Interview: JJ Burnel (The Stranglers)
A shorter version of this interview originally appeared in the Nottingham Post.
I was whiling away the time before the interview looking up your dialling code, and you appear to be in Frome in Somerset. What are you doing there?
Well spotted. We’re at Chateau Stranglers, the Stranglers headquarters, which includes our management’s office, workshops, a recording studio, a rehearsal studio, and a bit of accommodation. And Tucker’s Grave, a cider house about a quarter of a mile down the lane. Two albums ago, on Norfolk Coast, we actually did a song called Tucker’s Grave, because it was a source of great inspiration. You don’t need more than two pints before you are… well, you know, it’s cider-delic.
When we last spoke, about twelve months ago, Decades Apart was just about to come out, and you were just about to do your previous UK tour. What sort of year did 2010 turn out to be for The Stranglers?
It was very good for The Stranglers. We played Glastonbury for the first time ever, after having been banished for thirty-odd years.
What was the cause of the banishment?
Thirty years ago, when we were asked to headline it, it was associated with CND, which it no longer is. And at the time, I’d done my economics and other studies, and unlike most of my peers and my generation of students, I was quite suspicious of CND. I had a few reasons to think that unilateralism didn’t make sense. No one seemed to think beyond that. They just thought: yes, look, we don’t want them, ban the bomb. And I was thinking to myself: but hold on, we get rid of our bomb and they still keep theirs? That’s what unilateralism was about. The Russians would keep their nuclear deterrents, but we would get rid of ours. It didn’t make sense to me. And everyone was jumping on the bandwagon. And of course, it wasn’t as if we were supportive of nuclear bombs or nuclear anything.
So you stopped short of saying that they were wonderful devices?
Yeah, we weren’t saying that at all, but there was this bandwagon. There are mass hysterias every now and then in this country. The Diana thing was another great example of that. But at the time, I was convinced that there was something dodgy about it. When the Soviet Union collapsed, and they released lots of information, which had been hitherto kept secret, it transpired that all the unilateralist peace movements in the west had been financed by Moscow. And I instinctively knew it. Michael Eavis held that against us for a while, until last year. And it was great, a perfect day, the best weather they’ve had at Glastonbury for years. It convinced me that in fact, God is a Stranglers fan.
I’ve never been to Glastonbury myself, but I have a number of friends who went, some considerably my junior, and they were talking about it as one of the highlights.
Which was a result I think, because we’re not necessarily of the generation of most of the punters there. We had 85,000 people, and we were given a good slot. We were given nearly an hour, which is quite a lot for one of these. We were mid-afternoon, we had 85,000 people, and they did not move. It was pretty amazing to see so many young people mouthing our lyrics, which warmed the cockles of my heart.
I feel compelled to ask you about the performance clip I saw on YouTube from over the summer, involving some loose dentures. What went on there, then?
(Laughs) It was a horrible, horrible night. We were in the wilds of Hereford, and it was just awful. It was drenched, it was waterlogged, it was muddy, and then the keyboards packed up. But we had a good time anyway. We thought: right, we’ll have a few more glasses of wine on stage, and just get into it. Some bloke jumped up over the barrier, onto the stage, and started jumping up and down. And suddenly these teeth – these gnashers – bounced out of his face, and landed right by my very muddy DMs. I looked at him, and he started to gurn at me. So I just pushed them over to him. He blew off some mud, and stuck them back in. And of course it just killed us.
I think it’s wonderful that toothlessness doesn’t dent his commitment to the cause.
Absolutely, but it made me fantasise: at least I could get a gum job, as opposed to a blow job! I’ve added it to the boxes I have to tick off before I die.
This time last year, I was talking to you about Retro Rockets, and I was teasing you about it being your “grumpy old man” single, complaining about how the charts aren’t the same any more. But I was looking at some statistics today, and it would appear that it was rather a prescient warning. In the UK Top 50 singles charts, as of this week, the highest placed rock song is only at Number 42. And if you look at the 100 best selling singles in the UK during 2008, 27 were rock – whereas in 2010, there were only three. And the biggest selling rock single in the UK last year was Don’t Stop Believin’ by Journey, which is nearly thirty years old. So there is almost no representation of guitar-based rock music within mainstream pop any more.
I think that worldwide, fortunately, it’s different. But at the moment, it’s just pappy poo stuff, which appears to twelve year-olds.
Does it matter, though?
No, the charts don’t matter any more. Which is a shame, because I’m from a generation who grew up thinking it did matter.
And rock survives in other ways.
Yes, it survives live, it survives in album sales, and it has spread worldwide. But in the UK, you’re right. It’s disappeared. But then, who wants twelve year olds to come to your gigs?
Well, I stood next to a twelve year-old – actually, he was probably even younger than that, maybe nine or ten – at your Rock City gig last year.
Yeah, at the gigs we’re getting loads of younger people, teenagers and stuff, and that’s great.
It was quite a sight, actually. He really did know every word, and his face was kind of screwed up in concentration.
Oh, that’s cool. And they’re free thinkers.
Barely a week goes past without more bad news for the music industry. Do these kinds of pressures impact in any way on your band, or have you reached a stage where you’re kind of impervious to it all?
I think it’s a shame, but then we’re rueing or regretting something which is from a previous time. So, now is now. But it doesn’t impact so much on The Stranglers. I think the music industry committed a collective suicide when it started jumping on bandwagons and not nurturing talent. It got taken over by accountants, who only thought short-term. So instead of nurturing talent over two or three albums, if they didn’t recoup their investment within six months, you were out on your ear. And there’s also their complete inability to understand the digital revolution. So they kind of brought it upon themselves.
And it doesn’t impact upon your creative process either. Is there new material in the pipeline?
There is, actually. We’re going to play some of it live. People in the past would have said: ooh no, you’re going to get bootlegs. So fucking what, you know? In fact, we can afford the luxury of doing what we did with our first two albums. With any young band, you play your own original material, and by the time you get the chance to record it, it’s honed. You know how it works, and where it works.
And your fan base might already be familiar with it. The songs may almost be like old friends.
Absolutely. But after that, you get on this treadmill. You record it first, and then you play it live, which is arse about face really.
What are the new songs like, and what sort of areas are you touching on?
One’s wistful; the middle eight is about a guy who has been to Iraq, and who was thinking he was going to be accepted as a rock and roll hero, a star, in his Humvee. And it turns out no one likes him. It’s about the wistfulness of preferring to be on a desert island with the one you love, and rubbing out a footprint in the sand before the one you love sees it. Another one starts off with the line: “Once there were giants, walking amongst us; now I have to deal with little men with little hearts”. And there’s a metal-ish type tango which we’re working on. There aren’t enough of them. You can’t get enough.
How do you work out the set list? Is it a democratic process, in terms of adding songs and booting old ones out?
Yeah, and in fact we’re actually going to play old songs which we’ve never played live before.
Can you give me an example?
No, certainly not. That would spoil it.
You’ve got Wilko Johnson supporting you. When did you first meet?
He’s my old flatmate. I was sharing a flat with him in 1977. I saw the Feelgoods in 1975 or 1976 with Hugh [Cornwell], and we were gobsmacked.
Did you see Julian Temple’s film [Oil City Confidential] about Wilko and Dr Feelgood?
Absolutely. In fact, I gave Julian and Wilko the Mojo awards. I was asked to give them the awards for the movie.
You took to the stage at Rock City early last year, at about 7:30, whereas most bands at Rock City come on at around nine.
I think they’d got a curfew, because they’d got a club thing afterwards.
The interesting thing was that nobody was caught out. You have such a strong community amongst your fans, that the word just sort of spread – which I found completely remarkable.
We’ve always seen it as a form of communion. I think you get the fans that you deserve. So they’re free-thinking, pretty bright – I like to think of them as that – and they have dispensed with the prejudices which have been demonstrated against us, and they make their own bloody minds up.
Do they ever voice criticisms, and are the criticisms heard?
Absolutely, yeah – which is quite interesting to deal with.
Well, it’s more trustworthy than slavish adulation.
That’s the kind of people I prefer. Sometimes they get pissed off with us, and tell us in no uncertain terms, which I think is good. It’s healthy.
Their loyalty and their continuing interest must help to protect you against the trap which has hit so many bands who came up at the same time as you, in that you’ve never had that slide into becoming a pure nostalgia act.
No, that wouldn’t excite me in any way – even in the erectile sense. That’s not what we’re about. But I’m not ashamed of our heritage, if you want to call it that.
You’re calling it the Black And Blue tour. Your band’s association with the colour black is the stuff of legend, but you’re now adding a new shade to your palette. Where has the blue come from?
Well, we nearly called it Black And Blues, because of Wilko. But it’s going to be a dominant colour, and also a play on ideas, and what we’ve had to get through, to be here.
As in: it’s been a bruising experience?
Yeah, quite a lot!