Arts

Madness are still nutty about Belfast

As musical legends Madness prepare to headline Belsonic tomorrow night, David Roy quizzes frontman Suggs about festivals, their forthcoming new LP Can't Touch Us Now and nicking statues from hotels in Norway

Madness, with Suggs (centre), who headline Belsonic on Saturday August 20

HI SUGGS, are you looking forward to playing Belsonic again?

(singing) ~ I just met a girl, called Belsonic ~

Of course we're looking forward to Belsonic, we've always had the greatest times in Belfast, right from the early days.

We had a few good nights at the The Europa Hotel back then and Ireland has always been a great place for Madness in general.

We've always gone down a bomb.

In 1992 Madness made a triumphant comeback at the first Madstock! festival in Finsbury Park. Now you're about to launch House of Common festival on Clapham Common on August 29 featuring legends like Toots & The Maytalls and Lee 'Scratch' Perry. How did that come about?

Well, the main thing is that I've never been south of the Thames before – I thought it was just a load of old tinkers and gypsy encampments but apparently there's civilisation over there.

It started as a bit of a joke, really. The original idea was just to do a nice festival somewhere outdoors in London in August, so when Clapham Common came up as a possibility we thought we'd have a bit of fun with it.

Because we'd already done a lot of big things in north London, we thought we'd play on that old joke about London's north/south divide.

We even made a little film to promote it where we did this whole skit about trying to find Clapham Common on the Tube map, taxi drivers refusing to take us there and so on.

'Roots' would be a preposterous word to apply to a load of old honkys from north London, but really we just wanted to play with people we loved.

For this festival we thought we'd put the emphasis on the ska and reggae stuff that really got us going when we first started.

We've got a really nice bill of DJs and acts who reflect that side of our love of music.

On the subject of music, your new album Can't Touch Us Now is due out in October. What can you tell us about it?

The album is sounding great. We recorded quite quickly in this little eight track studio and it's full of enthusiasm and vim and vigour.

Over the past couple of records (2009's critically acclaimed The Liberty of Norton Folgate and Oui Oui, Si Si, Ja Ja, Da Da from 2012) we've got back to collaborating a little bit so that all of us are writing songs together again, which was always the great thing about Madness.

While most bands make their best records when they're young, there have been exceptions. Before Norton Folgate we hadn't made a record for about five years and I really thought 'f*** it, if we make one record I'm really proud of, it will prove a point – even if we fizzle out afterwards'.

Thankfully, it was a big one for us and we've just gone on from there. We have been fighting hard not to be sucked into the black hole of 80s nostalgia.

In addition to curating your own festival, Madness played Glastonbury for the third time back in June and the band are always in huge demand at similar events right across Europe. A lot of bands complain about the technical difficulties associated with playing festivals – are Madness immune to such problems?

Yeah, it's a tough life, being carried shoulder high through the crowd when one of the monitors doesn't work.

No, we thoroughly enjoy festivals – and they're a lot better than they used to be. When we started out, festivals were were just for hippies and smelly people.

We had nothing to do with them, but in the last 10 years the way they are organised and the kind of people who come to them has improved so much.

You get such a cross-section nowadays. I went to Latitude with this kid from our management company and he told me he was going to meet his parents there – his f***ing parents! Can you imagine saying that a few years ago?

We're now playing to audiences who might not necessarily have paid to come and see Madness – thousands of people who may just have come to check us out for the first time.

In the last five years, that has snowballed to the point where everybody wants us to play at every one of their festivals because, mostly, the audience have a good time.

At Glastonbury they told us it was the biggest turn-out they'd ever had. That was a real privilege – I don't know if the rest of the bill was a bit weak this year or what, but we certainly got the biggest crowd.

For your Glastonbury debut in 1986, Madness were on at the same time as the infamous England v Argentina World Cup quarter final match. Do you remember that one?

I remember we had a tiny little black and white television in the corner of the stage that we could barely see (indeed, Suggs can be heard asking the crowd about the score on the bootlegs of the gig).

The third Madstock! in 1996 was the same night as England in the quarter finals of the Euros against Spain, when it went to extra time and penalties.

We knew that the result would have a massive impact on what the gig was going to be like, but the pub we landed in beforehand didn't have a TV – so someone went and got one and they balanced it on the mantelpiece so we could watch.

In the excitement of the penalties, someone jumped up – and the f***in' telly fell off the mantelpiece and smashed on the ground.

So we didn't know whether England had won or not – until we got outside and everyone was running around and screaming, going mad in the streets (England won 4-2). Then we had a big cavalcade all the way up to Finsbury Park.

You'll be back in the north again next week for the Open House Festival's Talking Musical Revolutions event (Saturday August 27) when you'll be 'in conversation' with journalist and long-time Madness fan Gavin Martin. What can we expect?

We can't turn down Gavin! We've had some nights with him, let me tell you. He's been there since the beginning.

Gavin was supposed to be the one reporting our bad behaviour, but we once had to rescue him from a police station. We'd moved this statue from our hotel half-way up the motorway and of course he didn't run fast enough and got caught.

Ask him about the time in Norway when the lenses fell out of his glasses. Bloody hell, don't get me going.

I'm really looking forward to that and I'm going to do a bit of DJing the next day too.

They're asking me to play some ska and reggae – and do you know what? I know a little bit about that.

:: Madness, Saturday August 20, Belsonic, Titanic Belfast. Tickets and line-up info at Belsonic.com. Open House Festival tickets and info at Openhousebangor.com.

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