Star Apps: Midge Ure

The artist behind '80s electronic bands Visage and Ultravox chats about mobile recording and touring, phone pics, and the good, the bad, and the ugly sides of social media.

"We came to dance. The piper calls out a different rhyme. He cracks the whip and we step in time." -- Ultravox

An electro-pop pioneer, singer-guitarist Midge Ure called early-'80s club-goers to the dance floor with Visage's "Fade to Grey and Ultravox's "Vienna," "Reap the Wild Wind," and "Dancing With Tears in My Eyes." He later morphed into a philanthropic powerhouse who raised millions for famine relief, co-producing Band Aid's "Do They Know It's Christmas?" single and mega-concerts Live Aid and Live8. After scoring solo hits "No Regrets," "If I Was," "Dear God," and "Breathe," Ure reformed Ultravox in 2009 for the release of 2012's "Brilliant" album.

If you can't wait for Ure's return to the U.S. for another round of solo dates in 2014, you can get your fix by purchasing this year's 15-track "Live in Chicago" album or the eBook of his '90s autobiography "If I Was," exclusively on MidgeUre.com.

If you've never heard of Midge, Ure in for a thrill.

(Credit: Andy Siddens)
Download.com caught up with Ure about mobile recording and touring, taking pictures on his phone, the good, the bad, and the ugly sides of social media -- and most importantly, whether he downloaded Visage's recent reunion album.

Do you ever use mobile apps to create music?
I have experimented with that but it's too fiddly. I've always wanted to be in a situation where I could have mobile recording. But the idea of being able to do something on an iPad or on your phone is great, and an app like GarageBand for the iPad is fun, but it's more like a toy. The reality is that if you want to create something well, you need to be static. You need keyboards and a microphone in front of you. What I use all the time, that's better than any clever app that I have is iTalk Recorder. So when I'm driving and I come up with an idea, I can pick up my phone and hit a button and sing into it. I don't have to do anything else.

Do you think mobile music recording is a fad?
I don't think it's a fad. I think it's developing. I've seen more and more people using iPads onstage. Whether they're using them as music sources, synth sources, backing tracks, or guitar amplifiers, people are using them and there are companies making dedicated iPad stands for them. They are slowly but surely slipping into daily use.

Can you describe your touring setup?
When Ultravox goes on tour we have four laptops onstage and even the MacBook Pros are designed for use in your home or office and even the connections are not designed to be toured, so they're still very flaky things. They're stable, but we use those because that's the stability that we need. We need something that's a large screen, something with a keyboard; we need the software that's big enough to do it and an iPad hasn't quite gotten that yet. Although I saw Howard Jones a couple weeks ago and he was using iPads onstage.

What is your studio setup like?
In the studio, even before Mac purchased it, it was Logic for recording and sequencing and there's a software that comes with Mac called MainStage, which is a live version of the studio with the ability to use sounds you made during the actual making of the records, so you can have them split across your keyboards, which eliminate the 26 keyboards we used the last time we toured in 1985 or '86.

We used MainStage when we did the tour of America, recently, and on the "Live in Chicago" album. We used it on both sets of keyboards and it's instant and really quick and very easy to change. It's not a problem saying, "I don't like that string sound, let's do this." And as long as you have the software, it's really easy to use.

You're very active on Twitter and Facebook. Do you consider social media a thrill or a burden?
I think Facebook was something I probably avoided for quite some time, meaning I didn't start dabbling in it again until Ultravox got back together again, like four years ago, and I just thought it was a great way of letting them into the back door, if you will, the inner sanctum, but doing it completely painlessly. You could interact with people when you choose to interact with people, so I started tweeting and doing the Facebook thing, so people could see that Ultravox really were back together again and really were going to tour.

It was a valuable tool for information, but an interesting tool for an artist, as well, because these days there is no one fighting in your corner besides you. It's actually an incredible tool for just saying, "Hi." So if you're curious about what I'm up to, I have webcams in my studio and sometimes I do a little video or write a blog, whereas prior to the Internet we never even saw fan mail. There was no way for anyone to actually feel close to an artist.

Are there any contemporaries of Ultravox, whose social media campaigns really impress you?
I think the person that stands out in this field is Peter Gabriel. The amount of content that they come up with, and not just historic content, is amazing. They have archived everything he did, so sitting next to a video of Peter doing a concert in 1979, you'll have a new piece with Peter singing a new song or showing you what he's up to in the studio. Whether he does all this himself, I don't know, but he's certainly engaged with it, and did it much, much earlier than I ever did. He's always on the cutting-edge of the technological revolution.

Why did you launch a music social network, Tunited, back in 2009?
I wanted to redress the balance of the scale somewhat. I wanted to build a one-stop shop where fans, artists, and songwriters could go and get a fair deal, where people could come together as a collective, kind of people power in a way, and basically give them the information that they need to find and generate an income from music. It was a good idea and we almost got there and then the recession reared its ugly head and we lacked funding.

You post a lot of photos on your pages. Which is your preferred app?
The one I use the most is Camera Plus. And it's great, because you not only focus on your subject, but can change the aperture and so on, so you have more control than you would with an SLR camera. And you can put app effects on it, and there's this great Ansel Adams setting that puts everything into this beautiful, grainy, misty, black & white, and it just makes everything look fabulous. So when you're doing photographs on a mobile phone but just want to tweet or stick up on Facebook straightaway, it's probably the most flexible one I've come across.

I have a few of those: Snapseed is another good app for playing around with photographs after you've taken them. And that seems to be about it.

Do you not use Instagram?
Did I join Instagram? I get very weary of joining lots of these companies, because I'm never sure that once I've joined I've broadcast to the world my e-mail address or my home address or whatever it happens to be. But I think I did dabble with Instagram, but didn't see what it had over what I needed, which is just to broadcast photos on Facebook to the people who want to connect with what I'm doing, who will probably see them anyway, rather than broadcasting them to the entire world. It seems to be a controlled way of doing things.

If you weren't a musician, do you think you may have been a photographer?
I really didn't dabble in photographs until I joined Ultravox, back in 1979. Taking it back even further, I was born in Glasgow, where they have the Glasgow School of Art, and I thought that I really would love to go there, because I was a musician and I could draw and paint, but the reality was that it was instilled in me by my parents that I should get a job and pursue this artistic route. So I suppose the artistic bent was there, but I never got interested in photography till much later.

As a producer, you've discovered and worked with a lot of bands early on. Do you use any of the music discovery apps like Spotify, Pandora, or Rhapsody?
I've been on Spotify since it was launched. I found it an interesting thing, a great tool for instantly hearing that new piece of music that you want to check out; but as a tool for an artist, I'm not sure if it does you any favors. I think the royalty rate is very small, that I don't see how artists make money from it. As a tool for other people to hear your music, it's fantastic. It's definitely a step up from someone stealing your music and then sharing it on the Internet.

So there's some kind of recompense for it, but as it becomes more and more established, people are starting to use Spotify in situations where they normally would have had a radio playing in the background. So maybe artists can make money from it. But I think young people access new music on YouTube more than anywhere else.

Speaking of videos, Ultravox was certainly a major part of the early '80s music video revolution.
I'm guilty of helping to create the monster. The moment that pop videos came along, as beneficial as it was to the artist, it made us lazy. It kind of killed that creativity that we all have, the ability to hear one piece of music and have different interpretations of what that song's about. I think we've lost that along the line.

Watch Ultravox's iconic "Vienna" video.

In the '90s, a lot of people criticized '80s electronic music as being disposable. What are your thoughts on that?
It's easy for someone to come around and say that the music of the 80s was cold, distant, electronic, and European, and it was all of those things, but there were also some very good songs. There was fantastic music and very diverse music created in the '80s. Japan was totally different from Heaven 17, which was totally different from Duran Duran, which was totally different from Talk Talk. All those bands used the synths and the drum machines and the austere imagery and photos and videos and all that, but what we're left with is a legacy of fantastic music.

Speaking of Japan, I noticed your recent tweet about the band's late bassist Mick Karn. How did you learn of his passing?
With Mick, we found out reading our iPads. It was tweeted and that was it. But that's how you find out everything these days. But I don't think there's a good way to find out that there's been a death, but it's always better to find out on a personal level rather than in a cold and calculated way. Finding out that someone you know or someone you worked with, or someone you respect and admire died over an electronic message that's just been thrown out there, is just a little cold and calculated.

Watch the Midge Ure co-produced "Do They Know It's Christmas?" video, complete with an all-star cast.

You rung in the mid-1980s by co-producing the hugely successful "Do They Know It's Christmas?" single and Live Aid, along with Bob Geldof. Is there an app that would have made Live Aid a little easier to manage?
I spoke to a friend a year ago who had an idea about doing an app for charity, where you make it like a game. You buy bits of pieces to enhance the game and the bits are donations and I thought that was an interesting take on it, bearing in mind that we used the medium that people understood back in 1984, which was the record.

These days kids don't understand that, so maybe apps and games are the new way to connect with them and fund these. I think that would have been helpful. Just the fact that people today could download the song, it would have sold more and generated even more income.

Watch Ultravox's performance of "Dancing with Tears in my Eyes" at Live Aid.

Have you ever used the Ultravox - Return to Eden II app?
I've played with it. When we found ourselves back involved with a major record label again, and having to work on the reunion album, Live Nation needed to spread the information. They said, "How about we do an app for this?" But the app was incredibly basic and really didn't give me a lot of information other than tour dates and a little bit of video and some quotes from the band and some Twitter feeds. But I think we purposely kept it light, because rather than focus on that stuff, we decided to focus on making music, and telling people it was out there, the traditional way, which is now Facebook and Twitter.

Will Ultravox tour the U.S. anytime soon?
We're spread all over the place. Warren Cann, our drummer, lives in California; Billy Currie, our keyboard player lives in London, and Chris Cross and I both live on the outskirts of Bath. Ultravox is quite an expensive machine to fire up and carry around, with the technology involved and everything we have to carry with us, so it means we're limited by where we can get to play, although I've been working very hard trying to get the band to the States, on a tour.

You've chosen not to take part in the recent Visage reunion. Have you downloaded the band's new album?
No, but I heard the first single and thought it was fine.

Watch Midge Ure's recent performance of Visage's "Fade to Grey."

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