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Arts + CultureAlways mesh and lace: Modern English still melts with...

Always mesh and lace: Modern English still melts with you

The revered New Wave band, future still open wide, plays seminal album 'After the Snow' in its entirety at the Chapel

Modern English hasn’t turned their backs on their classic material. 

The British New Wave outfit’s signature hit, “I Melt with You,” is one the group looks forward to playing every time they hit the road.

Yeah, I still do,” says the group’s frontman Robbie Grey. “It’s very hard for us as a band not to like that song because whenever we play it live, everybody in the audience knows all the words, sings along, and gets excited. It’s a very atmospheric moment in the venues when we play it. What I like about the lyrics is that it’s a love song—but a dark love song.”

While the effervescent track, with its synthesizer riffs and catchy drum beats, certainly gets fans on their feet and spinning in a romantic reverie, its apocalyptic lyrics are born out of a low point in Grey’s history.

Living in England in the early ‘80s, caught between an economic downturn and the constant threat of nuclear war, the singer imagined a song about a couple making love amid an atomic bombing. 

Coming together in Modern English’s London rehearsal studio with help from producer Hugh Jones (Echo and the Bunnymen, Simple Minds, The Damned), “I Melt with You” contained softer vocals than Grey previously exhibited on the band’s darker, more confrontational post-punk debut, 1981’s Mesh & Lace—a technique the singer would go on to employ for the rest of the tracks assembled for 1982’s After the Snow.  

Once released, it became the band’s first major hit in the US—No. 7 on Billboard’s Mainstream Rock chart—thanks to heavy radio and MTV rotation and a prominent feature in the 1983 Nicolas Cage film Valley Girl.

Re-recorded multiple times over the years, including a lockdown version during the pandemic, the track remains one of the top 500 songs ever played on US radio. 

To celebrate their most definitive song and album’s 40th anniversary, they’re taking it on a major nationwide tour, stopping in San Francisco at the Chapel on Tuesday. It’s the first time the band has ever played the record in its entirety in the US.

I spoke to Grey about the show, the recording of After the Snow, and the incredible legacy of “I Melt with You.”

48 HILLS What can you tell me about your upcoming show at The Chapel?

ROBBIE GREY We are playing the whole of After the Snow but also some of the early stuff, some of the noisier stuff: “16 Days” and “Black Houses” from the Mesh & Lace album, “Swans on Glass” and “Gathering Dust,” which were early 4AD singles, and some tracks from our last album, Take Me to the Trees, from 2016. 

48 HILLS How has your relationship with the band’s three other original members changed over the years?

ROBBIE GREY Well, we’ve all aged a bit—that’s for sure. But we all just know each other very well so, as we say in England, we can take the piss out of each other, and it doesn’t matter too much. 

We’re old friends. We’ve known each other since we were teenagers so the only change I suppose would be getting older, having lives outside Modern English these days, where we don’t live near each other very much anymore. 

48 HILLS You toured 1981’s Mesh & Lace in its entirety six years ago. Why did it take so long to tour After the Snow in its entirety?

ROBBIE GREY That’s a good question. It’s funny because when we put the Mesh & Lace tour together, everybody was telling us it would never work, it would never happen, and people wouldn’t come to the concerts. But it was a fantastic tour. 

So it took this long because we did Retro Futura gigs with a lot of other ‘80s acts for a couple of years and then, of course, the coronavirus came along and stopped everything for two years. But we always intended to do After the Snow. It just took a while getting around to it.

48 HILLS When you were recording After the Snow, did you ever imagine that “I Melt with You” would become such a major hit?

ROBBIE GREY God no. No, we didn’t. We were unsure if we even liked it because it was so commercial compared to what we normally wrote; it was kind of poppy. We just always record the music we want to or how we feel at the time of the recording. We never knew that it would be a hit—not in a million years.

But “I Melt with You” has been a good friend to us all these years; it pays all the bills and we’re able to go off and write any music we want to without worrying about whether it’s going to be commercially viable or not. 

48 HILLS One thing I’ve always wondered is when you sing the lyric “Never really knowing it was always mesh and lace,” was that a nod to your previous album?

ROBBIE GREY Yeah, it kind of was. It’s a few things. Mesh and lace is good and bad, black and white, up and down.  It means the reverse of everything else, so using mesh and lace in that lyric means it’s good and bad. You’re never sure about it. 

48 HILLS During lockdown, the song, particularly the line “I’ll stop the world and melt with you,” took on a different meaning for me. Did you feel similarly?

ROBBIE GREY Yeah, we recorded a lockdown version of it from our different homes all over the world. We felt a bit like that about it, that it still resonated at that moment, maybe more than ever. 

It’s a very good song; there’s no getting away from it. And it’s a compelling lyric, an introverted kind of love song. I think at that time, everyone was feeling kind of introverted because they were stuck at home and couldn’t go out. So I think when we did the lockdown version of “I Melt with You,” it still really meant something. 

48 HILLS There are so many wonderful songs on After the Snow. What can you tell me about the recording of the album?

ROBBIE GREY Mesh & Lace, our first album, was very noisy. We couldn’t play very well when we recorded Mesh & Lace. We were just a post-punk band learning how to play our instruments but enjoying making the noise. 

With After the Snow, it’s the complete opposite. There are a lot of acoustic guitars, flutes, and violins, but a lot of After the Snow has to be credited to the producer, Hugh Jones. He became like a sixth member of the band while we recorded that album. We didn’t know much about songwriting, like the first chorus and middle eight, so he was somebody who showed us that. That was a lot to do with the recording. One of the main things was that I didn’t shout on the album. I was almost talking into the microphone. That’s something that Hugh Jones helped me do. 

48 HILLS Between global warming and coming out of lockdown, After the Snow could be the title of 2022. What does that phrase mean to you?

ROBBIE GREY The title was really influenced by the culture of our country, England, due to its weather. I think a reason that a lot of good music comes out of the UK and England, in particular, is because a lot of people spend a lot of time indoors because the weather can be quite gloomy. Spending more time indoors can lead to a lot of artistic creativity. 

Also, we recorded the album in a town in Wales, which was very beautiful with lots of nature. There are a lot of nature lyrics in a lot of Modern English’s music, so that’s incorporated in the After the Snow title as well. 

48 HILLS What’s coming up next for Modern English?

ROBBIE GREY We’re going to do this West Coast and Midwest tour of After the Snow, an East Coast tour in September, and then we’re going to start recording a new album in Upstate New York. We’ve written a lot of new music and we’re interested in getting the new material out. 

Modern English plays Tue/14, 8:30 pm, The Chapel, SF. $27. Tickets and more info here.

48 Hills welcomes comments in the form of letters to the editor, which you can submit here. We also invite you to join the conversation on our FacebookTwitter, and Instagram

Joshua Rotter
Joshua Rotter is a contributing writer for 48 Hills. He’s also written for the San Francisco Bay Guardian, SF Weekly, SF Examiner, SF Chronicle, and CNET.

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