This week I had the pleasure of talking to Baz Warne, lead singer of The Stranglers since 2006, and possibly the nicest man to ever pick up a guitar. Before their 18 date tour of the UK – followed by dates in New Zealand and Australia – the legendary four piece came together in the West Country to prepare for the “onslaught in March,” as Baz put it. “About a month ago we did a fortnight of real preparation, and that took it out of us to be perfectly honest; long hours in a small room at high volume.” And now they’re ready to go.
Each year means a new tour for the band, who are all well into their 50s and 60s now. So do they still get excited about it? “We’re just psyched and ready to go. Because we do this every year, we’re well used to the rigmarole, routine and pressure of it all. It’s funny how when we’ve rehearsed and got all the prep out of the way, how differently you feel about it.” I asked Baz if, after all these years, they were ever tempted to rely on their experience and not bother with the prep. “That’s the kiss of death, young lady. I think we’ve all been guilty of that at times, but no, I think it’s a part and parcel of being professional in any walk of life. It’s easy to go off the rails in our business with all the distractions of which you’ve heard tell. You’ve got to take it one gig at a time; if you spin too many plates you’re going to fall.”
In their time as a band, The Stranglers have played tiny pubs and clubs, arena tours and festivals aplenty. How do they compare? “Last year we played an arena tour with Simple Minds. Obviously they’re much bigger, but it wasn’t as rock and roll because everyone was sitting down.” So do they prefer the smaller venues? “To be honest probably yes, if you put a gun to my head, I’d come down on side of smaller venues. That’s not to say I don’t get a kick of bigger ones. But, that’s why we like playing festivals over summer; there can be up to 25, 30 thousand people there and you can play to them all in one hit. At the end of the day, playing is playing, putting a guitar on and playing with my mates is what we’re all about really, but I do like being able to see the whites of their eyes and smell their bad breath. You can see enjoyment as well.”
“You could pull the mic down to your backside and fart in it and it would still go down.”
Speaking to Baz, it was clear that for this band, playing live is incredibly important, and even more enjoyable. For him, never more so than in Glasgow, of all places. “Of all the places I’ve ever been – Sydney, Tokyo – it’s Glasgow that does it for me. And it’s sold out, so when we go on stage in front of 3000 mad Glaswegians, it’s indescribable. The noise they make and the energy they have; if you play a bad gig with that then you’re probably in the wrong profession. If you’re confident in what you’re doing, and it sounds good in your ears, and the band are on the top of the game, that’s one thing. But, when you have that amount of love in a room, and that’s what it is – I know it sounds like a corny cliché but it’s true – you go out on stage and a wall of noise comes at you. You could pull the mic down to your backside and fart in it and it would still go down.”
That’s not to say that The Stranglers are always playing these types of venues. “We end up doing places like Hull and Reading and St Albans; places that have just as much bloody right to have music as anyone else, but they’re off the beaten track. But, when you do go there, it’s like a bloody royal visit.” Being from near Reading, I appreciate how big of a deal it is when we get a big act to play our small venues. I always suspect that the artists themselves are less than impressed, but – for Baz at least – that’s not the case. “We played Sub 89 [a tiny 600 capacity club in Reading] the summer before last, and it was just outrageous, man. I think there must have been about 750-800 people in there – how they did that is beyond me. There was condensation dripping down the ceiling and over the walls. You come out of a venue like that and you’re rung out. You’ve given everything you got.”
With gigs like that, does the artist’s output change according to what the audience is giving back? “Yes it really does. You feedback from what they’ve given you. In some cases, for example if it’s not your audience, you can see people looking at their watches, or yawning. It doesn’t happen very often, but when it does I always point them out. You’ve got to. I say, “Sorry are we keeping you up?” It’s downright rude. Good thing is that they never expect you to see them. In those cases, sometimes, we’re as guilty as anyone for lapsing into going through the motions. I’d say maybe 1 or 2 per cent of all the gigs that I’ve done have been like that, when you’ve thought ‘these people don’t care.’”
“after a particularly good gig we still sit out the back and discuss in post-mortem, all smiles and backslaps.”
The Strangler’s debut album is now almost 40 years old, meaning that, as Baz put it, the original fans are “older than them”. This year’s tour focusses on the group’s 3rd album Black and White, which was released in 1978. I grew up with a massive The Stranglers fan in the shape of my dad, and therefore have always been aware of their music. I wondered if Baz found that other young people were engaging in their new records and tours – maybe ones that came to the music themselves. “Absolutely. We see massive changes year to year. The younger fans readily admit that for everything they want to find out about us they just go online, and the accessibility helps. You can find things that even I didn’t even know exist; obscure recordings from 23 years ago and the like. One of the pleasures for us is that the fans know all the words, not only to the old stuff, and when they’re singing along to the new stuff it’s fantastic. After all these years, after a particularly good gig we still sit out the back and discuss in post-mortem, all smiles and backslaps.”
Speaking to Baz restored my faith in the old rock stars, who I expect to be so over it that they don’t really care anymore. It’s clear that for him, what’s important is the live show, and the fans. He even takes out trays of tea to the people “freezing their whatnots off” outside the gigs. “At the end of the day we’re just blokes. They think we’re not, but Jesus Christ I’ve just been for a pee. People don’t think that you go to the loo – how friggin’ stupid is that?” Despite the unfortunate rule that means platinum selling artists still have bladders, Baz and the rest of The Stranglers are still having a good time touring new and old music alike. If you happened to be on the fence about going to see them, let the fact that Baz may genuinely be the nicest man in the world persuade you to get a ticket. All in all, it’s clear that even over 40 years after their first tour, The Stranglers have a little life left in them yet.
Bonus questions: a slightly frivolous and yet well received quick-fire round:
If you could release a cover of any song tomorrow, what would it be?
Green Onions – Booker T.
If you could play anywhere in the world, where would you play?
O2 in Glasgow.
What would your dream super-group line-up be?
Drums, Slim Jim Phantom of The Stray Cats (who played drums standing up and looked really quite cool); Keyboard, Dave Greenfield from our band, there’s no one better; Bass, Lemmy; Vocals, Dusty Springfield.