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JJ Burnel on bringing The Stranglers' 50th anniversary tour to Ireland

Ahead of The Stranglers' 50th anniversary visit to Ireland next year, David Roy quizzes bassist and founding member JJ Burnel about how the beloved Baz Warne-fronted punk pioneers survived the death of keys man Dave Greenfield and drummer Jet Black, the Top 10 success of their subsequent album Dark Matters and what they have in store for the anniversary shows...

The Stranglers circa 2023: Jim Macauley, Baz Warne, JJ Burnel, Toby Hounsham
The Stranglers circa 2023: Jim Macauley, Baz Warne, JJ Burnel, Toby Hounsham The Stranglers circa 2023: Jim Macauley, Baz Warne, JJ Burnel, Toby Hounsham

HI JJ, it's great to hear you'll be back in Ireland next year. How have the band coped with the death of two key members since the last time you played here: long-time keys man Dave Greenfield (71) in 2020 and original drummer Jet Black (82) in 2022?

Jet wasn't unexpected as Dave. Ever since I first knew Jet, which is 50 years ago now, he had health problems. During that time, The Stranglers had to recruit about eight different drummers to fill-in at various stages [most recently Jim Macauley], so that wasn't as unexpected when it finally happened.

The Stranglers, with the late Jet Black (far left) and Dave Greenfield (far right)
The Stranglers, with the late Jet Black (far left) and Dave Greenfield (far right) The Stranglers, with the late Jet Black (far left) and Dave Greenfield (far right)

Dave was a bit of a shock, though. I did see his health sort of declining before the lockdown and then, at the very beginning of the lockdown, he caught Covid – and that sort of finished him off, really. Because he was quite fragile by then anyway.

We'd finished most of the last album, so I suppose his passing inspired me to do a few other things dedicated to him.

But it did affect me quite considerably. I mean, Dave was someone I'd known for 45 years or thereabouts, not only as a work colleague, but as a mate – and as an irritant, occasionally. I let him stay at my house for Christmas at one point, and then, by the following September, I suggested to him that he maybe should find his own place. And he said, "Oh, yeah, I didn't think of that".

He was also a source of great pride. I mean, f*** me, the guy was such a geek. He was quite special, so I didn't think he was replaceable. I didn't think there was anyone who could play like him. But blow me down, there was – there was an equal geek.

Toby [Hounsham, new Stranglers keys man, ex-Rialto] idolised Dave. He had been studying Dave for 35 years and knew every single note that Dave ever played.

So we hit the ground running and we'll see what he might be able to contribute in the future. It's given The Stranglers a new lease of life, so hopefully we'll have a few more years before the final, inevitable curtain.

:: You've already done a few shows with Toby, have the fans embraced him?

Very much so. And in fact, when we put our tickets on sale last week we sold out the Royal Albert Hall show in one day – which is something that's never happened for us before. I think that's a sign that people have accepted the latest line-up.

:: That will be a great way to round off the upcoming 50th anniversary tour. Have you ever played the Royal Albert Hall before?

We've played several times but the first was only seven or eight years ago. I think we were the first rock band to be invited to the Proms since Soft Machine in the 1960s.

:: You're planning on performing two sets on the upcoming 50th anniversary tour which will span your entire career, have you decided on the songs yet?

We're working on that at the moment. I want to play some of the longer arranged pieces that we've done – we don't get much of a chance to do things like Down in The Sewer. So I'd like to do a set of that stuff before we get into The Stranglers' usual rock mode.

:: When you hit a milestone like 50 years, does that give you pause for reflection on The Stranglers' achievements and influence?

When Dave passed away, it did give me a few months of introspection. But at the moment, I'm still relatively outward looking. So I think that's a positive ­– I'm not sitting back on my haunches, yet.

So yeah, at the moment I'm still thinking of the future: I've got 400 odd pieces of song ideas that I need to go through and make sense of and hopefully record some more music. My problem is that I need to have time and space to actually complete an idea – and I haven't had that much opportunity recently.

Sometimes when you go back and reflect on those ideas, you can't actually remember the original reason why you did 'em –that kind of gets lost. But if you can reconnect with the original idea, then you might have a chance of producing something good.

Bassist/singer and founding Strangler JJ Burnel (left) and Baz in action
Bassist/singer and founding Strangler JJ Burnel (left) and Baz in action Bassist/singer and founding Strangler JJ Burnel (left) and Baz in action

:: Do you still enjoy the collaborative aspect of bringing song ideas to the band?

Absolutely, one thing I've noticed with the change of personnel over the years, is that different people have different reactions to things. So I suppose it prevents you from getting stale. And it's quite exciting when an idea triggers some kind of creative impulse in someone else which you weren't necessarily expecting.

I mean, some ideas you've got and they're more or less complete – you just want your colleagues to compliment them. But sometimes they come in completely from left field. And that can be exciting.

I think this winter is going to give us a chance to get back in studio and record some stuff.

The Strangler– Dark Matters
The Strangler– Dark Matters The Strangler– Dark Matters

:: The Stranglers enjoyed their first Top 10 album in over 40 years with 2021's Dark Matters. Did you know it was going to connect so well while you were making it?

That stuff can just be down to a question of timing: sometimes, everything gels at the right time, and other times it just doesn't. And then it's also a matter of timing with an audience as well: there have been things we've released in the past that I thought were genius – but it turned out that I was the only one who thought that.

Then, years later, people 'say you know what? That was a masterpiece'. So you never really know how something will connect.

:: Finally, JJ, you are the last surviving original member of The Strangers in the current line-up and you look remarkably well preserved for a man in his early 70s. What's your secret?

I don't know, I mean I don't really look after myself. I definitely don't subscribe to the Calvinist philosophy of 'If I'm enjoying myself, it must be sin' - I like to enjoy some of the good things in life, that's for sure.

:: The Stranglers play The Ulster Hall in Belfast on March 11 and The Olympia Theatre in Dublin on March 12. Tickets on sale now via ulsterhall.com and ticketmaster.ie.