Immediately after the last gig of the British tour in March, we seized the opportunity to catch up with Baz and ask him a few questions. Although we focused mainly on the tour, we also wanted to look forward to the upcoming summer festival season, including just confirmed trips to Europe and the Antipodes, and what the future holds for the band.
To start off with, the Classic Collection tour was up for discussion…
So, how was the tour for you?
It was one of the most enjoyable for years…everything seemed to go up a notch somehow…the sound, lights, set list, stage set, everything. It was a very happy tour, and after last years’ Black and White jaunt, which took its toll on us all in different ways, it was a pleasure to go out there and just play, and enjoy it with all the good people that came out to see us. The fans, as always, made it…they were brilliant…
Immediately before the tour, the whole thing was jeopardised due to a karate injury sustained by JJ. Care to elaborate?
Well, he’d had an injury training some time before, and it just got worse over time. You’d see him wince occasionally, but of course him being him, he never said anything about it…I’d ask if he was ok and he’d shrug it off and just get on with it…that’s his way…but I could see it was bothering him. It was touch and go almost up until the tour started. We were rehearsing as we always do, in the West Country, and he was struggling…even getting in and out of the car was giving him trouble. He eventually went to see an acupuncturist local to him in France, and literally had a Lazarus moment…he was stunned I know because he called me the next day and I could hear the wonder in his voice…amazing…and he sailed through the tour without a twinge, fighting fit…
With a name like ‘The Classic Collection’, how did you go about selecting a suitable setlist?
Ah that’s always difficult. We always know what we need to play, what to a certain extent we’re expected to play, so we start with that. This band has had so many hits, if we played them all, every year, it would just turn us down the nostalgia road…and we fucking hate that…but we know how to do this after so many years, and there are certain songs that have to be done…and we all know what they are. The rest of the set we decide the way we’ve always done…we please ourselves…It has to keep us interested, and as everyone has different interpretations of what a classic is, we kind of exploited that and just decided to do what we wanted to. The emails start around November time with wish lists, and we whittle it down until it’s time to rehearse…by that time, we pretty much know what’s what. We switch things around a little, and tweak songs, and we end up with what works, and what we want.
Did it you notice that the set only contained two tracks from your time with the band?
Of course I noticed…maybe we paid a little more attention to the word ‘classic’ than we thought…although in my opinion some of the newer songs are just as good as the old ones. We had quite a few in reserve, but once we found our level we just stuck with it. We probably played the fewest new songs for years, and it was mentioned to us quite a lot too…but it just worked out that way.
One of the tracks from your era 15 Steps hasn’t been aired live before. Why has this track been left out until now?
15 Steps was a strange one. We recorded it right at the end of some troubled days, and it just didn’t go down the way we wanted it to. I knew it would kick if we worked on it a little bit more, but it just didn’t happen…sometimes it just doesn’t you know? And I was disappointed…and everyone felt the same. So I suggested it for the tour, and when Jim added the shuffle thing behind it, it brought it to life. We’d never heard it like that before and it really worked. JJ changed the bass line so it was less straight, and more syncopated, and we had it. I enjoyed playing that one very much. Quite a few folk over the years had asked why we didn’t play it, so I’m pleased we did as much for them as anything else.
The band selected Bear Cage for the set, a song which has only been played live a couple of times back in 1980. It appears that you all had fun with arranging the song and based it on the extended 12” version. Does the fact that it’s seldom heard, mean you are under more pressure to perform it exactly to the original or that you can get more creative?
We’re not under any pressure to do anything…in fact pressure to do anything mostly makes us want to go the other way, and not do it…but we just fancied it. The fact that it hasn’t been played very much probably added to its appeal…songs that not everybody likes tend to not get played. I always felt it was one of the weaker songs they did back then, I think the band did too… and talking to quite a few fans, that opinion wasn’t only ours…but they all said what a great job we’d made of it…and again, because of its scarcity value, we really enjoyed playing it too…and it revealed itself to be a great live number, and a highlight.
Jim seems to be going from strength to strength, even owning Jet’s most complex drumbeat for Genetix, and he didn’t miss a beat through the tour. Do you feel that his input is sufficiently appreciated?
We certainly do…and I know so many of the fans do too. He’s a fantastic drummer. You only have to watch him to see that. Playing with him is a total dream… he’s very tight, powerful and focused…and with a lovely light touch when it’s needed…what more is there? I’ve said all this before about him…He told me the other night that he’s around a dozen gigs off playing 250 for this band. That’s a lot of shows. He’s one of us. He’s fitted in from day one…
Mid tour, you had issues with your knee which required hospital treatment but you still soldiered on. How did it affect your subsequent onstage performances?
Yeah…It was a twinge from some old knee surgery I had a couple of years ago, and it just flared up. I had a cortisone injection the afternoon of the Newcastle gig, and was told it would get worse before it got better. As the next show was Leeds, and I live in Yorkshire, I was driven home straight after the Newcastle show for a night in my own bed and a chance to rest it…and it worked pretty well…I was able to finish the tour with no trouble at all. The only down side was, because I rushed off home, I wasn’t able to hook up with family and friends afterwards…that sucked. I’ve never played a show in the north east without seeing my kids…didn’t like that.
A total of 11 of the 19 shows on the tour sold out, which is amazing for a band this far into their career. Why are gigs proving to be this popular at this stage?
It was 11 was it? We weren’t sure. I don’t know what the success story is. Other than the songs and characters that go to make up the Stranglers, have their own appeal. It’s always been about the songs for me…they’re unique and timeless…and when we play them it’s with passion and power…and people can see we mean it. We’ve got an amazing FOH sound man and he knows how to get the best out of the way we sound. We try to step up with the way things look from year to year as well…and everybody knows how fantastic our crew are…loyal and hardworking…and it all adds up to what we’ve got. A band going through the motions and fed up with each other are easily sniffed out. The public are discerning, and people won’t go and see something they don’t like just out of habit. Plus our fans really are just like one big happy family, and they look forward to seeing each other too.
You were joined onstage at Southend by harmonica-hero Lew Lewis for a rendition of Old Codger. Whose idea was that?
JJ’s I think…It’d been arranged for him to come once before but he didn’t turn up! Haha! Seriously, he just didn’t come, and he couldn’t remember why either…it was just gone. It was the first time I’ve met Lew, and a thoroughly decent chap he was too…very dapper in his suit and shiny new DM’s, and we got on very well. He came, he ate, he drank, he blew…then he was gone…perfect.
Again, as has become tradition, you celebrated your birthday on the tour, this year in Cambridge. You were presented with a cake by JJ onstage and the crowd proceeded to sing ‘Happy Birthday’. Do these touching displays of affection warm the cockles of your heart or embarrass you?
Kind of a bit of both. If you have a huge crowd of smiling people sing Happy Birthday to you, you have to be made of stone not to be moved by it…seriously. It always makes me smile and a bit warm inside…I’m human. Sometimes you think oh fuck I wish they’d stop, but that usually last about 5 seconds.
I always try to keep my birthday under wraps, but it’s happened so many times, and people always remember anyway. It’s sweet. Dave’s birthday is 4 days after mine which was actually a day off this year. But as he’s a Brighton boy, and we were playing there the night before, I mentioned it to the crowd, and they sang to him too…I looked at him and he was beaming…nice moment.
Throughout the tour, if anyone shouted ‘get on with it’ or the like, you and JJ would down guitars and pick up a beer to pass the time. Do you two love goading the audience like that?
You changed from your normal guitar mid-way through the tour. Why was that?
Well, I had some work done on my old battered #1 ready for the tour, and when it came back I had a little trouble getting on with it. It’d had some great work done on it, but even handing it over in the first place made me wince…even though I totally trusted the lad that did it. I’ve had that guitar for so long, it’s been through so much with me, it’s like a part of the family…but it was time for some essential repairs.
I was prepared for it to feel strange and it did, but I persevered for a time and started getting to grips with it. I also used my old #2 for the show in Guildford, and although it sounded great too, it’s twice the weight of #1 and I could forsee spinal injuries after a tour with it. So I was thinking I might go out on a day off somewhere and see if I could pick up a new one, or another one as another back up.
Me and a couple of the lads went off to a shop in Southend where there were about 500 guitars on the wall, and the sunburst caught my eye…unusual as I’ve never owned a sunburst guitar in my life. I got it down, plugged it in and was smitten…it wasn’t the cheapest or most expensive, just bog standard really, but I just fell in love with it and bought it on the spot. Took it to Andi, our famous and trusted guitar tech, asked him to put heavier strings on it and raise the bridge pick up a little, and I played it for the rest of the tour. I’ve never taken a chance like that before…but it turned out to be a winner…I’m chuffed with it…does it matter that it’s not black?…who cares…it’s a great instrument.
Your special guests for the tour were Ruts DC who went down like a storm every night. Are you a fan of their music?
Like you wouldn’t believe…The Ruts were one of my all time favourite bands, and Paul Fox was a real influence on me when I was growing up. They were a breed apart from all the other bands of the day with few exceptions. Their records were inventive, powerful and kicked like hell, and they were all great players, that is one of the things I remember most about them…they could really play.
I’ve known Ruffy since he worked with Jet on Norfolk Coast as one of the albums producers…I’d met Seggs once at a party in London years ago, but I’d never met Leigh their guitarist, who turned out to be a great bloke and cracking guitar player. They made a mighty noise for 3 of them, and were every bit as professional as us in everything they did…as you’d expect…they’ve been around a very long time too.
How did they take your end of tour Victorian weightlifters routine at Manchester?
Ah they were fine about it…I think they secretly knew something would happen…Seggs even had a spare hat behind his amp in case one of us whipped his off! It’s a token of affection with us…we only do it if we like the band…
It’s probably impossible for you to say, but which gigs did you enjoy most on the tour and why?
It is impossible to say yeah…and to do so somehow makes the other gigs seem lesser, which of course they’re not…we enjoyed them all.
It seemed like the whole team (band, crew, management etc) were all incredibly happy at how the tour went. Why do think that was?
Probably just because everything went smoothly and everyone held up their side of the bargain. The crew work very hard, as do the management, and consequently so do the band…and when you’re faced with very big crowds who are all getting off on it, it makes you very proud that you’ve pulled it all together in all departments and it’s been a big success.
So, job done, do you feel satisfied at the completion of such a successful tour?
Hugely…as I said earlier, it’s been one of the most enjoyable for years…and we enjoy them all…so it must have had something extra.
Looking forward, you have a varied summer schedule developing including a couple of especially notable gigs. Firstly, you cross the Irish Sea for a big hometown show with Stiff Little Fingers. Are you looking forward to it?
Yes…They’ve been mates for many years, and it was our chance to join in with them on their big day and help them celebrate their anniversary. We’ve played in Belfast quite a few times over the years and the crowds there are special…always…I think playing there with ‘their’ band will be very special for all concerned. Ruts DC are on the bill too, so I guess a bit of drinking will be done afterwards…oh dear…
Secondly, you have a huge gig in Hyde Park in London on the supporting bill for Green Day. As with your appearance with the Police back in 2008, you are headlining the bill in the huge marquee. How does it feel to be invited to play such high profile gigs as this?
Bloody hell was it 2008? Didn’t think it was as long ago as that… Yeah it’ll be fun. They’re not really my cup of tea if I’m honest…but there are huge flocks of kids who are into them, and that’s great…I’ve seen them live on TV, and in that genre they’re pretty much unbeatable and they can kick it…but I probably won’t be sticking around to watch them… It’ll be good to catch up with The Damned too…haven’t seen them for years.
With a relatively quiet summer on the cards, are you planning to get together with JJ and work on new material?
Yes. Finding the time to do it has been the most recent problem, but it’s very much in the forefront of our minds. We’ve purposely cut back on the amount of festivals we’ll be doing this summer for that very reason. I’ve got roughly a dozen very strong ideas and JJ has probably got around the same…not just little snippets but whole song ideas, which we can flesh out and work up into full songs. It’s always an exciting time and we’re chomping at the bit…
You’ve just returned from playing a gig for the ‘Equity Punks’ shareholders in the Brewdog brewing company in Aberdeen, following your own sold out gig in the city early on the March tour. You don’t normally play such ‘closed’ corporate type events. Aside from the possible lure of some alcohol related perks, why did you say yes to this gig?
Why did we say yes? Because it’s a gig and we’re and band, and despite everything else this is still a business. The bills that are incurred from even a very succesful tour like the last one, are massive, and we have to keep things ticking over too…like any other business. Surely we don’t have to explain ourselves for every little thing we do, do we? I hear we got a bit of stick from some ‘fans’ for doing it, but I’m sure those folks wouldn’t have whinged if they’d had tickets and were coming to see us anyway. Despite the fact that we’d played in Aberdeen only a month before on tour, there were loads of Stranglers fans there who are part of the Brewdog family, and we had a great time. Went up to Aberdeen, played for an hour, went home…end of story…
At the end of the year, you’re out in mainland Europe for a tour including 10 dates in France. Your last French jaunt in late 2015 was a huge success, confirming that the country has your biggest support outside of the UK. Will this be a continuation of the Classic Collection tour or something different?
I think probably yes. It was a great set list and it would be great to take it to France in the winter. Hopefully there’ll be some newer stuff in there, and maybe even some brand new stuff by that time as well. Have to wait and see… What with that tour, the trip down under in February , and another British tour hopefully lined up for March, those promise to be very busy months. Shows no signs of stopping…
How excited are you to be returning to tour New Zealand and Australia in February 2018?
Very! We seem to be gathering as much momentum there as we are here actually. Last years’ tour was an absolute blast, and to go back so soon, and to bigger venues, is great yeah. I’ve got a brother down there too, so schedules permitting I’ll try and spend more time with him and his family…I did that last year and it was great to see them all…and the people that came to see the band were fanatical…we’re looking forward to more of the same!
So thanks to Baz for taking the time to answer our questions so soon after the tour finished, plus some extras that we added later.
Photo credits- Derek D’Souza (www.blinkandyoumissit.com), Jim Macaulay and Audrey Grant