INTERVIEW: The Levellers (November 2010)
Talking to the five original members from that period – Mark Chadwick, Jeremy Cunningham, Simon Friend, Charlie Heather and Jon Sevink (a sixth, Matt Savage, has since been added on keyboards) - you’re really able to get a distinct sense of the different personalities which make up the group. Mark is dry and sardonic, Jon bright-eyed and perceptive, Simon philosophical, and Jeremy and Charlie both warmly nostalgic when recalling the events of 1991 and its aftermath. They are, like many bands who’ve stayed together over such a long period, a bit like a dysfunctional family - however, while they often express conflicting opinions, one common point of agreement is that they all seem pleasantly baffled to still be talking about the album two decades on.
I caught up with the band last November in a small venue in Poole as part of their Weapon Called the Word tour to discuss the ongoing legacy of the album which continues to define them. Here, then, in the band’s own words, is the story of Levelling the Land…
It’s coming up to 20 years since Levelling the Land, and nearly quarter of a century in the band’s own history. Did you ever think twenty years ago that you’d still be talking about this record in two decades’ time (much less to someone who was nine years old when it was originally released…)?
MARK: [Laughs] Errr… no, to be honest! No. Maybe ten years. But twenty years since the making of that record… I definitely didn’t. I don’t think any of us did.
SIMON: Well, given the mental age of most of the people on this bus, nine’s about right! No, I mean, obviously nobody really thinks about - certainly, ‘real’ musicians don’t think about the success they’re going to have, because I just don’t think it occurs to people. It didn’t to me when I was younger – or maybe it’s just us. I think The Levellers are a bit of an enigma at that one, because we never did think, “Right, we want to be successful at this”; we just wanted to do it. There was no sort of hope to gain any kind of… it just happened, so no, I didn’t think I’d be talking to anybody about it - sort of as much, anyway. Because Levelling the Land is still, I think, our best-selling album – we went platinum with it in the mid-90s I think, and that to me was kind of a shock because I guess I did quite a lot of the writing for that. It was my first album with the band, and it was I suppose a culmination for me of a lot of years of busking and writing stuff and trying it out in folk clubs around Derby and Nottingham way. Things like the Beanfield and that, and… Is This Art?, Sell Out – they were all written I suppose about ’87-’88, and Levelling the Land was the best thing that ever happened to me because I got to do it with a band that were great, and it was in my first year of the band. So I mean, yeah, it’s a great feeling to think 20 years, it’s lasted that long – and I think the songs are just as relevant if not more so, in some aspects, with the sort of massive social upheaval that’s going on, not just in this country, but worldwide.
JON: When you’re making a record, we’d played the songs live and we knew people liked them, but all the reviews we had at the time were pretty damning, so the aftermath of that record really was that none of the press liked it. So you try not to let it get to you and you try not to take it personally, but there’s still a part of you that’s just gone: “Oh, well, we’ve made a record and we can carry on touring”, but there was no idea at the time that we’d made a really good record. But they were just live songs that people liked, and it’s only with hindsight that you can look back and say, yeah, they were all good songs. It’s very difficult with press to not take any notice of it – because it was really, really slammed.
JEREMY: We knew we’d made a good record - we knew we’d written the songs and that it was a good record, but we never looked that far ahead in those days. When we made Levelling the Land we’d just started being able to pay ourselves – I think we’d just signed off a couple of months before, and that was when we always said we kind of knew we were successful, when we could make our living out of doing music. We finally managed to pay ourselves what the dole was, which was £25 a week, and we thought: “Fucking brilliant, that’s it!”, you know? That was as far as we thought ahead… [Laughs]
MARK: We didn’t have a gameplan, not really. We knew that we would last longer than most bands because of the way we’d set things up – as in we didn’t rely on anybody too much, so we knew that we’d last a bit longer than most. But I don’t think we really intended to, or wanted to – whatever, really! It just turned out that way.
CHARLIE: I remember at the time really kind of, like, enjoying absorbing this experience. I remember thinking: don’t let those little things get you down. I just knew it was a good thing. There was a real vibe about us, a real sort of comradeship between us. To know that we were going to be that far away… Obviously at the time you couldn’t think, but the thought process at that time hasn’t changed a bit, in a way – in as much as, when you’re seventeen, or when you’re thirty, forty or, I’ve been told, when you get much older, the thought process as you wake up in the day is the same. So it feels like that with The Levellers – it’s become very timeless in our relationship. Don’t forget that there’s a lot of tension when you go onstage – we’re not the closest friends all the time, but through that we have become amazingly close. So no, I’d never have thought that we’d be that good mates for that long, because that’s the only way it’s gonna work: if we can actually really power it off. So I think we’ve all been through a lot together – I mean, growing up, Christ, it’s twenty years, that’s getting on the other side of growing up, quite frankly! – but it has been a great journey.
Looking at the album art, I noticed you were rocking that pony-tail look back then, Charlie… any regrets?!
CHARLIE: Yeah, it was a pony-tail, wasn’t it… short hair on the top, proper fucking crusty… it was a real travellers’ thing, wasn’t it?! But I don’t know, like, other bands that’ve been brilliant, like The Undertones, they never took on fashion as their main thing – we were being anti-fashion, and it really was just being part of hanging out with friends of ours who were either travellers or moved around, just kind of got that… I don’t know, ‘we can survive as we are’. The style of the kind of rave culture, but then dipping into the drug culture, you know – good and bad, obviously! So yeah, it’s been an interesting journey and that… but at that time, why I had a pony-tail? I don’t know why I had a pony-tail, but I had a short haircut. It was kind of an attitude thing, I think – like, nothing to do with fashion…
Well, it certainly was nothing to do with fashion…
CHARLIE: No, quite clearly! But being the drummer, it didn’t fucking matter, did it?!
Levelling the Land has a far greater cohesion and sense of purpose than your debut album – tell me how the bulk of the songs came about. Did they evolve from time on the road, were they songs that had been kicking around for a while and honed, or were they brought fresh to the table by individual members?
MARK: They came from a writing session we had down in Dorset as a band, and stuff we’d come across that we’d been working on on the road. We lost Alan Miles from the first album and then Simon joined the band, and he had a collection of songs that were just perfect, that married beautifully into the collection of songs that we had. And so we just had a great bunch of songs that we could record quite easily, quite quickly, because we all knew them - they were well-rehearsed and well-played, really.
JON: For Levelling the Land it was a meeting of songs that in the break-up of the line-up that made Weapon Called the Word, when the guitarist Alan Miles left, we had the bare bones of maybe three, four, five songs that we’d started writing with Alan - and then Alan left the band and we carried on as a four-piece for really only a few months I think before inviting Simon to join the band. Simon had half a dozen - he probably had ten songs from his own solo career that we took six of and applied the band to his solo material. So I would say it was half and half – we got him to join the band so we could take his songs. Apart from liking him as a person…!
JEREMY: I still really love the first album, I think the songs are great, but it’s kind of us finding our feet, really. And then after we did the first album we went out on tour with New Model Army, and just before that we did one writing session, and we kind of took all the things we’d learned from recording the first album and we wrote Liberty, which was the first song we wrote for Levelling the Land, and we played it in on the New Model Army tour and thought oh, yes, that was the kind of direction we were gonna take with the album. And Simon had Beanfield already written, and me and Mark wrote One Way pretty much around that time… ah, I can’t remember a lot of the songs now! But yeah, it evolved – I wrote a lot of the lyrics, Simon and Mark wrote a lot of the songs, and we all wrote and arranged everything. And the other thing that’s gotta be said is that Al Scott, the producer, he was like the other member of the band. He had that much input, and is still a good friend of ours, is still someone we see all the time and work with.
I noticed something I hadn’t picked up on previously while listening to the remaster the other day – all the bits in the background on Liberty Song, is that you?
JEREMY: That’s Mark, going: “Get orf moi laaaand!” on the megaphone… [laughs]. Yeah, I didn’t realise it was all the way through, either – it’s just him screaming all the way through…!
SIMON: I wrote a lot of songs in this period from around ’85 when I was still at school. But things like The Boatman – again, Wendy, who, strangely enough became our tour manager in the end and went on to do all other sorts of stuff, it was her 21st birthday – or was it her 18th? – her Mum said for her birthday, we’d have a narrow-boat for the week. There was eight of us on this narrow-boat and we just had a great week – you know, I took my mandolin and guitars and everything and we were just playing along and stuff… when I got home the next week I was sat in the back garden, I got this banjo and I just started playing it and the riff for The Boatman came out. So I started singing, and that was how The Boatman was written. But it was all about that week on the Thames on a narrow-boat, which was great fun. Beanfield obviously kind of speaks for itself really in its subject matter – I’d been spending quite a lot of time in ’85-’86 on the road really, living with mates on buses and going to lots of festivals, sort of busking my way round the country and Europe, hanging out at Stonehenge and Glastonbury and doing the Teddy Bear’s Picnic – very sort of strange, different things that we all did. And I actually went to Glastonbury in the end, we got headed off before the Beanfield happened – which was lucky for us, I suppose…
It must’ve been quite scary to think you’d avoided that by chance.
SIMON: Well, yeah, but I mean, we came across the police all the time, and that just happened to be the climax of a lot of abuse and hatred that had gone on for quite a long time. Beanfield just happened to highlight it massively in the press… in some ways it was the press’s fault for building it all up, like: “medieval brigands, axe-wielding maniacs”, all this sort of stuff. People who choose a different lifestyle, that’s up to them – they wouldn’t call Darwin a traveller, but you could in effect call somebody like Darwin an explorer who’s happened to live under canvas and would go anywhere to find something. Well that’s kind of in some ways what the New Age Travellers were seeking, anyway – what’s over the next horizon, if they’re truly New Age Travellers as opposed to New Age Settlers, which is a different matter entirely. But yeah, you know, I could understand the people who were pissed off with the whole thing, with the benefits and that sort of thing, but back then it wasn’t such a big thing – a lot of the travellers didn’t want to sign on, they couldn’t because they weren’t in the same place at one time. But it wasn’t about that, it was about making bags and making music, selling whatever and doing fruit-picking, and so the Beanfield just angered me massively socially, and hurt me personally through what happened to some friends of mine. And really the song is dedicated to them, and has always been talked about as that thing.
Was Simon kind of the missing piece of the puzzle when he joined?
MARK: Yeah, I think so, when he got involved with the band. I mean, he’d supported us and stuff with Alan, and we were like… mmm, Alan’s not comfortable in a band, he was never comfortable with that situation and I had an eye on Simon I think, because I really liked his songs – they were like Levellers songs, really. It was weird. So a combination of the two, really.
JEREMY: It was a seamless transition, really easy. Battle of the Beanfield - that’s how Simon got the job in our band! I heard him play that, and when our other guitarist Alan left, I was like: we’ve gotta have this guy in our band, just so we can play that fucking song!
SIMON: I had ten days to learn the set, to get to grips with kind of what they wanted – some of which being learn the harmonica, which I’d never really played; you know, Carry Me’s not the easiest song to start with as a harmonica song because it’s very much harmonica-led, but that sort of thing was a great challenge; I love doing that sort of stuff anyway. But yeah, it just seemed to happen – strangely enough, I’d been pestering Phil, the Levellers’ manager at the time, for gigs and support slots, stuff like that, and I’d done a couple of support slots with the band in Brighton – and strangely enough he sort of rang me a few months or so before I joined, which was in May of 1990, to sort of say: “Have you ever thought of putting a band together, Si?”! So, strangely enough, the night I actually got asked to join I’d been out to rehearse with a mate of mine who’s a bass player, and it went really well – we did things like Beanfield and stuff, and sadly for him the next night I said “Sorry mate, I’ve just joined the band!” Which is sad for him in some ways, I suppose, because it could’ve been a very different world – for me, anyway… But yeah, it was a great, it was a really easy transition – I sort of got on a bus to Brighton with all my instruments and Mark met me down in Brighton, and I lived at his place in the spare room for months and months, it seemed… But it was great, we all got on really well. We’d met before anyway, they’d stayed in Derby at our house - a friend of mine, Wendy, who ended up came and worked for us – they came and played and asked for somewhere to stay, and we said “Yeah, come and stay”, so I got to know them anyway. Loved the music, loved the politics, loved everything about it - it was right up my street for everything I was doing myself at the time. For me, it was like they were the other missing musicians in my life – it was so easy to walk into The Levellers for me, because it fulfilled everything I at the time had, which was mandolin, guitar and some songs. And obviously since then it’s been great – I’ve learned to play other instruments, it’s been great.
Even if Simon hadn’t joined the band, do you think that Battle of the Beanfield would’ve become a Dirty Davey-type song that you covered?
JEREMY: Yeah, probably! [Laughs] But we did want him - I mean, Simon had supported us a few times on his own, and we loved his songs – Levelling the Land is half his fucking songs that he brought anyway, so…
JON: He was certainly a really vital part of making that record, because he’d been a solo singer for a few years I think, following New Model Army around, busking outside their gigs. So he’d worked on his own songs and played them live over a period of those two or three years - he’d accumulated some really good songs of his own in terms of their structure was pretty sound, and certainly the lyrics were all finished. And so we grabbed half a dozen songs and added them to ours, and were able almost straight away to go and play them live as Levellers songs.
Apparently there was a tour you did with New Model Army where their fans would turn their backs on you while you were playing, is that true?!
JON: Well, they were a weird bunch…! It’s very difficult to tell, because they have this strange kind of… they gave themselves a name, this particularly hardcore following of New Model Army fans, who used to stand in a big circle, maybe ten in a circle so it would open up a space in the middle of the gig, and they’d do this strange punching routine… [Laughs] Oh, it’s so bizarre… and one by one they’d take little solo turns to do this strange, like, air-punching to the music! And so yeah, some of them would’ve had their backs to us. Half of them really liked us, and half of them didn’t get it at all – we weren’t heavy enough for some of them.
Did they think you’d kidnapped Simon from them as well? [At the point where he joined The Levellers, he had apparently also been asked to join New Model Army].
JON: No, because I think at that point Simon was just a follower, so I think the people that knew him were really pleased to see him doing well and playing in a band. And the way it goes with a following for any band, if they know other bands, they’re quite happy for those to support and go on tour with them – it’s a fairly organic way of travelling around with your mates. But they got upset because Simon was quoted in a music magazine saying something about not liking New Model Army, and it was something actually I had said in an interview, and New Model Army were very upset with him. Well, rightly so - they obviously thought: “Who’s this guy who’s been following us around and now he’s slagging us off?”, but it was me that said it and not him!
The final album has so much energy to it, and I think it probably captures the vibrancy of the band’s live performance better than any other studio record you’ve done – how was it recorded? Were the basic tracks cut live as a band, or was it built from the ground up?
MARK: It would depend on the tracks – I think most of them were recorded quite independently, because we didn’t really know much about recording then. We would have cut it live if we’d have known, but it was recorded in the 90s end of the 80s – really, that was the vibe that we were recording under, and so doing live recording wasn’t really the done thing. It was like, do the drums, put a layer on top of it – that’s kind of how we did it. But we did it by playing together – just not recording the whole sound together.
It sounds absolutely effortless - was it a difficult album to record?
MARK: It really wasn’t, no – we recorded quite quickly in Ridge Farm. Because we were doing this about 40 miles outside of Brighton, me and Jon cycled there. We were there for two weeks, we enjoyed the swimming pool, and I think we made a record. That’s what’s in my memory – we made a record while enjoying the luxury in this luxury, fantastic farmhouse, really! We brought all our mates up, you know, parties and everything, and in the background we made this record.
JON: I’m not sure it ‘accidentally’ got recorded - I mean, there was a purpose for being there and it’s not cheap to go into a recording studio, but we were all on the dole and really not making a great deal of money out of the band, so to turn up at this country manor house where we were getting all our food cooked for us and there was a swimming pool and a big recording studio, it was absolute heaven. And all our mates came up from Brighton and they were hanging round the studio as well – I had two young children at the time and they were spending time up there, so it was recorded with our friends and family all around. I remember more of hanging out with friends up there than I do about recording!
SIMON: We’d toured a lot and we’d played a lot of the songs so in live, that when we came to play it, it was almost like making a live record, even though we did do it individually. For me it was the first time I’d ever done anything like that aside from recording myself, not thinking about drums and stuff. So for me, no, I had a great time - swanning about at Ridge Farm was fantastic, it was a lovely 15th Century mansion set in the Surrey countryside: swimming pool, tennis courts, everything. It was gorgeous. Beautiful staff; women who were just gorgeous, really flirty! So in that respect for me it was a dead easy album.
JEREMY: It was fucking easy. It was effortless. The first one was a fucking nightmare – really hard. You know, we had a really hard producer and we wanted to play it live, and we just weren’t good enough, really! And so we had a lot of grief trying to play that first album. But Levelling the Land, it was so easy, especially working with Al Scott – we’d get the band in, do all the live takes, and then if something sounds a bit wrong, we’d just fix it. No grief! And we did that for all the basics – the rhythm guitar, the bass, the drums, and when we came to do the tunes, the fiddle and mandolin and stuff, he really sat down with Jon and Simon and worked everything out with them so everything worked together. I don’t think we’ve done a record since then that we actually did that on – sat down and worked everything out: mandolin, fiddle, you’re gonna do this, you’re gonna do that… it’s a really good, really interesting process. I really think we should do it again, that kind of thing: that really in-depth working out the bit that holds your interest at the top end of the song once you’ve got all the noise down.
So did he help to craft the structure of the songs?
JEREMY: Yeah, yeah – he helped arrange them… he fucking played on most of them. You know, he played guitar on Beanfield – Simon couldn’t play it in time… [laughs]. We’d been playing it live like that, but we when we came to do it in the studio, Si just couldn’t fucking do it! So Al Scott did it. And he played piano on The Road… there’s bits of him all over it.
Is he a bit like your George Martin in that respect?
JEREMY: Basically, yeah. He has to be given credit for being the sixth member in creating what people think of as being The Levellers’ sound - which is Levelling the Land, pretty much.
What are your favourite memories of recording the album or from around that period? Are there any funny stories, or what’s the strangest thing that happened to you?
MARK: It was probably just to be ushered into this world that we really weren’t aware of – you know, we’d all been on the dole and whatnot, and really had no idea what rock and roll was going to be like. And so that came as a bit of a shock to us really, the luxury element that was involved in it all. It was like, “Oh, wow!” Like I say, me and Jon cycled there – we didn’t have cars back in those days; none of us really had anything. We didn’t have a pot to piss in – we only paid ourselves twenty-five quid a week at the time, which wasn’t a great deal of money. But from that point onwards it snowballed quite quickly, so we never really had time to think about it – up until, what, twenty years later, now!
SIMON: There were some great, funny moments – I still remember to this day having to stand to do some electric guitar, because I used to have this weird thing with electricity which has gone a bit now, but I’d just make anything buzz and break down. And we just couldn’t get the buzz off the electric guitar - I had to stand with one foot on a stool and another foot on a massive £300,000 desk, with the guitar sort of pointing north, and that was the only place in the room we could get the guitar buzz-free! It was fucking bizarre… A big reverb plate, I remember that, Ridge Farm had a great massive reverb plate, this fucking massive metal thing. It was great! Yeah, good memories actually, really good memories - then I think we went to Parkgate or somewhere like that to mix it, which was a bit more sort of rock-starry; I didn’t like it. The guy who owned it, they’d some big hit in the 70s, and it was all sort of, suede blue sneakers, white trousers: I’m not sure what these people are…! But yeah, it was good fun to make, and it was easy because most of the album, either I’d written it, or we went up to Charlie’s brother’s place and did quite a lot of stuff up there which was great, up in Wales. And that was great, like, just sort of sitting around in the spare room really, like a bunk room that they had, round a stove banging it out and working on things like Riverflow – stuff like that came out of that.
It seems like something you would’ve done for fun.
SIMON: Well, kind of – we knew that we weren’t the most organised people as such, but that was the whole point – it was chaos, it was anarchy. It was where most of us came out of in some ways, whether it was punk rock, or there’s a bit of Mod in Charlie in places, I’ve always been a bit of a rocker – we all came out of social atmospheres that were uneasy, and were looking for something. So we were all of that age where we weren’t quite old enough to hit that punk thing, but we hit that early 80s kind-of-punk thing… I guess for me, people like New Model Army, and The Clash were still knocking around, but The Clash weren’t so much in my face - like I say, I was more rock-oriented anyway, so I went into the folk-rock world probably earlier than these guys did because they’re more like punk rockers, and the folk aspect sort of ‘happened’.
I think there are two key misconceptions about The Levellers that have been perpetuated over the years. The first is that you’re an angry band – obviously there are elements of this in some of your work, but actually I think the first thing that hits anyone when they first hear this album is its sheer exuberance.
MARK: Yeah, I mean, the music was designed to uplift people. Some of the lyrics might be angry, but the music was really consciously designed to make sure that you enjoy listening to this experience – it’s not like heavy metal where we’re just drilling it into you about how crap life is, essentially a lot of the lyrics are quite uplifting. We’re saying, this is a pastoral existence we’ve all lived in in England - maintain it, look after it and look after each other, is essentially the belief we had.
JON: We weren’t ‘angry’ in the sense that we were shouting at people from the record – I’ve always thought it was life-affirming rather than that. And I think that’s really what we do best: it’s about saying to people that there are positive things that you can take, people are capable of great things if they join together and do them, and I think that’s really what we felt.
JEREMY: We always thought it was optimistic, and we were very conscious of coming from a… we come from a punk rock background, and we are really angry a lot of the time! And we realised that the lyrics we were writing were quite intense lyrics – when we started The Levellers, we gave ourselves a mission statement: we’d formed The Levellers just after the kind of mid-80s miners’ strike and Battle of the Beanfield, and we’d been going to lots of benefit gigs and listening to politicians speaking and stuff – having messages just rammed down your throat. And we just weren’t really… some of the messages we agreed with, but we just weren’t really keen on having them bashed down our faces all the time. And when we started The Levellers, we went, “Right: we’re gonna sing intense lyrics, because that’s what we wanna do - but we’re gonna put them in as optimistic kind of music as we can, so it doesn’t sound like we’re trying to ram it down people’s throats”. So people could dance to the tunes, basically. And in the end, that’s the best way of subverting anything, is through fun! [Laughs] You know? And the music press did completely miss that – they all thought we were out selling Socialist Worker in our spare time, when actually we were out doing loads of Es and going to raves… [laughs].
SIMON: I’ve always been anti-politics, I hate it. For me, life’s quite simple, really, but a lot of people wouldn’t agree with me. As I say, I’d quite happily live in the woods, and a lot of my friends and family know that! [Laughs] I spend quite a lot of my time up in woods with a chainsaw, just chilling. I love it! It’s a simple thing. And okay, I do have an iPhone, and I have to be realistic about life – particularly working in the band, but I’m fully intending to do a wood course next year, chainsaw and tree-cutting, so if the band ever finished I’ve got something else under my belt anyway. Sorry, I keep wandering away from the question here…! [Laughs]
If a record is just that – a record of a group of people at a certain time - looking back at the album now, do you think that it’s an accurate representation of you as a band and as people at that point?
SIMON: Yeah, I think so – and also for the times that had been. Because a lot of people think Stonehenge and the Beanfield killed off that whole thing, but it didn’t because I went several years running after that and people were angrier – people were fucked off and wanted some kind of justice, really. And I think they set themselves up, and they realised it – ‘them’ being the powers that be! – realised that, oops, we’ve dropped a bit of a clanger here, because we’ve martyred this. And for the people that cared, it was like, right: this is our Alamo-type thing and we are fucking gonna get you back somehow. And whether that’s twenty years of writing records telling them how wrong the system is and how I don’t like it, then so be it, if that’s my way of doing it. But yeah, I think it does – they were good times, there was a lot of free festivals, a lot of travelling going on; a lot of people were opening their eyes, it was a great sort of ‘alternative university’ to attend. It really was, you could get out there and do stuff, see things, meet other people and discuss politics – whether it’s Communism in Greece or whatever, with people who were happy to do it. As opposed to, what was the option? Get a job, go to the pub, come home, slap the wife, whatever… there was no great options for people who are intelligent, because I think most of our generation are quite intelligent people. So we give people the excuse to have some kind of social outlook, so I think it’s really important that bands like us continue, and hopefully younger bands pick up that kind of vibe around you and keep the flame going. That’s always what folk music’s been about, is about protest, really – there’s quite a lot of love and stuff in there, but it’s mainly about protest and historical battles, fights, murders, that sort of stuff. It’s always been a social comment. When folk music becomes folk music, I don’t know, because some people call old music ‘folk music’ but it might not have been that at the time; it might’ve been Radio 1, if they’d had one! But who knows…
MARK: As a band and as people, and as also a branch of society at that particular time – I think that was a really accurate representation of the travelling community and the sort of outsider world that existed then. It certainly doesn’t exist as much now, and if it does, I don’t know where it is.
On a Rapido feature from 1991, the announcer made quite an astute observation, which was that the rise of The Levellers also represents the rise of the festival circuit and alternative lifestyles. You obviously had massive success in uniting various different underground groups - did you feel like you were channelling a mutual feeling or expressing something that was going on in the culture at that time with this album?
SIMON: Not really – only as much as we wanted to, ’cos we always shied away from being labelled the heroes or the leaders of the movement. Because there were no ‘leaders’ – the whole point of it was there were no leaders as such, it was a movement, a bunch of people who agree the same. You don’t need a leader if you all believe you think the same. It’s like a religion, I suppose – maybe not a religion, that’s dangerous ground, but I call it common sense, you know! The average man, woman or child has that – if only they’d use it sometimes…
MARK: I think we probably were, but at the time we vociferously denied it – we were like, “No, we’re not the spokesmen for anything!” So we didn’t want to be spokesmen for it, but we definitely were a part of something at that time that was quite big, you know - that term ‘crusty’, and all those phrases that sound so odd now. To the media we represented it; to us, we were it; but I don’t think anyone else who believed we were were exactly the people we represented. I don’t think they really believed that we were.
JON: I remember we were dead-set against being labelled as any kind of heroes of that underground movement – at the same time that we were being written about in not any kind of encouraging terms, but it was bringing attention to that way of life, we were being slagged off by the rather hardcore element of the underground travelling movement, and we were very nervous about being seen to represent them. They didn’t like that, and we also didn’t want to be labelled as representing them. They represented themselves; we just happened to be a band that were in the newspapers more often than they were.
JEREMY: We were aware of it, but that whole time, the media was trying to throw us up as the spokespeople for the New Age Travellers and the Ravers. And the whole thing that we said was, “We can’t do that – people go on the road so that they don’t have spokesmen, so go and talk to them!” But we were aware of it – it really happened because at that point there were very few bands that would play the squat from the traveller – their gigs, basically. We didn’t make any money off it, but you got a good crowd – sometimes…! Sometimes they might steal everything, you know?! [Laughs] But you take your risks, you know, whatever! We had basically spent two years playing the University circuit, which doesn’t get reported as much, but for every free festival and travellers’ gig and squat we did, we did about three or four student venues to two pissed students or whatever – and every now and then we’d do a really good one… but those gigs used to be able to pay for us to go and do a squat gig where we wouldn’t earn anything, we’d probably lose money. So that’s kind of how we balanced it out. And then basically after two years of doing that, suddenly all the students that we’d been playing to and accumulating this fanbase left college, and all the travellers that we’d been playing to, the word had spread, and they started coming to see us even when we didn’t play the travellers’ sites and the free festivals. And then suddenly we were playing venues, and all these students and travellers were turning up and our audience was just massive. It wasn’t overnight – it was two years, or three years, even – but we could see it coming.
CHARLIE: At one time, it really did feel like we were the only band that was saying anything. And that was the thing, like: “Oh, don’t do politics; politics and music don’t mix”. But there are great artists who can touch on that in a sort of ambiguous way, whereas we’re a bit more crass about it and just go: “Actually, have you seen this shit?!” There was a point where I thought, what’s really kind of done it was the Criminal Justice Bill - not just the band, but the organisation we had around us were picking up on that: “Have you seen this? Have you seen what’s going on here?” Like: “Whoah…!” And so we really did get politically activated at times – especially when we had the office in London with the team we had. But I think we didn’t quite follow it up - that album [1993’s Levellers] didn’t match what we were actively doing, and for the critics that was a real good way of slandering it down. So we had a couple of really good songs that summed that up - but it’d be so overly-U2 or Bob Geldof, you know what I mean?
You were accused in the press of being middle-class boys ‘dressing up’…
MARK: Yeah, well, that was absolutely nonsense because none of us are! It’s really weird, because as a band we were mixed but mostly working-class, so that was very strange. But I don’t know, you wouldn’t really do that so much nowadays, accuse bands of ‘class’… it’s because of Jeremy, look at his name: Jeremy Cunningham! And he’s a working-class boy from fucking Crawley… d’you know what I mean, it doesn’t get any worse! I’m an army brat all the way through, really, so… none of us were. So it was quite odd. But we just ignored it, really – and we probably went to war with them a bit too much, with the media at the time, because a lot of them went to become quite powerful people in various branches of music media! But yeah, it was weird being tarred with a brush, but once you’re tarred with it, you’re tarred with it – there’s nothing you can do about it, so we decided not to get too stressed about it eventually…
The second key misconception is that The Levellers are a ‘political’ band. However, I don’t think Levelling the Land is a particularly political record – if anything, it’s anti-political in the sense that it seems to be trying to escape the world of politics. Would you agree with that?
JEREMY: Apolitical, yeah! I mean, we’ve always said we come from an anarchist background and we don’t hold by any political parties - full stop.
JON: We were anti-party politics in the way that anarchism in its many varied forms is against a party-political system. We were far more into people’s power within themselves. You know, when we were going to all the festivals back then, there were no police on site, people just got on with it and dealt with things amongst themselves, and that’s what we believed in. We still do, funnily enough.
MARK: We’re trying to escape the world of ideologues – you know, anyone that is an ideologue is a dangerous person who is there to interfere in your life to the death of hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people. And that sort of conviction and belief, it’s like: just leave us alone. We are the people, and we just want to go about our business. We want our food and our shelter, our education, and that’s it.
Was it frustrating then to be accused of sloganeering?
MARK: Oh, God, yeah - we were accused of being left-wing, sometimes virtually right-wing – but we’re not political. Everyone’s like: “But you’re a political band”… well no, we’re not! We’re very wary of politics and what they can do to people, but does that make us an angry political band, you know? That’s Billy Bragg - that’s not us.
Obviously around the time of the Criminal Justice Bill though you did become quite prominent figureheads - did you grow into that role?
MARK: Yeah, we grew into that role and took that on. Basically, I really wanted to take that on, because I realised that we had a position of power and we could be a unified force for various disparate groups, and really went for it – spent a good year really championing that cause.
JON: We could’ve – and you know, looking back, maybe we should’ve done [more], I’m not really sure. Maybe we should’ve made more efforts to sort of sit everybody down and say “Right, how are we going to do this? We should do this together”. But we are musicians, and so we reflect the times we live in, and we try and tell stories and carry whatever messages we feel need to be carried, rather than to be spokespeople necessarily.
CHARLIE: I mean, we were involved in that – we were right up for it, and loved it. I’m just thinking, looking at it retrospectively, had there been anything that were better, it’d be a song that summed that up. What we’re doing now – if we could place it there.
Do you think, then, to coin a phrase from Easy Rider, that you blew it?
CHARLIE: Well, it felt like kind of a…I think all of us felt, really: oh, we were touring America a lot, trying to do a deal with that and it wasn’t working – we made the right decision to go: “forget it”. There isn’t enough time for us to physically do that. I mean, people like U2 would go out for months and months, and years and years, and then you’ve got it, great, but we just couldn’t do it that way round. But I’m talking, after the 90s here.
Do you think The Levellers are a quintessentially English band?
CHARLIE: I think we’re the most English band that’ve been around for years, really. You know, years ago we weren’t sure what we could do, we had that sort of Celtic folk thing, but then it’s like: “Oh, we’ve got you a gig”. “Alright, when is it?” “St. Patrick’s Night. I’ve put you down as an Irish band”. “Oh, for fuck’s sake…”! So we did the gig and it’s like: “So which of you’s from Oirland, den?” Errr… his Mum’s from Ireland…!
The underlying theme of a lot of the band’s early lyrics seem to concentrate on the tension between wanting to be an active and beneficial part of society, but being out on the sidelines and holding different ideals from the majority. As young men in their early twenties, was part of your rebellion against the roles that society was trying to thrust on you?
MARK: Yeah, yeah, absolutely – I was expected to join the army, for example, that was the most natural thing to do, but I failed on the day due to my psychological… [laughs] due to the way I think about the world! I failed all those tests – the army, the police force, the Air-Force, the Navy…. And then it was like: then what? What next for me, you know? I wasn’t interested in working in the wider world, becoming an accountant or a lawyer, or a historian… but yeah, there were pressures to work at that time. And now there are pressures to work again, it’s weird.
The key line seems to me to be “All my friends and all their jobs, and all the bloody waste” [from One Way] – were you struggling at that time to cope with those pressures that were being put on you?
MARK: Well yeah, because you could see people doing things – they’d been forced or gerrymandered into a situation they’re not happy with, and they’re gonna be in that situation for the rest of their life until they break. And it’s just by guile and luck that all of us managed to maintain a lifestyle and a way of being outside of that.
JEREMY: It was more to do with the fact that we were living in squats and stuff like that. I lived in a bus on the road, and we didn’t have really any money, but we felt really connected to the country, to the environment. We felt really connected to that, but there’s no way of really expressing it because we weren’t kind of nationalistic – we hated all that nationalist, racist shit. But we loved the old, cheesy concept of sort of, like, ‘England’, if you will. And so most of those early lyrics are trying to come to terms with that – we love our country, but we don’t love it in a kind of nationalistic way; there’s no kind of ‘English’ way of saying it in one word. Germans have a word for it, but we don’t! So a lot of those lyrics were written with that in mind.
On the album artwork, you seem to really tap into this idea of the oppression of the city versus the escape of the country – is that what you were trying to do with that piece?
JEREMY: Kind of, yeah – I dunno, because I grew up in Crawley, which is kind of a ‘new’ town… and when we started The Levellers in Brighton, Brighton was going through a kind of regeneration. So the places we were living in were sort of like the tower blocks and the grey concrete bits, but then five minutes up the road you have, like, Devil’s Dyke, which is an amazing… like, the edge of the town falls off into this huge great big dyke, as it’s the South Downs, basically, if you go hang-gliding and stuff. Yeah, so it’s just trying to kind of express that, and express the lyrics in a visual kind of way. And kind of… accessible as well – we wanted it to be kind of angry but accessible. And also, the back cover was almost the most important thing with that record, ’cos we wanted to have, like, symbols, you know? On the back cover it’s got the sun and it’s got crossed spanners – and that was basically that we wanted: a skull and crossbones, like, pirate thing… but we thought, “Ah, skull and crossbones, it’s a bit cheesy, a bit fucking negative”, you know… so we thought, oh, we’ll have the sun, this smiling sun face, but a bit kind of evil – not evil-looking, but you don’t quite know what’s going on in his head. The image of the sun is instantly quite positive - and then we had the spanners because we always had this thing about being a spanner in the works, this anarchist idea, and also because a lot of us were living on the road and we used to have to fix things with spanners, and break into things with spanners… so that was our skull and crossbones, basically!
When I talked to Mark about his solo record, he made reference to “the characters he fell in with” – did you get a sense of the stars aligning around this time? Did you know you were on to something special with this album?
MARK: Yeah. Yeah, I think all of us noticed that at that point – so much so that the making of the next one was incredibly daunting, because when you’ve made something that is that special, it has been noted. But it was just weird, because everybody kind of bought it – it was just one of those records that everyone ‘bought’. It wasn’t like Screamadelica or something like that, where everybody bought it because it was so visible – everybody bought it but no-one really talked about it that much. But everyone had a copy of it.
JEREMY: It’s difficult to say with all this hindsight, you know… We definitely knew we were making a really good record, and we knew there was a big buzz going on around us… I think obviously the stars did align for that record, but I don’t think we were really that aware of it. I mean, I’ve been asked this quite a few times – not about that record, but about that time in general – and what I thought it was like, looking back on it, it was like you’re in a hurricane that’s going on around you and you’re at the calm centre-point of it, ’cos all you’re thinking is: “Right, we’ve got these gigs to do here, we’ve got these interviews to do here”… and all this mad shit is going on all around you, but by the time the mad shit is happening you’ve usually moved on, so your record is, like, #1 and on Top of the Pops and all that, but you’re in France doing a gig and then you’ve moved on. So I always felt a bit removed and detached from it all.
JON: It was special from the start. The people who formed the band in the first place, the relationship between those people was special then and it is special now. And that’s never changed. And then as you rise up as a band and you play to more and more people and become more popular, you do meet some very interesting people along the way. They just naturally gravitate towards people like us! But you have a strength with a band – and it’s great, because if you’re on your own in a large group of fairly scary people, you’re not quite sure how they’re gonna behave towards you. If you’re in a band and you’re surrounded by these scary people, they all love you, they think you’re great. So you’re instantly accepted by the majority of these big scary people, so it’s great!
In an age before Myspace and the internet, would you say that The Levellers were the first major musical social networking phenomenon?
JEREMY: Quite possibly – I don’t know about that, but we certainly encouraged people to do that. And certainly when the internet became available we were one of the first bands to use it – like, Sony came to us to ask how to do a database for the Manics… we’d been doing it for about two years, and we said “Well, free communication has got to be good, innit”… There you go! [Laughs]
MARK: It was done purely by the people. It was done completely by the people. Our record company weren’t particularly great at that sort of thing, they did the usual marketing – it was done by word of mouth by the people that followed the band, and they spread it real quick.
A lot of bands always say the most exciting time is just before they break through – would you say this was true of that period?
JON: Absolutely. Absolutely brilliant – we had two or three years that were insane. Things happening, getting news in constantly: “Oh, you’ve been asked to go to America, you’ve been asked to go to Japan. You’ve been asked to play this festival, you’re headlining this festival. You’re signed by the record company, you’re going into the studio”. Life is just exciting when it’s like that. It really is, it’s just fantastic. And then you know when you kind of peak and things start to go downhill a little bit. But while you’re going up, it’s absolutely wonderful – best years of my life.
MARK: I think it had happened before then, that initial buzz or rush of excitement – I remember once just getting in the van to get on the road, we stopped at Charlie’s Mum’s house, and I just got an incredible rush of adrenaline because I knew somehow that we’d done it. You know, an innate knowledge that we’d done it and it was gonna be great.
Was that enough for you at that point – was it like you’d already achieved what you wanted to?
MARK: Yeah, it was kind of like – we were young then, I was a twenty-three year-old bloke who was like, “This is fantastic”. I’ve achieved quite quickly what I wanted to achieve, which was a) get a band together who are quite serious in mind and intent, and b) are chiming with the population.
When it got bigger and bigger, did you just find that quite funny then, quite surreal?
MARK: It seemed really, really natural. The whole question of it seemed really, really natural.
From everything I’ve seen, heard and read about that period, it seems like it was a non-stop party as far as the band was concerned. Is that true?
MARK: [Laughs] Yeah, pretty much. You know, we’ve always had a serious way of going about our business, but we have partied very hard. In fact, people… yeah, we’ve partied really hard!
JON: Absolutely, yeah. We were doing – we weren’t necessarily going to lots of festivals, but we were playing lots of festivals, we were going out on the road. We were doing a lot of drugs, but good drugs in the way we saw it - it’s a lot of marijuana, LSD and mushrooms, there was no cocaine. We didn’t do cocaine at all back then, and we saw cocaine as a bad drug - it didn’t bring people together in any way; it was divisive. And so that all went together with being in a band. I remember it acutely because I was a father of two fairly young children, so I had my home-life that had to be kept together for the kids while they were going to school, and so with the band, I remember just thinking: “This is crazy…” But it was this whole, just massive parties that never seemed to end – and touring was about just not really getting very much sleep, and just staying up, doing drugs, going to parties, and that was it. And occasionally playing some music.
CHARLIE: It was and it wasn’t in a lot of ways, for me – I mean, some of it, everything just kind of changed… we met more people and it just became a lot more superficial for me. But doing the gigs, I just knew: this is it. I said to myself earlier, enjoy every moment, because the band was just starting something. Just enjoy every moment, despite the troubles and the shit, just go through the mill, literally, in a big way.
JEREMY: It’s just one of those things – you can’t replicate it, because you have to go into it with a kind of innocence, so it can’t really happen again, I don’t think. Because if you’re aware of what’s happening then you might try and exploit it, or you might be more cynical about it or something, I dunno. I just think that sort of thing only happens once in your lifetime, let alone in a band’s career – it doesn’t happen to most bands.
At Glastonbury 1992, it’s estimated that you played to the biggest stage-front crowd the festival had ever seen – would you say that was a career high-point?
MARK: Well, people say it is our career high-point – I’m often asked, because that’s the answer they want, and that isn’t actually the answer I really want to give. It depends who I’m talking to though, so I say that that’s the answer. But generally speaking, no – our career high-point for me was when we put our own festival on. That’s a career high-point, that’s a real achievement. That’s something special, something really unique, it’s not just doing a gig. But for example, we did that gig – 80,000 people or whatever it was – and two days later we were in San Francisco playing to two people. [Laughs] D’you know what I mean?! We always had our feet on the ground.
JEREMY: That was kind of like the accumulation of all of that that we’ve just been talking about – I meant with the travellers and the student thing coming together, and with the rave thing all kicking off as well. ’Cos we were doing a lot of raves at that point as well – free parties and stuff, and a lot of people didn’t realise that; we were doing all that stuff, you know. And I think we were one of the first rock bands to use rave lighting at our gigs as well – we used to just love all those big old strobe flowers, we had a lighting guy turn them on for, like… the whole gig! [Laughs]
JON: That was unreal. Absolutely unreal. We always used to go to Glastonbury early – you’d go on the Tuesday or Wednesday and hang out for a few days before the festival started, and I remember thinking: “Oh, there’s a few Levellers shirts here, and there’s… there’s a few more Levellers shirts here...” And then thinking, “Christ, did we actually sell that many shirts?!” There were loads of bootleg shirts, and it seemed like every other person was wearing a Levellers t-shirt or sweatshirt – and I remember thinking, this is just crazy, this is insane, there’s something going on here that we have no idea of the magnitude of it. And sure enough, when the played, the crowd was… I’ve never seen anything like it. People as far as the eye could see, all loving it, all dancing, and great core groups of people within that, probably a hundred strong, bouncing up and down and moving their way around the crowd. I haven’t seen anything like it to this day, really.
Listening back to the recording of that gig, what’s funny is that you seem almost baffled that people who otherwise would’ve been at the festival just getting mashed were up onstage playing. Is that how you felt?
MARK: Yeah, absolutely. I’d been going there since I was a young teenager, so to suddenly find myself up on that stage – which I’d never paid any attention to when I was at the festival, I never saw any of the bands… I think I saw Ian Dury once and that was it, because I was too busy enjoying myself at the back! So, to be on that stage was extremely weird. Yes, I d say extremely weird…
I’ve got an academic essay title for you here: “The overriding theme of Levelling the Land is the longing for personal, spiritual and political freedom. Discuss.”
JEREMY: Yeah. That’s pretty much it! [Laughs]
MARK: [Laughs] Absolutely! No, that is it. That’s exactly what that album’s all about – which, as a subject matter, is a fine and broad one. I’d say it probably is still The Levellers’ subject matter, but probably best addressed exclusively on one album at that point.
SIMON: I suppose in our each individual way that’s what we were looking for - we always were and we always will be. I don’t think I’d be able to continue doing what it is I’m doing if I’d found what I was looking for. Having said that, I kind of know what I want in life, but I still haven’t managed to achieve it yet – it’s very simple, it’s just that life hasn’t been that easy.
Is it to be a boatman…?!
SIMON: Yeah, actually, to be honest! Yeah, I’ve been looking at boats again – but finance and money and things is hard, and a boat is a difficult thing to maintain, to keep up. So I’m kind of thinking further afield now as well – I do all the woods stuff, I do a lot of chopping of logs. I don’t have central heating, I have an open fire – it’s the most green way of living and all that, so ideally I’d have a little house in the woods somewhere next to an inlet, with a boat moored up so that I can get out and go. That would be my nirvana, really.
It’s strange to hear you say how tough it’s been – when I was growing up, you were pretty much the biggest band in the country, and I always assumed your lives would be quite glamorous…
SIMON: No, well, we were never glamorous! [Laughs] And we never made that much money, to be honest – I think our principles, certainly in the early years, we turned a lot of corporate stuff down. Which cost us a lot of money in the long-run – I think if we look back now, we were bit naïve really in that respect: we could’ve used that money as easily as abused it, had we taken it. And that’s what people think, the glamour of the rock star world, the glamour of the rock star life – none of us have ever been that type of person anyway, so I think we’d have been useless at it, to be honest! [Laughs] We’d probably be dead very quickly if we’d made the sorts of money people expect you to make. But ultimately, this extravagant lifestyle is only for people like Robbie Williams who’ve sold millions of records – millions worldwide, you know. Gold in England doesn’t actually mean that you’re a millionaire by any stretch of the imagination - unless you’ve written that whole album yourself and take all the rights for it, maybe. But when you’re in a band like us, we share everything, so it’s all split different ways – we’ve built a studio up, we’ve done lots of things with our money that we like to think helps us, but also helps other people too, because that’s always been part and parcel of it.
JON: It is very personal. Particularly with the songwriters we’ve got as well, with Mark and with Simon’s lyrics, it’s very, very personal. Not so much now, but back then it was all written from a real passion and from the heart. And some, you could occasionally accuse it of being naïve, but really there’s no substitute for that. Really deeply passionate, and deeply caring.
Do you still have that, do you think, or has it been eroded over the years?
JON: I’m sure it’s been eroded over the years. I’d like to say it hasn’t, but I’m sure it has. I guess when you’re struggling in life – you don’t have many things, you don’t have very much money, you’re in a band and you’ve got things to say about the world and the way you feel about it; you’re driven, then, far more. And as you get older and perhaps… well, you just get old. It’s rubbish isn’t it, growing old? It really is! You lose that vitality, and you lose that hunger to… to change people’s opinions sometimes, maybe.
CHARLIE: It did. In retrospect from here, yes, between when we started and here, now. It definitely dipped in different ways. You know, it did go to people’s head; it got to mine as well, and we just kind of partied too much instead of what we were meant to be doing. And with our record company’s involvement and with our manager at the time, it really pushed it that way. It’s very easy to be pushed towards the hotel room, isolated, ruled by divide – it’s very easy to do that. They thought it was a really good idea to go to America on tour – you know, I can see why bands have fucked up and been destroyed, but it’s a good strength between us that there is no leader. It’s very much a co-operative feel, or I’d like to think that.
Do you think that everything went downhill from that point? Soon after, festivals got more corporate, the Criminal Justice Bill was introduced, and the next Levellers album was a fairly dark affair. Did this period represent the last hurrah?
SIMON: It depends what party you’re talking about, to be honest, because I think a lot of people… I don’t know if ‘generation’ is the right word, because it was spread over all sorts of generations, but that sort of period – the Stonehenge 80s period – they’re still there, a lot of them, and they’re still doing it, albeit in Spain or wherever, Eastern Europe…and so the more successful people who came out of that whole thing are still doing it. But yeah, I started to feel depressed, I guess, in the mid-90s because I didn’t like the music scene, I didn’t like techno and trance, and I didn’t like ecstasy, and I didn’t like that whole thing that was going on. And I will say a couple of the other guys in the band did get into that, and I think that reflected somewhat in some of the music that we wrote! I think they’d admit it, but I wasn’t particularly keen on it. So I started to clam up a little. But there’s a lot of survivors crawling back out of the woodwork at the moment actually, which I’m pleased about – more and more people are getting back in touch and they’ve sorted themselves out and are doing good things, so I’m quietly confident that this present social upheaval, there are people from the old… the first war! [laughs]… who can help, in some ways. Because I think it’s coming – I think there’s gonna be a lot of upset and disruption and chaos in the next few years. I don’t know why, but I do. Looking at France, you know, what was happening last month and stuff – the whole world’s getting a bit edgy about stuff, and it’s only because we’re expecting too much. We’re taking far too much for granted, whether it’s environmentally or socially, and there’s massive amounts of damage being done by people thinking the wrong way and society acting in inappropriate ways. History for me is really fascinating, and you have to learn from history, not repeat it.
JON: I think that the way the country was going, more and more people were moving out of cities into different types of accommodation – travelling buses, travelling trucks, and it seemed to be a fresh way of looking at life and people. And it gathered momentum, definitely, just around that time. And then even after the Battle of the Beanfield when the convoy was smashed up – it was kind of coupled with the rave scene in the way free parties were starting to be organised, and that whole movement gathered momentum and became something that couldn’t be ignored by mainstream political parties - certainly the police force weren’t happy with it.
JEREMY: It’s difficult for us, you know – we’re all, like, sensitive artistic types, and I found it really hard. We’d made this great record and we did loads of touring, and then for myself personally, I came back and was living in Bristol at the time, on a travellers’ site in Bristol. And it was just getting too mental, and the travellers’ scene was getting so big and we were getting so much attention from the police at the time… and it’s partly The Levellers’ fault for making it so big, you know? I always liked my anonymity, and suddenly everybody knew who I was, or thought they knew who I was or whatever… and suddenly the lifestyle I’d chosen, to be free, I was also less free living that lifestyle than I would’ve been in a flat ’cos of all the Draconian law. And I kind of started just using heroin to just blank everything out – I had really low self-esteem, you know, for years after that with the kind of collapse of… And it happened to the whole band, you know – we all chose a different drug, basically! We all kind of imploded after that Levelling the Land tour, but it lasted two or three years. But like you say, the album after that, the third album – that was kind of like the last hurrah, that was when it was absolutely massive. But it was also very dark for us by that point, for all of us. We were disappearing off the map doing different things, you know… it was a strange, intense time! [Laughs]
Let’s talk about the album ‘now’. Although I think you’ve made more accomplished or perhaps more artistically interesting albums over the years, Levelling the Land remains the band’s defining album in a sense – would you agree with that?
JON: Absolutely, yeah. There are no filler tracks on it, there’s no doubt about that. I’m occasionally a little too damning about some of our other records – but you know, when you’re making a record, you don’t always come up with brilliant songs, and you’ve gotta fill it with something. But yeah, there’s not a duff track on that.
SIMON: Definitely. Because it was very much... I mean, physically it sold more than anything else, people remember the songs a lot more – albeit Beautiful Day is the one that most taxi drivers remember, when asked: “Sing us a song, then!”, you go: “Oh, you might remember, ‘What a beautiful day, hey, hey’…”, and they’re like: “Oh yeah, that one, yeah!”, as opposed to One Way or some of the lesser-known tracks on that album, because that album was very much fan-based, and at the time people bought it because they associated it very much with what was going on. And then it’s continued to sell, which surprised me – which is great. For me, it’s that whole… we’d get couples meeting at our gigs and then twenty years later they’re coming with their kid who’s, like, fifteen! And it’s like: “Fuckin’ hell - Jesus…!” [laughs]
JEREMY: It’s not actually my favourite one, but it is the defining one, yeah. I think it’s probably the best one, but it’s not my favourite. My favourite’s still the first one – I just like the charm of it, you know; there’s something about it.
MARK: It’s the badge album. It’s the one. You can’t deny it, you know, it’s pointless to do so.
Do you think it’s the band’s best work?
JON: [Long pause] Um… lyrically, I would say, yeah. Not necessarily musically – I think we’ve explored music a little more since then. But if I guess you’re gonna say on a balance between that and the other albums, yeah. Lyrically it’s great.
JEREMY: I just think it’s a load of great songs by a band you can tell really means it. It’s honest. I think it’s what we did - it was exactly what we meant to do, which is put intelligent and sometimes weighty lyrics with optimistic, forward-looking tunes that you could just dance to. And you could take the politics or leave it – you could just dance to it, you know; we’d rather you listened to it and took it, but you don’t have to! So yeah, I think it’s definitely in those terms our most artistically successful venture, as artists.
MARK: I don’t, actually, no! Like you say, I think it sums up a moment. It’s the record that allowed the band to be the band - d’you know what I mean? When the music you’re making happens to strike a note with the country, with the listening people… or just the people, you know - some people weren’t even listening to music then, that’s probably the only record they ever listened to, a lot of people. That’s probably the only record they ever bought! And if you get that moment it’s fantastic, and that’s what it was – it was a collision between The Levellers’ music and the mood of the world or the country at that particular time.
SIMON: I don’t know. I’ve always been very cautious of questions like ‘best’, or ‘favourite’, because I think it’s very difficult to answer. It’d be like asking a landscape artist which landscape he preferred that he’d painted, when really he’s trying to paint the landscape and that’s what he loves.
So you see it more as part of your overall career trajectory?
SIMON: Well, yeah – we were there then, that’s what we wrote about and that’s what we did. Whether it’s our best work or not, I don’t know – in some ways I suppose naturally we must be slightly more accomplished musicians now; in some ways we’re a bit more tight on the notes and I can play the banjo now, which I couldn’t really on that one. Well, a bit – actually, I take that one back: I can’t really play the banjo, I dabble in it! But I like to think we’ve got better, if you know what I mean, so to say it was our best work, which for me was my first album, then the last twenty years has been a waste of fucking time! [Laughs]
Has it perhaps cast a bit of a shadow over rest of band’s career? Has it been a difficult album to ‘move beyond’, in a way?
JON: Not at all, no. People still love hearing the songs live, so we mix them up amongst all our other stuff – I don’t think people genuinely expect you to have every album as good as that one, you know… Some people, it’s not their favourite album – some people like the darker stuff, some people like the crazier stuff…
JEREMY: We don’t really think about it like that. I mean, if you do think – and we do when we write albums – that’s always our benchmark, trying to write a cohesive album, something that’s got great songs on it but it’s also a brilliant ensemble piece. And, you know, like I said, I do think it’s still our best record – not my favourite, but I do think it’s the best one. And so it doesn’t really cast a shadow, but it is like a benchmark for us. I’m an artist, you know, and I think our best one’s always the next one – when I stop thinking that, I’ll be in trouble! But it’s far enough away now to see it for what it is, and acknowledge it for what it is – that it is a great record, and fuck it, if we don’t make a record ever as good as that one again then fuck it, at least we did that one! [Laughs]
MARK: I think every band probably has one or two of those in their closet – you might try and break out of it, but you should be grateful if you’ve got even one. So it’s not really cast a shadow – it’s enabled us to do the rest of the stuff that we’ve done without suffering too greatly. Sometimes we’ve done stuff that’s been really left of field of that and people have gone “Is that the same band?” – well it is the same band, we’re just trying a different tack for our own artistic needs, really.
SIMON: It was the album that kind of labelled us, and I suppose that’s defined us to a certain extent, yes. I can only agree with that. I guess in some ways yes, we’ve struggled to kind of get anything like it – I think Letters From the Underground started to get there, definitely, and I’m hoping that the next sort of year or so will throw up some really good stuff. I’m extremely angry at the moment – there’s lots of reasons for it, but then out of hardship usually comes good stuff. As I get older, and as we as a band get older, we begin to realise more how effective we can be, and how ineffective we can be in certain ways, so we’re understanding our place a bit more, I think. I like to think that when the sting comes, it’s gonna hurt – we’re gonna fucking give it some, because I’m pissed off about things at the moment.
What do you think it is about that album that continues to resonate with people and gain you new fans today?
MARK: Well, hopefully because I think it’s quite timeless – the situations we were talking about in those songs haven’t changed, and won’t change in the foreseeable future. So I think if you’re a certain age, you want things to be better, and you aspire for others and you aspire for yourself, then it’s going to work for you. Those songs are timeless in that respect.
JON: I’m absolutely convinced it’s the lyrics. We’re really bad as a band when we try and be like other bands – you know, if we try and write a song that’s a bit like Neil Young, or a bit like any other band. We’re only really good at doing what we do, and that is largely about the lyrical content, I think. Because that’s what we do that other bands don’t do – [assuming pompous voice] - is we ‘talk about stuff that’s important’. And worth talking about!
SIMON: I think we’re like a good old cheese that people can rely on, you know? [Laughs] When they buy it, they know it’s going to be tasty. I used to think of it as: you’d come down to see The Levellers, you’d take your jacket off, put all your worries and woes and problems and shit in the pockets of your jacket, and leave that in the cloakroom. People would come in, fucking kick up the dust and have a right old fucking boogie, and when they came out and put their jacket back on, if all that shit had been nicked out of their jacket, then cool. If they went home with a slightly lighter jacket pocket, brilliant. That used to make me feel happy. If they want to take those problems home with them, that’s up to them – some of those problems will still be there, but they might have a better way of looking at it or feel a bit happier about things, I don’t know.
Obviously 20 years down the line we’ve found ourselves in not entirely dissimilar social circumstances than when the album was released: Conservatives back in power, massive public upheaval, plenty of dissent looming on the horizon…
JON: Absolutely. The final nails in the coffin of the country, is what they’re doing… and it’s so divisive. And I’m determined that the next record we’re gonna put out is gonna be… it’s not gonna be angry, but it’s really gonna nail some of these people and what they’re trying to do.
The last record had a real fire under it – do you think that’s been rejuvenated in the past few years?
JON: Yeah, absolutely. We sat down and we said, “Look: what do we do that people like?” Let’s be blunt about this – people like to hear our lyrics, because they like to think that somebody else cares as much as they do. And then they want to hear some tunes that they can dance to as well, not standing round feeling miserable about it. So, okay: some good lyrics and some danceable tunes. That’s all we need. So hopefully the next one will carry that torch.
I can’t bear the political situation at the moment…
JON: It’s hideous. It’s absolutely hideous. They’re so evil...!
I heard Ian Duncan-Smith say the other day that for the long-term unemployed, they’re going to make them work 30 hours a week of mandatory labour just to get their £65 a week in benefits. That’s less than minimum wage!
JON: Yep, and it’s illegal. And a lot of the things that they’ve done are actually illegal, because they haven’t listened to the studies that have been done on how their budget cuts affect certain sections of society – particularly women, actually. Two-thirds of the people affected by their budget cuts are women being absolutely screwed into the ground – and again, it’s illegal. We’re not allowed to do that shit anymore…
As ‘social commentators’ of a sort, is that quite depressing for you, or does it actually reawaken that initial fire?
JEREMY: It does both, really. I think it is kind of depressing – it does light a fire under me, but I’m a kind of angry man, you know… it doesn’t take much to do that! So that does motivate me. But it makes me even more angry that people fucking allowed it to happen – and so personally I hope things do get really bad, just so something fucking happens! [Laughs] You know, I go for my holidays to this tiny little island in Scotland, and I met this old guy – like this old anarchist guy who was like: “It’s your duty to vote Tory in this election, to make everything so fucked up!” I couldn’t actually bring myself to do it…
SIMON: Strangely enough, I thought it would depress me – I thought I’d be really low about all this, and there’s a lot of things going on that I guess a lot of people probably haven’t sussed yet worldwide, but I think it’s had the opposite effect on me actually: I think it’s got me quite angry again. My daughter is nine next year, and I love her dearly – she’s a real little character, my daughter. And through no real pushing of her Mum or I she’s turned out to be this very independent, but beautiful, lovely person. And I fear for her on the one hand, but on the other hand I know she’s the type of person who’ll be there, like myself, trying to sort it out. Not that I’m putting myself in a position to say I’m helping the world, although I like to think that music does - and I like to think that, certainly with record sales, people like the music, they like the sentiment, so I guess it’s not wrong to feel a little bit kind of chuffed, a little bit like: “Yeah, you, know – people agree with what I’m saying”, which is good. It doesn’t mean that I said it first, or it was my idea or anything, ‘I’m about to lead a social revolution’ – but it’s nice to think you can still make people think. That’s really, I think, all I ever wanted to do is make people think, and also occasionally maybe be aware of situations they might not usually be aware of, or they turn a blind eye to. It’s a strange way to try and get things over, I’ve thought about it often - particularly with playing a mandolin or something, it’s kind of hard to express that feeling of sitting there over the other side of the world watching an absolute human disaster happen, then trying to get that across with something as simply as a mandolin, a fiddle and a banjo. But actually you can, and if, like I say, you can make people think about it a bit more, or be aware of it, or ask you a question about it - brilliant. Why not, you know? It’s better than asking what suit’s he wearing, who he’s going out with, what car he’s driving, like footballers or big rock stars – for me, I’d rather people ask me what I believe in, as opposed to who’s gonna win the World Cup, you know?! To me that’s irrelevant, and the whole sort of glam side of gossip magazines and Yes and all this sort of thing… piss off, you know?! Get real. Go and fucking sort something out and feel good about yourself!
MARK: I don’t know – at the end of the day, it’s quite depressing. [Laughs] It really is! But you know, we’ve struggled on… we got slagged off a lot at the time by certain areas of the world, of the media or whatever, and here we are, twenty years later – we’re still right. [Laughs] D’you what I mean?! We’re still right, that record’s still valid.
Do you feel vindicated?
MARK: That would be wrong. Me personally, no – others in the band might feel vindicated, I don’t know.
JON: Absolutely. Of course. We were right all along, and everyone’s caught up with us.
SIMON: I don’t think I’ll ever feel ‘vindicated’, because we as a band being labelled like that never made the success that we could’ve done, to be honest with you. And though we’ve had success in a lot of ways and I’m very happy – yes, I would like a couple of hundred thousand pounds in the bank, thankyouverymuch, but I don’t have it, you know. None of us have. It’s not the way it happened. Had we got that American tour, had we got that big Lollapalooza thing – had we done all that, yeah, maybe. I’d like to think of myself in dreamworld as being a sort of Neil Young-type character – he’s my hero, you know, he really is, I think everything he does is great generally, and he stands for a lot of things that I believe in. So I’d love to be in the position he’s in, and how he uses his position to help those he knows, loves and likes. And so yeah, there’s a certain amount of resentment for the people who stood in our way, and I’d never forgive it – but then, it never bothered me. But it’s kind of like somebody from another planet having a go at you – I didn’t even know these people. I’d never met these people. And yet they’re casting me socially and all sorts of lies, and you’re thinking… [pulls a face]. You know?
JEREMY: I really don’t care - it doesn’t impact on my life at all what people think.
The band’s undergone a bit of a critical reappraisal over the last few years (particularly this album, which is rightly now accepted as a classic) – is that a surprise to you at all?
MARK: That’s kinda nice. It’s not vindication, but it is kinda nice. You know, a band doesn’t last for twenty years if they’re shit – end of, really.
Well, I don’t know. Bon Jovi…
MARK: Yeah… yeah, true. I take it back… [laughs].
Take That, as well…
MARK: Oh, I like Take That.
MARK: Oh I do, yeah. I do have a daughter, but she doesn’t like Take That. Well, she does. But she’s nine. She’s allowed.
JEREMY: It’s the inevitable cycle of things, I think – only because I’ve seen it happen with all my favourite bands, you know; most of the bands I used to like when I was a kid got slagged off in the press, and it all eventually comes full-circle and you become ‘acceptable’ and then kind of cool to like you. And then you become shit again, and things go around like that! [Laughs]
JON: Well, I noticed what Andrew Collins said [in the sleevenotes to the Levelling the Land reissue], and well done for saying you were wrong. He’s man enough to hold his hand up and say: “I got it completely wrong”.
Did the hostile reaction in the press or the fundamental misunderstanding of what you do ever bother you? Be honest now…!
MARK: The fundamental misunderstanding really fucked me off. Really fucked me off, and there seemed to be nothing I could do about it. I’d get someone like Stuart Maconie come to do an interview with me at Barrowlands, and I’d explain the whole fucking thing to him, right, an intelligent man like Stuart Maconie… he’d go away and write it all out and go: “Right, yeah, these are bright, brilliant boys, I get it, etc etc” – but he’d still have to end with the ‘crusty’ tag. He’d have to do it – it’s almost that they had an absolute need to do it. It was like: if they don’t do it, then they look really uncool.
JON: You’d like to think that the people who are writing about it know about music, that’s the whole idea. Not just the weekly music papers, but also broadsheet newspapers – there weren’t really many monthly magazines back then. We weren’t reviewed – it wasn’t ’til much later in our career that people stopped reviewing stuff. Which is actually a kind of sigh of relief! [Laughs] Nobody’s even going to look at it and write about it. But at the time of the record, for it to be so brutally savaged by critics… We felt a connection with people who’d come to see us play, and completely misunderstood by anybody else in the music business – apart from certain individuals that might have something to do with running clubs, who thought we were great, you know, a bit of a breath of fresh air. But the mainstream record companies and publishing houses, stuff like that – apart from our own record company, who obviously saw something in us.
CHARLIE: I think that we did make some fuck-ups – we didn’t really take on the press, but we fell out right from the start. And that was the problem: it was like two magnets meeting at the wrong end. We just fell out with them, and it became the rumour mill: ‘Oh, not the fucking Levellers…’ And so clearly over the years it made us strong. But it was like, oh, not a fuckin’ journo, not that particular club – it felt like a school-tie club, the NME and the Melody Maker and all that… it’s almost like they missed a beat. And Andrew Collins who did that article – yeah, he did miss it; he’ll go along with that. So maybe that was the reason – as well as the bondship that I mentioned earlier between us – was the reason why we’re still here. It’s still relevant! I think it’s still very relevant, more so now – it’s gonna be like Mr. Nice, you know, all of a sudden he’s got another career just by the longevity of it! But as long as the passion is there, that’s the key.
SIMON: Misunderstood - yeah, absolutely. Well not heard, anyway. You know - not listened to. It’s not easy sometimes to express yourself the way you want to, which is for me why music’s such a good way – but then you’re always going to be slightly indirect with music, because it’s not as easy as to write or speak something to make it fit into a song without actually being really contemporary and artistic. So the message is more repetitive I suppose, or people grasp it in a different way – the way they want to grasp it, as opposed to you going: “No, this is what I’m saying”. So it’s not as direct as some forms of expression, I suppose. I don’t feel smug – I try not to feel bad, I try not to feel hatred or bitterness or anything like that, because I think it’s destructive, really. I can’t help but feel bemused by the fact that things, you know, they’ve gone [laughs] – they didn’t survive, you know, we did. And so of course, I feel a little bit like: “There you go, I told you so” – but I didn’t tell them so, I never really entertained them that much. A lot of the problems came from Jeremy’s little present, and a couple of things that Mark did with reporters in Paris… it was a record company party or something and he chucked a load of wine over reporters – who were probably being completely fucking obnoxious to him, you know?! So he probably, fucking… rightly so, mate! And instead of taking it as a rock star thing to do, they started slagging him off and never forgave him, so… At the end of the day, I hate fucking freeloaders. I hate people who think that they’ve made someone. And unfortunately I think that the NME particularly back then used to think that they ‘made’ bands, you know? And I thought, well, I’ve never read the NME. I didn’t know who they were, I don’t fucking care what they said – it’s a bit like the football results (I’m not a football fan, obviously!) And it doesn’t bother me, what one paper says about you and what another paper says – at the end of the day, if there are people in front of you having a good time, and bouncing up and down enjoying themselves, then the NME can say they had a shit time as much as they like! But all the people who were there had a great time. That’s what they did, I think, and they tried to stop us from being successful – which only added fuel to our fire and to a lot of our fans’ fire. Because our fans knew it, they were reading the press too and going, “Well, that’s fucking not right…!” It was like, we’re the big state here, and you come through us if you wanna be successful. It’s like: piss off! Who are you?! You’re a newspaper, I can set alight to it! It can go up in flames, you know? [Laughs]
JEREMY: I’d be lying if I said it didn’t bother me when we started because, like I said, we were sensitive artistic types, and we were upset when we got our first reviews in and they were just slagging us off because of what we looked like and not any tunes or anything like that. But to be honest, it brought us closer together as a band… but it made us fucking hard! [Laughs]
Tell us about your gift to the NME.
JEREMY: [Laughs] Well, yeah. I sent them a shit. [Laughs] There’s no polite way of putting it! Fuck it, you know, it was the times. I wouldn’t do it now, but… I wouldn’t take it back! [Laughs] But the ironic thing is, the guy I sent it to, he actually wrote the sleevenotes for the reissue of Levelling the Land. We’re quite good mates with him now, and he freely admits as well that in the NME they didn’t bother listening to the record. They were just upset that they had nothing to do with ‘making us’ as a band, with breaking us – they completely missed it. And in his own words they were in their ivory tower, the kingmakers of the bands; they completely missed it, and didn’t get it. It’s interesting reading his autobiography – he talks about the shit incident, and it’s quite interesting, his point of view. Now, he says: “Yeah fuck it, I missed it - it is a great record, I just completely missed it at the time”. He just says, “I still hate The Boatman.” [Laughs] Which is fair enough!
MARK: We did do it without their permission. We did it without anybody’s permission – we didn’t even do it with our own!
JON: I think they just felt that we were deeply unfashionable, and how could anyone possibly like it. I think that looking back of pictures of us, the way we looked – you’d look at the old pictures and say, that lot are in a band. Definitely. Definitely they’re in a band; whether it’s any good or not, you don’t know, it’s kind of: long straggly hair, multicoloured clothing… there’s a lot to poke fun at if you just look at it from the outside. And if you just pick up on the odd lyric, like… ‘Save the whales’, or whatever it might be! ‘Travelling the country playing guitars’, stuff like that – if you just pick out the odd lyric, there’s a lot of stuff there you can just pull apart and go: “Oh, this lot, really they’re a bit of a joke”. So really we felt let down that no-one had really gone into it and looked at it in any depth, or with any impartiality. And there were definitely live reviews that people had done where they clearly hadn’t been to the gig, because they’d list all the songs that we hadn’t actually played – well, you know what it’s like. Journalists very definitely do reviews – well, I don’t know whether they still do, but some journalists did reviews of gigs they hadn’t been to. It wasn’t uncommon back then! [Laughs in bemusement] But really, it did hurt at the time, yeah.
You’ve outlasted not just most bands from that era, but pretty much every major musical movement of the last twenty years – rave, techno, Britpop, garage, trance, nu-metal, nu-rave – has that been odd?
MARK: Yeah it has, it’s been really odd, because you expect things to hang around for some time. The only thing that has hung around is heavy metal.
What do you think your secret is to staying together as a band?
JEREMY: Basically, the total is bigger than the sum of its parts. Any of us on our own are okay musicians, fair songwriters and okay lyric-writers. But when you put us all together, the noise we make is bigger than any of us. And we knew that from the very first rehearsal, you know – we didn’t know what it was, but we knew it was fucking good! [Laughs]
SIMON: That and friendship, really; we’ve had our moments at times, but that’s obviously natural with anything - like family, really. That’s what we are. And definitely this band’s kept me going - many times. It’s kept me on my feet and helped me through some real shit. We’ve done it for each other, it’s great.
MARK: I think we really like each other, that helps. We understand each other, and we really enjoy what we do. That’s got a lot to do with it – and we’ve never split up, either. I think that helps as well.
People always talk about these tours as ‘nostalgia’ tours…
MARK: Well, I won’t know until we do it. I mean, this March tour, it’s selling fucking amazingly well and we’ve added dates onto it, so that’s incredible. Because I think it is people coming to see us who perhaps haven’t been to see a gig since they last saw us. I think there’s quite a lot of that. But I couldn’t really say – I’m not really good at working out the demographics of things.
You’ve teamed up with The Wonder Stuff. How did that come about?
MARK: Well, I mean, it was obvious. We started at pretty much the same time, had success at the same time, and we’ve been mates on and off throughout the years.
JEREMY: We basically asked them – we know ’em, you know, they’ve done Beautiful Days a few times. And when it was put to us, do we want to do this Levelling the Land tour, we thought what would be really good is not just to have kind of any old support band, but to have a band from that era that was also like a fucking good band. The Wonder Stuff was the top of the list and we didn’t actually think they would say yes, and we asked them and they said yes – it was like: “Fucking brilliant!” [Laughs] Job done!
It’s almost like the ultimate student revival tour from 1991, short of having Pop Will Eat Itself on the bill…
MARK: Yeah, well it probably will be! And Ned’s Atomic Dustbin and, fucking, Carter…
- Jesus Jones?
MARK: Jesus Jones. Well they’re a bit before. All of which come to our festival though! They always do.
JEREMY: I think that’s why the tickets have sold like that, you know – it’s nostalgia night for a lot of people! Back to college, like you say…
Tell us about your plans for the tour – it’s the first time you’ve ever played the album chronologically. Is that a refreshing change?
MARK: It will be, because we never did. And there are some songs on that record that have probably only seen the light of day once or twice, so that’s gonna be good. But most of them we have played over the years.
JEREMY: It’s gonna be quite liberating, ’cos we know what the setlist’s gonna be already! [Laughs]
Watching the crowd reaction at the gig tonight, it started out quite subdued, but then when you played One Way it was almost like someone flipped a switch…
CHARLIE: Yeah, I mean, we’ve been purposefully not playing any of Levelling the Land, but over the years it has been like, yeah, that is the album that everyone knows. And a couple of years ago, we thought about doing this back-to-back, just as a celebration, which is the trend that we’ve been seeing for a long time. So we thought, yeah, we’ll just do that, because people would relate to it – and it does amaze me when I meet every now and then, they’re not fans or anything, but they say: “You have no idea how many people’s lives you’ve touched with that album”. And every now and then I just get a little, like: “Oh, shit. God, I have…”, you know? And my own kids, they see it in a completely different way because they’re much younger - they’ve got a Dad who does this other job as a career… fuckin’ whoah! It’s bizarre! So going back to that question, ‘did you think it’d ever happen’? No! You really don’t.
I think Levelling the Land is the only record of yours that I’ve seen every song performed live at some point over the years - obviously given that many of these songs have been mainstays of the live set for so long, how do you keep them fresh for yourselves?
JEREMY: We kind of rest the ones we get bored with – but it’s really hard to get bored of a song when people love it so much. You know, it’s like – we don’t ever rehearse them, because we do find it boring to play them over and over, but when you see people going mental to a song, it’s hard to not fucking love it! [Laughs]
MARK: They always have been [mainstays], because they bloody work. But look at the audience reaction. It’s all about looking at the faces.
Would you say that’s kept you going over the years?
JEREMY: Yeah, that’s the only thing. The only thing. And the only debate we’re having about playing the album live is which arrangements do we do, ’cos some of the songs we’ve changed the arrangements since then – and I think at the minute we’re inclining to play them exactly as they are on the record, ’cos it’ll be a challenge to us to go back to playing stuff like that. So that’s kind of the only thing we’re thinking of at the minute.
MARK: That’s what it’s all about for us, just playing live. And that’s why we’re doing this tour now – you were saying earlier, this is a really small place, but you should see the size of some of the ones we’re going to be doing. It’s just an idea of mine – basically, most people around the world don’t travel to gigs. For example, round here the nearest place you’d go and see a gig is Bournemouth. But some people round here won’t go to Bournemouth. It’s not a particularly good example – some of them are really far-flung places where people can’t afford to or don’t usually travel to gigs. And having done these sort of places with Levellers acoustic or Drunk In Public or just on my own, they ram out, and it’s amazing, and they love it – they really love it. It’s a real treat for them to see somebody come to their town – and that’s kind of always what we’ve been about.
CHARLIE: On the last album that we released, we were very happy with that and we’re still playing it in our set – but traditionally we were like, “Oh, you’ve gotta follow it up, you’ve gotta follow it up, follow it up”… we should have delivered by now. But I’ll tell you what we are delivering: a good next album. It ain’t now, ’cos we’ve got just one song out of our system to an audience – and the best thing backstage tonight was that it was like: “You know that new song we played tonight?” “Yeah, yeah”, “Oh, we’ve got to do this and this to it” – “Ohhhh, yes, I agree”. When you play it to an audience, you know when it’s right and when it’s not quite right. But we placed it in the set just after One Way, and like you say, that was the turnaround of the whole set – because usually in the middle we’d bring it right down, and we did a bit with Hard Fight – but oh, I fucking love playing that…!
What’s favourite song on Levelling the Land, and why?
JON: Ah… tricky one, tricky one. I really love One Way, because it’s such a fantastic thing to say in just a few words: just be yourself. That’s it. It’s just like saying, you know, ‘love’. That’s all you need to say!
MARK: Probably Far From Home. For me, it’s just nicely uplifting in narrative, and it probably sums up everything else on the album quite nicely.
JEREMY: Battle of the Beanfield, because… it’s not the best song we’ve ever written, but it’s definitely the most important. And it’s a piece of British history that was almost completely unreported at the time, put into a banging tune.
SIMON: We just covered this ‘favourite’ business! I don’t really have a favourite song, to be honest with you, I really don’t. But I think really for me, for every reason I can think of - personal reasons, power reasons and message reasons, it’s gotta be Beanfield still. I mean, One Way, great – it sums it up, in a lot of ways, but it’s still more of a thought, you know, it’s an idea. Whereas Beanfield is a story about something that happened that was fucking wrong. And it still gets me going when I sing it. But it’s strange saying it about a song I’ve written; I’ve never been very good at it, that sort of criticism. I mean, I didn’t like The Boatman – I would’ve ditched The Boatman. It’s funny, isn’t it? And yet it’s loved by lots of people.
CHARLIE: Another Man’s Cause. Why? Because I’ve got a particular favourite memory – when we recorded the album, I went away with my girlfriend at the time who still is my wife, we went to Sardinia, and all I had was a cassette. It wasn’t that it hadn’t been mastered, it was just like: done the work, got a couple of weeks’ holiday time before we’re out on tour, and I had this moment. I was in Sardinia, it was Siesta time, and I was like: I really want to listen to this cassette. And so I got to the bar and there was nobody there; it was a beautiful hot sunny day, I was in the shade, so I said: “Excusez… can you play this tape? It’s The Levellers, a new band from England, Angleterre…” So he looked around first and there was only about one other person. He put it on; it was a beautiful soundsystem, and I remember looking over and got this cold chill when we got to the instrumental part; that really just blew me away. It was a real moment of like: “Oh my fuck! Oh my God! This is really fucking good”! And there was nobody around me, it was completely empty – and I got to the end of it, finished my beer, and it was like: “Do you like that that cassette?” “What cassette?” “The cassette that was just in, The Levellers. It’s mine.” And he wound me up and said “Is it really yours? Is that really your music? Can I get a copy of it?” - YES, I’ll send it to you! It was like today’s equivalent of having a memory stick, you’ve got it on your iPod, iPhone, whatever… you’ve got it. It was a fantastic moment. Just a cassette!
That song, I think, above everything else on the album is the one that’s worn the best.
CHARLIE: Where that song is on the album is just the peak. It’s the musical peak. And it’s Jon’s brilliantness and, kind of, me and him with the band between us. That build-up, that’s what it’s about. As a drummer, it’s what I always dreamed of, like: find the best thing I can do, find my best ability for the song - it’s the singer, the instrumentalists, even the bass player. It’s all about that.
It’s certainly the track that continues to have the most resonance – it always astounds me when I hear it because it could be about Iraq, or Afghanistan, or any war…
CHARLIE: And we’ve had letters from soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq, mainly from Afghanistan, which are like: “We’re fucked over here, it’s our favourite song, could you change a few words from, like, Argentina to Afghanistan?” And we wrote back to them and said: we can’t, you know. We’ve tried, and believe me, I really do feel for it because over the years we’ve played to many soldiers and, like, getting these letters from soldiers saying “We’re out here, we’re fucking having it shit, this is our favourite song” – I know why that’s their favourite, because it really is what it’s about. You’ve just gotta look at Mark – he’s a soldier’s son. It could’ve been him. You feel like that all the time.
JEREMY: We get asked to re-release Another Man’s Cause so many times – to update the lyrics for Iraq and Afghanistan and re-release it, but… we have turned it down flat every time it’s been offered to us. I mean, if there were circumstances… I wouldn’t rule it out completely, but at the minute it would have to be not a cynical cash-in, and that’s what we’ve always been worried about. I think actually no, we’ll probably just leave it, leave it as it is.
MARK: That’s had some real resonance recently – I’ve had soldiers from Iraq and Afghanistan, who’ve been there, and they listen to that song, they play that song out there, they come to the gigs afterwards and ask for it, or their family does…
Given 20 years of wisdom and life experience, what would the Levellers of 2011 say to the Levellers of 1991?
SIMON: [Snorts] “Good luck…!” [Laughs] God, what would I say to myself? Don’t drink Stella. I haven’t drunk Stella for eight years, and I’m a lot better for it.
MARK: Don’t do cocaine. Stay away from cocaine. [Laughs] That’s the only thing!
JEREMY: [Laughs] Just say no!
CHARLIE: It’s fucking difficult, because I’m now a Dad – so to ask me a question like that is so retrospective… it’s too difficult to answer. I have two sons, a thirteen year-old and an eight year-old, so I’m giving as much as I could give to them as I would say to myself. And so it’s a bit of a blank question - I can’t really answer that, I’m sorry!
JON: Get your hair cut!
What happened to your hat by the way, Jon?
JON: Well, I had more than one hat, but they eventually just got squashed because you leave them lying around and somebody’d put a bag on them. The very first top hat that I had, I got given by a friend of mine actually just before we went onstage. I said to him: “Actually, that looks good” and he said, “Ooh, go on then”… stuck it on my head as I went on, and said, “That’s yours now”. So I wore that for a good couple of years, and then somebody – I think it might’ve been Jeremy’s dad, actually – got me another one. And I think I’ve still got that at home somewhere, actually. I hear there’s a small Facebook group trying to get me to put that back on. A very small Facebook group… [laughs].
Sum up the album Levelling the Land and the experience of 1991-1992 in one word.
SIMON: Memory loss. That’s two words! No, that’s a bit facetious. That whole period, that year? [Long pause] …‘Educational’. For me, it was my first foray into the music industry – I mean yeah, I’d fucked around in folk clubs and followed a couple of bands about, but really it was kind of like, wow. This is how the machine works – although that period wasn’t because we were still in a transit van. But no, I suppose… I dunno, it’s a fucking hard question, that! I would say ‘friendship’ actually, to be honest with you – because we didn’t know each other that well, but we all fucking sat in a van for months on end and got on together.
With thanks to Mike Eccleshall.