it! You’ve got to think of what the situation be like if we hadn’t done it.
Y’know, Band Aid was called Band Aid for a specific reason – it wasn’t a cure, it was a little thing, a little thing to cover a cut, to put over a scratch… we didn’t fix the problem, but by rattling cages and shouting about it we got people who could fix the problem – their attention. We could shout at them and embarrass them and get them to do something about it, and that was out big tool. That was out major push – we could get politicians and people in power to do something about it.
Was it worth doing? Yes – are there people alive today, Drs, nurses, teachers, who wouldn’t be here if we didn’t make that record, and if people hadn’t made an effort and gone out and bought that record, so yes… sometimes it looks like we never make progress, and it looks like we’re standing still, but y’know if we hadn’t done it maybe we would have gone backwards.
CF: Over the course your career, I’m sure events like Band Aid and Live Aid were very humbling experiences, you’ve have had a fair breadth of experiences from touring the world to working with a variety of charities, but I was wondering if you could tell us of the most grounding moment that you’ve had so far, a moment that reminds you why you do all this?
MU: Well there’s a moment… I was doing a very small acoustic show in the UK, and someone had sent a card backstage and I opened up this card, and there was a letter and it said “We’re a small company here in Norfolk, and because of what you and Bob did we sponsored this child – a child’s education, and we just wanted you to see.”
So I took the card out and on the front of the card was a picture of an African girl getting a degree, and it was the girl that they sponsored and I thought – ‘that’s it’ – That’s the moment, the payback – what you get to see – the face, the eyes, and the education that someone got. When they can then go on and make the difference themselves – that’s what you get. You don’t get a pat on the back and you don’t get put on a pedestal, but that’s what you get to see.