Folk-punk, conscience-pricking agitators, the Levellers are approaching their 25th anniversary. With pop-stars becoming ever more disposable, this milestone is a testament to a consistently strong formula for producing good tunes, a formidable stage presence and sheer bloody-mindedness.
These attributes personify bass player Jeremy Cunningham entirely. Anyone who has witnessed a live Levellers shindig will have noticed Jeremy. He’s hard to miss, pogoing around as though his life depended on it, attempting to flog himself, and anyone within a six-foot radius, with his flailing red dreadlocks.
“I know, I look as though I ought to have been in Motörhead, don’t I?” he acknowledges in his cultured tones, laughing loudly at the thought. “In fact, it all looks far more frenetic than it actually is. I do jump around a lot, and my hair does whirl around my head, but if you look at my right hand, it’s firmly placed against the body of my bass, it never moves. I like to keep my right hand nice and still, with the wrist braced against the bass, and then just move the pick to get a nice ‘dug-in’ feel to my live sound, but in the studio I tend to play with my thumb.
“I can play with my fingers, and sometimes do, but I use my thumb to get more feeling into the notes. I don’t like to use a pick in the studio because I find it gives me a bit of a clangy sound. That’s exactly what I want when I’m on stage flailing about, but for recording I like to have some more subtlety involved. On stage I just need to be on the bottom end.”
Like many of his contemporaries, Jeremy mixes his guitars depending on the job. Jeremy outlines the differences. “My bass of choice is a Gibson EB with the Gibson SG guitar shape. It doesn’t always come out on stage with me, but I use it almost all the time for recording. It has a thinner neck and a shorter scale than other basses, and it feels really easy to play, which is why I like to record with it. I record all my bass parts live with the band, so a nice easy feel makes the whole process go more smoothly.
“On stage, I use a 1976 Gibson Thunderbird, which looks and sounds fantastic. The EB doesn’t look as good on-stage: the shorter neck makes it look small, and I don’t think that really goes. It doesn’t matter for the acoustic shows because we all sit down. It works well in intimate surroundings, but the Thunderbird really looks the business.
“We toured with Australian band, Midnight Oil back in the early 90s, and their bassist Bones Hill- man had one. I was really drawn to the look and sound of that bass, and he invited me to have a go. We set up a little amp in their dressing room and that was it, I had to have one. Because they were really unfashionable it took ages to find one, but when I did Gibson were so pleased to see me playing it that they gave me a couple more. Now they’re back in fashion.”
The Levellers get involved in their live gigs from the first note to the last. This forced the band to learn a vital lesson early on – pacing. “I think that comes through experience,” Jeremy said. “When we started, we would hit the stage, blast through a load of fast songs and be totally knackered before the set was even half over. Now we play a few fast ones, then sneak in a slow paced song so every- one can get a breather. It took us a while to figure that out.”
The favoured territory for the Levellers is their own Beautiful Days Festival in Devon. Festivals mean big stages, big crowds, and a big sound, and Jeremy works hard to make sure his bass is heard through the racket of his fellow Levellers, who have never knowingly under-played a note. “I’d love to say it was down to my technique,” sighs the bassist. “But to be honest, it’s the work of our engineer Jac. She is really brilliant. I use Ashdown amplifiers, and have done since the early 90s, and Ampeg speakers.
“My on-stage bass is really low, because Jac is better at getting a good sound, so she sorts out the monitor. The front-of-house engineer takes a line out of the amplifier and uses a DI, so there are no mics on stage. I’ve had the circuits on my Thunderbirds updated so the engineer can get that clanky sound I mentioned. It gives it some extra bite.”
Away from the live gig circuit, Jeremy explains the more genteel process of writing and recording. “I usually get the bass-lines worked out straight away for a new song. There are three main writers, Mark (Chadwick) and Simon (Friend) and I. I write lyrics, and the other guys will put my words to music, or they have songs and we sit down and jam through them. When we have a rough structure, I will refine my bass-lines, and then everyone rehearses the songs to a decent level for recording. We’re lucky, because the chemistry of the band works well. When we have new songs we don’t have to work very hard to get them into a decent shape. I start off with the root note and then build it up from there.
“I’m not a very technical musician, so if everyone changes chords I put a run in from one to the other. Occasionally I’ll ask Matt (Savage), our keyboard player, to check that I have the right sequence of notes in place. Jon (Sevink), the fiddle player and I tend to play off each other, and Matt will help us to sort out who does what.”
Is his playing style based on anyone he admires? “Not really. I have my heroes, but that was more when I learned to play. I really enjoy Larry Graham from Sly & The Family Stone, and I have always loved Geezer Butler. The rest of the band leave the studio when I’m warming up by playing Sabbath riffs.”
Before we part company, Jeremy relays the sad tale of his the long-lost fa- vourite bass. “I had an old Ibanez bass with a solid mahogany body. I loaned it to someone who sold it, I was really upset. Then I saw it in the window of the local instrument shop with a label on it that said ‘Played by Jeremy Cunningham Of The Levellers’ and I should have got it back, but I wasn’t quick enough. Still, as long as it’s being played, that’s the main thing.”
It’s this level of acceptance of the ups and downs that will lead the Levellers to their quarter-century this year. They’re celebrating by releasing a film following the band on tour and in the studio – just watch out for those flailing dreadlocks.