Jean-Jacques Burnel, an English musician, producer and songwriter, best known as being the bass guitarist and co-lead vocalist with The Stranglers, chats with Kevin Cooper about the passing of Dave Greenfield, having former England footballer Stuart Pearce in their 2023 video for This Song, their latest album Dark Moments and their forthcoming 50th Anniversary Tour of the UK in 2024.

Jean-Jacques Burnel is an English musician, producer and songwriter, best known as being the bass guitarist and co-lead vocalist with English punk rock band The Stranglers. He is the last founding member to remain in the band.

During his career he has released two solo albums, Euroman Cometh in 1979 and Un Jour Parfait in 1988, as well as a collaborative with fellow Stranglers member, the late Dave Greenfield called Fire And Water (Ecoutez vos Murs) which was released in 1983.

Burnel is noted for his distinctive bass guitar sound and melodic bass lines, especially on The Stranglers hit singles, No More Heroes and Peaches. The Stranglers, who emerged via the punk rock scene, have had twenty three UK top forty singles and nineteen UK top forty albums to date in a career that has spanned five decades. The Stranglers are one of the longest surviving bands to have originated in the UK punk scene.

In 2015 he became a 7th degree black belt (nanadan) in Shidokan Karate and is head of Shidokan UK. He is also a very keen motorcyclist.

Whilst busy doing some jobs around the house ahead of next year’s tour, he took some time out to have a chat with Kevin Cooper and this is what he had to say.

J.J. good morning how are you feeling today?

I’m great thanks for asking Kevin, but more importantly, just how the hell are you?

At this moment in time, I have to say that all is good thank you, and before we move on, let me firstly thank you for taking the time to speak to me today.

It’s not a problem, I’m right in the middle of stuff but we may as well strike whilst the iron is hot as they say (laughter). It’s always a pleasure whenever you and I get to speak with one another so let’s do it.

How is life treating you at this moment in time?

Well, I have to be totally honest with you and say that life is currently treating me really well thank you. What about you?

What can I say, I could complain but no one would listen (laughter).

(Laughter) I know that feeling very, very well (laughter).

I believe that congratulations are in order, as you are rapidly approaching fifty years in the music business.

Yes, I have, and I have to say that I really can’t believe it so thanks very much for reminding me of that fact (laughter).

Can you believe it?

No, not really, and I have to say that it wasn’t in the job description that it would last this long but as you no doubt know, one thing has led to another, and it has become a mission really (laughter).

Looking back fifty years, if someone would have told you then that in fifty years’ time you would still be making music which is still as relevant today as it was back then, what would you have said to them?

That’s easy, I would have looked them straight in the eye and said, ‘certainly not, no’ (laughter). No one in their right mind would ever have expected a band such as The Stranglers to ever last this long. But then on the other hand, not many bands have been allowed to get away with it for so long whilst being able to develop as musicians and artists if you like (laughter). You had your ten minutes then you quickly moved onto something else, usually.

For one reason or another we were allowed to evolve quite naturally so I suppose that if you are playing music and you are still allowed to do it, then I suppose that it reflects the time that you live in, your age and your experience. So, I suppose that we really can take a positive from all of that.

Are you planning anything special to celebrate?

Obviously, as you know, we are preparing to tour next year. It’s not going to be the biggest tour that we have ever done, simply because we are cutting down on that, but it is most definitely going to be a celebration. Having said that we are intending on doing it in a different way from how we normally play whenever we go out on tour. At this moment in time, I think that we are going to try to cover most bases actually, the whole fifty years of my career.

(Laughter) are you subtly trying to tell me that we are in for a long night?

(Laughter) it will be quite a long night, but not a Bruce Springsteen or Taylor Swift type of night (laughter).

For a moment then I thought that you were going to say a Ken Dodd type of evening (laughter).

Oh crikey, no, no, but there will be an interval I think (laughter). Poor old Ken he didn’t even stop to take a breath did he (laughter).

Whenever Ken Dodd told you to take your flask of tea and sandwiches with you, you knew that you were in it for the long haul (laughter).

That’s right, bless him.

On the subject of the forthcoming tour, there has been a change of style somewhat with the change of venues. I am used to seeing you perform at Rock City but this time around you are playing the Royal Concert Hall in Nottingham.

Yes, that right. Please don’t read too much into that because I feel that Rock City is great, I really do like Rock City; there is such a vibe in there. However, I think that for a celebratory evening, I think that we really do want to up the stakes a little. The tickets for the tour went on sale last week and in one day, The Royal Albert Hall sold out. I think that people expect a different atmosphere let’s say (laughter).

The last time that I saw you play the Royal Concert Hall here in Nottingham was back in 1983 on the Aural Sculpture Tour when you came onto the stage through a very large ear.

(Hysterical laughter) yes, that’s right. In fact, thinking about it, we really haven’t played there many times. The Royal Concert Hall isn’t as rock and roll as Rock City, let’s face it, but I think that for what we are trying to do next year, it is probably appropriate.

You have played here in Nottingham many times now at various venues. What do you think to our fair city?

What can I say, for The Stranglers, Nottingham really is a stronghold. It has got such an eclectic demographic; I find it to be a very hip city. From what I gather, Nottingham has a large gay population, it has a big student population, it has a great alternative element to it, so it really does have a lot going for it. Am I right in saying that the tram system up there in Nottingham is now fully underway?

Yes, it is, and we all wish that people would take a good look around before attempting to cross the roads (laughter). The city is very quickly adopting the title of Hit City (laughter).

(Laughter) Hit City, I like that (laughter). I do hear that it is the Nottingham Castle that is having a few financial problems at this moment in time, is that right?

Yes, you are correct when you say that. They spent millions of pounds refurbishing it, supposedly making it user friendly, and then charged astronomical prices for people to go in. As you can imagine, the numbers dropped off the scale and they closed it.

Really, well we can all see that’s a dumb approach to take. That is just bad psychology. If they had had the foresight to charge people a fiver, then they may well have come. For them to up the anti that much, especially when people are struggling to put food on the table, is in my opinion, completely insensitive.

In my opinion, it just goes to show that the people who are entrusted to run it are totally divorced from reality.

It would seem so which is not what you want from your democratically elected representatives.

You and I could talk all day about numerous nests being feathered by various people, but we had better not go down that road (laughter).

That’s right, as you will get into trouble, especially if we talk about snouts in troughs which is, as you know, an eternal discussion when people are in power (laughter).

The last time that you and I spoke if you remember, the railway station here in Nottingham had just re-opened after a total refurbishment and someone had burnt it down.

Bloody hell, that’s right, what happened about that?

Apparently, it was a homeless person trying to keep warm.

Crikey, have they refurbished it again?

Yes, they have but obviously the price of tickets has now gone through the roof in order to accommodate the outlay of the refurbishment.

(Laughter) no, that’s not the case at all. That will be down to the lack of investment on the infrastructure over many, many years.

You could well be right, but I couldn’t really comment (laughter).

So, you are going to cop out once more and sit on the fence are you (laughter). Just you watch out for all of those splinters (laughter).

Yes, I am and yes, I will (laughter). So, coming right up to date we must talk about the latest album Dark Moments, and I have to say that I love it.

Well, thanks very much for saying that. I personally feel that it is our most successful record in over thirty-five years.

A lot of the fans are saying that it is your best work post Hugh (Cornwall). Would you agree with that?

I’m not sure as I feel that I am not really in a position to say one way or another. I think that it is great, but having said that, whether it is our best I’m not quite sure because I believe that we have made a few other great albums since Hugh departed. Only time will tell I think, to be totally honest with you. On this subject I think that I will join you sitting on the fence (laughter).

You know far better than me that these things change like the weather but at the moment I have got four go to tracks; they are Water, No Man’s Land, Payday and This Song. I think that those four tracks are absolutely brilliant.

The thing is we released the album the same week as Ed Sheeran, Adel, and Drake released their new albums (hysterical laughter). If we had released it a week either side of that we would have had a number one album but, there you go (laughter).

In the video for This Song you have got one Stuart Pearce as the main character. Just how did that come about?

We have known Stuart for years now. He has been coming along to all of our gigs for twenty-odd years now I think, and in that time we have all got to know him. We were invited to his wedding, he went to Baz’s wedding, so it was relatively easy to ask him if he would care to do it, and he jumped at the chance. Stuart was great and I have to say that it is quite a good video actually. And no matter how many times you ask me, I will not tell you just how many takes we had to do (laughter).

On a sad note, we lost Dave (Greenfield) on 3rd May 2020, so I have to ask, the song And If You See Dave, just how was it for you in particular to put that track down?

To been totally honest with you, it really was easy because it was exactly how I felt at the time. I was a bit lost and I thought, ‘well Dave’s gone and that’s it’ because Dave and my bass were the main voices within the band. I thought that it would be impossible for us to replace him. Having said that, I didn’t want to replace him, we can’t replace him, but then it was bought to my notice a guy, Toby Hounsham, was on YouTube paying tribute to Dave. When I saw that I realised that I had actually worked with this guy some twenty-odd years ago in the studio. I had never realised just how massive a fan of Dave’s he was; in fact he had been studying Dave for thirty-five years. I thought, ‘of all the people in the world this guy plays as well as Dave’ (laughter).

It suddenly reminded me of the old saying when ‘the student becomes the master’ and that is exactly what happened. We tried playing along with him and we soon found out that he was as much of a geek as Dave was (laughter). I taped on his chest and asked, “Dave, are you in there” (laughter). It really was uncanny. I suppose that we would have gone through the motions of auditioning a replacement, half-heartedly in my case, because I thought that we could never replace Dave, but playing with the guy he knew every single Stranglers track. And I have to say that from the keyboard point of view, they really are intricate and complicated pieces of work, especially the playing of the arpeggios which we all thought that only Dave could play, this guy could play them every bit as well as Dave.

I thought, ‘crikey, it has given us a new lease of life, and a few more years of existence’ so that is where we are currently at. He has now been playing with us for the past eighteen months, and we have been all over the world since then. We have been to Australia, New Zealand, Northern Europe, Southern Europe, the UK and what can I say, the guy has kept the flag flying for us.

On the point of life expectancy of the band, was there ever a point when you thought that you simply couldn’t do it anymore?

There have been one or two occasions when I have been really at my very darkest, but most of the time I have been okay. When Hugh left the band I thought, ‘well that’s it’ but the others insisted that it wasn’t, so yes, in answer to your question, there have been a few times over the fifty years when I have thought, ‘we can’t go on’ but I never thought that I couldn’t carry on, it was always about the band not being able to carry on.

Now, please don’t hold this against me but I recently spoke to Hugh (Cornwell) and during the interview he said that “there would never have been The Stranglers without Dave”. Would you agree with that sentiment?

Absolutely, simply because Dave created such an imprint for the band, an identifiable musical imprint so what Hugh says is absolutely correct; there would never have been The Stranglers without Dave. But then, with the original form of The Stranglers, initially there wouldn’t have been The Stranglers without any of the four of us. We each gave each other a chance to flourish within that set-up and the chance to express ourselves over time. It gave me a voice as well so, yes, I accept what Hugh is saying, there would never have been The Stranglers without Dave; not The Stranglers that we know anyway.

You started working on your latest album before lockdown. How was it sending files back and forth to other band members in order to finish the album whilst you were in lockdown?

As you point out quite rightly, most of the album was recorded just before lockdown, and then of course we were all trying to complete stuff remotely. Then Dave passed away so then there were a few tracks missing, so that gave birth to a few extra tracks which are more inward looking like Down, If Something’s Going To Kill Me It Might As Well Be Love and Dave. Those particular tracks came as a direct response to Dave’s passing.

When I recently spoke to Baz (Warne) I asked him what he thought it was that got The Stranglers back on top of the game and he said that there were two things, reverting back to a four piece, and the writing and recording of Norfolk Coast. Would you agree with him on that?

Yes, I would, those two things in particular really did turn things around for The Stranglers. At that point people had written us off, several times actually (laughter). When Hugh left people were writing us off, when we started releasing records as a five-piece people wrote us off, and Norfolk Coast was definitely a turning point, but we were still a five-piece by then. When Paul (Roberts) left the band that left us as a four-piece. And it was at that point that everything suddenly slotted back into place and into gear and we have been on an upward trajectory ever since.

I can only speak as one of the perpetrators of these crimes, and I don’t know what has been going on in the minds of the fans, but I honestly feel that they have rediscovered something which they felt had been lost. So I really do find it amazing that we should find ourselves in this situation both artistically and commercially at such a point. I feel that there is a huge amount of respect towards The Stranglers as musicians and part of the musical landscape in the fact that we are not seen as has-been’s but as an aging, current liability (laughter).

Do you personally feel any added pressure to keep The Stranglers legacy alive and well?

No, only in as much as I think that anything that I write that we release as The Stranglers should have a bit of intelligence and musical integrity to it. I don’t want to release stuff just for the sake of it. I think that it has to reflect the band and myself, but don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to pretend that I am a young punk anymore. I will continue to behave like an old punk but most definitely not a young one (laughter). I honestly feel that the stuff that we write most definitely shouldn’t be throw-away, I feel that it should reflect what we think, how we feel, and our so-called maturity, and also the experiences that we have live. If being an artist means anything, then surely it has to reflect those things.

Fifty years of The Stranglers, what would you say has been the highlight so far?

Oh, there have been loads. I think one of them was having success with the single Golden Brown despite the record company having written us off. Despite them the record was a world-wide success. Another highlight was probably when we recently sold out the Royal Albert Hall in just one day, so as you can see, there has been a few (laughter). Another highlight was when we reverted back to being a four-piece and a journalist said that “it had taken me fifteen years to get used to the five-piece and one night to forget it” (laughter).

One of my highlights following the band was seeing you along with Nils Lofgren, AC/DC and The Who at Wembley for The Who And Friends Roar In Tour.

Wow, that’s going back to 1979, I think. What a line-up, as you rightly say Nils Lofgren, AC/DC, The Stranglers and The Who.

All for the princely sum of £5 (laughter).

(Laughter) those were the days (laughter).

Are there currently any thoughts on a new studio album?

Yes, there are. We have got a relatively quiet period before we kick off the tour next year, so I think that we are going to start working on a new album. I have currently got 430 things that I need to make sense of.

What is currently on JJ’s rider?

Not much to be honest with you (laughter). Let me think, there is a bottle of Champagne, a bottle of dry white wine, a bottle of Cassese, and that’s about it really. It’s now very modest compared to previous rock ‘n’ rollian excesses.

On that note J.J. let me once again thank you for taking the time to speak to me today, as usual, it’s been enlightening.

Thanks for that Kevin. All the very best and I will see you when we get to Nottingham. You take care and make sure that you come and say hi.