There are many things it is hard to wrap your mind around when it comes to The Stranglers.
The first is, formed in 1974, the band will celebrate their 40th anniversary next year. Of course, that toast will only be drank by 3 of the original members – JJ Burnel, Jet Black and Dave Greenfield (who joined in ’75), the 4th in on the toast will be the “new guy” one time Toy Doll, vocalist/guitarist Baz Warne, who has only been with the gang for 13 years now. Though some old fans may still be dreaming of a reunion of all original members we think it’s time to get over your dream. That’s because of another thing it’s hard to wrap your mind around about the Stranglers – original singer Hugh Cornwell left the band 23 years ago, and that means he departed less than halfway through the band’s lifespan.
Longevity – it’s awesome!
2012 saw the band’s release of their 17th studio record, Giants – a churning, pleasingly seamy and dimly lit affair, accented with the band’s trademark geometric rhythm lines, floating keyboards, and cutting vocals. Soon after it’s release, the quartet were hitting the road in support of the disc, on a month of UK dates with The Godfathers, and now surprisingly, even coming to America for a wee visit after a 15 year absence on this side of the Atlantic. We hear good things come to those who wait.
We chatted to bassist JJ Burnel about the new record, new tour, and next steps for these punk rock legends.
Rocker: I think 1997 was the last time you toured the US?
JJ: I know! It’s a bit too often. We might be getting too familiar with the North American continent.
Rocker: Why has it taken so long for you to return?
JJ: We’ve just been far too busy. But everything seems to be in synchronicity now. There’s been a desire to release this record, Giants, in North America, and the offers have been respectable, so we’ve accepted. It’s as simple as that, really.
Rocker: I know sometimes touring America can become financially impossible to do….
JJ: That’s not our problem, but I understand that completely. It always ends up being logistical, doesn’t it? Everything ends up being down to logistics. But there’s no logistical problem with this, because we’re not there for nine months, which appeared to be the path that lots of our contemporaries used to follow.
The term was to “break” America, which was never my desire. I was quite happy getting audiences in America, and getting some appreciation, but the thought of spending nine months away from my home and those I loved and end up wearing Stetsons and cowboy boots filled me with horror. It did really not suit U2 and The Clash to wear cowboy boots and Stetsons, but after that, they had huge success. But that success stunted their creative development. Look at all of those great bands from that time, U2, Police, Clash,… they were never productive anymore once they succumbed to that commercial imperative. They weren’t as creative. Fortunately, we managed to be creative, and we got this discography which proves it. So I think we resisted the commercial imperative, and we’ve done OK. We’ve still sold lots of records, and there’s demand, but we haven’t eroded any of that creative bit, we haven’t been stereotyped or put into a niche.
Rocker: Why do you think you were able to avoid doing that when other bands haven’t been?
JJ: I think it’s a cultural generational thing. Because America obviously is the biggest gravitational draw, isn’t it? It’s the biggest record market in the world, right? So that was the ambition for everyone, to conquer that.
And let’s not forget that people like myself owe an awful lot of debt to North American music, because we wouldn’t be doing what we call “rock and roll” if it wasn’t for America. So from what I recall as a kid was that there was black music – which white America didn’t know anything about – and British bands picked up on it, churned it out, digested it and churned it back out to white America. And in that way white America discovered their black music.
Rocker: Well, Elvis might have beat you to that a little bit.
JJ: Elvis was definitely there, and he was in direct contact with it, definitely, I won’t deny that. Anyway, I don’t want to be disingenuous, we all owe a huge debt toNorth America, we discovered this incredible music, the blues and subsequently rock and roll. However, that’s the extent of my debt to them. I’m quite proud to be from where I’m from. But I think it was a generational thing, an aspiration to do well in America.
Rocker: But a band like The Clash would be your contemporaries, same generation, right?
JJ: They were our contemporaries. I remember Joe Strummer crying on my shoulder when he said, “I wish I had a band like yours,” when he was still in the 101ers, when they were playing R&B in the pubs at the time.
But I’m not contradicting myself. All my contemporaries aspired to having success in America, and when you had success in America, it reflected on sales worldwide. It reflected back on you, and you had more credibility worldwide if you had success in America. I wasn’t too concerned with that, and frankly, the price to be paid was too much for me. So for right now, I’m really thrilled, actually, to be coming to America to play 10 concerts. I can handle that.
Rocker: I know you’ve just come off of a month with the Godfathers in the UK, are you usually doing that length of touring? How often are you on the road now?
JJ: Well, I think last year we did about 60 or 70 shows and it was quite a busy year for us. Everywhere fromEstonia toTurkey, exciting places. PlayingIstanbul for the first time was quite exciting.
Rocker: Are there places where you can still go for the first time at this point?
JJ: There are. South America, we nearly went toBrazil andArgentina last year, but they couldn’t get their act together quick enough. I’m hopeful for the future. It was a very busy year last year, I think the second-busiest in 30 years for us.
Rocker: Is touring more demanding for you now with the demands of aging?
JJ: Traveling in general is tedious these days, because the world has changed since 9/11. So it’s tedious, it’s not glamorous. So the only moments of glamour are when you have a beautiful woman on the end of your cock in a hotel room with a nice glass of decent wine next to you. That’s the only glamour. But that’s not really what touring is about, is it?
Rocker: Well, you tell me!
JJ: Well, I’m sure you have your own take on it. But the travel is tedious these days, like, in an airplane, you’re not seeing much of the countryside. Of course, new experiences are always welcome, they fuel my imagination,. and my fantasies and subsequently occasionally find their way into something I can call a song.
The best thing is going on stage, as far as I’m concerned. That’s mostly done with my clothes on. An hour and a half or two hours on stage, when it’s right, it’s a form of communion, which you can’t replicate. And every time is unique. I hate seeing bands playing the same thing every night and also saying the same things at the same time in the set every night,…
Rocker: Do you switch it up every night?
JJ: We just did a 23-gig tour of the UK, and I think we played the same set three times. Not drastically changed, but enough.
Rocker: Do you find that there’s material that you rediscover now in your own catalogue that you bring out live?
JJ: Yeah, absolutely, there are songs we hadn’t played for 25, 30 years, and you look at them again and think, “How the fuck did I play that?”
Rocker: How did the new record, Giants, come into being?
JJ: Giants turned out because we spent an awful lot of time together, especially Baz and myself, formulating, trying to make sense of some little ideas that we had both collected over the last six years. We just enjoyed that process very much: analyzing what’s happening in the world; making some kind of joke out of it, or some kind of sense out of it; interpreting what we see in the world in our own way; and then trying to hang it all together, to make something of it musically. So, when that process was done, then I presented it to Jet and Dave, and they got involved. And bit by bit, we try to construct something out of what was seemingly just a bunch of assorted bones. We have a skeleton and we have to put a bit of meat on it, and a bit of personality, hopefully. That’s a process I really enjoy. It’s quite private and quite intimate.
Rocker: Has it evolved differently, when you started playing music, do you approach your creative process much differently now than you once did, or is it very much the same?
JJ: I think it’s very much the same. There’s the initial spark of an idea, you develop it as far as you can, and you bounce a new idea off of those close to you, the other members of the band, and you end up having something which you can play together and which forms part of a song, hopefully, and which obviously you hope will touch other people. That’s the communion of it, this form of communion, and that’s what makes it all worthwhile, ultimately.
Rocker: If a song was something you found creatively satisfying but it wasn’t interactive with other people, would the worth of it be a bit diminished?
JJ: I have had that in the past, when I’ve written a song, and the rest of the Stranglers just didn’t get it. So, I take it away, and I lick my wounds, and I keep that song.
I did a whole album in French years ago, which I was quite pleased with, but what I did miss was the interaction with the other guys to develop it, so it probably was half-formed as opposed to completely formed. But at least those ideas didn’t go to waste.
Rocker: The cover art on Giants is somewhat controversial, where the band are all hanging from a children’s swingset. I saw two different versions of the cover, one without the band and one with the band.
JJ: The one minus us was the one they allowed to be released on mainland Europe. The one with us in it was the one the Brits allowed to be released. The other one was banned in Europe.
Rocker: Were you surprised by that?
JJ: I’m never surprised about how people get shocked by anything that we do. If you want to be shocked, you’ll be shocked.
Rocker: How do you find out your record cover has been banned?
JJ: The record company says, “We’re not going to release it like that in Germany. We are not going to release that!” I don’t know why they’re so sensitive about hanging, not that long ago they were doing it to their own citizens, weren’t they?
Rocker: So you didn’t have any problem with being hung?
JJ: Not at all. How can I put this, I’ve been told in the past that I’m rather well hung, anyway. [rimshot noise] However, no, I didn’t have a problem. But it was a physical problem to get it done credibly, so we had to use artifice. We had to go to Pinewood Studios, just down the road from here, where they specialize in all these kind of effects and stuff, lots of recent movies, James Bond and stuff, so we had to use a bit of expertise.
Rocker: So the image is not all photoshopped together?
JJ: No, it was actually physically done. But, obviously, you can’t hang people like that for a two, three-hour photo shoot without someone dying. But we were actually hanging, and I can’t tell you how we did it, because I’d have to kill you.
Rocker: Who came up with the concept for that cover?
JJ: It was our art director, David Boni, who’s also doing a movie about us. We thought, “Yeah, that makes sense, under the present circumstances.”
Rocker: What more can you tell me about the movie?
JJ: We’ve caused so much controversy over the years. And now those who are our detractors are either dead, defunct, or retired, so we’re the last men standing. There’s lots of TV documentaries and everything about that period and various bands from that period, and some who are much more high profile than us, but there’s never been one about us. There have been a few attempts, but we haven’t been very collaborative, or very helpful, until we met a filmmaker, a Scottish guy, who actually knows the Stranglers and our history. He asked to film us verite’, and come along to as many concerts as possible during the European tour last year, the UK tour, and just to be in no rush to film it, so we said, “Yeah.” So, it really is a work in progress, he’s only been working on it for 18 months.
Rocker: How long will filming go?
JJ: It depends how long we’re going to live, how long is a piece of string?
Rocker: And you have a DVD collection coming out? Did you like making videos?
JJ: For the most part, no. It was a bit of a commercial imperative at the time. I liked the idea that you could film things and you could access them as and when you wanted, like a visual jukebox, I thought that was definitely the future, for good or bad. I don’t think it’s helped things much, but…I think it helped create this sort of victory of style over content.
I think we look much better when we’re hot and sweaty, playing our instruments, rather than pretending to act. That’s just what the world needs, musicians who think they can act!
Rocker: I saw a quote where you declared you were going to retire in 2009.
JJ: Yeah, I thought so. I’m always thinking that. I’ve been thinking that for a few years for one reason or another. But then I’m always surprised by the reaction to our records. In the old days I used to think, “Oh, the world is now going to herald me as a genius,” and they didn’t.
Rocker: How dare they!
JJ: I know! How cheeky! Now we’ve released the last two albums, and they’ve just gone from good to even better. I hate to say this, but I have fewer years ahead of me than behind me, so I’m always thinking… and Jet is really not very well,… there comes a time for everyone, there’s a time and a place,… but unfortunately, it keeps getting delayed from year to year at the moment.
Rocker: Is it fortunately or unfortunately, that you still have more time to keep doing this?
JJ: I’m enjoying it, that’s the bottom line. So while I’m enjoying it, I suspect we’ll continue, but it’s on an ad hoc basis now.