I met up with Robbie Grey late last year for a coffee and a catch up just before he returned to his home in Thailand for the winter, but I’ve been keeping this interview under wraps until now because the band, on the surface at least, seemed to be enjoying a something of a break at the time, playing only a handful of dates in Italy, Belgium, Holland, Germany and France that year. But were they really? No. Plans were already afoot for a very busy time indeed in 2016. Perhaps one of the busiest yet in their career that has spanned four decades.
Born out of the UK’s punk scene, and originally named The Lepers, Colchester’s post punk legends Modern English found fame in the USA in the early 80’s with their single I Melt With You from their Hugh Jones produced 1982 album After the Snow. The song became a favourite on the newly launched MTV music television station, and reached a very impressive number 7 on America’s Billboard Top Tracks chart in 1983. They also found further fame when it was also used in the ending titles of Nicholas Cage’s breakthrough movie Valley Girl that same year as well as numerous television commercials.
After several line-up changes over the years, four of the original members, Robbie Grey, Mick Conroy, Gary McDowell and Steve Walker have now been back together for the past few years and are as busy, if not busier, than they were all those years ago when it all first began.
“There’s a lot of work going on for a bunch of blokes from the 80’s,” Robbie jokes.
It certainly is, and it’s great to see them still going strong, still enjoying what they do, and giving so many of us, especially those of us from Colchester, a link back to own our teens and 20’s.
After a brief respite to settle into the year the band are off to Florida where, on February 28th, they set sail from Fort Lauderdale on The 80’s Cruise, a themed cruise where will they be joined by drummer Roy Martin and will be starring alongside other beloved artists of that decade including Kool and the Gang, Huey Lewis and The News, Tiffany, A Flock of Seagulls and many others.
The full line-up can be seen here, and if you fancy a bit of winter sun combined with some 80’s tunes there are still cabins left to book.
Robbie tells me more about it: “The 80’s Cruise is going to be hilarious. I don’t know if we just going to be stuck in our quarters and not allowed to go anywhere because I know there’s one part of the ship just for the artists. It must be a bloody big ship, that’s all I can say! There seems to be a lot of does and don’t in the contract too, including about getting drunk, so a few of us will have to watch that one!”
I tell him I have visions of Gary riding up and down the ship’s corridors on his Harley Davidson, “That might still happen!”
In May they are back across the Atlantic again, this time for the Mesh and Lace tour, a marathon coast to coast North American tour comprising over 20 dates (at time of publication) taking in Atlanta, Chicago, Detroit, New Orleans, Dallas and Los Angeles to name but a few, and also heading up into America’s northern neighbours Canada for dates in Vancouver, Montreal and Toronto.
You can see all the tour dates on Modern English’s official website.
Robbie explains: “There’s some songs from Mesh and Lace like Grief and The Token Man that I don’t think we’ve ever played live, so it’s going to be great to play some of the old stuff, and the early singles like Swans on Glass, and possibly even earlier stuff than that.”
We chat about how the band are mainly known in the US for I Melt With You, “Over here they don’t know it, they want Gathering Dust and Sixteen Days. It’s a really split audience. When we play in Europe they don’t want to hear it. They want Sixteen Days and Swans on Glass, not the pop stuff, which is fair enough.”
Moving on to the current music scene I mention my surprise that I Melt With You has recently been covered by Australian singer, and ex Neighbours Star, Natalie Imbruglia on her Male album on which she covers tracks made famous by male-led acts. “There’s definitely been a resurgence, Robbie tells me. “People are just bored with all this modern music, so even the kids are looking for something a bit edgy or different that they can listen to. Back in the day Alison Moyet was going to cover it. Nouvelle Vague covered it.”
I mention the version by Mest used at the end of Not Another Teen Movie: “A lot of American pop rock bands have done versions, there’s been three or four of them over the years. Fred Durst did it. Loads and loads of people do it.”
I ask Robbie what it feels like to be having another crack at what they were doing 30 or so years ago: “We never thought we’d get to feel like that again. It’s amazing. We did a few gigs in Europe over the summer, in Paris, trendy Berlin, and all these other cities, Brussels, Frankfurt, Hamburg. We were kind of going back to our early stuff. We’d decided to give America a rest for a while as we’d played so much there over the years and to go back to our roots in England and Europe. It’s been great for Modern English to play in cities we haven’t been to in for over 30 years. It’s been really good fun.”
Meanwhile, in the background, the band have quietly been recording an as yet unnamed new album, produced by Martyn Young from Colourbox and MARRS: “It’s a varied sound on there because a lot of it was Mick writing bits of music and sending them to me in Thailand, me putting vocals on and Gary adding guitars, and Steve adding keyboards. So it’s a different flavour to us all standing in a room together, it’s got a different feel to it, but there’s some really good songs on there, some good music, some exciting music. It’ll be interesting to see what people make of it. I can imagine it being played on Radio 6, let’s put it that way, it’s got that flavour to it. Quite a lot of it is a bit leftfield, which is what we were always about.”
“It’s been brilliant over the last few years,” Robbie continues, “we’ve just finished recording the new album, we’ve got some really good songs and we’ve started writing new songs for the next album. So we’re busy, we’re not shirking, we’re doing lots and lots of stuff”
Fans pre-ordering the new album, will get behind the scenes access including footage from the studio, and sneak peeks of the new songs along with the stories behind them. To order, head over to Pledge Music, where you will also find other exclusive offers including a guitar lesson with Gary or a bass lesson with Mick, limited edition band merchandise, and signed CDs and lyric sheets. Fans can even book the band to come and play a gig in their front room for their family and friends. Yes really!
You can find out more at Pledge Music.
Could another Colchester gig be on the cards? “It would be nice to play in Colchester again, so who knows?”
With a band that’s been around as long as Modern English it seems that anything is possible.