When New Model Army were recording their ‘Thunder and Consolation’ album at the Manor with producer Tom Dowd. Lead vocalist Justin Sullivan had written an album track called ‘Vagabonds’ on which they’d recorded a synthesized violin part, but they felt it needed a real violin, so one of the staff at the Manor suggested they give me a call.
When I arrived there, armed with my electric violin and effects pedals, Tom Dowd put some sheet-music in front of me and said, ‘Here! Play this!’ Fortunately I could sight-read, and after playing the basic parts, I started improvising using the digital delay. Justin liked it, and asked me to improvise an intro to Vagabonds, and play some solos on a couple of other tracks.
I returned to Oxford with my session fee, expecting to hear nothing more, but a few weeks later I got another phone call, and was told that Vagabonds was going to be released as a single, with a one minute solo violin intro, so they needed me to go on tour with them to play it live!
That was how I joined New Model Army, and the five years that followed were one long amazing adventure! I can still remember phoning my Mum after playing a sell-out gig with them in Berlin, to be told that she’d just seen me on ‘Top of the Pops’ playing on the Vagabonds video!
New Model Army were different; here was an ‘alternative’ cult band with a huge fan-base, who were not in it for the fame and fortune but were driven by loyalty and idealism, searching for ‘tribe’ and common purpose in a world gone mad. Yet they had somehow managed to secure a major record deal with EMI giving them unprecedented total artistic control over their output!
They were more like a family than a band; they looked after me, and became my close friends and companions on the road. It was a privilege and a pleasure to play with them, and I owe Justin a great debt for letting me support them at many of their shows with a solo set of my own music, exposing it to a much wider audience than I had ever dreamt of; he gave me the opportunity to experience playing live in front of thousands of people in stadiums and outdoor festivals, and between 1989 and 1994 I toured almost constantly with them all over Europe, America, Canada and Brazil, playing keyboards, guitars and mandolin as well as the violin.
Often I used to go out and busk, after the band had soundchecked, in the centre of whatever city we happened to be in; I busked across the USA and Canada, in Washington Square in New York, Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco, Seattle, Montreal, and even at the Niagara Falls!
One moment I was busking on the street, the next I was playing in front of thousands of people at the Reading Festival and Finsbury Park; supporting the Cure at Wembley Arena for the 1991 Brits awards, supporting David Bowie, Bob Dylan, Simple Minds, Duran Duran and Lenny Kravitz at major European festivals, and playing sell-out tours of Germany and the UK! I was even presented with a gold disc for 250,000 sales of ‘Thunder and Consolation’ in Germany.
When I learnt we were going to tour America again in 1991, I decided to build a new violin, this time with 5 strings and a midi pick-up. I had been to see Fairport Convention at the Cropredy festival and had spoken to their brilliant fiddle-player Ric Sanders backstage. He showed me his new Zeta violin, and I loved the sound of the pick-up, but thought the cut-away body was a bit too light, so I contacted Zeta and asked if I could buy their pick-up on it’s own to build into my own electric violin.
They were really helpful, and sold me a 5-string midi bridge and pre-amp which they sent from California together with a wiring diagram sketched in biro on the back of an envelope. Within two months I had designed and built the Purple Electric Violin, again using the Kitchen-Devil knife to hand-carve the neck and body, and also built a flight case for it with my pedal-board fitted into the base. It was ready just in time to fly to the States!
I supported New Model Army across America with solo sets featuring the ‘Purple Electric Violin Concerto’, which had now finally taken shape after years of busking, and it went down so well with the US audiences (getting a standing ovation in Los Angeles at the Whisky a Go Go!), that when I got back to Oxford I decided it was time to record a definitive version of it.