Having had their 40th anniversary last year, The Stranglers are probably the most prolific and respected band from the UK’s punk era. Don’t try and argue, I only said “probably,” and I’m also not wrong. Spanning jazz, metal, pop and prog-rock, there’s very little they haven’t covered in their time, with hits such as ‘Golden Brown,’ ‘No More Heroes,’ ‘Always the Sun,’ and ‘Something Better Change.’ Now, with the new tour approaching Bristol, I caught up with lead singer and guitarist, Baz Warne, from his home in Sunderland, in what was single-handedly the best use I’ve ever found for my phone.
How are you?
I’m very well thank you my friend, how are you
Very well, thanks. I was wondering, what do you think of interviews nowadays? I remember reading that back in the 1970s you were strapping journalists to the Eiffel Tower, I’m not going to be found up Colston Hall this time next year, am I?
Well I’ve only been in the band for 15 years, but that’s fucking long enough, y’know? [Laughs] Interviews are a different animal now, but not as different as you’d think if we were to encounter anybody now who was as extreme as people used to be. A lot of it was all about shock value, from the music to the journalism to the TV, culturally, journalists could be as unpleasant as the bands. Seeking their scoops, trying to wind people up and trying to stir people’s thoughts. But yeah, that one journalist, from what I remember or what I’ve heard, was just a twat. So the guys took him up to the Eiffel Tower, jumped on him, pulled his trousers down and gaffer taped him to it… And then just fucked off and left him for the Japanese tourists. But from what I gather he absolutely deserved it. I think they kissed and made up a few years later, though, but he needed to be taught a lesson and in them days that was the way to do it. I mean what was that, 1979?
Try doing that now and you’ll probably get a very different reaction.
Oh absolutely, it’s not for the want of trying I’m sure. We have our moments, not so much from the media, but we still get people coming to gigs who want to try it on, throw things, strip down and so on. People spitting on you as well; thoroughly unpleasant. I mean I’m the youngest member of the band by 12 years and I’m still fucking 50. We’re not kids anymore but once in a while you gotta make an example out of someone and it’s tremendous fun to do that. We haven’t done it for many a year, but we’d think nothing of pulling somebody out the audience and making a tit of them.
You said you’re the most recent member of the band, and you’ve been in for 15 years now, how did you manage the transition?
Well I was in a band called The Small Town Heroes from Sunderland. I mean, we were from Sunderland and called The Small Town Heroes, not The Small Town Heroes from Sunderland, that’d have been a silly name wouldn’t it? But we supported The Stranglers in two separate tours, in ’95 and ’97. In 2000, their guitarist left, and I was a husband and a father by then, with a lot of pressures to earn money to get by, and one day out of the blue I got a call from a guy who used to crew for us, and went on to crew for The Stranglers, and he said they were looking for a guitarist and asked me to call you. I was invited to an audition in London and got it on the spot. Ten days later, there was a lot of conflict in Bosnia and Kosovo, and we went out and played for the peacekeeping forces out there. I didn’t know any of the band, the crew, all I knew were the songs. It was a real baptism of fire but I wouldn’t have it any other way.
In terms of critical reaction, the records you’ve done with the band, Norfolk Coasts, Suite XVI and Giants have been some of the best received in Stranglers’ history. Especially with Hugh Cornwell leaving as he thought the artistic venture was up. Do you feel the obligation to continue or is everything just happening?
Yeah, I think Hugh’s kind of paid me a back-handed compliment there. I know what you’re saying though, I think if you were to follow a timeline of The Stranglers through the 80s you’ll see that they’ve taken a much much poppier approach. They embraced an awful lot of technology, which is why, when you listen to the records from that period, they haven’t dated very well to my mind. I mean I’m not being disparaging, there are some fantastic songs, but simply from a production point of view. It got to a point where Hugh had his own management and things fell apart pretty quickly, they did a gig and then he rang them up the next day, said he was leaving and they didn’t see him again. After all that they’d been through I think it kind of gave them a ‘well fuck you’ mentality, but in actual fact what they did was then replace him with two other guys: a guitarist and a singer, and played as a five piece for ten years and then that’s where I came in. In the 90s, I think again if you condensed the four or five records they made then, you could get one really strong album. I don’t think they were anything like as prolific as they had been. I mean the album in 1998 was a real hotchpotch, there were arguments in the band and one of the guys took control of the album and made a real pig’s ear out of it. And then I joined the band and we were floundering for a completely new direction. So Norfolk Coast became more hard-rocking, back to the roots, which we went with again on Suite XVI and by the time we got to Giants… well, you know what, most old school bands only really start reaching their potential on the third album; the first is a statement of who we are, the second is trying to recapture the success of the third, and by the time the third comes along you’ve got to experiment and do something different. It came to Giants and we were a lot more comfortable with each other, in our own skins, and we knew exactly where it should go. There was very little mixing on that album, just the four of us in a room looking at each other, which is the way it should be. I’m quite proud of those three albums, and the last one in particular.
You should be, I was reading a review that said words to the effect of “if Giants was released by one of these new skinny-jeaned, wild-haired indie-dream-rock bands, people would be raving about it. There’s a bitter irony in that with your line-up effectively being a ‘new’ Stranglers.
There is, there is. I mean, when we do gigs, and certainly when we do festivals, all those bands you mention are standing at the side of the stage with their mouths open saying, this band’s been together for 40 years, let’s see how it’s done. But if you’re talking about any band like that in 40 years I’d be very surprised.
One of the tracks on Giants, ‘Time Is Not On My Side,’ isn’t the most optimistically named. In terms of sound, though, it kind of rolls back to Parklife-era Blur.
Yeah, they’re JJ Burnel’s lyrics. I remember him actually driving home from somewhere and shouting them down the phone to me via bloody Bluetooth or whatever it was telling me to write them down. I mean, we often say, in terms of career and in life, that there’s a lot less left in front of us than there is behind us, and I think it’s just a general statement that time is maybe not so much with us now. But I mean, juxtaposing as you say, there are those Blur elements to it, and quite a happy riff, I think it’s a fun thing to do, to make you think.
Well one of my favourites of all-time is Leonard Cohen, so I’m no foreigner to the downbeat lyrics.
[Laughs] Oh I love old Len. He’s something else isn’t he? I’ve never seen him live but I’ve met quite a lot of people who’ve worked with him. He’s a special treasure.
How do you go about writing then? I heard that for The Gospel according to Meninblack in ’81, the band was taking heroin as an artistic decision for what is probably now the world’s best UFO related album.
Well, first of all, on The Gospel according to Meninblack I think JJ Burnel would happily get down on his knees and kiss your feet for saying that. It’s his favourite album, very underrated. We’re actually exploring it now and doing a few of the songs on this next tour which I’ve never played before. Listening to it as a whole piece you can hear they were all smacked out of their tits. It’s a very whacky thing and didn’t sell that well. I think people thought they’d just gone up their own arses and in many respects they had.
As far as ‘Dutch Moon’ goes, I had the title for that song on tour. Nothing simpler than I looked out the window and it was the biggest moon I’d ever seen, and we were in Holland. So Dutch Moon. Simple as that. It’d been in my memory banks for years, and then when I joined the band, I was asked to join partly for my songwriting, to see if JJ and I could form a partnership the way that him and Hugh had, and so I thought I’d have a stab at a tune. Ignoring the cliché, it practically wrote itself. I think they were expecting me to do something punky and raucous and naturally I came back with a skewed love ballad, and they loved it. I ended up writing four of the songs on Norfolk Coast, one of them being ‘Long Black Veil’ which was used as a single, I was quite knocked back by that. I mean as regards to songwriting these days, you’ve got the technology where you can sing it into your phone, and the quality is staggering. Then we get together, sit for a couple of weeks with a dozen bottles of red wine and some acoustic guitars, share the ideas and deconstruct others, and eventually find some that can be used as songs. It works very well.
How do you choose which songs to perform between the old and the new?
We’re dead-set against this thing becoming a nostalgia trip, and I mean a lot of bands who were playing around the same time and who’ve got back together are simply touring for the nostalgia, the cash and the crack.
But then they don’t all have 17 studio albums to fall back on.
Yeah, that’s exactly right. And it’s important to remember that The Stranglers are one of the only bands from that era to have never broken up. The band has been together since 1974 and so, as you say, have a massive back catalogue to choose from. On the forthcoming tour, I think we’ve got eight ‘new era’ songs that mix and blend in with the old ones. There are songs that you have to play, the ‘Golden Brown’s and the ‘No More Heroes,’ but I don’t understand bands that come in only wanting to play their hits.
The Stranglers are one of the UK’s most admired and successful bands of all-time, and quite rightly so. They’re now visiting the South West, embarking on their March On tour, and stopping off at Bristol’s O2 Academy on 19 March. I guess I hope I’ll see you there. Hits or otherwise, it’ll be a show to remember. Plus, if you’re a frog, it’s all very well jumping from lily pad to lily pad, but it’s the water that keeps you floating.
Tristan Gatward, Music Editorbookmark me