Ahead of their Dublin date at the 02 on Wednesday November 28, Madness frontman Suggs talks to Harry Guerin about the band's new album, Oui Oui Si Si Ja Ja Da Da, memories and growing old very gracefully.
Harry Guerin: Apart from the title, I think the biggest compliment that could be paid to you for Oui Oui Si Si Ja Ja Da Da is that you all sound so young on it.
Suggs: People have asked me, 'Could you imagine 30 years ago that you'd still be in the flipping charts?' No, definitely no! It's a real privilege, a great feeling to know that we're still held in some sort of regard.
For the first time you've worked with a couple of different producers on the album – [longtime producer] Clive Langer, Owen Morris and Stephen Street among them. How did that decision come about?
As with all Madness decisions there were about five billion phonecalls, fights, punch-ups, loving and hugging and making up and falling out again! We sent out our tracks to a lot of different producers and we weren't really sure if we were going to use one for the whole album. We got such a great reaction from three or four different producers and on different tracks – they hadn't all just gone for the same track – that we thought, 'Well actually, let's try them all if they're that passionate about different tracks'.
The songs all stand out as possible singles but sit together as a whole.
Well, that's what we hoped. Plus the faith we had in the fact that we've always written slightly diverse kind of songs – everyone in the band writes so you're always getting slightly different songs. But once they go through the old Madness Mincer they kind of join together one way or another. We try to make each song like a little epic in itself, so things like La Luna, obviously you've got a Mariachi band [on it]. We try and do that on every track; try and make a little atmosphere within itself. But hopefully not to make something that's unlistenable as an album!
You're over in Dublin at the 02 on November 28. Can you remember the first time you played Ireland?
God almighty. There's some legend that we played the Olympic Ballroom. My abiding memory is that people were jumping off the balcony. Some of them fell on fallow and some of them fell on, y'know... Those days were a bit of blur. We were just seven teenagers in this whirlwind of fun and frolics.
What memories from early gigs do you find yourself returning to again and again?
There are so many but a real clear one is getting our first proper gig at the Dublin Castle in Camden Town. The owner there, old Aloysius [Conlon] said to us [adopts Irish accent], 'Ok lads, what's your act?' And we thought, 'Oh, it's alright – it's a proper Irish pub!' We said, 'Country and Western'. And he went, 'Go on then! Country and Western, is it?' And when seven skinny teenagers in funny suits started leaping about playing Jamaican Ska the Irish regulars were somewhat bemused. But, the fact we sold a few pints that night, he gave us a residency and that really was a big step for us. We had a regular gig every week and people would start to follow us and we were starting to get somewhere.
Some other memories?
I also remember the first record we ever made. There's a photograph somewhere and we're standing at Archway Roundabout. I've got a traffic cone on my head – that was always the case in photographs of yore. And we're holding up the single and we're all just staring at this piece of vinyl with our name on it for the first time. I remember hearing our record on the radio. It was a building site on the Holloway Road and I nearly fell in the hole trying to hear it! And then the Two-Tone tour itself was a really remarkable time when we went on tour with The Specials and then The Beat and Dexy's Midnight Runners. What a ******* tour that was; that was really something else.
Could you ever see a situation where you Dexy's and The Specials tour together again?
Yeah, definitely. We would love to do that. For a big occasion it would really be amazing.
When you were that teenager, did you have any timeframe for how long Madness would last?
We didn't even think about one or two years, definitely not. When we got that residency on the Friday night in the Dublin Castle we were all working during the week and we thought, 'This is it! We make ****** ten quid each on a Friday night and there's a few birds turning up! We've made it!' And then things just went on and on and on, way beyond our expectations. Way beyond.
These days, what gives you the biggest thrill – writing or touring?
A bit of both. The thrill definitely comes from playing live. The gigs just seem to get better and better in terms of the audience and in terms of what we're at ourselves. The band is in such a great place - I hate that word but we are. Everyone is in such a good spirit at the moment. There was a great possibility of us falling into some black hole of Eighties nostalgia in early 2000. We could've just gone 'round doing the Christmas thing. But we just thought, '**** it, if we're going to do it...' Then we did the [Liberty of] Norton Folgate album  and it was a bit like in Star Trek when you go Warp Factor Eight to get out of that black hole. It really, really worked and we got out of it! We got into outer space again and it's just a great place to be at the moment. Really great.
I look at a lot of bands who have either stayed together or got back together and think that their hearts aren't in it or they are trying too hard to be young. But that never happens with Madness. What do you think is the secret?
'Cause we're a bunch of sirry idirots! We were never that rock 'n' roll. I think 'rock 'n' roll' in inverted commas is the one that gets a bit dodgy; your leather trousers and your tassled jacket and all that can start to look a bit manky when you're over 40. But we set about our work in the same state of mind that we have now – the way we look, the sort of music we like. It's not like we've deviated to some dark corner of young popular culture or ever tried to be fashionable, really. I think we just carved our own little world.
And grew older gracefully...
I saw the Buena Vista Social Club five years ago. Ibrahim Ferrer, God rest his soul, came on stage. He was 82; he had these white trousers, a white cheese cutter hat and a white shirt. He looked brilliant. He had two walking sticks and I thought, 'Oh no, what have we let ourselves in for?' When the music started he ****** the walking sticks in the air and started dancing like a ballet! I thought, 'There's an 82-year-old man and he's doing it with some dignity. It is actually possible'. It's a state of mind, almost.
Your voice sounds great on this album. Have you taken more care of it as the years have gone on?
I'm glad you asked that question: I had my voice trained in Vienna and I must go back for it one day! I've been very fortunate with my voice. It was never a great voice but it stayed; it hasn't gone anywhere fortunately. I drink and I smoke and I shout all night and it's still there, thereabouts, whatever there is of it. I think I did my best singing on this album. You can't look backwards or forwards too much but I feel I'm becoming a better singer, but not necessarily in the classic sense. I'm more confident in what I'm doing for sure.
How's the setlist shaping up for the tour?
Good. It's going through the usual process: we've had three punch-ups about it so far! It's coming on. There's never a dull moment in Madness, I must say. You ask about the setlist and quite seriously we've had 45 emails, six band meetings, 42 arguments and three punch-ups. And we still haven't decided what it's going to be yet!
Of course you play the chestnuts and they'll always be there and they're a great joy to play. And then a certain amount of the new songs and then there are discussions about slightly obscure songs that we haven't played for a long time, just out of interest. That's when the arguing starts! After 10 albums it gets a bit complicated as to what songs are going to make it and what aren't. I think that's one of the saving graces of the band as well: the filtration process is so convoluted that nothing gets past it unless it's good.
Why do you think the bond has been so strong with Irish crowds over the years?
There's a bit of Irish in the band... I think vocabulary is one thing. I could make some cheesy parallel between the way Irish are portrayed, or were, and the way Madness were portrayed. A bit of mistaking good humour for lack of intelligence, for want of a better phrase. And I think just the fact that we like a ****** good time but we're not stupid with it.
How long do you think Madness can go on for?
In those words of those great philosophers The Eagles, 'You can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave!'
Madness play the 02 on Wednesday November 28. Oui Oui Si Si Ja Ja Da Da is out now on Cooking Vinyl.