BAZ WARNE ON TOURING, ORIGINALITY AND LEMMY

Bethan Shuff || February 2nd

‘If one of us dies, the band will stop’ Baz Warne, frontman of punk-rock band The Stranglers promised me.

Baz looked out of the window where the band was staying, in Somerset. ‘It’s a beautiful winter’s day with the sun beating down and life is good. We’re about to rehearse again this afternoon and it couldn’t be nicer.

Warne will have been a member of The Stranglers for 17 years this year, replacing two former lead singers. He said how when Robert’s left in 2006 it was a bit of the shock and ‘we weren’t entirely sure what to do, whether to replace him with another singer and keep the band as a 5-piece or for myself and the bass player [Jean-Jacques Burnel] to go back to vocals as a 4-piece again. We tried it and it seemed to work really well.

Although Baz still sees himself ‘more as a guitarist first and a singer second’ he has grown into the role of a singer. For the first six years of being in The Stranglers, Baz said he ‘just stood at the side and played guitar and sang backing vocals… I could concentrate on showing off and getting hold of my skills. As the years progressed, now it feels like it’s always been this way to me. It works all very well and we just sort of hit the road very soon after as a 4-piece and we haven’t stopped.’

Back in 2008, bassist Jean-Jacques Burnel made a comment about a semi-retirement for The Stranglers since Jet Black, the drummer, fell ill. Baz assured me that the comment was ‘half a wind-up anyway, that’s the sort of guys we are. I don’t think it ever really crossed our minds to kick it into touch but there have been a couple of occasions round about that time when Jet Black the original drummer was taken ill so we stopped for a while, we didn’t really know what to do and subsequently we played with two incomers. We have too much fun to stop. You have my word on that, unless one of us dies. If one of us dies, the band will stop.

Despite the rumour of packing up their gear, The Stranglers will be taking the UK by storm this spring with a massive 19 date tour in March and April. I asked Baz where he was most looking forward to playing. ‘I look forward to them all, I just love to play. But if you put a gun to my head it would probably be Glasgow. There’s just something very, very special about a full Saturday night Glasgow dancehall crowd. They’re absolutely mad up for it. Glasgow sold out weeks ago. It’s always the first gig to sell out.’ He added, ‘I’m from Sunderland but we play Newcastle, it’s nice to play there because the family comes and my brothers and my children and stuff.’ I’ve heard a few bands mention that playing hometown gigs is like playing a gig in your living room, Baz laughed ‘It kind of is aye, a big living room. If I don’t look down in the first three rows and see 20 people I know, you know.

I’m sorry to disappoint you Stokies, but The Stranglers haven’t scheduled us in, but I think we can let the guys off for not actually realising the The Victoria Hall was still running as a venue. Baz said ‘we haven’t played in Stoke for many many a year, it just never surfaces on the itinerary. We’ll look Stoke out and I’ll make a special point of mentioning it for you and we’ll come back.

Jet hasn’t played a show with The Stranglers for some time now, and unfortunately it’s very unlikely that he’ll be making an appearance on tour, he is nearly 80 after all. ‘With all the will in the world as much as we’d love to see him on a stage behind a kit again; if that happens I don’t think anyone would be more surprised than him. Every once in a while we’ll turn up at a venue and he’ll be sitting there backstage come to say hi and then he goes. Even though he’s given us his full and unabated love and blessing to continue, he handed the drumsticks over in a great Jet sort of style… But I know that if I had to stand and watch somebody else play the guitar it would probably get to me a little bit.

The Stranglers seem to love nothing more than touring. Baz sees it as ‘one of life’s great pleasures’. The band gets to travel the world and play their music. Last year they went down to Australia and New Zealand and the gigs there were off the map. ‘When you’ve got the opportunity to do something like that, why would you want to stop?’  

I’m sure all bands have their rebellious, hilarious tour stories, but a British punk-rock band from the 70’s is bound to have stories better than most. Because Baz was fairly certain I wouldn’t be able to post some of his antics, I was graced with a beautiful and heart-breaking story about our very own Stokie, Lemmy, from Motorhead: ‘It’s always nice to bump into people. We bumped into Lemmy a couple of years ago, we played with Motorhead at the Eden Project in Cornwall. JJ and Lemmy go back many, many, many years and we hadn’t seen Lem for a while and we knew he wasn’t very well. Because of where you play there you get into sort of a golf buggy and they take you up through these trees back to the dressing room complex which is an old stately home in the grounds and when we got there Lemmy was standing outside. It was lovely to see him again. We see him and we wave to him and he always shouts things but we never really had a chance to talk to him. I was looking at him and the Lemmy I know was strong and robust and full of piss and vinegar. He didn’t look well, he looked ill and when we said goodbye to him we all said I’ll be surprised if he’s around much longer. And so it proved. It was really sad but in a way it was nice to see him and give him a cuddle because I hadn’t cuddled him for years. The next thing we knew we were on tour in Germany, in Cologne and they [Motorhead] were there as well; he didn’t come down out of his room because he wasn’t very well and the next thing we heard, literally 10 days later was that he’s gone.’

Baz tells me that one of the bands favourite things about touring is choosing what songs go in the set list. ‘We’ve been down here in the studio in the West Country now since Monday and we’ve had some great fun this week just picking all the songs out. Songs that perhaps the band haven’t played for many years some songs that the band have never played and of course we steadfastly refuse to jump on the nostalgia but we still write and record new material so there’s some of that as well. Before we go on the road that’s a great thing to be doing, we’re here now messing through the songs.’

He added ‘That 5 minutes just before the band take the stage when everybody’s out front and anticipation levels are up and the lights go up and you hear that roar its quite something I’m looking forward to that.

I like the sound of new material, however it doesn’t look like we’re going to be hearing anything brand, brand new on tour this time. The Stranglers’ music writing process takes a long time, from just jamming with a glass of wine, to really deconstructing it. ‘It’s like a skeleton. You get the skeleton of it and then you start hanging the meat on it. That can take a long time and everybody has to be in tune with it and into it. We don’t all live in the UK anymore so even just getting together to do that can be quite difficult. We did talk last year of some new material but we never got round to doing it. This year I would say almost certainly at some point.’

To me, that sounds like an album could be on the cards for 2017/18. It’s something the band really wants to get around to doing because it’s important to them. ‘It’s been five years since the last one, so we really should get out fingers out and get it sorted.’

More and more young bands are emerging, and it’s great to see them being inspired by bands like The Stranglers. Baz’s advice to an up and coming band is this: Be Original.

I think first and foremost The Stranglers were extremely fortunate because they hit upon a signature sound right at the very, very beginning. I think it’s important to strive to be as original as possible. I know that a lot of people want to get two guitars, a bass and drums and leap around like Greenday making a nice punky noise and then it’s kind of like ‘who is this’, ‘ I know they’re good but I don’t know who they are because they just sound like everybody else.’ So to me I would say just try to be as original as possible and also hustle and hassle gigs. Play live as much as you can and try and hold an original sound.

You can buy tickets for The Stranglers’ tour here.