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6th March 2011
Blending folk sonics with elements of rock and punk, the Levellers music has always garnered cross-genre appeal that, coupled with an arsenal of adeptly composed, melodically infectious, up-tempo songs, has enabled the Brighton musicians to sustain a huge, dedicated fan base over the course of more than twenty years. And it's been popularity and success accumulated largely on their own terms as they've been perpetually overlooked by the mainstream music press throughout their career despite significant chart success in their home country. More autonomous than they ever have been, last studio album 'Letters from the Underground' was released on the band's own label, On The Fiddle Recordings, and the 15,000 capacity Beautiful Days Festival they founded in 2003, and continue to organise entirely independent of corporate sponsorship, is now in its ninth year. With 2011 marking the twentieth anniversary of their sophomore album, 'Levelling the Land', which many regard to be both a seminal release in the band's canon of work, and of the era itself, the Levellers have taken to the road in retro mode, with The Wonder Stuff in tow, to perform said album in its entirety. Bassist Jeremy Cunningham spoke to Metal Discovery a few hours before their sold out show at the Engine Shed in Lincoln...
METAL DISCOVERY: I noticed the majority of the UK dates for this tour are sold out or close to selling out – did you anticipate such amazing presales?
JEREMY CUNNINGHAM: No! [laughs] Not really. First of all, we were gonna do five shows but then, basically…when the first tickets were on sale, the London one did three thousand and we were like, “what’s the fuck’s going on here?!” And so the guy that booked the show said, “you can do ten if you want; you can do more if you want”, and we said, “oh yeah, we’ll push it”, so I think we’re doing ten or eleven maybe, and then we’re doing a couple more in May. Because these ones sold out so quickly we’re doing a couple more then. We thought it’d do quite well but, I mean, it surprised me how big a buzz there is about it. It did surprise me, yeah.
(Jeremy Cunningham on remaining true to the band's roots)
"...we’ve always been an underground band that, every now and then, got kind of popular enough to stick our head above the parapet and then go back to the underground."
Jeremy Cunningham backstage at the Engine Shed, Lincoln, UK, 6th March 2011
Photograph copyright © 2011 Mark Holmes - www.metal-discovery.com
Interview & Photography by Mark Holmes
MD: How did The Wonder Stuff end up on the tour, out of interest – was that a promoter or band choice?
JC: We asked them. We thought that seeing as we’re playing an album from 1991, what’d be the best band from around that era we could get that’s still together! [laughs]
MD: Yeah, you’re limited by choice there!
JC: Yeah! We’ve met them a few times and they’ve done our festival a couple of times. So we thought we’d ask ‘em and thought they’re quite a big band in their own right so we weren’t sure if they’d want to do it.
MD: Yeah, as a support act kind of thing.
JC: Well, they’re special guests so they play for longer than a support act. But, yeah, they said “yes” straight away and we’re like “yeah, that’s brilliant”.
MD: Cool. So you’re celebrating the twentieth anniversary of ‘Levelling the Land’ which, on your website, is described as “an era defining album” but it doesn’t seem to have dated at all. Do you regard the songs as timeless yourself?
JC: Pretty much, yeah. Some of them are about specific things like ‘Battle of the Beanfield’ but, at the same time, that’s kind of become part of British history so these songs have transcended what they were written about in the first place. They’ve kind of gone into the mainstream consciousness of what was going on at the time. Really, I mean, we didn’t realise we were writing the best album that we would ever write. It’s probably consistently the best one all the way through because every song on it is really good so it has, luckily, stood the test of time. But, unfortunately, we’ve got a fucking Conservative government back in now so times have come back round full circle and people are out rioting again so it’s like, you know…! [laughs]
MD: Some of the lyrical themes on the album are still pertinent to today, I guess, in that sense…
JC: That’s fucking ridiculous! When we actually put it on to listen to it when we were rehearsing for this…we play some of those songs still in our setlist because we’ve been playing them for twenty years and they’ve kind of mutated over the years, so we wanted to go back and play them exactly how they are on the record. And because we’ve got an extra band member now, he can do all the bits that we never used to be able to do like extra keyboard bits, and percussion and stuff, so he does all of that, and vocals and stuff. But, in the process of actually putting it on and sitting and listening to it in the studio, all of us, because we never usually listen to our own stuff because we’re playing it all the time, and we were quite pleasantly surprised and like, “oh, fucking hell, why did we stop playing it like that?!” [laughs]
MD: So are there some songs on there you haven’t played in a long time, maybe?
JC: Oh yeah, there’s quite a few, yeah, like ‘Far From Home’ we don’t really do that often but that’s been going down a real storm. That came out as a single as well and we actually play the single arrangement, not the album arrangement of that one, because it’s actually better. Most of them are the album arrangements, I think. ‘One Way’ is slightly different, and then we play all the B-sides from the singles from that era. We basically do side one, all the B-sides, and then side two.
MD: Is that the five bonus tracks on the 2007 remastered edition?
JC: Yeah.
MD: So you say you’re replicating most of them as they are on the album but you’ve obviously progressed as musicians over the twenty years…
JC: I can play them better! [laughs]
MD: Were you tempted to change or approach the songs differently to accommodate how you’ve progressed?
JC: No. We have been doing some of them quite differently, as I said, but we wanted to make it interesting for us so we wanted to go back to the record and play it exactly how it is on the album. Except live, we play it all a little bit faster! [laughs]
MD: You won the Roots award at the prestigious BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards recently…
JC: Yeah, we did.
MD: …how does that feel in 2011, at this stage of your career, to get that kind of commendation and recognition?
JC: They invited us to go and play there and I thought we were just gonna turn up and play a couple of songs. We weren’t ever expecting to get an award because we never get awards and we’ve never even courted that kind of thing and so, when they said we’re gonna get this award, first of all, I thought someone was joking! [laughs] And then, yeah, they actually made up the award to give to us, you know, they’ve never done it before…[laughs] But then, our agent, he said to us when we were all sitting there at the do, and he said: “Look around this room; pretty much everyone here, you’ve given a job at some point. They’ve played your festival or they’ve worked for you in one capacity or another!” [laughs] So that’s why we got it, probably, for services to fucking folk musicians!
MD: How was the experience of playing there because, obviously, you did your usual energetic performance by the looks of it but the crowd looked really static?
JC: That’ll be because they were sitting down!
MD: Was that a bit weird?
JC: It was a fucking nightmare! [laughs] I personally hated every minute of it but it was just one of those things – put your head down and go for it.
MD: It was weird to watch because you guys were giving it everything on stage but everyone was sat there just staring.
JC: Yeah, and bright lights, bright lights! We were stone cold sober, you know, because it was going out on TV and stuff, and we thought we can’t fuck up!
MD: On your best behaviour!
JC: Yeah, we were on our best behaviour so we were all quite nervous as well. Every other band was just like solo singers and stuff, and then we wheel on the fucking drum kit which hasn’t appeared all evening and big fucking guitar amps and electric guitars!
MD: Do you still regard the Levellers as an underground band in terms of how you’re perceived and your attitudes towards the industry?
JC: Yeah, we’ve always been an underground band that, every now and then, got kind of popular enough to stick our head above the parapet and then go back to the underground. Things just seem to have moved full circle at the minute ‘cause this tour has done so well and there’s a whole buzz about the ‘Levelling the Land’ going on which is, you know, nice for us but it won’t last for longer than a year or two, then we’ll be back to normal, and normal service will be resumed! [laughs]
MD: The Beautiful Days Festival is in its ninth year this year?
JC: Yeah, this year will be the ninth.
MD: It seems to epitomise the band’s ideology in that it’s a non-corporate, free-thinking kind of festival, but has it been a struggle to perpetuate that in organising it, and keeping it non-corporate?
JC: It’s easy! [laughs] It was hard to start it. To start it we had to, basically, mortgage everything we owned – all of our Metway studios and everything. If it hadn’t sold out the first year we would’ve gone bust; our business would’ve collapsed. But, you know, it was only five thousand capacity in the first year so we managed to sell it out and it’s just been word of mouth since then, so it’s been really easy. People like it and they come again. Every year it gets a little bit bigger; we make the site a bit bigger…well, not every year – it’s at its top capacity now which is fifteen thousand and we’re not gonna make it any bigger. We never intended to get it any bigger than that and that’s about as big as we can get the site without people being squashed because, at the minute, there’s still loads of room to move about on the site, even with that many people.
MD: That’s nice at a festival.
JC: Yeah, it’s all good and, every year, because there’s been a few more people coming each year, we’ve made more money every year and it rolls over to the next year. It’s separate to the Levellers’ money. The Beautiful Days’ money rolls over and it all gets put back into the festival so it gets better and better because we can afford better headline acts every year and stuff. And then people hear about the non-corporate thing and they want to do it, especially American bands who can’t believe it. Gogol Bordello, they’re coming back this year because they just fucking loved it – you know, looking out from the stage and not seeing Coca-Cola everywhere! And we’ve got Carter doing it as well – they only want to do one festival this year and they want to do ours for the same reason.
MD: I’ve still yet to see Gogol Bordello live – an amazing live band so I hear.
JC: They’re fucking brilliant. I went to see them a couple of times and they’re fucking great.