Modern English's Robbie Grey on "I Melt With You" Fame: "It Was Literally Thrust Upon Us"
|Photo CC by 2.0, by David Sharpe via Wikimedia Commons|
|Modern English frontman Robbie Grey|
Where similar outfits enjoyed serious commercial success in their homeland but only cult-band status in the U.S., frontman Robbie Grey and Modern English achieved the opposite.
While they dutifully worked the club and theater circuit against the crowded backdrop of the New Wave scene, their star rose meteorically in the United States.
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These were the days when radio DJs were actually allowed to choose and introduce new songs, and a few clued-in jocks picked up on "I Melt With You" as an import. The song spread virally from station to station, and the rest is '80s nostalgia history, with the song blowing up into one of those slightly mournful stabs of synth-rock that came to define the decade. Meanwhile, though the song also played well back in the U.K., it never achieved the same kind of commercial lift-off there.
As smooth and undeniably chart-worthy that song was, though, much of the rest of Modern English's output sounded notably artier. The earliest material definitely tore a page from the Joy Division book, but as the years went on, the group struck a very New Wave balance between synth and technology trickery and real songwriting.
Casual fans might be surprised to know that's gone on more or less continuously since the group's heyday, with frontman Robbie Grey continuing to release new music under the Modern English name. However, the past year remarks the band's official return to form, with almost all of the original lineup now reassembled: Gary McDowell on keyboards, Michael Conroy on bass, and Stephen Walker on keyboards. (The only replacement is Rick Chandler, on drums.) Together, the group is working on a new album, with plans to record in the days following its Florida mini tour, which lands at Grand Central on Friday.
We here at Crossfade caught up with frontman Robbie Grey to chat about songwriting, the early days of New Wave, and the band's possible future plans. Here's what he had to say.
Crossfade: Coming from a younger American perspective, it seems like a lot of the bands who were your peers had the opposite situation you did. They were big back in the U.K., but they were considered underground or college bands in the States. How do you think that worked out for you all?
Robbie Grey: That's very true. Very true. But it was "I Melt With You." Taking a band like Echo and the Bunnymen, they'd play maybe New York, L.A., and Chicago. But they wouldn't be able to play Kansas City or maybe even in Florida. I don't know why that was. You just get Anglophile pockets of people in the cities.
But we were played a lot more on the radio than our peers at the time -- we were mainstream. And "I Melt With You" is still everywhere; it's incredible. I don't think any of those bands had that type of song.
You mentioned earlier that you still feel the punk ethos in your music. The early stuff was very post-punk, very Joy Division-sounding, and then it got more polished and synth-based. Were you consciously trying to shift to writing pop records?
Well, the main thing was learning our instruments. We couldn't really play when we first started. We also recorded our first album, Mesh and Lace, ourselves too, with an engineer. That's still my favorite album, by the way.
But then we got teamed up with Hugh Jones who produced Heaven Up Here by Echo and the Bunnymen. With After the Snow, the title track on that record was the first song I didn't shout on. He got me to stop shouting and just kind of talk into the microphone, making it more personable. He showed us the craft of songwriting, even though we weren't looking for it.
I wouldn't say we were synthesizer-heavy. We've always thought of ourselves as a guitar band with keyboards. We weren't looking to be commercially successful. It was literally thrust upon us, and we didn't know it was going to happen.