Never To Look Back-JJ interview

With the band celebrating their 40th anniversary this week, we thought it would be an opportune time to quiz JJ about their long and illustrious/infamous career. It’s been a busy year of celebration for the band packed with gigs and press & promotion  marking such a career milestone and it was nice to get JJ off duty and relaxed to pose our questions.  

We covered a wide variety of subjects relating to the band including the highs and lows of the last forty years, line up changes and what the future holds…

Picking up that hitch-hiker on the A3 that day on your way back from karate, could you ever have envisaged that it would mark the beginning of a 40 year plus career?

No, you wouldn’t would you?! Normally, when you pick up a hitch-hiker, you fuck them & murder them and have a forty year prison career! (laughs)

If you hadn’t have picked him up, which direction do you think your life would have taken?

At the time I knew exactly what I wanted to do. I was saving up to go to Japan because I wanted to be a professional karate teacher. I tried being a Triumph motorcycle mechanic. I had tried a few other things but they didn’t appeal to me. I also had a day in a solicitor’s office because my mother wanted me to be a lawyer. I hated it. I would have had to do articles in those days and five years of taking exams. It was never going to be me…

What do think has been the key to the band’s longevity?

I don’t know…you tell me! I’ve got no idea! We’ve done everything wrong. Maybe it’s a reaction against the sterility & lack of honesty of the current music industry. In broad philosophical terms, everyone is unique and everyone is different. My question is that, if everyone is unique, how come the musical output of so many of these unique people is so similar? Maybe we managed to be true to ourselves as people and our output has reflected that.

In commercial terms though, we’ve done all the wrong things so our body of work must have some validity. Eventually, if you do something that touches other people, then that’s a form of communion as far as I’m concerned. If someone thinks a song is great, or likes our behaviour or thinks that we were outrageous, then that’s communion. I can’t think of another word to express it.

Has the name ‘The Stranglers’ been a help or a hindrance?

Initially it was a real hindrance. I know that for a fact. Brian Crook (JJ’s lifelong friend & one time band manager) told me as soon as he mentioned the name to people (at record companies), they’d say ‘Thanks, goodbye!’ It was at a time when there weren’t names like that, it was very aggressive. It became acceptable as a name over the years when punk came along but I think it’s been a hindrance generally…

Mark 1, Raven era 1979

In hindsight, through the band’s career, have there been any band decisions that you would have changed?

There’s a couple. One comes to mind and it’s not the most important. It was when we were doing the Purple Helmets and I said to Hugh, as The Stranglers didn’t have any new songs, that we should cover All Day And All Of The Night thinking that I was going to sing it. Hugh said ‘Yeah, I think I can sing that’! I just deferred to him, I always deferred to Hugh ’cause I looked up to him. I regretted that as I wanted to sing a bit more at the time. Major decisions though, not really. There weren’t many bad calculated decisions and, talking about it now, they seem to have worked.

La Folie following Golden Brown as a single for example?

I think that was a great thing to do frankly. Then giving them Strange Little Girl which they’d turned down six years before. The thing is that everything was always vindictive & personal. It was never commercially driven. We made some awful commercial decisions but, in the long term, they seem to have played out.

..and it seems that those potential setbacks actually appeared to have a positive effect on the band…

Strength through adversity. We created a lot of the adversity ourselves and, as we stuck together, it made us really strong as a bunch of people. Whether that means that you can make music that turns people on with that is a different thing. The fact that we were tight as a group was one thing but if you don’t have decent songs, it doesn’t mean anything…

Financially, you have always been very fair to all members which must help to keep the band close knit…

We’ve got a very democratic system with The Stranglers, which has always worked well for us. We pay each other exactly the same, not much, even if there’s tons in the bank, we just pay ourselves a basic wage. We just get the same so we’re all the same. If you have something to contribute, then you can and no one will get any more or less. If there’s lots, everyone gets a share of it. If there’s nothing, we all get a share of the failure. It’s as simple as that.  If you’re not going to work for a few months or a year, touring or bringing out a record, then there’s no income so you need to pace your money. We can live pretty frugally but nevertheless well…

Mark 2, About Time 1995

In all honesty, do you feel that the band have ever deliberately courted controversy because of the press interest it caused?

Of course, loads of times! We did a lot of things on purpose. Like Battersea, how easy was that?! It was Linda’s idea to have the strippers. Is it really that easy to wind people up? Rock Goes To College? We didn’t realise how much that would impact on our careers but they still put us on Top Of The Pops every week: ‘Let’s have those naughty Stranglers’!  The Nice riot wasn’t on purpose, it just fell into our laps (laughs). Managers would pay fortunes to get that sort of publicity, not bands though because they’d go to prison!

Recent years have seen the band experience a real renaissance with tours selling out and new studio albums receiving great acclaim from fans & press alike. What do you think has caused this shift change in the band’s popularity?

It’s three things really. Firstly, the consistency of the last three albums. They have had the best reviews that we’ve ever had in the history of The Stranglers. If you start with Norfolk Coast, there was no reason why people should consider it anymore than the previous album, but it was a good body of work written by someone who had been revived…me! It just worked, even with Paul, so that was the start. It created a bit of momentum and suddenly we weren’t being written off any more. There had been a review for one of the previous (mark II) albums and it just had one word: ‘Why?’ and that hit me right in he middle of the heart and I thought ‘Right, it’s up to me!’

Secondly, I’d like to think that all our detractors, the people that we pissed off, are dead! They’re either dead or they are retired and their publications have gone. Sounds has gone, Melody Maker has gone…  Now, I think the people that review records or commentate on music and bands are much younger and they see all the bad or wrong things that we’ve done as cool, as a badge of honour. Everything is so fucking sterile in the X Factor, Pop Idol generation, everyone’s playing the game now and no one writes about anything of importance. We’re not sterile. We’re from a generation that still believe in agit-prop, we write about politics and society and we don’t just talk about love, girls or bling. We write about the world that we live in & the things that matter to us and that is seen with increasing respect and awe.  Our generation look back at The Beatles and think they were cool, driving across America in five days, writing on the road and all that kind of stuff.

Lastly, the band is really tight. It’s not just our chemistry but it’s the chemistry of those people around us too. We’ve got good people around us, we’ve got good management with a guy who had worked as our roadie from thirty years ago, we’ve got a sound engineer that does our recording and live sound, no one ever has that. It’s a perfect set up.

In retrospect which album are you most proud of?

I think the most complete one is The Meninblack because it’s a story and it’s a concept album. It was a bit of a low point when The Meninblack came out and it wasn’t regarded as the masterpiece that I thought it was. We were the only ones who thought it was a masterpiece!  I haven’t finished with The Meninblack yet and I want to take it further…to elucidate it a bit more…

And, conversely, which one are you least proud of?

Written In Red I think, it had nothing to do with me apart from one or two songs.  I’ve got no feelings about it as an album as I was disconnected from it all. I had given up on the band, it wasn’t a band anymore, just John & Paul and a guy with Protools. It was horrible, I had hardly anything to do with it. It was around that time that John said we should change the name of the band from The Stranglers. I was kind of zombiefied then, I wasn’t interested and I just let things happen for a while as I had my own problems at the time.

I then decided that I should write the whole of the next album Coup De Grace which wasn’t necessarily the best idea! I thought ‘I can’t let these fuckers take over this band, they don’t know what they’re doing and the band needs to get back to what it should be, I’ve got to sort this out’. My publisher still had faith in me and I arranged with him so I could go away to Norfolk to write what became Norfolk Coast

What were the circumstances that led to John’s departure in 2000?

He was given enough rope… He blackmailed the band, I don’t mind saying so now. We were invited to go and play to the troops in Kosovo, we’d already been to the Falklands and I thought it would be fantastic. No bands had played there because it was still a theatre of war. We had to get NATO security clearance to play there which took six weeks and, ten days before we were due to go to Kosovo, John Ellis told our management that he wanted double the money because it was dangerous.

I said ‘This is it! No fucking way, I want that guitarist Baz that we saw in the support act (Smalltown Heroes) who’s cool and plays a Fender Telecaster! He’s the one!’ So we called him, he came down for an audition, he did the solo for Golden Brown and got the job. We managed to get him the security clearance in a week, I don’t know how managed it and he came to Pristina with us. John thought we couldn’t get the security clearance in time and I really wanted to send him a letter after saying ‘Enjoy the holiday season!’ They say revenge is a dish best served cold and we haven’t looked back since…

Mark 3 with new boy Baz 2001

After six years as a five piece with Baz & Paul, things came to a head during the recording of Suite XVI leading to Paul’s departure. What happened?

Initially, things started clicking better with Paul and Baz. Then Paul started to disengage during the recording of Suite XVI and I don’t know why. He was going home to London every night and he was getting back later and later every day. Frankly, the other three of us were doing great stuff together when we got back pissed from the pub, Dave, Baz and myself just jamming. We really looked forward to getting back and writing, playing, developing ideas, which is what it’s what it’s all about.

We said to Paul ‘You’ve done half the vocals but you haven’t asked me what they mean and I wrote the songs. We haven’t had a political discussion about George W. Bush or the Iraq war. You’re singing these vocals but it’s just words, I’m not hearing meaning or passion. Before we go any further, what do you want? Do you want to be in the band?’ We gave him the choice. Paul went away for a few days to think about it and he came back and said ‘You’re right, I don’t want to be in the band anymore’. Now he won’t talk to me or Baz and he’s become resentful.

When he went, suddenly it felt right, we were a four piece again, what The Stranglers should be I think, with two singers. Everyone was happy, it was great and fans started to come back. It was as it should have been. It was transition, a journey and has been a regeneration for us worldwide…

Hugh departed the band over 24 years ago yet a minority of fans seem to be unable to move on and constantly pine for his return. To set the record straight, hand on heart, could you ever see that happening?

No! It’s been done. Hugh’s not the same as he was 24 years ago and me neither. The Stranglers aren’t either, we’re stronger than we were 24 years ago. A few years ago, we were offered a fortune to reform with Hugh and I thought ‘Fuck, why would I do that?’ I don’t understand why we would need to go back there and where would that put Baz? You say it’s ‘a minority’, it’s a very small minority, about a dozen people, who think that and, in the greater scheme of things, that means fuck all to me.

Baz has nearly been in the band for nearly 15 years now and it’s just getting better and better by the year. There’s no sign of any of the problems like Hugh and I had before 15 years was up. Hugh’s doing his own thing, he’s happy with his situation and we’ve moved on. That was then. For many of those 16 years it was fantastic, the last few less so. I think that 99.9% of the renewed and increased fanbase would be most upset to see a guy come back who’s an eccentric old man now. He’s much better on his own..and so are we….

What led to you attempting to contact Hugh about ten years ago?

It was when we started working in Bath (at the farm). I rang him and said ‘We’re going to be around the area for a while, it would be great to see you…’ I just wanted to erase any bitterness and he’d be my mate. The thousands of hours that Hugh and I spent alone together, he’d come to my house, I’d go to his, we’d laugh & joke, write songs, all that. It was an attempt to renew that bond. But that was a long time ago now…

In recent interviews, you have mentioned a desire to record another studio album. How are things progressing with the follow up to Giants?

I’ve got loads of ideas, so has Baz. We’ve also got a few songs left over from Giants which seemed crass at the time but now they sound great. A lot of ideas floating about, it’s just how to turn them into arranged songs and to try to keep them different. The thing is we have a filter system now with The Stranglers, we don’t want to repeat ourselves musically. I sometimes find a big problem with lyrics as they take me a bit of time. Baz’s great with lyrics because he’s a gobshite (laughs). He got words coming out of his head… Musically, I want things to be exciting. I spent a couple of years working on Freedom Is Insane and also Time Was Once… There’s little things to make it interesting musically and lyrically, like there’s fours bars of ska in there…

What have been your proudest achievements with the band?

Quite a few. Putting our fingers up to the other record companies when we were signed by Andrew Lauder to UA, because they’d all turned us down. Then fingers up again when they (EMI) had written us off and we came up with Golden Brown, that was a redeeming moment. Then resurrecting The Stranglers with Norfolk Coast and since, which has been amazing. Playing Glastonbury and getting a better audience than U2 who were headlining and we weren’t. And being named as the second most important band to come out of this country by Pete Waterman…and being able to tell journalists that we’d had more hits than The Beatles!

Mark 4, Suite XVI era 2006

And any really low points?

Yeah, Hugh leaving. When he left, I was broke for two years because all the money was caught up in legal things. I didn’t know where my next meal was coming from and I had two kids to support. I even had to sell my motorcycles because I couldn’t touch my money. I had to negotiate a mortgage holiday with my bank. That was pretty low. All the money was in dispute. There was lots of money but it was all frozen by accountants. There was no animosity towards Hugh as he was I the same boat. Suddenly there was no money coming in…

When we were preparing About Time and the band rounded on me. I just walked out of the band because Ellis was doing my fucking head in. That was pretty low. Nice prison wasn’t a low point because it didn’t affect me mentally too much, it was just a fucking bummer. There have been quite a few low points…

And do you have any unfulfilled ambitions for the band?

Oh yeah…I want to produce an album which is universally revered, which we haven’t done yet, so that will be the next one then!

What does the future hold for The Stranglers?

No idea, and that’s the great thing about The Stranglers that we have never made any long term, commercial decisions. We want to keep on playing for as long as we can, well I certainly do and I know Dave & Baz do too. Jet would like to still be part of it as much as he can physically, but it’s getting harder and harder for him. But he’s there so he’s still an influence although his input is physically lesser than it was but I suspect it will decrease as the years go on. So, while we’re fit and healthy, I think that the world needs The Stranglers, especially in the times we live in, I think we need The Stranglers probably more than ever…

Thanks to JJ for his enlightening and honest answers, especially on some of the more controversial or probing questions.

JJ at V festival 2014