By Martin Popoff
It’s shocking — and to be blunt, like The Stranglers — but someone had to go first. And by that I mean from The Stranglers, with everybody getting on in years, but also from COVID. Yet Dave Greenfield had underlying health issues as well, helping the virus finish him off. Greenfield leaves behind a legacy as the innovative keyboardist of this singular band from the very first record, 1977’s Rattus Norvegicus, forward. In fact, he’s on most of Dark Matters — the band’s 18thalbum and first in nine years — but noticeable absent on a touching tribute to the man called “And If You Should See Dave…”
“Most of the keys were done before Dave broke on through to the other side,” begins Jean-Jacques “JJ” Burnel, clarifying the situation. “Most of it we recorded just before the first lockdown in the UK, and the lockdown in France. To be honest, I saw him declining over the last few years. He did have some other problems, with his heart and his lungs — COPD — so we had to be careful. We decided we weren’t going to tour so extensively. Over the years we’d been touring hard, so we said we would be doing our final full British tour. Which doesn’t mean we stop playing altogether, because, you know, that’s what we live for, really. I can’t imagine not playing, but we thought we’d temper it.”
Don’t look for there to be a final victory lap with original guitar man and singer Hugh Cornwell as part of any sort of package-with-bow. “Certainly not,” says JJ. “I don’t know where he would even fit in anymore. Also that would be really to insulting to Baz (Warne, guitar and vocals for the past 20-odd years and four studio albums now). From what I gather, from the feedback I’ve had, is that people are saying this is the best album we’ve ever done. We haven’t lived with it long enough to say that, but it’s the best reaction I’ve ever had to a Stranglers album in 40 years — so far anyway.”
“I’m thinking I would like to play again, but that’s not really in my thought process at the moment,” continues JJ, clearly preoccupied with the question of what happens next after lockdown. “The only thing I wanted to do, once Dave passed away, was to complete this album. In honor of him. Other than that, a few weeks after he passed away, my agent called me and said, ‘Look, you’re selling more tickets than ever before.’ I said, ‘How can that be? Everyone knows he’s gone.’ He said, ‘Well, but I think people just want to hear the songs and celebrate his life.’ So we’ll fulfil the contractual obligations that we have and we’ll take it from there, really. We have got someone to replace him on the stage, certainly not in our hearts, but certainly to replace him on stage, because he had disciples. Dave had people who studied his every note. That’s not the problem. The problem is probably, do I want to play without Dave? I don’t know.”
I’d be one of those fans who is over the moon with the new record. Dark Matters is classic Stranglers, kicking off with — I know this is crazy talk — the greatest Stranglers song of all time, a masterpiece of geometric arch-Stranglers demented carnival music called “Water.” Logically then, it’s all downhill from there… but no further than many, many more songs in the canon’s top 30. Fact is, the Baz Warne era of this band has been triumph after triumph, with 2004’s Norfolk Coasteasily making this writer’s top five from the catalog as well.
A conversation with JJ about favorite lyrics on the album absolutely must include “The Lines,” which Burnel describes as “a simple two-minute song. It sums up the fact that I wake up in the morning and look in the mirror and I don’t see the person I want to see. We all get that. You’ll know one day when you get old; you’ll have that problem. Other than that, there’s ‘Innocence has left this house to wander among the stars, to light the path before us so we can see.’ That’s from ‘Something’s Gonna Kill Me.’ We had already started recording it, and I changed the lyrics after Dave’s death. Innocence is really about Dave, because I don’t know if you know this but he was autistic, high-performing, what they used to call Asperger’s, but I don’t think they do anymore. In years past you would have called people like Dave eccentric. But only in the ‘90s, they gave a word to it. But he was high-functioning. A lot of autistic people don’t have filters and they can’t engage with people so much. But they have other talents; they’re wired different. And that was the case with Dave. He was so innocent. He couldn’t quite get cynicism and stuff like that. So if you ask me, off the top of my head, that’s my favorite lyric on there.”
As for calling the record Dark Matters, well, first there’s losing Dave, but there are other reasons as well. “Yes, it’s several enigmas put together. Dark matter is something now that some cosmologists and scientists are all talking about. Apparently it binds the whole universe together but we can’t see it. So it’s an enigma in itself. It was going to be called Dark Matter, because we were getting a bit obsessive about that subject when we were all still together. Then we started the artwork, which was an amazing picture of our galaxy. But then we thought, let’s put another enigma in, because although there are theories, no one really knows the true story behind the Easter Island statues. So we thought, OK, we’ll stick four of those on to represent the four members of the band — that’s one more enigma to add to the pot. And then Dark Matters, with the ‘s,’ plural, is because we’ve always been into slightly darker things. Also, as we were preparing the artwork, it was last year when there was the Black Lives Matter thing. So the title and the artwork together cover enigmas and contemporary subjects together. As for the runes, I’m fascinated by northern European culture and history, and runes are always a good place to start for that.”
The album closes with an epic Pink Floyd-like song called “Breathe” — of course Floyd have their own famous song called that. “Fight to the bitter end,” says Baz. Will they?
“Well, ask any musician that,” reflects Burnel, “and nine times out of 10 they’ll say, ‘Well, I’ll just keep on playing.’ Our audiences have increased dramatically over the last 10, 15 years, but who knows? Even if we stopped having huge audiences, I’d be quite happy to play in a pub with my mates. It’s not like a 9-to-5 job, is it, really? It’s not. It’s an absolute privilege to be able to make a living from what you like best, apart from masturbation and marijuana and wine. It’s an absolute privilege to be paid to go around the world, playing your music. And also, what a privilege to be able to evolve as a human being and as a musician, over all these years, without having to succumb to any commercial imperatives. We’ve been allowed to experiment and go our own way. Sometimes we’ve fallen flat on our faces and other times it’s been a success. Success for me is just being able to record and play.”
“There’s also a need to see people,” continues JJ. “I think we all need that as human beings. I mean, some of us might not want that too much, which you’d define as antisocial, to be isolated. But the majority of us, I think, need other human beings in our lives. And to me, a gig, a concert, is a form of communion — it has to be. If it’s completely passive, you might as well be watching the television.”