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Interviews

Interview with Jean-Jacques Burnel from The Stranglers

Roger Bowie

Jean-Jacques Burnel has got one over on Boris Johnson. When Brexit happens, he’s just going to use his British passport to go in and out of the UK, and his French passport to go in and out of Europe.
Catch me if you can, Boris !

JJ of course sounds English because he was born there, in Notting Hill in London, in the same hospital where Jimi Hendrix was declared dead, before heading down to Godalming, a little village in Surrey, with his French parents. Completely bi-lingual, he has dual citizenship. Hence Brexit is just a puzzle, and a process, and a distraction.

The bass player and founding member of the Stranglers is in France when we speak the other night (European time), in a little village somewhere just a few houses away from Jim McCarthy, founding member of the Yardbirds. The world of ageing rock stars is truly small, and because they see each other touring all the time, they all become mates.

And so they should. What a heritage, 50 years of rock, blues and punk still being played for us lucky punters, with the old mixed in with the new, makes for a timeless scene for time travellers.

I saw you guys in London in 76 or 77, I know because I have the album, and I always bought the album where I’d seen the band in action. But can’t remember where. Would it have been the Nashville in those days?

Indeed, it may have been the Nashville Rooms in West Kensington, especially if it was before the first record came out (Rattus Norvegicus). Otherwise it might have been the Roundhouse, the Rainbow or the Hammersmith Odeon, but I don’t think so, because the Stranglers were just taking off, just making a name for themselves, and they definitely played the Nashville, JJ confirms. He reckons he saw Split Enz play at the Nashville, and that may be true too. I remember seeing them somewhere else. But memories fade.

What about the other original members of the band? Is there any communication? With Hugh or Jet?

Certainly not with Hugh. He divorced himself from the band, a real divorce. (Of course we knew that already, but I just had to ask…..). Dave (Greenfield) is still with the band, but Jet (Black) hasn’t played with the band for 8 years now. He had a couple of strokes recently so isn’t a well man. Of course he was the ice cream salesman, a wine salesman, quite the entrepreneur before he “strangled” himself, ten years older than his younger bandmates, who themselves were in their early twenties. He now acts as mentor for Jim Macauley on drums, and of course Baz Warne has been with the band now for 20 years.

I was at the Powerstation I think maybe a couple of years ago? Or year before? Are we hearing a similar set, or anything new?

Certainly not, we play a different set every night (because we can). Just back from a tour of Europe, and a different set was played every night. There’s half a new album recorded, so maybe some songs from that. But there’s no commercial pressure to record, which is great, so the new material will come when it comes. It means that the band can be “almost 100% honest”.

I’ve heard you say that ego, power and money are disruptive influences on a band and in a band. I presume you have made some money over the years, but how have you avoided those disruptive influences?

Of course they are. Money is a terrible reason for a band to split, but most often that is the reason. Followed by ego, especially if there’s one guy writing all the songs. Success is another reason, and toxic influences creep in over time. We’ve managed to avoid most of those issues, because whoever wrote the songs, whether it be Hugh, or me, or anyone else, the credits were always shared equally across the band. So successes are shared, and failures, of which there have been many, also borne equally. It’s helped the band develop, and also fully explore everyone’s talents. 

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We talk a little about how the music industry has changed, and the influence of streaming, and the way that has changed the way people listen, from the days when the album was respected as a body of work, to today’s tendency to pick tracks. We talk about the artistic integrity of the album, taking people on a journey. And that takes us to John Mayall, and all the old artists, and John McVie, and Christine Perfect.

You saw Peter Green and Fleetwood Mac before they’d even recorded. What was that like?

Peter Green was one of the great guitarists and I saw them in front of 50 people. I saw Chicken Shack, Keef Hartley, and Free before they became Free. The Yardbirds played recently with Jim locally here in France. And most of these guys went through the university of John Mayall…

Did you consider yourselves a punk band when you started out? I mean, I thought you were fresh and alternative, much the same impact Tom Petty had. But there wasn’t the nihilism that we saw with some of the other punk bands

Yes, I did consider ourselves as punk, which I saw as a broad church liberating us and others to play and exist, “and then quite quickly it was taken over by a new orthodoxy which became very suffocating and restrictive”…like keyboards, and synthesisers and smoking dope….We were certainly alternative, but I’m going to claim it as punk, because I can, because we’re sort of the last man standing from that era.. 

What does touring do for you? Do you make good money, does it refresh the album sales? Or both?

A bit of both. And it’s fun, because we all get along as a band, and there is so much demand for our music, we have to get out there and fulfil that, and it’s amazing. Couldn’t ask for more, really, except maybe it’s time to get back into the studio, I really feel that.

What are you going to do with time off in Auckland? Play golf?

But we digress, dear reader, into a discussion about, wait for it, rugby. Because JJ was at the Rugby World Cup, the final, whereas I was at the quarters, so we talk for a while about rugby, and the times when France beat New Zealand, and then England beat New Zealand……and….boring, boring, but the great thing about interviewing is to go off piste and wherever the conversation takes you.

But JJ won’t be playing golf with Alice Cooper, even though they are in town the same week, because he doesn’t play. But he loves Alice, he’s a mate, and what a fantastic gentleman….

So there you go, two birds with one stone, and maybe a beer after the show. On va parler Francais, peut-etre, un petit peu……

THE STRANGLERS (UK) AND MI-SEX (NZ) TO TOUR NEW ZEALAND FEBRUARY 2020

Wednesday 13 February-CHRISTCHURCH, Town Hall 
Thursday 14 February-WELLINGTON, Opera House
Friday 15 February-AUCKLAND, Town Hall

Written By: Roger Bowie Roger Bowie has been collecting music since 1964, starting with 45 rpm singles, and then building an LP and CD collection from 1970. 1.8 per week since then. Not a vast collection, but eclectic and occasionally obscure. Roger is a big Americana fan, and regularly attends AmericanaFest in Nashville, held every September. Also, he once played golf with Alice Cooper...