Midge Ure Talks Touring, Musical Evolution, and the Essence of Performance: An Exclusive Interview with The Broken Spine


Recently, the latest addition to our writing team at The Broken Spine, Dr George Sandifer-Smith got some time with the legendary, Midge Ure to discuss all manner of things. Check it out!

George Sandifer-Smith: Great to have you here for The Broken Spine.

Midge Ure: It’s a pleasure.

GSS: You’re playing you’re Catalogue: The Hits tour in Cardiff this November. Can we expect to hear hits from right back across your career, even stretching back to your work with Slik?

MU: I’m not sure I’m going to go back that far – I’m not sure my TARDIS works so well there! It’s funny because it’s a hits tour, I get that, but I didn’t want to just do the hits, I wanted to spread my musical wings a little bit and take it beyond what people know me for, I suppose – Ultravox, Visage, and solo stuff. Obviously, Slik started way back then with that, but I didn’t actually write or produce any of that stuff so I don’t feel it was mine. It was someone else’s vehicle that I was spearheading for them, so I’m not sure that I want to go back that far. But I may delve into some bits of Rich Kids from the late seventies, maybe even a touch of Thin Lizzy from my little stint with them. It just gives me the carte blanche to play what I want to play during that period. Obviously, hits will still be included because there are certain songs that if you don’t play you will never see the light of day again, you’ll be kidnapped and taken away and locked up in a box somewhere. So yes, of course, the hits are going to be there, but certain other things that might not have seen the light of day ever could quite possibly make an appearance.

GSS: Brilliant – a few surprises in store then, hopefully.

MU: Well, I hope so – some surprises for me as I haven’t made my mind up what I’m going to be playing yet!

GSS: So, in the spirit of going across your career, can we expect to hear Band Aid?

MU: Well, I’m not sure I’ll be doing that – it is its fortieth anniversary, ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas’, this year, next year the fortieth anniversary of Live Aid. So it’s a big year, and of course this tour happening in November and December brings you perilously close to the time where it’s going to be played on the radio all the time. I’m not sure people would want to hear my interpretation of it, especially as they’ve heard it in the supermarkets and walking down the street and in the car for weeks at that point. So maybe they don’t want to hear another version of it!

GSS: Talking about your interpretation of it – there’s a lot of artists who reinterpret their older material when they’re touring it later in their career. Is that something you’re planning on doing much of on tour or would you prefer to stick to the hits as people remember them?

MU: I think there’s an element of grabbing the essence of what those tunes meant. I mean, there’s nothing worse than going to see an artist that you’ve liked for a long time and it takes you ten minutes to realise that they’re playing your favourite song because they’ve changed it so much, they’ve done a drum n bass version because it happens to be current. And you think “really? I’m not sure I want to hear that, I want to hear what resonates with me, I want to revisit that moment in time when I heard that on the radio and I knew who I was hanging out with, what clothes I was wearing,” and it just envelopes you. So rather than doing carbon copies of them, to try and capture the essence, the textures, the sounds, the ambience, the atmosphere that created – it means you can still change the arrangements to keep it interesting for you as a performer, but not take it so far away as to be unrecognisable.

So yeah – I have no qualms with that at all. Prior to the tour starting, I’m talking from my little studio here, I spend weeks and weeks and weeks creating the synth sounds we’re going to be using, creating the drum sounds we’re going to be using. That’s the bit that nobody sees, the almost invisible bit. When you go to a concert, you don’t know why you enjoyed it, or why you didn’t enjoy it – could be that the lights were rubbish, or that the sound wasn’t very good, or that the band weren’t particularly good that night. But all of these elements that you have to do prior to stepping on stage all adds to making sure that you’ve had a good night, that you go in there and leave satisfied. So it’s important to me to grab that essence, rather than do carbon copies of the original songs.

GSS: Sounds like a lot of work, but very rewarding.

MU: Absolutely, and sometimes it takes longer than the tour lasts to do that stuff! You just have to be very vigilant and make sure that once you’ve done all the work you store it somewhere in case you want to go back to it at some point.

GSS: That leads quite nicely to my next question. You’ve toured impressively over the last few years, barring the pandemic. You’re often on the road which is wonderful for your fans. How do you find touring, given how much the music industry has changed over the last 15 years or so?

MU: Touring’s always been important – touring came long before making records ever happened, for most musicians. Maybe it’s different now, where you do get the opportunity to make a record prior to ever stepping on stage, with TV reality shows and talent shows. But the old school is that you went out and you played as often as you possibly could, so performing live came long before the opportunity to make a record. So performing live has always been there for me, and it’s the buzz, it’s the instant gratification, I suppose, of playing music. Looking at it recently, I’ve been in the studio working on new material, on and off, over the last ten years, to make an album. And you think that’s ludicrous – you couldn’t rely on that. So, things have changed so much in the industry that it used to be that everything was record-led. You’d make a record then you’d go on tour to promote that record. It didn’t matter if you made money on the tour or not, because people bought the record. These days, you now create a piece of music to give your tour a title. And you play some of the new music, but lots of the old music as well, because touring seems to be the be-all and end-all now.

But for me, it’s no different – I still get the same buzz, I still get the same nervousness, I still get the same excitement that second before you walk on stage. I think if I ever lost that, if I ever became complacent about going out and performing, it would be time to hang up the guitar and hang up because something’s died at that point; something’s not working, and you’re painting by numbers. So for me it’s still a major buzz.

GSS: It’s all about keeping that creative energy going, isn’t it?

MU: It’s a game of two halves, isn’t it? Being a musician, 50% of it is the live touring, the instant gratification – and 50% of it is creating new stuff, being in the studio, and racking your brains and trying to make something better than you’ve made before. But each one has its own appeal. So when you’re in the middle of doing one, the other one seems infinitely more appealing – when you’re in the middle of writing a new album, you wish you were out on tour. In the middle of a tour, you think “god, I’m fed up playing these songs, I want to write some new stuff”. But that’s alright, that’s a battle that I don’t mind living with.

GSS: In the spirit of that, you’ve collaborated with other artists a lot in your work – do you still find collaboration is still an energising process?

MU: When it happens – because it’s not something you can contrive. Record labels have contrived it for years and years and years, getting two artists together to collaborate who’ve never met and probably never did meet because they can do it individually, and it’s a money-making machine. Or there’s proper collaborations where like-minded artists get together and there has to be a reciprocal admiration going on. Why would you spend the time working with someone that you didn’t respect and admire? It just doesn’t make sense.

So over the years I’ve been really fortunate that I’ve been able to collaborate with other musicians, other singers, both in the studio and on stage. I don’t have a wishlist of people I can tick off and call up and go “Hey! I’ve got a new record, do you want to come sing on it or come and play guitar on it?” When these things happen and there’s a reciprocal respect, then good things can come of it, and I’ve been very fortunate to work with the likes of Kate Bush, or Mick Karn, or Mark King, and that to me is a real buzz. People forget that most musicians are fans of other musicians – that’s how we all got into the industry in the first place. You heard something that touched you, that resonated with you, that made you want to do that. That doesn’t go away.

GSS: If you work in an industry, you also engage with it. I’m a poet so I read a lot of contemporary poetry, but sometimes you meet poets who don’t, and I think that can be quite daft.

MU: Well, yeah! Because we are beings that need inspiration, and inspiration comes from many, many places. That’s what we build our lives and our careers and our persona on – the influence of other people, or other poets, or other writers, or other filmmakers, or other authors, and that’s what makes us the individuals we become. This culmination of all these bizarre influences. We all have a different mixture, and it’s exactly the same for music, and if you stop that, you’ve stalled – into a stalemate. So you do have to eke out bits and pieces when you hear something coming on the radio (rarely, these days!) you want to lean over and turn up. Suck that in – find out what that’s all about. And it takes you down a rabbit hole that you’ll find rubbing off on you, and that will appear in how your thought process works and your creativity.

GSS: Brilliant. For my last question, going back to the tour – this is your second consecutive year visiting Cardiff on tour, having played at the Tramshed last year, with your concert this year at the wonderful New Theatre. Do you enjoy visiting Wales?

MU: I do. I’ve been based in Bath for nearly thirty years, so Wales is just over the bridge, so yes – I’m popping in and out of Wales a lot. But it’s good to be out, when you’re performing – it’s a fallacy, when you announce that you’re touring, someone’s going to say “Oh, you’re playing my town – why did you choose not to play my town?” Artists don’t get a choice of where they get to play – you can tell your agent where you’d like to play, but it’s all down to availability, and I’ve been so fortunate on the last couple of tours. I’ve played Cardiff a couple of times, I’ve played Bath a couple of times – it’s very rare to get venues in places like Bath. I do cherry-pick as much as I possibly can where and when I can play, but it’s not a given that artists sit down and say “Well, I want to play there, and I’m not gonna play there.” Maybe some artists do – but this one doesn’t!

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