‘I’m sure it’ll put people to sleep, this conversation’, laughs JJ… ‘Don’t worry’, I say… ‘this part of the conversation is just for us’.

We’ve been discussing all things bass guitar – amps, strings, pickups et cetera.

First Rule of Bass Club…

Sranglers bassist JJ (Jean-Jacques) Burnel is with me, (on my iMac screen – my plane ticket to the south of France for a face to face mysteriously not having arrived.) It’s around ten PM and winter where JJ has lived for several years and the poor bugger is just getting over the effects of what seems to have been a pretty severe cold. It’s around six AM in Sydney, where I am, and JJ is wondering what’s in the shot glass I keep sipping from this early in the morning.

‘What are you on there? At this time?’ He says with a bemused look.
‘Cold espresso’, I tell him. ‘Ah. Right. OK. Caffe.’

So, we’ll keep our (enjoyable) discussion of all things bottom end for another article, but the thing we can talk about here is that JJ and his band The Stranglers are heading our way for a run of shows in April of this year, following the release of the rather excellent Dark Matters album. It’s their seventh visit to Australia since their first, shall we say, controversial visit in 1979.

What do you recall about that first tour? (Laughs) “It was fantastic! Fantastic – I’ve been dining out on that one for forty odd years mate! (Still laughing). Mike Willesee (host of the daily TV show A Current Affair and Molly Meldrum (host of Australia’s most popular music show of the time, Countdown) – they did us so many favours! I’m really grateful to those two for having banned us, just fantastic! Thank you very much”.

They seemed to look at the band and just decide you were trouble, right? Pre-conceptions of what a ‘punk band’ would be. And they asked great questions like ‘Why are you called The Stranglers?’ “(JJ’s shaking his head and laughing) I remember that! You know what? Let me tell you something about that: Mike Willesee sends a cub reporter to the airport to interview us – in a private lounge – it’s the first time we’ve been there and we’re really excited and he says:‘So, you’re The Stranglers.” And he asks those questions, about the name et cetera. and then starts saying ‘come on, be outrageous!’ And we say, ‘no, really, cool it’. He keeps saying ‘be outrageous, say something outrageous’. And then someone finally says ‘oh fuck off’ and in a flash he turns to the camera man and says excitedly ‘Did you get that?! Did you get that?!’ ‘That’s it! A wrap!’ That’s all they wanted. (Willesee then famously screened a censored version of the interview that evening after pre-warning his viewing audience of what a shocking, outrageous and disgusting band The Stranglers are. Molly Meldrum then called in to say he was banning The Stranglers from his show and cancelling their
appearance stating that they were not the kind of band they wanted on Countdown.) ‘Overnight we sold out the whole tour’ (Laughs).

Your popularity, as it is in the rest of the world is still very strong in this country, owing to all the touring you do. Are you on the road or in between tours right now? “We just finished a northern European tour, played in Belgium, Holland, Denmark, Sweden Luxembourg, Germany and yeah, we’re taking a break now. We’ve been pretty active over the last few years, despite the lockdown. Last summer was really busy with festivals around Europe. And just before the lockdown we were in Australia, Japan, the States. So, it’s a welcomed break. It also gives you a chance to collect your thoughts”.

The Stranglers’ most recent album, Dark Matters, is a great record. Although it was just yourself and Dave Greenfield (who passed away in 2020) from the original band, on the record it still has the signature Stranglers sound. I guess it has a lot to do with Dave’s keyboards and your bass, both always very prominent features in the music. How are you finding it now with Dave also gone? “Thank you. It was our most successful in a long time, you know? I think in over thirty five years (laughs) not many people can say that. I don’t know if one can be superstitious or just claim to be lucky but… I mean, Jet (Jet Black, original Stranglers drummer, passed away in 2022 after a long illness) had been increasingly absent and over forty-five years we’ve had eight different drummers when Jet was poorly because he was poorly quite a lot, he had bad health. We were amazed he lasted so long. So, we’ve got a drummer now (Jim Macaulay) who Jet actually mentored and pushed forward.

And Toby (Hounsham) – the new keyboard player? “I didn’t realise that he’d been a disciple of Dave’s’ for thirty-five plus years and he’d been listening to every single fucking note he played. And in recent years when Dave had his arthritis or he was just too wrecked to play or (smiling) he’d play all the right notes but not necessarily in the right order (laughing), Toby plays them in the right order. So, if you shut your eyes it sounds like Stranglers. We’re lucky to have that continuity”.

Any plans for another album? “Not at the moment, but I’ve got about four-hundred ideas… I just need to make sense of them. There’s no shortage of ideas. (Referring to song writing) I never just write a full song, I write loads of ideas on to a bit of paper or onto a recorder and then at some point, when I’ve got time to unscramble my brain, I try to make sense of them and most of the time just discard them ‘coz they’re shit (laughs), but sometimes there’s something that you feel you can get your teeth into and that’s the basis for another song. But you don’t want to repeat yourself. I think, you know, we’re kind of getting nearer the end of our lives, and I’m not saying that in a morbid way, but we are, and we haven’t reached our sell by date yet, although a couple of members already have, so I think the important thing is not quantity, it’s something that has a bit of value. I know that’s easy to say, I mean, Stranglers have produced eighteen albums. The last album was a big success – and – (with an amused expression) if we hadn’t released it the same week as Ed – fucking- Sheeran or Adele or Drake we would have had a number one on our hands. But we did. (Laughs) So, (with a new album) it’s not just what you say, because there’s enough to write about, but what you hang it on, and how you deliver a message. And that gets harder”.

Well, judging by the last album it sounds like there’s still a bit left in there to come out. “Bit like squeezing out the bottom of the toothpaste tube” (both laughing)

Going back to the very beginning, how did The Stranglers kick off and what sparked your becoming a bassist, specifically? “It was an accident, really. Driving back from the club where I did karate one night, I stopped to give a guy who looked like what I considered a ‘hippy’ a lift. I had short cropped hair, Doctor Martens, leather jacket. This guy turned out to be an American draft dodger who’d come from Sweden with his band, a sort of R ‘n’ B band, and they’d come from Sweden to the UK to… find their fortune. So, I dropped him off and he said ‘come on up and meet the rest of the band’, so I met the rest of the band and then went off, not thinking any more about it. And a couple of weeks later I was at home in my bedsit with my guitar out and there was a knock on the door and it was Hugh (Cornwell, original Stranglers guitarist/singer). And he said ‘hey the rest of the band have gone back to Sweden because they found life is too hard in the UK’ – and this was in the early seventies when it was shit, England was shit. And it’s returning to that now actually, with all the strikes and stuff. Anyway… so I welcomed him in and he saw my guitar and he said ‘Oh, our bass player has fucked off back to Sweden but he’s left his bass, would you like to play with us?’ I said (shrugs shoulders) ‘Alright’”.

That was it. “That was it. I inherited a Precision Bass that way. It’s a 1963”.

Wow. Not a bad inheritance. “It was a great inheritance! Because now Adam Clayton (U2) wants to buy it off me and it’s unplayable! Unplayable. I’ve smashed it up so many times, it’s horrible. He’s ‘we’ll buy it!’ So, I’m … ‘well… we’ll negotiate that’”. (Laughs)

That’s a great story. What were you listening to in those days? Or maybe still listen to. Like maybe the Glam rock (Slade, Sweet, T. Rex) stuff that was big around those times? “No, I like that now you know, I actually think a lot of that stuff’s great, – great singles- but at the time I was a bit too snobby. I liked The Doors, Captain Beefheart, the West Coast (LA) stuff. The Who, of course, I grew up with The Who. Oh, and The Yardbirds. They were a really important band for me. In fact, now every Thursday I play with Jim McCarty of The Yardbirds”.

You do? Does he live near you then? “Yeah. He lives in a village three of four villages down the road from me in Provence. He’s fantastic, he’s still a good drummer. He still goes out as The Yardbirds occasionally too, only in America though I think. Jim’s just great. We just play for the fun of it, old blues stuff actually and it’s just a great education for me to play with someone that’s got more experience, you know. I mean, I grew up in England at the time when there was the British blues boom, so I saw Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac before their first ever record, and Free before they were called Free. They were called Black Cat Bones. In a pub! In front of about fifty people. As a kid. I’d be smuggled into that pub. So, playing with Jim McCarty is just great though we cancelled rehearsals last week because of Jeff. (Jeff Beck, original Yardbirds guitarist who passed away the week before JJ and I spoke). They were very close’”.

We’ve lost another one. “Yeah, you know, you’ve gotta embrace it. Coz, you know it’s… it’s inevitable. So, don’t be afraid, embrace it. Which means also, you don’t have time to make too many enemies but also… (raises fist, cracking up) fight for the right to party! (And now we’re both laughing).

‘Enjoy the moment’.

The Stranglers head to Australia and New Zealand for the following dates in April:
13/04/23 – Isaac Theatre Royal, Christchurch
14/04/23 – The Opera House, Wellington
15/04/23 – Great Hall, Auckland Town Hall
18/04/23 – The Gov, Adelaide
19/04/23 – Northcote Theatre, Melbourne
21/04/23 – Princess Theatre, Brisbane
22/04/23 – The Metro, Sydney
23/04/23 – Cambridge Hotel, Newcastle