Hanging Around: Jean Jacques Burnel & the Stranglers Return with Giants
By Brian Fox
Thu, 25 Jul 2013
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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 guitar amp.

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.

The Stranglers (from left): Dave Greenfield, Jean-Jacques Burnel, Baz Warne, and Jet Black
How did Giants come together?

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 gamut.

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 for.

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 Bass?

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 Resolve?”

That’s a semi-hollow Shuker JJ Burnel Artist bass.

What other gear do you use to get your sound?

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 end.

A big part of the Stranglers sound is Dave Greenfield’s keyboards. How does that impact the way you play bass?

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 playing?

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 for?

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 mind.”

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 evolved.

Selected Discography

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]

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