In Conversation with The Levellers’ Jeremy Cunningham

2014 saw folk-rock legends, The Levellers set off on a world-wide tour, celebrating their success in the industry after over 25 years. Bassist, Jeremy Cunningham talks to Charlie Barker about the highs and lows of their career, politics and the beauty of being independent musicians.

Charlie: So you’ve had the best of 25 years in the business and you’re embarking on this latest European tour, how many different countries have you been to so far?

Jeremy: Well, we’ve been to Holland, Belgium, Germany, Norway, Sweden, Denmark… I think that’s it so far!

C: You’re on the UK leg of it now and it is all surrounding the Greatest Hits record you’re bringing out. So as a band, who has travelled the world playing your music going to so many places. What’s left to do?

J: We’ve done an awful lot. We’ve played in a lot of small clubs around the world, right up to big venues and small festivals to huge festivals. I don’t know. We just like playing.

We don’t really rehearse unless we’re changing and rearranging stuff, which we do quite frequently, but if we just sit around playing our old songs it’s quite boring. As soon as we set foot in front of an audience, it’s just like it’s the first time we’ve ever played them. We’re really conscious that we want to give the best. We’re more conscious now than we were when we were younger of giving the best show we could possibly do. We spend a lot of money, more than most people on our show: our lights and our sound and bringing in any other bits and pieces. We like people to think they’ve had a bit of a party and their money’s worth, so we have confetti cannons, lasers and stuff. We’re from the rave generation: old school!

C: Not once have I ever seen a quiet Levellers gig.

J: It doesn’t exist unless we’re doing an acoustic set.

C: After all this time on the road, what do you think keeps the fans coming back?

J: ‘Cause we’re f**king good! That’s it basically. What we were saying about having a good time, it’s absolutely true. We’re also talking about important issues in our lyrics, issues that people identify with; political issues and personal issues. We put that in music that you can dance to and basically forget about all your troubles and at the same time you know you’re connecting with the real world. It’s not just pure escapism. I think that’s what people like and because we f**king deliver!

C: Do you think you’re seeing more of a younger audience going down the generations?

J: Seems to luckily for us! We’ve still got the young kids at the front and the older guys at the back. It’s very important for us to have the younger kids at the front, ‘cause they’re the ones that jump around. They give us that reciprocal thing, between band and audience. That gives us our forward momentum that we have to have to really deliver. What we’ve found, as this is our 26th year and in a couple of months it will be our 27th year, we’re seeing the kids of our original followers who have been trawling through their Mum and Dad’s record collections and are now just about scraping old enough to come and see us.

That accounts for some of it I think and the rest is people discovering us as no other band really sounds like us. We’re quite unique, so we have that kind of position and because we’re not just a musical thing. If young kids are more inclined to want to know more about the world around them, then we fit quite nicely into that scene of talking about important things. But at the same time they can still go and drink Jagerbombs and jump up and down at the front of a gig.

We were all in a student union bar the older day feeling like the oldest people there. We were still drinking Jagerbombs for two quid each and misbehaving ourselves, we always do!

C: You’re playing along with some impressive names tonight; you’ve got The Selecter and newcomer, Laura Kidd (She Makes War). How did it come about and did you personally choose who to gig with?

J: Yeah we personally chose both of them. Our agent Dave saw Laura, sent me an email and a couple of clips on YouTube to check her out and I thought she was absolutely brilliant and I sent it around the rest of the band. When we realized she was available to do this, she was the first person we asked and she was up for it. Then The Selecter, we hadn’t really thought about them being: an independent, reasonable sized band in their own right. They were actually in New Zealand at the time, but our agent said they’d be up for it if we asked them. So, we asked them and here we are.

C: In terms of genre, you’re both very different but I think you’ve got a lot of shared values.

J: It’s dance music effectively. Musically it is different but values and the political ethos are very similar. It’s funny ‘cause we used to be into them when we were at school! It’s good to have a band that’s older than us!

C: It will be good to see how you and the two-tone genre come together on stage.

J: Well we do sing songs together. Pauline comes and sings a song with us and Laura comes up and sings. We use the horn section from The Selecter on a song as well.

C: Keeping on an independent theme. You’ve been with a major label in the past and you went away from that. There’s been a rise of independent artists recently; do you think this is the way forward for new artists these days?

J: Yeah, we always signed to independents. We signed to Warner Bros. for one album but that was because our indie label was sold without our consent and we ended up there. They didn’t really want us, so they put out one album and then we bought our way out of the contract.

Pretty much since then we’ve had our own record label because now technology allows that and that it didn’t used to back in the day, it was too expensive with big recording studios and tape. Now you can record an album in a room smaller than this [dressing room] as long as you can get a drum kit in it and a few people. We like to record live so if you can do a drum kit and room for us to stand about and a couple of computers, then we can record onto that. With social media now and the Internet, which never existed when we were first around and probably at our biggest, you can put out your own records and do your own publicity. You can have a pretty reasonable amount of success doing that.

We do hire publicists and pluggers when we bring out albums just to give it that extra kick, but when we haven’t actually got an album we are selling what we have through our website and we just have our normal crew of people who work for us and that has worked for us. It’s quite minimal like a little cottage industry. I think it is the way forward, I think it always has been the way forward it’s just that the means haven’t been there so much in the past.

C: The new album features some great collaborations on your hits over the years; people like Frank Turner, Imelda May, Bellowhead and Billy Bragg. If you could collaborate with anyone dead or alive in music history who would it be

J: It’s pretty easy. We’d all say Neil Young. Bob Marley would be pretty cool, maybe Jimi Hendrix, but we’d all say Neil Young. We have supported him quite a lot back in the day.

C: Your music has always featured strong political, social and poigniant comment. It’s easier now for artists in the age of social media to take a stance and get their message across. Back in the day when you were starting out surely that would have been a hard road to take?

J: It’s never the easiest path if we’re talking about anything political because then you’re going to be in opposition to someone. This is why most young bands today steer well clear of politics ‘cause they want to make a career out of music. We were never interested in making a career out of music, we wanted to do that but we were more interested in getting our point of view across.

I think it’s always hard but in the days when we started in the very late 80s and early 90s, it was just at the end of Thatcherism and the country was more receptive to people who were saying political things because they were so disillusioned with politicians.

It was obvious those were the songs we were going to write, we just hoped people would get it and they did. We were surprised how much they got it and how massive we got. Then we got a bit disillusioned because we got “we’re so huge, we should be seeing some sort of change” as that’s what we’d always encourage and we didn’t. So we had to re-evaluate what we were doing and we put a lot of money into putting alternative political groups together (before social media) so they could network together but then all they did was argue! So then we decided “Oh f**k it, let’s just be a rock band” and we’ll do benefits for the causes we agree with.

So now we do a combination of the whole lot but with social media it’s a lot easier and these days because we’re so known as a band with a political ethos we don’t really have to explain ourselves like we used to. People just either get it or they don’t and that’s it.

I think now, starting out as a political band it would be harder. Things are just grey and insidious now, when we were starting out things were really black and white between Tories being bad, the Labour Party probably still bad but better! When the Tories were in, they’d been in for so long; our lifetimes basically.

We don’t really trust any politicians, which is why we have to say our own thing.

C: I know Frank Turner, has never been shy of saying political things even in the early days.

J: He’s a nice guy and he’s done very well out of it as well, which is good I think that he is because it shows it can be done. Whereas a lot of the young bands we meet are just really scared of saying anything, if they’re even interested in the first place if they want to make a career out of it, which is the first mistake I think. You shouldn’t go into music trying to make a career out of it because that’s very unlikely to happen. You should go into it because you love doing what you’re doing, you have something to say and you’re just driven to say it. Anything else is a bonus.

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