The Stranglers are set to release one of their best ever albums- JJ Burnel speaks to Rob Haynes
“Even though we tried, time wasn’t on our side,”Â sang Jean-Jacques Burnel on the Stranglers’ eccentric mutant disco hit ‘Thrown Away’ back in 1981.
Well, not exactly. Nearly forty years after their formation, the quartet’s new album ‘Giants’ arrives, confident, crisp, vibrant, brooding and intelligent. Time and fashion seem to wash off the band like waves breaking on a granite cliff. Ever present since their debut 1977 release are black-belt bassist Jean Jacques Burnel, endlessly dextrous keyboard maestro Dave Greenfield and Jet Black, a drummer as imposing and iconic as the monolith in 2001 A Space Odyssey. Relative new boy Baz Warne joined as guitarist for 2004’s Norfolk Coast, the album that marked a creative revival following a long stagnation, and with 2006’s Suite XVI the band were back to a four piece line-up with Warne taking over shared lead vocal duties with a reinvigorated Burnel. It is this settled formation which has given us Giants, a formidable array of new music for a band who could have quite easily coasted on their greatest hits should they have wished. Its impressive musical scope ranges from the soaring Freedom Is Insane to the jagged rhythms of Lowlands and the gentle, Feline-esque acoustic My Fickle Resolve, even throwing in a spot of heavy-metal tango with Adios.
We caught Burnel shortly before he was due to visit Japan to tend to martial arts matters. Discussing the album, it seems appropriate to start with the album artwork that has recently been released – a darkly sinister photo of a young girl in a playground, staring at a swing frame where the swings have been replaced with nooses. Whose dark imagination came up up with that cover, I wonder?
“Have you seen the cover?”Â he asks.
“What do you think the cover is?”Â he replies, more enigmatically than seems necessary.
The photo of the playground? Nooses?
“OK…”Â he answers after a meaningful pause.
Is that not the cover then?
“No,”Â he says after a pause, clearly relishing the game.
We both laugh, but my attempts to prompt more details are met only with Burnel’s admission that “ I’d love to tell you, but it would spoil the surprise. We’ve already had people complaining about what they think is the cover. Wait till they get the proper cover…”Â
Okay then. While maintaining an impish sense of provocation, the music has moved on, as befits a group of men whose average age hovers around the bus-pass mark, while keeping many of their core qualities. The songwriting process continued straight after Suite XVI, although the gestation of some songs goes back further still.
“A couple of ideas were even left over from Norfolk Coast,”Â Burnel observes, “but you have to go with your instinct, and if it wasn’t right, didn’t gel, didn’t make sense, then at the time it didn’t get used. But there was a bass riff on My Fickle Resolve which I’d had since Norfolk Coast, and I couldn’t find what to hang it on, then Baz found something which really made sense.”Â
The first track that regular fans heard previewed was the Freedom Is Insane, played on last year’s tour, an epic, stirring Burnel-vocalled lament. Another song, it turns out, that made it on the second go.
“It was an idea that didn’t quite gel on Suite XVI,”Â he explains. “I knew it had the makings of something. You circle these things like a shark, accumulate ideas then come back to them and the same idea will trigger something in your mind. It’s timing. Your mind isn’t always receptive to different ideas, but then suddenly it is and there’s a eureka moment. It’s part of what makes us human – fortunately I think. If you just sat down and wrote stuff, had creative diarrhoea, it might not make so much sense.”Â
What is different about the song now?
“It was much more melancholy (in the first version),”Â he recalls, “and it didn’t have that uptempo, Stranglers ”Ësurfari’ guitar. We just need to work around it, and then it felt more naturally Strangler-ish. Left to my own devices I’m very melancholic.”Â
And what does the title mean?
“It covers a few things,”Â he answers. “It was triggered initially by Iraq invasion. We’ve imposed our ideas of freedom and parliamentary democracy and christianity on other countries who have no history of those things whatsoever. It’s taken us 2000 years to get some form of liberal democracy, it’s not perfect, but how can we impose that vision overnight on people who have no concept of that thing?”Â
“The lyrics are about a guy on a desert island,”Â he continues. “He could be a war veteran – he’s with this woman and he’s a Robinson Crusoe character, but he doesn’t want to be freed or liberated.”Â
The song is beautiful and stirring, with a sprawling middle section which allows a Greenfield keyboard workout that recalls past triumphs like their supreme Walk On By cover.
“I think there’s a fine line from the beginning of the Stranglers with songs like Toiler on the Sea and Down in the Sewer, so it’s not completely new for us to do that kind of thing,”Â
Emotionally, its sense of reflection makes it a musical partner with Suite XVI’s stand-out track Relentless, another semi-epic reflection on mortality and time. Is this the sort of song that now comes naturally to The Stranglers with the benefit of age?
“With experience and age I hope we have something to offer intellectually,”Â he agrees. “I really don’t understand why when you’re 19 and write a song it’s like god has spoken – yet the older you get the more you’ve got to say. I don’t understand why pop music, or whatever you want to call it, is considered to be a young person’s game. The more you live the more opinions you have to express, the more wisdom to bring in.”Â
The title track is a further case in point, a medium-paced stoic reflection on the diminishing moral stature of modern man.
“I went to France last summer tending to my mum, who has since died,”Â he explains. “I was in a boulangerie, a baker’s, and the girl behind the counter said, ”Ëyou’ve just had riots! You see, you British, you can riot and protest!’ I said hold on, this was a protest about nothing. It’s the ultimate act of selfishness. Of course there were social factors involved, but kids nicking trainers doesn’t get my thumbs up. I thought, how small we’ve become, how petty and materialistic, what would our parents and grandparents say? Tens of thousands of young men died in one day during the First World War. What would they think about people causing unrest, fear, smashing shit up just for a fucking pair of trainers?”Â
With lyrical ideas abounding, the album opener, Another Camden Afternoon, could even afford to jettison it’s observations on the cheapness of life and become instrumental.
“ It wasn’t going to be instrumental originally, it was going to be about a newspaper article I saw about a woman sitting having coffee in Euston Station. She had her bag snatched and chased the thief, who jumped into a waiting car. They drove over her and killed her. So that was just another Camden afternoon for these scumbags. We worked on the song, it was an easy bass line from my point of view, but it was Baz’s guitar where I thought he expressed himself so well, and the organ just creeps in underneath and it just worked. I though, what a shame if I spoil it with my voice! The story’s still there to be told and I can tell it in interviews, for instance, but I thought it was an excellent piece of modern bluesy music. I could see it opening up a TV series like The Sweeney!”Â he laughs.
I tell him that I think the playing on the album really sounds organic, and Warne’s excellent guitar playing is fully integrated now, the four musicians working as a true band in ways the previous line-up rarely seemed able to. Burnel agrees.
“Baz has matured considerably on this album because he feels it’s his right. He’s a Strangler now, he’s not just some guy who replaced John Ellis.”Â
For The Stranglers in 2010 this album is as good as anyone could have hoped. It has the depth and gravitas that befits the band’s age and experience, it has accomplished songwriting and a variety of styles that always characterised their restless musical intelligence, and it has – crucially – that Burnel bass sound. Anyone bemoaning the absence of the madness and danger of earlier work like Five Minutes, Bring on the Nubiles or Tank must surely take into consideration that they aren’t the same people any more, a fact which became clear at last year’s Convention when the band attempted to perform the whole of their classic 1978 album Black and White, and hit a brick wall of incomprehension when trying to relearn that record’s dark, peculiar closer Enough Time.
“Oh, we tried and tried but we just couldn’t get it!”Â he says, laughing at the recollection. “What the hell were we on? Well, I’ve got a good idea but I’m not telling you! Is it music? I don’t know. Some of the stuff we recorded back then was way beyond the edge. We really wanted to be able to play it again, but it was impossible. You’re different people. Your fingers don’t work in the same way.”Â
And so there’s always the question, with JJ about to hit 60 and Black in his mid-seventies – will this be their last record?
“We don’t know if it’s the last album or not, some of us are getting on, obviously Jet in particular has got serious health problems. So if it is the last one, I wanted it to express all the different avenues we’ve explored over the years, and to cover a couple of bases we haven’t covered before.”Â
“Who knows?”Â he sighs. “It’s down to Jet. All four of us like working with each other, but it’s an actual physical thing. He really wants to keep on playing live, but if any day he can’t play a gig Ian (Barnard, the band’s drum tech) will replace him and we’ll wait till he’s better again. His health isn’t good, but that’s the reality of it and we deal with it.”Â
In the meantime, The Stranglers move ever onwards, at their own pace and free of record company interference. “Who’s going to tell Jet or me to get a move on?”Â laughs Burnel.
Their reputation already assured, you wouldn’t be surprised by a similar conversation a few years down the line as they prepare to release another album and undertake another tour.
Rewind to 1977 and their classic Down in the Sewer: “They’ll be called the survivors. You know why? ”ËCause they’re gonna survive…”Â