By Sebastian Oake

THERE isn’t a wall of Marshall amps to be seen anywhere and Bradford’s very own rock band New Model Army are, unusually, playing as quietly as they can. In contrast, while the audience at any New Model Army event could hardly be labelled shy and retiring, things today are on a whole different level. The fans have been given the job of doing the singing. Charismatic and forthright frontman Justin Sullivan has relegated himself to almost a supporting role.

It’s not a normal day for either the band or the 30 volunteers who have gathered in a west Bradford club on a Sunday afternoon in February to break all the rules in the book of rock and roll. It’s a practice session for a run of dates at a London chapel in April that the band say will break new ground, where the traditional scenario of a rock group standing aloof and detached behind a defensive barrier of dry ice is swapped for a shared experience in which the audience are as important as the musicians. The events are dubbed Nights of a Thousand Voices.

We’re talking community singing where the fans will literally join the band. They will be issued with song books, the lights will be turned up and a huge swell of people will sing their hearts out to some of their favourite songs. Think of it as Gareth Malone taking a wrong turning and finding himself in the mosh pit with some unexpected results.

Justin actually came up with the idea around a year ago. “People love singing together and most people have done so, whether it’s round a campfire or in a car on the way somewhere. Singing together is the oldest and most basic form of human art, something primal and truly shared.

“And for me, when I’m on stage, I find it flattering if people want to sing along.

“What we’re doing are not gigs. The band will not be performing, just providing music. The events are not about us but about everyone.”

And what if someone finds themselves next to someone who sings really badly? “Well, I guess they should move!” Justin jokes before adding: “But it’s not about being pitch-perfect, it’s about being part of something together and not trying to become a choir.”

Gareth might be disappointed at that but he shouldn’t be. Back at the practice in Bradford, things are going well. It’s surprisingly tuneful and there is a degree of magic in the room. Twenty-eight New Model Army songs are sung, chosen from a total of around 240. During breaks, everyone mingles, band with fans, swapping stories. For the chosen 30, it’s a day to remember. Lynne Marshall, Bradford-born and bred, says: “It’s like having a band in your own front room. You couldn’t pay for that, it’s a one-off.”

Julie Gordon has travelled from Wigan to be here and says: “It’s a really good atmosphere. Justin told us to just belt it out and it didn’t matter how it sounded. It’s fun – and therapeutic too – to have a good sing-song.”

Meanwhile, Dave Hammonds has come all the way from Stourbridge in the West Midlands and has already booked tickets for all the London shows. “There was a fair amount of trepidation before we started but it all changed with the very first note of the first song. Any nerves disappeared.”

As the Bradford session comes to an end, Justin invites further suggestions for songs to sing in London. “We won’t pay any attention to what you say, of course!” he laughs, a reference to New Model Army’s famous refusal to play requests and insistence on doing just what they want regardless of expectation.

It’s time for the last song and everyone’s expecting it to be the band’s undisputed anthem, Green and Grey. But Justin has other ideas. “You know that we’re going to do that in London, so we won’t do it here,” he says. Suddenly there’s a mutiny amongst the fans who have taken over the band and Justin is forced to retreat. “Oh all right, we’ll do it,” he concedes. New Model Army have broken another rule – they’ve played their first request.

* New Model Army’s Nights of a Thousand Voices take place at the Round Chapel in Hackney, London, on Friday, April 13 and Saturday, April 14. There is a matinée on Sunday, April 15. Tickets are on