It’s not often a band produces one of the finest albums of their career 44 years after their first hit, but The Stranglers have always been a unique proposition. Rising from the UK punk scene of the mid-70s, the band quickly established themselves as their own thing, due in no small part to the melodic basslines conjured by founding member Jean-Jaques Burnell as well as Dave Greenfield’s singular and baroque keyboard sound.
Now, nearly five full decades after their formation, the band – Jean-Jacques Burnel, Baz Warne and Jim Macaulay – are heading back on the road to support Dark Matter, their 18th studio album that saw them achieve one of the highest chart placings ever, proving that even after all this time, they’re still as relevant and essential as ever. That success has been bittersweet though, with the tragic passing of Greenfield during the recording of the record last year. They very nearly finally called it a day as a result, but instead pushed on to finish what has become both a tribute and an epitaph to their fallen brother.
This is the first Stranglers album made remotely, how did that work?
Baz: “We had started off with ten days in a studio together back in early 2019 but spent the rest of that year touring around the world, so never had the time to continue it. Then of course, Covid hit and horrifically we lost our beloved compadre and keyboard player, Dave Greenfield. We really didn’t know what we were going to do, but it became apparent that we should finish the album at the very least. That threw up a lot of questions on the technicalities of how we would do it, but we all have studios in our houses, so the engineer coached us through it and of course we had the luxury of time, with no constraints or deadlines. We worked diligently on it, but it wasn’t easy not being in the same place as each other, so that it came out as well as it did is a testament to how much of a team effort it was. We were united in our grief, but there was a freedom there with the lack of deadlines.”
How much of the album does Dave feature on?
Baz: “We had worked on eight of the tracks in various stages with Dave, but it soon became apparent we hadn’t got everything out of him that we needed, so the keyboards were augmented, as everybody knows, but the essence of what you hear, especially the very strong lead lines, that’s all Dave. It took a good two or three months before we could contemplate doing anything though, to be quite honest. It was an awful time, but once we started listening back to what we had already done though, it was quite obvious that it had to see the light of day. He played some fantastic stuff on those tracks and it’s also both a testament to him and an epitaph too. A lot of people have said and it’s something we agree with, that the album is also a really strong collection of songs in their own right as well. That’s another thing to be proud of for us. We came out the other side and yeah, there are a few little sentimental bits on there, but so what? F*cking shoot us. We had to express it and get it out somehow. We have this hard men reputation for whatever reason, but that’s how we expressed our emotions and we’re very pleased with it. It’s a very bittersweet thing, though. A lot of people have suffered great loss during the pandemic, so that was just our own way of dealing with it.”
JJ: “When you’ve been involved with someone for over 45 years, It’s a huge loss, not only as a working colleague, but as a member of the family. The f*cker even actually lived in my house for over nine months at one point, until I told him he could find his own place. He honestly hadn’t thought of that, so was like ‘yeah, okay.’ Dave was on the autistic spectrum, which some people really struggle with, and others thrive on. He was one of the latter, but he also didn’t have any filters, so he wouldn’t realise that you were falling asleep when he was taking an hour to answer a simple question!
Baz: “Dave looms large over the whole album, as he always did. He was a huge part of what people would class as The Stranglers’ trademark sound, both him and JJ, so to lose one half of that was very difficult, but his presence very much looms large still. I’ve got pictures of him down in the basement where my studio is and I see him and hear him every day, one way or another. We’ve all agreed that he would have been very proud of it, too. We know he would, as we knew him extremely well.”
Can you tell us more about the tracks that were written after Dave’s passing? Was it a cathartic experience for you to pay tribute to him in that way?
Baz: “Well there’s And If You Should See Dave… obviously, but there’s also the one after it, If Something’s Gonna Kill Me (It Might As Well Be Love), which starts with the line ‘Innocence has left this house’, which is a direct reference to him. It’s no secret that Dave had Asperger’s, which made him a true English eccentric in every sense of the word, but it also gave him a wide-eyed, innocent view of a lot of things. There’s references to him peppered all over the album actually, but those two in particular are very specifically about him.
It was a very cathartic experience, but it didn’t feel like that at the start. It was more like ‘oh no, I don’t know how I can even face this, never mind do it’, which was really hard to get past. There are a couple of tracks that were quite close to completion when we lost him, so when I first listened to them after that, particularly The Last Men On The Moon, it was really difficult for me to listen to. I got myself all geared up for it and I just couldn’t do it. I had to go back to it a few weeks later.
A loss like that could only be devastating for everyone, was there any thought to calling it a day at any point?
JJ: “There’s been lots of times over the years I thought we had reached the end of The Stranglers, where I never had a thought to carry on, like when Hugh left or when Jet’s health was starting to fail. Both of those times, it was Jet who said ‘no, we carry on’ and when he couldn’t play drums anymore, he was the one who said ‘I’ve got just the bloke for you.’ When Dave broke on through to the other side, after the initial shock, all we wanted to do was finish the project, but with no plans for touring it or anything more. That was our only priority. But then our agent called to say that we were selling more tickets, so we realised that a lot of people still wanted to see us. Dave being Dave, had inspired so many musicians to study him and I had actually played with one of those disciples in the studio about 20 years ago, so we auditioned him over Zoom and then he met up with the rest of the band in person. His playing wasn’t in question, but he had to fit with the band and get on with everyone too, which I’m pleased to say he did brilliantly. Dave has left the biggest shoes to fill, but we know now that we have the guy to step in. We can never replace him and wouldn’t want to, but he’s left a legacy which can now be followed.”
The Stranglers could easily settle for being a heritage act, but instead you have a Top 5 album. How important is it for you to keep challenging yourselves to create new music?
Baz: “The one thing we are adamant about is that we’ll never become a heritage act. I’m not knocking anyone who does it as people have a living to make and if there’s a market for it, f*cking go for it, but we write new material and we still have something to say. I think people want that too, as Dark Matter went Top 5, which is the first time a Stranglers album has done that in nearly 40 years. There were a few champagne corks going off in my house the night we got that news. We are still very much in contact with Pam Greenfield, Dave’s widow too of course, so there were some emotional phone calls too. It’s a cliche, but The Stranglers are a family. We fight, we argue but there’s a deep bond and love there, so no matter what, we get through it, because that’s what families do.”