EXPOSING YOU TO MORE NEW MUSIC
AN INTERVIEW WITH JJ BURNEL
Stubble Interview by Dickie Boston
I met up with JJ Burnel of the Stranglers at Boston’s Middle East on The Pat Dinizio Trio tour of which JJ was playing bass. We met near the mens room and talked some rock history and a little nonsense as well……..
Dickie: I knew this place was good for something.
JJ: This is the first loo in a club in America where I found you can actually lock the door so it has its redeeming points.
Dickie: It's probably the only one in America you're going to find that.
JJ: Yeah, otherwise it's like, some of the johns there actually got seats next to each other and there's no dividing wall. I mean, how can you sort of relax into a little slight discharge with someone else going "Unnnngh" right next to you?
Dickie: My favorite band to listen to when people ask me, I always say THE STRANGLERS. I've got it all, even like the re-issue, repackaged stuff, "Purple Helmets", ahhh... I got it all. I have it all in vinyl too.
JJ: I'm surprised you haven't got the Albert Hall one then.
Dickie: No, and that's why you shocked me when you told me that.
JJ: It's called "Friday The 13th" and it's live at The Royal Albert Hall which was, uhhh... like normally it's kind of, I don't know what the equivalent would be in America. Maybe...
Dickie: Like playing Carnage Hall?
JJ: Yeah, something like that, in a real classic hall but it's just something I wanted to do really. We just wanted to experiment. It was really sold out and everything and ahh... I just thought, well ahhh, because I wanted to do... I'd been talking to a few London ballet companies, the London City Ballet and The English Ballet Company to see... I want to do a ballet of "The Men In Black" `cause there was a story to it and it was never completed. It's a love story basically so ummm... between an alien, if you want, for lack of another term and ummm... one of his creations. It's kind of Frankenstein falling in love with his creation basically and then fucking off and creating religion, leaving religion a fuck of a mess. I wanted to kind of do that and I wanted to see if it was the right step to do, you know, just as a little side thing because "The Men In Black" story was never completed. It was meant to be a soundtrack and it never sort of finishes the project really.
Dickie: Yeah, I remember that tour pretty well. That's when you even played... besides Boston, I also caught you in Providence.
JJ: Yeah that’s right. I remember that. Rhode Island, right?
Dickie: Yeah, Rhode Island. That's where I'm originally from. I saw you play at the old Living Room and then you played this huge place, for Rhode Island, Center Stage. Recently, just catching you up in New York, you played with FURNITURE and we certainly didn't go there to see FURNITURE. We came out of there thinking that ahhh... they must be fans of yours because they had a lot of little quirks...
JJ: Now it's coming out... There are a lot of people coming out of the closet or the woodwork. There are a lot of bands now in Britain who are starting to say, "We're influenced by the STRANGLERS." or "We owe them stuff." because before... I supposed, there's a new generation of bands who aren't constrained by their peers, who aren't afraid to say that THE STRANGLERS are an influence and now the younger bands have got a bit more courage to say that.
Dickie: Pat mentioned that, when we were interviewing him, that you were a very big influence on him also.
JJ: Yeah, I think that's why he called me. It warms the cockles of my heart, you know after all these years, that actually people are being a bit honest and saying that... all I want is a bit of respect and a bit of ahhh...
Ken: What you guys have always done is music, I mean, although it had its roots, I guess, in the quote unquote-punk movement. I never really considered anything you did to the genre of... whether it be Johnny Rotten to the DEAD KENNEDYS, it never fit in at all. It was always... but yet...
JJ: All those bands were... Joe Strummer was an old mate. He was in a rhythm & blues band called "THE 101ers" before he started THE CLASH. Mick Jones from THE CLASH used to come and see us. Uhhh, Steve, Paul and Lydon used to come and see us before they'd started their bands. Chrissy Hine wanted to be our lead singer so, you know... I mean , I remember meeting her for the first time with two of THE SEX PISTOLS, Steve and Paul. They came up to us at a little pub called The Red Cow and she said, "I'm gonna be your lead singer." and we said we don't even need you as a roadie actually. I kept on bumping into her and she kept on trying to trip me up and embarrassing me in front of my girl friends, you know, Choosy, Suzy and Princess, and so a lot of them sort of... once they had success as well, probably more success than us in the states anyway, certainly not in Europe, but certainly in the states and they ummm... didn't pay any sort of reference to us really.
Dickie: I agree. I'd say that the familiarity with THE STRANGLERS is among your hard core fans, I'd say, here in the states where as in Europe I guess you're much more accepted as a house hold name.
JJ: Yeah, well we are a household name certainly.
Dickie: You mentioned that here, people aren't always familiar with ummm...
JJ: No one's ever heard of us.
Dickie: I guess your biggest hit was, in terms of American airplay, was probably "Always The Sun".
JJ: I think that's probably right, yeah.
Dickie: If you wouldn't mind doing a little chronology with me, a little history of the band....
JJ: Try me. I've still got a couple of brain cells left.
Dickie: OK, "No More Heroes" and "Rattus", were they both recorded at the same time?
JJ: About 90% of the tunes were recorded in the same session. It was almost arbitrary which ones were on "Rattus" and which ones were on "No More Heroes". I wrote "Peasant In The Big Shitty" that summer and "English Towns". I think the others were already written cause we'd been playing for two or three years. We just accumulated material really.
Dickie: Which label did you start with over in England. Over here it was A&M.
JJ: It was United Artists in Britain.
Dickie: They stuck by you?
JJ: They were great. They were the only label we never really had any problems with because the guy who signed us up was a real... you know music companies, record companies are big money sort of corporations and they tend to be run by accountants. The days of the entrepreneur who puts his neck on the line and risks his taste, I suppose, against the market are kind of gone. There are a few guys like that but very few. They tend to be run by accountants and accountants have a very short-term vision of the world. If it doesn't balance the books within six months ahhh, fuck off. As we say, a bit of Spanish archer... El-bow. A guy who actually used to go to pubs and see bands signed us up. He actually collected records and he's still doing that. He goes bankrupt every two years but he's a good man and he's still going around. He started Demon Records and Radar Records so we were signed up by someone who actually was going to places and wasn't going to account lunches or dinners. When he left the company... He left the company the same time as United Artists got swallowed up by the EMI conglomerate and that's when our interest kind of waned.
Dickie: Now, the next album after that you guys recorded "Black And White". Any interesting thoughts on that one?
JJ: Well, "Black And White" was the first time we encountered American corporate business because we mixed most of it in America. They started trying to get involved in telling us what to put on, what to leave off and a certain way of mixing that would suit American radio more. Being not one fucking iota business oriented we said fuck off. We wanted to retain the integrity of our, you know... OK, we might be wrong but we want to retain the integrity of what we're feeling. It just got worse and worse and then eventually we sent a telegram to A&M that said "Fuck Off, the STRANGLERS" and they sent a letter back saying, "We've taken your advice. Enjoy the holiday season." end of contract.
Dickie: Now, was it the bands idea to have the colored vinyl?
JJ: No. That was definitely not our idea. That was like kind of marketing cause in those days they were starting to be sort of
Dickie: I still have the old marble disk.
JJ: No, that wasn't our idea. I wish it would've been our idea but to be honest, it wasn't.
Dickie: From there, looking at American releases, there was just that compilation album. "The Raven" was over in the rest of the world but...
JJ: Yeah, well that's because we'd fucked up our relationship with the record company. In some respects I regret it. In other respects I'm really pleased. I think we would have probably been very successful in America at that time. It was just starting to build up. I think maybe we wouldn't have had the luxury of exploring a rich seem of creativity because I think with success you start getting corrupted. We still sold 20,000,000 albums but over here I think success in America would have made it mega mega and I think the band wouldn't have lasted so long. I think we would have all gone off with loads of girls sucking our dicks and cocaine and limousines and fallen into the trap so I kind of... I'm grateful that we didn't do that in one way.
Dickie: Financially it might have been better the other way but...
JJ: Well yeah but I mean,... you know, 20,000,000 albums isn't so bad. I'm not a greedy person but I think my ego is probably greedier. I would have liked to have been better known in America just because America is a big part of the world. Europe's 250,000,000 people and the whole of the states is so I would have liked to have the respect that comes with that kind of success. On the other hand, we probably wouldn't have created so many... We wouldn't have had the chance to... You know what happens with success. Once you've had success they say repeat it and the STRANGLERS like, we always were going off on tangents exploring. The world was our oyster. It still is really and ahhh... I don't think we would have had that opportunity. If "Raven" had been a success here, which it would have been if we hadn't fucked up our relationship with the record label, I think they would have wanted another "Raven" and then another "Raven" and another "Raven" and another "Raven" and we wouldn't have fulfilled ourselves as artists.
Dickie: Speaking of tangents, this right here came out right around the time of "The Raven".(holding Euroman Commeth CD)
JJ: Yeah, well this was quite successful actually.
Dickie: Absolutely. In fact I pick it up when I was in England.
JJ: This is a re-release, isn't it?
Dickie: Yeah, to find it on CD is not that easy.
JJ: This is the third release of it, Yeah, there were three releases of it. The first one on vinyl ahhh... John Ellis is playing on here. A very skinny John I think.
Dickie: Oh, really?
JJ: Wow, skinny John who's been STRANGLERS guitarist for eight years.
Dickie: Oh, absolutely. In fact I was talking to John before the show at Wetlands and I wouldn't have recognized his picture on that if the name wasn't there.
JJ: He's changed a bit over the years.
Dickie: When you decided to do this, I guess you broke off and did EUROMAN COMMETH and Hugh did his NOSFARATU thing, was that in any way related to the record company thing going sour?
JJ: No. It wasn't sour at all in Europe. That was just the American side of it. Kind of developed this bit of a ghetto mentality about America. Sort of ignoring them and concentrating on what we could do which was Europe and the rest of the world but this happened because I was always... I was never ??????? regarding technology and although the punks were kind of fundamentalists who didn't like synthesizers and this and that and they were trying to be guitar oriented, I was starting to like boxes and rhythm machines and I thought there's potential here. Let’s see what happens. I didn't have anywhere to live at the time although we were number one in Britain and Europe going gold and platinum. I had no where to live so... I was getting a bit bored finding different girls to sleep with at the time just because I wanted a bit of space. I started living in the studio and as soon as everyone had left... We started doing that during the "Black And White" sessions so while people were going out to restaurants I'd lock the studio up behind me and sleep there and play about with these machines and start fucking about a bit, fiddling about with stuff and after about a month I already had accumulated an album's worth of material. I played to a few people who said "Wow, that's a bit different, a bit bizarre." just about 18 months before cold wave things occurred in Brittany. Yeah, I mean, some of it's a bit dated but some of it... It kind of pissed off Hugh a bit because this was successful and Hugh's wasn't, and NOSFERATU wasn’t and also cause I did it on the cheap. I just did it with machines and a couple of mates. It didn't cost me a thing where as Hugh's recording in LA and all over the place with the guys from DEVO. He actually didn't make a penny from his record but I made quite a lot of money from it and it was kind of accidental where as his was more intentional so... Kind of built up a bit of resentment.
Dickie: Is that what eventually caused Hugh to leave?
JJ: No, things were built up and built up with resentment and also a lot of things. You can read it in the book. It's horrible.
Dickie: Are you on speaking terms with Hugh?
JJ: Not at all. I leave... I'd like to be but he's still got a lot of anger to get rid of regarding me. I leave messages on his phone every six months because... now I just do it out of habit and he doesn't return my calls but he will one day I'm sure.
Dickie: From there and that little period with "The Raven" then more or less, the music started to me changing away from... changing a little bit more, whether it would be "La Folie" or...
JJ: Oh, "La Folie", "The Men In Black" thing then.
Dickie: "The Men In Black" and, I mean, all of the stuff basically that followed there really was different than those first four albums. Was it just a natural progression for the band?
JJ: Well yeah, obviously it was a natural progression but I mean I think we intentionally wanted to move away from that. We were in the top ten every week and we didn't want to be considered as a top ten or top forty band as you'd call it over here, a pop group. We wanted to be taken seriously. On the other hand, that was the reason why we could do so many things so it was chicken and egg. I did this and Hugh did NOSFERATU and they were very syncopated type music. The music was kind of much more different and so we decided to experiment with ourselves and with the music and "Men In Black" was the result.
Dickie: Was it more or less a group effort to think of the concept of "Men In Black"?
JJ: "Men In Black", I think the idea originally... I mean the artwork was Hugh's idea. The idea first got thrust upon us by Jet I think because Jet was reading all these esoteric books about aliens and men in black and etc... and religion and the possible explanations of the pyramids and you know, all the esoteric stuff which everyone's talking about, obsessed about in America. At the time we were quite interested in it and whenever someone read a book, another member of the band, once he'd finished it he'd pass it to Hugh or myself or David and we'd read... we all read the same things. We were living in each other’s house at that time so we all got hooked on this ahh... these alternative alternate ideas, explanations to regions in the bible and phenomena as well. We wanted to explore and create a few sort of... explore the ideas basically.
Dickie: I remember when it first came out a lot of critical acclaims where they went from looking at it as a concept album to looking at it as blasphemous and then of course when "Duchess" came out you had a thing on blasphemy with the "Duchess" video I guess. Was that all intentional?
JJ: No, it wasn't actually. We thought that it was good clean fun and it was just that everyone else took it the wrong way. We didn't think "Let’s go and outrage people and shock 'em", it just did. We thought it was quite normal to explore those ideas and to discuss them. Nothing wrong with that. Well, we didn't think but obviously it hit a sensitive nerve so obviously we were getting quite close to some kind of truth. "Men In Black" was an absolute turkey commercially at the time and now it's regarded as a bit of a masterpiece in some courses. In fact, about four or five years ago I was in Paris doing an interview and the lady said "You've only done one decent album, this "Men In Black"" and I said "Well, I wish you'd said that fifteen years ago." The record company said "Alright, they're finished now, they're finished". It still got top twenty but compared to the hundreds of thousands we were selling at the time, people couldn't understand. They'd say "There's not a fucking single good tune on it. They've lost their song writing abilities" but sound wise I think it was very modern.
Dickie: It still is today. In fact I'd say as far as a straight listen through it's probably the album with the most continuity from cut to cut.
JJ: Oh for sure yeah, for sure but it ruined us. The record... The making "Men In Black" ruined us. We spent a fortune doing it and regardless of people saying "Look, hold on. You don't want to spend all this money doing a fucking record with not a top forty hit single on it." and we said "Fuck it. We got to do it" and at the end of it we were completely broke. We were like the biggest selling band in Britain and in Europe at the time and we just couldn't... but we had to do it. It had to be done.
Dickie: After "The Men In Black" then obviously you have "La Folie", "Feline" and then more or less... I think with "Feline", I guess, the music changed again.
JJ: Well yeah, I mean "Feline" was another... not such a consistent concept as "Men In Black" but we wanted to create a kind of sexy atmosphere because by that time America had turned its back on us, certainly the American record companies. So, we turned our backs and we started being a bit more introverted and looking at Europe and wanting to create a kind of European music, you know, like between north and south. We sort of looked at Europe at the time and, kind of regardless of the east really, we saw Europe as north and south, north being Protestant, industrial and cold and south being Catholic, agricultural and warm and a bit Moorish and Arabic so synthesizers represented the north and the acoustic guitars represented the south, sort of a marriage. We wanted to marry the two and just sort of make a kind of very... not hard at all. Completely opposite to anything we'd done before and just soft and kind of soothing and sexy. I think it worked. For me it worked but people were saying again "For fuck sake!". The same people who were criticizing the "Men In Black" album were saying, "Well fucking this is horrible." You know "Men In Black" was a great album and they were saying "The last album was just a great hit, the biggest seller they've ever done “Golden Brown”. Now they're doing this rubbish." We learned something from that. Don't try to make anyone happy. Make yourself happy.
Dickie: "Aural Sculpture" and "Dream Time". Those albums do sound very similar.
JJ: Well, I think that they're brother and sister really, sort of the same fabric. "Men In Black" was a one off. "Feline" was a one off. I think you're probably right about the first... "Heroes" and "Rattus" are definitely the same family, almost twins really. "Black And White" is kind of an older brother sort of. "Raven", slightly different. "La Folie", kind of the same part of the family but then "Feline", "Men In Black" are entirely different to anyone else and then "Aural Sculpture" and "Dream Time" are similar.
Dickie: Then obviously there was "Ten" which was more or less the last real studio album. Was that a tough album to record?
JJ: That was awful. It was awful because we weren't talking to each other by then. You know, Hugh and I, we just weren't talking to each other.
Dickie: So you were working together but not really communicating?
JJ: No, we wouldn't even be working together. We'd record at separate times. We recorded in Holland and when he was in the studio I wouldn't be in the studio and when I was in the studio Hugh would be nowhere to be seen. Also we were starting to not write together so he'd bring his songs, I'd bring my songs and you know... It sounds it. There's a couple of good tracks on it but I think it's not really the band.
Dickie: You can tell. It doesn't sound like a group effort but there are some nice tunes on it. After that there was like an assortment of different compilations, live recordings and all that stuff that has come out and then finally... We were over in England at the time and "Heaven And Hell" wasn't even a single yet and there was a bootleg tape that I still have that I bought on the street that...
JJ: Yeah, It was stolen from the rehearsal studio.
Dickie: Sorry about that (Ha Ha) but I couldn't resist and I have it and I'm listening to these rough-cuts and it's like... it was different. I assumed because you are a good singer that you would more or less go into that role...
JJ: Well, I'm not a good singer but I can interpret. As the French say, I can interpret stuff which is slightly different from singing but that's why I breathe rather than sing. The others wanted me to sing. It would just be a threesome and hiring some musicians to do our stuff and I really wasn't up for that. John had already... I brought John into the band before Hugh left because like I had a feeling about Hugh's guitar playing at the time. John did the whole of the "Ten" tour with us which was like a year and so when Hugh left we already had a ready made guitarist who knew Hugh's parts. I didn't want to sing although I've thought about it since. I've thought maybe I could have sung but...
Dickie: I noticed the last two times, especially this last time seeing you, even some of the songs that traditionally you did sing...
JJ: Yeah, Paul sings that. I don't want to sing anymore. I just don't want to sing anymore.
Dickie: Paul does a great job though, don't get me wrong. What Paul adds is a whole different style. I don't know if you agree with it but he is more animated than the four of you were by yourselves and it really makes... I mean, he really gets the people into the show. As well as the fact that he has a fantastic voice, he's very animated because he doesn't have to do anything like holding that heavy guitar on his shoulder and it adds that different dimension to the show.
JJ: I think he's grown into it. He was a long time STRANGLERS fan so I think it was the right move actually. His vocal range is much far greater than Hugh's ever was. But he's not as nasty as Hugh. Sometimes I regret that because Hugh was a very nasty piece of work sometimes on stage and it kind of gave me a bit of a laugh actually.
Dickie: Give us your memory of one of the funnier things that might have happened on stage with Hugh.
JJ: Funny things? Well, they were never really funny. It was just what I thought was quite funny. We did one tour which we called the divide and conquer tour around Europe and so we'd know... in some places we'd know... we'd go to one city and we knew that the city that we'd played the night before we were going to play was... there was a lot of rivalry, for instance Edenborough and Glascow, OK? There's a recording of all these out-takes because I made the soundman record all Hugh's insults. We'd be in Edenborough and Hugh'd say "It's great being here in Edenborough. Yeah, yeah, you guys think you're English." and being in Scotland they'd start booing and then he'd say "Look, don't get up tight. We played in Glascow last night. At least that's a town where they know they're Scottish." There'd be chairs being torn apart. People saying "I'll fucking kill you, you asshole. I paid fifteen pounds coming and see you." When we went to Marseilles in the south of France... Now "The Marseilles" is the French national anthem but we discovered that particular day that there are actually twenty-seven verses to the French national anthem and no fucking French person knows them. They only know the first verse so we came on stage and Hugh said "Yeah, home of the French national anthem" and everybody cheers. Then he says, "Well, look. Just to celebrate the event we'd like to give a bottle of champagne to anyone who comes up here and can sing the French national anthem." There's hundreds of people coming up on stage and so this lady comes up and sings the first verse and she says "Is that it then?" The guy said "Yeah" and Hugh said "No. There's another twenty-six verses. Can't you fucking sing the other twenty-six verses?" and the guy says "I don't know the other twenty-six verses." Hugh says "Well, you've got to suffer the punishment." Let me take his trousers off and stick a banana up his ass. Up until then we had three gold albums in France. That was the end of our career for about five years.
Dickie: Now that you're a band again with all the different parts, when the song writing takes place does someone come in with an idea?
JJ: Yeah, I mean, I've done... for the first time since "Aural Sculpture" I've provided an albums worth of material but I'm hoping that when I get back from this, John and Paul would have done quite a lot of material as well. Then we sift it around and see what ideas we can develop after a few weeks in rehearsals in London and then at the end we come out with a synthesis of all the better ideas. Sometimes it's like part of one of John's songs, I might think that's just what I need to complete my thing, you know, but I've got actually an albums worth of material so... This is the first time I've had it since "Aural Sculpture".
Dickie: You also had an album that was... I've seen it in catalogues but I've never been able to...
JJ: "Un Jour Parfait" The French one?
Dickie: Yes. It's next to impossible to find here in the states. Maybe now with the internet...
JJ: Yeah, I'm sure you could. "Un Jour Parfait", it was a success in France. I only did it just for France. There's only one song in English but it's mainly Dave on keyboards, me on guitar and bass and it was just for France. It was a bit of a success in France.
Dickie: Going way back again, were you guys all friends or did you meet through various bands?
JJ: Hugh and ummm... Hugh had been in Sweden doing chemical research and him and a couple of guys, they formed a band up there. Two Swedes, Hans Wormling and another guy on bass and an American draft dodger from the Vietnam war, cause a lot of them went to Sweden, and an American Drummer I believe... eventually Hugh asked me to play bass as a temporary and its been going on since.
Dickie: Final Comments?
JJ: Thanks and good luck.