Interview: Midge Ure (@Bethesda Blues & Jazz Supper Club, 10/4/16)

MIDGE URE
Midge Ure (Photo courtesy Erika Tooker)

Midge Ure may have famously sang, “This means nothing to me” in the Ultravox song “Vienna,” but don’t be fooled. The influential musician and humanitarian invests quite a lot of himself in his music and his causes, touring the world and arranging endeavors like Live Aid, Band Aid, and Live 8 concert festivals. After being away from the United States for a very long time, Midge has been returning regularly in recent years, performing material from his solo albums, from Ultravox, and from other projects.

Midge’s next US tour starts on Sept. 30 in Amityville, NY, and ends Oct. 15 in Atlanta. (Find tickets for Midge’s shows via Songkick.)

On this tour, Midge performs in the DC area on Oct. 4 at Bethesda Blues & Jazz Supper Club — the same venue he visited when he was last here in early 2015. Joining Midge in a three-piece band are drummer BC Taylor and keyboard player Tony Solis, both of whom will also play other instruments for this “Live and Electric” tour.

Parklife DC was honored to catch up with Midge to ask him about the tour and his other current projects as well as the future of Ultravox and meaning in a world without David Bowie.

Mickey McCarter: You’ve taken an opportunity to review your early career lately by performing with the Rich Kids [Midge’s short-lived band with Sex Pistols’ bassist Glen Matlock]. And I was wondering if you could tell us how that’s been?

Midge Ure: It’s an odd thing you know going back and revisiting something you did — Oh God, oh Lord, no — nearly 40 years ago. So it was a strange thing but it was weirdly interesting. It was good! I thoroughly enjoyed it. It was kind of frantic and everything that you know the Rich Kids were was still there — a little more mature and slowed down a little bit but still equally powerful. It wasn’t something that I had planned on doing. We were approached because it was the 40th anniversary of punk, and we were approached along with [Sex Pistols’ drummer] Paul Cook’s band [The Professionals] to do to do a gig together.

And we just thought, well, why not? Let us go out and do it and see what happens. And it was just great. It was really good.

MM: Well, terrific! You know, I’m thinking now, like you said it’s the 40th anniversary of punk, and you’re coming to the United States. The Rich Kids aren’t well known here, but would you do any of that material in the States or is that something that you’re done with and you’re not going to do it anymore.

MU: I don’t think that anybody coming to see me would be expecting me to do a Rich Kids song.

You know, I’m not overly well known in the States myself. So trying to find things that people might recognize is hard enough. So I think the Rich Kids will keep as the Rich Kids. I don’t really see me exploring that. It was very very tentative early days — very tentative early footsteps in the songwriting world — and a lot of the songs are frantic and fun and energetic, but they just don’t stand up, just like any early work you do.

So I’m not sure they’d make the transition to playing now unless it was in front of an audience who knew the Rich Kids. So there’s plenty of other material for me to do when I come over.

Watch young Midge Ure sing “Vienna” with Ultravox at Live Aid on July 13, 1985, at Wembley Stadium in London:

MM: Since we’re talking about it, what can we expect from you this time? Last time, you came out on your solo acoustic guitar tour — and this time, you have a band! Does that open up more possibilities for different songs? What might we expect?

MU: Well, yeah, it does lend itself to more obviously, being a band and a fairly flexible band at that. We’re only a three piece, and it’s guitar, bass, and drums but with synthesizers and electronics as well.

So it does open up a lot of stuff. So I can play some Ultravox tunes that I haven’t played in a long time — and certainly some things from the early days from the Vienna album. So I’m doing some of that and keeping it fairly up as much as I can. I mean doing the Fragile Troubadour stuff [the solo acoustic tour], when I came out the last time, I was doing that for a very specific reason. But I thoroughly enjoyed it. It was incredibly difficult to pull off on your own. I documented the entire thing, and I wanted young musicians, aspiring musicians, to see just how difficult it is out there for them these days to eke out a living. So I fully enjoyed doing that, but I think this time I’ve got friends! This time, I am not this sad lonely character driving coast to coast and border to border. I’ve got a couple of guys with me who are good company and excellent musicians. So it does open up to a lot of different things.

I’m toying with the idea of playing things like Ultravox’s “The Voice” or “Reap the Wild Wind,” which I can’t really do normally. So yeah I am looking forward to coming out and playing some of those things.

MM: Great! My date for the show told me to ask you for “All Fall Down.” It’s a terrific song, and I just had to throw that in there.

MU: Well, thank you! She’s got great taste. But I’m not sure that the three-piece band will be able to pull it off. But I’ll find out when I get to rehearsals!

MM: You know speaking of the Fragile Troubadour Tour, I always thought part of the takeaway was that this is possible. You can do this. That’s how I saw part of the message for aspiring musicians. You can hit the road, you can take the guitar, and you can make this happen.

MU: You can. In the documentary, I was like a crazy person driving around talking to myself with a camera in a car. I was saying this in a stream of consciousness, and I thought it’s okay for me to say, well, you can do this, but you kind of have to be semi-established. I don’t know really how a new artist goes out and pulls this off. How they get enough gigs to put together a tour. It’s the classic Catch-22. Unless you’re established, you don’t get the gigs. And unless you have success in record sales, you don’t get a gig. And this is just a really odd thing.

The first show I did on the Fragile Troubadour Tour was in Seattle. And the opening act was quizzing me. And she said, why are you doing this. And I said, well, I’ve never done this in this way. I’ve never carried my own equipment, and I never plugged up myself, and I never got out there on my own and done this without some form of infrastructure.

And she turned around and said, I’ve never done it any other way. And that is true! There is an entire genre of musicians out there who don’t know anything but that. So I think it’s tough but you can do it. You have to be incredibly flexible. You have to be able to walk on stage in front of an orchestra one day and then walk on stage with just a guitar the next and still be able to pull it off. And you have to be open to doing that.

It’s all about music. If you’re not enjoying what you’re doing, you won’t enjoy it with another hundred musicians behind you. Equally, you wouldn’t enjoy it standing on your own behind a microphone in a spotlight. So if you love it, you can find a way of doing it.

Watch the trailer for the Fragile Troubadour documentary on Vimeo (and purchase the film if you like!):

Midge Ure:Fragile Troubadour from midge ure on Vimeo.

MM: Understood. Hey, the last time I talked to you, we talked about Ultravox a little, and you said you would love to bring Ultravox to the United States again. Over on Facebook a while ago, Billy Currie [Ultravox founder and synthesizer player] said there will be no more Ultravox. [Billy posted remarks to that effect in June but later deleted them.]

And then some people followed up on his comments with some context to suppose that he was speaking in terms of opportunity. That there are no opportunities for Ultravox out there right now. Were you familiar with the comments? Do you have a sense of that? Would you still like to do another Ultravox show? Where does that go from here? Would you talk to him about it? [Read our 2015 interview with Midge and his remarks on how he would like to tour with Ultravox again.]

MU: I think he’s probably got a very good take no this. When we got back together again five years ago, we took Ultravox and we did much more than we ever intended to do. We wanted to go and play these songs one more time, which we did. And we wanted to play them again because we were having fun. We had forgotten just how powerful a band we were. And of course we ended up making an album and all of that stuff.

I haven’t spoken to Billy in two years. We played some shows with Simple Minds in the UK, and I dropped him off after the last show and wished him a Happy Christmas with a big hug. And then nothing.

And I think what’s probably happened, knowing Billy, is that he’s just released his new solo record and he must be sick to death of trying to do interviews about his new material — and everyone’s asking him about Ultravox. Well, I know how Billy might react. And he would just turn around and say, well, there’s no more Ultravox. That’s it. It’s crap. It’s finished. It’s not happening any more. Or whatever!

I read that as well. I saw the fury on social media. People said, oh, this is dreadful! Is this true? Can you back this up? So to tell you the honest truth, we haven’t had a discussion about it. This has come from Billy. But he’s kind of right in a way. There is no further opportunity to do Ultravox. With the offers we had to come and do stuff in America, it just didn’t equate. It just didn’t add up. Even stripping it down to its bare minimum, we couldn’t make it pay for itself. So it was a bit of madness.

But I’ve strived and I’ve strived and I tried, and it just doesn’t seem to happen. Now whether that means that’s the absolute finish of Ultravox or not, I don’t know because as I said it has been no discussion between the Ultravox members — between us. So from Billy, he said it’s not happening. But from everyone else, I have no idea.

MM: So I mean it is a bridge you could cross? You would like to?

MU: Absolutely! I mean the whole plan of Ultravox was that we weren’t pretending we were young guns, and we were back, and we were going to do this as a full-time thing. We all have projects that we do. We all have solo projects. We all do other things. I seem to juggle an immense amount of stuff in my life and Ultravox could have been part of that.

And I happily want it to be part of that. But the reality was that when we went out to do the tour, we said, okay, we’ve opened up some doors here that we never dreamed we would ever open again. Let’s leave it and see what happens. Let’s just put it all on ice without committing one way or the other to doing anything and that’s my understanding of how we left it — that it was just going to sit dormant until such times as an interesting opportunity popped up.

Now, that opportunity could be writing film music. It could be writing musical theater. It could be whatever — writing music for art installations — all the stuff that Ultravox could and should do. And of course, we don’t have a manager. There’s been no one driving it. So it’s not really gone anywhere. It’s just sat there. So I don’t know. I’d like to think that if something interesting came along, we’re capable of doing it, and getting back together and doing it.

MM: All right. Let’s talk about now. New music? Are you working on anything new?

MU: I’m working on a few things! I’ve started work on a new solo record. The last album, Fragile, took over a 10-year period to make, which is ridiculous. So I didn’t want that to happen again.

So I’ve already started working on new material. I have been working in collaboration with some other writers and other arrangers, and I’m thoroughly enjoying that process as well. I’m working on some orchestral music right now — some orchestral versions of some solo and some Ultravox tunes because those tunes lend themselves to that kind of cinematic feel. I’ve been working on those for the last six months, and it’s sounding ridiculously good. I wish someone would now write a movie that I could insert these tunes into. I have the soundtrack but no pictures! So it’s a very busy time but it’s very fruitful. I’m just doing lots of things that I haven’t done in the past, so this is a new process for me going through the orchestral arranging and whatever. So that was quite exciting.

MM: Speaking of movies, I quite enjoyed your contribution to “Eddie the Eagle,” and I think your song “Touching Hearts and Skies” is excellent.

MU: Well, thank you very much. I guess not many people heard it. I think when they approached everyone the idea, and what we were led to believe, was that the songs were going to be part of the soundtrack. Lo and behold, they weren’t. So they were kind of an add-on. But it’s fine. It was interesting. I got a brief and ended up writing a song for it.

Listen to “Touching Hearts and Skies” by Midge Ure on YouTube:

MM: Howard Jones was in town recently, and he played his song from that extra soundtrack album [“Eagle Will Fly Again”], and it was very good also. It was very well received.

MU: Oh, he did it live? Oh good.

MM: Yeah. Yeah. It was very good. The audience loved it. [Read our review of Howard Jones at The Hamilton on Sept. 3, 2016.]

MU: Everyone loves a struggler! And Eddie the Eagle is a classic. It is wonderful.

MM: Yeah, I saw the movie and liked it quite a lot. It’s an underdog story for sure. I knew nothing about it but I was interested in Eddie Edwards’ entire life after that. I looked him up online.

Well, I don’t want to keep you too much longer, but I do have to ask you about something. We now live in a world without David Bowie. And that was hard for me, Midge, I have to tell you. That weird January day when I woke up and heard he had passed.

Well, he was a big influence on a lot of people. You yourself covered “The Man Who Sold the World.” And I’m wondering if you might talk a little bit about what he meant to you.

MU: I don’t know anyone in the music industry, and I mean anyone, who hasn’t been influenced by what David Bowie did, either directly or indirectly. Because of someone like him, music changed. Just the same as it did when George Martin came along and worked with the Beatles. Something fundamental changed in the way we look at music, the way we write it, the way we produce it,

He was the antithesis of all of these talent shows you see on television — the American Idols and such — you know, America’s Got Talent and Britain’s Got Talent and all of that nonsense. He was the antithesis of that. And that he could throw away something that was incredibly successful like Ziggy Stardust and start all over again — that was an incredibly brave thing to do.

So like you on that January morning, I was devastated. I couldn’t quite comprehend a world in all without him. It’s a much less rich place now that he’s gone.

I was fortunate enough to meet him umpteen times and spend some time with him. I was on stage with him once! Everything I do…

In fact, if I write a piece of music, the kid in me still looks back, and I use David Bowie as a yardstick. Is this good enough? What would he think of this? And that’s how we all gauge things — by remembering people that we respect and admire, and we think, okay, would they do this? Would they do something cheesy? Would they do something this accessible? Can I try that much harder? So it’s constantly there. And I think it probably will be forever.

And some of the younger generation who do know, they’ve been influenced by what he did. When people saw the outpouring of grief over his passing globally, they went out to find out more about him. And the legacy the man has left is just immense. Absolutely immense. Not always great, not always good, no? Sometimes, it was a bit out there, and it was a bit mad. But he had the guts to go out there and make something a bit out there and a bit mad. And sometimes by doing that you make something that everybody else follows. Sometimes, you make something that’s absolutely unique, and the world changes again. So he’s responsible for all that.

MM: You said you performed with him once? Can you tell us that story briefly?

MU: Yeah, it was a bit of a surprise! I was musical director for The Prince’s Trust concert. Prince Charles has a charity. And back in the days when it was Charles and Diana, they started doing these rock galas. And there I was in charge of the band on the 10th anniversary one [in 1986], and the band was phenomenal. The band was Phil Collins on drums and Elton John on keyboards and Mark King from Level 42 on bass and Mark Knopfler on guitar and Eric Clapton on guitar. It was a who’s who!

And then we got the message that David Bowie and Mick Jagger were in the building, and could Howard Jones and I pop ‘round to their dressing rooms? Howard was on keyboards. We went ‘round to the dressing rooms. They had just released “Dancing in the Street” for famine relief. So it was right about the time of Band Aid, and they said look, we’ve never played it live, but we’d love to jam it through with you. So Howard and I are standing in the dressing room trying to figure out the chords for “Dancing in the Street.”

And then these two iconic rock stars come on and try to out-camp each other on stage — wiggling their bums and pushing each other out of the way to get to the microphone. I’m standing behind them, watching all of this going on and trying to play. It was just wonderful! It was an absolute “pinch me” moment. This was the stuff I dreamed of doing when I was a kid growing up on the outskirts of Glasgow. And here I am on stage with David Bowie and Mick Jagger — and that band. Wow!

Watch David Bowie and Mick Jagger perform “Dancing in the Street” for The Prince’s Trust in 1986 on YouTube (and spot Midge in the background!):

MM: Wow, that is incredible. Ha, that’s great. Say, have you been performing a Bowie cover this year? How you been doing “The Man Who Sold the World?”

MU: I haven’t, but I did a tour in the UK earlier this year back in March, and I played “Starman.” I dropped one of my songs, and I did a version of “Starman.” And I might do that again on the US tour.

MM: Please do!

MU: Well, yeah. I am toying with the idea. If I can get my head around “The Man Who Sold the World,” we might do that as well as another respect to the man.

MM: Before I let you go, do you have anything to add? Anything that you want to say about you know the upcoming tour or anything we haven’t covered?

MU: I’m just so pleased that I managed to work my way back to United States again because I had 25 years of absolutely no connections with America whatsoever. And it’s been great that every 18 months to two years now I’ve managed to get back in some form. If I can’t pull off the impossible and get Ultravox back out on tour, I’ll continue to work my way through America.

I’ll play more Ultravox tunes! It’s the closest you might get to hearing Ultravox live. So yeah I’m just pleased that I’m coming out. I’m looking forward to it immensely.

MM: We’re looking forward to seeing you here in the DC area on October 4. Your show a year and a half ago was great and we look forward to seeing you at the same venue again in Bethesda. [Read our review of Midge’s show on March 8, 2015, from the Fragile Troubadour Tour.]

MU: It was a lovely venue. I absolutely loved that big converted cinema. It was a beautiful, beautiful place.

**

Former Television guitarist Richard Lloyd opens for Midge. Tickets are available online!

Midge Ure
w/ Richard Lloyd
Bethesda Blues & Jazz Supper Club
Tuesday, Oct. 4
Show @8pm
$25
All ages

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