Baz interview July ‘23

During a lull in the band’s summer European festival schedule, we seized our chance to ask Baz a range of questions covering Dark Matters, the loss of Jet, touring and the upcoming 50th anniversary of the band…

It’s been a while since we’ve done an interview with you and so much has happened since then. Firstly, are you still buzzing from the overwhelmingly positive reaction to Dark Matters and its chart position?

Absolutely….it was a very difficult album to make, for all the reasons we now know….in the middle of a global pandemic, an intrinsic member of the band gone, and all the emotion and pain that went with that, plus the sheer technological aspect of   it all, made it nigh on impossible at times. The overall and abiding driving force was of course Dave, and the fact that we knew we had to get it done as much for him as anything else. We’d played, I think five new tracks at various points on the UK tour of 2019, and went straight into the studio a week after that tour was finished to capture what we had. We then went off on tour again for many months, knowing they were in the can and that we’d get back to them in due course and when time allowed…we never did…the world changed forever, and our mate was lost to us. I don’t need to go into what followed personally, but suffice it to say it was very hard. After we’d shaken ourselves down and the question was finally asked, “what do we do now?” We knew the first order of the day was to try and make some semblance of sense with the tracks we’d recorded over a year earlier. Listening back to them was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, but JJ and I both agreed, “we need to finish the album “at all costs…even if we never play live again…which was a very real possibility at that time.

I’ve got a studio at home, JJ had access to one very close to where he lives, and together with Louie Nicastro and his studio at Stranglers HQ, we slowly started to piece things together. When the first easing of lockdown came in the autumn, Jim went to the west country by himself, and put more drums on what we had…and we built it all up from there. JJ and I finally managed to get together again in the summer of 2021…we hadn’t physically laid eyes on each other for over a year…that was an emotional reunion I can tell you, and we sat down together and wrote more… don’t ask me which ones they were…that’s all a blur now…but what we ended up with was, in my opinion, the best album we’ve made since I joined the band.

The reviews were very strong, and we knew despite everything, that we had a great collection of songs. The chart position was admittedly a very pleasant surprise…and a glass or two was raised…but frankly, we couldn’t have given a fuck if it had sunk without a trace…we needed to do it. It brought us much closer together too…all of us, and it was, in the end, a real team effort…an album made under the saddest and strangest of circumstances.

How does it feel that brand new songs like Last Man On The Moon and White Stallion garner the same fantastic audience reactions as tracks from the mark 1 era?

Oh it’s great yeah….we’re still evolving, and those two tracks in particular I think show that very clearly. I had ‘Men on the Moon’ for at least ten years in one form or another. JJ wrote ‘Stallion’ probably four or five years ago. He showed me what he had when I was down at his place, and I brought it home with me and started messing around with it. One little passage he played on the bass, just noodling around, struck me, and I went off into the disco style direction. He loved it and said “just take it as far as you want…the more over the top the better”. We then gave it to Louie, who added the inspired operatic section to it…and it became what it is today…we love playing that one in particular…real crowd pleaser.

Onstage 2023 (pic Laurie)

Those two tunes are also good examples of our old maxim…never throw anything away. You usually think that the new stuff you’re writing is so much better than what’s gone before…and in a lot of cases, you’re right…but every so often an old one raises it’s head over the parapet and you think “I think I’ll take a shot at that…see if I can hit it”…

Is it still tough to play And If You Should See Dave live or is the emotion behind the song easing slightly?

I think it’s probably getting a little easier…although from time to time it gets one, or both of us…it’s a direct message from one pal to another after all…it’s meant to be emotional.

At the tail end of last year, after a long period of ill health, Jet sadly passed away at the grand old age of 84. How do you best remember him?

With nothing but absolute fondness and affection…we were very close. I saw the old Jet Black, the public Jet Black, at first hand many a time too of course, and he and I had a couple of ‘differences of opinion’ ourselves…that’s what being in a band is sometimes about…but he really wasn’t like that in private. I found him to be a sweet and thoughtful fella pretty much most of the time, and he went the extra mile for me, and me for him, on many occasions. Whatever the band became in the early days, however they were perceived, and whichever one of them had the ‘spotlight’ at any one given time, usually one of the front two, it always seemed quietly and respectfully understood that it was his band…I can’t put my finger on it…it was just a feeling, and you needed to be around everyone to ‘get’ it…probably a lot to do with his age,respect given to elders, and the fact that he’d already been around the block a couple of times before the band even started…very English things in my opinion. Now that I’m thinking about it, it was just the way things were with Jet…he walked into a room and you thought ‘he’s here’. In the last few years we all kept in touch with him, but saw him very little.

Baz and Jet share a joke (photo Ava Rave)

The last time any of us saw him was when we did the movie talk session with Andy Kershaw in London in April 2019, but I spoke to him probably once a month after that, and the last time was only about ten days before he passed away…I was grateful for that. He was in fine form, if sounding a little fragile, and we laughed our arses off for half an hour, just like we always did, and that’s how I’ll remember him. He lived ten lifetimes did Jet…and if I can go in my sleep surrounded by loved ones in a beautiful old cottage in the country, after a long and very fruitful life and career like he had…well, that’s job done isn’t it… Loved him…

This year kicked off with the second part of your Dark Matters European tour which visited Spain & France. As with the Euro gigs the previous autumn, the venues were all packed out with enthusiastic crowds. How did you enjoy the gigs?

The shows were great. We play France all the time, and it’s never less than fantastic…we know the country and the fans so well, and as I’m talking to you now, I’m sitting in a hotel room waiting to fly off for some festivals there tomorrow…it’s probably our second home. Spain, we play not so often, but still regularly enough to know what to expect…or so we thought.

Live in Madrid ’23 (pic Laurie)

Those last three Spanish gigs were arguably the best we’ve done there in many a year…if not ever. The places were all sold out well in advance, and the crowds were rowdy, hot, and well up for it. We’ve just taken a festival there for the middle of July, so we’re looking forward to going back for more of the same.

You were supported on the French tour by the brilliant three piece Brother Junior from Marseille. Did you get a chance to check them out?

Yeah we saw bits of Brother Junior a few times actually…and I think we watched their entire set at one of the gigs from the back, up in the gods somewhere, towards the end of the tour. Our crew were raving about them, so we thought we’d better see what all the fuss was about. They made a great noise for a three piece, were really tight, with some great invention to their sound, and all with a tiny little lass with arms like tree trunks knocking the crap out of her drum kit….great drummer, and very inspiring to watch.

Brother Junior, French tour 2023 (L-R Julien, Jean & Julie)

They had a lovely naive charm to them as people too, and were just happy to be out on the road in their little bubble, piling all their gear into the back of an estate car, somehow managing to get themselves in there too, and just doing what they loved to do…they were lovely. The crowds lapped them up…

In April you headed down to the Antipodes for a run of shows in both NZ and Australia which all sold out. How were the gigs?

It’s always great fun down there. We’ve been often in the last few years, and we love it. It’s always tight schedule wise, and very expensive to tour there too, for any band. There’s never too much time off, so when you do get some, you make the most of it. I think we did eight shows, three in New Zealand and five in Australia, in something like eleven days, so it’s draining. You do a show, go to bed, wake up, fly to the next city, and play again…usually all in a twenty four hour period, and you do that for the whole time you’re there. We know a lot of the hotels, bars and restaurants around where the venues are…as I say, we’ve played there a lot, so we know where’s good to eat, drink, and be merry…and where to go on those rare days off. I have a brother who lives in Wellington too, so I usually go ahead of the rest of the boys and spend time with our kid…it helps me to acclimatise a bit better than the rest of them, which I’m always teased about, but thems the breaks as they say…ha…

I’d like to think we’ll go there again fairly soon…but you never know in this business…anything can happen. It’s a fragile enough life as it is…this thing that we do, and with so many economies still trying to play catch up after the world effectively ‘closed’ during the pandemic…who knows? Fingers crossed…

Clearly Toby is now about 80 gigs into his time with The Stranglers. How is he settling in?

Ah he’s marvellous…but you only have to watch and hear him play to know that. He’s well and truly a part of things now. ”Dave would approve” JJ always says, and he’s right. Toby was such a devotee of the band, and Dave in particular, that nobody else could have taken on the role so completely and effectively…nobody. He knows the material inside out, and throws himself completely into each and every song we do…beats himself up if he fucks up, which he very rarely, if ever, does…and is actually as true a British eccentric as Dave ever was, right down to his obsessive love of cars and Casio watches, Alan fucking Partridge, and premium strength lager. He’s as into his keyboard collection as I’m into my guitars, so we have some lively debates about purely wanting things you don’t need…ha.

Toby in action (photo Louie)

We’re slowly educating him in his eating habits, as ‘adventurous’ doesn’t really enter his vocabulary on that front…we’ll go to a really nice restaurant and Toby will want a burger and chips or a pie…but he’s stuck his neck out a few times too now, and I think he trusts us enough now to know that we’re not going to get him to unwittingly eat a bulls cock or something…he likes his food does Tobes, and he’s not afraid to ask about something on the menu he doesn’t know… I vividly remember me, him and Gary in a seafood restaurant in Ostend last year…he doesn’t do fish…at all…but was intrigued by the carpaccio, slivers of raw beef, dressed with parmesan cheese shavings and rocket….he deliberated for some time, and it was obviously a big deal for him to order it…even though I kept telling him how delicious it was…he even sent his older brother a picture of it…he’s big on pictures is Toby…takes them of everything…and when his brother sent him a message back saying “just eat it ******* ”…he ordered it, thoroughly enjoyed it, and was very proud of himself…as he told anyone with earshot who’d listen…he’s great is Toby, and we all love him… And as you say, he’s getting close to 100 gigs now…where does the time go?

We’re on the brink of your summer shows in Europe with a handful of festivals in France, Italy and Portugal in the coming months. Compared to previous years, it’s a fairly quiet summer period and nothing after that in the diary until spring 2024. Are you holding back on playing too much ahead of the big anniversary next year?

Yes we are…simple as that. We’ve got a massive landmark tour coming up, and we want to keep our powder dry. There are some imaginative and radical ideas floating around people’s heads for next year.

So, 2024 marks the golden anniversary of the band, a massive 50 years in the business. That’s an amazing achievement! Does it feel surreal that the band are still here after all that time?

Well to me it’s only getting on for 25 years, but yes, of course,it does. I went for the audition in 2000 thinking that it’d be great to play with a band I’d admired since I was a kid, that I stood as good a chance as anyone of getting the job, and not really going too far beyond that or getting too carried away with it all…little did I know. It’s not one of those things I think about much these days to be honest. I know how lucky I am to be doing it, but then, we all do…JJ does, Jet did, and Dave did too…this is a fucking fickle, here today gone tomorrow cut-throat business, and for anyone to be still doing it after fifty years, through all the trials and tribulations of life…line-up changes and people dying and all that happy horseshit…is an amazing feat. Yes I know there’s only one original member left, and to everyone who points that out, and there aren’t as many as they’d like to think, well done, you can count. This is The Stranglers 2023 now…it’s just the way it goes…good or bad, feast or famine, fish or fowl.

To get this far, without ever breaking up..this band has been in existence since the day it began, is something to behold…is to be admired and celebrated…whatever your feelings about the past. Live in the present and look to the future I say…

Will people still be talking about the Harry Styles or Sam Smiths or any of the ‘top’ acts of today in five years, let alone fifty? hmmmmm….

God knows what JJ feels like. He was barely out of his teens when he entered into this, and here he is now in his seventies and still going strong…he’s never wavered in his conviction, and to his credit, he’s always wanted to keep going, no matter what…so here we are…

When you joined the band back in 2000, did you ever think that your journey as a Strangler would carry on for another 24 years or more?

No way…I look back on photographs of us then, think of the things we’ve done and been through, even in my time, and it amazes me how quickly nearly a quarter of a century has gone. Someone sent me some photos of the first convention I did with the band at Brean sands in 2001 recently, and it was amazing to see how young we all looked. I thought it might last a while…five years tops. Just purely by coincidence, I found footage on Youtube of us at a Dutch festival in 2003…soundcheck, and the whole gig…blimey…we looked different back then…have a look and see if you can find it…oh my…

First photosession with new boy Baz in 2000

The first dates in the 2024 diary are the comparatively short 13 gig UK & Irish tour. Following the announcement that the 2022 tour would be the full, final UK tour, this tour is a lot more compact than the usual gruelling itineraries you’ve become used to over the years. Are tour aches & pains starting to catch up with you after all these years on the road?

Well we never said we’d never tour again…just that we wouldn’t play big ones anymore…for a variety of reasons. A fiftieth anniversary tour seems like a good reason to do it again wouldn’t you say? We thought if we played bigger venues we could do less shows, I suppose is one way of looking at it. Of course, there’s always the people that complain we’re not going to their town…you can’t win ‘em all…but I’d like to think that folk would realise that for every single gig we do, we have to travel too. Ninety nine point nine percent of the time, gig selection has got nothing to do with us…and people still don’t realise that. Date availability, routing and other logistics come into play, and in the end, we get what we get. And yes…if tour aches and pains weren’t catching up with us, I’d be very surprised…we do play quite a lot of shows, and we’re not boys anymore…except inside our own heads of course…

Tickets for the tour are selling very well and there’s a real buzz and an air of expectancy about the tour online. Coupled with the news that you’ll be playing two sets each night, it feels like the gigs will be a celebration of the band’s career with the fans. Without giving too much away and spoiling the surprise, are you planning something special for these gigs?

I’m getting ahead of myself…I often do…I think I may have mentioned this earlier.
Yes we’re thinking of various ways to present as fully a comprehensive evening as we can…and as I say, If we can manage to please everyone…we’ll be doing very well…there’s an awful lot of material to draw from…five decades is a long time, and everyone has their favourite album, song, era, moment…usually associated with their youth…how they were feeling, where they were in their lives, who they were fucking…if we can conjure up some newer memories for them, I’ll be very pleased…we’ll be very pleased.

Are you looking forward to returning to the splendour of the Albert Hall in London?

Well I’ve only been there once, when we did the BBC Proms thing in 2014…and it was something to behold. You get the real flavour of the sheer history and vibe of the place when it’s empty I think…of course, when it’s full and bouncing, it’s nothing short of mind blowing, but when you walk in during the afternoon to soundcheck, and there’s nobody there, and you can walk around and just take the sheer scale of it in, sit and just gaze around let your imagination run wild, thinking of all the things and occasions it’s seen, it takes on another dimension…listen to me…cosmic bollocks…ahaha! but it really does… Yes, I’m looking forward to it very much…all of it…

At present, no other plans have been announced after the UK/Irish tour. Do we assume that there’s a lot more in the pipeline for the anniversary year?

Yes we’re expecting to be very busy next year…there are quite a few things being discussed…when we know, you will…

On a slightly different subject, as well as working on Dark Matters during lockdown, you were also recruited to join a side project with Paul Gray (Damned), Leigh Heggarty (Ruts DC) and Marty Love (Johnny Moped) which became Wingmen. Having put together a self-titled album remotely online, which was released early this year, you then played a short tour (with Rob Coombes of Supergrass on keyboards). Did it feel strange being up on stage with a different set of musicians?

I won’t say it was strange…just different. They’re all fantastic musicians in their own right, and when we heard how good the album had turned out, considering it was recorded at our various houses, and the only pro studio input was to put the drums down and mix it, it seemed only right that we should go out and try and do some shows. We couldn’t have predicted how well it would go down and be received…it was a total blast…little stages, no fancy in ear monitoring except for Paul who has some ear issues, little amps and stompboxes on the floor…I haven’t played with another guitar player for nearly twenty five years…and if you’re going to do that, play with Leigh Heggarty…what a player. We had a tiny three man crew all doubling up their duties and chipping in, and us all in an eight man splitter bus travelling all together and staying in Travel Lodges…it was a fucking blast, and we enjoyed every second of it…nine gigs in twelve days, and not a single second wasted. Tremendous back to basics fun for all of us. We got on like a house on fire, and Rob Coombes was an inspired spot by Paul, who saw him on TV at last year’s Glastonbury with Supergrass. We had a mutual acquaintance who put the word out…Rob called me, said he loved the material and wanted to come along. So we became five…

Wingmen L-R Paul Gray, Marty Love, Leigh Heggarty & Baz

Are there any further plans for new music or live shows for Wingmen?

Everyone is very busy anyway and they know I can’t really think about anything else except The Stranglers for the foreseeable future…it’s the same for the others and their bands too…but because we did the last album at home, and there’s always a little bit of time to spare, we’re still pitching ideas in for another record…we‘re always sending stuff back and forth and talking…we’re solid mates now, and that’s the beauty of it. There are no constraints, deadlines or limits…and the purity of the way we did the first one means we can please ourselves…if there’s time, we’ll do it…if there isn’t, we won’t…but frankly, it was far too good not to at least do something again…

Thanks as always to Baz for taking the time to answer our questions. It sounds like there’s lots of exciting things in the pipeline for 2024…