Madness provided a ska soundtrack to the early ‘80s, bridging the eccentric essential Englishness of The Kinks and Blur in a deluge of number one singles. While they still play live to fervid hordes seeking a nostalgia fix, Madness continue to write new music, releasing a long player, You Can’t Touch Us Now, late last year. STACK’s Editor-in-Chief, Paul Jones, spoke with frontman Suggs ahead of both the band’s April Australian tour and his own talking tour.
The new album has a whopping track list. It would seem you’re in a particularly fertile period of your career?
Yeah, I think so. I mean, from when you start you think that getting a gig in the pub is going to be the only thing you’re going to get. Then you make your first record and you think, man, we’ve made it. But nobody on this earth would’ve thought we’d be having this much fun, what nearly 40 years on? It’s a great time at the moment.
Where does inspiration come from these days?
Well, you know, usual stuff. We’re just an observational band that tells you what we see around us. Living in London is a very fertile part of the planet and there’s plenty going on. There’s no shortage of things to observe. As I’m talking to you now, I’m walking up Camden High Street right past the pub where we first started, the Dublin Castle, 39 years ago or something – a long, long time ago.
How does the songwriting process work? Do you all bring ideas to the studio and work on them, or are the songs written in full beforehand?
We mostly try and do all the work together in a rehearsal room. We all write songs, that’s what’s bizarre. All seven of us write songs and that’s unusual for a band. This time we started to find that the guys who write lyrics were trying to write music and the blokes that wrote music were starting to write lyrics. We decided on this record to really collaborate again, so I wrote some songs, sent it to the keyboard player and then he sent me a tune and I wrote words to that.
We preferred to try and sit around in a room together and play, looking at each other’s eyes and trying to capture some atmosphere. People often ask me why our old records still resonate and I can still see myself jumping up and down in the studio when we were making those records. You capture something more than just the chords and get some atmosphere going. That’s really what we’ve always been about – atmosphere.
And that chemistry still exists in the band?
Yeah, very much. God only knows how. My mate said to me, ‘If you haven’t grown up by the time you’re 50, then you never flippin well will.’ And, we haven’t. My wife says, ‘You’re not 18 anymore’ and I say, ‘I am tonight ‘cause I’m going on stage.’ [laughs] It’s a joyous experience. It’s a real privilege, all that stuff, being in a band. So many of my mates have packed it in, are near to death or driving a cab or something. To still be doing it is a real privilege, for sure, and we really appreciate it; we’re having the most fun we’ve ever had.
Is it important to you to keep making new music?
Yeah, for sure. I mean there was a time where we were going into the sort of ‘80s nostalgic hole, like Star Trek or something, you know, warp factor 10! [laughs] We did a record called The Liberty of Norton Folgate, which, certainly in this country, really elevated us out of that place, but, of course, we still play the old hits. If I go and see a band, I’ll feel cheated if they don’t play the hits. You can kind of liven it up a bit for your own sanity with new material while you’re going along. So, we’ve got the best of both worlds really
Do you ever get bored of playing the classic Madness numbers? Do you need to play new music to keep yourself interested on stage?
I think we’ve got a good balance. We don’t go on tour for years on end. I think that can kind of do your brain in. We normally do ten, 20, 30 gigs a year, which is sort of enough. It keeps it exciting for us. And it’s stuff like the fact we haven’t been to Australia for eight years. The band’s really excited about going to Australia. We have a real simplistic, childish enthusiasm for it and that’s the way it is.
Was that that really eight years ago?
I know. Exactly. It’s only ‘cause somebody told me the other day. It could’ve been five; it could’ve been ten. Time is nothing to me anymore [laughs]. As long as it gets me out of bed in the morning.
The last time you played Australia, I wore a brand new pair of desert boots to your gig. That was a mistake.[Laughs] There you go! Never wear new shoes at a Madness concert!
What’s the relationship with the band like these days?
Marvellous. I mean we’re a funny, dysfunctional, cranky old family. We’re all family. If it didn’t have its downs, then you wouldn’t appreciate the ups. We have our rows like anybody does. When we get together and play music, that’s what really makes sense, and that’s why we’ve been sticking at it for so long.
What lesson did you take out of the success you experienced as a band in the early ‘80s?[Pauses] Tolerance. Tolerance with each other. We were – and still are - seven very, very strong characters. It’s a very volatile situation; things can blow up at any minute. We’ve known each other for so long now that there’s a real potency to it. If you don’t’ have people that have any thought about what they want or any passion for what they want, then it wouldn’t have any consequence anyway. It’s a mixture of both those things, to be passionate but at the same time allow each other a bit of space.
You never seemed like a band that was affected by the trappings of fame.
Not really, no. We were lucky. We were very happy to be making music and we were a big gang of mates that were just in our own little world. Fame and all that didn’t really seem of any consequence.
You were quite young, too, when the band initially experienced success.
We were. I was 18 when we went on television with our first hit. But then I felt I’d had a pretty sort of accelerated existence by that age. I felt quite old by the time I was 18. But really when I think about it, yeah, I was just a kid. We were just kids. We kind of grew up together and shared this whole rollercoaster experience. It was like some mad social experiment [laughs].
I’m looking forward to the talking tour you’re doing after the Madness dates. You’ve been doing it for quite some time now?
Yeah. I have in England. I’ve never done it outside of Britain before. It’s just a bit of luck really, because we’ve been planning on coming to Australia for some time and it just worked out this is the time, and then somebody suggested that I do my one man show. It’s something that I’ve been doing a bit in this country and I’m very proud of it. It’s a challenge. It’s just me on the stage with a keyboard player talking about my life, my career, and what it is to be a 50 odd year-old man. It’s extremely entertaining. Ups and downs.
Is it something you’d considered doing for some time? Or was there a sudden catalyst?
It was my 50th birthday. My kids had just left home. I was lying in the bath. I’d actually had my party the night before for some peculiar reason and I was really, really hungover. My favourite cat literally fell off the shelf and died while I was in the bath [laughs]. It’s black comedy, of the highest order. I just thought, what the f–s going on here? It was hard enough getting used to the fact that half a century of my life has gone. God’s just killed my cat, what’s going on? That really got me thinking about fate and all of that, you know, and how we get to where we are and all that – could’ve took the left turn or a right turn… so much of it has to do with luck and fate. That got me thinking about my own life and I just thought I might be an interesting story to tell, and I think it is.
One final question, Suggs: sum up the contemporary music industry in a sentence.
A load of old cobblers!
Madness are touring Australia in April followed by Suggs’ talking tour, Suggs: My life Story. Dates below.
Can't Touch Us Now Tour
April 10 Fremantle Arts Centre, Fremantle
April 11 Fremantle Arts Centre, Fremantle
April 13 Festival Hall, Melbourne
April 15 Hordern Pavilion, Sydney
April 16 Bluesfest, Byron Bay
Suggs: My Life Story Tour
April 20 Enmore Theatre, Sydney (all ages)
April 22 Astor Theatre, Perth (ages 18+)
April 24 Comedy Theatre, Melbourne (all ages)