11:00 AM GMT 29/10/2012
The Stranglers have survived against all odds. Nearly 22 years after the departure of vocalist/guitarist Hugh Cornwell, the group return in March with their 17th album, the lithe and punchy Giants (see the 4-star review in Mojo 221, on sale next week). After entering the fray a decade ago, Baz Warne (vocals and guitar) joins founding members JJ Burnel (vocals/bass), Jet Black (drums) and Dave Greenfield (keyboards) on a UK tour the same month.
Rising from the pub rock scene of the mid-'70s (originally as The Guildford Stranglers), the band rode the crest of the new wave. With their brutish swagger and subversive lyrical perspective they seemed avowedly punk. Yet their fondness for the non-PC (the libidinous Peaches) and old wave nods (Greenfield's Doorsy organ runs) found them little critical favour. Enmity ensued, as many a bruised, kidnapped and gaffa-taped rock scribe would attest.
But posterity has been kind. From kings of leer to darkling sensualists, the band quickly moved beyond the rapacious garage scuzz of their early work via an indelible dismantling of Walk On By. There's the dream-pop of John Cale/Ray Davies hybrid Duchess, the crystalline psych miniature Strange Little Girl and Golden Brown's harpsichord-festooned filigree. Then you have the outré droogs-with-Moogs of The Raven and themeninblack. All possess a supple musical intelligence which chafes at the crude press image.
A bass player of the highest rank and one of Britain's underrated songwriters, JJ Burnel caught up with MOJO last week for a violence-free exchange. Emerging from the tumult of The Stranglers' history worldly wise, he is a man at ease with his past and focused on his present. "We were hungry, we were living in each others' pockets. We had ideas all the time," he tells Matthew Lindsay.
With Jet's recent health issues and the fact that he's now 70, do you see this as being your last tour?
(Laughs) It's been ongoing since I've known him, which is over 30 years. I'm surprised he's still alive. He's had heart problems, diabetes. I suspect he wants to die on the kit. Meanwhile, he's reverted back to being more of a jazz drummer. He had a very light touch on the snare compared to rock drummers. But it gave him important skills which a lot of rock drummers don't have. If you listen to My Fickle Resolve [from Giants], it's brushes. Not many drummers can use them properly these days. It's great. It gives it a completely different feel.
How do you feel the new record fits into your catalogue?
I don't really ever think about anything fitting into our back catalogue. Why should it? You have just got to be honest to yourself at that time. As the years go by, you assimilate not only different techniques but different ways of looking at the world. I'm not a 20-year-old angry little thug anymore, so the way I view the world is obviously different. I don't want to be mutton dressed as lamb. I want to reflect the world that I live in and if people dig it, then great and if they don't, no problem.
The title track's lyrics seem to reference a modern malaise. Not too dissimilar to No More Heroes is it?
I suppose not. We're living in Lilliputian times. Where are the great social movements? Where are the great ideas? Everything is down to materialism. Last year I was in France chatting to the boulanger and she said, 'You have riots in London now. What are you rioting for?' I couldn't really answer properly. We're just rioting for trainers. We have 300 young soldiers die in Afghanistan over nine years. Last year I went to the Somme battlefield and I think it was 65,000 men died in one day. It really puts things in perspective. We're obsessed with... hair extensions, and there's so much more going on in the world. So, yeah, there's an awful lot to write about. I don't always have to be talking about my belly button.
Who influenced your playing?
John Entwistle's bass part in The Who's My Generation was the first time I heard someone standing out on their own with an electric bass... Really cool. And don't knock Rockette Morton [Mark Boston, of Captain Beefheart's Magic Band].
The bass is such a focal point of The Stranglers' records...
It is a focal point and I don't apologize for it. I never wanted to be in the background. I did try for a while in the '80s coz it was pissing off the guitarist [ie. Hugh Cornwell, who departed in 1990] because everyone was talking about my bass sound and not the guitar. But I have come full circle. It is what I enjoy the most. My bass is an integral part of The Stranglers. And the others have to work around that (laughs).
The Stranglers came up through the '70s pub rock scene. What are your memories of that?
Brinsley Schwarz, Dr Feelgood, Dire Straits, the 101ers... old Joe Strummer, he did us a few favours early on. It was the end of that era. We were lucky enough to find venues to play in those days. It's harder now for kids to have venues to play. The bars were quite a tough education. If they didn't like you they just talked over you or bottled you. As soon as the punk thing came along everyone slagged it off. But there was a period in British music history when pub rock was a saving grace. It actually helped a whole generation of musicians to ply their trade and learn their stuff.
Then you got lumped in with punk, where you had a sort of outsider status...
All those bands were coming to see us. The Sex Pistols. The members who eventually made up the Clash. Chrissie Hynde. However, of all those bands we were the ones that were asked to play with The Ramones for the first time ever. And Patti Smith. We were representing London. There were two shows commemorating the American Bicentenary in the summer of 1976. One at the Roundhouse, one at Dingwalls . Two American bands, The Ramones and The Flamin' Groovies and one British band, The Stranglers. So a lot of people were pissed off with us getting that slot rather than them. One thing led to another and I had a punch-up with the bass player of The Clash. In full view of everyone. What happened was everyone loved The Clash and The Pistols. The press were on their side. And on the other side, it was The Stranglers. And from that moment on, we remained outsiders.
Do you feel like The Stranglers are only now just getting their due?
I'm not sure. I'm still on the outside a bit. All I know is that the younger people I speak to these days don't carry around the same baggage. They have got much more eclectic tastes. They are not as tribal as my generation were. They don't have the NME dictating to them what to like. The NME at one point used to sell about 250,000 a week. People actually listened to that and took their influences and prejudices from that. Now people have a lot more access to information. People can make their own decisions.
Do you have a period or record from The Stranglers that you are most fond of?
A Stranglers record on a desert island would probably lead me to suicide! (laughs) But The Gospel According To The Meninblack  is kind of out there. It takes you on a journey into darkness. It's pretty dangerous.
What are you currently listening to?
I've rediscovered a 1968 album by White Noise called An Electric Storm. Everyone's been telling me about this girl called Adele. She's been around for a few years now I think and I hadn't heard her stuff. Great voice. She had me riveted because she seemed to have some talent. Of course she's huge and normally that would turn me off because it's too commercial. But I was seriously impressed.
After 35 years releasing records, what keeps you energized and motivated?
I have always wanted to perceive things as like a kid and try to avoid cynicism and world-weariness. I try to maintain some kind of naivety so I'm excited by new things. And also because I'm a karate teacher, I'm always learning from my students. I'm what they call a deshi [disciple] in Japan. That's a useful thing to have in your mind. We're all students. Wisdom is when you know you don't know much. We're born inquisitive and if you lose that, that's tragic. As long as we are all enthused about new things, life's rich in that way.
The Stranglers had quite a hell-raising reputation back in the day. Any regrets?
There were things you didn't get around to doing. And the things you did, there was a reason. We were fighting for our lives at the time. Then of course we had some success. All that came with a bit of unreality. We got corrupted and weren't so pleasant to be around for a while. But then hopefully you get a bit of humility and you're back on the right track as a person. If you get caught in that spiral indefinitely and you think the sun shines out of your arse, then you become somebody you really don't want to look at in the mirror.
Interview by Matthew Lindsay
Those Stranglers tour dates...
Thursday 1st Leeds O2 Academy 0844 477 2000
Friday 2nd Dunfermline Alhambra 0844 499 9990
Saturday 3rd Glasgow O2 Academy 0844 499 9990
Monday 5th Liverpool O2 Academy 0844 477 2000
Tuesday 6th Nottingham Rock City 0845 413 4444
Thursday 8th Cambridge Corn Exchange 01223 357 851
Friday 9th London Roundhouse 0844 482 8008
Saturday 10th Birmingham O2 Academy 0844 477 2000
Monday 12th Oxford O2 Academy 0844 477 2000
Tuesday 13th Portsmouth Pyramid 02392 824 355
Thursday 15th Lincoln Engine Shed 0844 8888 766
Friday 16th Brighton Dome 01273 709 709
Saturday 17th Bristol O2 Academy 0844 477 2000
Monday 19th Leamington Spa Assembly 0844 854 1358
Tuesday 20th Guildford G Live 0844 770 1797
Thursday 22nd Newcastle O2 Academy 0844 477 2000
Friday 23rd Sheffield O2 Academy 0844 477 2000
Saturday 24th Manchester Academy 0161 832 1111
Tickets are priced £23 (£26.00 London) and are subject to a booking fee.
Posted by Ross_Bennett at 3:42 PM GMT 23/02/2012