In 2000 Stranglers fan, Sunderland native and Smalltown Heroes guitarist Baz Warne was invited to London to audition for The Stranglers. He was given the gig on the spot. Since then the band have made three albums, played sold out gigs, been on several tours and played many festivals including Glastonbury.
After the success of their last studio album, Giants, in 2012 the band are preparing to go on the road again to celebrate 40 years in the music industry. I catch up with The Stranglers front man relaxing in his hotel in Edinburgh to ask him a whole bunch of questions before the Feel it live 2013 tour kicks off.
The Stranglers played the Red Deer in Croydon in 1977, you weren’t in the band then but there was a thriving live music scene in the UK. What can you remember about the pub scene in the ‘70s? And how do you think it’s changed?
There was one pub where I live in Sunderland called The Old 29 which was a serious stomping ground for pub bands, on Saturday afternoon a mate of mine would knock on the door, promise my mother he wouldn’t let me drink and then take me off to the pub. The ethos of the pub movement then was that it was for everyone, you didn’t have to be a great big star, people just wanted somewhere to play and any of these old London pubs with backrooms and spare rooms just cottoned on to the idea. In Croydon there was The Greyhound. Nowadays, the smaller back street pubs are diminishing and don’t have the means to go through all the red tape required these days to put on bands, so these days when you go to a pub its more slick and more corporate. I haven’t seen a band in a pub for ages.
The Stranglers wayward antics in the early days are well documented, how would you feel about your kids living their lives like that?
I have two kids both are grown up – my daughter is a bit rebellious and is into the music scene, my son is 18 and he loves music, part of me says – let them get on with it as long as they’re happy.
I had a soft spot for an album they made in the late ‘80s called Feline in which they married acoustic instruments with electric drums. Some of the music I find unlistenable such as The gospel according to the men in black – it was a heroin concept album and they were all smacked out. There are parts of that that don’t really do it for me but on the whole, when a tour starts we have to sift through the back catalogue and decide what we’re going to play live and that’s always great fun revisiting. I think my favourite would be the mid to late ‘70s period when I was a kid (what a lot of people call the classics these days).
So were you a massive fan before you joined the band?
I wasn’t a massive fan but I was a fan, I saw them once in 1980 and I was a newspaper boy at the time. I’d deliver the NME and Melody Maker but before I’d drop them at people’s houses I would sit on the wall and read them, a lot of the time The Stranglers were in there and I would look at them and think
“Jesus Christ, look at these bastards – would you buy a used car off these guys?!”
-They looked like you wouldn’t introduce them to your mother but they did look like the sort of band that girls love… a little bit dangerous and let’s be honest, that’s part of the reason why people get into bands, for the girls! – So they tell me!
You joined the band in 2000, how did that come about?
I was in a band in Sunderland called Smalltown Heroes, in the mid-late ‘90s we had played lots of gigs and we wanted to go out on a major British tour. We got the opportunity to play on the About Time tour with the stranglers in ‘95 and then the European leg of the written in red tour in ‘97. Post ‘97 we had shared a guitar tech, when they were looking for a guitarist they asked him about me, a friend of mine called me up to ask if I would do it, I didn’t want to and my wife didn’t want me to, because we had 2 small children. So I turned it down for about a week but thought I might regret it forever. With my wife’s blessing I called them up, auditioned, got the gig on the spot and 10 days later we went out to Kosovo to a war zone to play for the United Nations which was very exhilarating – it all happened at once really.
Did you find the prospect daunting given their reputation?
A little but I had toured with them twice so I had seen how they work. I knew that there were still some characters and certainly some egos within the band and I was pretty certain musically that I could cut it but it’s the dealing with everything else and day to day living you have to get used to. I was embraced as a part of the band from the start.
It is The Stranglers 39th year in the music industry, remaining in such a fickle industry. For that length of time is pretty impressive, what is the key to your longevity?
The reason we have endured is the songs, they are classic, there are evocative of a time in British history and culture where there was a lot of change, a lot of people have them down as punk and although they were swept along in that movement I’d never see it as punk-
“you can’t have a punk band with a keyboard player who smokes a Sherlock homes pipe and has a droopy ‘tash.”
Looking back, what did you think of the punk scene?
It was exciting music, noisy guitar music, you didn’t have to be great to do it and it was the spirit of the whole thing, it did quickly turn shitty towards the end of the ‘70s but for those brief two or three years from ‘76-‘79 it was great.
Which song do you consider to be The Stranglers masterpiece?
They did a version of Walk on by in the ‘70s which to me is one of the best recordings they ever made. It’s all one take, you can hear the keyboard player stretching out and using his Hammond organ, it’s a master class in ‘60s style psychedelic keyboard playing and you have the huge chunky bass driving the whole thing along when you hear that it’s pretty much the stranglers finest moment.
Which is the most requested song?
Golden Brown but the real fans don’t really like it because it has been played so often, they’d probably pick an obscure B side.
What advice would you give to bands that are just starting up?
Play as much as you can, there are too few bands who are prepared to go out and slog it . When I was in Small Town Heroes we did hundreds and hundreds of gigs before we got signed and The Stranglers played 300 gigs in 1976 – that’s bordering on one a night. You have to get out and play, remember why you’re doing it in the first place, because you get off on it and you want to entertain people- “Everybody in a band is a bloody big show off, everybody just wants to be seen and the only way you can do that is to get out there and play, simple as that”. You can play for 20 years in your garage and be a fantastically tight band but as soon as you get in front of an audience, the rules change, the goalposts move, one person clapping is enough to make you want to do the next gig but 30 people booing and chucking stuff at you really makes you think again – you’ve got to have a huge amount of positive self-belief.
The rest of the band are from Guildford and you have been pretty much Guilfest regulars how do you feel about Guilfest going under and live nation taking over? Do you think it’s a massive blow for the Independent festivals?
Yes, there are a few sides to that story and one of the ones I heard that contributed to the downfall of Guilfest. In 2010/2011 there was a survey done and there was over 150 small independent Brit festivals going on and that’s just overkill, you have to attract decent artists to attract the punters. Guilfest was a great site, usually the only problems were residential, we have played there probably around 5 times
You are about to embark on a nationwide tour, what’s the most ostentatious thing on your rider?
We used to insist on a certain type of mineral water that we knew was very hard to get just to give promoters the run around, when they did get it for us we wouldn’t drink it. These days we have a bottle of champagne every night after our gig.
Will you be playing some of the older tunes or will it be mostly new material?
It’s a mix of both, we don’t want to become a heritage / nostalgia band, we released an album a year ago to massive acclaim and we still like to mix it up, there are some songs we have to play but we play the new stuff alongside them.
How do you stay in touch with your fans? Are you using social media?
When I first joined the band I had my own website but from 2006 we became a 4 piece again the workload was too much, we got offered so much stuff. There’s a Facebook page and a Twitter page and there’s a great site called the Rat’s Lair which has been up for years. I’m an old fart – I tend to stay away from stuff like that.
“We embrace the future”
Who are you listening to at the moment?
Field music, The Futureheads and The Jim Jones Review, I’m never to far away from Neil Young, he is the master.
You released a studio album last year called Giants, how long did it take to record?
It didn’t take long to record but it took quite a long time to right because we wrote around 25-30 pieces in the middle of it all we were touring and there was a bereavement that needed to be dealt with. All in all it probably took 18 months and the recording was two to three weeks.
We’d been out for dinner and had a drink or two and we were looking for a powerful images, there’s no deep meaning / message, it was just our need to be noticed and to shock people into seeing we’re still around. There were a few people that got wound up, people posting how disgusting it was
Where do you think your music should go in the next 5 years?
We’re having a great time at the moment, certainly back to the more rockier sound – keep on keeping on. We’re not worried about longevity any more, from a musical point of view we’re still trying to stretch out, it just depends on what mood we’re in at the time. There is no big plan to keep it rocky or to keep it this or that, “basically we’re of the maxim that if it sounds good and if people like it we’ll use it”
You are playing at the Fairfield Halls on 31st March, how are you feeling about coming to Croydon?
“Looking forward to it, I’ve never played there, I remember looking at the gig guide in the back of the newspapers when I was a kid and Fairfield Halls would always be there, it’s a box to tick for me so I’m looking forward to it immensely.”
You can see The Stranglers are playing at Fairfield Halls on Sunday 31st March, or visit them at The Stranglers
This interview was first published in the Croydon Advertiser