Interview with Baz Warne
published: 24 /
Denzil Watson speaks to Stranglers co-front-man and guitarist Baz Warne about both the past, its recent tour and also the future of his influential group
How many bands can claim to have reached an artistic renaissance thirty-nine years into their career? Well, probably not too many. The Stranglers certainly can though. The band’s diary is bursting with live dates including their first visit to the States for twenty years. Their recent extensive 22-date tour of the UK packed out sizeable venues up and down the land, and last year’s ‘Giants’ album, their seventeenth studio long-player, is soon to get a full US release. Not bad for a band that started out of a Guildford off-licence in an old ice-cream van and then later re-invented themselves after the loss of their iconic guitarist/front-man of seventeen years.
Few bands over the last five decades can boast such a fascinating and varied legacy as the Stranglers and few ever will be able to. Pennyblackmusic caught up with co-front-man/guitarist Baz Warne mid-way through their ‘Feel It Live’ tour to talk about the past, the tour and the future of one of Britain’s best loved bands.
PB: Are you pleased with how the ‘Feel it Live’ tour is going so far?
BW: Yes, very much so. We started off with four shows in Scotland which, as always, were fanatically attended. Then we did Liverpool, Leeds, Lincoln, Leamington Spa and Guildford and now it’s on to Brighton. And it never ceases to amaze us, as with subsequent years, that the attendances just keep going up. We played in Leamington Spa on a horrible, freezing cold Monday night, and 1,500 people turned out. And it was the same for Guildford last night. It is quite astonishing the fans that this band has and how fanatical and passionate they are. And partisan to a degree as well.
PB: Many hardcore fans on the band’s unofficial ‘Burning Up Time’ forum are raving about the tour, saying they are some of the best Stranglers gigs they have ever witnessed.
BW: As always, I get my fair share of knocks from those who just want to see Hugh Cornwell (the Stranglers’ original front man-Ed) who’s now been out of the band longer than he was actually in it which always scares us a little bit, but it is nice that they are saying that. If they want a band at all, if they want the Stranglers, then this is what the Stranglers is. We’ve got three of the original guys and we’ve got me. The original lead singer and guitarist is never going to come back. They are very partisan, those sites like ‘Burning Up Time’, but it is nice that they are saying that.
All we can do is just do what we do. We don’t pay any mind to what anyone says. There are not too many bands that can get 1,500 people rocking in Leamington Spa, is there?
PB: Indeed not. Given you are playing such a wide and varied set, do you have difficulty remembering or learning how to play any of the tracks?
BW: There’s a thing that we do called ‘Genetix’, and that is a little bit demanding. Not because it is difficult to play, but just because it’s an incessant peddling guitar riff, and it is one of those riffs that if you start to think about it too much or you don’t think about it enough then you will screw it up. And if you do it’s very hard to get back into it because the song just rolls along. It’s very punk-jazz, that song, and it’s very strange. So I would say that one, but not for difficulty.
I’ve always found ‘Walk On By’ interesting to play because of the great long guitar solo passage in the middle. Again, it’s not challenging. We did ‘Baroque Bordello’ two years ago on the ‘Black and Blue’ tour and it was a huge success. That is a very difficult song to play.
I think one of the most challenging things we’ve done on this tour is ‘Midnight Summer Dream’ which is a very Hugh Cornwell piece. I listened to various live versions of it and, not to put not too finer point on it, they were bloody awful. They were racing through it and there was no subtlety to it. We kind of brought the tempo back a bit and used electronic pads on the drums to make it sound like it does on the ‘Feline’ album.
To be honest with you, and I don’t wish to sound arrogant, I don’t find any of the stuff to be particularly challenging to play because it is all to do with the group and the collective vibe and what we can all bring to it. The entertainment value and performance aspect is as important as playing.
PB: I have now seen the original line-up and the second incarnation with Paul Roberts (who took over from Hugh Cornwell-Ed) fronting the band, and I think what has changed is that the pretence has gone. Now there seems to be a bit more honesty with it all.
BW: I would probably say that, yeah. Neither JJ [Burnel-bass and co-vocals] nor myself would profess to be the world’s greatest singers, but we can play a mean instrument and we can carry a tune. Paul was a classically trained singer who didn’t play an instrument so his voice was his instrument, and he did tend to get a little precious about it from time to time. Jon Ellis(Played guitar in the Stranglers between 1990 and 2000-Ed) was a great guitarist but not a Stranglers guitarist. And I just hope what I do is elements of all of these things. I’m a working class lad from Sunderland so any pretence I may have had got knocked out of me before I reached twenty-one.
PB: I remember when Paul Roberts replaced Hugh Cornwell in 1990 there was a real uproar even to the point that the band received death threats. When you were offered the joint front-man berth after he left did you accept it with a bit of trepidation?
BW: I suppose so. To be honest with you, it’s getting on for seven years ago, and we’ve done so much in that time I don’t really recall too much.
I do remember that towards the end of Paul’s time patience was wearing thin with everyone. Him with us and us with him as well. Although, I will stress that he was a very close friend with me, and unfortunately he’s chosen not to speak to me since those days. He would invariably be late for rehearsals and they wouldn’t wait for him. They’d just start without him and, of course, that constituted me singing until he arrived. I thoroughly enjoyed it to the point that sometimes I would, and I have never actually told anyone this, see his car pulling up outside and get a bit disappointed. Only because I was enjoying myself. I was really enjoying singing the songs, finding out if I could do it and it was just a different thing to do.
And I remember thinking “Here am I in the room with JJ Burnel, Dave Greenfield (keyboards-Ed) and Jet Black (drums-ed) and I’m singing and playing guitar and it sounds great.” And to those ends I think we knew if it ever came to it we could probably pull it off. So it came to be.
PB: I guess if you took a straw poll of the fans today they wouldn’t swap you for Hugh Cornwell now. That’s the feeling I get.
BW: Well that’s very sweet of you to say that. I can think of a few that always probably would (Laughs), but I think you’re probably talking the majority or lion’s share. No, I think this is the Stranglers. We’ve proven with the workload that we take upon ourselves, at this stage in our career, that there is no shirking. We’re out there and we hit it. I mean this is a 22-date UK tour and it’s the biggest since we got back together as a four-piece again. That was 2006, and this is now the sixth UK tour we’ve done, and it just goes from strength to strength.
I think if people want you and they are not getting bored and we’ve got seventeen albums to draw from, so we can put together an eclectic set as you could ever want and enjoy it. We do realise that there are certain songs that you’ve always got to play like ‘Golden Brown’, ‘No More Heroes’and ‘Peaches’ and things like that, but we also have got to keep ourselves happy. That’s where we get a little bit obscure and start to delve into the darker realms of the band’s material, which is always great fun to revisit. And as a consequence we’ve shown that we’re not scared to do that and that nothing’s sacred. We go out and do it if we want to. And I think our enjoyment radiates to the crowd, and they can see that we’re into it and how much we still enjoy doing it, and how much it means to us. And I think that rubs off and people come in droves.
Tomorrow night in Brighton it’s practically sold out and it’s a 2,000 capacity venue. At this stage of the game you don’t take any of it for granted and that is a privilege.
PB: I wonder how much of this upsurge is because of the fact that you’ve, arguably, produced the best post-Hugh Cornwell album in ‘Giants’? For me, it is a real return to form.
BW: Well thank you. We laboured long and hard on that. There were a lot of songs written that weren’t used as is always the case with bands. You write a huge pot of songs and cherry pick the best ones.
But in the middle of recording it we still went on tour. There was bereavement in the family, and one of the guys lost his mum and everything came to a stop. There were quite a lot of things that happened, but in the middle of it all we still managed to get together in the West Country in a cottage just outside of Bath with a little recording studio in it.
JJ and I would convene there. I was down there for three months without going home. Basically what you do is walk around all year round with your mobile phone humming little tunes, playing little guitar licks, writing titles down as and when they come and then when the time comes you collate it all. Then deconstruct it all, see if any of it is worth working on or see if it’s just a load of old shit. And out of those ashes comes a song and you get as far with it as you can, and then we get Dave and Jet on board and then we start really beating it into shape.
It took a while but we are really proud of it. I liked ‘Suite XVI’ but it’s quite eclectic. It’s still got one of the best songs on it that I’ve ever written called ‘Relentless’, which we still do live today. I love that tune. It still ranks as one of my favourites and one of the best that I’ve done.
‘Giants’, as a whole though, is a body of work that really stands up. As a consequence, it has now been released in Australia and we’re off to the United States for the first time for twenty years in June so there is still plenty to do.
PB: America seems to be opening up to the Stranglers again, doesn’t it? Do you think the forth-coming tour is a one-off or you can see yourselves returning to the States?
BW: Yes, absolutely. There is a plan which I can’t say too much about, but I think we may well find ourselves visiting the United States again later at the end of this year. I’m not entirely certain.
PB: The band once got all their gear nicked in the States, didn’t they?
BW: Yeah, that was a long time ago back in the 70s. That’s when Cornwell got his iconic Telecaster nicked. JJ went into an underground drinking bar somewhere in the East Village in New York, and his entire bass rig had been strapped together and was hanging from the ceiling from cables. You know, when you go into bars and there’s guitars, bits of gear and shit on the wall. So you’ve got “Stranglers, London, UK” written on this great big bass rig hanging from the ceiling. He got a bit of a shock when he saw that.
The band hasn’t toured there since 1993, and I haven’t been there in my tenure and coming up in April it will be my thirteenth year. I haven’t been there yet, so we’re very much looking forward to it.
PB: Are you starting to think about the follow-up to ‘Giants’? Have you been writing on the road at all?
BW: No, we tend not to write on the road so much these days. There’s too much to do and think about. We’re dedicated to delivering the best quality live show that we can, and there’s a lot of work that goes into that. And, of course, we’re not getting any younger. That’s not to say we don’t jam sometimes during sound-checks and little ideas sometimes spring up. But, given we’re working with a different drummer, if any jamming is to be done at sound-check it’s to rehearse old Stranglers material we’re thinking of putting in the set that he might not know.
There is still quite a pot of songs left over from ‘Giants’, and the reason that they weren’t picked wasn’t anything to do with them lacking in quality. What you try to do for an album is to create a vibe and make it a body of work. There were some songs that came along really well, but just didn’t fit and we couldn’t find anywhere to put them. You never waste a song. That’s not to say we’ll use a load of ‘Giants’ out-takes because we certainly won’t.
But yes, you’re always thinking about the next one. If there will be a next one. More than that, I can’t really say. We are thinking about it. We are talking about it and there’s been a load of speculation about whether we are going to release another album or not.
PB: I guess some of that surrounds a certain drummer called Jet Black, doesn’t it? A lot of fans are talking about whether or not the current tour will be his swansong.
BW: Well, for anyone that comes to see us I would have thought signposts in that direction are fairly obvious. I’m not saying at all that Jet will never play with the Stranglers again, but he is approaching 75. He now, on this particular tour, is managing to play about a third of the set. We have another drummer who plays the first part of the set, and then Jet comes on and plays, and then, at the end, they play together. It’s a bit radical for the Stranglers, but that’s the way things have progressed these days.
With all the best will in the world, the best diet, exercise regime and fitness, you just can’t cheat old age. It’s as simple as that. And I think if Jet wants to retire and Jet wants to stop, then Jet will. It’s Jet’s band to all intense and purposes. No one can force his hand. No one can tell him what he should be doing. But I’ve seen changes with him. I sat with him in the dressing room with him for an hour last night when everyone had gone, and he’s in absolutely fine fettle, in great form.
PB: I wonder if he’s got one eye on the fact that next year is the band’s fortieth anniversary? That’s a pretty special milestone, isn’t it?
BW: I would probably hazard a guess and say that there will be some things done then which will involve Jet, although at the moment we are solely concentrating on this year as there are so many things still to do. We’re doing a thing for the Proms at the Royal Albert Hall, so it’s going to be a very busy year.
But the one thing I will say about Jet, and I know him very well, is that he will not continue because he wants to continue if it is to the detriment of the Stranglers. He wants it to be as high in quality as it can be. He came in last night, and said that he sat at the side of the stage watching us with the other drummer, and he was just full of praise and compliments about how tight it was. So, you know, I guess at some point if the band is to continue then there has got to be a baton passed across, and it would seem to me that that time is probably getting close, although it is not quite upon us yet. To be honest with you, anything could happen with this band. It’s always been that way.
PB: You say that anything could happen. Could you envisage with the fortieth year anniversary celebrations any sort of collaboration with Hugh Cornwell?
BW: With Hugh? Well, if there was it certainly wouldn’t involve me. I wouldn’t be interested in anything like that. I’ve never met Hugh Cornwell. I do know that he had some very complimentary things to say about myself which I’m flattered by because he is obviously more capable than me with his old cohorts. If they wanted to collaborate with him, that would be up to them. I must be honest in knowing what I know, and say that’s a very remote possibility. And that’s me just thinking out aloud after what you have just said. It’s never been mentioned. I would be very surprised.
PB: Whenever you look on the forums, there’s always somebody asking the question as to whether Hugh Cornwell will ever play with his former band-mates again and the wise heads always say “no chance”.
BW: There’s no chance. From my point of view, and to be honest
with you, in this line-up I’ve become such an intrinsic part of it, and we are tight together that the boys would think of it as a betrayal to me.
PB: It’s funny because if you listen you sound like Hugh Cornwell but you don’t sound like you’re trying to sound like Hugh Cornwell, if you know what I mean? It just sort of works.
BW: If I could sing like he can, I’d be a very happy bunny. I think he’s got one of the most iconic, instantly recognisable voices in British pop in the last thirty-five years. But he can’t play guitar like I can. I can play guitar much better than he can. But he’s a much better singer than I am. So there’s your swings and your roundabouts. I try not to sound like him, but also I don’t want to go off into my own little realm. The songs that we play are classics and deserve to be treated as such.
PB: I think that may have been the problem with Paul Roberts as there were albums with him singing on that didn’t sound like the Stranglers, apart from, perhaps, ‘Norfolk Coast’.
BW: Yeah. It’s a difficult balance to address because, on the one hand, you don’t want to have one foot stuck in the past or be thought of as a heritage or nostalgia act, although a lot of the time we rely on old material. We’ve still got plenty to say and anyone that joins a band, even an established band, wants to put their own spin on it and make your own contribution. With a band like this where you’ve got such instantly recognisable bass guitar and keyboards, it’s always going to sound like the Stranglers anyway, I think.
My style of guitar playing is closer to Hugh’s in that you can’t get fancy Dan, although I can do all that stuff. I just like to put on a battered old Telecaster and hit the living shit out of it. And that’s what this band requires when we play live. We call it the ‘Black Blitzkrieg’. And you know, that’s what it is.
Arghh! I can never get away from the fact that I’m filling somebody else’s shoes, but people really ought to get their fucking heads round that he left the band twenty-three years ago and he was only in the band for seventeen years. There were a couple of people when we played Guildford last night, the birthplace of this band, and they were shouting Hugh’s name and it irritates the other boys in the band as much as it irritates me. And I have to say, whatever you read or whatever you see on the internet and all these sites, they are very much in the minority. But I’m from Sunderland, and I’ve got thicker skin than the whole of this band put together.
PB: Thank you very much for your time, Baz.
As a postscript, a week after talking to Baz Warne, I managed to take in the band’s gig at Nottingham Rock City. The venue is just shy of a sell-out which is no mean feat for a cold Tuesday evening in March. The 22-song set drawing from twelve of the band’s seventeen studio albums only confirmed what I’d read on the forums. Here is a band indeed at the top of their live game.
Perennial favourites (‘Nice ’n’ Sleazy’, ‘Golden Brown’, ‘Always the Sun’) sit next to more obscure song choices (‘Thrown Away’, ‘Genetix’, ‘Norfolk Coast’) with no dip in quality. In fact the inclusion of ‘Thrown Away’ and fellow ‘Men in Black’-period single ‘Who Wants the World’ have the crowd in raptures. The loudest cheers of the night are for a fantastic rendition of ‘Duchess’, the true lost pop gem from their ‘The Raven’ album. And, predictably, when Jet Black takes the drummer’s stool for the remainder of the set. If anything, after Mr Brian Duffy kicks off the final third of the set with the syncopated drumbeat of ‘Genetix’, it all goes up a gear with him behind the kit. Earlier, the three tracks from ‘Giants’ stood shoulder-to-shoulder with old favourites such as ‘Grip’ and ‘Peaches’, reinforcing just what a strong album it is.
The set is as varied as it is comprehensive. Tellingly, the whole of the band’s 90’s output, ‘10’ and the four Paul Roberts-era albums, are (perhaps understandingly) ignored. JJ Burnel and Baz Warne’s joint front-man act works well, and what a joy it is to see (and hear) Burnel once more singing the songs he used to sing when Cornwell was in the band with such aplomb (‘Thrown Away’, ‘European Female’, ‘Bitching’). Dave Greenfield, almost wizard like behind a rack of three keyboards, sips water while holding down unfeasibly intricate keyboard runs with one hand. Okay, so there’s no ‘Hanging Around’, ‘Five Minutes’ or ‘Down in the Sewer’, but that holds testament to how rich, deep and varied the band’s repertoire is that classics like these can be left out without any detriment to the set.
At the end of the set there’s still time for three encores, including a true-to-the-original rendition of ‘No More Heroes’ that almost blows the roof off Rock City and a final double-drummer propelled ‘Tank’. If this is to be Jet Black’s last tour then the ‘Feel It Live’ tour sees him signing off in style with the group he started in Guildford back in 1974 at a live and artistic peak.