English rabble-rousers The Stranglers have traversed an epically varied career trajectory throughout their 42 years in the music game. Emerging as pissed off outsiders at the dawn of UK punk and antagonising the establishment and their musical contemporaries in equal measure with their belligerent and confrontational ethos, they could sneer, offend and three-chord pogo with the best of the ‘class of 77’ while simultaneously embracing so called non punk elements such as keyboards and songs with a greater running time than three minutes.
Never the types to pander to expectations, they wrote their own rule book stylistically and artistically and by the mid 80s were riding the heights of commercial success via radio hits such as Golden Brown and Always the Sun. Surviving the loss of original vocalist Hugh Cornwell, they have managed to remain musically relevant whilst at the same time garnering a whole new generation of disciples.
Prior to their upcoming tour of Australia, Anthony Gebhardt passed a few questions across to legendary bassist Jean Jacques (JJ) Burnel, a man whose modus operandi is ‘to the point’ and whose thuggishly melodic bass sound has remained a key cornerstone of the band’s ethos as well as influencing a whole host of musicians across decades and genres…
_ _ _
I see you’ve recently been playing some shows in England where you’ve performed your legendary Black and White record in its entirety. Is there any chance that we’ll be treated to that over here in Australia on the upcoming tour?
No, I would rather be playing the set that we have been playing throughout Europe this last year. It will include some pieces from Black and White but not in its entirety.
What are your thoughts on bands excavating their back catalogue albums and playing them live in their entirety? And do you think the band would consider doing it with any other of your releases?
It can be a bit of a challenge because you rarely inhabit the same head space as you did, especially when you are talking about something you produced 38 years ago! (in the case of the Black and White album.)
How do you go about putting together a set list for a new tour – with such an extensive back catalogue is it tough to all agree? Is there any way to keep those perennial set standards that must always get played fresh and interesting for the band?
Keeping anything that’s old fresh and exciting is always a challenge. That’s why we drop pieces for years sometimes. Fortunately we have other familiar tunes that get aired.
Will you be dusting off any surprise selections song wise on this upcoming tour, or do we need to come along to find out!?
You’ve answered your own question : )
Is there any chance of (founding drummer) Jet Black making it down under this time around, even if just to drum on a few numbers?
Jet won’t be travelling with us. He doesn’t travel well. In fact I doubt if he’ll even make it to one show in the UK this year. Last year he tried four numbers on the first night, then two on the next night and we were lucky not to lose him on the third night. His health is shot and we are just lucky to have him still giving an opinion on stuff. How many drummers do you know who are still battering their skins in a rock band at nearly eighty years of age!?
What was it like playing alongside Blondie and our very own The Saints when you last toured here in 2012? Did you guys have anything to do with either band back in the late 70’s heyday of punk?
It was a real pleasure. We always have a lark with those old timers. Our paths have crossed on numerous occasions over 40 years. The Saints I knew from two seminal tracks from way back when.. Demolition Girl and (I’m) Stranded, are all-time classics!
What’s the fan base and demographic like these days – do you find you’ve picked up many new converts along the way in addition to the old stalwarts who’ve been there with you for the entire journey?
The demographic has definitely changed over the past ten or so years, since (2004 album) Norfolk Coast. I suspect it’s a combination of the last three albums having been very well received, a general re-assessment of the band, a reaction to X Factor, Pop idol etc from the more savvy teenagers and the fact that all the high jinx we were involved in back in the day, which detracted from our music, is possibly now seen as a badge of honour in these more sterile times.
JJ I’ll touch briefly on your solo work, in particular your 1979 debut, the electro-rock hybrid Euroman Cometh – it was one of those records that I just had to get on the strength of that amazing album cover alone! What is that building on the front cover and is it still around? And what are your thoughts on the state of play in Europe today in light of the themes and ideas you addressed on that record?
The building was the Pompidou centre in Paris which is most definitely still around and was designed partly by Richard Rogers. As for Europe, we are living a state of flux where huge forces are at work and the natural order of things is changing.
I was reading up on your guest appearances on other people’s albums and it says you played bass on a Jacques Dutronc record in 1987… what was it like working with such a 60s French musical legend?
He was equal to himself and didn’t disappoint in the slightest. I’m surprised you know of him!
Yourself and Peter Hook are my favourite bassists, and he kinda gets compared to you a bit in regards to the ‘melodic’ way in which you play the bass…although your style is more menacingly melodic! How did you develop this distinctive sound of your’s and did you realise you were onto something early on? I read that ripped speaker cones is part of the set up…. a la (50’s pioneering guitarist) Link Wray!?
Haha yes ripped speaker cones might have had an influence on my sound! Peter Hook has very kindly mentioned that I was his main influence. I only realised that I had something to my sound because everyone made a big deal of it.
The band have often been perceived as unfashionable outsiders. After all these years do you think you’ve finally got the respect and recognition you deserved? And do you feel vindicated in sticking to your ideals and doing things totally Stranglers, such as not having a textbook definition ‘punk’ sound, not looking to conquer America, insisting on releasing Golden Brown as a single?
I think you’ve answered your own question again! 🙂
I was interested to read of the massive influence that Captain Beefheart has been on the band – another musical maverick! Is it his sound or attitude that’s most rubbed off on you guys?
For me his time signatures and lyrics have been his greatest influence.
So 40 years in the music biz and still going strong – do you ever envisage a finish line?
Finish line on the last breath.
In addition to your music you’re also known for your interest in karate and motorcycles…is there something else a bit more obscure that also drives the man?
Identity has always been an issue with me.
If you were to give one piece of advice to an up and coming band entering the music industry now, what would it be?
I get asked this occasionally and my answer is always the same – make your own mistakes, there are no rules, be honest.
_ _ _
(Get A) Grip (On Yourself) and be sure to catch the eclectic delights of The Stranglers when they traverse their four-decade deep musical treasure trove at The Tivoli in Fortitude Valley on Monday 18 April.