Midge Ure — Interview
It is impossible to write a brief, clever introduction that encompasses the entirety of Midge Ure’s career. He has done so much, from fronting Ultravox and serving as one of the principal creators of Live Aid, to helping to form Band Aid and co-writing the massively successful charity single “Do They Know It’s Christmas,” forever leaving his mark on music. Therefore, because I can not do his biography justice in a single paragraph, I urge you all to do some research, dive headfirst into his extensive catalog, and buy tickets for his upcoming “Un-Zoomed And Face To Face” tour, which kicks off on October 26 at Daryl’s House in Pawling, NY.
I recently sat down with Ure to discuss writing the Mad Libs of soundtracks, the power of music, and why you have to be confident in which direction you turn when stepping off of the subway.
Americana Highways: You’ve done and experienced so much in this crazy industry. Are there still firsts for you out there?
Midge Ure: Well, you know what, there are always firsts. There’s always something you’ve not done, or there’s something you’ve dabbled in that you didn’t do very well that you can always go back and revisit. You’ve just got to look for it. I’m a firm believer that if you absolutely do love what you do, you’ll always have something new around the corner. And what I’ve been doing over the last, nearly two years now while I’ve been locked up along with everyone else, is delving into that. I just finished an album of modern… I suppose they call it neoclassical now, but it’s almost like film soundtrack music. All instrumental music. I’ve spent the last few months making this, and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the entire process.
Now I’ve always dabbled with instrumental music. Every album I’ve done has had an instrumental on there. But I’ve really kind of delved into it. And that’s something that I’ve never explored before. And it’s something that I want to carry on exploring, even though I’m known as a singer. The novelty, I think, of doing something that has no vocals on it is too appealing. So yeah, there’s always something new there. Always.
AH: With that instrumental album, did songwriter Midge ever want to step in and put lyrics down? Was it hard not to have him come to the surface?
MU: I think it’s probably harder for the record label to accept that that’s what they’ve got. (Laughter) It’s like they will instantly think, “Which part is the chorus? And how do we edit this down for radio?” And you say, “Well, it’s not that. It’s a different beast completely.”
I think there are moments when you find yourself, maybe “la la la’ing” along with it, but I’m deliberately not thinking of lyrics. When you write a song, you start with a seed of an idea of what you want the song to be about. Then I create the atmosphere to let that idea grow. And this time I’m not thinking about what the song’s about, because it’s not actually about anything. I’m writing music, and the music is the international language, so you should be able to tell roughly from the feeling of the music, if it’s sad, or haunting, or is it landscape music? Is it filmic? So, it’s kind of doing the opposite of what Hans Zimmer would do, or whoever. They write scores to pictures and scripts that already exist. This is writing music that hasn’t got a script, or a story, or whatever. It’s for other people to fill that gap.
AH: And therein lies the beauty of it. People are going to make their own movies in their minds.
MU: And I’d love people to go off and do their own little videos to them as well. They are ready-made soundtracks. People do it a lot, they take songs that you’ve done, and they take bits of television shows, or bits of old footage or whatever they find, and they cut together their own interpretation of the video. And this would be perfect. It’d be great to see what other people make of this, and what it sparks off in their minds.
AH: Music is so powerful. You can hear a song and it will immediately take you back to a time 20 years ago, and you’ll feel those emotions again and what you, personally, have at stake in the song. People are always going to interpret songs their own way, regardless of what the songwriting meant when the song was written.
MU: Of course. And as a songwriter, it’s very difficult when people tell you the interpretation of what the song is. “I know exactly what you wrote this about!” And then they tell you and it’s nothing like what you imagined the song to be about what – what inspired it in the first place. But it’s not for me to kind of shatter their ideas of it. You should be able to interpret pieces of music.
And they are very provocative, aren’t they? You hear something from your youth that you used to listen to, or used to hear on the radio, and you’re instantly transported back to that moment in time, and who you were hanging out with, and what clothes you were wearing. All of that stuff is so… it’s still in there. It’s so fresh. And it just takes those few notes for that to come all flooding back again.
AH: I personally also love how, when you’re growing up, you don’t necessarily “get” your parents’ music, and then years later, it’s a part of you now and you have this great appreciation for it. Music transcends generations. It’s there forever.
MU: That’s true. And I suppose the oddity is that, from my era when people made music, you didn’t think of that lasting forever. You thought of it lasting the lifespan of when it comes out, and it charts, and does its thing, then it disappears very rarely to be held again. And of course, since then, there are multiple radio stations, you’ve got the internet, you have YouTube, you have all of these platforms. You have movies that are constantly peppered with pieces of music from that period to that moment in time. And they’re still relevant. And it’s great, but which in a way, shouldn’t be a surprise because I would still expect the Beatles music, a generation before me, to still be heard and still play today. But you never think that about your own music – talking about music that you did 40 years ago. It’s still resonating with not just the people who listened to it then, but entire generations of people who never listened to it and have heard it in a different format.
AH: Yes! And that’s another reason why I love the vinyl resurgence. People are hearing music how it was originally being presented to audiences, while also accessing it digitally.
MU: But also you’re discovering the ritual. Technology took away a major part of buying a piece of music – that is choosing what you want to hear, rather than just hitting random on your MP3 player or getting something to stream just random pieces of music at you. You chose what you wanted and you took it out. You lifted the record out very carefully – because you spent a lot of money to buy this thing – and you’re putting it on, putting the needle on the thing, hearing the noise, hearing the surface noise before it came out, that whole process. And then as the music’s playing, you’re reading the album sleeve or looking at the pictures or whatever. That was all part of the music process and we eliminated all of that. Now you don’t have any physical object at all to look at. You just tell Alexa to go play something for you. (Laughter)
AH: In my house and with my kids, we have a tradition of listening to vinyl during dinner. We put on a record and it becomes our conversation piece, and in a weird way, the pandemic brought us all closer to music because we had more time to sit and listen together.
MU: Absolutely. And it’s the investment because – and I don’t mean the financial investment – it’s the investment in choosing the music, the investment in passing it onto your children. When my children were younger, we used to give them one of the first iPods, and they could choose. You could spin the little wheel with the thumb, so they would sit in the back of the car in the seats all harnessed up, and sit twiddling their thumb, and do it randomly. Then we noticed after a while they were choosing Kate Bush’s Wuthering Heights. And you think, “Wow!” Then it was David Bowie’s “Kooks.” And you think, “Well, they’re now choosing pieces of music that they actually like.” And that’s a brilliant thing to pass on. So my kids have now got a very, very wide spectrum of tastes when it comes to music. They can listen to anything from Ella Fitzgerald to whatever is on the charts.
AH: There seemed to be a lot of pleasant surprises over the course of your career. If you could have planned it your way, could you have imagined it going the way it had?
MU: It’s all Sliding Doors, isn’t it? You leave a train, your turn left or right, but you get completely different results. And irrespective of how good you might think you are, or how great a writer you are, or how good a guitarist, or whatever it is you think you’re brilliant at doing, the world sometimes doesn’t see that and doesn’t agree with you. And so, a lot of it’s got to do with being in the right place at the right time and making a decision and sticking by the decision no matter what comes out of that. And there are many decisions I’ve made in my life that I look back and I think, “Well, what was I thinking?” (Laughter) But those decisions, even though they weren’t the best decisions ever, they led me to something else that was the decision, and it’s taken me off on this weird tangent.
You couldn’t sit down and write my career on a piece of paper and say, “This is what I’m going to do.” No one. It’s so ludicrous. No one could do that. You have to kind of roll with it. You have to sometimes push, and other times you have to be led with your fingers crossed, hoping that things are going to work out well. But you also have to be a bit of a stickler. When you make a decision, you have to stick by that decision. I made a decision 25 years ago not to let DJs remix my records when it was utterly important that DJs remix your records to have commercial success. And I said no. And I had to stand by and watch a lot of my material just not getting out to an audience because I refused to use that particular vehicle. I was getting immense amount of pressure from record labels, and management, and whatever, to do it. They said, “Oh, Sting’s done it, and this guy’s done it.” And I said, “No, I don’t care.” So sometimes you have to be bloody minded as well as lucky.
AH: Is part of that too, Midge, sort of not being afraid of success? Because a lot of creative people are.
MU: Well, the thing is, no one’s ever knocked on my door and said, “Would you like to join the Beatles?” (Laughter) Because then you’d think, okay, well that’s going to change my life instantly. That’s never happened. I’ve always instigated a platform – a new area in my life – because I was driven to do it. I couldn’t see the end picture. There was no end. All I could see was, “This is exciting! This is great!” When I joined Ultravox… well, think about it. When I joined, I joined a band that had just fallen apart. I joined a band that had just been dropped by their record label. I joined a band who owed the record label lots of money.
AH: Not a lot of expectations going in.
MU: It was like someone coming out headhunting and said, “Come and join this company. We haven’t got anything, and we’ll never make anything ever, but come and join us anyway.” That’s kind of what I did. I joined it because it felt great. The noise we made was just phenomenal. And the belief in that alone was enough to get the thing fired up and moving. Nobody saw the success that would come a year later when Vienna was released. Sometimes you just have to take the chance.
AH: What would Midge ask Midge if he were sitting in my seat? Because you’ve had your hand in so much, what is an aspect of your musical journey that you’re proud of and like to talk about?
MU: You know what, I think as you get older, weirdly… and maybe it’s just the fact that you still haven’t died yet… you seem to get more respect. And I don’t know why, because I’m not doing anything different now than I’ve ever done. (Laughter) I think it might just be the longevity and, I suppose, the amount of product you’ve done in your life that people start to find impressive. Weirdly, Ultravox’s Vienna album came out a couple of years ago, re-released and repackaged, and it got better reviews than it did when it came out initially. (Laughter) And you think maybe it takes 40 years for that to kind of sink in with people, especially if you kind of pride yourself on being slightly ahead of the curve a lot of the time – pushing the envelope. You’re trying to do something that people aren’t comfortable with yet, that maybe other people are slow at catching up with that.
I don’t know, maybe that’s fantasy in my head. (Laughter)
AH: You’re a few days away from kicking off your US tour. Did the forced break of the pandemic reinvigorate you to be on the road again?
MU: I have never been this static since I joined my first full-time band when I was 18. I’ve toured constantly – on an annual basis, not every day. But, I’ve constantly played live. I could play live before I was allowed anywhere near a recording studio. So that’s my first skill, is getting out behind the microphone and doing it. It’s like breathing to me. And all of a sudden to have that taken away from me, which is what it was in a very, fairly aggressive way, is quite strange. And most musicians I’ve spoken to – touring musicians I’ve spoken to – feel the same way. There’s something missing, and it’s not just an audience missing live performance, it’s performers missing an audience. It’s a two-way street. And although I do digital performances from here, it’s very different. It’s not the same as being in a room with other people. There’s something magical about being in a room with other people, and all experiencing the same thing.
AH: I start hitting the Christmas music pretty heavy the day after Halloween. You co-wrote one of the biggest modern Christmas classics of all time – “Do They Know It’s Christmas.” Simply in passing, how many times do you think you hear that song every season?
MU: Well, it usually starts about now.
AH: (Laughter) It’s earlier and earlier every year.
MU: (Laughter) Yeah. You start to hear it in adverts, and supermarkets, and things like that. It’s weird. It’s such a weird thing because I don’t hear the song, I hear the opening bars. The clang. The clanging chimes of doom! And the hair on the back of my neck sticks up.
It’s not the best song in the world, but as a record, as a production, it still stands up. It does its thing. It became much, much bigger than a record could or should. It meant more, it had more power, because of the association with all the artists. So yes, I’m very pleased every time I hear that, because the songwriting royalties still go to the Band Aid trust, and will do forever. So it just means that the whole thing is still ticking along.
AH: Well, and that’s the amazing thing about that song is that it’s going to be book ended between Bing Crosby and Nat King Cole forever. It’s never going to go away.
MU: That’s not a bad place to be though, is it?
AH: No, no it is not.
To track Midge Ure’s US tour dates, visit www.midgeure.co.uk.