Interviewed By: Kevin Rolfe
Midge Ure of Ultravox and Visage fame returns to Salt Lake City Wednesday, September 5 at The Commonwealth Room with another great vocalist from the 80’s Paul Young. I had the opportunity to speak with Midge this last week for the second time. As you’ll see from the interview below, he was a pleasure to speak with.
Utah Concert Review: Hi Midge, I’m looking at your tour schedule. It looks like you’re next stop on the tour is the Bay Area.
Midge Ure: Yeah we’re heading towards there. We have two nights off from Portland. So we’re in a little town called Eureka, in California. Which we figured out was named because of the gold rush 150 years ago. So we’re moving on from here on the way towards San Francisco. So we’re stopping off again tonight, which gives me a chance to let my very sad voice recover a bit before we do the show in San Francisco.
UCR: That’s a beautiful part of the country that most people don’t get to go through. So I’m glad you’ve been able to experience that.
MU: Oh, stunning! I don’t know why I’ve never done that drive before. We deviated off the I-5 which I think we’ve taken for most of our journey and went to the northern part of the 101, which of course meets with the Pacific Coast Highway. It was just outstanding. So we drove through the Redwood Forest and the national state park. It was glorious. Sometimes touring has its benefits!
UCR: Definitely! I think those Redwoods are something you have to see in person to really understand just how massive they are.
MU: Paul Young and I had a photo taken of us at the base of one of them with our arms outstretched, and we didn’t quite make it the width of the tree. We posted it and someone said we looked like hobbits. I think that’s pretty close!
(We share a laugh) I looked up the picture on Twitter, and he’s right, they look hobbit-esque next to this enormous redwood!
UCR: So how are things going with Paul? I was excited to see that you guys paired up for a tour. How did that come about, and how is it all going so far?
MU: Well, we’ve known each other for a long time. And we’ve worked together live a couple of times with the Nelson Mandela concert, and Live Aid, but we’ve never actually toured together. So Paul up until last year hadn’t toured America for twenty five years. A bit like myself, prior to me coming back and touring here again. We had just kind of lost all contact. Paul did the Retro Futura tour last year, a multi-act bill, and absolutely loved it. And when he was talking to me about it I said, ‘Well why don’t we team up and tour like how I do America?”. I pick up some American musicians, I have had some great connections here. We go out and do this kind of like it was in the old days. There’s no crew, there’s no sound guys, there’s no lighting rigs. None of that stuff like we have everywhere else. You go out and you do it on a grassroots level. And it’s been an absolute ball I have to say. Because Paul and I got on really well, and Paul’s guitar player who he’s brought over from the UK, I know him as well. And I’m working with the three American musicians we have. It’s just been absolutely brilliant. It’s been fantastic.
UCR: Utah Concert Review spoke with you about 18 months ago, and I recall you mentioning then that you were touring with a couple of American musicians. Are these the same guys? Or do you have a totally new lineup?
MU: One of them is the same musician. The guy who was playing bass and keys for me, he’s doing bass duties. It’s funny, he played perfectly good bass for me when I toured here 18 months ago. But when I hear him play Paul’s stuff, which is all really tricky bass parts, I mean really tricky, I mean it’s Pino Palladino sliding fretless bass things, and he’s got it absolutely nailed! He’s fantastic. So he’s really gone up in my estimation. I mean, he’s far too good for me. So he knew a couple of friends who also went to Berklee School of Music and they’re all just phenomenal. If I can tell you, the drummer plays better guitar than I do. It’s frightening. They’re sickeningly talented!
UCR: So in general terms. I don’t want to give away any surprises, but what can your Utah fans expect from this tour? Do you and Paul Young play separate sets? Or do you intertwine your songs? And do we get to see you play together?
MU: It’s two separate sets. Depending on which way the coin falls, either Paul goes on first or I go on first. And then we realize, of course, even when we arrived here to start rehearsing with the band, it wasn’t until we were in the middle of rehearsals that the idea came up, ‘Hold on a second. We’re both doing independent sets. Surely people will be expecting us to come on together to do something. So, we do. At the end of the evening, we come on and we do a track. Neither of our particular songs, but a track that’s connected with us. It’s great fun. It’s a great way to leave the evening.
UCR: I’m very much looking forward to that. So in thinking about this co-headlining tour, I wondered, had you ever done a co-headlining tour when you were with Ultravox that would you enjoyed, or was at least memorable?
MU: Ultravox was such a complicated band. We never coheadlined with anyone. We never did any festivals as such. In the early days, the equipment was so archaic. It was so incredibly basic. It would take us up to five hours to do a sound check. So we couldn’t open up for someone. We couldn’t do festivals where it’s a very quick turnaround. We refused to use backing tapes like many of the bands did back them because it was so much easier to have sequences on bass or synthesizers all recorded. But we refused to do it. So this is a whole new thing for me, doing a double package, or a multi-act bill. I mean, the last time Ultravox played about five years ago we did some shows with Simple Minds. And that was a great compatible bill. It was a Simple Minds show, and we were the special guests. That just proved to be a huge, hot ticket.
UCR: I love that you mentioned the word “Compatible”. I feel like there are so many package shows, or many of these shows billed as “80’s” tours where the bands are not at all compatible.
MU: I think sometimes when you get packages put together by promoters, they have a very different idea of what will appeal to people. So they find acts that come from the era but not necessarily from the same genre. And it just falls on the ground. Nobody wants to see this mishmash of artists just because they happened to be around in the same decade. You end up staring at the sky for an hour until a band you do like comes on. It doesn’t work. No one ever said, “I like an entire decade of music”. Things change radically over a ten year period. But when you do something like Ultravox and Simple Minds, or myself and Paul there’s a reason for it. It works. It’s compatible music.
UCR: So as you mentioned, this is a kind of bare-bones tour. No crew, no manager, etc. Are you also responsible for what venue you’re playing in a particular city? If so, how do you decide?
MU: It’s the one thing we don’t do. I can do many things, but I can’t book the venues. I wouldn’t know how to go about it.
UCR: It seems like it would be impossible for you to personally know the best venue to play in each city.
MU: Absolutely. You have to be advised on that. And sometimes the agent gets it absolutely right and targets it just to the right size venue. And sometimes they get it completely wrong where you find yourself playing the equivalent of an airplane hangar. You know some huge vacuous place that you’re never going to fill. But you have to trust them, that they know their job. They don’t come and tell me how to play my songs, and I don’t tell them where to book the venues. But I can say, ‘I want to play in this city, or that city’ and they will make that happen.
UCR: I have to say that you will enjoy the venue here in Salt Lake City. It’s called The Commonwealth Room. It’s practically brand new. Maybe six months old. In fact, your show was one of the first announced when they opened their doors. The sound is fantastic, and I think the size will be perfect for your show. Everyone there is great. I really think you’re gonna like it.
MU: Oh great! I’m looking forward to it.
UCR: I wanted to talk to you about your album Orchestrated. I have to tell you that I love the album. I think the orchestrations and arrangements in your songs are excellent. I’ve seen other artists who have attempted to orchestrate their music and the idea is great, but if it’s not done right it just doesn’t work. Your album works. Was it your idea? Or were you approached with the idea?
MU: Thank you! I think it’s one of those things when you do perform stuff that I’ve written or stuff that I’ve done with Ultravox with an orchestra it really suits it. The melodies and the grandiose elements, the cinematic elements that were always in Ultravox and my music are just enhanced when you do it with an orchestra. And it can be a very powerful thing when it’s done properly. I was extremely lucky that when this idea came to fruition, which mainly came from other people who had seen clips of me performing with the orchestra scene saying “For God’s sake, you’ve got to do something with this.”. And it was one of those ideas in the back of my mind that I’ve toyed with for years but never really thought anything of it. I never really wanted to pursue it. And then when I started taking it seriously and looking at who my sidekick would be because I do not read or write notation. I don’t write music. So I could not orchestrate if you put a gun to my head. I wouldn’t know where to start. So I started looking for someone who would be sympathetic to the music. And I went through a few who were probably very good orchestrators but just did everything that I didn’t want. They just threw some strings on and did the same kind of arrangement, and had brass playing instead of synthesizers, and there just wasn’t any soul in it. So by chance, I met a guy called Ty Unwin who writes film music for television series and things, who happens to be a massive Ultravox fan. Who knew everything I had ever done. He was as passionate about the project as I was. I met him at Howard Jones’ house a few Christmases ago at a party. And I just got a feeling. I didn’t know he was an Ultravox fan at the time. I just knew he did film music. So I got in touch with him a couple months later and said ‘If we were to try to do something together, how do you think it would work?’. And he said “Look, I’ll choose one of your songs, and I’ll do an arrangement for you. if you don’t like it great, and we’ll walk our separate ways.” He chose I think it was “The Voice” he did initially. And when I heard what he had done with it I just knew he had got it absolutely right. He put this heart and soul and passion into it. So we spent the next year, to eighteen months doing the arrangements and choosing the songs. Because all of them could make the transition to that type of arrangement. So between us, we chose all the songs. He was suggesting things I had forgotten. He knew more of my stuff than I did! It was just a marriage made in heaven really. I was so happy with the final outcome because my big worry, which you will no doubt agree, was that I was going to ruin the memory of the original recordings for people. I wanted to enhance the music. I didn’t want to detract from it. I didn’t want people going “Oh, God that’s dreadful. I much prefer the original version.” I wanted to take the songs and take them slightly somewhere else. Make them bigger, or more intimate, or sadder, or happier or whatever it was. Just do something different. And that’s what took the time.
UCR: I think because you had that concern, you were able to enhance those songs in the right way. I suppose the positive of having a great new album like this is how great the response has been. But also perhaps the burden is there is an immediate clamor for a follow-up. So I have to ask, is there talk of an Orchestrated 2?
MU: I’ve got no idea to tell you the truth. It’s still all very new to me. It’s an odd thing having an album of orchestrated music because you don’t really have an awful lot of outlets to play it. Radio won’t play it because the arrangements are too long. You don’t just go in with a razor blade and start chopping up the arrangement trying to get them on the radio. It just doesn’t work. It’s a piece of music from start to finish. So you’re kind of limited in how you promote it to let people know it’s out there. So I’m still in the process of thinking this is still just a fresh idea. So we haven’t started working on anything else yet. As I’ve said, there’s a wealth of material. Besides with all the great response we got, there’s a lot of people saying “Why didn’t you do “Visions in Blue”? Why didn’t you do “One Small Day”?” And they just kept throwing songs at me. I was like ‘You’re right’ but couldn’t keep doing it. You have to get something done and put it out and a bit of a breather before you do part 2. So it’s a possibility. But so is going in and doing a completely electronic album. I’ve got no idea where I’m going. I never have had. I go in and I follow whatever feels right to me at that moment in time. So I cannot commit to doing a part 2 straight away but it was received so well that it would be a bit of a sin to not follow it up and do something else.
UCR: Final question. Something that I’ve been very interested in with artists that have been around for a while. And you’ve been a recording artist for 40 plus years now. So you’ve seen peaks and valleys in your career, but now things are stable. You can book a tour and people will always show up. So what do you prefer, the peak, or the climb? Did you like the challenge of trying to become a successful artist, or do you prefer now, to where you’ve had the mainstream success, but now you have the stability of what your career produced?
MU: You’ve got to, on a purely human level, you’ve got to look back on the moment where things started to happen for you. Everything changes. Except you. Hopefully. Everything around you changes. People attitudes towards you change. All of a sudden there’s a little bit of respect. All of a sudden whenever you open your mouth, people want to hear what you have to say. And that can be a heady mix for any young person. I was in a sticky, smelly, carpeted rehearsal room when all of a sudden my manager walks in with a bottle of champagne saying you’ve got two top 40 singles and two top 40 albums all on the same day. And that’s a wonderful feeling to think ‘Wow, I’ve I’ve done something kind of worthy’. But it’s a bit like a party. It’s over and done with very very quickly. And you’ve got to think ‘Ok, that was great. That peak was just wonderful. And that’s elevated me to allow me to do other things that could be more interesting. That could have longevity.’ Because as you say there are dips and peaks, but that success would give me a road that I can follow with that behind me. That little bit of success behind me has given me this ability to go forward and explore and do the things that I want to do. My first taste of commercial success was with a record that I didn’t write and I wasn’t allowed to play on. And I vowed there and then that I would never, ever, ever allow myself to be put in that situation again. And I’ve never done it. I’ve followed my own weird, strange, wonderful, exciting path. And the fact, as you say, I have 40 plus years as a professional musician in this industry, I am just grateful that I wake up and I’m still allowed to do it. And that you only get by being stoic or being fastidious, or being stupid. By sticking to your guns and doing what you think is interesting. As opposed to like, DJs coming in and remixing your music because that happens to be the current fad.
UCR: Thank you so much Midge. I could talk to you all day. But I want you to rest that voice. Can’t wait for September 5!
MU: Thank you very much! It was great talking to you again. See you then!
Midge was so generous with his time! We spoke about many other things, including the possibility of doing a concert with a live orchestra. He hinted that something is in the works, but was not at liberty to say what just yet. So keep your eyes peeled for that.
Midge’s latest album Orchestrated is available everywhere!
Mide Ure will be performing with Paul Young at The Commonwealth Room on Wednesday, September 5th. To purchase tickets click here. See you there!