Interview: The Stranglers

Punk rock legends The Stranglers are just about to kick off the UK leg of their latest tour Feel it Live, and will be performing at the almighty Rock City on 19 March. A career spanning almost four decades has seen them produce mainstream hits such as PeachesNo More Heroes and Always the Sun, and seen them have one of the longest-running careers to originate from the UK punk scene. Becca Murphy caught up with bassist Jean-Jacques Burnel (more famously known as JJ), one of the remaining original members of the four-piece.

Platform: First things first, The Stranglers as a name – it’s not exactly warm and cuddly is it… How did you come up with it?

JJ: Anything but I’d say, more swerving on the lines of horrible. No, we’re nice guys really (laughs).

Well in the beginning we weren’t doing very well with most of the places we played, so we ended up mostly at youth clubs, pubs and stuff. They wouldn’t have us back and it ended up with the landlords calling the police and unplugging us. Of course we’d refuse to leave until we got paid which didn’t always go down that well.

Jean-Jacques Burnel has been in the band since their formation in 1974.

This happened a lot of times and then one time this had happened and it must have been very entertaining I’m sure for everyone present in the pub apart from us and the landlord! Around this time, there was a movie with Tony Curtis about the Boston Strangler. Backstage we were a bit down-hearted because things had gone off again, and I think I said something along the lines of “Ah, The Stranglers have done it again” and the name just stuck.

The name certainly did stick. You’re now approaching your fourth decade of being around in the music industry which is pretty impressive when you consider that a lot of the groups from your early days aren’t still making music.

Crikey, yeah, well we started in the 70’s and it’s 2013 now so we are approaching our fourth decade. I mean a lot of the groups aren’t still alive anymore. Not from when we started out anyway.

You’re known and respected by many as being part of the punk movement, but I understand that to begin with you weren’t so readily accepted to begin with?

Well ‘punk’ hadn’t really been coined as a term so to speak when we started out but our name was obviously a bit of a clue that we weren’t going to always fit in. We stood out like a sore thumb but our points of reference were the uproar of the 6o’s and psychedelia, kind of obscure music really. I firstly got into classical guitar and our drummer, Jet Black was more of a jazz drummer than anything so were all from different if collective backgrounds.

But as the whole punk thing started up and things in music started to change it was obvious to us that something was happening. Young guys, young bands and singers were coming to see us like Joe Strummer from The Clash. He was still in a band called the 101 at the time but all these people were coming to check us out. As our notoriety increased the top rock bands of that era were getting themselves together as well.

In addition to his work with The Stranglers, JJ has also made two solo albums.

The Sex Pistols and all these bands were starting to organise themselves, so there was some kind of syncretic element coming together at the time. We were getting our hair shorter and wearing tighter jeans and so we ended up with shorter faster pieces of music, you know?

During 1976 we were chosen out of all of the bands at the time to support Patti Smith in New York. We hadn’t even been signed up yet so that was great, and then we supported The Ramones so we were associated with all those people.

Going from being an unsigned band forming in Surrey, to supporting Patti Smith in New York must have been exciting. Did it feel like everything was moving very quickly?

Yeah and it was quite exciting because it was a whole new thing that was happening.  A lot of reggae music was coming up as well.  Of course there were notorious moments involving the Sex Pistols and us. It just became a bit of a whirl for the media I suppose. They’d cover shock horror stuff: these people with safety pins through their nose, serious make up, serious haircuts and you know it was shocking to a lot of older people. These young girls came out with fishnet stockings, high heels and coloured hair, which hadn’t been seen before. It was a tsunami of change.

You’ve had a lot of artistic freedom with your music. Do you think this has played a significant role in you having such successful longevity as a band?

Yeah, completely… we’ve been really fortunate actually. We were probably more managed to begin with but it helped that we were successful and good at what we did. We were able to experiment sometimes with our music and so we were really lucky that we weren’t stereotyped or put in a certain box. We were given complete freedom. I suppose now looking back at it we’ve got quite an extensive catalogue.

Giants is your latest album, released last year, but you’ve released an incredible 17 albums in total. Do you feel like you’ve grown more into your sound as the years have gone by?

Yes well at the time we were one of the first bands to use a synthesiser and by some that was quite frowned upon.

Rattus Norvegicus was the band’s first album, released in 1977.

Stranglers gigs back in the day were definitely known for not being for the faint-hearted.

That’s true but that almost went in our favour because people were pretty scared of our reputation. We probably did play up to it from time to time though (laughs). But our antics as you say were never really planned, except for a couple of occasions. Things just happened so we reacted to situations. I mean we certainly didn’t plan spending time in police cells but it just another day at the office.

We’ve heard you once gaffer-taped a journalist to the Eiffel tower… Is it fair to say that you have more of an amicable relationship with the press now?

Yes, well the ones that really wound us up are either retired or dead now, or we’ve scared them all off! But no our relationship with the press is actually quite good now. There’s a whole new generation of journalists now and they don’t see us the same way. Obviously we haven’t done anything horrible to them so they just learn listen to the music. They’re very much business orientated sort of people and The X Factor generation probably turned off as many people as it turned on.

Which album out of the whole seventeen Stranglers albums is your favourite?

That’s a bit of a hard question to answer because each album means many different things to different people. They represent things that represent a specific moment in time so they all mean something to me. So I think there’s quite a few really, I can’t really pick a favourite.

There’s the ones which are a bit easier to listen to and then obviously there’s the more successful records like Peaches. It’s emotional music, isn’t it? And writing music for us has often been that way.

Giants is the Stranglers most recent LP, released last year.

Your upcoming tour begins on 17 March, do the Stranglers get excited when a tour comes up?

Oh yeah of course, I mean we love touring and playing live. That’s what we live for, forming that relationship with the audience. So yeah it’s fun, travelling gets a bit boring sometimes but if Scotty could beam me down… if I could be beamed down to stage every night that would be perfect.

We’ve heard rumours that this could be the last tour for the current line. Is this true?

Well Jet our drummer is 75, so a lot older than the rest of us. He seriously abused himself in the total rock ‘n’ roll sense of the word. Looking back, I don’t think he really looked after himself so he’s having a few health issues. So we don’t know, we play that one completely by year. He didn’t play much with us last year. When we went abroad he didn’t go at all and he was rushed to hospital a few dates of the tour anyway so we’ll play it by ear.

Well we wish him the best of health and I’m sure fans will be very lucky if he is able to play.

Yeah, definitely. I mean he wants to play, so if he plays he plays, and if he doesn’t he has his tech drummer to stand in. It would be good to see him play though.

You’ve been together so long now you must have become great friends as well?

Well yeah, I mean it’s the only way you stay together. I’ve seen other bands where they barely talk to each other and dart off stage and the body language says it all. It turns into a bit of a spectacle so we get on well.

Finally, do you have any advice for readers listening who might be trying to break into the music industry?

Yeah, make your own mistakes.

Well thank you for taking the time out to talk to us JJ, it’s been a pleasure.

That’s alright Becca, I hope you enjoy the gig in March.

Becca Murphy

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