published: 10 /
With punk-survivors the Stranglers enjoying something of a renaissance on the live circuit, Denzil Watson catches up with the band’s gregarious guitarist/co-frontman Baz Warne for a chat, about their Spring 2016 'Black and White' tour
This March, The Stranglers, arguably the longest-surviving and most successful band to come from the punk era, set out on an eighteen -date tour of the UK in what has become something of a tradition over the last few years.
Enjoying something of a live renaissance, they have repeatedly packed-out increasingly larger venues. This spring when they take to the road again, the band will be playing the whole of their iconic third album, 'Black and White'. In our second interview with him, Pennyblack caught up with their co-vocalist and guitarist Baz Warne, fresh out of rehearsals, for about how preparations were going ahead of their 'Black and White' Tour.
PB: How are things in the Stranglers camp?
BW: Very well indeed. We’ve just come back from an intensive two weeks of rehearsals down in the West Country for the 'Black and White' album tour. It was probability the hardest rehearsal period me and JJ have done in quite some time. It really took it out of us. So, I’ve come back home and am relaxing a bit and then I’m going back down for another week in a fortnight’s time, just to recap on things. So, all well and looking forward to the tour.
PB: In the past you’ve done 'themed' tours but I think this is the first time you’ve done an album in its entirety.
BW: On a tour it is, yes. When we played the London [Stranglers] Convention in 2011 we played ‘Black and White’ all the way through with the exception of one song, which at the time we just couldn’t get right.
PB: Didn’t you have enough time?
BW: (Laughs) You’re a card! Yeah, we didn’t do ‘Enough Time’. This time we are. It’s taken quite some work to put it together. When you listen to it as a musician there’s a lot of things going on in there that are not particularly natural.
PB: When you get to the end of the song are you all going into slow motion?
BW: We’ve got something worked out for that. That’s something that you won’t know whether it works until you get into pre-production. The first gig’s up in Perth, Scotland [March 3rd], so we’ve got a few days up there in pre-production and that’s when we’ll find out if that works or not. We’ve got our bit sorted so it’s down to the sound-effect, so that’s down to the front-of-house and the sound guy. So, fingers crossed on that one.
PB: I suppose one question is that you could have chosen a number of albums to play in their entirety. You could have gone for ‘The Raven’ or, say, ‘Rattus Norvegicus’, so why ‘Black and White’ as it isn’t an easy choice from a playing perspective, is it?
BW: No it’s not. I mean, really, if you look back at our set lists from recent years we’ve included pretty much all of ‘Rattus’. Off-the-top of my head, there’s only ‘Ugly’ that we’ve not really played very much. There are a lot of songs from ‘No More Heroes’ that we’ve done. Back in those days you were given three or four albums to develop and because most of the songs on ‘Rattus’ and ‘Heroes’ were recorded at the same time, that’s such a massive body of work. ‘Heroes’ only came out six months after ‘Rattus’.
‘Black and White’ was more a case of “Let’s de-camp to a lodge in the woods with all our equipment, lots of drugs and piles of alcohol and the four of us will bash this out from scratch.” With it being the third album, they were given a little bit more time as the first two albums had been such a success, but I think they were trying to plough a more commercial path.
There’s always been a commercial edge to the Stranglers' stuff in my opinion, unless you really want to get mean and moody like ‘The Gospel According to the Meninblack’. ‘Black and White’ is the first Stranglers album that I actually bought.
PB: I guess you’d be about fourteen or fifteen when it came out right?
BW: I was fourteen, aye. I remember going into the town and buying it and then that lead me back to the first two [albums]. I was completely absorbed in playing guitar myself so it was a bit of an arse-about-tit way of doing things, but that’s the way it was for me.
PB: I was exactly the same. I bought it on cassette as it had an extra track on it, the week it came out. And then I did exactly the same thing and went back and bought the first two albums.
BW: You look at the cover and you just think to yourself, “What a cover”. Jet had just been on a four-day bender, JJ is just his normal kind of scowling self in a “You’ll get nothing out of me” sort of way. They were just a closed book back then and an unknown quantity. And I think the starkness of the sleeve just reinforces that. It did for me and I’m sure it did for you.
PB: Yeah, it was just such an iconic sleeve. On the publicity shot for the tour where you recreate the album cover with you in place of Hugh Cornwell you chose not to bow your head. Was that a conscious decision?
BW: Yeah, it was conscious. I get compared to him and always will do until the day I die, I imagine. There are factions and there are camps and then there’s probably a dozen proper die-hards who talk on-line who would prefer to see me dead. All-in-all people are just very positive. Come 2017, I will have been in the band longer than Hugh Cornwell was anyway. People always want to see the originals and I completely accept that.
PB: When we spoke last time, I think I said to you I saw the band at the end of their tenure with Hugh, and then later with Paul Roberts (vocalist, 1990 -2006 -Ed), but live it’s the current line-up that have excited me the most.
BW: Well thank you for that. I know that a lot of people do forget that the mid-to-late 80s were just a wasteland for the band. That’s why we chose not to play songs from that period because they haven’t dated very well. Take the drums for example. Jet wasn’t playing live drums back then. It was all programmed stuff, and, fuck me, you can tell. Plus the song-writing quality had subsided, they weren’t getting on with each other and they were a pretty miserable bunch at that point, and people forget that.
People always hark back to the glory days and that’s human nature. I completely tip my hat to the man. I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for him. Once I’d got into learning his parts and trying to get into his kind of psyche, which I think you’ve got to try and do for some of the songs, I’ve got untold respect for him. And, like I say, as I said to you last year, I’ve heard through the grapevine that he’s got respect for me too. I don’t know how true that is as I’ve never met the guy. So, I don’t know.
PB: Let’s come back to ‘Black and White’ again. There are a number of songs on the album that have got quite complex instrumentation on them. Like, for example, X-Ray Spex’s Lora Logic playing sax on ‘Hey (Rise of the Robots)’. I guess some of these songs are going to be a bit of a challenge to play live, right?
BW: Well, it’s an album they’ve lived with for forty years and it’s been part of my life since I was a kid. It’s hard to explain unless you are a musician. But I’ve listened to that album so many times that I instinctively know where the songs are going, what the bits are etc. It’s just a matter of working them out.
One of the only problems we encountered, big time, was some of the mixes are a bit of a dirge. They weren’t all together in the same room at the same time towards the end, and JJ told me he’s got vivid memories of sitting with a razor blade and an editing machine with the producer slicing the tapes up and editing things and piecing things together. So, that’s why quite a lot of the songs have got quite an unnatural and stark feel to them. And when it comes to replicating these things live it’s not always easy. But, you know, we did a lot of homework individually before we convened and then we played it over and over and over again. For two whole weeks, tumbling into bed at nine o’clock is not my style. But after six hours in a room at high volume with those songs it just takes it out of you. It really does.
PB: Are you going to try and replicate the album or are you going to put a Stranglers 2016 spin on it?
BW: I don’t think you can help but put a modern spin on it. We’ve got a different drummer [Jim MacAulay] for a start. I’m not the guy who sang and played guitar on it. Hence we can only do our interpretation of it. But looking at the dozen songs that are on that album there’s nine of them that we have done regularly live over the years anyway. So, really it was just a case of polishing up on them and then going into the other three which have never been particularly performed live much apart from the early days. Put it this way, I came away from there [rehearsals] on Friday and drove home with everything going around in my head, and I was confident and pleased with everything we had achieved.
PB: Presumably you are going to split the vocal duties where JJ does the songs he sang and you sing the ones Hugh Cornwell did the lead vocals on?
BW: Yes, we’ll do exactly as we have done before. He sings his and I sing Hugh’s. One of the more pleasing aspects of the whole evening for me will be where we get to the second part and there will be quite a bit of new material from my tenure, so we get to play some of the newer songs as well.
PB: You’ve sort of answered my next question already. I think the playing the album in full gigs are, on one level, really good as you get to hear a body of work exactly how it was intended to be heard, but other people may say it is boring and a bit predictable, so I just wondered if you have got some little surprises like interesting B-sides from the era that just make it a bit less predictable.
BW: Probably not B-sides but certainly some slightly more obscure stuff. Little bits and pieces, so yes, there will be some surprises. Not least the production and the lightshow we’ve got planned. It’s going to be quite spectacular and it’s going to be a game of two halves. We’re all confident about it. Looking at the set-list from start to finish for the whole evening, ‘Black and White’ only encompasses forty-five minutes at the very most, so we’ve got to flesh it out. We were keen to play some stuff that you don’t hear all the time.
Bearing in mind that in these very large crowds there are quite a few aficionados and real die-hards, but really a lot of them are just Joe Public and whichever way you slice it, they want to hear the hits and the songs that they know. So, in order to keep it interesting you have got to pull a few bits and pieces and little tricks. We’ll see how it goes. That’s all we can really do.
PB: ‘Black and White’ is a really lauded album isn’t it? I read something John Robb wrote and he said it was the best post-punk album of all time. and it’s also been claimed by others to be the very first post-punk album. That’s quite a big mantle for it, isn’t it?
BW: Yes, and I can completely see that. It’s not punk. It’s got quite a lot of the ethics of punk but the Stranglers weren’t a punk band anyway. They were just around at that time. I mean, the bass player was a punk, but Jet Black was a fucking ice-cream man in his 30s and Hugh was a biochemistry student who had just come back from Sweden.
I’ve said it before but you put the four members of the Stranglers in a room with fifty other people and then ask a novice to go and pick them out and they’d never do it. It is a very critically acclaimed album and it is one that has stood the test of time. If you sit back and really analyse it as a musician with a view to playing it live, some of it is as rough-as-fuck but therein lies a lot of its charm.
PB: It works really well with the light side and the dark side, even though the white side is still pretty dark.
BW: It can be. I think what they were alluding to with that was in terms of the commerciality of the tunes. Some of them on the white side are a lot more accessible, but the subject matter is still a bit dark.
PB: White side or dark side?
BW: For me it’s the white side. That’s probably a bit predictable but it’s got ‘Rise of the Robots’ on it which is probably one of my favourite tunes but again you go on the dark side and you’ve got ‘Death and Night and Blood’.
Off the top of my head, I can’t really remember but does side two start with ‘Toiler on the Sea’ or does the dark side start with that? You just look at it as a CD now. My original [vinyl] copy is buried somewhere in my record collection.
PB: ‘Tank’ is the first track on the white side. Followed by ‘Nice ’n Sleazy’. What a start, eh?
BW: Yes. What’s the first track on the dark side?
BW: That’s a great song. We've played that for many years.
PB: With subjects like the Cold War, immigration and state control it’s still an incredibly salient album, isn’t it?
BW: Did JJ Burnel have a premonition or was it the state of the nation back then? Things haven’t changed that much in forty years, have they?
PB: Just coming back to the tour itself, you’ve got a good mixture of large venues and some a bit off the beaten track. You’ve got Manchester Apollo and Brixton Academy. I bet you’re looking forward to taking the tour to those two venues, aren’t you?
BW: Yes, because I personally haven’t played Brixton before. I’ve been there. Manchester Apollo I did play once with the Small Town Heroes before I joined the Stranglers as support many, many years ago, Folkestone Leas Cliffe Hall and places like that. Salisbury, we did a few years ago which was enjoyable. We’re starting in Perth, Scotland. We played there a good few years ago. I’m pretty sure it was in the Roberts-era so it’s pre-2006.
People like music everywhere and there is the established route and venues, and, of course. you have to go to these places but it’s nice to go to these other places as well which is why we have started doing some short-ish mini-tours in the summer. Places like Reading, Hull, St. Albans and Swindon, places where you get really enthusiastic crowds where bands don’t visit very often.
PB: I think that they are grateful that you’ve made the effort to come over their way and they warm to that.
BW: We get that impression from a lot of people. It’s really good.
PB: I’m guessing Jet isn’t going to feature on this tour, is he?
BW: Well, as I’ve said to someone previously, Jet is 77. He’ll do what he can do when he can do it. And he himself doesn’t know. It’s no good making best laid plans. We won’t know until it approaches, and in the past we’ve taken him on the road and he’s fallen ill, and we’ve had to make contingency plans.
PB: It would be pretty special if he was to make an appearance at the Guildford show, wouldn’t it?
BW: Well, if Jet wanted to do that and it’s entirely up to him, we’ll accommodate him as we always do, any way we can.
PB: One last question. How are things progressing in terms of plans for a new Stranglers' album?
BW: Well, we’ve been amassing stuff, as we do, for quite a while. I’ve been down to the south of France to JJ’s place twice last summer for writing and bonding sessions as we like to call them. We sit there with guitars and we work on stuff and we record it and put it to one side and work on it at a later date.
I probably said to you last year that we would be writing new material this year but I honestly don’t know. We weren’t really prepared for the clamours of people wanting to see the band, but the live shows have been steadily coming in and we don’t like to say no. It’s where you can be who you truly are, on the stage, and I think this year, I don’t know about a new album, but we’ll certainly be making much more headway in getting something new together,
PB: Baz Warne, thank you very much and good luck with the tour.