INTERVIEW! JJ Burnel on the Stranglers upcoming album/2019 tour and the band after Jet Black and much more
The Stranglers March 2019 tour tickets available from here
Celebrating the elements, the Stranglers are in the middle of a three-pronged creative assault. Whilst they prepare for their annual triumphant March tour celebration of their own history with the added spice of several new songs lined up to add to the classic set (tickets available from here), they are also in the middle of writing and maybe even recording the much anticipated new album which is slated for an early 2019 release but which LTW feels maybe more likely later in the year. There is also a much-needed documentary, ‘The Stranglers – the movie’ on the band for release next year – a crowd-funded affair which will attempt to cram in the band’s complex story full of wild anecdotes into one film.
The 2019 tour theme seems to be renewal. New music. New horizons.
In the past few years, since the last album, 2012’s Giants, the band’s tours have been dealing in their long and darkly entertaining history. There was the Black and White tour where they explored the nuances of, what we like to argue is the first post-punk album, an album where the trad roles of instruments were reversed and each member played lead at the same time in a thrillingly effective and stark terrain that laid the template for so much post-punk that resonates to this day. There have been greatest hits sets with curveball cuts from deep in the archive and there have been raids on all corners of that holy back catalogue as a celebration of the hitsinblack that somehow peppered this most idiosyncratic of bands careers. It seems like the 2019 tour will be about the thrill of the new and band promise up to 5 new songs in the live set played one or two per night, blooding the new album, entwining the new songs with that hit-laden back catalogue.
There was a time when it seemed utterly normal for a band as quirky as the Stranglers to have hits. Not only were they dealing a tough, gnarled music on their own terms, they were also turning them into pop classics. It all seemed so effortless even as the glided into the left field, brooding pop of the eighties. Of course, post-Hugh Cornwell, the ship may have seemed, initially rudderless, but for more than a decade, they have found their Mojo after straight speaking guitar player Baz Warne reminded them of all the hallmarks of their greatness and recreated the creative partnership that Burnel badly needed.
The annual spring tour is a celebration of the group and its devout world of fansinblack which each year gets bigger and bigger – they are one of the few old school bands who can effortlessly sell out the 3500 capacity Manchester Apollo and make it feel like an intimate and sweat-shod night which we always look forward to but with the added spark of new songs its got an extra edge.
It’s time to add to the catalogue and even a greatest hits set as good as this is, needs new spice. Many bands get away with dealing their one or two hits to the grave but credit to the Stranglers, there is still a curiosity about creativity and there are still musical and lyrical stories to tell.
The 2019 tour could well be defined by these new songs which the band’s iconic canonic bassist JJ Burnel is explaining.
‘We like to try and play the new songs live before we record them. We won’t play all the new songs every night – maybe one or two different ones at each gig. Playing new songs sees them change every night and that extra edge they get is better than rehearsing them forever. We don’t want to play the whole new album or all the new songs live because people require the hits of course. People come for the big songs and we appreciate that and, in reality, only ten really hardcore fans will want to only hear new songs!’
The band, have form for this though, in 1979 they played the whole of The Raven live before it was released at Wembley stadium of all places – a quite audacious move.
‘Although it was supporting the Who so it was less pressure on us than if we had been headlining.’ explains JJ.
With the new songs like Men On The Moon, Anger and White Stallion being talked about by the bassist to add to the new song we got last year – the almost prog-like, flowing, Water, it feels like the theme of the 2019 tour is renewal – a band pushing forward with Water already showing signs of something really specials sounding both fresh and new.
Water bears all the hallmarks of classic Stranglers, with effortless, yet complex time structures, a clever construction of lots of parts spliced together building and ebbing and flowing with a running bass, those bubbling keyboards that sound like running water and an infernal chugging guitar with that prowling whiff of danger and a shape-shifting rhythm and a classic Burnel croon in a baroque beauty of a melody that, like many of their best songs, takes the powerful metaphors of nature and reflects them in the music. It’s a great song.
‘I guess we have used a few nature metaphors in our career,’ chuckles JJ Burnell, ‘maybe we will use them less when the water runs out! The song is actually a geopolitical song which we have played live already on the last tour. We are still working on that song now and finishing it off. It’s about the Arab spring and the Middle East and the situation there and the importance of water and what happens if it runs out.’
There is a complexity to a song like Water, dare I say, an exploration of the prog side of the Stranglers and I say that as a compliment as we have all thrown of the media driven anti-prog shackles of 1977, shackles that the Stranglers were never trapped by at the time, releasing complex yet driving songs like Peasant In The Big Shitty.
‘Prog Stranglers?!’ laughs JJ, ‘they called us punk prog in the seventies – probably with a sneer! but we have always been true to ourselves, Water is 6/8 time with lots of different parts put together which makes it seem prog perhaps?’
A complex yet flowing (ha!) piece is Water’s neo-prog the direction we can expect from the new Stranglers album.
‘The new songs are quite varied of course – it’s the Stranglers after all! There are more complex pieces with lots of pieces joined together to songs about the geopolitical situation but also songs about love and two songs that are almost like pop songs. For the Stranglers. Unfortunately, there is a lot of scope these days to write songs about the geopolitical situation. The world is in turmoil and that affects the songs and there is plenty of scope for that kind of subject matter. This is a century of dictators like Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, who you don’t hear so much about because of the more high profile leaders like Putin in Russia or Erdogan in Turkey or even Trump. The world is changing fast, White Stallion is about the end of western imperialism and the rise of the east and the title is another metaphor.’
There is also the song intriguingly called Anger. Is this perhaps a coming to terms with youthful JJ or perhaps in keeping with the new world disorders.
‘It’s an instrumental actually! It’s also the heaviest thing we have ever done. A really dense piece of work.’
New songs prove that the Stranglers, after 45 years, are still trying to go forwards and make new records. They may have a back catalogue that is embedded in the national psyche – the sort of songs that pepper film soundtracks, TV programmes, ads and jukeboxes – the kind of music that has become part of the national soundtrack and can be wallowed in but there is a curiosity to move forward – it’s a curiosity that saved them in 2004 when they released Norfolk Coast and an album that showed that they had rediscovered their style of dark brooding malevolence and was further explored on the next two albums 2006’s Suite 16 and 2012’s Giants.
Now living in the south of France in the countryside near Nice, the 66-year-old JJ Burnel is still living a life dominated by music, motorbikes and karate and framed by the elements.
‘I live in the mountains in the south of France. We get amazing storms down here when the power is cut off and the sky is full of energy. Sometimes I just fuck off on my motorcycle for a few days to find peace of mind with a sleeping bag and get lost in the back roads which really helps the creative process.’
The jagged wild weather and French hills still can’t block out the overriding images of a world falling apart that have infected the new songs.
‘There’s plenty to write about in the world today, unfortunately. Trump, the century of dictators, Europe falling apart. I like to observe the world and know what’s happening and it’s reflected in the songs. I have 160 bits of songs recorded on my mobile phone, bits of ideas that I record as I go along. I just need the time to go through and cull the ideas. So far we have 6 or 7 nearly finished and most of them we will play live to finish them off because it’s better than rehearsing. It really concentrates the songs. The Stranglers rehearse a lot. We are together a lot. A lot more than other bands I speak to. I’m always surprised that other bands don’t rehearse that much. We like playing together and talking together about the songs. Most bands I know don’t rehearse and we rehearse a lot because we enjoy each other’s company. We have been busy in the past few years – there’s been a lot of touring and we just needed time to write the album and we are looking to start recording soon.’
One of the classic hallmarks of the Stranglers was the iconic, heavy, growly bass lead bass lines played nowadays JJ’s custom-built Jon Shukar bass player through Ashdown JJB500 amps added to the fairground keys, unconventional jazz-tinged drumming and and discordant guitar with sublime melody, few bands have managed to combine such disparate sounds so well and create so many broad and different versions of their own sound.
They also have an unconventional melodic prowess – not the tried and tested blues-based melodies of rock n roll but a symphonic, almost European classical feel which you can hear in the Burnel inspired classics with their longer, swooping, instrumental pieces with off-kilter unusual melodies like Down In The Sewer, Toiler On the Sea, Midnight Summer Dream and in the new songs like, Water. Songs, where it felt like the Stranglers, were, perhaps, based more in a European classical than in American 12 bar roots. The Chassis of their music may have been initially a blues rock but fundamentally it’s actually very European.
‘Well, I listen to all types of music and I like to explore outside rock n roll. Melody is important to me and I also listen to and like a lot of classical music like Debussy, the Estonian composer – Arvo Part – is he still alive? even Elgar and also Wagner of course!’
Was this a deliberate negation of the monolithic power of the USA or just an embrace of swooping European melodies. A less confrontational embrace of a deeper culture than rock n roll and Americana that the band was famously and quite literally sent up in flames where they burned an American flag back in the punk wars.
‘Of course, culturally America is a powerhouse and it was a big initial influence on us but we like to explore so much more that is out there.’
Curiously much of Burnel’s writing then and to this day has been on the totemic bass guitar – an instrument he reinvented in the punk and post-punk era. With his roots on the classical and even flamenco guitar he was always going to reconstruct the style of bass playing and, whilst, he still writes occasionally on the lesser six string it’s the bass that he often turns to.
‘I write on the bass because there is something about the four strings that really concentrates the mind melodically and rhythmically – conversely, it’s the smaller number of strings that really helps you to explore all the possibilities although I sometimes write on a guitar and that can change things.’
From the start Stranglers songs were laden with atmosphere, initially, it was the claustrophobic shots of their early salvos that were dripping with a very different feel than their contemporaries to those aforementioned swooping pieces or the elegiac autumnal beauty of the mid-period and so much of these came with windswept nature motifs. When writing was it the atmosphere or the melodies that intrigued him
‘I always really liked melody but the song has to have the mood and the atmosphere.’
When you create a piece of music to bring to the band do you explain the atmosphere of the song so it can be complemented by them or do you leave it to get changed?
‘We are a band and it’s important to be a band, I am the bass player in that band. We compliment each other’s parts. The band are intuitive and always good at working out parts that make sense. If a part doesn’t work we drop it. If one of us can’t make it work we drop it. When we write together we complement what we are trying to do.’
Where does Dave come into this equation? Is he intuitive?
‘(laughs) Dave is Dave. We point him in the right direction and he will always work something out and he will come back with something brilliant. You know after all these years you can’t fathom how out he does it or Dave himself for that matter.’ Burnel smiles.
The new songs and the upcoming album are also the first major work the band have done since the retirement of iconic drummer Jet Black. It was a difficult hurdle for them to get over, of course, and one that they have been facing for a decade with the now 80-year-old drummer physically depreciating with his cumulative illnesses over the years. The band’s intense music and work schedule would be challenging and wearing for people half his age and there finally came a point where his gradual workload, was reduced from the full set to half the set to a clutch of songs played each night becoming too much. The fans, of course, retain a massive fondness for the iconic drummer as evidenced by the outpouring of online affection on his 80th birthday but have also embraced the band’s new young drummer, Jim Macaulay, for fulfilling the band’s tradition of quirk rhythms played with a pounding power.
Jim has fitted seamlessly into the band even slightly resembles the retired master with his current beard.
‘Not anyone can be a Strangler. Paul Roberts and Jon Ellis could sing and play very well but they didn’t feel like Stranglers. Baz on the other hand does. He has the attitude and the music.’
With a band as defined as this, it was more than just musical chops. What the two newer members, Jim and Baz, have is a certain attitude, an understanding of the mythology of the band, a certain swagger.
‘Baz felt like Strangler and the audience knew it and accepted him and they would be the first to reject someone and the same is true of Jim.’
What’s it like working with Jim? Has it affected the songwriting for the new album?
‘Of course. Jim is a young and hungry drummer and we play more live in the rehearsals. With Jet, I didn’t always like all the programming that would happen. Jet was such a great drummer and I would sometime miss that in the later songs. Jim is a Strangler in style and attitude. He has been with us for a long time, of course, he was working with us for 5 years before he drummed for us which is important to get to understand how be a Strangler before he took over from Jet. Because of this, he understands the way this band works. Jet also taught him everything about the way he plays the drums and fully approves of him playing with us. Even though he has learned from the master Jim still adds his own style in there but sometimes we have to stop him being too over-enthusiastic! There can be too many cymbals or drum rolls for the Stranglers and he will get carried away because he is younger and full of energy and youthful exuberance and we have to reign him in! Playing with Jim makes a difference. He’s very much a Strangler, and gets Jet’s full approval which is really important. Jet is still very much part of the band in a sense. We still communicate in his retirement.’
What’s Jet’s role in the Stranglers now? I like the way he is still there in a sense. This is quite sweet and you are not duty bound to do it – many other bands would not. That’s an unusual situation for a band. There are not many bands that when a member has retired is somehow kept them in the inner circle. It is a challenge. A touring band is a tightly knit circle.
Do you keep in touch with him?
‘Yes. We will send him the new songs when they are finished to see what he thinks of them. It’s a matter of honour. We are not that kind of band that would do otherwise. It’s not like the Fall! with their 500 members and very difficult singer! I never met Mark E Smith although we were in the same sort of world.’
It would be hard to imagine such a meeting, maybe one that the normally acidic Smith would have bitten his tongue for? Or maybe not, knowing his form – still, it would have been an interesting collision of idiosyncratic alpha minds.
The Stranglers were always a very amorphous and unlikely combination of personalities and for many years they were proof that very different people could get on and create inside a tight organisation. Until Hugh left.
‘I guess there was a friction eventually between me and Hugh. Maybe it was because we were the closest in age and lifestyles and that would eventually cause some kind of clash.’
It’s a boring question but has there been an attempt to speak to Hugh since the last time I spoke to you?
‘What’s the point. It’s been a such a long time…’
There is still a core of fans who dream of the great rapprochement and the return of Hugh but to it’s got to the point where Hugh playing with the band again is, not only unthinkable but pointless, the Stranglers now sell out huge venues like Manchester’s Apollo, Baz Warne is a 100 per cent member of the band and there is another new album being created. Hugh is busy touring and recording and both parties having carved out their own successful existences. Apart from sentimental reasons of a repaired friendship and an acknowledgement of the quirky genius of Hugh it would make little difference to where the band is now at.
‘Whats the point in doing it now? It would be disrespectful and not fair to the other guys. We have rebuilt this band back up together and we are a unit. Also, often when bands get back together, it’s just not any good. Like when the Velvet Underground reformed it was not good at all and we don’t want to be like that.’
In 2018, it’s the tight relationship with JJ and Baz is key to the Stranglers mojo.
‘After Hugh left I had lost my creativity and I lost interest in the band to a certain extent. I needed someone to bounce ideas off and Baz was vital because he provided that. In fact, Baz is coming over here to France soon to work on the new songs and will bring his ideas and also work on my ideas.’
You and Baz have different styles which both compliment each other.
‘That’s good for the band and for a band like the Stranglers who have lots of different styles. We even did a heavy metal tango called Adios (Tango) on the last album. We have never been afraid to change what we do to keep it fresh and interesting.’
The Stranglers were always such perfect misfits. They appeared in the middle of punk – older and wiser and yet somehow genuinely nastier and more streetwise. They arrived without permission but were embraced by a very youthful audience who somehow made sense of the band with the then 39-year-old drummer, the moustachioed keyboard player and the guitar player who looked like a lysergic college lecturer. The closest member in terms of age and style was JJ, who was then the youthful member of the band – being a mere 25 when the band broke out in 1977.
Burnel was the punk rock pin-up, full of psychotic energy and was felt like the slightly older brother of the wild youth of the time. Now at 66, the now silver-haired bassist looks great for his age but the years, he admits, are taking their toll. The Stranglers have never hidden their age – they were always the older surly brothers with a genuine world-weariness but age sometimes reminds the high decibel combatants of their mortality.
‘I’m getting old which is not great,’ nearly smiles the bass player, adding ‘I’m 66 now and I’m creaking a bit. I may be the head of the Shidokan karate but I’m having to make way for the younger guys now. I can feel my body now. It doesn’t always do the things I want it to!’
Maybe for karate, this is a problem but as JJ and the band have proved there are golden years for the Golden Brown and the new album is welcome proof that the Stranglers are no way ready to be consigned to history yet and that their strange and impulsive narrative is still writing itself…