Stephen Taylor / Daily Yomiuri Staff Writer
Jean-Jacques Burnel and me in Footnik, Tokyo, on 10th April 2008
"You bet! I'm very much looking forward to it." As the Stranglers prepare for their first festival appearance in Japan at Summer Sonic, bassist Jean-Jacques Burnel is unequivocal in his enthusiasm at returning to Japan as a musician for the first time in almost 15 years.
The Stranglers may not be headlining Summer Sonic, but they can show the young audience of the event a thing or two about the grit of British punk. They've also had a fair few festival experiences, as the 55-year-old Londoner of French parentage explains to The Daily Yomiuri on his mobile phone while sheltering from the rain in an Edinburgh music shop.
Our first topic is the Summer Sonic lineup, and while the Strangler admits he is not a huge Manic Street Preachers fan and has yet to be convinced by the Arctic Monkeys, he says he would love to catch Bloc Party and he's keeping an open mind about the rest of the festival lineup.
"I'm always interested in hearing new stuff," he says. "When it comes to musical instinct I just want to feel it, I don't want to rationalize so someone who might be commercial, such as Gwen Stefani, if I feel it then I don't have a problem."
During the 1980s the Stranglers were no strangers to festivals in Europe, and one show in Belgium was memorable for the wrong reasons.
"The Cure and us were meant to be headlining...and the Cure said, 'We don't want to play before the Stranglers. We want to go on last.' We said, 'OK, no problem....' The Cure then said: 'We're not happy with that. We don't want to be on the same bill as the Stranglers, 'cause they're horrible, dirty and rough.' So the promoter...plumped for the Stranglers.
"We didn't have a sound check and Jet and I were playing the [wrong] piece of music when the others started this other song...I lost my cool, smashed up my monitor and went off stage thinking, 'We'll come back on in five minutes.'
"Unfortunately, 25,000 people didn't give us the time to do that, and it kicked off and a huge riot ensued. Thirty minutes later, the riot police came with a water cannon and that was the end of our career in Europe for about four years," he explains.
The Stranglers were infamous for this kind of incident, so it's probably just as well they're not playing Fuji Rock this year, at which the Cure will be among the headliners.
"We were the first band to play with the Ramones in the U.K. and the first band to play with Patti Smith in Europe," Burnel says while bristling at how a certain British music critic savaged them during the early days of punk. Back in the day Burnel's relationship with the press was less than perfect as one young French reporter once discovered.
"I agreed to an interview with [Philippe Manoeuvre] after several days of hassling us and in the spirit of fun I took him up the Eiffel Tower, debagged him with the help of a couple of my colleagues--Hugh [Cornwell] and someone else--and gaffer-taped him to one of the girders on the first floor of the Eiffel Tower and left him there."
When he finally escaped, Manoeuvre's career flourished, and he now edits Rock & Folk, one of France's top music magazines, yet the incident left a lasting impression.
"We're playing at his festival [Tous Sur Le Pont] in France next week, so I think the hatchet has been buried," Burnel explains.
With the release of an excellent new album, Suite XVI, earlier this year Burnel insists a more streamlined Stranglers have still got a grip on things.
"A lot of that's down to the karate," explains Burnel, a Shidokan black belt. "It just renews your energy and your spirit and your ki."
"People prefer the band as a four-piece, to be honest, and the fact that I'm singing again, a lot of people prefer that," he says, pointing out that one of his songs on the album has became a live favorite.
"Probably because of the novelty value of it, I love playing a song called 'I Hate You,' which is a country-based song, inspired by Johnny Cash and dedicated to George W. Bush."
And with a nod from one of the men in black to the Man in Black, Burnel shows he hasn't lost any of the punk attitude 30 years after "No More Heroes."