Interview with Jez from The Levellers - Southampton - 14 December 2008

Interview by Aline Giordano

Levellers in Concert Jez greets me with a big smile and asks me if I mind waiting five minutes while he makes himself a cuppa. When he returns with his black tea and a cup of soup, I suggest we could go to the pub across the road to do the interview, but Jez replies that he doesn’t drink – ‘although that’s certainly where the rest of the band would be!’ So we choose instead to sit at the big table in the Guildhall where the band and crew would soon have their Christmas dinner. I begin by telling Jez that I had prepared two sets of questions: an easy set and a difficult one, and ask him to choose which he wants to answer and why. ‘Let’s go for the difficult questions because I answer easy ones all day!’ Jez replied enthusiastically.

There’s no doubt, I thought on hearing ‘Letters from the Underground’, that Levellers are back to great stuff. What did it take to find the inspiration, to go back to finding your sound again?

Jez: We had a word with ourselves! We decided early on what type of record we wanted to make, and decided that I was going to write a lot of the lyrics, which I had not done for eight, nine years or so. Once that’d been decided I thought I was going to write about stuff that affects everybody if not directly then indirectly, like Cholera Well, Burn America Burn, A life Less Ordinary, etc. I wrote the words, gave them to the singers and they made the music. Then we went and played a lot of it live before we recorded the album.

The whole creative process took you to three different locations: Cork, Devon and Metway [Levellers’ Headquarters in Brighton]...

Jez: I had given them [the rest of the Levellers] twelve sets of words. They wanted to get away from everything. Mark and Simon had a song or two each of their own. They went to Ireland because it’s such a good vibe there for playing music, and we knew we wanted a fiddle pretty loud. So they played the songs until they sounded great. When we went to Devon we had come straight off the back of a tour. We got the bus to drive us to Devon, miles away from any of it. It was just a tiny rehearsal studio and a house. We all sat down listened to what the guys had written in Ireland, wrote a couple of new ones, all with our producer Sean Lakeman who’s a very hard task master. Then in Brighton it was pretty much turn up at 10 o’clock in the morning and record until whenever! The album was done in two weeks. And then they went off to America to mix it in New-York… I didn’t go!

Sean Lakeman, a critical friend… was he more of a critic or a friend?

Jez: When he’s working he is critic! Yeah, plenty of arguments! We knew we had a good record but we wanted it to be intense. We knew we had to be focussed and Sean was really good for that. He kept on saying, keep playing it, keep playing it, and try this here, try that there; says to the drummer, put cymbals in here, a drum roll in there, if he had not thought about it. He became the eighth member of the band.

‘Before the end’ - Who wrote that one?

Jez: I wrote the words for it and Simon wrote the music.

I think they work really well together. I really like the lyrics, really do.

Jez: Thank you. That’s the last song I wrote for the album. As a writer this is something [love!] you want to address. Me, as an artist, I never refuse anything because I like a challenge. Two of my favourite songs are ‘Love will tear us apart’ by Joy Division and ‘There is a light that never goes out’ by The Smiths. I tried to write a song that is kind of in the middle of those two.

Well the soul is definitely there, and personally I much prefer ‘Before the end’ than ‘Love will tear us apart’!

Jez: Brilliant! Thank you very much. I’m happy!

.. and I’m a huge Joy Division fan

Jez: Yes, they were brilliant!

Right! Let’s start the more difficult questions now… Years ago, I wrote a dissertation about Irish rock bands and their socio-political commitment, and I wrote that at one end of the spectrum there are spokes-people like Bono, with a very diluted message - which is so diluted that it doesn’t mean that much - and at the other end of the spectrum there are bands which are heavily engaged in politics, but you hardly hear them because they don’t have access to the media. Where would you put the Levellers on this continuum?

Jez: It is a tough one! We’ve had a deal of success, and we’ve always told people the same thing. The only message that we have is ‘don’t believe messages, think for yourself’. That’s what we always said from start to finish. We’ve also said, ‘don’t always look to us because we make mistakes too’. And we have made mistakes. And we’ve never been whiter than white to think that our point of view is the only point of view, or even the best one at all times. We are aware of our shortcomings in our band, in that all of us have been drug-addicts or alcoholics on and off throughout the history of the band. Just luckily not all of us at the same time! So we always managed to pull each other through. We do have people who listen to us but at the same time, we’re not that big as a group and, more than that, we are not a trendy group. We are regarded as quite difficult normally! It’s an interesting question… I’d put us more at the other end, rather than the big stadium kind of thing. Although, having said that, anyone who’s saying anything that is positive is alright. At least, a person like Bono who has access to millions of people, at least if he is talking about poverty and stuff like that, people are going to hear it…

… Yes but they’re going to hear it then forget about it!

Jez: Yeah, maybe but I’d say it’s better than not hearing it at all.

And from your end, it must be frustrating trying to raise awareness…

Jez: Of yeah! We’ve had long discussions! We’ve always been about trying to make positive change for people. We started our band in the biggest recession. No one had money and we didn’t think about being rock stars or anything like that. It didn’t interest us at all. We just thought it’d be great if people came to see us. We were very angry about a lot of things, so we had a lot of things to say. Never ran out of things to say! But when we did start to have this big success, when we were playing at arenas, we sat down and thought that if people were really listening to us seriously then we would be seeing some sign of some kind of change because we were playing to so many people! And there wasn’t really. People would ask me straight out: ‘Do you think as a band your message has worked?’ I’d say that frankly ‘no’, because if it had done then there would have been some interesting change. At the same time I get people come up to me every day and say ‘you changed my life’. Same as The Clash did for me and Crass and people like that.

How have The Clash changed your life?

Jez: I saw Joe Strummer and he said anybody can do this so I picked up a guitar. And I thought great… though a bit harder than what he’d said! It was inspirational to see someone who you thought could have been your friend, someone down to earth, who was saying quite important things, and for someone like me who was 14, not really interested in school that much, I got my news of the world from The Clash! And I’m very grateful for it still!

Isn’t it depressing to try and raise awareness and see that the world just carries on?

Jez: Yes it is, but then as an artist it is a kind of double-edged sword, because the more frustrated you are the more you want to work. But then again, we do get the individual people coming to us and saying ‘that really made me think’, a lot of them went on doing positive things. You know, coming to see The Levellers won’t change things, but if you think that what we’re doing is interesting and you want to do something, then you have to do it yourself, but buying one of our tee-shirts is only going to make us richer, it’s not going to change the world. It’s not a complete failure though, we always think that there’s a kind of hope…

How have you managed to keep the great atmosphere of your live shows going all those years?

Jez: It’s pretty simple really. As soon as you walk onstage and hear the audience go crazy, then it happens! Throughout the day we’re quite normal. As soon as you get onstage and people are shouting at you, then off we go.

And how do you keep crowd-pleasers like One Way and Beautiful Day still interesting live?

Jez: We don’t always! We’re not playing Beautiful Day at the moment, but we’re playing One Way and we didn’t play this one for years. You just have to keep resting songs and start playing them again when you like them again. We got fed up with playing Beautiful Day, especially this year. We were playing it early in the year but when you’re at festivals singing ‘what a beautiful day’ in the rain, it’s rubbish!

Guy Picciotto from Fugazi

Jez: Fugazi are a big influence on us.

… told me once, that ‘every act is a political act’…

Jez: To a certain extent I agree with that.

How does such a statement translate into your personal life?

Jez: Well, I wouldn’t say every act, but if you’re making a conscious act then yes it is. For me, I mainly kind of think, what do I have to offer that other people might not? But then, that’s my skills as an artist, song-writing. But as a band we do a lot of benefit shows if we agree with what someone’s doing and they need some money. Sometimes we go to the odd demonstration if we’re feeling really angry.

Which was the last one?

Jez: The last one I can remember because it was so enormous was the anti-war in Iraq in London. We didn’t know each other was going but then we ALL arrived there, and everyone we knew and everyone who worked for us, without talking about it before.

It didn’t do much though, unfortunately!

Jez: No, didn’t do fuck all! But interestingly all the speeches that were given were all true. The weapons of mass destruction didn’t exist. Everything that people went on that march for was proved right.

You know what they did in France…

Jez: The French were a bit more outspoken about it, weren’t they?

… The French had a similar march, but the press high-jacked the purpose of the march and said people were in the street to show how much they liked Chirac rather than show they were against an armed conflict!

Jez: What a lot of rubbish! [we both kind of laugh!]. Actually he was good. When we were at the London march, we thought what are we doing? We should be with the rest of Europe. You know, we’re part of Europe instead of in America’s pocket, which is miles away!

How much freedom does releasing your music on your own label give you?

Jez: Total freedom. We’ve always had a lot of freedom because we’ve only signed with independent record labels, and we had it in our contract that we get to do anything creatively, then they get to do the business. So being on your own label is great, but then it is annoying sometimes when the guy who works for you says, ‘oh no I don’t think we should use that artwork for this!’, and I’m like, ‘no, this is the artwork we’re going to use!’ So we still have arguments about it.

I think these are all my questions. I was allocated 15 to 20 minutes and it’s now been 19 minutes!

Jez: And I’ve got to go and wrap up my present, we’re going to have our Christmas dinner. We buy each other a present for a fiver… you know, the secret Santa! I’ve got to go and wrap mine up.

Who did you get the present for?

Jez: [Jez comes close, and puts his hand on his mouth and mutters]… I can’t say. [but then he goes on to admit]… it’s for one of our catering chefs.

What did you get him?

Jez: It wasn’t that imaginative! I got him two bottles of very nice cider, because he drinks cider. It’s practical! That’s what I’ll put on the card: “Not imaginative but practical!”

Very brave from someone who doesn’t drink! Anyway, thank you very much for your time.

Jez: No problem. Thank you for the more interesting questions than we usually get to answer. All good!

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Photograph © Aline Giordano 2008