BIG INTERVIEW Jean-Jacques Burnel of The Stranglers: 'I don't see The Stranglers as a cabaret or karaoke band'

The Stranglers. Picture by David Boni
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More than four decades in to their careers, a band with a pedigree like The Stranglers could hardly be blamed for resting on their laurels.

But the rockers, who actually formed in 1974, predating the punk scene they were so often lumped in with, are hitting the road once more. And The Guide finds founder member, bassist Jean-Jacques Burnel happy with his band's lot.

In 2014, they headed out on The Ruby Tour, to mark their 40th anniversary, and as one of the first acts from that era to pass the 40 year mark, the tour attracted a fair amount of attention.

'That Ruby tour was very successful and we didn’t think we could improve on that, but it’s been getting better every year, which is kind of odd for a band of such an old vintage as us,' says JJ.

'I’d like to say it’s down to talent,' he laughs, 'but I think it’s a combination of things – we’ve gone full circle. We might have been fashionable or trendy at one point, and then we weren't, but then over time, because you don’t give up and keep on writing stuff... Worldwide in the last 15 years it’s just picked up enormously, and I think people are reassessing the band. A lot of bands just give up once they’re over that initial success but that’s not been the case with us.'

They've also noticed a change in their audience – it's not just the old punk lags coming to their gigs.

'The demographic has changed as well, there are a lot of younger people coming to see us, and I suspect, well I’ve been told by, quote, younger people, all the things that were detrimental to our earlier career, like getting arrested, riots, getting escorted out of countries at machine gun-point, spats with journalists, our past misdemeanours  are now seen as a badge of honour.

'Nowadays everything seems a bit sterile and a bit showbizzy and slick, and safe. And a lot of our material doesn’t seem to have dated.'

Relationships in the band are also good – not something they could always have said.

'In the last 15 years, there has been this huge renewal of interest, and it has coincided with me finding my mojo again. We all have our ups and downs in life and I had a real bum period personally, and professionally with The Stranglers for a few years.

'We turned a corner on that, and Baz [Warne, guitarist and vocalist] and I bounce off each other all the time, socially and professionally, the band is in a good place at the moment, and I think that’s relatively rare, there aren’t too many bands of our vintage still producing new music and not living in the past.'

Over the years The Stranglers have enjoyed huge success worldwide. With a back catalogue that takes in not only punk, but new wave, art-rock and out-and-out pop, it includes 23 top 40 hits singles, including Peaches, Golden Brown and No More Heroes, and 17 top 40 studio albums in the UK alone.

The current run around the UK is billed as The Definitive Tour, to coincide with the planned re-release of their first seven albums – six studio and one live.

But JJ says the tour won't focus on that period.

'That’s actually Warner Brothers exploiting the fact that we’re on tour again,' he says with a wry laugh. 'We’re going to try and cover all bases, and we’re going to try and introduce a couple of completely new pieces that we’re been recording at the moment.

'By "definitive", some people think that means the last one, but it also has a different meaning, which is how you define yourself, and I define myself by what I play – which I can’t divulge, or I’ll mess the secret up!'

So how do they pick a setlist? Do they have to play the hits?

'We do leave things out, or you just start to go through the motions and I don’t see The Stranglers as a cabaret or karaoke band, I don’t know if I’m deceiving myself, but if I’m going through the motions, I’d rather drop the track. We’ve done that with a few well-known songs, including Golden Brown as well. Occasionally, I say, look we’re just not doing it tonight, it’s pants, we’re doing it blindfold with no emotion. Peaches we didn’t play for 10 years, I just got fed up with it.'

How does he feel now about the band being tagged with the label of "punk"?

'I don’t know if it served too much at the time but I don’t mind having been associated with all of that thing – it’s part of our story.

'We were trying to play pubs, because that was the only circuit there was in town apart from the college circuit, which was a level up. I remember Joe Strummer telling us we could have their residency at The Elgin pub, because they were starting to play colleges, and that was when he was with the 101ers, before the Clash.And then I remember him crying on my shoulder when we were supporting Patti Smith saying: "I wish I had a band like yours"! And there was when we were the first band to play with The Ramones in the UK, and all the other bands' noses were put out of joint, then Chrissy Hynde coming up to me and saying: "I’m going to be your new lead singer", all of those little anecdotes and memories, they’re all part of it.

'We were kind of ostracised by all of that lot though, our success came in spite of it.'

And the band are currently working on a new studio album, their first since 2012's Giant.

'That’s what we’re working on this year, and we want to have it finished by September. We’ve been working on it for a couple of years, but it keeps on getting interrupted when we get offers to play all over the world. Sometimes we accept them, sometimes we turn them down, but we absolutely love playing live. I can’t imagine musicians who don’t - but there are some…'

It also marks the first album they've recorded without founding drummer Jet Black. Although technically still part of the band, ill health prevents the 79-year-old from performing. Duties behind the kit are now taken over full-time by Jim Macaulay, who first joined to share live drumming in 2013.

'Jet doesn’t play with us, he can’t,' explains JJ. 'We tried with him four or five years ago for one song and he was on oxygen off-stage. He’s done everything he shouldn’t have done in rock’n’roll, not mentioning any details,' JJ chuckles, 'he’s lived the rock’n’roll dream and he’s quite a lot older than us. But he still has his opinions on things and he mentors Jim and gives him advice, possibly not so welcome. But he’s still a presence – he’s the éminence grise of The Stranglers.'

And it means JJ is working with a new partner-in-rhythm in the studio.

'It’s very exciting, it’s a fresh way of looking at stuff. It's like when Baz joined the band 18 years ago, it was really fresh and it was just what was needed.

'And it also gives me a challenge, you play with a different musician, you’re not a robot, and so it requires you to play slightly differently as well, which is great.'

The Stranglers, with support from Therapy?, are at Portsmouth Guildhall on Tuesday, March 13. Doors 7pm. Tickets £31.80. Go to portsmouthguildhall.org.uk.