Like many graduates of Synth Britannia, Midge Ure first became interested in electronic music when in 1975, KRAFTWERK’s ‘Autobahn’ hit the UK singles charts.

Already using Yamaha’s flagship SG2000 guitar, in 1977 he was able to negotiate with the Japanese company to make his first synth purchase, a CS50, at half price. At the time, he was a member of THE RICH KIDS with Glen Matlock, but with THE SEX PISTOLS refugee preferring Hammond organs and brass sections to Minimoogs, the inevitable musical differences ensued.

Breaking away with drummer Rusty Egan in 1978, the pair recruited Steve Strange as vocalist and formed VISAGE. It became a platform to create modern electronic dance music influenced by the likes of DAVID BOWIE, KRAFTWERK, LA DÜSSELDORF, YELLOW MAGIC ORCHESTRA that could be played at Egan and Strange’s ‘Club For Heroes’. Another band who Egan and Ure loved from that period was ULTRAVOX; their multi-instrumentalist Billy Currie was invited to join the sessions for VISAGE’s debut album and this eventually led to Ure joining ULTRAVOX.

In 1985 while juggling ULTRAVOX and his work with the Band Aid Trust, Ure released his debut solo album ‘The Gift’ which spawned the rousing No1 single ‘If I Was’. Two further albums ‘Answers To Nothing’ and ‘Pure’ followed.

But in 1993, he went ‘Out Alone’ on an intimate tour which saw Ure performing on his own, accompanying himself primarily on just an acoustic guitar. In 1995, his fourth solo album ‘Breathe’ signalled a new direction with a more Celtic feel and traditional instrumentation. Although initially the album had a slow start, Swatch chose the title track to accompany a well-received advertising campaign. As a result, the album became a massive seller all over Europe.

Ure has been particularly busy over the last 6 years. The successful live reunion of ULTRAVOX with the classic line-up of Warren Cann, Chris Cross and Billy Currie in 2009 led to the recording of 2012’s ‘Brilliant’ album. 2014 saw the release of ‘Fragile’, his first solo album of original material for over 12 years. A striking return to form, it included a number of poignant songs such as ‘Become’, ‘Dark Dark Night’, ‘For All You Know’ and ‘I Survived’.

But for 2015, 20 years on from its original release, Midge Ure is performing the ‘Breathe’ album its entirety as part of an ongoing concert tour, augmented on stage by Cole Stacey and Joseph O’Keefe from INDIA ELECTRIC CO. He kindly took time out from rehearsals and chatted about the ‘Breathe Again’ tour and much more…

Out of your solo albums, why have you chosen ‘Breathe’ as the one for the full length live showcase treatment?

A lot of my solo albums go through hell before they’re actually released. ‘Fragile’ took a long time to come and ‘Breathe’ was one of those albums where the record company, in their infinite wisdom, decided to A&R me after all these years! They wanted me to not use the same musicians, not to record in the same studios, not to produce the album myself… so they asked me to gather a whole bunch of songs which I did and I ended up with a producer I could work with, Richard Feldman who had done an album for the model and actress Milla Jovovich which was a great album.

So I made ‘Breathe’, it was fantastic and I delivered the album, only to have it sit on a shelf for a year while BMG started sorting out their internal problems. It was a hideously frustrating process to go through, and when it finally came out, the first two years of its life, it was the worst selling record I’d ever made.

So until Swatch came along and picked up the title track thanks to a fan in Italy, the album was an absolute disaster. But because of a TV commercial, it turned the entire thing round. It bounced all around Europe and was a big record eventually. I thought how good it would be to play the album in its entirety because I’ve never done that before.

At the time it was released, it was a departure from what you were known for, with a lot of traditional instrumentation?

It was more organic… there was still electronics involved with samples and stuff like that, but I think it’s just what you end up doing. You try to run a million miles from what you’re known for and it’s all part of the process of finding your own feet and trying to decide what you are and what you want to do. Part of that process would have been turning my back on the standard synthesis and rediscover my Scottish roots.

So the idea of doing something more organic had a bit of oomph to it, and was quite appealing at the time. I don’t think you’re the same person your entire life and you go through phases like chapters in a book. So when you get to chapter twenty five, you’re a very different person to the one who started off in chapter one. It was just another phase of discovery. To me, the important part of it was the quality of the songs, not just necessarily the instruments enhancing the songs.

A lot of ‘Breathe’ was recorded in America?

It was, yes… Richard Feldman is an American guitarist / producer and we did an awful lot of it at his place but a good chunk of it at mine in Bath.

There appeared to be some Country music vibes creeping in?

You know what, I’m not quite sure about that… I think Country and traditional music are all very intermingled. Country music is just music from the country it’s sourced from.

So country music would be Scottish or Irish or whatever, and it was when it got to America, it became Western. Country & Western music is based in roots music, it’s all the stuff I would have been taught as a kid in school.

The title song turned out to be one of the biggest songs of your career internationally, yet it is one of your lesser known ones in the UK?

Yeah, very much so… quite simply, the TV advert didn’t run in the UK, only on satellite channels so it didn’t get the same exposure here. And of course, good ol’ Great Britain, the radio didn’t play it even though it was No1 in the whole of Europe.

There was a European chart that was an overall one for the whole continent including the UK, and for months and months, it was the No1 record! Yet UK radio chose not to play it! So there’s nothing much you can do about situations like that. You put it out and hope for the best. And sometimes you don’t get the best…

You roped in Robert Fripp to play on ‘Guns & Arrows’. What was it like working with him?

It was great, he’s lovely guy and a brilliant guitarist. You know, to have the guy who played on ‘Heroes’ play on one of your tunes is quite spectacular. It was very fortuitous actually, because he was in Los Angeles when I was recording there and I went to Dave Stewart’s studio just across the road from where I was. Robert was there and he said “of course I’ll play on the track, but do you mind if I bring 20 Japanese guitar students?”; I said it was fine and I had this bizarre scenario of Robert playing his fabulous Frippertronics thing in the recording room and in the control room looking through the glass window were these Japanese kids, all jotting down everything he did and said, with him lecturing “this is Midge… this is his song… I’ve known Midge a while… what I’m going to do is this…” – so he’s playing these textures and explaining it to these Japanese kids, it was most surreal but a great thing to happen.

You also had Shankar playing a blistering violin solo on ‘Live Forever’, how are you reinterpreting the album on the ‘Breathe Again’ tour with the guys from INDIA ELECTRIC CO?

The INDIA ELECTRIC CO guys play a variety of instrumentation and there’s only two of them.

So there’s three of us on stage but we manage to cover a lot of stuff. For three people, we’re making quite a big noise. Joseph O’Keefe who plays violin is just spectacularly good as a musician. He’s one of these guys who can hear in a cacophony that one string is out of tune. Him and Cole Stacey are both incredible, but they’re so versatile and jump between instruments all the time.

I’m very pleased with how it’s gone. Even though the album wasn’t a huge success in the UK, the reaction it’s had so far has been phenomenal. The response of people has just been great, whether they knew the album or not. I was a little wary of going in and playing an entire album live of material that some of the audience wouldn’t know at all, but it seems to be irrelevant. They seem to be hooked on the textures, the melodies and the atmospheres. So maybe I’m just under estimating the audiences taste.

Of course, ‘Breathe’ is only so long, so you will also be playing material from throughout your career. How are you deciding which songs to play, especially as a fair number of your best known songs are synth based and are being rearranged for a more organic setting?

Well, I think that the song itself will dictate whether it can fit in that format or not, but I’ve been quite surprised at the ones which really sell; ‘Fade To Grey’ works brilliantly in this format as does ‘Lament’. And ‘Vienna’ works well! You would think, how could you recreate a song like that and get away with no drums, no bass, no whatever… you treat it differently, you just look at the song as an entity, it is its own thing and it’s like a salad; it changes flavour depending on what dressing you put on it.

So a song just changes it flavour by whatever dressing you put on it, so it changes whether you’re doing it electronically, doing it with a rock band or doing it with acoustic instruments. The song should be malleable and pliable, and still work as a song. But I have to say, some stuff we’re doing that’s not from the ‘Breathe’ album is working a treat. In fact, some of it is going down better than the ones designed to be played in that format.

Has there been a song you’ve loved and tried to do in this organic three piece line-up but that hasn’t worked?

Not really, although I shied away from doing ‘Dancing With Tears In My Eyes’, because I’m not quite sure how it would work in that format… maybe that’s just me being a coward.

But then again, I’ve been doing it solo acoustic for quite a long time now and it seems to work when it’s stripped right down. It’s down to the quality of the song.

I remember when the ‘Breathe’ album came out at first, and with the band I’d got to back it up, we couldn’t get ‘Live Forever’ to work. It just didn’t sound right and I scrapped it. So we never played ‘Live Forever’ live; but with the three piece, it works brilliantly! Don’t ask me why! It just does, it gels and has become a firm favourite in the current shows. I don’t know, maybe the ones you suspect will work, don’t! And the ones that won’t, do! You just have to be surprised and go with the flow! *laughs*

You released the excellent album ‘Fragile’ in 2014, how do you look back on its reception?

It was better than I expected in a lot of areas and no worse than I kind of expected. Some of the great stuff was really great. But there was one review that called it “Ultravox lite”; I didn’t get that at all because I think it’s a very different animal to ULTRAVOX.

A lot of places got it, The Huffington Post review put it in the Top 10 albums of 2014, even in America which is spectacular for an album that maybe a lot of people in America wouldn’t understand. But I think because it was something real, raw and honest, I think I came up with a very interesting album with a very good, strong batch of songs. I think some of the songs are the best that I’ve ever done. I spent a long time on it and poured my heart and soul into it. I didn’t listen to anybody outside telling me or guiding me how to do it, I just did exactly what I felt at the time.

MIDGE URE fragileTracks like ‘Wire & Wood’ and ‘Bridges’ reminded people of your aptitude for instrumentals, so would soundtrack work interest you in the future?

It’s always interested me but it’s never come my way properly, other than a few small independent movies, that was good fun and great to do. I always thought ULTRAVOX should have been doing soundtracks with that Germanic synthesizer feel.

People like Trent Reznor who have been involved in electronics are doing soundtrack work… it never came ULTRAVOX’s way, but maybe we wouldn’t have been very good at it! Who knows? But the music kind of lent itself to that cinematic openness and atmospherics.

Are there any intentions to perform songs from ‘Fragile’ with a full band rather than in an acoustic setting?

We’re doing ‘Become’ and ‘Fragile’ in the ‘Breathe Again’ show… ‘Fragile’ lends itself well to that format because it’s a delicate little thing. I would LOVE to do the entire ‘Fragile’ album with a band, but it’s down to necessity, demand and cost… putting a full band together and major rehearsals, it’s a very costly thing to do. And I’m wary of piling on the ticket price to make an audience pay for it. So it’s something that would have to be well thought out, to do it properly and do it well. But I’d love to get my teeth in there and play the entire album.

You used Melodyne for both ‘Fragile’ and ULTRAVOX’s ‘Brilliant’ album but got some criticism for it. I find it quite strange that some electronic music fans have a problem with voice processing technology, especially when you used the equivalent period aesthetic on the third verse of ‘New Europeans’ for example… how do you see it?

I think anyone who cuts out processing or techniques in any form is just stupid! It like saying “why would you want to record on a computer when you’ve got tape machines?” or “why would you want to record digitally when you’ve got analogue?”. People don’t progress that way!

If I was somebody who couldn’t sing and had to pitch vocals or do all sorts of stuff to make it sound in tune, of course, then I should be pilloried for it! But I’m not!

I use it for effect… my hearing pitch has got better and more refined over the years, so anything that’s slightly out for me, I want to get that right! But that nobody else can hear it… I used to drive ULTRAVOX crazy! It’s a bit like with my new glasses that are scratched in the middle of the lens, nobody can see it but I can!

So there’s nothing wrong with effecting something to make it the best it can possibly be, if that’s what you want to achieve. It’s very different hiding behind something because you’re not good enough. And it’s very different from being good enough, and making it better.

I don’t use it all the time, it’s a tool and no different from any of the plug-ins that I use when I make music. It’s a bit like saying “why do you use reverb on your voice?”… well, it’s because it suits the song and makes it more interesting.

And when you you’ve already recorded something and then think “oh, I wish I’d played that as a minor!”, why wouldn’t you use a tool that would allow you to do that without having to re-record the entire thing? You can adapt it and change it… music should be malleable, you should be able to play it ‘til you’re blue in the face. Some people are just anal to tell you the truth! *laughs*

How was the ‘Brilliant’ experience for you and recording with ULTRAVOX again? It seemed reinvigorate you?

Yeah, it’s funny because people think I did ‘Fragile’ after ‘Brilliant’, it was 80% there! But ‘Brilliant’ was what sparked me up to actually finish it.

So a lot of the textures, sounds and character of the ‘Brilliant’ album kind of stemmed from my dabblings on ‘Fragile’ where I’d run out of steam… I didn’t see the point of finishing it, I was making an album that only a handful of people would appreciate.

It was just me being a twat really, but that’s the feeling you get! You think “what’s the point of putting your heart and soul in it?” So doing the ‘Brilliant’ album with the guys was the spark that I needed. It gave me the incentive to think “WOW! There’s something still there!”, because any artist is full of self-doubt… the first thing you think isn’t “the record company were crap” or “the radio are rubbish for not playing it”, but “maybe I’m not good enough”. You look at yourself first and foremost.

That’s the process I went through and the whole get-together with ULTRAVOX was just such an enjoyable thing. I’m very proud of that record, I think we did a great job and it gave me the boost I needed to get on and finish my own record.

What is the state of play with ULTRAVOX?

I haven’t seen Billy since we walked out of the O2 after the SIMPLE MINDS show, I haven’t seen Warren as he’s in Los Angeles but Chris has just texted me. We always said we were never getting back together to take over the world as a band and pretend we were a bunch of teenagers, we all have other things that we do.

And we said that if and when something interesting pops up, we would get-together and do it. But right now, there’s no “yes, we’re doing something” and there’s no “no, we’re never doing anything again”. It’s just there resting on a shelf.

You’ve under taken quite a number of collaborations recently with MOBY, SCHILLER, LICHTMOND and JAM & SPOON, have you any more planned?

I’ve never planned a collaboration to tell you the truth, it sort of lands on your lap. All of those you mentioned, they approached me and if I find it interesting, I’ll work on something, especially these days when it doesn’t involve jumping on a plane and disappearing from home for a week. It’s all done via the internet these days, someone sends you an idea for a track and you stick it on your computer. You start chopping it around, write new bits for it, do some lyrics, record a vocal, email it back to them and they assemble it at their place. It’s making collaborations much easier.

What’s been your favourite collaboration?

My favourite collaboration? KATE BUSH ‘Sister & Brother’… what a joy to go to my grave knowing that KATE BUSH and I are on the same piece of music, how cool is that?

Photo by Paul Cox

Was further collaboration with the late Mick Karn ever a realistic proposition following ‘After A Fashion’ in 1983, other than those aborted JBK sessions that spawned ‘Get A Life’ and ‘Cry’ on your ‘Little Orphans’ rarities CD?

We did some stuff in Montserrat, Mick came out for a couple of weeks and did some basic grooves, textures and backing tracks…

There’s a copy of it somewhere but I’ve never tried to complete any of it. We never got round to doing it, it was just one of those things. We talked about various projects, but we never got over the dabbling stage and never got seriously into it, which is a pity.

The JBK thing never got any further than those two tracks, all those guys who were in JAPAN are incredibly talented, and that would have been an interesting collaboration, but it never really happened. The idea was to put a band together, but I didn’t want to be the singer and we could never come up with someone who could take over the vocals. If I sang it, it would have been too much like me or ULTRAVOX, so it kind of fizzled out.

You wrote ‘Personal Heaven’ with Glenn Gregory of HEAVEN 17 and recorded it with X-PERIENCE, have you ever considered doing a collaborative EP or anything with him?

We’re probably better mates than collaborators! But yes, nothing is out of the question, especially with somebody like Glenn, he’s such a joy to be around and a lovely guy. And these days, you can do it without confusing people… you can go off and just do a little sideline. But back in the ULTRAVOX days, you couldn’t really do it, that’s your band, that’s what you do and you should never step outside that. So these days, it’s great to just go out and collaborate with people, I fully enjoy the whole process. So it’s a good idea Glenn and I getting together and doing a few songs ever so often, to see what we come up with.

Photo by Gabor Scott

Of course, your best known collaborative project was VISAGE and we lost Steve Strange recently. Have you had a chance to reflect back on that clourful period at The Blitz Club?

You can’t help for all that stuff to go around your head, it was a major part of my life and Steve was a major part of that period.

It was just dreadfully sad, the whole thing… it was just pathetic and horrible. Y’know, I’m not sure what he was doing towards the end, VISAGE was never meant to be a live act.

It was a studio project and meant to be a ‘Willo The Wisp’ thing that you couldn’t really grab hold of it cos it disappeared… that was the whole concept Rusty Egan and I came up with, it was just a passing thing. But Steve looked like he was having fun doing it.

I hadn’t seen Steve for a year and a half, two years or whatever prior to his passing, so it sparked off all the memories and all the fun stuff. Like the challenge of putting something like VISAGE together from a variety of different bands who were all still in existence and touring. So trying to put them all in the same place at the same time was a tall order.

The majority of the initial VISAGE recordings were done in Martin Rushent’s studio which was a little house in the bottom of his garden which had all his equipment in. Martin used to come down and watch we were doing, he’d never seen or heard anything like it, all these electronics. He used to hang about every night watching what Rusty and I were up to, watching Billy doing his sequencing and things like that, it was great. He was coming down with notebooks to learn how it all worked, and then went off and made THE HUMAN LEAGUE’s ‘Dare’ album! *laughs*

It was very beneficial, he gave us studio time because it was his label who was originally putting the stuff out, but he won because he got to make ‘Dare’ which was fantastic.

What’s next for you after the ‘Breathe Again’ tour?

There’s some dates in Germany and Dubai at the end of the year. But I’ve got to get back in the studio and carry on writing, now that I’m fired up. I want to keep that momentum going, I don’t want it to be another 12 years… I’m not sure I’ve got another 12 years, so I just want to get on with it! *laughs*

ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK gives its warmest thanks to Midge Ure

MIDGE URE’s ‘Breathe Again’ Tour 2015 includes:

Gateshead Sage (27th June), Southport Atkinson (28th June), Bury St. Edmunds Apex (17th September), Andover The Lights (September 18th), Redhill Harlequin (19th September), Falmouth Princess Pavilion (1st October), Porthcawl Grand Pavilion (2nd October), Cheltenham Tithe Barn (3rd October), Wolverhampton Wulfrun Hall (4th October), Preston Guildhall Charter Theatre (14th October), Ulverston Coronation Hall (15th October), Leamington Spa Assembly Rooms (16th October), Hunstanton Princess Theatre (17th October), Lincoln Drill Hall (22nd October), London Union Chapel (23rd October)

Text and Interview by Chi Ming Lai
1st June 2015