Jean-Jacques Burnel (seen here on the right), singer songwriter and bassist with The Stranglers chats with Kevin Cooper about Jet Black’s teaching DVD for Jim MacAuley, Sir Michael Caine queuing for a visa, both the interviewer and Jet Black being on the scrapheap and The Stranglers forthcoming tour of the UK
Jean-Jacques ‘JJ’ Burnel is a Franco-English musician, producer and songwriter, best known as the bass guitarist with the British rock band The Stranglers. Born in London to French parents, he originally trained as a classical guitarist, but started playing the bass when he joined The Stranglers.
Having been in The Stranglers since the group formed in 1974 with founding members Jet Black, Hugh Cornwall and Dave Greenfield, Jean-Jacques is still a pivotal member of the band although Cornwall is no longer a member. Baz Warne is now Cornwall’s long standing replacement.
2017 is the Ruby Anniversary of the release of the band’s debut and second studio albums Rattus Norvegicus and No More Heroes which were both released back in 1977. To celebrate the 40th Anniversary of what was such a pivotal year in the band’s history, the band will tour the UK to celebrate both albums.
Whilst having a well earned rest before The Stranglers tour of the UK, JJ took some time out to have a chat with Kevin Cooper and this is what he had to say.
Hi JJ, how are you?
I’m fine thanks Kevin, how are you?
I’m very well thank you and let me just thank you for taking the time to speak to me.
It’s my pleasure as always. It’s always nice to catch up with you up there again in Nottingham.
We last spoke on 8th January last year, the day after the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris.
Fuck yes, that’s right. I have to say that it has been quite a year in France. I’m fortunate in the fact that I live down in the south near Nice but France is in a bit of a flux at the moment. Currently, the biggest political party in France is Front National whose president is Marine Le Pen. All of the atrocities that occurred around Europe and particularly in France seemed to have succeeded in turning people to extremes really.
Which unfortunately is never a good thing.
No, that’s right, it’s not. All extremes always end the same way don’t they.
Both sides always lose.
That’s right, everyone loses.
Anyway moving on, I have to ask just how is life treating you?
Life is good, The Stranglers seem to be continually on the up at the moment. On the whole the last twelve years have been very good to us. We seem to have finally broken through worldwide, and all of our past misdemeanours seem to have coagulated into an appreciation of a body of work. We are survivors, and I still think that we have got some things to say and the last couple of albums seem to have proved that. We don’t wallow in nostalgia although we have got a lot of old stuff to play which we still enjoy doing (laughter).
I have to be careful and chose my words carefully now.
Really, why’s that (laughter).
I was going to say whilst on the subject of old stuff just how is Jet’s health?
Ouch, that’s rather naughty of you (laughter). To be honest with you it’s not good. Jet has become increasingly distant from participation in the band. He still has his opinions; he still has an input but live wise he simply can’t do it. In fact, he hasn’t been able to do it really for a few years now. Over the years Jet’s health has continually got worse and worse. As he says himself, he is just falling apart (laughter). You name it, he’s got it. If it’s not lungs then it’s his heart. He has diabetes, he can hardly walk, and he can’t manage to sustain a three minute song anymore without him needing air and hospitalisation. So in answer to your question, Jet’s not brilliant (laughter). That’s the price that you pay for having been rather extreme in rock and roll, if you know what I mean.
So am I to take it that we won’t be seeing Jet on the forthcoming UK tour?
No, not at all. Last year we didn’t see him on tour nor did we see him the year before that. Over the years it has become less and less. Jet’s aware of his limitations so he really is supportive of Jim (MacAulay) who fills in for him and in fact Jet sometimes gives Jim a little lesson or two to make sure that he is playing the songs as they should be played (laughter). Jet has made a DVD just for Jim where he tells him “you don’t hit the snare like that you hit it like this” (laughter). It’s quite sweet really seeing Jet mentoring Jim. There you have this big old bastard of a guy who looks like a grizzly old bear mentoring his replacement.
I was fortunate to photograph you here in Nottingham at Rock City on the Black And White Tour. Were you pleased with just how well it went?
Yes I was, and I have to say that the tour was a huge success. I think that the set helped. It focused the fact that we could play forty-five minutes with no colour, everything being black and white and then suddenly going to colour. I have to be honest with you and say that Rock City is not the ideal place for that kind of production but we have very residual loyalty to that particular venue. It is a great venue but you can’t do a full production in there which is the one drawback. However, that is compensated for by the vibe hat you get there, what a vibe.
To quote you from last year’s interview you said that “Rock City is a bit scuzzy but you have to play there”. Do you still stand by that?
Yes I do, and I think that just about sums it all up (laughter). It is a rock and roll venue so what can I say, you wouldn’t have Barry Manilow playing in there would you which I suppose is a good thing really (laughter).
Well, I don’t know if I mentioned it to you previously but before the venue became Rock City it used to be The Heart Of The Midlands when you had to wear a suit and tie and eat chicken in a basket to see the likes of Des O’Connor performing.
(Hysterical laughter) fucking hell, really (laughter). Perhaps we should bring a bit of that back into our show (laughter).
The Stranglers with very special guest artist Des O’Connor (laughter).
(Laughter) I think that we should stop this right now (laughter).
2017 is the fortieth anniversary of both Rattus Norvegicus and No More Heroes. Does that make you feel old because it does me?
Yes (laughter) I will second that motion. However, on the contrary you have got to see it as being rejuvenated. It reminds you of what you might have lost; there is still time to make up for past sins.
On the forthcoming UK tour you won’t be playing the albums in their entirety. Was that a conscious decision?
Yes it was. Last year as you know we played the Black And White album in its entirety which worked really well. However, it is something that everyone seems to be doing now but we have got so much more choice of material and I personally don’t think that The Stranglers rely upon just one iconic album fortunately. That is the advantage that we have.
What can we expect?
Well, what I always say is expect the unexpected. At the beginning of each year we rehearse a whole load of material and we rehearse it to such an extent that we don’t even have to look at our instruments so we can be a bit more free when we play these songs. Otherwise you spend all night looking at your instruments and you simply can’t be free. I have spoken to a lot of other bands and they don’t understand why we rehearse so much. We are as tight as a ducks arse, not that I have tried a ducks arse recently (laughter). Once you do know everything you can actually be a bit freer with the material; you can face people.
So we rehearse and revise a whole bunch of material and throughout the course of the year that allows us to chop and change every night. Every night on this tour we most probably won’t play the same set because a. there is a wealth of material and b. it means that we are freer and are not constrained to play the same bloody stuff every night otherwise it becomes a bit cabaret and a little showy. It becomes the same as all of the other artists who rely upon tapes and discs; the Mariah Carey’s of this world. If anything goes untoward they are completely fucked and I think that The Stranglers are better than that.
You have got The Ruts opening for you on the forthcoming tour which I think is a great choice.
Well I have to say that it makes a demographic sense and they are quite a good band at the moment. We know Dave Ruffy the drummer really well because he occasionally assists with production and he helped with the production of our Norfolk Coast album which really did change our fortunes. So we know them a bit and think that they will be a good draw.
Tickets for the tour are currently selling really well. That must please you?
Yes I am, and I am amazed that this far ahead of the tour we are selling tickets quicker than ever before. I am not sure if it is because people believe that it may be the last tour (laughter) or the fact that we may die on stage. There may well be a little of the car crash syndrome, I don’t know (laughter). But yes it’s going really well; everywhere in the world we are selling really well so much so that we have to keep turning down tours of America. I personally can’t be arsed to jump through all of the hoops that they make you do. Every individual now has to be interviewed before they get their tourist visa allowing them to enter into the USA.
I saw Sir Michael Caine in the queue at seven in the morning to get his visa. The Americans are always banging on about this so called special relationship that they have with us Brits but its bullshit (laughter). I won’t play the game and jump through the hoops.
The last time that we spoke you told me that you were working on a new album. Do you have any more news on that subject?
We are yes, but it has taken a bit of a back seat because last year we turned down a few offers of gigs but we accepted a whole bunch more plus we were on a bit of a roll playing wise. As a consequence we didn’t really have much time to continue on the ideas that we already had. So I think this year we are hoping that we will do because I have around one hundred and fifty ideas for songs so if I can cull them down to around four or five then I will be happy. So at some point we really do want to do that. When you still have the desire to come up with something new, then I think that you should fulfil that.
Are you on the way to finally making the perfect album?
(Laughter) I think the thought of that is one of the things that keeps you going. Fortunately for us I don’t think that we have done it yet so watch this space. I have to ask you, will you be photographing us at Rock City as usual this year?
No, I am actually coming to the first gig of the tour at the Lincoln Engine Shed.
Really, so why are you coming out there to see us, is there any reason for that?
The Entertainments Editor has given someone else the Rock City gig.
Really, the rotten bastard. Well at least Lincoln is not that far from you. You are now obviously surplus to requirements Kevin (laughter). You and Jet are now officially both on the fucking scrapheap (laughter).
(Laughter) swiftly moving on, you have recently headlined The Great British Alternative Music Festival at Butlins. How was that?
It was brilliant and I have to say that it was one of the hottest, sweatiest gigs that I have played in ages. People of a certain age behaving like fucking teenagers is very funny (laughter). There were loads of them being escorted out of the gig for trying to jump up onto the stage (laughter). The whole demographic has now evolved and there are definitely a lot more younger people coming along to gigs in order to check us out together with those people who have grown up with us. The crowds are much more varied.
On that note JJ let me once again thank you for taking the time to speak to me. It’s been a pleasure as always.
It’s been a pleasure Kevin. All the best and we will see you in Lincoln. You take care and bye for now.