DATE OF INTERVIEW:
8th December 2016
As they did five years ago for its twentieth anniversary, 2016 has seen the Levellers take to the road for a string of sell-out shows to celebrate the next big milestone for their era-defining, sophomore album, 'Levelling the Land', by performing said work, once again, in its entirety. An album that, at the time, prompted a riled NME journo, namely Andrew Collins, to gratuitously dismiss the band as "art-hippy poshos", it's proven to have enduring appeal over the last quarter of a century, just like the Levellers themselves. Metal Discovery met up with the band's bassist, Jeremy Cunningham, when the tour hit Lincoln, to chat about 'Levelling the Land'; the new special editions of the album recently reissued on the band's own label; plans for the next album; a touch of politics; and gift-wrapped turds. I commence by enquiring about drummer Charlie Heather, who was recently forced to miss a couple of shows due to a sudden bout of pneumonia...
METAL DISCOVERY: The first thing I have to ask – how’s Charlie doing now? Is he back to full health?
JEZ: Yeah, he’s back. He took a couple of days off. He was in hospital overnight, but he had a couple of days off and Scott from Ferocious Dog stood in for him and did a fucking amazing job; we can’t thank him enough. And with a lot of conducting from Jon, our fiddle player, and Matt, our keyboard player, who’s up on the riser, too. But, yeah, he did brilliantly. Anyway, Charlie is back; he’s been back since Portsmouth. He had pneumonia and the antibiotics have kicked in. He’s just off the booze, basically, and everything else remains the same!
(Jeremy Cunningham on the enduring appeal of 'Levelling the Land')
"...with that one, we were only 22/23 and kind of hit the zeitgeist of the time, I suppose… you know, as much by luck as by judgement. And, yeah, a lot of people still kind of appreciate it today."
Jeremy Cunningham backstage at the Engine Shed, Lincoln, UK, 8th December 2016
Photograph copyright © 2016 Mark Holmes - www.metal-discovery.com
Interview & Photography by Mark Holmes
MD: Was Scott winging it, or did he know the set already?
JEZ: No, he was winging it. Ferocious Dog… if we’d picked any other member of Ferocious Dog, they used to play in a Levellers cover band, so it would’ve been alright. Scott didn’t and he didn’t know any of the songs at all, and we had an hour’s rehearsal at our soundcheck in Glasgow Barrowlands, which was sold out… the whole tour’s sold out… and he was like, “well, let’s fucking have a go!” I mean, he is a session drummer and a drum teacher, so he’s fucking good.
And yeah, we basically played the beginnings of songs, the beginnings of the whole set, and we changed the set a little bit to make sure he didn’t have to do too much; we played a few acoustic songs and stuff. But, luckily, Barrowlands is probably my favourite venue in the world and the crowd there are just fucking always amazing, and they were so supporting, they really made it an event, because we told them what was going on. It’s going to be a memory that’ll be with me for the rest of my days.
MD: So, how has this run of shows been, as they’ve all sold out?
JEZ: It’s been great. We started in Hastings… we did a festival in Hastings in September and then we went straight to America, and then we went straight from America to Australia. And then we came back and had about a week off, and then we went over to Europe… and now we’re here. This is the last leg of our ‘Levelling the Land’ tour, basically.
MD: And then relax for Christmas.
JEZ: Yeah. And then, next year, we start to record our new album.
MD: Long awaited new album!
JEZ: Yeah, I know!
MD: Last time we spoke, you were celebrating 20 years of ‘Levelling the Land’; now it’s the album’s 25th anniversary and it still sounds as timeless and is as relevant as ever….
JEZ: Depressingly so!
MD: What’s the essence of the album for you that still makes it such a special record, all these years on?
JEZ: I don’t know, we just kind of got it right with that one. We weren’t thinking about it. It was just our second album and we thought it was probably better than the first one. And it was Simon’s first album and he’d brought half the songs with him; it was his songs. And, you know, we were just excited to just get it all down. When we write anything, we always kind of try and make it relevant but timeless at the same time, in that we’ll make our verses specific to events but we’ll make our choruses universal. And so, hopefully, we can sing songs like ‘…Beanfield’ and they transcend the time they were written in. And, you know, other new songs, we do the same thing.
It’s kind of a conscious thing, but kind of unconscious; we don’t really think about anything too much… unless we’re doing interviews and we have to! But, when we’re actually writing, it just kind of comes out that way. But, with that one, we were only 22/23 and kind of hit the zeitgeist of the time, I suppose… you know, as much by luck as by judgement. And, yeah, a lot of people still kind of appreciate it today.
MD: You’ve said of the album, I think in the liner notes for one of the reissues: “It’s one of those albums you see in so many different people’s record collections that you wouldn’t expect to - which for me is very flattering.” Although there are evident rock, folk, punk and whatever elements evident in the music, do you think the album transcends genre in a way, which is why its appeal is so far reaching?
JEZ: Yeah, and that’s partly why it got terrible reviews at the time because it didn’t fit into any particular genre. And us, as a band, didn’t fit into any particular look. But, at the same time, it couldn’t be ignored. And yeah, it got shocking reviews at the time… it’s now being kind of revaluated and takes its place alongside those iconic nineties albums. At the time, it was a different thing.
MD: Who’s the most unlikely Levellers fan you’ve ever encountered then, if you say you see it in people’s collections you wouldn’t expect to?
JEZ: Well, I wouldn’t say he was a fan, but it would be Andrew Collins, who wrote the review of ‘Levelling the Land’ for the NME… a really terrible fucking review. And he has it, you know. And he also wrote the liner notes for the first ever reissue of it, so it’s been rehabilitated to him so I thought that was a nice thing. He is actually a really nice guy, but if you see what he says at the time… it explains quite a lot. He was working for the NME and the NME and Melody Maker were all in the same tower block, and they thought they had the power to make and break bands.
Then, when we appeared leftfield, looking like beggars as they thought, with no rock ‘n’ roll glamour and stuff, they didn’t get it; didn’t understand the songs. You know, they’re all quite left wing types, so they could appreciate the lyrics but they thought the music was too happy, which is something we’ve actually always done to make our lyrics less oppressive to people. But, yeah, it was a bit of an eye-opener, because we kind of thought that but it was good to hear it from the horse’s mouth. But, anyway, he wrote the liner notes for the reissue and he said: “In reviewing the album again, there are still a couple of songs I don’t like”… which is fair enough, but he said: “I got it wrong.” It takes a big person to fucking do that.
MD: So now you’re good mates?
JEZ: Well, we were even before that, you know… even though I sent him a shit!
MD: You sent him a shit?
JEZ: I sent him a turd, yeah… my own…. after that review. In his autobiography, it says, “that was my rock ‘n’ roll moment.”
JEZ: I wouldn’t ever do that now. That wasn’t my proudest moment.
MD: I know of a journalist who’s been sent a turd in a jiffy bag.
JEZ: I sent mine in a shoe box, gift-wrapped with paper and a lovely ribbon!
MD: You went to town on it!
JEZ: Oh yeah!
MD: You’ve recently released some very special editions of ‘Levelling the Land’, including a very swanky looking box set, so was that hard to get together?
JEZ: Yeah, it was. We wouldn’t have really done it unless… you know, because I’m the designer; the artist of the band… and we wouldn’t have actually reissued it unless we found certain things. We found a whole load of photos of us in the studio recording ‘Levelling the Land’, which we never knew existed. We also found the original tapes of some stuff that was never formally released, and so we gave them to the guy that produced and mixed ‘Levelling the Land’ and got him to remix them, so that’s in there. It’s all on vinyl as well… 7-inch and 12-inches as well, then there’s the CD and stuff.
And then we also found an old music book that was written, with all the music for piano and stuff – Jon, our fiddle player, went through it and went, “oh yeah, it’s not entirely correct”, and Mark and Simon, our two guitarists, were like, “yeah, the notes are right but that’s not how we play them.” You know, where it says F diminished 7th minor, we actually put a capo on and play an A shape! [Laughs] So, we put all that in, to make it easier for people to play, if they want to play it how we play it… the easy way!
And then there’s a whole load of other things. We found a poster from our ‘Levelling the Land’ tour, our London show at Kilburn National Ballroom – we found the original of the poster for that; a preproduction of that. And we found the laminate for the tour. And there’s a book about the making of the album with all those new photos in it. There’s the vinyl of the album and the vinyl of our live album we did five years ago at Brixton Academy. Yeah, the making of book; the music book; the CD; the tour laminate; tour poster… there’s a load of stuff in there. And we actually found the original tapes of ‘Levelling the Land’, as well, but we didn’t remix it because it is what it is.
MD: What, the rough and ready demos?
JEZ: No, the original album tapes…
MD: Oh, sorry…
JEZ: Yeah, the original 2-inch tapes of the album. That’s what the box set is; it’s a photograph of that, basically, of the actual tape box, with the stamp on it. Yeah, so it’s exciting stuff. I mean, this will be the last reissue we’ll do of it, because there is no more stuff now! I don’t think I could ever find any more stuff! And it’s been remastered and it’s as good as it’s ever gonna get.
MD: Have you reclaimed the rights to your back catalogue, then? Last time we spoke, I think you said you didn’t have the rights.
JEZ: No, Warner still own our publishing.
MD: Oh really?
JEZ: Yeah, and they will forever, because we keep trying to buy it off them and they won’t. Basically, because they want two songs; they want ‘One Way’ and ‘Beautiful Day’. They don’t fucking care about the rest, but they’re not gonna let it go because they want those two songs.
MD: That stinks, doesn’t it.
JEZ: The other thing, the whole reason, as well, why we did this reissue, apart from finding the new stuff, is because they were going to do it, anyway. Warner were going to do it anyway, so we went, well, we’ll try and do it ourselves and make it as good as we possibly can. Luckily, we did find all that extra stuff.
MD: Marvellous! Last time we spoke, as well, you were still working on ‘Static on the Airwaves’, and said that: “you’ve got to record an album that’s as good as ‘Levelling the Land’ and we don’t want to release one until we’ve got the songs that are that fucking good.” I think ‘Static…’ is a great fucking album and does stand up against ‘Levelling the Land’. Do you always use ‘Levelling the Land’ as your benchmark?
JEZ: Well, not really, but we did then because that was when we just came off of that tour. I listened to ‘Static…’ not that long ago and, yeah, I was pleasantly surprised. There are a couple of weaker ones on it but, for the main part, it…
MD: It’s consistent…
JEZ: Consistent, and it was just really good fun to record. It was recorded live in the studio.
MD: Oh really? Wow.
JEZ: It kind of comes across.
MD: So you tracked everything at the same time?
MD: So you captured the energy of playing the songs live.
JEZ: Yeah, and we did a few backing vocals afterwards and stuff, but the main tracks were all live. So there’s mistakes in there and stuff but, luckily, the mistakes are all in the right key so you don’t really notice!
JEZ: All the bass ones, anyway!