Linchpins of the late-70s 2 Tone ska revival, Madness are heading back to Australia for this year’s Bluesfest. The UK outfit has toured the country numerous times, but not since 2009. They’re coming back armed with material from their 11th album, Can’t Touch Us Now, which came out in October.
“We’ve never done [Bluesfest before], but there’s a first time for everything – even at the ripe old age of 56, which I am,” laughs drummer Daniel ‘Woody’ Woodgate.
Madness are no strangers to massive crowds and esteemed venues – over the past 40 years they’ve played everywhere from the main stages of Coachella and Glastonbury to Wembley Arena and the roof of Buckingham Palace. But this hasn’t diminished their thirst for novel experiences.
“Things always come along that surprise you,” says Woody. “It’s all about learning and keeping an open mind. I just let life come to me, really. We could open a fair in Northumbria or somewhere bizarre and it’d be a great gig. [The idea of] prestigious things is nonsense because each gig is special in itself.”
Can’t Touch Us Now came four years after album number ten, Oui Oui Si Si Ja Ja Da Da, and it’s the band’s fifth album since returning from hiatus in 1999. At this stage, new music stems from a natural urge to create, rather than as a way to appease commercial investors.
“You can’t force [it],” says Woody. “We’ve been through that before. In our first tenure we were under contract to do an album and then – if we liked it or not – we were still under contract to do another album. That’s completely changed. We do an album when we want. It can be fun, it can be hard work, it can be a pain in the arse, but it’s all a part of the process. And when you finally come up with this album that you’re really happy with, you want to go and play it to everyone. And then you think, ‘yeah I’ve done that, what’s next?’
“The first time ‘round, we brought out an album every single year. It was like one after the other; bang, bang, bang. This time ‘round we take about four or five years to do an album. It’s us – we drive ourselves. We do an album when we’re ready to do it. That’s why I think it works.”
Can’t Touch Us Now is the first Madness record not to feature founding member Cathal Smyth (AKA Chas Smash). While there are obviously no songs that feature his vocals, Smyth’s departure hasn’t greatly dented the band’s creative potential. They’ve continued to operate as a six-piece – made up of Woody, lead vocalist Suggs, guitarist Chris Foreman, keyboardist Mike Barson, saxophonist Lee Thompson and bassist Mark Bedford – with all members writing songs for the new record.
Throughout the band’s history, the majority of Woody’s songwriting contributions have been co-written with his brother, Nick Woodgate. This partnership might seem odd considering the creative talents of his band mates, but Woody says it’s become the easiest option.
“The people who picked up songs in the past are Lee Thompson, Cathal Smyth – he wrote ‘Michael Caine’ – and Mike Barson has picked up a couple of my songs. But it’s so sporadic and such a longwinded process that I haven’t got the patience to wait for the other band members," says Woody. “With my brother, I have an idea, I send it to him and within an hour I get something back. We do it all online and it’s constant. It just works, so why fight it? I really work well with [Nick], there’s a synergy. He and I have a brotherly understanding and there’s no fear of upsetting each other when it comes to, ‘that’s rubbish, get rid of it.’ We’re both brutal.”
Like the previous album, Can’t Touch Us Now was recorded at Toe Rag studios in East London. Madness worked alongside long time producer Clive Langer as well as studio owner Liam Watson and indie rock producer Charlie Andrew. Toe Rag is renowned for its analogue eight-track recording console and for capturing sound on magnetic tape. Madness have utilised all sorts of studio technology over the years, so they’re obviously not averse to experimenting. However, they’ve grown quite fond of the Toe Rag setup.
“[Recording to tape] does make life a little harder down the line. If something’s recorded badly or there’s a mistake in there, you’re stuck with it. And that’s kind of nice in a way. These days, with digital recording you can fix everything. We got into the thing of having loops and click tracks and it all became very sterile, whereas all the old songs used to speed up and slow down and had a bit more feel.
“There’s something nice about Toe Rag. The atmosphere is really great and the surroundings are really nice. Liam’s got these really cranky old 1960s and 70s kits which are fun to mess around with. And everyone just seems happy. You say, ‘one, two, three, four, go,’ and you record. It’s simple.”
Byron Bay Bluesfest runs from Thursday April 13 – 17, and Madness will also play Perth’s Fremantle Arts Centre on Monday April 10, Melbourne’s Festival Hall on Thursday April 13 and Sydney’s Hordern Pavilion on Saturday April 15. For information head to livenation.com.au and bluesfest.com.au.