Soon after the finishing touches had been made to the band’s forthcoming studio release Giants, we caught up with JJ to discuss all aspects of the album.
You have been working on tracks for Giants for quite a while, how does it feel now the recording is finished and ‘in the can’?
A sense of relief…
How long have you been working on it?
I suppose we started concentrating on it two years ago although some of the ideas date back to when we were working on Norfolk Coast. One notable one being my bass line in My Fickle Resolve, I think I came up with that ten years ago. We wrote various pieces around it but it was never quite right. Baz wanted to make something with that bass riff and he came up with an idea last year while we were in France.
Freedom Is Insane has been around, in various forms, since before Suite XVI. I wrote it as a soft song, but it wasn’t quite right either. You kind of circle these ideas, you know there is an idea somewhere but it needs to be brought up to something that makes sense to, not only you, but to the rest of the band. Sometimes I’ve written a song and you know instinctively that there’s no way The Stranglers are going to play that… It might be too sentimental or a political idea that has no place with the others.
Has the lack of record company pressure for this album allowed the band to explore more diverse musical avenues?
It always has done. The only time we were conscious of record company pressure was when we signed up to A&M in the States. They were going to push The Stranglers and Black and White was doing well. They had plans for us. They suddenly got involved telling us what to record and what not ro record and in what order and we weren’t used to that ’cause we’ve always had a lot of artistic freedom.
This band has probably had more artistic freedom than any other which allows you to make loads of mistakes but it also allows you to investigate lots of different avenues. It’s great from an artist’s point of view but from a commercial point of view it is not necessarily the best idea… Y’know, this band has never really been about the money, it’s been about a most amazing musical adventure. I can’t think of another band who have explored so many different avenues.
In answer to your question, the record companies haven’t ever really got involved with us, maybe they were too scared! They’ve always allowed us a lot of creative freedom…
How has your songwriting partnership with Baz developed in recent years?
I think that the proof is in the pudding. Baz and I seem to bounce off each other like Hugh and I used to in a different era. I think that there is hardly any song which entirely Baz’s or entirely mine. Of the four of us, we spend the most time in each other’s company and, invariably, we’re always working on an idea. It’s only then that we get Dave or Jet or both in to put a bit of meat on the ideas. A lot of the time we’re throwing ideas at each other and throwing quite a few away. Also, if you are barking up the right tree, they might actually see something in it and direct you.
How would you describe the album Giants?
The most eclectic album we’ve ever done… without a doubt. Just because it’s eclectic doesn’t mean it’s good, it just means it varied (laughs).
It has such a variety of influences in there and diverse musical styles. You’re clearly not a band that feels they have to go down one route to please people…
I think that’s dangerous. I’ve heard different arguments. People say if the last record was fine then we should do the same again. I don’t quite see the logic in that but I can understand the commercial pressures but, perversely, we’ve always gone the opposite way. As I said earlier, it’s never been about the money.
I can understand when Hugh’s criticised me recently saying it’s commercial suicide, for instance, doing La Folie as a single but it’s not about short term gains. Alright, bringing out a French single which is six or seven minutes long probably gained us an awful lot of respect, and it was quite successful in certain countries.
You have never been a band that did the obvious thing anyway…
Maybe it’s perverse of me to think the opposite but I just think life’s too short, it’s just one adventure and that’s it finished.
The album opens with an instrumental Another Camden Afternoon, your first in many years. Why did you decide to keep it vocal free?
Originally we had vocals which I was singing. I kept the title. It was about this woman who was at Euston station, she got her bag stolen. She went after the person who stole it, who rushed into a waiting car, she dived on the bonnet, they drove a bit, they reversed and she fell on the ground and they drove over her an killed her. This is going back four or five years. It was just these two…er…fucking…I can’t think of a bad enough word to describe them…SCUM…scum is a good enough word! For them it was their patch, they lived in Camden, and it was just another Camden afternoon for them. They murdered a woman for her handbag as she had the integrity to chase after them.
We were preparing Suite XVI at the time and I put lyrics on it, it was kind of a bluesy-type thing, still is. On hearing the backing track, I thought a few things. I’d never heard Baz play guitar so well and it’s so powerful that it stands up on it’s own as a piece of music. And the agit-prop, the message or the meaning that I’d originally intended it to have I felt was a bit superfluous. I don’t mind an instrumental, The Stranglers haven’t done an instrumental for a few years. If they can stand up on their own, then maybe words are superfluous. That’s what I thought with this one so I insisted on keeping it how it was.
The album has some strange keyboard parts in it and some quirky effects, quite a departure from Dave’s trademark arpeggiated runs. What have you put in his tea?
More acid! (laughs) You say we have strange keyboard parts, well, we have a strange keyboardist! What can I say? He was briefed a bit to go beyond his comfort zone and he spent a bit more time with Baz and myself, developing ideas and taking feedback. It’s paid off, I think. He’s played slightly differently and he’s played outside of his skin on a few of these things.
The great thing about Dave is he’s open to suggestions. A lot of musicians aren’t, this is how I’m going to do it and this is how it is, no one should interfere with me. It’s an ego thing. But, as most people know, Dave hasn’t got any ego, so it’s brilliant that he’s willing to take other ideas and he sees it as a mission. OK, you suggest that, I’ll try it. He’s open minded on stuff.
The title track Giants seems lyrically to be a sister track to No More Heroes. What do you think has happened to the giants of the world?
I think we live in an age of dwarves…of Lilliputians. There are no oustanding greats in the world to whom we can look up and who have the integrity and the tale to tell apart from people who we treat really badly, who, although they might be doing something that we’re not entirely approving of. Our Armed Forces are not treated well enough for what they do.
On a broader picture, when you think of all the opportunism involved in last summer’s riots, people killing people for a pair of trainers. Our parents and our grandparents suffered so much and we complain just because we haven’t got email or something. It’s just relatively embarrassing and small. There is a lot of pettiness, people pursuing a little power, little victories and all these things just make me mad…
It’s everyone trying to strive for the lowest common denominator rather than the highest common denominator. I find that really shamefull…
The track Adios (Tango) is a quirky blend of a tango, a heavy guitar riff and Spanish vocals. Can you tell us anymore about it?
Yeah, it’s an Argentinian metal tango. We’ve invented a new genre. (laughs) We’ve recently been accused of starting Goth Rock, or the Cold Wave or Industrial or stuff, so now they’re getting another one…
During the concentrated rehearsals of the new material for the Convention, did any of the tracks metamorphose?
Not much because they were all pretty well developed by the time we started rehearsing them for the Convention. They will probably adapt over time, if we give them a chance to.
Which of the album tracks are you most proud of and why?
Oh, I don’t know actually, that’s a hard one. At the beginning of the sessions, we decided that we’ve got to treat every one like a gem not part of something else, just concentrate on each piece. So they’ve all got sonic qualities and they’re all quite relevant so I’ll cop out on answering that one…
I think not more than four or five because there are lots of older songs we’d like to revive for the hell of it, just for fun. to rediscover old friends. It’s always difficult, and it gets more and more difficult with each new album, because we’ve got more and more material to choose from.
People are coming to see us, not to see new stuff, but you’ve got to balance it. People come to see The Stranglers because they know us, it’s not a new band. Although I think they will be intrigued to hear new stuff. We’ve got 17 albums to choose from. The art is in getting the balance right, sometimes we don’t always get that right, we adjust quite quickly. We’re sensitive to things, we can feel if it’s not flowing right, because it has to flow, y’know?
It’s a balance, isn’t it? Some people would just play the new album because that’s what they’re promoting. We’re not promoting the album as such, although it’s coming out at the same time, we’re promoting The Stranglers full stop. That’s a broad church.
Some of the tracks have very complicated time signatures. Does this make them harder to replicate live?
No, not harder to replicate live, easier to fuck up (laughs).
What are the benefits of working with Louie Nicastro in the studio?
We’ve got this exceptional situation with Louie, that he does our out front sound and has done for many years now, since Max (Bisgrove) moved on. He also works at the Farm doing our studio engineering which is quite rare. For whatever reason, a lot of studio engineers are not so good live or vice-versa. I think anyone who has seen us in the last few years will say that, halls permitting, the sound is good live most of the time. We’ve managed to find someone who can fit both roles which, as I said, is very rare. It also means that Louie knows us better than most now and it makes communication easier.
The album sounds very raw and stripped down. Was this an aim in the studio?
We didn’t want any over-production on this, we wanted a lot of space, so that what we played live is what’s on record. Also, there’s a lot to be said about space. Sometimes on occasion we’ve over-produced, the sound has been too full and there’s been too much going on. I personally think that there’s more enjoyment when there’s space, it’s the spaces that create a lot of ideas in the music…
Thanks very much to JJ for taking his time to give us this insight into Giants…