Jean-Jacques Burnel, a musician, producer, songwriter and bassist with The Stranglers chats with Kevin Cooper about collaborating with Simple Minds, Hugh Cornwell leaving the band, Jett Black’s health and their forthcoming Definitive UK Tour.

Jean-Jacques Burnel is a Franco-English musician, producer and songwriter, best known as the bass guitarist with the rock band The Stranglers.

They are an English rock band who emerged via the punk scene and after a career that has spanned over four decades; they have had twenty-three UK top forty singles and seventeen UK top forty albums, making them one of the longest surviving and most continuously successful bands to have originated in the UK punk scene.

Formed as the Guildford Stranglers in 1974, they went on to have mainstream success with their 1982 single Golden Brown. Their other hits include No More Heroes, Peaches, Always The Sun and Skin Deep. After the departure of founding member, Hugh Cornell in 1990, The Stranglers continued to have success with their 2003 hit Big Thing Coming which saw them return to form.

Burnel is currently a 7th degree black belt (Nanadan) in Karate and is head of Shidokan UK. He is also a very keen motorcyclist and has owned many Triumph motorbikes.

Before going into rehearsals for their forthcoming tour, Jean-Jacques took some time out to have a chat with Kevin cooper and this is what he had to say.

JJ how are you today?

Hi Kevin I’m fine thanks mate how are you?

I’m very well thank you and before we move on let me thank you for taking the time to speak to me today.

No thank you for bothering to actually want to speak to me. It goes both ways.

Well it seems to have become an annual event just like the Christmas panto. Whenever we are coming up to March I either speak to Baz or your good self (laughter).

(Laughter) he’s behind you. I totally agree with you that it has now become tradition hasn’t it. Every March The Stranglers go out on tour here in the UK and the good thing is that more and more people seem to want to be part of it. Maybe it breaks up the winter and it heralds in the spring. That sounds quite good actually ‘The Stranglers herald in the spring’ (laughter).

It reminds me of the late 70s when most of the big bands would go out on a Christmas tour; Lindisfarne spring to mind.

That’s right; a lot of the bands did that didn’t they, including Gary Glitter.

(Laughter) we won’t go there.

Surely there is nothing wrong with mentioning the fact that Gary Glitter used to play a Christmas show every year (hysterical laughter).

If you now look at the re-runs of Top Of The Pops they have totally written Gary Glitter out of the UK’s musical history.

Yes I know and to be honest with you, I have got an opinion about all that. Don’t get me wrong I feel that it was total bullshit what he did but it’s also bullshit to write him out of history. It’s like these statues which people are demanding to be taken down; they want to erase and then rewrite history. Getting rid of historical statues of people who are considered incorrect, in today’s present way of thinking, is wrong. In most cases I would say “yes they were wrong” but at the end of the day that is all part of our history. It’s all bullshit and I feel that it actually reflects more on the people who want these things banned; its rewriting history and I simply do not agree with that but anyway.

I can remember going to the NEC in Birmingham many times to see the Gary Glitter Christmas Gang Show.

I never went but friends of mine who did go all tell me that it was brilliant. They all tell me that it was really good fun. To take Gary Glitters music out of our history is, in my opinion, political correctness gone mad. It reminds me of George Orwell’s 1984 where they rewrite history every week. It’s all bullshit.

Anyway let’s not get on to politics (laughter).

Well it’s all politics isn’t it?

Well my personal opinion is that we should invite President Trump over to the UK and see just what he has got to say for himself.

To my mind it is like free speech within universities, the students are not allowed to hold extreme views or to have those views challenged simply because they are not allowed to speak.

Did you recently see where a female student was demonstrating against Trump on the freeway, she got hit by a car and now she is suing the University for letting her demonstrate (laughter).

It’s all total bullshit. Political correctness is, in my opinion, is merely a form of censorship.

That’s right and unfortunately at this moment in time the UK is going just a step too far with it.

Yes we are, but fortunately you have got bands like The Stranglers who stand up to be counted.

Yes we have, very much so, always have and always will hopefully.

Hopefully indeed (laughter).

Right on that note let’s push on and talk about music. As you well know I could speak for England and I think that is why you have been avoiding me and have been letting Baz speak to me (laughter).

(Laughter) I haven’t been avoiding you. I would never avoid the chance to speak to you Kevin as whenever we have spoken in the past you have always left me thinking.

So let me ask you, how is life treating you?

Life is good; I mean The Stranglers are in a good place. I am personally in a good place which hasn’t always been the case so I really do feel blessed at the moment.

You are about to go back out on the road on The Definitive Tour. The Oxford English Dictionary defines definitive as being ‘of a conclusion’ or ‘done or reached decisively and with authority’. Based on that I have to ask you will the next tour be the end of The Stranglers?

Certainly not. Not unless I keel over and die tomorrow or perhaps Dave (laughter). There is another definition of the word definitive which is ‘how you define yourself’. That is where you can use definitive as the catch all word. Everyone thinks that it means the last tour but it also means how you define yourself. And we define ourselves by playing every March and playing our material as we feel like (laughter). It is obviously a word which has thrilled a few people whilst upsetting a few other people so I personally think that it is a useful Stranglers word. It is ambiguous and that works for me (laughter).

Have you started rehearsing for the tour as yet?

No not as yet as we have got quite a lot to do. We are off to Australia and New Zealand where we will be playing the set that we played here in the UK last year. Then when we get back we will have to rehearse the UK set which is going to be quite a bit different to what we have been playing recently. The Stranglers hardly ever play in Ireland but on the forthcoming tour we are playing three big shows over there just before the UK tour. So we don’t want to upset the production of the UK tour in Ireland because we can’t take the same production with us. What all of this means is that we will have to learn three sets in one week (laughter).

Any sign as yet of a new studio album?

It’s funny that you are asking me that again (laughter). I know that the last time that we spoke I said that we were busy recording but I have to come clean and tell you that simply was not the case. However, I would like us to begin recording sooner rather than later because I have now got quite a lot of material going around in my head. I like to put the pressure on the rest of the band, because they always want to record a song straight away but I think that the best way is for them to want to record it; I find that they learn the pieces better, they understand what they can do and what they can’t do, and I want to create space in the music.

In the studio you have the luxury of putting lots of different ideas down. However, when you come to playing the songs live you have only got one set of hands to play all of those different ideas. Therefore you have to create synthesis so it becomes the most efficient thing for the parts that you are learning, otherwise you have got too much choice. So as you can see I like to keep the pressure on the blokes in the band to make them really want to record something that we have written. A rather longwinded answer to your question and an explanation of where we are at this moment in time.

On the subject of creating a synthesis, isn’t that how the late Jimi Hendrix created his guitar solos?

Yes he did, he really did. You are absolutely spot on and that is why I really do enjoy our chats, you know your subject matter. Whenever you hear all of those wonderful guitar solos from the late Jimi Hendrix, in actual fact he never played those. He played five or six different solos and when it came to mixing it down, he would choose the best part. He created a synthesis of all of the different parts. So you have got generations of different guitarists who listened to Jimi Hendrix, all of those guitar solos and learnt to play them note for note but that is not exactly as he played them (laughter). He would say “oh that first part is good so I will keep that” and then he would take the second part of his third take, stick that onto the first part and he would painstakingly create his solos that way.

I have tried to use that very same methodology with The Stranglers. Modern recording techniques are such that they give you an infinite number of both variety and choices, but not the right one. You can only get the right one when you are playing live unless you are cheating and are using backing tapes and stuff.

So is there any news on a new Stranglers studio album?

This will shock you, yes there is (laughter). We are looking at finishing the album sometime this year with a release date of 2019 which will be finalised in September. To be honest with you it has been really difficult as I have around one hundred and fifty ideas for new songs for the album written down. What I have to do is to take them as far as I can before I start culling which, as you can imagine, is quite a lengthy process. Plus the fact you have to remember that The Stranglers have been so in demand all over the world. Don’t get me wrong, it’s great, I love playing live and we love being together. However, there comes a time where you are chomping at the bit to do something new.

I’m glad that you have cleared that up because for the past three years I have been asking you and Baz the same question and you have both told me “oh yes, it’s in the can, we just have to tidy a few things up and it is ready to go” when clearly that is not the case (laughter).

(Laughter) what can I say, I’m sorry if both Baz and I have mislead you but it will be well worth the wait (laughter).

When the album is finally released will you break with tradition or will you tour the new album in March?

If we have the album ready by then, I would love to do our normal March tour with a lot of new material. In an ideal world that would be the plan but sometimes with all the best will in the world you can screw up really (laughter). But as I said, that is the plan.

You will be bringing The Definitive Tour to Rock City here in Nottingham on Monday 12th March. What can we expect because for the past few years you have treated us to gigs which contained whole albums?

Yes that’s right we played the Black And White album in its entirety two years ago now, and I have to say that really was good fun. To be honest with you the set list for the forthcoming tour is looking a hell of a lot different to anything that we done recently.

Will it be a Stranglers greatest hits tour or will we be treated to some of your favourite Stranglers tracks?

(Laughter) have you been speaking to someone about this (laughter). There is let’s say quite a bit of overlapping and I have to be transparent with you and say no, this time it will not be a greatest hits tour.

I will just have to be patient and wait and see.

Yes you will and I think that is the more enjoyable part of it. If I divulge everything now to you, or at least out intentions, which obviously could change, then it wouldn’t be as exciting for you on the night.

You always play Rock City and you always put on a tremendous show.

I know7 we have discussed this a lot of times between ourselves. Rock City is not the perfect stage for The Stranglers production. However, it has such a great fucking vibe and the people of Nottingham seem to have taken that place to their hearts. I mean it’s a smelly shithole with a really good vibe where your feet stick to the floor (laughter). It has a really great rock and roll vibe and unlike a lot of venues which have got plush backstage areas and deep stages, Rock City doesn’t. However, what it doesn’t have it makes up for in vibe.

To quote you from the last time that we spoke, you said then of Rock City “it’s scuzzy but it’s a must play venue”.

(Laughter) yes that just about sums the place up (laughter).

This year The Stranglers will have been together for forty-four years, have you enjoyed the ride?

Being totally open and honest with you I would have to say that I have enjoyed ninety-nine percent of the ride. When I look back The Stranglers have been a lifetime in which I have seen a lot of people come and go. There have been lots of different things happening in that time too. I personally think that The Stranglers have remained quite true to themselves and I know that at the moment we have written some stuff which is timeless. Don’t get me wrong, I am sure that we have done some stuff which is dated of course but a lot of our stuff hasn’t dated. During that time I have seen fashions and trends come and go and now people are starting to be honest about our influence, which is rewarding as they didn’t do that before. I take a lot of pride from that because, as you well know, we have taken quite a lot of criticism over the years. We have had our fair share of ups and downs but we seem to have survived them.

What would you say has been the highlight of your career so far?

Crikey, that is such a hard question. You are asking that of someone who has had a forty-four year career in the same band (laughter). I have had so many ups and quite a few downs you know. However, I would have to say that it would probably be The Stranglers being signed to a major record label after being totally rejected by twenty-four record companies. That really was a highlight. There have been a few others such as when Golden Brown was a worldwide hit despite the record company not wanting to release it (laughter). That really was two fingers up to them. Also probably another highlight was the reviews that we got for the album Norfolk Coast fourteen years after (Hugh) Cornwell had left the band. It was at that time that I regained my confidence.

The last time that I spoke to Baz he said that the Norfolk Coast album was the turning point for The Stranglers; it allowed you to move forward.

Yes, absolutely it was. At that time we were going round in ever decreasing circles and I personally was losing faith and I certainly wasn’t happy. The dynamic in the band wasn’t good and we were simply going round in ever decreasing circles. As they say I had lost my mojo. At that time I was in a really shit place in my personal life. My marriage was going down the pan so for me to be re-vindicated with Norfolk Coast was brilliant and from that point things seem to just keep getting better and better. I actually wrote two albums in one week. Looking back I suppose that everyone who is remotely creative has those dark places that they go to.

So from highlights to low points. What would you say has been the low point of your time spent with The Stranglers?

I think that the lowest point was when Hugh left the band and I discovered that he had been doing all kinds of stuff behind our backs. That really hurt.

You mention tracks that have stood the test of time, I have been watching the DVD for (Get A) Grip (On Yourself) which you recently re-recorded with Simple Minds and I have to say that it still sounds as fresh today as it did back in 1977 over forty years ago.

Well thank you, thanks for that. I will take that as a really huge compliment. I think that it still does sound fresh which is not a bad thing. You can’t say that about too many pieces so that is a really big plus.

Whose idea was the collaboration with Simple Minds?

After we had played a few shows with them, which I have to say were great, there was no pressure, we were reaching out to their audience who might not necessarily have considered listening to The Stranglers and I’m pleased to say that we won them over which was great. After one of the shows Jim (Kerr) and Charlie (Burchill) admitted to me that the first band that they ever saw was The Stranglers while Jim and Charlie were still in a band called Johnny & The Self Abusers, a long time before they became Simple Minds. Apparently when they saw us they had their road to Damascus enlightenment moment and say that it was because of The Stranglers that they started their band.

They are both really big fans of that song and they wanted to have the opportunity to record it with us, which we did. You have seen the video on YouTube and it was absolutely brilliant. It was good fun and we really didn’t mind recycling a really old Stranglers track (laughter).

Is a collaboration something that you would do again, if it felt right?

Yes, of course. However, the problem which The Stranglers have had is that everyone has tried to avoid us, most probably thinking that we would take their heads off or something (laughter). There has always been a reticence from lots of other musicians, and even people later to have anything to do with us. That comes from a reputation way back. But yes, of course I would be both flattered and honoured to play or to collaborate with other people. It’s never been easy with The Stranglers because as I have said people are still wary of us in some quarters. We have always fought our corner so maybe that is why we have got a bad reputation. We have always been straight and honest with people. If someone is going to poke me in the eye then I am going to poke them back (laughter). It is as simple as that.

That is why I always keep out of your way at Rock City (laughter).

(Laughter) you are safe….for now (laughter).

Moving swiftly on, what was the first record that you bought?

(Laughter) I know this, it was My Boy Lollipop by Millie. You can’t beat a bit of SKA. I remember it well; it was released on Island Records and it was the very first single that I ever bought.

Who did you first see performing live in concert?

Now that’s a good one, and it would have been John Williams playing a classical recital at Dorking Halls.

What was the last song or piece of music that made you cry?

That’s a good question, and that would have been Clair de Lune by Debussy.

Now I told Jim Kerr this and he said that I must tell you the next time that we spoke, so here goes. I put that very same question to Burt Bacharach and he told me that it was your cover of the Dionne Warwick song Walk On By. I asked him if the song had moved him that much to which he replied “no, it was bloody rubbish”.

(Hysterical laughter) that is so funny.

I ask you every time that we speak, how’s Jett (Black)?

Jett is alright within himself, as he said to me on the phone a couple of weeks ago now, his whole body is simply shutting down. Jett has had health issues all of the forty odd years that I have known him. Sadly he is not going to be getting any better at his age. (Laughter) he did abuse himself in every single rock and roll way that he could plus some ways which you might not even be able to imagine (laughter). So he is now paying the price but he is great, he still has an opinion about what we do. He is still very much interested in what the band does. Unfortunately however, he can’t play anymore so it is what it is with Jett bless him.

JJ on that note let me once again thank you for taking the time to speak to me today, it’s been great, as usual. You take care and I will see you here in Nottingham at Rock City.

No thank you Kevin, it’s been a pleasure. You take care and make sure that you come and say hello when we get to Nottingham. Bye for now.