FROM THE MENACING BASS STABS THAT
KICK off “Another Camden Afternoon” to the
crunchy pickstyle grit that closes “15 Steps,” the latest
album from the Stranglers, Giants, removes any doubt that
the band’s fortified brew of punk rock, new wave, reggae, melodic pop
remains as fresh today as when it was first uncorked in 1974.
Born out of London’s pub rock scene, the Stranglers
established themselves as worthy torchbearers for the nascent punk rock
movement, blending the ballsy bass and bluesy guitar of Jean-Jacques Burnel and
Hugh Cornwell with the jazz-inflected drumming and psychedelic keyboards of Jet
Black and Dave Greenfield. On such early tracks such as “(Get A) Grip
(On Yourself),” “No More Heroes,” and
“Hanging Around,” Jean-Jacques Burnel set himself apart
from the punkrock pack, developing a hard-hitting, driving playing style that
blended straight-eighth root pounding with ear-catching melodicism, all
delivered with a searing tone coaxed from a P-Bass, a pick, and an overburdened
Whether with reggae (“Peaches,” “Nice
‘N’ Sleazy”), psychedelic goth
(“Waltzin’ Black,” “La
Folie”) or straight-up rock (“Something Better
Change”), the Stranglers have always taken an eclectic approach to
their music. Burnel and the band stay true to form on
Giants, which alternately rocks, swings, and skanks in
equal measure. Through it all, Burnel’s disciplined, oft-distorted
bass lines punch as hard as ever.
How did Giants come
|The Stranglers (from left): Dave Greenfield, Jean-Jacques Burnel, Baz Warne, and Jet Black
It came together in the usual way: At some point I go away to collect
my thoughts, and I keep notes on all the things I think up—melodies,
and such. If I’m riding my motorcycle and an idea comes,
I’ll stop and hum it into my telephone. I’ve got about a
hundred idea snippets in my phone right now! It’s very rare that a
song manifests itself in one go, but on this album, “Freedom is
Insane” is one that I wrote one morning looking at the sea. That was
completed in about a half hour, but I lived with it in my head for about five
years, because it was never quite right. Then I had my “eureka
moment” and we recorded it.
Like that song itself, which starts mellow and gradually
intensifies, your bass tone on that track really runs the
When I want those more melodic tones, I’ll tend to play with
my fingers. But I do prefer the click I get from playing with a pick on the
faster stuff . That’s more the sound I’m known
Likewise, “Lowlands” has a fatter
tone than the sound many people associate with you.
Also, it’s in a really weird time signature. It’s
really awkward. That one’s just about getting stoned in
Holland—because you can! [Laughs.]
Are you playing a Precision
I haven’t used a P-Bass for seven or eight years—I
got fed up not getting much feedback from Fender. I do love the Fender P, so I
looked around for a local artisan who could make me a copy and try improving on
it. I found a guy from Sheffield, in the North of England, named John Shuker.
Starting with an original Fender P, we started experimenting with different
woods. Now it’s an amalgam of alder and ash. Ash is very dense, resulting
in a more definition— stronger bass response and brighter
treble—and the alder gives it a fuller range, and some warmth.
We’ve chambered the body, taking four or five pounds off the weight.
The hollowness gives it an incredible tone for the sound I want. It’s
much broader sound. It’s got Schaller tuners and a hot, overwound
pickup. The lighter weight made a huge difference. We’re
experimenting now with a carbon fiber neck and a rosewood fingerboard.
What are some of the design tweaks you’ve
attempted in the process of your Shuker bass.
At one point we tried having a sweat deflector.
[Laughs.] It kind of worked, but people thought it looked
weird. I tried water-resistant strings.
What are you playing on “My Fickle
That’s a semi-hollow Shuker JJ Burnel Artist bass.
What other gear do you use to get your
Rotosound strings, a pick, and my signature Ashdown JJB- 500 amp. For
my full rig, I use two 4x10 and two 1x15 cabinets.
How do you go about getting the aggressive tone
you’re known for?
It’s in the way I hit the strings.
Back in the Stranglers’ early days, your sound
must have come partly from driving the power tubes on a guitar amp. With a
solid-state amp, you don’t have that.
Right—it has to come from the hands. When I first started, I
used a Hiwatt 100 guitar amp for my bass. In the early ’80s, I went
with Trace Elliot amps. They were great, until one let me down at a gig in New
York. It kept overheating and shutting off —I ended up having to do
the bass parts a cappella. It was awful. You could have
taken me to heaven or hell that very day; I was ready for the earth to swallow
me whole! And now I use Ashdown.
That particular arc of amp choice mirrors that of John
Entwistle. Are you an admirer of his tone?
I absolutely admired John Entwistle’s playing, his
sound— everything about the bloke. He’s an icon as far as
I’m concerned. He made his presence felt; you knew it was John
Entwistle. In fact I was very honored that for many years, my name was right
beside his on Rotosound string packaging. He’s up there in my
pantheon, along with Jack Bruce. There’s also an American bass player
whom I really admire; he’s as good as me, but in a completely different
way. Well, nearly as good as me. [Laughs.] That would be
Flea. I think he’s wonderful. He’s interesting and
funny— he’s got humor in his playing.
What impact—if any—did working with
producer Martin Rushent have on your bass tone?
Well, the tone was there already. We first recorded at the end of
1976, and we’d been playing for three years by then. I
didn’t start off as a bass player—it was an accident,
really. I was a classical guitarist originally, so it was a bit of a shock to
be expected to be playing in the background, going [singing a simple
I–V bass line] dum, dum, dum, dum. No
way! Also, with poor sound support, I was competing with a lead guitar and a
lead keyboard player. I wanted to compete, so I developed a kind of syncopated
lead bass style that would cut through their sound. At first, it was very
treble- y, but now I’ve managed to get both treble and bottom
A big part of the Stranglers sound is Dave
Greenfield’s keyboards. How does that impact the way you play
Typically, I’ll bring in a song, and once I think
I’ve got something the others can hang something on, Dave will start
adding his bits to it. When we discovered the Mini Moog on the first album, it
was monophonic, so we used it as a sound effect more than anything else. As the
years progressed—and we were vilified by our peer group, because it
wasn’t a very “punk” thing to do—we
found ourselves right in the middle of the digital revolution.
On the first part of “My Fickle
Resolve,” it seems your background as a classical guitarist is
especially evident. How else does it manifest itself in your
It’s given me more of a sense of melody than I would have
known if I had just gone from being the typical teenager to being in a rock
band. It’s given me more reference points; I’m a huge fan
of Chopin, Debussy, Satie, and Stravinsky. They’re all radical,
revolutionary, and extremely melodic. With guys like Satie and Debussy,
it’s the open spaces they leave that’s the most intriguing
part of the music.
A bass line like the one in
“Lowlands” isn’t particularly flashy, but
it’s expertly executed.
You try playing that! [Laughs.]
What I mean is that I can picture other people playing
it, but your articulation sounds meticulous, something I wouldn’t
normally associate with a punk ethic. Is perfect execution something you strive
It is, actually. Years back, we began to fall into the trap of not
developing songs very well and hoping that in the studio, we’d find
our way around. But I found that method to be so tedious, un-organic,
expensive, and ultimately, not very creative. So now, I insist on the band
rehearsing so that we’re really ready when we go into the studio. I
want everybody to have mastered their parts, so that when we go into the
studio, there’s actually very little to be done. Sometimes
you’ll have a pleasant surprise— there’s still
room for creativity—but most of it will have been worked out
organically as a band. I want to do things as live as possible, in one take, so
I can get the feel and not fret about what’s coming up. You should be
in the state the Japanese call mushin—“empty
I try to play entire concerts without ever looking at my fingerboard.
Sometimes I’ll hit a bum note, but then I’ll just repeat
it. [Laughs.] By the time we play a song live,
I’ve have become one with the piece, and it’s
Rattus Norvengicus [United Artists, 1977]
No More Heroes [United Artists, 1977]
Black and White
[United Artists, 1978]
The Raven [United Artists, 1979]
The Gospel According to the
Meninblack [Liberty, 1981]
La Folie [Liberty, 1981] Feline [Epic, 1983]
Aural Sculpture [Epic, 1984]
Dreamtime [Epic, 1986]
10 [Epic, 1990]
Stranglers in the Night [Psycho, 1992]
About Time [When!, 1995]
Written in Red [When!, 1997]
Coup de Grace [Eagle, 1998]
Norfolk Coast [EMI, 2004]
Suite XVI [EMI, 2006]
Giants [Ear Music, 2012]