The Stranglers' JJ Burnel on Irish shows and the perils of punk nostalgia
With The Stranglers kicking off their latest tour in Ireland next month, David Roy speaks to bassist Jean-Jacques Burnel about the punk survivors' ongoing resurgence and plans for a new album
BAD weather is fast becoming a bugbear for Stranglers man Jean-Jacques 'JJ' Burnel: the iconic punk rock bassist is battling a broken boiler at his home in the south of France when we call – it seems things aren't quite so 'nice in Nice' when it's minus five and your central heating is on the fritz – and the Strangler's last couple of Irish visits have also fallen victim to the elements.
"We had to move [Belfast] to the end of the tour because there was a white-out," recalls the London-born musician of how 2018's Ulster Hall show was rescheduled from February to April due to 'the big freeze'.
"Then, a bit later in the year, I was asked to give a prize at the BBC Folk Awards in Belfast – but all flights from Heathrow were cancelled, so I couldn't make it."
Irish Stranglers fans will be hoping that it's a case of third time lucky with regard to the band's upcoming gigs in Belfast and Dublin, the first two dates of their new Back on The Tracks tour which features opening act Dr Feelgood.
Yes, audiences will get to enjoy two legendary acts in one evening, though The Stranglers are definitely faring better on the 'original members' front than their much-loved 1970s contemporaries.
While the Feelgoods no longer feature any players who were in the band during their heydey, bassist/singer Burnel (66) has been with The Stranglers since their 1974 inception and keys wizard Dave Greenfield (69) got onboard well before the release of the group's classic 1977 debut LP Rattus Norvegicus.
Band founder Jet Black (80) may have been subbed for the more reliably match-fit Jim Macaulay in recent years, but the veteran drummer is still an integral part of their operation behind the scenes – and current frontman Baz Warne has now been one of the 'Meninblack' almost as long as original guitarist/crooner Hugh Cornwell, who departed in 1990 for an ongoing solo career.
Burnel credits Warne's arrival on guitar in 2000 with having helped to revitalise The Stranglers – and, indeed, himself – on their most recent run of releases, Norfolk Coast (2004), Suite XVI (2006) – the first release to feature Warne as a co-vocalist alongside Burnel after the departure of Cornwell's replacement, Paul Roberts – and 2012's acclaimed Giants.
"Hugh and I, when we were really close, we used to bounce off each other," the bass ace explains. "We'd spend evenings drinking our whiskey or vino and playing ideas at each other, fiddling about with songs. That was a wonderful period, really lovely.
"I really enjoyed those days when we had that mutuality with that reciprocity, but then things happened: money corrupts, success corrupts and people go at tangents.
"I missed having an accomplice – but I found a new friend in Baz. He's been in the band for almost 20 years now and we enjoy each other's company as well as having someone to work off and bounce off.
"What better situation to be in?"
As well as praising the band's stalwart keys man's signature contributions to their music – "Dave's still off on Planet Greenfield", he jokes – Burnel also highlights the importance of drummer Jim to the current Stranglers line-up, particularly the way in which Jet Black has taken the young West Midlands sticksman under his wing since targetting him as a potential heir to his drum throne way back in 2010.
"We've had seven drummers now because of Jet's health issues, but now he's identified Jim as a kind of successor," explains JJ.
"He's sort of mentored him, so it's been a relatively seamless transition."
Now that it's getting on for seven years since their last record, Burnel and co are understandably keen to get cracking on new material, as the bassist explains.
"I am excited, because it's the first album in quite a few years – and also, I think we might have grown up!" he chuckles.
"I think we started growing up with the last three albums. Your output must reflect yourself and the world that you live in: I can't write about the same things I was writing about 40 years ago, I'm not the same person and the world is not the same place."
Indeed, he tells us that he's just recently returned from England after a period of rehearsal and recording focused on new songs – some of which we might get to hear at the upcoming Irish shows.
"We've been working on new material for a while now. I think before we record it properly we're going to play some of it live," reveals Burnel, who says he's always keen to road-test a couple of newer songs alongside perennial favourites like Something Better Change, No More Heroes, Always The Sun, Duchess, Hanging Around, Peaches and Golden Brown before committing them to a new release.
"It's cheaper when you actually do come to record [because] you know the pieces better. The problem with modern recording is that you've got so many different options that you lose a bit of discipline – you can put loads of different guitar or keyboard parts on, but when you come to play it live everyone only has two hands."
For example, on last year's tour, fans got a taste of a great new song called Water alongside selections from right across the Stranglers' catalogue.
"I think we'll be playing that one again – we haven't recorded it yet but we've got it 'right' now," comments Burnel of the song, a prowling, shape-shifting chugger with lyrics inspired by the Arab spring and the notion that water might soon become as war-worthy a commodity as oil in the deserts of the Middle East.
And, while intra-band discussion is still ongoing regarding exactly which numbers among their considerable pile of hits will get an airing during the new tour, it seems no favourites have been 'retired' as of yet – though The Stranglers certainly aren't afraid to 'rest' certain oldies when they start to grate.
"We didn't play Peaches for almost 10 years," recalls JJ. "Part of the excitement of any creative field is the new thing that you're working on. That's what keeps you going – we're not a nostalgia band.
"I don't want to be mutton dressed up as lamb. So, we still play the old songs because they're fun to play, but you have to move on – you can't live in the past or on former glories.
"You can't fool people by just going through the motions, because audiences will suss you out pretty quickly. If that's how we were ending up, I'd prefer to stop, actually."
Mischievously, he adds: "Thankfully, The Stranglers 'mojo' is pretty good right now for a bunch of old c***s!"
We never doubted them for a second.
:: The Stranglers, with Dr Feelgood, Thursday February 28, The Ulster Hall, Belfast. Tickets via Ulsterhall.co.uk