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Interview: Robbie Grey of Modern English

Modern English
21 July 2020

Photo courtesy of Clarion Call

In 1982, post-punk/New Wave band Modern English released the exuberant song “I Melt With You” as the second single from their second album. Their previous work had been well-received, but “I Melt With You” quickly launched the band into the stratosphere, earning heavy airplay on both radio and the then-new MTV channel in the U.S., as well as around the world. Nearly 40 years later, that song has become a cultural touchstone. And it’s still relevant, as Modern English proved when they recently reworked the track as “I Melt With You (from Quarantine),” with an video showing each member performing it from home during the COVID-19 pandemic. During their lengthy career, the band have gone on to release eight studio albums, and they’ve recently reissued their first two, Mesh and Lace (1981) and After the Snow (1982). Calling from his home on the east coast of England, singer Robbie Grey discusses the band’s legacy – and future.

What kind of feedback have you received since you released your new version of “I Melt With You” a couple of weeks ago?

ROBBIE GREY: It’s going through the roof. Some of the comments from people have been really, really nice, [saying] that I’ve cheered them up, so it’s really good. One guy wrote, he’d just come off a 12 hour shift in some sort of factory, and he went home and watched that, and he said he started dancing around the room, he felt so good. And I thought, “Wow, if we can do that, that’s worth everything, really.”

Was it hard to put this version together?

ROBBIE GREY: We pretended that we were doing it live, but we weren’t. We put things down on different days from different people. One person was in Los Angeles, but everybody else was at their houses in England. It wasn’t as easy as I thought it would be. It wasn’t that simple to do all that.

What gave you the idea to do this?

ROBBIE GREY: I think we knew how much the song “I Melt With You” is liked by people, so we just thought it’d be nice to do. Everyone’s pissed off at home, teasing their dogs and splitting up with their wives! [laughs] We thought it would be nice to put a smile on people’s faces.

It definitely is capturing a unique moment in time with this pandemic. Hopefully we’ll all look back on this in amazement next year.

ROBBIE GREY: I hope so. But you just don’t know at the moment what’s going to happen. Now that they’re giving everyone some freedom, it could make [the pandemic] worse again, that’s the problem. I’m lucky I live in the middle of nowhere, so there’s not too much of that stuff around here. It’s a tourist area, so there’s a lot of people coming down from London. It’s strange times. You don’t really know how to approach each day, sometimes.

But it’s good that you can put something out into the world that makes people feel better.

ROBBIE GREY: That’s been really nice, to get those comments. We’re just missing our bloody tour! We should be on tour now doing the After the Snow album, so that’s a real bummer. We’re trying to put the tour all back one year and do it next summer. So what we’re hoping to do in September, actually, is go into a soundstage and film the whole of After the Snow so we can stream it live. We’ve never actually played the whole of After the Snow together. So for us, it would be really exciting to do that.

At your shows, you’ll be expected to play “I Melt With You” and your other hits forevermore. How do you keep yourselves excited about playing that material?

ROBBIE GREY: We play a lot of our early material, as well. We like to play the more edgy stuff. So we like to mix it up, generally. And we’ll play quite wild stuff, like “Swans on Glass,” one of our first singles. This [After the Snow tour] will be the first time we’ve played the softer stuff live, so that’s fresh to us. That won’t be difficult to do that and feel excited. We’re generally playing our older stuff, or noisier stuff, with me shouting all the time![laughs]

You did a lot of interesting things that seemed to foreshadow the goth and industrial genres, which seems like it should get more recognition. Have you had a lot of artists come up to you and tell you that you were an influence on them?

ROBBIE GREY: Yeah. I think the reason we don’t get too much kudos is that we never really wanted to make the same album twice. Once we’d done the post-punk album with Mesh and Lace, we didn’t want to do another album that sounded similar. So we completely went the other way and did acoustic guitars and violins and things like that. I think that might be why we don’t get the kudos. But yes, we do get a lot of bands who say they think we’re an influence on them, like LCD Soundsystem.

No matter what style you’re playing, your body of work as a whole still seems cohesive. How do you do that?

ROBBIE GREY: I think because of the musicianship. We’re not all really amazing musicians, so we tend to write things in a basic way. The guitarist Gary McDowell, for instance, uses a lot of effects. So that’s always with us because we like to use textures and noises rather than musicianship, really, I suppose. We’re more interested in sounds than being able to play really well, do you know what I mean? So that’s probably got a lot to do with the sound of the band. Our last album, Take Me to the Trees [in 2016], we tried to mix the noise of Mesh and Lace with the songcraft of After the Snow, that sounded quite interesting to do. So we’re always trying to do that, keep the noisy element in there somewhere.

What made you want to become musicians in the first place?

ROBBIE GREY: It was punk rock. It was literally this massive noise that happened that woke up a lot of the youth in Britain in the late ‘70s. It was just so good. Bands like the Sex Pistols, The Clash, Buzzcocks, Joy Division, Wire, Gang of Four. It was just all so brilliant. It made quite a lot of us want to make music. We would never have dreamt of making music before punk rock. We were working class kids, into David Bowie, Roxy Music, things like that. So we’d never have dreamt of trying to be like those guys. But as soon as punk rock happened, we wanted to be part of that because it was so exciting in England at that time. I don’t think we’ve changed that much as people, really, from then. We still hate the same things and like the same things and feel the same way about everything.

How did you and the other members originally meet in the first place?

ROBBIE GREY: We’re all from the same town, Colchester, which is an hour from London. So we knew each other from the pubs and stuff like that. When we wanted to form a band it was easy, we all just said, “Let’s do it, let’s make music.” Nobody could play. We just picked up instruments: “You’re the guitarist, you’re the singer, you’re the drummer!” And we went from there. We just learned it as we went along.

What’s your songwriting process like, then?

ROBBIE GREY: [When we started], we didn’t know how to write a song – we didn’t know that you could make a verse and a chorus. We didn’t know how to do that. So we used to call our pieces of music “pieces”: “Let’s put this piece with that piece and see what they sound like.” That’s why the first album, Mesh and Lace, has got this original feel to it, because we didn’t really know what we were doing. So with After the Snow, we still had the same approach, but we had a producer, Hugh Jones, who showed us the songwriting craft. That was the difference. And also, on that album was the first time I hadn’t shouted into a microphone. Hugh said, “Just talk into it.” I’d never done that before. The verses of “I Melt With You,” that’s why they sound like that, more like a spoken thing, really. I think that’s the charm of them. But our songwriting process is still the same except we put things into Logic [music software] now. But it’s still like using an old-fashioned tape recorder, really.

I can see how there’d be the urge to shout, though, thinking you need to be heard over a full band.

ROBBIE GREY: Yeah, you do! When you’ve got stuck with Gary’s guitar in your ear and can’t hear what you’re doing, you feel like you’ve got to shout just to get heard! [laughs] Because back in the old punk days, the monitors and all the PAs were terrible, so you couldn’t hear anything, anyway. So it was all a bit crazy. It took us years to learn how to learn all that stuff, to be honest.

What about your lyrics – how do you put them together?

ROBBIE GREY: I still feel the same way as I did as a teenager about everything, so it’s not difficult for me to approach the same subject, maybe from a slightly different angle. But I try and write things that are important to me so that when I’m singing them, it means something. I always like to have a song with a bit of a twist to it, even when it’s a love song like “I Melt With You.” Put a bit of a twist on it, make it a bit darker. All the bands from our period, the post-punk period, have all done that. We still stay true to that now.

Obviously, you’ve done something right, because “I Melt With You” is part of the cultural fabric now!

ROBBIE GREY: Yeah, I know, it’s amazing, isn’t it? It’s amazing! Going onstage and playing that song, wherever we are – we’ve played in the Philippines, all over Europe, everywhere. Mexico City, we went to last year. We played that song, and the place went nuts. It’s an amazing thing to see. We never get tired of it.

When you wrote it, did you know it was going to be special?

ROBBIE GREY: No! The lyrics, I sat down on the floor in London in my house and I wrote those lyrics in 20 minutes. I was stoned, I had a joint, sat down on the carpet, and I just wrote them all out in about 10 to 20 minutes. It was that quick.

But it’s always hard when one song, good as it is, overshadows the others.

ROBBIE GREY: I agree. I’m really anxious to get the Mesh and Lace album back out, I’m really pleased about that. And then also After the Snow again. It’s really exciting for us. Let’s hope this COVID shit goes away so we can come and play it to everybody.

What do you think has been the key to your longevity?

ROBBIE GREY: I think just wanting to be creative. It’s just something that, if you weren’t doing it, you would have a massive void to fill because being creative is an important part of your character. I think that’s the big reason why. And also, I suppose, with all the technology around, you can mix things up more than you used to, so that keeps things interesting.

And what about a new album?

ROBBIE GREY: Yeah, we’ve pretty much written enough pieces of music to put together to make an album. We are looking at doing that – it will be the next thing on the agenda!