My telephone interview with JJ Burnel of The Stranglers, one of the most continuously successful band to come out of the punk era, got off to a shaky bi-lingual start but that was just his way of testing me, soon we were talking comfortabaly about the world we live in, venues and advice for upcoming bands…
May I speak with JJ Burnel please?
“Oui, c’est moi“
Ah – my French is abysmal; may we conduct this interview in English please?
Of course, at least you understood what “c’est moi,” means! I was just testing you. Je suis Charlie – are you Charlie?
Indeed, Je suis Charlie, as it says on my Facebook page.
There you are, your French is quite extensive after all!
Thank you for talking to GrapevineLive, we are looking forward to your upcoming show at Cambridge Corn Exchange.
Ah we always do really well there. The secret at the Corn Exchange is to not play too loudly on stage otherwise it just echos around that place.
You have been around a few years now, promoting your tour should not be a hard job, should it?
Yes, we’ve been around a few years and we seem to be doing get better and better each year at the moment. So, for a bunch of old farts it seems to be thriving.
You are doing nineteen gigs in twenty-five days, what is that like? Is it gruelling or are you so used to it now that it doesn’t bother you?
It is gruelling but I prefer it that way because we sort of become a tight machine. We get restless if we have too many days between shows. Provided the voices last we prefer the intensity, you are in an intense bubble for 25 days and that’s how I like it.
I’m guessing that there is nothing on the horizon that would ever stop you touring?
No, apart from… I don’t know, well, health! We are still producing. Our last album, two years ago, was the best received since the beginning of The Stranglers. And at this ripe old age we are still getting some firsts in like the first band to play The Proms two summers ago at the Albert Hall. There are still things we are achieving so we are not going through the motions. I can’t imagine what life would be if I couldn’t play anymore.
How would you say the live music scene has changed in the last forty years?
Live music scene.. I can only speak for myself – its much less violent for a start, it seems to be thriving. I think that is as a result of… people want to see the real thing. Certainly, for a band like The Stranglers, it seems to have gone up a few notches in the last ten years certainly. There are people who have grown up with us, who might have drifted away and they have come back. And there is a whole new generation of youngsters who have decided that we are cool, possibly as a reaction to the X-Factor generation of fabricated… things. Also, there is much more access to the past now, whether through YouTube or internet and so people know that we made all the wrong moves commercially and that seems to be seen as a badge of honour now.
You mentioned X-Factor and I was going to ask you whether you thought that sort of contest was good or bad for the music industry?
Yeah – I’m not a big fan to be honest. But I don’t begrudge anyone having success in it. It polarises people, some people… I’ve heard it from young people who have been to see The Stranglers, I’ve asked how they heard about us and they say they are pissed off with the fabricated stuff that is so commercial and showbizzy and they want something a bit more credible – yeah that’s the word, credibility.
The Stranglers style has changed, evolved over the years.
Well I hope so! I’m not the same person I was; I’m not trying to pretend to be mutton dressed as lamb. I am mutton! Your output should reflect the person and the way you are thinking.
But some fans think back to a time when The Stranglers were being arrested and they want everything to be the same.
Well, they can stay the same. But as a person, everyday is a different day and I’m an older person and have slightly different thoughts. I have evolved as a person and my output should reflect that. I also want to reflect the world I live in so I think the term Zeitgeist is appropriate. So we have evolved, we have gone full circle sound wise. The last album, Giants, a lot of people said oh that’s back to the old ways.
So does punk still exist?
It exists in my mind! I don’t know. What is it? I still haven’t had a proper definition of it. If it means a kind of Charlie Hebdo attitude to things and an awareness of the world we live in and a can do attitude then yeah. A lot of things these days are quite clinical and sterile and showbizzy in my opinion.
When you started out, back in the day, did you set out to be a different type of band?
No! (laughs) We just wanted to play music and try to get gigs at the local pubs because that was the first rung of the circuit and our ambitions went as far as maybe we can afford a demo!
I am right in thinking that you are a classical guitarist originally?
Originally yes, that was my first instrument.
And you didn’t see a carer playing in a orchestra somewhere?
Oh no, I wasn’t good enough for that! It wasn’t my ambition to be a professional musician but like everyone of my generation we loved what was happening in the 60s, the bands, a new hairstyle every week. It was all exciting and I was fortunate enough to join a band. But that was what everyone wanted to do.
At some stage between then and now you must have woken up one morning and said oh gosh I’m a professional musician… or has that happened yet?
I think that was the first time could a pint of beer from my labours – that was quite something. And then the first time a girl came onto me just because I was in a band – that was another thing.
The band has gone through a few changes of line up and changes of styles over the last 40 years; do you have a favourite period with the band?
No, when there are different periods they each bring their own intensity and novelty. When you discover something whether it is a new piece of kit or a new musical style or your interpretation of something creates a new style, from a musicians point of view that is always very exciting. Much more exciting that following a well trodden path or repeating a success. We had a success despite the record company many years ago with a song called Golden Brown which has now become quite mainstream. We had to invoke a clause in our contract to get that released, because they didn’t want to release it. They released it just before Christmas thinking that it would drown in the tsunami of Christmas releases in those days but it developed legs of its own and was a success worldwide. After that they asked if we could repeat that formula and we refused so perversely we gave them a seven-minute single in French! It was quite a success in some other countries but not in the UK.
And of course John Peel helped promote the band.
Yes indeed, he mentored us, we were not getting a lot of help from the musical press at the time because suddenly they had decided that… they created this thing between us and the Sex Pistols and The Crash at the time. But it suited me to develop that ghetto mentality and we developed autonomously.
Asking an artist if they have a favourite song is like asking a parent if they have a favourite child…
…exactly – have you got a favourite child?
The infamous arrest back in 1980, did that help the band in the long term do you think?
I was talking to someone about this the other day. And it was not only Nice, we did lots of things and several times I have had people say “that’s the end of your career” and then six months later “that’s the end of your career” blah blah. In retrospect it probably did. It ruined our career in quite few European countries at the time but then, for a rock and roll band called The Stranglers would we have any credibility if we were squeaky clean? That’s what it comes down to, although we didn’t plan any of these things, I spent many night in cells and being escorted out of countries at machine gun point and had placard waving demonstrates outside of our gigs, in the long term I think it is probably, well if you survive those instances and come out of them then it sort of “credibleises” you. But to be honest at the time I think we were written off quite a few times.
Or you have a series of success and one bombs and people instantly think that’s it, its over for them, their time has come and gone.
Well you have proven that not to be true, because you are still here. Have you got a favourite venue, because you have toured all over the world?
There are quite a few venues that are impressive and no, I don’t have a favourite. But the one that comes to mind at the moment, only because it is probably the best filmed one of us ever, is the one from the Paris Olympia last year and we had a production which I think is the best we ever had so far.
If you were to mentor a young band starting out today what advice would you give them?
I wouldn’t. I would give then no advice… I say make your own fucking mistakes, learn from them, do not take rejection personally. But that is the only advice I would say, make up the rules as you go along.
Are there any up and coming bands you like the sound of?
Oh there are loads of young bands coming through, I cant remember any of the names though quite a few I have seen and heard recently. The problem is many are treading the well trodden paths musically, they are great musicians but the only thing I would say is not many of them are talking about the world that they live in.
That’s a deep and thoughtful comment to end on JJ. The tour starts in Brighton on 3rd March ends in Glasgow, we catch up with you in Cambridge on 20th March. It has been a pleasure talking to you JJ have a good tour.