Jean-Jacques Burnel is that rare bassist – a player with his own tone, his own playing style and his own philosophy. Joel McIver visits Stranglers HQ and asks the big man the big questions.
If you’re ever invited to the Stranglers’ remote studio in the middle of Somerset, you’ll witness the sights and sounds of a thoroughly modern organisation. The complex is surrounded by massive fields – and the quickest road there passes through a bizarre tollbooth, where dead-eyed locals emerge and demand money – but once you’re there, you enter a zone containing a full recording studio, rehearsal rooms, a spacious management and record company office and plenty of friendly staff.
Head across the courtyard to one of the rehearsal rooms where a particularly massive, distorted bass tone is rocking the rafters, and you’ll encounter Jean-Jacques Burnel, a serious-looking chap who looks like he could beat you up quite easily if he wanted to. Settled down with a cup of tea and his spanking new Shuker signature P-Bass on his lap, though, JJ (as we’ll call him and save the writer’s typing fingers) is the epitome of affability, laughing at the many exploits that he and his band have endured over the decades and discussing his gear with great enthusiasm.
None other than Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, a man who knows what tricky bass playing is, once described JJ as the best bass player in the world. With that in mind, when he plugs the Shuker into the tasty-looking Ashdown rig behind him, we ask JJ if he ever finds some of the Stranglers’ bass parts technically challenging.
“Sometimes, yes,” he replied, demonstrating a tricky line made up of descending triplets, “but that’s usually because they cross over the rhythms of the vocals that I sing. Funnily enough, that was one of the reasons why Jon Shuker and I decided on a much lighter body for my new bass. I prefer to stand up rather than sitting down when I’m rehearsing, especially because I have to co-ordinate the vocal lines I’m talking about, which go across the rhythm. Our rehearsal times have been getting longer and longer, and the weight of the old bass was becoming an issue on my back and shoulders. For a two-hour gig, the weight of a Fender Precision or whatever isn’t a problem, because I’m moving around all the time, but when I’m standing still in front of a mic, four or five hours is a killer!”
For years a Fender player, JJ switched to Shuker some years ago on being recommended to the British luthier by the Stranglers’ guitarist Baz Warne. He continues, “The new Shuker is beautiful: I’ve never seen anything like the finish on it on a bass guitar. It weighs seven and a half pounds: the horns are slightly hollowed and they create resonance. It’s a mix of three or four different woods, plus there’s carbon fibre around the mahogany neck. The finish on the fingerboard is beautiful, it’s a master grade birdseye maple. It’s as strokable as a cat! I don’t know if it’ll bite you, though… Everything has been designed to make it lighter but more resonant. It’s kicking out more power, even though it’s a passive bass, because one of the Armstrong family made a custom pickup. He’s done an amazing job. I’ll be playing it live next year.”
As for the Ashdown rig glowing quietly away behind us, JJ explains: “It’s my signature head, the JJB-500. Ashdown have been really great to me. It’s loud… very loud! There’s a lot of crunch in the tone, although a lot of that comes from the way I play. That’s where the distorted sound came from originally, although I like to have a bit of distortion on the amp when I need to. Not every song needs that, of course, but the Stranglers bass sound is basically a bit distorted.”
It is indeed, and to find out why, let’s look back a bit. Our man, born in 1952, started his career as a classical guitarist before switching to bass in time for the formation of the Stranglers in 1974. Since then he’s been a constant presence in the band, who were way too musically adept to sit comfortably with the late-70s punk wave but who shared every bit of the punks’ gobby attitude.
The band – for many years JJ plus singer/guitarist Hugh Cornwell, keyboard player Dave Greenfield and drummer Jet Black – coalesced a while back into JJ, Greenfield, Warne and Black, the last of whom splits drum duties on stage with Jim Macaulay. You’ve heard the hits, culled from no fewer than 17 albums to date – ‘Peaches’, ‘No More Heroes’, ‘Nice ‘N’ Sleazy’, ‘Golden Brown’, ‘Skin Deep’ and tons more. Along the way JJ made two solo albums in 1979 and 1988, released a collaboration with Greenfield in 1983, produced a whole bunch of bands and acquired fearsome dexterity as a karate expert, gaining a sixth dan in the discipline. He’s been a busy man.
That distorted bass tone came from necessity, recalls JJ. “When we started out, Hugh had a battered old Vox AC30 amp which was fucked,” he chuckles. “Initially I had some kind of transformer amp, which was probably used for model railways, and then I had a HiWatt guitar amp – because I didn’t know the difference – and a big 18” speaker, which was horrible.”
Hence the overdriven speaker, hence the distorted sounds. The story behind JJ’s bass tone is pretty well known even outside bass guitar circles, at least partly because it comes from the same DIY spirit that drove the wider music scene back then. “We just had what we could get our hands on,” he adds. “The semi-pro musicians we knew, who were working at the local music store, all had 20 pedals and brand-new guitars, Gibson this and Fender that, plus the latest haircut with the long sideburns and the pink shirts. This was the early 70s, remember. They had the semi-pro moustaches, as we called them. We took the piss out of them because they had all this stuff and they still didn’t cut it: they were weekend warriors.”
JJ tells the story of the ‘Peaches’ riff, one of the most famous bass intros ever. After an evening in front of a reggae sound system, with its associated stimulants (“They were just talking a stream of consciousness over a bass and drums, and of course there was a lot of grass being passed around!”), he came up with the unmistakeable sequence of notes, explaining: “I wanted the bass to be dominant, and that’s how it turned out. I play quite hard with a pick, and the roundwound Rotosounds I use make that particular sound.”
On 2015 tour dates, JJ will be taking out his tried-and-tested Shuker, Rotosound and Ashdown gear out with him, plus a backup bass. “I’ll take out two, because I expect them to be reliable. If a change in sound is needed on stage, I’ll do it myself, or they’ll do it out front if I need subsonics.” When we tell him that we often encounter bass players who take a whole bunch of basses out on tour with different tunings, string configurations and so on, he laughs and replies: “I’ve got two main sounds, pick and fingers – and between those I can cover anything that I need. If people have eight-string basses, that’s fine, but the reason I started bass was because it had two less strings than a normal guitar, for fuck’s sake. I’m a happy bunny with four strings, you know.”
When we speak to JJ, he’s just about to head to Japan for a month’s karate. How do his advanced martial arts influence his bass playing, we ask? After all, when you reach his level of expertise, we’ve read that the discipline becomes all-encompassing. “We start off every class with what they call the dojo kun, the oath: the principles that keep the samurai spirit,” he says. “These basically mean staying loyal and never giving up, which the Japanese really don’t like doing. It’s dishonourable, and because they believe in spirit worship, giving up dishonours your family. That’s why you find Japanese soldiers in the jungle 40 years after World War II finished, and they admire marathon races for the same reason: it doesn’t matter if you come last, just don’t give up.”
He continues: “It’s a useful focus, especially when you’re in a rock’n’roll band, but in any walk of life. It allows me to be myself and just be honest and not have to hide behind an image or anything. So you stay loyal, keep the samurai spirit, improve your character, be polite to others, train your mind and body, live in a simple way – in other words, don’t be ostentatious – love all mankind, respect providence, and don’t go looking for trouble.”
Surely heading to Japan for a month of martial arts is looking for trouble, we quip? “Well, I don’t know if I’ll actually be fighting,” he replies. “I’m training for a month with my master. But if he wants me to go for another grade, then yeah. If it involves fighting, then fair enough – I’ve done enough of that in my time!”