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The Stranglers Storm North America: An Interview with J.J. Burnel

28 May 2013


The Stranglers, established in 1974, came of age in the epochal English punk scene that soon followed. Fellow musicians often viewed the band with mistrust. For one, the Stranglers were vastly superior musically to most of their peers. Moreover, their music didn’t neatly fit with what people thought punk should be (though strictly from a musical perspective that point has merit). What chafes, however, is the derision the band received for being different. At a time when open-mindedness and individualism were widely celebrated, the Stranglers, though always very popular with the record-buying public (24 UK top 40 singles), were marginalized in part for straying from a certain punk orthodoxy.

Drummer Jet Black was then near 40 (the horror!). Secondly, the Stranglers had a keyboardist. Adding insult, Dave Greenfield sported a prog-friendly moustache, smoked a long pipe and loved to play arpeggios. Lead singer and guitarist Hugh Cornwell had a degree in biochemistry. And bassist extraordinaire Jean-Jacques (J.J.) Burnel, a French black belt in karate and classically trained guitarist who studied economics, often attacked critics — physically. The French journalist Philippe Manoeuvre was widely reported to have been tied, sans trousers, to girders 300 feet up on the Eiffel Tower due to a negative review. So one can see how the music itself sometimes got lost in the shuffle, when peers and the press had little love for this group, known widely as The Meninblack.

Fast forward to 2013 and the Stranglers are nearing their 40th anniversary and remarkably firing on all cylinders with three of four original members still in the band. Though the group lost its way for a decade after Cornwell left to pursue a solo career in 1990, the arrival of guitarist/singer Baz Warne in 2000 and the 2006 departure of then singer Paul Roberts gave the band a new-found power and confidence that continues to this day.

Today marks the North American release for “Giants,” the band’s 17th studio album and one that has garnered generally strong reviews since its 2012 UK release. I recently spoke by phone with Burnel, one of my all-time favorite musicians, after Big Takeover publisher Jack Rabid was kind enough to put me in touch with him. Below is an edited version of our discussion.

BT: This is your first time in North America in 16 years. Why now? (The nine-date tour kicks off on Thursday the 30th in Detroit.)

JJ: Why now? We’re psychologically ready for it. It has taken us a long time to prepare ourselves for this. I also think we’ve got a body of work that’s worthy of North America’s attention. In the life of everyone and organizations and bands there are dynamics. There are ups and downs. At the moment, we are in a very big up.

BT: “Giants,” which is being released in North America by Fontana North, has been getting extremely good reviews. Are you surprised by the praise?

JJ: I think it’s the best-reviewed Stranglers album since the beginning so it obviously fills us with confidence.

BT: What strikes me too is how eclectic the record is. (My review of “Giants.”)

JJ: I think one of the reasons why we’ve managed to be eclectic is possibly the fact we haven’t had huge success in North America. We’ve been allowed to develop as a band and explore all different avenues. Whereas I think when you have such success in North America there is the commercial imperative. And I think a lot of bands, once they have success in North America there is the pressure on them to repeat that and I think it’s creatively dangerous. We’ve had sufficient success to carry on but not the kind that actually suffocates any creativity. We have had the luxury to explore different avenues and to effectively bathe in different styles and to absorb stuff, which is really essentially the spirit of rock and roll isn’t it? It’s just not one thing. You absorb so many influences and then make them your own.

BT: Not only have you had that luxury but you still have an identifiable sound whereby people hear five seconds of a Stranglers song and immediate recognize you.

JJ: I read Miles Davis’ autobiography a few years ago and he put his finger on it. All musicians worth their salt really want to have their own identity. And he called it their voice. And it took him quite a while before he found his own.

BT: Baz, who is doing a bang-up job on guitar, hinted in an interview that a west coast tour might happen in the fall. Any word on that?

JJ: We’ve been offered about five American tours over the last six or seven years but hadn’t felt ready for them. When we accepted these dates we suddenly got offered other dates on the west coast and in other places. There is a chance that we might return to North America in September.

BT: Let’s talk about Giants. A couple of my favorite songs are the title track and Freedom Is Insane. Giants is one of the strongest ones lyrically. Tell me about it.

JJ: It’s about how petty our politicians have become. How small-minded the world has become. How venal people have become. How people’s worldview, weltanschauung as the Germans would say, has narrowed so much and yet the irony is we have so much greater potential for knowledge now and for accessing information. But everyone is so self interested and I’m talking about the politicians specifically, pursuing their self-interest above the greater good. And of course this discredits democracy. And then it begs the question. When our previous generations made the ultimate sacrifices, what were they fighting for? They were fighting for democracy and freedom and yet the growing apathy of our electorates is really an insult to the previous generations. It begs the question; would our generation be prepared to make the sacrifices that previous generations made?

BT: I’m not sure the answer is yes. If you look back in the direct aftermath of 9/11, President Bush implored Americans to just keep shopping. There was no overt request for any kind of sacrifice when in fact that was precisely when so many people were more than willing to help. Instead they were told to just keep shopping.

JJ: That’s a great line for an album I have to say!

BT: Just keep shopping?

JJ: Yeah! What a great title and concept.

BT: I’m paraphrasing but that was the gist of what Bush said. (In late September 2001, he said “fly and enjoy America’s great destination spots. Get down to Disney World in Florida. Take your families and enjoy life, the way we want it to be enjoyed.” In 2006, at the peak of the housing bubble and not long before the credit crisis struck, Bush said “I encourage you all to go shopping more.”)

JJ: That’s perfect! Just keep shopping.

BT: Ok, so back to “Giants.” Freedom Is Insane, with its driving and propulsive nature, is musically one of the best on the album. You really stretch out a bit on it. What’s it about?

JJ: Years ago, the Stranglers were managed by a guy who had been an American G.I. in Vietnam. He volunteered and had been a ranger. He came back to San Francisco and found himself spat at. He thought he was doing what was best for America and the American way. He didn’t realize the split between what he had been led to believe and what was actually happening back at home. I think it was a revelation for him. The song is basically from the perspective of a guy who has been to Iraq. He thinks he goes there to free the people and he comes in in his hoopla car, which is my take on a Humvee. He thought he’d be welcomed with open arms as a liberator. And he is actually treated as a conqueror or invader. So he is basically on this desert island and doesn’t want to be freed. So every time he sees a ship in the distance or a footprint in the sand, he tries it to erase it from the person he is sharing that island with. It boils down to this. We in the west impose our vision and ideas on the rest of the world but it has taken us about 2,000 years to reach some level of what we might call democracy. And then we impose this on societies and civilizations that have no concept of this whatsoever. So the mantra becomes, we have to impose democracy on these countries. My question is why?

BT: And why are we surprised when it is wholesale rejected?

JJ: Absolutely. And does it make our western world a safer place? I don’t think it does. I think it stirs up a hornet’s nest. We did it with Africa as well. Not the Americans but the Western European powers did. Then they scratch their head and are surprised that countries will revert to tribalism and genocide. I am amazed that they have such short vision and we still impose our will on countries that don’t want it. What’s that about? That’s the crux of that song.

BT: I suppose naivete, some over-optimism and perhaps ulterior interests play a role.

JJ: I think there are ulterior interests first of all but second I think it’s a form of naivety and shortsightedness.

BT: Let’s talk about you playing live. You’re in your 39th year and selling out shows regularly. What’s remarkable is that you’re doing this at a pretty advanced stage of your career. Why are you hitting on all cylinders now?

JJ: We haven’t lost track of what we’re about. We started off just wanting to enjoy playing music with no great ambitions. We got gigs at pubs, then some money for a demo and not thinking much beyond that. One thing led to another. Then suddenly Hugh (Cornwell) left about 20 years ago. That put us in the doldrums for a while but it also re-energized me after a certain amount of time because I lost a lot of confidence and I lost a good friend. Suddenly in the late nineties I decided to take the bull by the horns and wrote a whole lot of stuff. It was almost like a young band starting out again. Baz came in the band and we reverted to a four-piece and everything clicked.

BT: Baz’s arrival really coincided with a full-on revival. He was pivotal.

JJ: Absolutely. Then there are Jet’s health problems. He still contributes to the band, certainly on the records. In a live context he can’t. He has kind of prepared a few guys who have taken on his role. The band is really energized and I think we have a sense of mission if anything. And we haven’t lost track of the fact that there is so much to write about in this world and to question and to have fun with. Why become jaded and world weary when there is so much to excite and arouse and to build on? Yeah sure we want some money but that is not the main purpose behind the band. We want to prove ourselves all the time, on every album and not sitting on our laurels. That’s how we are and that has given us this very latent impetus.

BT: You’re also getting increasing respect from many corners of the music world. In the late seventies and early eighties you had some real issues with the music press. What do you attribute this increasing respect to, aside from making great music?

JJ: The people that are giving us respect now don’t have the prejudices that a lot of our peers had at the time because there was a big polarization, certainly in the UK and I think it followed from that. In our peer group, The Clash and The Sex Pistols grabbed all the headlines and we didn’t but we outsold them, certainly back home. And we didn’t start wearing cowboy boots and cowboy hats unlike they did and U2. Our detractors have for the most part died or given up the game. As Shakespeare said, he who laughs last laughs longest. I suppose there’s an element of prostitution in anything but I suspect we’ve prostituted ourselves less than any band I can think of, in our generation anyway.

BT: The Stranglers’ gift for melody is often overlooked. It seems the band’s image and reputation often precede the music. But if you open your ears, the melody is right there.

JJ: When we started out in 1974 a name like the Stranglers was really unusual but we felt it appropriate for whatever reason to adopt quite an aggressive name. A lot of our songs even then were quite melodic. I never saw why we should succumb to any cliché that we have an aggressive name and have to be 100% aggressive all the time, pretending to be what we’re not. Sure, we were very aggressive at times and it was necessary for us to fight our corner. But to pretend to be what you are not, people will eventually see through it. I love melody. Every generation produces its own rhythms but melody goes on forever.

BT: Just listen to classical music.

JJ: Well exactly. And look at someone like Cole Porter. His melodies you can put modern takes on but the melody remains the same and that is timeless. A melody is something that’s insidious. It stays in the mind and plays tricks with people and that’s one of the beauties of music and one of the things I personally get from it.

BT: Going back briefly to the band’s name, has it net-net helped you, hurt you or been a non-issue?

JJ: I think it’s probably been a bit of a handicap. Once you overcome the not very attractive name and give the music a fair listen I think it attracts a certain kind of person, a broader minded person. Someone who is more willing to give it a listen. But that wasn’t really the reason we picked the name but I think that’s what happened.

BT: On “Giants” are there any B-sides or unreleased tracks that might see the light of day?

JJ: There are a few outtakes in the studio but I’ve completely forgotten about them. I know there are about two or three.

BT: You said the instrumental Another Camden Afternoon originally had vocals. Any chance that will be released with vocals?

JJ: I don’t think so. That did have a vocal part but I just love what Dave and Baz did over that really simple bass line. The lyrics also detracted from that kind of groove but it has given me the opportunity to explain the story behind it.

BT: Please do.

JJ: A lady was having her coffee on the concourse in Euston station in London. And a couple of junkies target her. The one who took her handbag rushed into a waiting car. This lady chased after the bag thief and jumped onto the bonnet of the car. The car reversed and drove over her and killed her. And for them it was just another day at the office. Fortunately they were caught and put away. But the callousness of it just got to me. Lyrically, it originally said “Just Another Camden Afternoon.”

BT: Wow. Just another day in the office for these guys. Switching gears, Relentless from “Suite XVI” is really terrific to hear in your set.

JJ: We actually love playing that live.

BT: The new “Feel it Live” CD has an amazing version so it’s great to have a live version. (The North American release of “Giants” includes the songs from “Feel it Live” as a bonus disc. The U.K. version includes an acoustic set as the second disc.)

JJ: Thanks. I’m blushing now. I think Relentless we will bring over to North America because it is great fun playing it.

BT: Well it slots in very nicely with the rest of the songs. I have a couple questions more intended for Stranglers geeks. There was an alternate version of 10 produced by Owen Morris. Might that see the light of day?

JJ: I have no idea what happened to all those outtakes. Owen was a great engineer. He worked for me for a year exclusively. I was doing a few projects at my home studio and then he went on to work with Johnny Marr and he produced the first couple of Oasis albums.

BT: What about the Vlad songs? The Stranglers have done five or six. You could put these out as an extended EP. It’s half an album.

JJ: Interestingly enough, there’s another one being worked on.

BT: Really?!

JJ: It’s a rich source of material. The breakup of the Soviet Union, the oligarchs, the corruption, the multi-millionaires, the intrigue and assassinations. I’m way behind on his story but Vlad obviously has to get back to Russia and clean up with one of the utility companies and buy a football team and have prostitutes and yachts. The story is already being told in the papers.

BT: The last one you did, Vlad and the Pearl, was released online only I think.

JJ: That’s right. The next one could appear anywhere. Maybe just on our web site. But they eventually will be compiled together I think and be made into a proper life story.

BT: Excellent. Congratulations on being selected to play the BBC Proms, a series of classical music concerts, at the Royal Albert Hall on August 12. This is a big deal. Could you tell our American readers about this as many may be unfamiliar with it?

JJ: I think the BBC Proms are the biggest music festival in the world. They go on for six to eight weeks every year. Usually it’s classical composers and occasionally the BBC goes a bit left field and has slightly different composers who are really obscure highlighted. Some people said they were dumbing it down because we’re going to do it with an orchestra, the London Sinfonietta. But others say it’s part of the BBC’s agreement to make people understand that all music is connected. It might seem strange but people always put these demarcation lines between music and I always find that disingenuous. Because really if you like music you won’t necessarily restrict yourself to one genre.

BT: Sure. And the Stranglers have symphonic elements. You have the keyboards and strings in various songs and played with an orchestra in 1997 at Royal Albert Hall. So there is precedent for you doing this and it working. And it’s true that these demarcations seem somewhat arbitrary and hard-edged.

JJ: I never really liked that aspect to music and all the different tribes. So it has put quite a few people’s noses out of joint. But on the other hand it’s a great opportunity. And I think the BBC is trying to connect its classical stations with its modern stations so more power to them.

BT: You’re very accomplished outside of music too. You are a fifth or sixth dan black belt in Shidokan Karate.

JJ: Sixth.

BT: And you teach it. How does the mental discipline required in music carry over to karate and vice versa?

JJ: Well you mentioned it – discipline. You need some sort of discipline because it’s really easy in rock and roll to get totally dissipated and self-congratulatory and disappear up your own ass and it keeps me humble and relatively fit. It’s a real counter-balance.