The Stranglers not just punk nostalgia
JON WELCH They’re one of the few surviving bands from the punk era, but The Stranglers, whose 16th studio album is released this week, aren’t just for “nostalgia freaks”, as bass player, singer and songwriter Jean-Jacques Burnel tells Jon Welch.
If Jean-Jacques Burnel ever decides to sell his beloved Triumph motorcycle, expect his classified ad to specify "No timewasters".
Burnel, bass player and original member of The Stranglers, is, you sense, not one to suffer fools gladly, nor a man to be messed about.
Given that he's also a 6th Dan karate master who has previously gone looking for journalists who have upset him, it seems wise not to try.
That said, he's an intelligent, thoughtful interviewee who, like his music, is unpretentious and straight to the point but still carries a hint of menace.
Now 54, he's been with The Stranglers since 1974 and has just embarked on a nationwide tour to promote the band's 16th studio album, released this week.
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Entitled Suite XVI, it follows their 2004 album Norfolk Coast which was acclaimed as their best in over 20 years and gave the band the rare accolade of maintaining chart hits over four decades.
Original singer Hugh Cornwell is long gone, having left the band in acrimonious circumstances in 1990. His replacement, Paul Roberts, quit earlier this year, but the new album is still instantly recognisable as The Stranglers.
Burnel, who now shares lead vocals with guitarist Baz Warne, agrees. "We did have a very distinctive voice in Hugh Cornwell, but it wasn't the only element in our identity. I think it was the bass and the keyboards and also the songwriting.
"There are lots of bands who say they like us now, but they can't sound like us, 'cos they're not us. Surely that's the proof of individuality."
Coincidentally, and continuing the "16" theme, Roberts had been with the band for 16 years, as long as Cornwell. Was his departure a blow? "No, not at all," says Burnel.
"It was time for him to go. I think he was at his very best on the last album, Norfolk Coast: that was his finest moment. He got into lots of other musical things - everything from Gregorian chants to jazz to his Santana tribute band - and didn't know which way to turn.
"I think he was distracted on this one, and it showed in the early recordings. So we just asked him if he was really 100pc into it and he admitted he wasn't. For The Stranglers you need 100pc commitment."
So was this one instance when that old euphemism "musical differences" was actually true? "Absolutely," says Burnel. "We parted on fairly amicable terms, actually - makes a change!"
The Stranglers' core members of Burnel, keyboardist Dave Greenfield and drummer Jet Black have now been making music together for 32 years.
How have they managed to stay together so long? "Because we've sold loads of records!" says Burnel.
"We haven't forgotten why we got together in the first place. Unfortunately with lots of musicians and bands, they do forget. They start out in bands as friends and end up as enemies, and often that's just because of money.
"You get one person getting the song writing credits and the ego boost and the recognition, and the others just become his backing band.
"People grow old differently - you grow apart, don't you? But with us, we just get on. You can count the number of rows we've had on one hand.
"No-one seems to step on anyone else's interest or their shadow, which is a good start for any relationship. The thing we have in common is the marriage, basically - The Stranglers. We still feel we've got a lot to prove, intellectually and musically."
That may seem surprising, given the band's 32 Top 40 hits and numerous gold and platinum albums. "I don't want to rest on my laurels," explains Burnel.
"Just because I've sold 30m records, it means bugger all to me. Living now is what's important to me. I've still got a competitive edge.
"I know most people don't think we're competing with anyone any more, but I still believe The Stranglers are relevant to now: not to nostalgia freaks, not to the past."
The band were regular visitors to the north Norfolk coast, hence the title of their last album whose cover features them standing beneath the cliffs at Old Hunstanton. Burnel lived for many years near Cambridge, with Greenfield living close by. He now divides his time between London, Bath, France and Japan.
Is he still as excited by music as when he first joined the band? "Oh yeah, I am," he says.
"The three passions I had as a teenager I've maintained through adult life: motorcycles, martial arts and music - the three Ms."
As for other musicians who have lost their enthusiasm, he says: "They should give it up, shouldn't they? A lot don't give it up for the wrong reasons and it tells in their output. They just sound tired - and you can't say Suite XVI sounds tired."
He's looking forward to the tour, which begins in earnest tonight. "That's the thing I love the most. I do enjoy writing, I do enjoy collecting my thoughts and writing a song that makes sense and has a start, a middle and an end, that's very satisfying.
"But then you want to play it live, surely, and see if it turns other people on as much as it does you. When you get that feedback it's a wonderful feeling."
Inevitably, some old Stranglers classics - the likes of No More Heroes, Peaches and Golden Brown - feature alongside newer material.
"Some of the old songs we haven't played for ages," says Burnel.
"You rediscover them. You think, 'Who wrote this? Oh yeah, I did! Fantastic'!"
Suite XVI by The Stranglers is out now on EMI Liberty Records. The Stranglers play Norwich UEA on Wednesday October 11. Doors open 7.30pm. Tickets, priced £18.50, are available from the box office on 01603 508050, or online at www.ueaticketbookings.co.uk