The Stranglers talk making new album Dark Matters....
There have been lots of comings and goings in post-punk types The Stranglers over their 47 years together. They've been a fivesome, a foursome, a trio, sometimes with a dedicated frontman, sometimes with one of the other members taking lead vocals, but keyboardist Dave Greenfield and drummer Jet Black have been a constant alongside bassist Jean-Jacques (JJ) Burnel throughout that time.
Sadly, since the band's last album Giants, a lot has changed. Black has stepped back due to health problems and Greenfield sadly passed away after contracting Covid-19.
Sessions for the follow-up to Giants were already largely completed and it fell to Burnel, new drummer Jim Macauley and guitarist Baz Warne to finish the job.
With the album now on shelves, we spoke to frontman Burnel about working on the LP after Greenfield's death and why he wants to rein touring in a little...
This is your first album since 2012, when were the songs written? Have you been collecting them throughout that time?
“The opening track was written during the Arab Spring, so that’s a full 10 years ago! But then, after that, we were suddenly very, very busy. We went around the world, I don’t know how many times, but it was a lot of shows. I’m not someone who can write in a hotel room, so whenever I could I’d just collect ideas and I ended up with about 350 of them, I just had no time to collect my thoughts and progress anything. Then finally a couple of years ago, I did.”
350! That’s a huge amount to work through...
“Little ideas, nothing completed. When I actually took an idea through to completion, I’d always put it to one side and then revisit it later. I got to about 30 of those then we identified the ones we wanted to record. Ironically, a couple of them were done in one take…”
Isn’t it frustrating to have to be constantly putting ideas you like to one side?
“Frustrating is exactly the right word. I just didn’t have the chance, and you can forget things and lose the inspiration, you lose track of the original impulse. But I’m always writing, sometimes I’ll be on my motorcycle and a rhythm comes into my head and I have to somehow stop the bike, take my helmet off, hum it into my phone and then get back on. Ideas come at the weirdest time. That’s what happens for anybody creative, ideas don’t care when things are practical for you.”
When did you decide that you had enough to push on with an album?
“We started working in 2019 and then we went around the world three times that year. We had another break then we focused again. We completed the bulk of the album just before lockdown started. Then, sadly, our colleague Dave Greenfield passed away from Covid. That meant the next mission became to complete the project.”
Was it difficult to go back to it?
“It was and it wasn’t. It was a catalyst for a few ideas and he’s on 90% of the album. It was difficult, but it’s a hurdle and you either decide you’re going to jump it or stand aside. We took it on.”
You did the album with Louis Nicastro, who has done most of your recent records, what is it about him that you keep coming back to?
“He’s a member of our extended family and he’s been with us for over 20 years. He’s our front of house soundman when we tour and he’s our studio engineer. He knows what we want, he’s always there when we tour and he’s always there in the studio, we’ve got such a good shorthand.”
Some bands look to producers for a sound or for a disciplinarian, what do you look to a producer for?
“Despite years and years in the studio, you do still need someone to bounce off. We have that dynamic in The Stranglers, we’re able to keep each other honest.”
You recorded most of the album in your headquarters in Somerset, what’s Stranglers HQ like?
“We’ve got our studio and our workshops, that’s where 90% of the album was done. It’s on a 200-acre farm. Our management is there, our rehearsal studios are there and two studios for recordings. It’s 20 minutes out of Bath and quite isolated. That’s where we work, I ended up finishing off the album in France as that’s where I live. I found a little geeky studio to do some finishing touches.”
Was it a fun record to make?
“It’s always fun. Working in The Stranglers isn’t a tense experience, we’ve hardly had any fallouts in our 40-year history, that’s why we’re still going. Most of the time we get on really well and enjoy each other’s company. We’ve always been quite different from each other and there’s no unhealthy competitiveness. No one is trying to be the alpha male, we all complement each other.”
That must get tested given how much you tour…
“It did, but I think Dave and I must have had five rows in all our years and they were all resolved in 24 hours. A bit of ego is useful, too much ego is destructive, you’ve got to know how to compromise sometimes.”
This is your first album without Jet on drums, did that change the way you worked at all?
“Not at all. Jet’s had a lot of health problems over the years and we’ve had about eight different drummers stand in for him. He knew he couldn’t keep up anymore. He’s mentored Jim and encouraged him to take over the reins. He’s got a different feel, but he’s been playing with us for 10 years so we know him well.”
It’s good that you could manage a kind transition…
“We’re lucky in that regard. But we’ve kept a good groove in the band, there have only ever been two songwriters in the band, but we shared the publishing equally. You have to share the successes and the failures easily.”
When did you settle on Dark Matters for the album title?
“It was originally going to be called Dark Matter because we were fascinated by the concept of it. This thing that’s 85% of the universe, but you can’t see it or touch it. We’re fascinated by space and its infinite possibilities. We can’t be the only intelligent lifeform, it’s impossible.”
Finally, you’re about to head out on tour again, is it going to be another three times around the world?
“I don’t want to do as much as we’ve done in the last 10 years, it’s bloody knackering. But we’re a live band, we love playing, but you’ve got to look after your health…”