Modern English returns
With 'Take Me to the Trees' the 4AD staple grounds classic post-punk with modern DIY methods
Ever since Modern English scored a hit with the 1982 single "I Melt With You,"the group has lingered in pop culture's collective subconscious. The song is heard during countless cinematic love scenes, from director Martha Coolidge's 1983 film Valley Girl to the Netflix original series "Stranger Things."It's also blasting on every '80s and new wave satellite radio station, and (more or) less romantically in Burger King, Taco Bell, and Hershey's chocolate commercials.
Modern English formed in Essex, England, during the wake of post-punk, circa 1979, with vocalist Robbie Grey, guitarist Gary McDowell, bassist Michael Conroy, keyboardist Stephen Walker, and drummer Richard Brown. Having signed with 4AD Records alongside artists such as Bauhaus, Cocteau Twins, Clan of Xymox, and Dead Can Dance, Modern English became a household name in the emerging tiers of post-punk and its subsets, goth, new wave, and darkwave. While the band's second album, After the Snow, changed the group's trajectory with an honest-to-goodness hit, "I'll Melt With You,"it is the previous album, 1981's Mesh & Lace, that grounded Modern English's musical roots, and still has them howling through the fog of goth dance parties.
Fast forward 35 years and Modern English has broken up, reformed twice, seen a variety of lineup changes, and recently released its first full-length album since 1996. Take Me to the Trees (released in September via InKind Music) features the group's original lineup, with all members reuniting in 2010 except drummer Richard Brown.
"When we got back into the rehearsal room, it was like the old days. It was a no-brainer,"says frontman Grey, who has carried the Modern English moniker since reforming in 1995. "In bands you need commitment. If you don't get that, nothing's gonna happen."
One thing that can be said about Modern English is that no two records repeat themselves; from the creepy, harrowing Mesh & Lace, to 1984's largely synth-driven Ricochet Days. Trees breaks new ground while distilling remnants of the past, with orchestrations from newcomer Alex Turk, new addition Roy Martin on drums, and produced by Martyn Young of Colourbox and the ahead-of-its-time outfit M/A/R/R/S (remember "Pump Up the Volume," anyone?). As such, the album vacillates between the tense rivulets of "Moonbeam"and the illustrious soundscapes of "Trees."
Albeit stripped down a bit, the new album is cut from the same songwriting elements that define After the Snow, while driven by the wild keyboards and guitar effects of Mesh & Lace.
Although "I'll Melt With You"has earned plenty of royalties, and provided the means for Modern English to carry on with its long tenure, Trees ... was recorded in a small art gallery in Suffolk, and was produced using Logic software rather than a posh recording studio. Without the pressures or restraints of a major label, the group took its time experimenting and embraced the modern, DIY ethos. While the ???80s saw independent labels gaining prominence and bands releasing their own material, the technology available to artists didn't allow them the freedom it does now.
"Recording now, if you're clever, you can do it the way you want to and not spend much money,"Grey says. "The difference from the '80s is the technology wasn't there. You had to go to studios; there was no other way of doing it. Now, anything is possible. You can do it in your bedroom if you want."
Modern English took Mesh & Lace on a special tour last year and is back on the road supporting Trees ... After all this time, and in all its tenacity, the group holds strong ties with younger fans' piqued interest in post-punk revivalism and the sounds of early 4AD and Factory Records.
"Nothing much has changed except the fact that our bodies are older,"says Grey. "We're older men playing, looking out to kids that look like we used to look 30 years ago."