Midge Ure talks about the making of his latest solo album, ‘Fragile,’ the current status of Ultravox, music video and more.
By Bob Gourley | Published on August 11, 2014
Midge Ure is back with ‘Fragile,’ a highly personal new album and first solo release in over a decade. Though he never completely stopped working on his music during the intervening years, Ure had been questioning whether he wanted to be part of the radically changed industry. Reuniting with Ultravox inspired him to focus on music again, and ultimately finish the material that would become ‘Fragile.’ Ure is about to tour America as part of the Retro Futura tour, where he will perform hits from throughout his career. While in the country, he’ll also be doing some solo acoustic shows. More UK and European live dates will follow.
In addition to Ultravox and his solo career, Ure has been part of bands such as Thin Lizzy, Visage and Rich Kids. He co-wrote Band Aid’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” with Bob Geldof and also co-organised the Live Aid and Live 8 concerts.
In a Skype interview, Ure talked about making ‘Fragile,’ the current status of Ultravox, music videos, and more.
What was the reason for the long gap between solo albums?
“I actually started work on the ideas for this album probably straight after my last album, which was ten or twelve years ago. So it’s not that I’ve just decided to do it now; I kind of just decided to finish it now. It’s been a long process and the reason it’s taken such a long time is that I went through a lot of personal nonsense. I kind of went off the boil; I wasn’t really interested in making music. I didn’t know if I wanted to be part of the music industry anymore, what was left of it. It had changed so much in that period. I didn’t feel that anyone would be remotely interested in anything that I do. And of course when I got together with the guys from Ultravox again a few years ago, we ended up writing and recording a new album. That gave me the spark back that I needed to complete some of these ideas. So although the ideas have been coming together over a long period, I never completed any of them until the last three months.”
So the material really spans the past decade or so?
“Nothing was completed, or nearly finished ten years ago, and just left sitting there. You would hear that in the record; it would sound old. But the ideas were kind of formulated over that ten or twelve year period. An idea doesn’t grow old. An idea is something you can carry on chipping away at. I’ve tried to describe the writing process as kind of writing a diary. You write down your feelings and emotions and where you are at that moment in time–be it good or bad–and you put it to music. That is exactly what I’ve done with this. So it is, in a way, a brutally honest record. I didn’t have to sit down and create scenarios to write songs about, I wrote about what was going on in my life. That kind of takes a while to come together, especially if you’re not sure that you actually want to play it to anybody.”
Are there any particular tracks that you feel evolved considerably from the initial idea to what we hear on the album?
“I think the one that evolved most, because it was probably one of the initial ones that I instigated, would be ‘Become.’ I dabbled with the idea of writing this thing, and then I left it and I walked away from it. The walking away from it is part of the creative process. If you’re making something totally on your own, where you have no engineer and no producer, no one sitting next to you to bounce ideas off or keep you on track; the only way you can discern whether what you’re doing is good or not is to walk away from it for a bit. Then you listen to it again with fresh ears. So ‘Become’ is the one that actually evolved most because I ended up taking this song and giving it a kind of almost retro treatment…going back and thinking about what I did with early Visage or some of the early Ultravox songs, using technology to create this very electronic song. I only really started doing that in the past year–thinking that I can complete the circle–that I can go back to where I was thirty odd years ago when I started putting this European electronic dance thing together. It features quite heavily on that track. So ‘Become’ in a way is kind of an oddity in amongst the rest of the album.”
Did you work with anyone else when making “Fragile”?
“I didn’t have anyone. Because it’s been spread over such a long period, I don’t think I’d be able to find anyone who would be able to put up with the process, be that an engineer or a musician. So I ended up doing it all myself. The one exception is a track that Moby is featured on. He got in touch with me three or four years ago, looking at the possibility of writing something together. Although we’d never met, and we still haven’t met, we ended up creating something together. Modern collaboration means that he creates a piece of music there–it was NY at the time–and sends it to me and I take it and adapt it, change it, add things to it, write some lyrics and melody, and lo and behold we’ve created a baby. When we’d finished this thing, I got in touch with Moby and said that I’d love to put this on my album because I’ve grown very close to it now. He was gracious enough to say ‘yeah, absolutely.’ So it’s a collaboration, but he was nowhere near my studio. We were never in the same room, and we still haven’t met or even spoken on the phone. Everything has been done on the internet. It’s quite an oddity, but it’s maybe the modern way of collaborating.”
How do you feel about long distance collaboration? Is it something you’ll continue doing?
“It eliminates the embarrassment factor. When you walk into a room with someone you respect and admire to do some work together, there’s always that stiff, awkward ‘oh, what if I say something or suggest something that they think is crap?’ That nagging doubt is always there, but when you’re doing it this way, you’re in the comfort of your own studio, your own environment, your own surroundings, you have all your own sounds and instrumentation around you. You feel quite open about trying something. And then if they don’t like it once you’ve sent it back to them, it’s no great shakes. But having someone you’ve just met turn around to you and say ‘really? Is that the best you’ve got?’ is a little embarrassing. I don’t know how these writers in Nashville do it, when they turn up at some stranger’s house at an appointed time and walk in to write a song. It’s a great craft, but I think it’s a very strange thing to try to do. “
What is the current status of Ultravox?
“Well we did something at the end of last year. We were special guests to Simple Minds, doing some big arena shows. That was great, it was fantastic and really good fun. I think the best way of thinking about Ultravox is that it’s alive and breathing, sitting in a corner just waiting to move and spark up again when we feel like doing it. We don’t feel obliged to do anything right now. We don’t feel pressured to make a new album or do any touring or write a soundtrack or whatever. But when something interesting comes along, or we decide to do something, the band is alive and ready to do it. Whereas five years ago, the band had been dead for twenty-five years and it would have been an impossible task to just pick it up and get it moving. So we’re in a very good position right now. We can choose what we want to do, and when we want to do it.”
What influence did working with Ultravox again have on your return to Midge Ure solo music?
“During that period between solo albums, I got myself in a bit of trouble. I was drinking too much, and when I stopped drinking, I had massive doubts about whether I could actually write anything that was any good anymore. I’d always written with my cohorts, you know, Jack Daniels, it was always there. And when you take that element away, you kind of doubt your ability to do it. I suppose it’s a bit like Beatles when they stopped taking LSD. Is there still going to be some creativity there? When I got together with Ultravox, it was obvious that the spark between the individuals as musicians was still there. And that fired me up, getting the creative essence flowing again. That, without a doubt, gave me the confidence to stop messing around and just get out there to do it. It was a ‘poor me’ moment. I was sitting there thinking I don’t like the music industry, I don’t like the music that people are churning out. I don’t like dance, DJ, remixes. I don’t like blah blah blah blah blah blah…I don’t like ‘X Factor’ or ‘Pop Idol’ of any of those things. But the way to fight it is not to hold your hands up in horror and run away. The way to fight it is to do something that you think is good, the antithesis of what everyone else is doing. So I wised up and just got on with finishing it.”
Do you feel that the evolution of technology over the years has impacted your creative process?
“Absolutely. There is no doubt about it. When you think back to the late 70s/early 80s, we were all inspired by music that was coming out of Europe, coming out of Germany: Kraftwerk, Can, Tangerine Dream. All of these bands were using technology, and there was a technological revolution. Synthesizers became affordable, they became compact. You could buy a small synthesizer, you could buy a small tape machine, you could start recording in your bedroom, you could start doing multitrack recordings without going to a record company and asking for a huge advance to get into the studio. There was a massive technological revolution that helped and enhanced what people were doing with the music and how they made music. That hasn’t stopped. Now you can have a laptop that is your studio, and it’s also your video editing suite, it’s also your photography studio, and it’s also your graphics package. So these days I think you have to learn a little bit of everything. You can’t just rely on being a good guitarist or a good singer or a good drummer anymore. You have to be a good a drummer who can produce your own records, who can shoot video, design graphics. All of those things, because it’s all part of the creative process. And it all lives in this one little machine in front of me that I’m talking to you on right now. It’s your connection, it’s your entertainment system. You watch movies on it, and it’s your link to the outside world because of Skype and email. All of that stuff. The technology is there, and it’s down to the individual to learn how to use all those different facilities to make it work for them.”
Do you think there is a danger of getting bogged down by all the possibilities, and perhaps not knowing when something is done?
“I think there’s a danger of dying of old age before you’ve finished it! If I spent twelve years making every record, I’m going to have a very small catalog. Yeah, there is a danger of not knowing when to stop, but I’ve always had that. When I first made any money at all with Ultravox back in the early 80s, I built a studio because I wanted to learn how it worked, I wanted the facility. So I’ve always had the ability to sit in the studio for years and never finish anything. Only this time I’ve kind of done that! But instinctively, I think as a record producer you know when it’s finished, a bit like a sculptor with a big lump of clay–you mold it and you change it and you create something and you know eventually that you don’t want to touch it anymore. That’s it, it’s done, I can’t take it any further. So that’s just a cutoff point. It’s something you learn over the years of doing it.”
You’re part of the “Retro Futura” tour of the US. What will the format of that be? What material will you perform?
“Howard Jones is completely self-sufficient, I think he’s doing it as a 3-piece, a very electronic setup. Tom Bailey is doing it, I believe, with a full band, again self-sufficient. China Crisis, Katrina and myself will be using a house band. It’s a band based in Los Angeles called Right the Stars. They’ll be doing a small set of their own and then you’ll get Katrina on, China Crisis doing half an hour, then I’ll go one and do half an hour, then there will be a bit of a short break and then Tom and Howard after that. The clue is in the title of the tour; the emphasis is going to be on the old songs. So my set will be some Ultravox, a couple of solo things, a Visage thing, and the good thing about that is it keeps everyone on their toes. You get a quick short shift of me bashing out my stuff and then you’re straight into something else. I won’t be performing anything from ‘Fragile’ there because I think it’s just the wrong environment. I think people who come to see the Retro Futura thing are there to hear tracks that have been the soundtrack to their lives, really. “
With a new album out, was there any hesitation becoming part of a tour where the old material is the focus?
“Well, I committed to doing the tour long before I thought about finishing the album! That’s true for just about all of the work I’ve got between now and the end of the year, because I didn’t think it through. Like anything, you finish something, you want people to hear it. I didn’t sit down and plan it, I just thought, right, it’s done, let’s get it out. Of course I hadn’t given myself a slot where I could go out and do ‘The Fragile Tour.’ But, what I will do is integrate ‘Fragile’ into a lot of the shows that I’m doing. But this tour in particular, no, it’s very much a retrospective thing. I’ll be playing a lot of the old songs.”
Will you be doing US solo shows soon?
“I’m peppering some acoustic shows throughout this tour, I’m starting off and finishing, I think, at the Iridium in New York City. The dates have been changing; two of my acoustic shows look like they might not be happening because there are two new Retro Futura shows put in. But what I’m planning on doing is coming back out later in the year or the beginning of next year to do a more comprehensive acoustic tour. A kind of troubadour-like thing; I like the idea of coming over with no crew and no tour manager and none of the people who normally point you in the right direction. Just coming over and taking it right back to the basics, sitting down with my guitar and performing with a spotlight behind the microphone. No gimmicks, no band, just playing the songs”
When working on “Fragile” in the studio, were you thinking at all about how the music would adapt to solo acoustic performance?
“Quite honestly, I think it’s two separate things. When you create music in the studio you have an almost infinite amount of possibilities in terms of arrangements and production. I’d find it quite strange walking in, thinking ‘well I have to limit what I do with this because I need to go out and play it on an acoustic guitar.’ I believe that if a song is good enough, you should be able to strip away all the production values, all of the elements that you put on in the studio, and strip it right down to the lyrics, the melody, and the chords. If people don’t get what that song is about, you’ve failed as a songwriter. To me, writing this material, I knew instinctively whether the songs worked or not, and if they worked as a recording they would certainly work as an acoustic performance.”
Music video was a big part of what Ultravox was doing. What are your thoughts on the evolution of that medium?
“I think we created a bit of a monster when we did the early videos in 1979 or 1980. MTV hadn’t even appeared at that point, but we saw the possibility that if you had a video, you could appear on Saturday night television shows in half a dozen cities in half a dozen countries in Europe, all at the same time. Whereas prior to videos, the record company would have you on and off planes, performing in Germany one week, and then France the next, and then Spain. It was a long, drawn out process. So we just saw this as the ultimate vehicle where you could expand the idea of what the song was about or make visuals that texturally fit the music. We ended up directing a lot of the videos ourselves–it was something we enjoyed doing. But then, when MTV came along and people realized the impact the visuals and audio together could have, huge, huge budgets got thrown at songs. So you’d see things like Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller,’ these mini-movies. They were spending more making a pop promo video than they were spending on making the music. It seemed to get completely out of proportion. And of course ideas were chewed up very very quickly when it came to visual ideas. It got to the point where everyone was a video director. You’d finish a new album or single or whatever and the record company farmed that out to half a dozen directors, and the directors would have a little script. It would all start with ‘I see Midge standing in a loft with shafts of light coming through holes in the roof.’ You could easily just take the Midge part out and put someone else in and it didn’t really matter what the music was. The visuals were just kind of templates that were already there. We kind of rebelled against that; we directed the videos, so we made something that went hand in hand with the music. Then it just got to the point where you just couldn’t really compete. And people got bored with MTV and there were a multitude of channels out there showing music. Then it just changed, I suppose. Music evolved, dance and house music appeared and it was more important for kids to go out and stand in fields off their faces having a ball than sitting at home watching MTV. And of course now, technology has changed so what would have been a million pound investment building a video-editing suite back in the 80s, now you can have the same thing for $150 in your laptop.”
What was your approach to the new “Become” video?
“We did it in four hours. We went out into the fields near me and shot this video with a very simple concept. I edited the whole thing on my laptop on a train journey. So, I pieced the whole thing together in maybe a day.”
Could you talk about the “’International Blue” release that you appear on?
“Having not had a new album out in twelve years, I seem to have two albums out on the same day. ‘International Blue’ is a concept from a Dutch musician named Stephan Emmer. He’s a hugely talented man. He’s been around for a while. He worked with bands in the early 80s. He writes this beautiful, kind of filmic music. He came up with the idea that we seem to have lost something that happened in the 60s and the 50s and the 40s–this crooning thing, vocalists making these beautiful romantic tunes. So he self-financed this project where he’s written all these fabulous tunes that harken back to the 50s and 60s, but with a very contemporary sound and feel to them. Because he’s not a singer, he wanted to collaborate with his favorite singers, which he’s done. He approached me, Glenn Gregory from Heaven 17…a wealth of other people have come along and collaborated on these tunes. A bit like the Moby collaboration, he sent me a track, which was just astounding. It was was very James Bond, very 60s, very Walker Brothers, all of that. I wrote something and actually recorded the vocals in a hotel room in Germany while I was in tour in March. I emailed him the vocal parts, he put them into the track, and then emailed the whole album across to Tony Visconti in New York, who mixed it. Then twenty-four or forty-eight hours later, Tony sends us the mixes, the finished article. And I’m thinking, ‘hold on, that vocal didn’t exist three days ago and there it is.’ It’s a fantastic project, but it’s the antithesis of the music industry right now. The music industry seems to be trying to generate the same thing and the same thing. The oddity is being left behind somewhere. Well, he’s done something that isn’t cool and trendy and funky–he’s done something of quality. It’s been a great project to be part of.”
For more info on Midge Ure and the latest tour dates, visit http://www.midgeure.co.uk/