This was an interview with Levellers bassist Jeremy ‘Jez’ Cunningham. The interview originally took place in person at Southampton Guildhall, on behalf of RADIO SONAR and AUDIO ADDICT on 11th March 2011. As it was written for local broadcast and local students, there is a reference to performing at the Southampton Guildhall, which would not feature if written for a wider audience. Focusing on the students, we briefly discussed the student protests that were taking place at the time.
Levellers bassist Jez Cunningham spoke to Audio Addict about what the coming weeks, months and even years might bring. But first, there is a 23 year history to explore, and find out what it’s like to be on top of the musical game.
This tour marks 23 years of The Levellers. Did you ever see yourself continuing for this long?
Not really. When we started we didn’t really think about anything other than getting from day to day. But having said that, we didn’t not think that we would be. It’s just something that wouldn’t have occurred to us back in the day.
So was there ever a long term plan in the first place?
There was, yeah. We knew that the band was good, and we wanted to, you know, try to make a living out of music. If that could happen and we could sign off the dole, we thought that would be great! And we did. We’ve always kind of had a long term plan, but we never really thought about it that seriously until it started to happen.
It really did happen. There was a number one album, a big slot at Glastonbury.
Very big slots at Glastonbury! [laughs]
That position is an incredible dream scenario for any band starting out. What did you think you had to do from then? Where do you go from there?
Well, we never really thought that much about that kind of stuff. We were like “yeah, we’ll try and make the records as good as we can”. And then we don’t really have anything to do with the selling of them. Usually most of those big hit kind of records, we’ve been out of the country when they’ve been at their biggest. It’s like being in the eye of the storm. Everything’s happening all around you, but you’re kind of in the middle.
For us, I remember around the time, we were thinking about the next gig that we were doing that night in some European country. And when we get the call “yeah, you’ve got a number one record”, then that’s brilliant. I’m sure we did quite a lot of celebrating! [laughs] We’re pretty good at that.
Glastonbury, that was great. Looking out and seeing all those people. That doesn’t happen to many people.
Oh yeah, terrifying! But only for the first couple of seconds, and then really enjoyable [laughs].
Have your goals changed since then?
No, but we still just want to make the best records. We still think that we’ve got, you know, another great record in us, which we are halfway through writing. It’s just taking a long time. And touring really as well. We haven’t really got any aims that we set ourselves. I think the last one was probably to get Beautiful Days, our festival, running. And now that does, that takes care of itself.
Then it was to sort out this Levelling the Land tour, and then after that I guess the next one will be our 25th anniversary. We’ll probably have kind of a box set or something. Some kind of retrospective thing that we’re just starting to talk about now, but we haven’t really worked it out.
But no, we don’t have kind of numbers targets.
Your most recent album was your highest charting for over ten years. It was a big climb on the albums that came before that. (2002’s Green Blade Rising reached No.77, 2005’s Truth and Lies reached No.102, whereas Letters From the Underground hit No. 24).
Yeah! And it’s the best one we’ve done for over ten years! [laughs] Those two before that were pretty rubbish, I thought. Not at the time obviously. We try and make the best record we can but looking back at it, I’m not very keen on those.
Do you think you can carry on your climb up the charts?
Well, I don’t know about that, but in artistic viability definitely. Looking at a record that’s better that Letters From the Underground: That’s what we’re trying to do at the minute. That’s all I care about really. If it sells more then great, but if not, as long as we’ve made the best record that we could, then I’ll be happy with it.
What draws you back here to Southampton Guildhall? You were here just two years ago.
Yeah, probably. We’re here quite a lot! It’s a really nice venue; we just like it here. It’s kind of close enough so that friends of ours can come from Brighton which is where we live. But it’s not like playing in Brighton where everyone wants to come in on the guestlist!
Is there anywhere that you haven’t performed that you would really like to go in the future?
Yeah. I would really like to go to the west coast of Scotland. We’ve kind of done the rest of it. The Highlands and the islands, for some reason we’ve never really touched that bit that much. The odd gig but not much, even acoustically. So I would really, personally, like to do Oban, Fort William, and maybe even Mull or Iona. Or Islay. Maybe like… acoustic, you know. I’d like to do the west Highlands and islands.
Does anywhere stand out as a favourite place to perform?
Most of us, our two favourite venues are Glasgow Barrowlands and London Brixton Academy. But so far on this tour, the best show has probably been Nottingham Rock City, which is another great venue as well. That was a really mental crowd. It’s usually good here though. I’m looking forward to it.
You last few albums have all been released three years apart. It’s been another three years, so is anything due soon?
Yes, next year. Early next year. We’ve written half of it already. We’ve got two more writing sessions booked, so I’m pretty sure we’ll have it finished by the end of the summer, early autumn. And then we’ll record it wintertime, and hopefully get it out by this time next year.
Perhaps the song you’re best known for is ‘What a Beautiful Day’. A couple of years ago, you went on a Beautiful Nights tour, you have the Beautiful Days festival. Has it ever bothered you at all that that’s a label you’ve been given a lot? Have you never been fed up of it?
We’ve been doing Beautiful Days for years! [laughs] We still do rest it, but it doesn’t really bother me that much a label. As a song we get bored of it sometimes and we rest it. But labels and things… when we were younger we used to get really upset about all that kind of stuff, but these days you can’t fucking stop people. They’re gonna do it anyway, so we just go ‘fuck it’! We’ll write as good a music as we can, and what people say about it, and how they choose to label us, that’s their business. It doesn’t really bother me. Although if people were to be labeling us and boxing us, I’d prefer if they chose a better song than that one!
Is there anything else that you would like to say to anybody who listening? Plug or preach…?
You know… politically the state of the country is heading towards unrest, which always suits us pretty well! I think it’s really good that people are getting out there and protesting all of their student grants. Student loans are being cut. Nurses pay and stuff. It’s about time people did get out there and do that kind of stuff. It reminds me of when we all went out for the poll tax and stuff like that. It’s great. It has to be done. So, good luck!