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Wingmen - Interview

  by Denzil Watson

published: 26 / 4 / 2023

Wingmen - Interview

Best known for being a Strangler, whom he’s been with from 2000 and fronting since 2006, big-hearted Sunderland-born guitarist Baz Warne found himself with time on his hands during Covid. Then a phone-call came out of the blue from tourmate and Ruts DC guitarist Lee Haggerty and proved to be a ‘Sliding Doors’ moment. Within twenty-four hours a virtual band was formed with Lee, Paul Grey bassist with Damned and Johnny Moped drummer Marty Love. Almost immediately, the band started working on tracks via the internet, that would become the basis of their freshly released self-titled debut album Pennyblack’s Denzil Watson caught up with the band’s gregarious guitarist and vocalist for a chat just prior to Wingmen embarking on their debut nine date English tour. Pennyblack Music: How the devil are you Baz? Baz: I am absolutely peachy, Denzil, thank you, my friend. And it's nice to see you again. We’ve just been zeroing in on this tour now which is, I have to say, very unexpected because the whole thing was done purely and simply to stop us from going up the bloody wall during lockdown. PB: That’s funny because I interviewed someone else recently and they were an artist and they actually said they enjoyed Covid because it gave them that creative space. Baz: Well, I have to say, that whoever that was, hit the nail on the head. If I’m honest, it was like a giant reset button being pressed. Before things took a desperately awful turn for the worst with losing Dave (Greenfield, Stranglers keyboardist), the first month of lockdown was an absolute joy. I know that it was a worldwide global pandemic. I know that people would die, and I know that there was horrific panic and the world literally did come to standstill economically, socially and everything. It was a real crisis, but for me it was a chance to stop. I was getting up every morning and not having to worry about anything apart from whether my elderly mum was okay. She was in isolation in Sunderland. She didn't see any of the family for four months and was locked in this little granny flat that she lives in and that was all a little bit worrying. But from my own selfish, personal point of view, we’ve got a really nice little house with a lovely space out the back. And thankfully, the weather was nice. And we couldn't go out. There was barely any traffic on the roads. There was nobody coming to the door. It was quiet and we were very fortunate in that we just learned to relax. I got to install a studio, learn how to operate it properly and learn how to record properly, which is something that it eluded me for years. So, yes, the early period of Covid wasn’t a Godsend, but once we’d got into the swing of it and learned to deal with it, it was good. You know, I suppose that that’s like a personal trait in a way for a lot of people. PB: If you’re in this situation, are you going to sink or are you going to make the best of it? BW: Yeah. Up until that point we still had Dave with us and there was a lot of talk of making a new Stranglers album. And, in fact, after the British tour of 2019, we went straight into a recording studio in April of that year, because we’d been playing new material live on the road and we wanted to capture it while it was still fresh, so we had that in the can. Then we lost Dave, then we reassessed everything and that’s how it started to come about with the Stranglers’ thing. But, of course, that was a very, very long, slow process. I mean, JJ (Burnell, Stranglers bassists and singer) now lives in the south of France and I’m up here in Yorkshire and the rest of the operation is all based down in Somerset. The drummer lives in Birmingham. Dave at the time lived in Cambridge, so it was very difficult to get any progress made and that's where the Wingmen thing started PB: I think there's a few artists who have actually had albums that have come out of Covid as it’s given them the space to create something. Do you think Wingmen would have occurred if Covid hadn’t occurred? BW: Absolutely no way. To be honest with you, that’s the first time anybody’s asked me that and immediately I can tell you it wouldn't have happened. I’ve been friends with Lee Haggerty from Ruts DC and we have been mates for a good decade or more. And he just called me one day out of the blue. I think it might have been in the summer once. JJ and I fell off the map after we lost Dave. I just switched my phone off. People don’t generally switch the phones off. They put them on silent. My phone went off and so did his because I couldn’t deal with it. It was such a horrible shock. And of course, everybody wants to send you good wishes, which is lovely. PB: But they’re losing a musical hero. They’re not losing a close friend. BW: I mean yeah, Dave was like my wacky old uncle. I’d known him for a very long time and JJ had known for twice as long, so there was a lot of pain involved. And so the phone went off and we just vegetated in our own little bubble. And then I got a call, probably in the summer of 2020. Or was a 2021? I can’t even remember. So, Lee called me and said “I've just had a phone call from Paul Grey”, who of course I knew from The Damned, Eddie and the Hot Rods and UFO. A very established bassist, a great player. And there was another guy, Marty Love, who was the drummer in Johnny Moped. They’d just made an album with Captain Sensible as the Sensible Gray Cells and literally Martin had rung Paul and said “Do you fancy doing something because I'm going insane here?”. Paul then phoned Lee who they’d both wanted to work with before and asked him “Do you know anyone who might be interested in singing and playing some guitar? Who would you most like to work with?” And flatteringly, Lee said me, which was which a very nice compliment and totally unexpected. Lee just literally rang me day and I was sitting out the back, hanging out in the garden. The phone rang and it’s Lee Haggerty. And he said “Do you want to be in a band?” And I said “Yes!”. I didn't even need to think about it. Twenty-four hours later, after Martin's initial idea, we had a band, and then they started sending little bits of files. I hadn't met Paul or Martin at this point. They started sending files and things. Obviously, Paul’s got a little bit of a studio set up at home. I've got quite a good one here. I have to say, it took quite a while to get it together, but it’s very workable. I did a lot of The Stranglers stuff here as well. And we just started firing ideas backwards and forwards and before we knew where we were, we had three songs. We did it all arse-about-face as because normally you put the drums on first. PB: Yeah, I read in the press release that you put the drums on last. BW: Aye. Everything was done to a click track at home. I roughed up a drum machine template of how I thought it might go. And then we booked a studio in Reigate in Surrey, which is where The Sensible Gray Cells have done the majority of their stuff with a guy called Richard Crippen, who is better known as Dick Crippen and the bass player in Tenpole Tudor. And then he went on to be in a band called King Kurt. So, when we got in the studio, there was quite a wealth of knowledge and experience in there, and that was the first time that I met the guys. We put the drums on the three tracks and gave a rough mix to them and all-of-a-sudden it was like, “Wow, this actually sounds pretty good. Should we do some more?” And before we knew where we were, we had twelve tunes all ready to go. Ten of which have made the album. Two have been held back for a single bundle thing which should be coming out at some point. It was really exciting. And the best thing about it was there was absolutely no pressure. And I didn't know any of the lads apart from Lee. And it was very exciting when you'd get a text saying “I’ve just e-mailed you some files” and it’s like “Ooh, I wonder what this sounds like?” And so then you go in and you sit with your own interpretation and before I knew where I am, my wife’s coming downstairs with me dinner and she goes “You do realise you’ve been down here for seven hours, don't you?” PBM: When you look at the line-up, it's like a who’s who of punk rock/new wave, isn’t it? BW: Well aye, I know people are saying that, but we’re desperately trying to stay away from the ‘super-group’ tag. PB: I guess that does bring a bit pressure with it a little bit. The thing that struck me was I was thinking it's going to be quite punky/new wave-y, but I’m getting more of an R&B and Rock n’ Roll vibe than punk rock. BW: It’s not punk rock. Because of the nature of how it was recorded and because we didn’t think that there would be any concerts. There were certainly no gigs and at that point, not even an album. We laid it on with a trowel, I mean there’s loads of guitar parts on there. I did all the backing vocals. There’s masses of banked backing vocals. I was just having fun in my home studio. PB: It’s not like you are looking at the clock on the wall in the studio. BW: Absolutely. And, of course, you're sitting at home and you've got nothing to do because it's Covid, so it was fantastic in that respect. But then, of course, when it comes to the possibility of doing some gigs, you've got to then strip it all back and pare it all down. So, I guess that when we play live, it'll be raw and there will be more power to it. I'm listening to the album every day, getting my chops up-to-speed and practicing. And I must say that I do really like it. But it's not punk. There’s nothing in there that’s shouty and fast. PBM: Yeah. It’s very melodic. I've written a few things down here and I was getting a little bit of The Who and The Small Faces. BW: (Laughs) Okay, well I can live with that! Yeah. Yeah. PB: I also really like the way you've basically been on the inside, looking out what's happening in the world and it's quite England-centric. There’s Brexit in there and, of course, Covid and the strain it has put on the NHS. It's like a snapshot of where we were at that extraordinary point in time, isn't it? BW: Yeah, that's a really good observation. Basically, you always kind of tend to write what you see. And you are stuck in this situation where things really are going to shit, you know. This country, never mind the rest of the world, was and is going in the wall. The economic and social repercussions of all that are still far reaching. It's like a ripple effect on a pond. I think it'll still take quite a few years for this to all calm down. PB: In terms of the song writing, did one person write a song and then introduce it to the rest of the band, because you couldn’t be in the practice room jamming, were you? BW: No. The initial thrust came from Paul who sent eight or nine ideas over which he’d amassed – some written for himself and some written for The Damned. And then I had a song called “Brits”. I was sick to death of seeing people complain about everything, so I just did a slightly tongue-in-cheek thing with the riff that I had that might have been used for a Stranglers song. As a musician you never throw anything away. That is very dangerous. Even if it's just a snippet. On the last Stranglers album, we had little bits and pieces of things that go back a decade easily, you know? So, Paul wrote quite a lot of the songs including ‘Oh! What a Carry On’ and ‘Down in the Hole’. And one of my favourites, which is a song called ‘Would If I Could’ which I really like. PB: That’s the one about the NHS, isn't it? BW: Yeah, that's the one. He sent that to me and it was extremely rough. He wouldn’t mind me saying it. Apart from the arrangement, as the arrangement was there, but we re-did all the guitars, re-imagined or repurposed the chorus and I sent it him. And literally ten minutes later he rang me up and he said “I don't think anyone's ever done an interpretation of one of my songs as good as that”. So once we established that, we really had a rapport, even remotely, which is a bizarre thing, I won't say it got easier, but then again, it was never hard. More a labour of love. And if there was no technology that existed, this this wouldn't have happened. And there's a couple of things that we sent and people umm-ed and ahh-ed over, but never any arguments or any crap, you know. We've played together a few times now and we did a launch in Greenwich in London just before Christmas, where we had to play six songs. It was supposed to be acoustic. I was the only one that played acoustic guitar, but we were all sat on stools if that makes it acoustic. And it was a real cobbled together thing. But we only we played together for the first time ever on the Saturday afternoon and then played in public on the Sunday afternoon and it was great. I mean, none of us are spring chickens and we all know what we're doing. So as long as we all keep our own ends up, it seems to come together really well. PB: I've had two or three listens to the album now and I really like it. It's really contemporary and there's some really big choruses. Take ‘The Last Cigarette’, for example. It explodes into the chorus. Do you remember The Long Ryders? BW: Very well. Do you know something? When we were at the launch, there was some music being played in the background and looking and it was ‘Looking for Lewis and Clark’ Now, I hadn't heard that for years. Sid Griffin was always great. PB: So, I was getting a Long Ryders meet The Who vibe on ‘The Last Cigarette’. BW: Okay, well, again I can dig that. It was one of Paul's tunes, and then I just kind of reimagined it a little bit. PB: With songs, the first thing you see is the title and sometimes the song title sounds a bit boring. And then sometimes you think “Oh that's quite an interesting title. I really want to hear that.” So Louis Smoke the Bible’ is definitely in that latter category. PB: Well, I won't go into too much detail about that, but suffice it to say that it's about a very, very dear and good close friend of mine. And he actually did rip a page out of the Bible. He wouldn't mind me saying this because he's an atheist through and through. It's all about being in a hotel room with all the wherewithal to smoke a joint, but the only thing he didn't have was the skins. So, he looked in the bedside cabinet and there was a Gideon Bible. And to his eternal shame, he ripped the page out of The Book of Genesis I do believe. When he told me a few days later, I just about wet myself with it. I thought it was one of the best things. And that's a good few years ago. And I've kept that. I thought that deserves to see the light of day definitely. PB: And again, I love how it builds up, then bang, there’s that massive chorus with the brass. Is that real brass? BW: It is, yeah. In actual fact, when I was writing it, I wanted brass on it and I've got some pretty good brass software at home. It's never going to sound like the real thing and just to get the idea across, I put some keyboard brass on it so the boys could hear where my thoughts were going. And I think what they did was when I was on the road with The Stranglers, they repurposed the brass with better samples and then they got a couple of horn players to put real brass on it and then mixed the fake brass down a little bit. So, when you when you put the real brass up front and a little bit of the fake brass behind, it really does sound like a big old brass section. There is also brass on ‘Oh! Want a Carry On’ as well. PB: As soon as you hear the title you think of the Carry-On films. BW: It's very English. PBM: It reminds me of The Small Faces a bit. BW: Yeah, I can get that as well. Again, in some of the reviews I've read, people have said that it’s The Damned, The Ruts and The Stranglers all rolled into one and that you can hear all those elements. And I kind of like go “Well okay, if that's what you can hear, that's what you can hear”. The whole idea wasn't specifically to get away from our parent bands. It was more a case of what comes out is what comes out. PB: And there are some pretty explicit references of Brexit. When you talk to people who voted for Brexit they go “I voted for Brexit to take back control.” And it’s a bit like, “Erm, what exactly are you taking back control of? High inflation, or not being able to get hold of stuff?” And they have no answer to that question. BW: Well, I’ve had quite a few, I won't say arguments, let’s say heated discussions and conversations with people about this. As soon as you say that to them, “Listen man, what the fuck have you got control of? You tell me one good thing that's come out of it”. One good thing where you where you've regained control, and I will gladly hold me hands up, you know. I do know a few people who did vote Brexit and I'm not going to fall out with them. Everybody's got an opinion. But I go out on my motorbike from time-to-time with a gang of lads from the North East, who I've been friends with for decades, and a couple of them voted Brexit and one of them in particular who I love and is a great guy voted Brexit and he just says “Well, you know, these things take time” and I kind of go “Okay, I can see that implementing something so huge would take time”. There's wrinkles to iron in everything, you know, but surely there should have been some much more stringent guidelines before they even contemplated it. How long's a piece of string? I don't know. PB: You mentioned the song ‘Brits’ and that made me chuckle. We've got this image of being seasoned complainers, haven’t we? BW: A nation of complainers and in actual fact, I'll probably put myself in there as well. PBM: (Laughs) That was going to be my next question! BW: Being English, you complain about everything. You just do! PB: “You know, when I booked this holiday and I looked in the brochure, the lining of the pool was blue. And I've got here and it's green.” BW: (Laughs) “I specifically asked for a cake. And what you've given me is a pudding. This is a pudding. And I want a cake.” PB: (Laughs) “But it's a nice pudding.” BW: “But it doesn't matter. I want cake!” PB: It’s a fun song and it did make me laugh. BW: It's very tongue in cheek. I like to put a few little barbs in there just to sting people, you know? And I and I would love the thought of someone listening to it and going “You know what, that’s me. I do that”. That’s always your aim. PB: I think my favourite song on the album has to be ‘Down in the Hole’. I really like that. BW: That’s one of Paul’s things and that’s him playing all of the keyboard lines. I didn't expect it to come out half as good as it did, if I'm honest, because lyrically it's extremely simple. It’s all about depression and that kind of thing. PB: I think the music takes you there. Depression's a downward spiral and you can actually feel the keyboard spiralling down. BW: It swirls down, yeah. That's the one that the record company choose to put out as a little teaser. And the initial feedback we got from that was “Wow, if the rest of it sounds like this, then who knows?”. That brings me to another thing, Paul played all the keyboards on the album and there’s quite a bit of them too. His mum was a piano teacher, so he's much more proficient than I am. My keyboard playing consists of finding the chord, recording it and then stitching them all together. If you isolate the track, it doesn't particularly sound organic, but it sounds great in context of the tunes, so I did quite a lot. When it comes to playing live, it’s a case of “Oh shit, we need a keyboard player”, so we called Rob Coombes, Gaz’s big brother. Basically, what happened was one of the guys that we know was working with Supergrass during the summer and Paul saw them live on TV playing at Glastonbury. He was raving about the keyboard player and sent a message out to the group saying “Does anyone know how we can get hold of the guy in Supergrass?” And I went “Well, actually I think I might be able to”. So I got a message out to Rob via our mutual mate and lo and behold, he said he was interested. I sent him some stuff and then I got a long message back from him saying “I just love this. This is great, you know?” PB: The keyboards are quite fundamental to the band’s sound, aren’t they? BW: Yes, yes. I mean, me and Lee probably would have probably had it as twin guitar, punk rock/ACDC kind of vibe. And in actual fact, when you listen to the album, Lee is on one side and I'm very much on the other and I was quite specific about that. I love the interplay between two guitars, especially if you listen to it in your earphones, because I haven't played with another guitar player in a band for a quarter of a century. It's always been The Stranglers and just one guitar player. So, it was very interesting to write parts and do things with another guy who's just so good. You know, between the two of us, we came up with this thing, but then the keyboard question was there, and it was “Well, we really do need a keyboard player”. Anyway, to cut a very long story short, Rob said that he was interested. And then about a month or six weeks ago, I got a call from him saying “Listen, why don't I come to your place one afternoon? He's down in Oxford, so we're all over the map. He drove up here one afternoon. There's a knock at the door and I open the door and there's a guy who I've never met before with a keyboard in his hand going “Hey, hi”. So, in he came and within the course of about four or five hours, it became apparent that not only is he a great keyboard player, he's a lovely fella. And so, we've got we've got a little quintet of, and I'd put myself in this bracket, five easy going, easy to get along with blokes. I mean there's usually a twat in every band, but that doesn't appear to be in this band so far, so only time will tell. We've got to go on the road yet. I don't know. PB: It all started from a way of passing time and a way to get your creative juices flowing and it's now come to an album. Is it now just a question of seeing how it all goes and then whether you do something else? BW: Absolutely. You've hit the nail on the head. The Damned have got a big year this year. I'm away through March in Europe and then off to New Zealand and Australia with The Stranglers. And then we've got a break in May. And then June, July, August and September are always festival season. So, the idea is to see this goes well. We’re really just dipping our toes in the water to see what it's like, which is why we're playing small places. But of course, no one's ever heard of us before in terms of a group so you would play small places. It would be a bit presumptuous to book Hammersmith Apollo, if you know what I mean? So, we've got some nice little club gigs, and if it goes well, the next window of opportunity would probably be the autumn or early winter. PB: I've got a feeling it is going to go well. BW: Well, I like the cut of your jib sir! PB: And that’s just purely on the basis of the album. Let’s be frank, the album's absolutely fantastic. BW: Well, thank you. If we can hold our end up and reproduce it live. We've got three days rehearsal Sunday, Monday and Tuesday and then the tour starts next Wednesday. But everyone to a man I know, has been playing live for the last few months. Once we get in that room together, barring pestilence, plague or flood, it should be good. The only worry that I have personally, is that there's only eleven original songs that we're going to play. PB: Which was going to be one of my questions. Are they going to play any songs from your constituent bands? BW: Well, we are. They will be obscure, to it to a degree. And we’ve got to pepper the set with covers. PB: And I suppose you've also got to be democratic, as there's four bands in there. BW: Well, I'm not going to say too much about it, but we’ve had to do that because eleven songs does not a headlining set make, you know? There’s going to be some banter. There's got to be at least ten minutes of that! PB: You're well quite well-practised at banter. BW: (Laughs) Oh yeah, I can do that and hold my own That’s 25 years of doing the North East working men's club circuit. That's what that is. Swim or die. Definitely. PB: When you say covers, do you mean your assorted band's songs? BW: Well, there's two songs from parent bands, one of which is pretty obscure, one of which isn't. And then there's a couple of covers. We're all big fans of The Stooges so there's a Stooges song in there and maybe a Bowie thing. We've got quite a list of covers so once we get into the rehearsal room next week we’ll see. Some of the ones that we've been rehearsing, and I’ve been practicing at home might not work, so then you've got to come up with a new idea. What we're hoping to do is to achieve about 75 minutes. Between 60 and 75 minutes. After all, I don't want people to feel that they're being short-changed in any way, but we are a new with only a limited amount of stuff. So, I hope people understand that. PB: I have to say, I love the name Wingmen. Your logo is great as well, but how did you come up with it? BW: That was me. Guilty as charged. There were a few names that were being bandied around. A couple of which had already been used, bizarrely. We didn't even have a name for months because we were just four blokes writing songs then all of a sudden it was like “We really should have a name”. And it's like “Should we? Bands have names, are we a band?” So, I was just thinking about all of our parent bands and how sometimes, even though we all are very important members of our parent bands, none of us are original. And so, sometimes, you do you do feel a little bit like a wing man. PB: Thank you for taking time to speak to me and all the very best with the tour. BW: The pleasure was mine, thank you Denzil.

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Bringing together members of The Stranglers, The Damned, Ruts DC and Johnny Moped, Wingmen recently completed their debut tour showcasing their acclaimed debut album. Lead singer, guitarist and Stranglers’ frontman Baz Warne chatted to Denzil Watson about the group’s progress

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