Interview: We Speak To The Stranglers’ JJ Burnel

  The StranglersOn Saturday 23rd March iconic punk-rock band The Stranglers are scheduled to return to O2 Academy Bristol as part of their extensive 22-date UK tour. The band have scored seventeen top 40 UK albums since their formation in 1974 and after the success of the last two albums demand for their live show is soaring. Rhys Buchanan took the opportunity to speak with the legendary JJ Burnel about The Stranglers past and present ahead of their upcoming Bristol date. Once again The Stranglers are embarking on a huge UK tour. Would you say this dedicated touring schedule has been key to keeping the band alive? Well, I would have thought it was key to keeping any band alive. I think most bands of our generation should be played live. Our recorded tunes are being played all over the world, but there’s nothing like playing live. I mean you could either have virtual sex or real sex. What would you prefer? What is it that keeps bringing you back to the O2 Academy circuit in particular?  Last year we played so many big gigs – 10,000, 20,000, 25,000 venues. We did fifteen festivals ranging from Turkey to Estonia to the old Nazi arena in Berlin. We grew up playing pubs and I just like the intensity of the Academy gigs. It’s a kick-start to what we grew up with. I lose half my body weight on stage and it’s a lot easier to do it there rather than in front of 20,000 people! How do you decide on the set lists for each tour? Do you feel it’s important to play the new material as well as the classics? Absolutely. Yes, of course. People only come to see us because of our reputation and our reputation is the past so we always have to reconnect with people. We have a lot of material to choose from as well so we change our set list from night to night. It keeps it fresh for us and the audience. If we did the same thing every night we’d become a cabaret band. The new material has a good reputation of its own. What kind of subjects inspired the 2012 release ‘Giants’? Well, I live in London, so the first track on the album, “Another Camden Afternoon”, is about a mugging. It’s a pretty horrible affair – a woman got her bag nicked when she was on the concourse at Euston station, she chased the person who stole the bag who ran to a waiting car. She jumped on the bonnet and they reversed and killed her, but for them it was just another day at the office really. The next track “Freedom Is Insane” is about the Iraq war; it’s about our inability to see that imposing our western values on countries that don’t have the same traditions as us or the same ideas about democracy as us isn’t right. ‘Giants’ is about politicians and their corruption. “Lowlands” is about getting completely stoned in Holland. So that’s the kind of stuff that inspires us. So has the subject matter that fuels the creative process changed since the 70’s? I don’t think our ethos has changed much to be honest. The subject matter hasn’t changed really because there’s so much happening out in the world that we find it irresistible not to pass comment on it. The world goes through The Stranglers’ prism and comes out the other side. We always talk more about the world than about ourselves although occasionally we do ruminate about our individual situations. Allegedly there was a big punch up between The Stranglers, The Clash and the Sex Pistols in Camden, could you shine any light on this? Umm… yeah… well… bloody hell, you’ve done your homework! At one point in 1976 The Stranglers were asked to represent London for the American bicentenary from when they became independent from Britain, so it was the 1776 Boston Tea Party and there was a 1976 bicentenary gig in London. There were three bands, the first The Stranglers representing London, Ramones representing New York and The Flaming Groovies representing San Francisco. We were playing two nights in Camden, one at Dingwalls and one at Camden Roundhouse. After the first gig I walked out as it was packed and walked past Steve and Paul from the Sex Pistols and Paul, the bassist from The Clash, who sort of spat on the ground as I passed. He had this habit but I thought he was doing it at me so I just whacked him. Of course he spilt his pint and fell into the two Sex Pistols… then they all bundled on top of me. Before we knew it we were out in the courtyard, thrown out by the big bouncers and there was a stand off between… By then it was The Stranglers and a few of our mates on one side of the courtyard and on the other side there was the RamonesSex PistolsThe Clash, journalists, Chrissie Hynde [The Pretenders]. By that point we weren’t friends anymore. [laughs] How significantly have the gigs mellowed over the years? It’s mellowed hugely, thank God, because for a while during ‘76 and ‘77 there was a punch up every night. It was quite a radical thing that was happening with punk. It was a musical revolution; it was a very aggressive time. There were people against it and people for it. It divided opinion; the tabloids and the papers were talking about nothing else. With the new hairstyles and attitudes of young people it was all quite rebellious. Also, the music was reflecting the world that we lived in rather than some kind of sugar coated sweet pink world. The new music was much more down to earth and aggressive. Would you say The Stranglers’ gigs are more of a celebratory family affair today then? We have been getting the families out for a few years now. There’s a whole new generation of teenagers now who have access to the Internet. They can access the past much more readily than we could so they know what’s what. With YouTube and everything they can make their own minds up rather than having their opinions forged by the NME for instance. They can access much more information than we ever could, so we get a lot more teenagers coming to check us out these days and digging it, because I suppose they can see our music is real and we haven’t come from The X Factor! What bands have you most enjoyed touring with over the years? Most recently we have toured with Blondie in Australia. That was a laugh and a half only because we could take the piss out of her [Debbie Harry]! We’ve toured with Wilko Johnson who used to be my flatmate back in 1977. But there have been loads of bands that have been an absolute pleasure to play with over the years. After a little break do you think it will be time for another album? We’ve started writing stuff. I have around eighty ideas down. I just need to sift through them and see what’s relevant to me and to the world that we live in. We need to try not to plagiarise ourselves… So do you often worry about infringing on the past material? Yeah of course, but it’s inevitable because you create your own style and your own sound. Fortunately for us it’s not exactly the same people writing the stuff so there are slight changes, which add a bit of subtle variety to the back catalogue. What are your plans after the tour comes to an end? Are we likely to see The Stranglers on the festival circuit this summer? We might do a few festivals but I think we all want to take a bit of a break. This last couple of years we’ve been so busy, ‘Giants’ and ‘Suite XVI’ were so well received that it’s been non-stop for about 6 years. I really need to sit back and think what to do and how to write some new stuff and generally give the old body a rest. For more information on The Stranglers visit their official website at Interview by Rhys Buchanan