Interview with Baz Warne from The Stranglers playing in Bristol on 19 March 2016Posted on: 31 Jan 2016
Viv Kennedy interviews Baz Warne, who, along with the rest of The Stranglers, will play Bristol’s O2 Academy on Saturday 19th March 2016.
The Stranglers will be playing the O2 Academy in Bristol on Saturday 19th March. The gig is part of the band’s now traditional March tour and will feature their 1978 album Black & White played in its entirety plus a selection of favourites old and new. I recently rang guitarist and vocalist Baz Warne for a quick chat, which in typical Baz style, turned into a lovely, long conversation.
Good afternoon Baz, how are you today?
I’m good thanks, nice to speak to you again, how are you doing?
I’m good, although it’s a bit grey and gloomy here today?
You’re in Bristol today?
Yep, right in the centre.
It’s a city that’s very dear to my heart. I lived in Somerset for about four or five years and used to go into Bristol a lot; it’s a nice part of the world. I’m sorry the weather’s not good though, apparently it’s like that all over the west today, but I’m in the north east and, believe it or not, the sky’s blue and the sun’s shining!
Well that’s just not fair. When do you head down this way to rehearse?
We’ve just done a couple of weeks; we’ve got a place 10 miles out of Bath that we use.
I got back here on Friday actually. I’ve got about two or three weeks at home now, just preparing, doing a bit of homework, and going through life really, picking the grandchildren up, going shopping, you know, all the usual stuff. Then, middle of February, we reconvene for another week and the tour starts a fortnight after that. It’s all busy, all go.
If my maths is right, which is by no means guaranteed, I reckon you were 14 when Black & White was released…
How very astute of you! Yes, I was. I remember jumping on a bus with my pal to go down into Sunderland town centre, which was just a little provincial town in those days, and I bought it, went home, played the living **** out of it. It actually pointed me back to the first two albums…I’d bought the third one first but soon got the other two on the strength of that.
Yes, I was 14, and my God that feels like a long time ago.
In your wildest dreams, could you have ever imagined then that you’d be touring with the band, playing that music, some 38 years later?
Not in a million years!
I’m nearly 52 now and I still think about that sometimes, in my more reflective moments. I’ve been in the band so long now, almost 16 years, and we just get on with it, it’s what I do, they made me feel at home and part of it since day one…but every once in a while I’ll sit down with a guitar, or I’ll look across the room at one of them, and think to myself “Jesus Christ, if you’d told me I was going to be doing this when I was sitting on that bus, smelling the album sleeve on the way home and reading the liner notes…” and here I am. It’s a strange old world!
You’ll have to excuse me if this question is naive, but bear in mind that I don’t have a musical bone in my body – I read an interview with JJ in which he said that he doesn’t play the same way he used to play and that the music from this album has been a challenge – is it particularly difficult to play? And does having some level of challenge keep it interesting?
Very good question. Yeah, there are definitely certain parts of it that can be challenging to play. As someone who came in from the outside, so to speak, if you look at it analytically, with a view to learning it, to play it, professionally, in front of an audience, you can hear on the record that there actually were four of them in a room together, with headphones on, all watching each other.
Of course, they were an awful lot younger then. It staggers us when we listen to the record…sometimes we put it on for reference…how fast it was. How fast are those songs? You think to yourself “Jesus Christ, I can’t play that fast anymore, my bloody arms will fall off!”
But, after a fortnight in a room, with your head in that space and the mindset right, you do raise your game. I think in a lot of ways it’s subconscious because you are striving to get it to sound as good as you can and as accurate to the record as possible.
It’s never going to be 100% accurate, I mean, they didn’t perform the songs in the same way when they did the Black & White tour, when it came out, they were stretching out and expanding and stuff, but we do try to keep it as faithful as possible.
He’s right when he says he doesn’t play it the same way, but it still sounds the same. I think The Stranglers have always been masters of making something that’s very simple to play sound deceptively difficult, if that makes sense?
That sounds like a good skill to have…
Yes, it really is. I’ve sat over countless years learning the songs that I’ve been asked to learn, thinking “Oh Lord, I’m not looking forward to doing this” and then “Oh, is that all it is; it’s so easy”. It’s just the way it’s all been thought through and recorded.
Put it this way, we played in a little rehearsal room together for two weeks, six hours a day, quite high volume, playing that stuff over and over and over again, and when we came out at the other end and it was time to go home we were all feeling very pleased, very satisfied.
All we can do is a 2016 interpretation of a 1978 album, sonically it sounds almost exactly the same. I mean, you’ve got the same bass player, the same guy on keyboards, and I’m very faithful to the guitar part…even though I like to put my own spin on things, I’m respectful enough to accept that it’s their album and you can’t really mess with that **** too much, you know what I mean?
It includes the cover Walk On By, and by the way I think you were robbed when you came third in that BBC poll of best covers ever, you definitely should have won…
If you weren’t allowed to play it ever again but had to choose another song to cover instead, what would it be and why?
Ooh, another song to cover? I always thought we could do a really sexy version of Green Onions, you know, by Booker T and the MGs (Baz sings a few notes down the phone). We could make that sound evil. It’s got a real growling Hammond organ and some twangy Telecaster guitar…that’s just off the top of my head, I’ll probably put the phone down and think “no, why did I say that?”
No, it’s a good choice. That should be your challenge for the 2017 tour.
Yeah, ok, I’ll bear that in mind but I’ll put it to one side for now!
I suspect you’re looking at the CD version of Black & White, we’re trying to replicate the vinyl album, which is just 12 tracks, but we are going to play Walk On By. It’s one of my very favourites. I know it’s a cover but if you listen to it, it’s just amazing, the keyboard solo for instance…you’d never get anyone doing that these days but Dave Greenfield is fantastic. It’s a work of genius. I listen to that sometimes, still, and I marvel.
I’d be really disappointed if you didn’t play it; it’s one of my favourites too.
It was announced before Christmas that Jet wouldn’t be joining you at all for this tour – how are you all feeling about that now and, most importantly, how is he?
He’s very well. Thank you for asking. I spoke to him about a fortnight, maybe three weeks, ago. I don’t speak to him all the time, because he prefers to be just left alone, but he is very much a presence in our little band. If he doesn’t physically turn up to play that’s because he doesn’t feel up to it or he just can’t, but he’ll do whatever he can, when he can. He’s given us his blessing over countless tours – we haven’t played a whole tour with him now for years.
As he gets older, and he is kicking the arse of 80 now, he gets more pragmatic than he ever has been. The drummer is supposed to be the engine room of the band and when you’ve got a bass player like JJ Burnel, who you’re supposed to lock in with, it’s very difficult. It’s difficult enough when you’re 30, which is the age of our drummer now; every so often I notice him puffing and panting, because it is a real workout.
Jet will always, in some way, shape or form, be part of what we do and part of the band. It’s his band, he started it; he was the one that got all the balls rolling in the early days. You got to give him a lot of respect for that.
It must be hard for him, I’ve said that to him on several occasions. To be doing what we’re doing at our ages, it’s hard for all of us, but we’re all still 21 in our heads; that will never change.
In the past he hasn’t come abroad with us but when we’ve done the British tours he’s been there in the room and it must be tough for him to sit and watch a younger man doing what he can’t do anymore. That would really rankle me.
Thinking back a few months to November, there was obviously a big event in Paris that shocked everybody (the series of terrorist attacks that resulted in 130 deaths, including 89 at the Bataclan Theatre where the band Eagles of Death Metal were playing). Has that had practical implications for your tour and has it made you feel differently somehow about performing live?
You do ask fantastic questions; I must say that.
We were in France when that happened and in fact had been in Paris just 10 days before. We’ve had quite a lot of experience of the Bataclan; we’ve played there a few times. I had a birthday there about five years ago, actually on the night of a gig. So we know the intimacy of the place…the lay-out of the place…
We were actually in Strasbourg, just about to finish the French leg of our tour, and we couldn’t believe it. It didn’t just touch the French people of course, it touched the rest of the world too, and with the…the…sorry, you’ve actually knocked me into a bit of a loop with that one.
No, it’s fine, it was just a very emotional time. With technology being as it is, you can watch these things unfold there and then. We were sitting in our hotel rooms, glued to the TV and I still can’t believe it. Apart from anything, I just can’t understand why people would do that to other people, in the name of whatever cause…to innocent people.
The merchandising guy, the English merchandising guy that was murdered…he wasn’t known to us, but he was known to a couple of our crew, because they’re a tight knit bunch.
At subsequent shows, in Germany, Belgium and Holland, we had an armed presence at all the gigs, actually unbeknownst to us at the time, it wasn’t something that we’d asked for or demanded or any of that stuff. There were soldiers outside our gigs and that was quite alarming…to come out and see three or four armed guys. It was just a horrifying time.
How can you legislate for things like that? How can you police things like that?
I imagine you’re a gig goer. I imagine you’ve come up against relatively strict security. Other than people being searched as they go in, what else can they do? You can’t really prepare for some arse walking through the door with a gun and shooting everybody, you know?
Actually the strictest security I experienced at one of your gigs was at the very first one I went to, about four or five years ago now, when they tried to confiscate my chocolate at the door…I wasn’t allowed to keep it in my bag.
Was that in Bristol?
Yep, at the O2.
Oh, how pathetic is that? Maybe they thought you were going to kill the band – death by chocolate!
I can understand why they say no to cameras and drinks and stuff but chocolate, really? That’s insane!
We’ve got a French bass player, so in Strasbourg, on the night of that show, there were a few things going through our minds.
Do we not play?
That was easy. **** that!
That’s an option that was never going to happen, that would be letting those people win. It was a full house and JJ made a quite passionate, sort of plea really, from the stage. He had a lot of people in tears. We have in-ear monitoring so I can hear his voice in my ear as well as having him practically sitting on my shoulder, I can hear him perfectly and that night I could hear the emotion in his voice and that kind of got to the rest of us.
The roof came off the place that night. There were 1500 people in there, just defiant. I think it galvanised a lot of people in the most horrific and perversely bizarre way. Tragedy brings people together doesn’t it, and it certainly did that night and for the rest of the tour.
We toyed with the idea of playing La Marseillaise or having a minute’s silence, all these things that you immediately think of, but I said “no, let’s just go on and as we get to the end of the third number just say what’s in your heart”. If you plan these things, they don’t work.
I’ve sort of become the mouthpiece of the band, I’m normally the one who does the talking, and I’ve learnt over the years that if you contrive it, well, it just doesn’t work. You have to speak from your heart. To those ends you just say the first thing that comes into your head, and I have to say it’s got me into trouble a few times over the years mind.
It was a very strange time, but we got through it…
You’re marching on…
We are. Yes, we are.
My time’s running out and Warren (the band’s PR man) will get mad with me if I go over and make you late for your next interview, so I have just one more question for you…
Go on then…
Last year you managed to find time to undertake a pretty epic European road trip on your motorbike – do you have anything similar planned this year?
Funnily enough, JJ and I do have plans.
When we finish the British tour we’re off to Australia and New Zealand. I’ve got a brother who lives in New Zealand so I’m going to fly down a week before the rest of the band and spend some time with him and his family, but at the end of the tour, when we’ll be in Fremantle, just outside Perth, JJ and I are taking off. We’ve already made some headway with our plans, we’re borrowing some Triumphs from a dealership down there and going off to have a ride around Western Australia for a week or so.
That’s going to be nice. It’s the sort of road trip that’s the chance of a lifetime. He said he was doing it and did I want to go…well, you don’t need asking twice for something like that.
While you’re saying yes have you got some insurance guys in the background screaming “nooooooooo”?
(laughs) By that time the tour will be over and they won’t care. We’ll just be normal human beings again. There’s no restraints this time, nobody screaming at us. There were concerns with me doing the trip last year, down to San Tropez…I was out on the road for eight or nine days. I had a guide with me but the tour manager was on the phone to him every day, “Is he OK? He’s not dead is he? Is he alive?”
In this day and age, with mobile phones and GPS, it’s very difficult to lose anyone…unless someone hits you and kills you obviously…other than that you haven’t got much chance to go missing.
The mate I was with on this year’s trip…him and his wife have got their iPhones paired up, so she knows exactly where he is at every minute of every day…
Wow, that’s a bit full on…not sure if that’s a good thing or a bad thing.
I know! Me neither.
“So, what were you doing in that place when you should have been in this place?”
But, because of that, and because she’d helped plan a lot of the trip, she was able to ring ahead to hotels to tell them how far away we were and ask them to leave the restaurant open for us. Things like that were great, but…
We did about 2000 miles and it was a real breeze. I loved it.
The Australia one will probably be a similar distance, we’ll strike out for three or four days and then make our way back. We’ll ask the local guy that we’re getting the machines from to recommend some routes. It’ll be fantastic, I’m really looking forward to it. Can’t wait.
You’ve got a pretty hard tour schedule before that so you’ll more than deserve it. I hope it all goes brilliantly and you have a fantastic time. Meanwhile I’m looking forward to seeing you play in Bristol.
Thanks, it’s been a pleasure speaking to you; same time next year!
The Stranglers play Bristol O2 Academy on Saturday 19th March 2016 with support from The Alarm. For further information and to book online visit O2 Academy online ticket sales.
Born and raised in the suburbs of Swansea, Jimmy moved to Bristol back in 2004 to attend university. Passionate about live music, sport, science and nature, he can usually be found walking his cocker spaniel Baxter at any number of green spots around the city. Call James on 078 9999 3534 or email Editor@365Bristol.com.