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Music Waves met Jean-Jacques Burnel, bassist and singer of the Stranglers, but recently the only active founding member of the English band.
ADRIANSTORK - 03.09.2021 -
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In May 2020, Dave Greenfield, the Stranglers' keyboardist Emeritus, passed away while recording the new Stranglers album. Despite this unfortunate news, the survivors had to finish the recording, while honoring the memory of this "keyboard demon" as the former Stranglers' guitarist Hugh Cornwell called him. That's how we have been listening to the song dedicated to him, not without emotion. If this event mourned the production of "Dark Matters", the band had recorded enough content, dark or not, not to focus on this demise. We have met Jean-Jacques Burnel, the singer and bass player of the Stranglers, and lately the only founding member of the Stranglers, after the withdrawal of Jet Black...

We like to start our interviews with this traditional question: what is the question you've been asked too often and to which you're tired of answering?
Jean-Jacques Burnel (a little surprised): I can always recognize a journalist who has not prepared his interview. And that stops me from answering. "For our readers or for us listeners, give us a brief summary of the Stranglers' career." Fuck!
Even today?
It's very rare, but it happens to me from time to time. In France, I haven't experienced this dissatisfaction yet. When I am facing this kind of questions, I answer: ''I apologize but I have some paint to watch drying, goodbye madam.'' Another question that annoys me is: ''For our listeners and readers, what are your plans for the next 6 months? End of interview (laughs)!
I'm not going to ask you those questions, we have a ton of them but not those.
Let's go !

On May 3, 2020, Dave Greenfield, the wizard of the keyboards disappeared. The news of his death must have made you very sad, you had been all together since the beginning of the band and participated in other projects (The Purple Helmets, Fire and Water (Listen to your walls), he plays on your solo album "One Perfect Day"). We could read some journalists talking about the death of the Stranglers, but we often forget to say that if there was a Hugh Cornwell period, Paul Roberts, there is especially a very active Jean-Jacques Burnel period. So it was logical that the Stranglers have been going on even after the release of the album?
There are many ways to answer this question. If you had asked me that on the day I learned of Dave's death - I had him on the phone three days before - I would have said "No, it's over". Fifteen days later, while I was still in a state of shock, I started to think differently. When you've been an accomplice and buddy for forty-five years... (he represses a brief sob), a fortnight later when my agent called me, he told me that we were selling more tickets for the concerts. But people knew that Dave had passed away, it was on the news in England... He said, "Yeah, but maybe people want to listen to and celebrate Dave and the Stranglers. After that, I thought my only mission was to finish this record because it was 90% done...

Dave Greenfield plays on 8 of the 11 songs of the album, as if his music had outlived his existence and therefore the album had to be released and performed on stage, to honor his memory?
I didn't exactly think that way. Then little by little, I said to myself "Fuck it! At first I didn't know if I would do any live shows, but in any case, I wanted to complete the record. Dave was unique and he had begun to inspire others who knew every note he had played for 40 years.

He was very humble, we met him in 2012 during a concert at the Olympia.
Dave was autistic, at a time we thought he was eccentric, now we know why people can be so eccentric.
Today I realize that this event still affects you. Isn't it difficult to do this kind of interviews where you always come back to the same thing? In a way this album is a sort of tribute.
No, on the contrary it doesn't bother me. At the beginning, it was not a tribute album but it became one afterwards. Today I'm divided, I don't know if this is the last album...
The way we are talking, I've got the impression that at the beginning you wanted to stop, now you want to honor Dave's memory and I've got the feeling that you don't want to stop necessarily.
I've been through this a few times. In 1990, when Hugh left the band, I thought it was the end. We've kept going on even though we have struggled a bit and gone around in circles. In 2004 before the release of "Norfolk Coast", everyone told us that the Stranglers were over and I decided to take control of everything and we started talking about ourselves again.
Won't it be difficult on stage, with Jet gone too?
Manchester United continued to play after the crash of '56 and the retirement of Eric Cantona! Somehow it's a carrier for me, I'm the last man standing, the only original member. Baz has been with us for 21 years and worldwide the Stranglers have never been so well supported. It's not a matter of personalities, they' re not individuals, it's a band. To me, people haven't ped us. What does it mean? I don't know, I don't get it, I don't want to explain it too much. This record has maybe the best reception because it's maybe the most honest.

Before talking about the album, I wanted to talk about the video.
Oh yeah, did you see it?
The clip shot by Vadim Lasca shows a young girl driving a car (which Dave loved, cars maybe, girls too! ) who leaves for a Californian trip in which we can see references to the band (the rat on the license plate and the one that reminds 'Down In The Sewer', the movie in the cinema refers to an album "The Gospel According To The Meninblack" which we will talk about later, a poster with a gogo that evokes the concert hall the Whiskey A Gogo or also the song 'Shah Shah A Gogo', the sun of 'Always The Sun, etc.', the Regent Theatre, the last place of Dave's concert in Los Angeles). In short, this clip is a trip to the land of the Stranglers, of which Dave Greenfield was a prominent representative (you can see a keyboard on the back seat)?

They are references for those who know the Stranglers. Yes, absolutely, I think that's the greatest tribute we could make. Dave loved fast cars. The only clipper we used a car for was in Los Angeles in a 1965 Ford Mustang (ed. clip of 'All Roads Lead To Rome'). We managed to find a director who was willing to do the video for almost nothing. The biggest cost of the video was the rental of the Ford!
You can hear "Water has gone". Many of your songs have very social or even political themes. Is it like Curfew, have you conceived an ecological disaster scenario or is this water more metaphorical?

'Water has gone' is not about water, it's a metaphor for democracy during the Arabic spring. They had a shortage of water and democracy. At the beginning, we were all delighted to see these oppressed people rebelling against oppression but in the end it was just a dream because everything went back to the way it was. At the same time, I thought that we were imposing our values and cultures on these people, a big mistake. After September 11, the Americans wanted to impose democracy in Iraq. This is bullshit. We have created more problems by doing that. We have made this mistake many times in Africa, by imposing democracy and Christianity on civilizations that did not share our culture and history. That's what this track is about.

On this album as in general, your vocals is raging but colder, almost soft while Baz's is more aggressive, in short Ice And Fire, between explosion and meditation, how do you divide the tasks in studio and then for the writing of the songs? This Song' is marked by Baz Warne's aggressive vocals, but is softened by the organs at the end of the song, which gives its title a different atmosphere. As shown in your discography, the Stranglers have never been a punk or rock band, but a band always looking for other sounds. If it's more pleasure not to have a label, on the other hand, aren't the record company bosses tearing their hair out at your resolutely anti-commercial aspect?

Success is when you succeed in recording something you like, not commercial success. If there is a commercial success, it is a bonus. And we've had that bonus many times. But that's not what we're looking for. If that's what we're looking for, then it would be the tail that wags the dog. So I think we have a duty, we are in a privileged position to make records and to find a worldwide audience. Today our fanbase is even bigger than before. We have an obligation to explore the minimum of talent that we have and to grow and not to look for commercial success at all costs. Success for me is already being able to record. Apart from that, if you cross the already beaten path by yourself, it doesn't have the same value.

By the way, is it easy to find a balance between the past and the modernity and to succeed in sounding like The Stranglers even when clearing new grounds?
I don't really have an answer, that's for the critics to tell.
I can see that, but is it something natural, are you looking for it? For example, 'If Something's Gonna Kill Me (It Might As Well Be Love)' takes us elsewhere again, with the harpsichord evoking a waltz-like spirit. But unpredictably, you evolve towards a pretty electronic sound that reminds you of your old glory days while being modern.

I'm of a mature age, I've lived a lot of my life in music: my whole adult life has been in music. I've grown up in England in music for an amazing period. To see Fleetwood Mac in concert with Peter Green in front of 40 people in the back of a pub at 14 years old... To see all this musical evolution... It's part of my DNA.
Do you regret that period?

No, I don't regret anything. It's part of my DNA and this record takes all that. You shouldn't deny your past, on the contrary, the past conjugates with the present.
On an instrumental deck of No Man's Land, the track is a bit experimental with crazy keyboards that remind a bit the orgasmic solo of 'Nice In Sleazy'. Was it easy to fit in Dave  or did he sometimes want to go even further with his keyboards?
I don't know and I'll never know. I know this song is a bit of a reference to "Black And White", it's about the selfishness of the present, people think they're so important that they want to share the little trivial moments of their lives. Look at Twitter, we are too egocentric, we want to share the little pieces of life and forget the real things.
We have the impression that on 'The Lines', you wanted to confide in us in an intimate way, to let us see you in all your nudity and honesty. How was this song born and why is it so short (less than two minutes)?
It tells everything in two minutes. You know, as I'm getting older, the guy I see in the mirror in the morning is not the guy I want to see.
But that's only from a physical perspective. When you look deep inside and you see the inside, are you happy?
I can feel that inner self but I see something that doesn't match what I feel. As we're getting older we all have that and that observation is pretty honest and without cover-up. 

The track 'Down' is a nostalgic ballad, almost acoustic, quite successful, on which your magnetic voice gives us various emotions..  How do you reach this alchemy with rather minimalist means?

It is the best way to do it, to reveal oneself, to strip off. It's about the fact that everyone is looking for love and complicity with someone, it's in honor of a certain person.
The Last Men On The Moon' with its typical Dave Greenfield keyboards (who deserves a solo), the distant voice, the luminous choirs send us into space. We travel in this album through life and death, Earth and space and other dimensions, between past, present and future. Are the Stranglers hiding behind these last men on the Moon, a band that delivers sumptuous and rich albums but of which the media don't speak much, while the moon goes with the sun ('Always The Sun')?
(laughs) We have had, let's say... complicated relationships with the media. They've been after us sometimes and we've been good to them at one time. Now, most of the critics who were against us are in retirement homes or dead.
No, there is always Philippe Manoeuvre.
(Laughs) Half-retired then! The track is more about a potential problem to come. All the waste in space. Now there are so many dead or active satellites that will eventually break down. We've polluted our planet and now we're going to pollute space.
Breath' ends the album on a stormy atmosphere carried by your voice, the acoustic guitar and the keyboards. This dramatically charged track was the right way to end the album, the storm finally breaking on the chorus and then in a solo where all tensions are released. It is in fact the sound of the keyboards that closes the record. Was it a way to exorcise your pain by choosing it as the last track?
I didn't think of it at all like that. If I may say so, it's French intellectualism.

So much the better, that means we are working!
Yes, enormously, much more than the English! Except for the Greeks, the French are the greatest philosophers in the world (laughs). In England, people are skeptical, a rocker should not be philosophical but take action.
Does this album have a healing spirit, a catharsis, a way to show that music can help to get over a mourning while continuing to honor the memory of the deceased? Mission accomplished?
I agree with you. Yes, it is!
The fans who will have ordered the album in advance will receive an 8 track CD "Dave Greenfield - a Tribute" highlighting Dave's sparkling playing. Was it in a way to kill two birds with one stone (double hit): to reward the loyalty of your fans who have always been supportive even in the hardest times and to pay tribute again to a musician who was not spoken about enough during his lifetime?
Yes absolutely, I think that in general people get the governments they deserve and I think that bands get the fans they deserve.
This bonus CD focuses on Dave. Dave Greenfield used to sing at least one song per album in the beginning of the Stranglers discography (in "Rattus Norvegicus", he is present in the bonus track with the live 'Peasant In The Big Shitty'). But since 'Four Horsemen' from "The Gospel According to the Meninblack" (with maybe the exception of 'God is Good' on "Coup de Grace"), his voice was always on background but he didn't sing lead songs anymore, so why?
We didn't find the right songs for him. Hugh and I used to decide, "Here, this would be perfect for Dave. But then we would split the vocals between Hugh and I and not have any songs for him.
With hindsight, what do you think of the cursed concept album "The Gospel According To The Meninblack", which had a difficult genesis and was very criticized at its release but was a good vintage?
In my opinion, it was a disaster at the time, it ruined us financially. We recorded it all over the world. We had an obsession with UFOs and the question that we couldn't be the only ones in the universe. Mathematically that's impossible. Today, many people think it is a masterpiece.
How do you explain it?

We were 40 years ahead maybe (Laughs)!

In November 2021, there will be 7 dates in France, except Philippe Manœuvre, France is a country that loves the Stranglers and vice versa. What is your relationship with this country which is also yours?

7 dates, that's optimistic. I've always wanted to have an audience in France because it's part of my DNA and I've lived in England most of my life. Now I pay my taxes in France, very high taxes but it's worth it. I wanted to take the Stranglers to France and why not be respected in France, damn it's my country! And don't forget that music is not exclusive to the UK. At one time, the French had a complex towards rock 'n' roll. But today, the term rock is too poor to define us. Either we have to broaden the definition of rock or bury it all in a garbage can and invent a new name.
Your colleague Dave Vanian from The Damned who also made songs flirting with progressive rock told us that the punk label had been stuck to them but that they never wanted to lock themselves in the punk prison. Despite a rather chaotic history of the Damned, would the Stranglers be the big brothers of the Damned?
Yes, and also I think it's up to us to redefine the term punk. In the beginning, punk meant freedom. Then the term was kidnapped by fundamentalists who said that punk wasn't that, that you shouldn't have synths... I thought "who made these rules? I could redefine them too". You redefine the thing or you set yourself apart. I'd like to consider myself as an old punk and the Stranglers could help to redefine the term.
Since the soundtrack of "Gankutsuou" in 2005, we haven't had a new album from Jean-Jacques Burnel, could we hope to see a new one after the tours?
Who knows? I've started to sing in French. There is a French version of 'Down'. But my accent is not so good, I don't know if it would be acceptable. I still write, now that I live in France, why not? Maybe the Stranglers will become a French band later on!
We've started this interview with the question you've been asked too many times, what would you like me to ask you or that you would love to answer?
How does it come that you don't realize that the Stranglers are the most important band in the history of music? In all modesty (Laughs)!
As a matter of fact, I had asked Jet and Dave the question: A band that has never done anything like the others and that keeps a unique place in the rock world. Dave said: "As long as a band like ours continues to do what we do against some kind of establishment, we can't be considered as musical legends!
Wow. It's not really up to us to consider legendary or not!

But after Dave's death, I wonder if that won't set you up as a legend?
It's a bit horrible to admit. The fact that we already exist is something. If people are heroic, iconic and legendary, there's an exaggerated meaning to the words, I don't care at all, even if it's a little flattering.
It's deserved too! Thank you...
Thanks to you!

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Merci pour cet entretien qui reflète bien l'état d'esprits des STRANGLERS.
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