Intervivew: JJ (Jean- Jacque) Burnel Of The Stranglers On Upcoming Australian Tour

Interview by Tracey Moyle – Music Maven Events

When it comes to the music industry, there is no better teacher in life that experiencing life itself. This knowledge is like gold.  When you are given the opportunity to delve into to the wisdom of someone who has taken the many opportunities life has dropped on their path and not only survived but thrived to a position of influence, you listen with the intent to come away with some piece of knowledge that you embed into your own way of thinking.  

The Stranglers are a band who have not only survived over 4 decades in a constantly evolving world of music; they have influenced and inspired countless musicians in their wake. They have continually tuned into their creative instinct by not trying to recreate the past but by expanding and embracing the present.  Best known for their hits Golden Brown, Skin Deep, Always The Sun, and the punk classics No More Heroes and Peaches, they’re bringing their unique and much loved sound to Australian shores in early February. 

Sitting down with acclaimed bass player and vocalist JJ (Jean-Jacque) Burnel, I managed to contain the awe I know my ‘never forgotten teenage music fanatical self,’ would have definitely felt.  

From their earliest punk rock incarnation, tapping into the brutal realities of life, their melodic hits of the 1980’s, through to their 2012 album release ‘Giants’  (an amalgamation of their musical migration over their years plus more) they have constantly kept a fresh eye on the world around them constantly creating something comfortingly familiar but also wonderfully fresh.  Just as they did in the very beginning, they continue to create and inspire.

JJ thank you so much for your time today. I hope you are looking forward to your upcoming Australian tour?  I know Brisbane is looking forward to seeing you again.

“We are really looking forward to coming to Brisbane in the next week or so because we have had some very memorable moments in Brisbane over the years.” 

Yes, you’re no strangers to Australian soil, and I know you have a lot of fans here who have stuck with the band from the beginning.

“(Laughs) so they must all be wrinklies like us.” 

(Laughs) I suppose so.  Did you imagine having forty plus years in the industry?  I guess it’s not something you expect when you are a young band starting out?

“Not at all, and there wasn’t anyone to show us the way.  We’re kind of entering uncharted territory.  OK, there are a few artists now who’ve been going for that amount of time, but very few.  And when you start out as a band you don’t think in those terms, you just think ‘well maybe we’ll have enough money to make a demo or something’ let alone release a record and survive two years.  Yeah, never expected it to last this long.”

It’s not just that alone, you’re hailed as one of the most influential bands of the emerging punk scene in the 70’s.  Plus you’ve stayed relevant with your music constantly evolving over the years.   

“Well I hope so, it should reflect the people that we are and the world we live in.  The world we live in is evolving all the time, not necessarily in the best way.  But same for us, we are older we have a bit more experience, we still have a world view and we get more experienced with our music so I suppose it should reflect that.  It would be really artificial if we were clinging on to some kind of image or sound of what we were way back, you know. It’s just honest.”

Listening back through your catalogue of music over the last few days, one thing I hear is that you’ve kept that Stranglers sound.  You hear it and you just know it’s The Stranglers. 

“Wow, I think that’s a compliment because surely we all want to have our own distinction when we create something. We want it to be us, and not the same as everyone else.  You do fight to get your own voice.  It’s quite a special thing to achieve.”

Not only have you found that sound, and although there are many bands who have surely been influenced by you and have embraced your music, there is no one else who sounds like The Stranglers.   It’s a great thing to be so unique and so relevant after many decades.

“Well thank you very much, I’m also very proud to hear a lady who sounds great, from the other side of the world saying that to me, a little humble bloke in France.” 

Thank you JJ.  I still recall listening to The Stranglers back in high school in the 80’s.  I had so many friends that loved your music.  I remember so much about the music from that time in my life but I don’t remember much of anything else. (Laughs)

“(Laughs) Well you got your priorities right.  But do you remember Joh Bjelke-Petersen’s tenure in office?”

Absolutely. Too well.  There is actually a book about that era in music and politics by Australian music journalist Andrew Stafford called ‘Pig City’. It’s about the music scene in Brisbane and the political climate at the time.   It’s an amazing and interesting read. Have you heard of it?

“No I never heard of it.  I would really like to read that.  We experienced quite a lot in Queensland at the time and it really fuelled a writing frenzy, we have a song called Nuclear Device (The Wizard of Aus) which was about Joh Bjelke-Petersen and all the dodgy things he was doing.  I think groups of three or more people constituted an evil gathering, forcing Aboriginal People of  the and where there was uranium and there was all that kind of stuff.  We got attacked on stage by his police people.  Yeah I’d love to read about that.”

You would easily relate to the book for sure.  It’s great you got some creative influence from that experience.   How would you say your creativity has changed or evolved over the years with songwriting?   With 18 albums how do you keep things fresh and new for each album?

“There are no rules really to writing a song, to writing music.  I have hundreds of pages of words, of lyrics of sentences, little verses maybe.  Sometimes I’ll have a rhythm in my head which I’ll record and hold onto for a rainy day.  Other times I’ll write on the classical guitar which adds different tonalities.  There are so many different ways. I mean once I was in a car and it was a V8 engine. I could hear the rhythm of that at a certain speed and it just dictated a riff, if you want.  There are no rules.  And also there is so much to write about in this world. Some of its funny, some of it’s tragic. There’s always something to write about because the world is evolving and we as people should evolve with it as we get older.”

At Good Call Live we love our local talent and we love finding emerging new artists.  I love listening to new upcoming punk bands and I have found that mid to late 70’s English punk sound showing up in quite a few bands and surprisingly these are very young bands.  It’s like a whole new generation have discovered their dad’s vinyl collection, including The Stranglers sound, and are embracing it.   Do you still find the time to keep an ear out for new or upcoming artists? 

“I do and there are too many to mention. But I have noticed that there seems to be continuity from way back.  The demographic of musicians has changed but the attitude hasn’t, which is good. There are a lot of younger bands here,  who have taken on the mantle from way back, and the attitude, which I think is really fantastic.”

I spoke with Ray (Ahn), from the Australia punk band The Hard-Ons, late last year and he said pretty much the same thing.  Back when they started they realised they could do whatever they wanted with their music and that’s exactly what they did.  They are still brining out music over 30 years later.

“Yeah, you shouldn’t be constrained by what other people are doing.  Be yourself.”  

Absolutely.  I think that’s exactly what Ray said.  It’s the younger bands that are coming out today with their own sound that are making an impact because it’s unique.

It must make you feel proud knowing that you have created, and are creating, something that has not only had such an positive impact on music but also is continually standing the test of time? 

“Of course, ultimately it’s a form of communion isn’t it? If you are successful, success is lettered by how many people you touch, who you touch, so if you touch a few people and inspire them then you’re handing your DNA along aren’t you.  So that’s got to be so good.” 

You are supported on your tour by a Novocastrian Punk band Gooch Palms.  Have you had time to have a listen to them? 

“Is it a couple? A male and a Female?”

Yes.  They are so much fun and full of energy.  I saw them in December when they supported Aussie band Grinspoon.   They are so unique, you will love them.

“Yes I saw a video when they were just sort of standing next to each other and not even dancing in time.  It was refreshing.  Really, fresh and innocent.  Is it just the two of them or do they have a band behind them?”

Just the two of them and they have a big sound for a two piece but the fun is contagious, you can’t help dancing along.  

“I saw them just a few days ago. It was hilarious, it looks fun.”

Your Live semi-acoustic album, ‘Acoustic in Brugge’ is a great listen, I love how the songs translate so well to acoustic. 

“A lot of it lends itself to that because the more melodic stuff can be transferred to an acoustic/semi- acoustic and it really works.” 

Will we be treated to any acoustic highlights on this tour?

“No not on this tour, we would have to bring completely different equipment to do that.  That’s a separate thing.”

With four and a half  decades under your belt and 18 albums it would be almost impossible to choose the set list for a tour.  How on earth do you decide what to play?  

“We change it almost every night, because we can.  There’s nothing worse than seeing a band go through the motions and singing the same thing every night, telling the same jokes every night, doing the same thing every night.  That would kill me. It’s not really in my philosophy, I don’t like to do that.”

I know there are the popular songs everyone loves,  but I’m wondering if after all these years you have a few favourites that you like to play live?

“Of course we all have our favourites but when fans come to see The Stranglers they want to hear the songs they know most of the time.  Sometimes we will slip in a new song which hasn’t been recorded yet just to test it out but, for example, if I went to see the Beach Boys I’d be really disappointed if they didn’t play I Get around or Good Vibrations.  You shouldn’t be too self indulgent, there is a balance to be found.”

Are there any new songs or an album coming out in the near future? 

“Yeah we are right in the middle of a new album.  We’ve been recording for the last few months in between shows but you can’t just switch on and off between concerts and suddenly go into song writing mode, it takes a bit of time to get over it.  Yeah we are in the middle of it. We’ve mixed a few songs and we have quite a few more we are working on.  We’ve recorded five or six”. 

The Stranglers kick off their Australian tour in Perth on 5 February taking it around the country to Melbourne, Sydney, playing The Tivoli in Brisbane, Sunday 9 February and finishing up 11 February in Adelaide.   To have such an iconic and influential band of the 70’s punk era still touring and producing amazing music is something any music fan or musician should not miss.  

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