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An interview with The Levellers, 12/03/2011 | FESTIVALPHOTO

An interview with The Levellers, 12/03/2011


The Levellers are probably one of the most successful British Indie acts of all time with a career stretching back 20 years. This year marks the 20th anniversary of the release of their debut album, "Levelling the land", and the band are currently touring with a celebration of the album.

Bass player Jeremy Cunningham took time out before their sold out show in Nottingham on 12th March 2011 for an interview for festivalphoto.

Q: Tonight's show is part of your "Levelling the land" tour, celebrating the 20th anniversary of the album being released. When you made the album 20 years ago, did you ever imagine the band would still be going strong 20 years later.

A: Not really no, but then we didn't think we wouldn't be either, we just didn't think about it in those terms at all, we just thought about the next record after that really - one at a time.

Q: In the current economic climate with people being worried about losing their jobs, are you surprised that most of the dates of the tour are sold out?

A: It's all sold out now. Yeah I was quite surprised - the guys that booked it, the promoter and our agent, they book the venues and they were really confident, but I was quite surprised. I thought it would do well, but I was quite surprised that it sold so many tickets so quickly. It really really was very gratifying.

Q: Perhaps its because with all the bad news, people are looking for a chance for a good fun night out to take their minds off things?

A: Yeah maybe, I mean the album's still quite depressingly relevant at times and then at the same time, its full of music that people can jump up and down to, which is what people do and we thoroughly encourage it.

Q: You are often described as either Indie, or Folk-Punk. How would you describe yourselves?

A: Oh definitely Indie, because we're about the most independant band you'll ever meet. Yeah and we play kind of folk-rock music with a punk-rock attitude. We don't like describing ourselves because folk-punk kind of does it but it sounds a bit boring I think. We don't really have a word for it but one of the most interesting descriptions we've heard was in America - someone said "This band is kind of a cross between Dexys midnight runners, and the Red hot chili peppers" and I thought Yeah thats pretty good. When I think of folk-punk I think of bands like Johnny Moore and Gogol Bordello you know who are good bands, but I dont think we're in that kind of bracket.

Q: Are there any new albums planned at the moment?

A: Yeah we're writing one at the minute.

Q: When's that like to be released?

A: Next year. We're writing all this year - we've written about half of it, but we want to write more than an album and then choose the very best. Pretty much every album we've ever done, we've gone into the studio in a bit too much of a hurry so this one we're touring Levelling the land pretty much all this year and we don't want to release the next album till its basically as good as Levelling the land, so we're being ruthlessly critical with ourselves. At the minute we're written about 8 songs so far - finished 8 songs and a bit more than half of them are really good so we've got write at least another 8 more that make the cut.

Q: How do you feel the internet is affecting the music industry?

A: Its just different really. Its quite a positive thing really because its democratised music loads, I mean you don't have to have a massive publishing machine now to get your music out. I mean yeah people don't sell as many records, and all the big record companies are going bust but we dont give a f**k about that, I mean they're money grabbing parasites, so I'm quite happy with the internet. Its ridiculously easy now to find out about bands and gigs, I was listening to a brillian new band called Wolf People - check them out man, its absolutely awesome, and I'd never have known about them were it not for the Internet. Also as well, because people dont sell that many records these days, bands can make albums just that they're really happy with, you know not something thats got to have hit singles on it so there's a lot more creative music out there now I think.

Q: What are your musical influences - both personally and as a band?

A: The Clash is the biggest one, thats why I picked up a guitar in the first place, then after that probably a Brighton band called McDermott's Two Hours who are like an Irish folk group, kind of protest music from the 80's. They're still going, I work with the singer sometimes producing his records, but yeah they were a massive influence on the whole band. And people like Bob Marley, Public Enemy, Crass, massive you know that anarchist punk stuff back in the day. And then the rest of us, Neil Young as well, all of us like all that but I cam emore from the punk rock kind of thing, but Mark our singer used to listen to Led Zeppelin, psychadelic stuff and 60s folk music like fairport convention which I'd never heard of, so when we met we kind of swapped each others music about. I'd never listened to Led Zeppelin because I thought they were like boring hippy nonsense and he'd never listened to the Smiths because he thought it was depressing English Indie nonsense, but you know, now I'm a big fan of Led Zeppelin and he's a big fan of The Smiths, so its like there you go all from playing each other those records.

Q: What can fans expect from this tour? Are you playing the whole of "levelling the land"?

A: Yeah what we do is, you know old school vinyl, we do side 1 and then we do all the B sides from the singles, then we do side 2, and then we come back on for an encore at the end of all the greatest hits, so the set is the album plus B sides. We play it pretty much exactly as it is on the record so we had to rehearse before doing it.

Q: I can imagine the B sides in particular are tracks that don't get played very often?

A: No you know that's the part of the gig where it all goes quiet and people start watching, because there's a couple of slow ones in there as well, but you know they're really good songs, as good as anything thats on the album. Its fun to play them, and one of them is Devil went down to Georgia, a cover, and the fans love that one, so yeah its kind of a break in the middle of the set when we do the four B sides then crack on into the rest of the album.

Q: What made you decide to start your own music festival (Beautiful days)?

A: Basically because we were just ill with playing all the really big corporate festivals, V being the final straw, you know we sat there just thinking this is
b*llocks, the back stage area was like as big as the crowd area with all these rock stars swanning around, so the kids who'd paid, overpaid to get in were just being pushed around from place to place by security, and we just said this is shit, we could do a better job than this. We thought we could do a festival like the ones we used to go to when we were kids, tou know the old free festivals, Stonehenge and stuff, so that was the beginning of it really.

Q: Do you find it difficult trying to pick the bands, because you can never keep everyone happy?

A: Oh no, its easy - it gets easier every year because the festival makes more money every year and all that money rolls over to the next year so it means we can pay more and get bigger bands, and also because we share a day with V we get some of their bands on the friday - you know, come and do our festival as a warm-up. So this year we've got Carter USM are headlining saturday - its the only festival they're doing because they only do one gig a year, Brixton Academy, and this year they want to do one festival so they're doing ours because it isnt a corporate do. Big Audio Dynamite are doing Friday, got back together again - they're on tour again this year, and then we're doing the Sunday, and we've got Gogol Bordello, Flogging Molly and I cant remember who else.

Q: Roughly how many fans do you get at the Beautiful Days festival?

A: Its around 15,000. We want to keep it around that size, we dont want it getting any bigger. With all the crew, guests and everyone its probably nearing 20,000, but there's loads of room - the site could hold twice that so there's lots of space for camping - thats why people like it. There's a massive kids area and stuff - we really look after the kids.

Q: There aren't many festivals that are family friendly are there?

A: No but thats one of the really big things with us because apart from me, all the rest of the band have kids, so we thought what would be the best kind of festival we could go to, and we're lucky enough to know lots of people in the child looking after - child care business who we've known since we used to live on busses in traveller sites and stuff.

Q: Why choose to have the festival in Devon?

A: You know what, I dont really know - apart from our promoter lives down that way. I didnt have anything to do with the location choice, but I think it was maybe because the festivals that we used to go to were down in the west country - stonehenge and that kind of area, so I think there was probably a bit of that. The promoter Dave live in Exeter which is really near so that might have something to do with it. We are always toying with or considering whether we could do another one up north so we have one in Exeter and one in Leeds or round this kind of area (Nottingham). We've got a couple of ideas for venues but we've never been able to work it out so we could bring the whole production from one place to another without making the ticket prices stupid, so we're still trying to do it, and it might happen at some point. They want it in Europe as well, so its the same situation with that.

Q: WHich parts of Europe are you big in, ?

A: Most of Northern Europe really - its the same there as it is here. Belgium is the strange one - we do really big gigs in Belgium but its a really small country, its odd but we've always been popular there, and Holland because we used to live in Amsterdam, so we've always done alright in Holland. So most of Northern Europe really, but then you go to Italy, Spain or the South of France and no-ones ever heard of us. We spend as much time in Europe as we do here.

Q: For you, whats the best bit about being in The Levellers?

A: Not having to get up early in the morning. Everything really, and getting to come on tour which most people would do for nothing and I get paid for it so I can then sit on my fat ass at home and do nothing for a couple of weeks before we have to come out on tour again. Woohoo, Result !!

Q: Any downsides ?

A: Yeah, loads of downsides. I've actually changed my life because I've done it for so long now to fit around touring, rather than trying to bend touring to fit the life that you're expected to lead. Things like holding relationships together are really hard, especially they've all got families apart from me, so stuff like that, and holding your sanity together on a long tour. I mean its high stress - its great fun, but it is high stress dealing with extremes of emotions.

Q: I can imagine its quite claustrophobic on tour when you're all travelling together, living together and working together?

A: Yeah, its a really small group of people and you'll usually find we've got around 30 people with us - they all travel with us through Europe, and we all go mental at around the same pace, so we all get on really well and stuff but after three or four weeks we're functioning on a completely different plane to the rest of reality, so when we all have to go back to our homes we're all equally f**king mental. It takes around ten days to reacclimatise to being normal again.

Q: Thanks for your time.


Writer: Anthony May
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