Punktuation’s Nic Howden chats with The Stranglers bass player about the band’s amazing new album‘Dark Matters’, life without Dave, and Hugh being all ‘John Lydon’ over music rights for The Stranglers biopic!
“There is an assumption we shouldn’t be this fresh after so long,” Jean Jacques Burnel chuckles into the telephone.
From the ‘landing’ noise ahead of ‘Water’ at the beginning of the album, to the equally ethereal ‘departure’ at the end of ‘Breathe’, which closes it, ‘Dark Matters‘ is a brilliant, endemically Stranglers record.
Talking to bassist/singer/songwriter JJ Burnel the day before release, he’s pleased with the massive splash ‘Dark Matters‘ has made with the critics and, more importantly, with making an album that does real justice to the late Dave Greenfield.
“This is the first time in a long time that I’m happy with every aspect of a record,” Burnel says.
“We did 90 per cent of it while Dave was with us, and after he passed my only thought was to complete it. He motivated a few more pieces too of course.
“I knew Dave for 45 years, not just as a work colleague but as a friend. He lived in my house for nine months, until I said ‘ever thought of getting your own place, Dave?!”
I feel for musicians when they have to sit on the promo belt and field the same/similar questions for hours. When I catch up with Burnel (the only band member to have played every Stranglers show) he’s at the band’s PR office in St James’, waiting on a latte with guitarist/singer Baz Warne, and is in good humour despite it all.
“I knew Dave for 45 years, not just as a work colleague but as a friend. He lived in my house for nine months, until I said ‘ever thought of getting your own place, Dave?!” JJ Burnel.Tweet
Marketing ‘Dark Matters– included snippets of the songs and interviews with Burnel, Warne and producer Louie Nicastro under the banner ‘Track Chat’, which proved to be equally contemporary and contagious.
The Stranglers haven’t had that kind of profile behind a new release, or an album as good as this one, since the 1980s.
‘Water’, ‘This Song’, ‘Payday’ and ‘The Last Men On The Moon’ have been a part of the ‘marketing push’ for three years, plus of course, are a nod to the way things were, and a treat for audiences who caught these songs, mid-evolution, in 2018/2019 sets.
“That’s how we started out – two albums rehearsed on the road and recorded together. It was quick and economic,” Burnel says. “We learn about a song as we play it live, you see the reaction and you can find better arrangements sometimes.
“You get the fans you deserve and Stranglers fans are broad-minded, so we have been allowed to fall flat on our faces over the years and to get back up again.”
With shared credits all-round, songwriting was part of the band’s mystique – the common assumption being, if you sang it, you wrote the lyrics. Original singer Hugh Cornwell’s 2001 book Song by Song popped that bubble, but it didn’t paint a full picture.
“You get the fans you deserve and Stranglers fans are broad-minded, so we have been allowed to fall flat on our faces over the years and to get back up again.” JJ BurnelTweet
Certainly, Burnel is behind some of the biggest riffs, ‘Peaches’, ‘Down In The Sewer’, ‘No More Heroes’, ‘Toiler on the Sea’ and ‘Duchess’ by way of examples. But 42 years on from the latter, he’s never been more prolific.
“’Dark Matters‘ is a vindication for me. There was a long-term perception that Hugh had heard the sirens in 1990, but this vindicates my contributions. My mojo is back.
“Baz is singing my lyrics [on a couple of songs] because he sings them better. That’s often been the case though, I wrote ‘Hanging Around’ for instance,” Burnel explains.
Just like nothing on earth
The album title was ‘Dark Matter’ originally – the Stranglers have always been associated with darkness – until the Black Lives Matter campaign hit the headlines while the band was preparing the artwork, which also originally didn’t include the Easter Island statues.
“Dark Matters are the building blocks of the universe,” Burnel says. “There are myriad planets out there, which makes it impossible that we’re the only forms of intelligent life. Although we don’t seem to be that intelligent a lot of the time.”
Dave Greenfield features on the eight of ‘Dark Matters’ 11 songs. JJ’s fabulous ode to the man, ‘And If You Should See Dave’, has no keys, but beyond that, it’s hard to tell which tunes are not touched by Dave’s magic somehow.
“‘Down’ was done before Dave passed,” Burnel says. “He plays the piano. There are no overdubs. Lines came together the same way,” he adds, scotching my second guess.
‘No Man’s Land’, a hard-edged, hard-hitting number, wasn’t among the Track Chats, so I ask JJ about that and about ‘Breathe’ which, for me, harbours similar emotion to Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds’ ‘Push The Sky Away’. Then, admittedly, I put the perennial ‘what comes next’ question…
“‘No Man’s Land’ is relevant to what’s happening around us,” Burnel says “The selfish manner of politicians, how egos dominate everything today and how people feel they have to tell everyone when they’re going to the toilet. It’s a bit of a ‘Black & White’ track, a bit ‘Enough Time’. A wink to the past.
JJ and Baz Photo credit Hiroki Nishioka
“‘Breathe’ started off after a show in Leeds. I went back to Baz’s and, fiddling about with his guitar, came up with a melody. Baz said ‘I can do something with that, I’m going to keep it.’ That turned into ‘Breathe’.
“It is a difficult song to follow but it’s not healthy to plan ahead. I’m always writing though. There is so much subject matter.”
Touring ‘Dark Matters‘
“The original thought behind making this the final full production tour was for Dave. He was getting weaker and weaker and it was harder looking after him. While he loved playing the shows, Dave didn’t like it on the road and we were looking at doing a few one-offs after this, to help his health.
“His lung capacity was down to 20 per cent – this is before Covid – and he had a dicky heart. Those long tours can be a struggle for anyone, so we needed to make changes.”
“The original thought behind making this the final full production tour was for Dave. He was getting weaker and weaker and it was harder looking after him.” JJ Burnel.Tweet
Will it be a different set in the UK 2022 from the European tour, which starts in October ’21?
“There are no rules in the Stranglers. What happens will happen. We owe that to ourselves and our fans. You don’t want to just go through the motions, that’s the ugly side of showbiz,” Burnel says with a chuckle.
“There’s an embarrassment of riches in the Stranglers’ catalogue. We rehearse a lot of songs and we shake it up on the road – even if that’s just changing the order a bit or swapping one song for another.”
God save the screen…
Shot by David Boni, the long, long-awaited Stranglers’ biopic, provisionally titled Death + Night + Blood, was shown in uncut form at the Brixton Ritzy some two and a half years ago. Since then, barely a word.
Incredibly, given their history, this might be something that puts the Stranglers and the Sex Pistols on the same page once again.
“Hugh objects [to the film],” Burnel says flatly. “He won’t give us permission to use the songs.” Bizarre given Cornwell’s current guise as host of an internet radio show devoted to movies and their music.
“But looking at the John Lydon/Sex Pistols case I think we might be able to go ahead with it,” Burnel continues. “I was talking to a solicitor just today actually. It’s funny, I’m the only person who gets slagged off in the film! I think Hugh’s bitter about [our] trajectory and his trajectory.”
“Hugh objects [to the film]. He won’t give us permission to use the songs. But looking at the John Lydon/Sex Pistols case I think we might be able to go ahead with it. I was talking to a solicitor just today.” JJ BurnelTweet
“I get annoyed when bands split because the success stops,” JJ Burnel says in conclusion. “If you have failures you learn from them. That’s the principle that’s allowed us to continue, not chasing the commercial imperative where you have success and try make that into a formula.
“The tail never wags the dog in the Stranglers. Our mission statement has always been: life’s too short to play it safe.”
Fight to thе end
Fight to the bitter end
Nic Howden( Contributor )
Writer/hip old gunslinger. Written about/reviewed live music records/recording for years – in the process interviewing Joe Strummer, Paul Simonon, David Johansen & Syl Sylvain, Pete Shelley & Steve Diggle, Hugh Cornwell, JJ Burnel, Dave Vanian & Captain Sensbile, Seggs, Jaz Coleman, Youth and more…