All images used with permission of the artist
Barely dry from the sweaty, relentless pilgrimage that is a Stranglers tour, guitarist Baz Warne chats to The Punk Lounge about the surprisingly difficult decision to join one of his all-time favourite bands, remaining one of the most redoubtable, untiring group of artists from the ‘golden age’ of punk, to riding his bike in the Yorkshire Dales and just plain keeping going.
Firstly, thank you for taking the time to talk to us during yet another extensive tour. When you DO find yourself with some downtime away from the band, how do you like to spend it?
Well we seem to be touring so much these days that when I get home, the drawbridge comes up, and I just slip into a kind of domestic fug if I’m honest…doing the garden, reading a lot, sleeping, doing jobs about the place…all the normal stuff…you crave it after a big tour…and when the chance arises, getting out and riding the bike when the weather allows. I live on the edge of the Yorkshire Dales and there are some stunning rides to be had…I’m not what you’d call a fair-weather rider, as I’ll gladly ride in bad weather if I fancy it, but it can be so grim at times you have to be selective. I’m out next week with some pals from up north for a days mooch about. Love it…
Tell us a bit about your background as a musician and how your career with The Stranglers came to be.
I started playing guitar around the age of 9 or there about. My brother was given an acoustic guitar for a birthday, and although he took it up later in life and is a great musician and producer himself these days, at the age he was then, 8 years old, he just wanted to do little lad stuff you know? And the guitar gathered dust in the bedroom, until I picked it up. People talk about Epiphone moments, and that was mine…I can still clearly remember the feeling of holding a guitar in my hands for the very first time…it was alive…and strange as it sounds, I knew I’d be able to play it. My first electric came at the age of 13. I had milk and paper rounds (no such thing these days) and saved the money for a Kay SG copy, which was a piece of shit, but I had that guitar for years. I got my first old Fender Telecaster when I was 18…and I still have that guitar…I auditioned for the Stranglers with it. I worked my way through various bands with kids at school until I was 19, until I got the job playing bass for The Toy Dolls in 1983. I’d auditioned as rhythm guitar player initially, got the gig, but then Olga from the band changed his mind, wanted to keep it as a 3 piece, and needed a new bass player. I figured it would be better to go out on the road with a real living breathing band, experiencing everything I could, and just soaking it up, and playing bass, rather than kicking my heels at home playing guitar, my chosen instrument, but doing bugger all. And thank God I did!
In early 1984 we went to America with The Toy Dolls, I was still in my teens, and it was on those 2 tours we did that really brought home to me that playing in a band was all I wanted to do with my life. We played in front of 12,000 people at one gig on that tour… I was a snotty nosed little punk from Sunderland… couldn’t fucking believe it. I left The Toy Dolls in late 1984 and got a band together with my brother in 1985, which was to last for 15 years, called The Troubleshooters. We later changed the name to Smalltown Heroes, got signed in 1994 (yes it took 9 years to get our record deal!) and one of the tours we dropped onto as support was The Stranglers in 1995 on their About Time tour, touring the UK. There were 5 of them then, and they were ok. We all remembered them as something very special…but they weren’t…they were just treading water it seemed to me. We crossed their paths again in 1997 when they were in Europe on the Written In Red tour, and we were out with them again. They seemed in even worse shape…not talking to each other and playing half full small halls…and the writing seemed on the wall. I received a call in April 2000. We’d had a guitar tech with the Heroes who had gone on to work with The Stranglers on a couple of tours, and he called me to say they were looking for a guitar player. Smalltown Heroes had finally called it a day and I was playing in a covers band and doing solo acoustic gigs to support my by then, young family. I turned it down. I called them to say thanks and was my usual cocky self, saying that if they didn’t get a result to call me again and I’d think about it…ha. The truth was that my wife had just got me back after literally 8 years of being on the road, and simply asked me not to. After 13 years of being together, she’d never once asked me not to do anything I didn’t want to do…she’d always been behind me…but she just didn’t want me away anymore…I was 36, and figured I’d had all my chances, and plus I just loved her, and owed her everything. So I respected her wishes and told them thanks but no thanks.
That lasted approximately one weekend. I was in total turmoil. My daughter was at school the following week and was complaining about not being very well. The school called and asked if I would go and collect her. I was on the dole, didn’t have a car…so I bundled myself up and starting walking to get her. I put my minidisc player in my pocket with the 4 songs on it The Stranglers had asked me to learn. As I turned into the wind and put my head down to walk through the park , No More Heroes came on…perfect volume…and I just thought, what the fuck am I doing? This is probably my final chance…with one of my favourite all time bands. My wife could see the bind I was in, and she gave me her blessing…just kissed me and said “you should go for it”. I called them back , borrowed £100 from my mate for the train down from Newcastle, auditioned and got the gig on the spot. 10 days later I was on tour in a war zone in central Europe with them.
18 years later I’m still here. Funny how life can be…
All musicians have people they look up to and draw inspiration from in the early days of developing their art, but is there anyone who you’ve recently been inspired by?
Yeah. There’s a band from Sunderland called Field Music…they’re great… multi-instrumentalist brothers who have talent to spare. I interviewed them about 10 years ago for the BBC who were doing a piece on music from Sunderland for a local arts TV program. I’d heard of them, but not any of their music, so I thought I’d better do some research, and downloaded one of their albums, ‘Measure’… I still play that record at least once every couple of weeks…what a startling album. To be honest though, when I’m home after a tour, music is the last thing I want to do…unless something catches my ear or I’m playing guitar myself, which I’m constantly doing.
As one of the longest-running and most successful bands to have ever emerged from UK Punk, how do you keep performances fresh, and do you find it hard to stay relevant to younger crowds?
First and foremost, we please ourselves…every time. If you’re happy playing the songs, people can tell…if you’re faking it, they’ll know that too. You have to pick songs you want to play, not need to play. When you start a band, all you want to do is play your music with your mates…it sounds like a big fucking cliché, but that’s what we still try to do. After all these years keeping it fresh is vital, but it’s actually quite easy. After about a month of not playing, we’re chomping at the bit…the phone goes, it’s one of the band, JJ usually, and we talk about how we’re looking forward to the next batch of shows, or whatever we’re doing next.
Staying relevant to younger crowds seems to take care of itself…the internet lets them see who we are and what we’ve done, and their parents, fans from the very beginning, bring them to gigs to see for themselves. The cross section of ages at our gigs never ceases to amaze us…there are tons of kids who come…and they know all the words to the songs…old and new…it’s amazing.
Can you pinpoint the most definitive moment of your musical career?
That’s a tough one, there have been so many now that I think about it. Maybe the first one was the acceptance from my parents that this wasn’t just me fanning around in my bedroom and goofing off playing the guitar. I come from an era and a place where getting a job out of school was king…put your nice suit on and go to a careers opportunity office and discuss your future…fuck that…I was pretty academic, took a lot of sciences and was interested in following my dad into medicine, and working in the lab. That all went by the wayside when I got my first electric guitar…and I’m sure loads of guitarists can identify with that. Anyway, the inevitable happened and I failed pretty much all the exams I took first time around…I had to go in and tell my folks, and you can imagine they weren’t best pleased…fast forward about 3 years and I went in and told dad I was going to America with the Toy Dolls…his face literally changed right before my eyes, and my folks were with me from that day on…my mum always had been I know, but getting recognition from your dad, the head of the house, well, that was a game changer. So going to the States all those years ago, … being fascinated by the workings of a recording studio for the first time, which has become a lifelong love…I love to record…the first time I went to Australia, Japan , looking out at 80,000 people the one and only time we’ve played Glastonbury, and being voted one of the bands of the weekend…the list goes on…
You’ve previously stated that Golden Brown is your favourite Stranglers song, but is there in your opinion one album that stands out as representing the pinnacle of the band’s work?
Did I say that? Can’t remember ever saying that, but I can still remember the first time I heard it and thought how great it was, particularly as the only guitar in it at all was the solo. I was drawn to all things guitar at that point of my life, so a song essentially without any grabbing my attention would have been memorable. I came to The Stranglers as a kid through the second album, No More Heroes, before I went back and heard the first one, so that always sticks with me. I suppose Black and White and The Raven are the two pinnacles from the early days. Norfolk Coast was my first album with the band, which was celebrated as a return to form, and took us a long time to get right, so that would be up there as well for me…and Giants, our last album…we struggled through a lot to get that one made too…lots of personal stuff.
With such an extensive career it must be hard to pick out some highlight shows, but are there any that really stand out as favourites and why?
As I mentioned earlier, the Glastonbury show in 2010, just an amazing gig. Also, probably my first one, which was in Kosovo in 2000, playing for the UN peacekeeping forces there. There have been a great many, dozens and dozens…right up to the last tour…Brixton was very special…
Jet Black’s retirement last year was sad but ultimately inevitable – has that take anything away from the band?
His great spirit…he’s our totem, and we speak all the time. I haven’t actually seen him for about a year, but when I did he was on great form, and we went out for dinner. He’d be the first to say that by the time he quit playing live, he really wasn’t up to it anymore…he was 73/74 I think…can you think of anyone else who could’ve done what he did for so long? The fucking drummer?! Fantastic…we’re all as proud of him as he is of himself. He passed the baton on to Jim, wished us every success, and retired to the country…perfect.
The earlier days of The Stranglers are full of tales of fights with The Clash, allegations of inciting riots, and year-long heroin binges. What’s the most ‘rock n roll’ thing you’ve done during your time in the band?
Aw you don’t really want to know that do you? Remember that when all that silly business was going on with them in those days, they were all much younger…lots of bravado and posturing and bullshit…we’re all grown men now…those things don’t really happen anymore… and those that do are unprintable I suspect…I’ve managed to evade custody a couple of times by the skin of my teeth…let’s just leave it at that…
OK here’s a fun one. You suddenly can’t make a show because you’ve temporarily lost the use of your hands/are washing your hair(!), but the good news is that you can choose your stand-in from ANY guitarist living or dead! Who would it be and why?
James Honeyman Scott, the original Pretenders guitarist, now no longer with us. A tremendous player, the consummate team player who served the song with economy and style…
Washing my hair…haha you cheeky twat…
The Stranglers – The Movie is set to hit our screens next year. Have you enjoyed the process of making the film or has it been a labour of love?
Well, we started the process years ago, as just an attempt to document something really. It was semi-serious, and we had a crew following us around for a few months. It petered out due to disagreements between the production people and we just sort of put it on the back burner. There were literally dozens of interviews that we’d all done, and some of them may find their way into the new venture, but essentially, we’ve started again. The brief on the last tour was for the crew to keep a low profile, so I didn’t really notice a cameraman around, although I know he was there, and as the months go by and the ideas start to blossom more, we’ll get more involved. It’ll be the definitive Stranglers movie and it’ll be very interesting to see which way it goes.
As music fans we hope The Stranglers continue to tour and bring us great music for as long as possible – what does the future of the band hold?
We’ll just keep going until we don’t want to any more…simple as that. We categorically will not go through any motions just to keep the coffers up…as many bands do, not mentioning any names…they know who they are. The Stranglers have a long, proud, sometimes very rocky history, but we’ve never broken up, the only band from the ‘golden’ years not to have done so, despite lineup changes. It’s very easy really…when you start a band, you do it for enjoyment, when the enjoyment stops, so do you…
It’s not rocket science…