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Fresh from the glut of festival appearances this year and on the eve of the release of their new album “Letters From The Underground” and subsequent tour, Music-Zine spoke to Levellers guitarist Simon Friend about the band, the universe and everything in between…
Words – Simon Baker
I must confess, I’ve been a huge Levellers fan since their debut album “Weapon Called The Word” back in 1990. They were a festival band in the old sense of the word, part of a scene that included the likes of Ozric Tentacles, RDF, Back To The Planet and their ilk. None of these bands sounded anything like eachother, but all were in some way part of the free festival circuit that was eventually cruelly crushed by Thatcher and her Criminal Justice Act.
The Levellers are pretty much the sole survivors from that period, and certainly the most successful, releasing a catalogue of quality albums and retaining a healthy fanbase for their politicised folk rock.
After spending years signed to various indie labels they now release albums through their own company “On The Fiddle”, part of a cottage industry that includes a rehearsal and recording studio along with their own festival “Beautiful Days”
Simon: We set up the label as we were getting fed up with record companies not doing the job properly. When you’re on a label you’re part of a big pile of acts, and unless you’re at the top of the pile you invariably get ignored. We found this particularly in the States 15 years ago when we were on the Elektra label. So we eventually set our own label up, and that’s there to help other bands as much as us.
MZ : We’ve spoken to other bands who have gone this route, Marillion and Enter Shikari among others, and it’s always an inspiring story and a model we think all bands should consider, whatever stage their career is at. Do the band get involved in the running of the label too, or is there a payrole?
Simon: Personally I know very little about the business side of things – I just write songs and play them and I’m quite happy doing that! But yes, we do have people involved in the day to day running of the label and the studio.
MZ: The new album is your first in four years – was this a collaborative effort, written by the whole band?
Simon: Very much so. I didn’t get involved in the last one so much due to some personal circumstances, so it was nice to get into this one more. We’re very much a communal band, all adding our own parts to the song. I’ll write something but I can’t play the fiddle, so Jon will come in and write a fiddle part. We all share royalties, no matter who has written what, and that’s the way it’s always been.
As for writing, we generally go away for a few days at a time and concentrate solely on writing. We’ve found it’s a good way of working, getting away from it all. We then bring it back to the studio and piece it all together.
MZ: Listening to the new record, it’s obvious that you haven’t lost any of your fire and angst over the two decades that you’ve been together. You’re still addressing certain moral and political issues in your songs, something that very few bands do these days…
Simon: I know what you mean – this record is much more like (second album) Levelling The Land in a way. I’m very wary of political labels because I don’t like politics. I see it more as an observant thing. We see what’s going on in the world and that’s what we write about. You can’t deny what’s happening out there – people have opinions on whether certain things should or shouldn’t happen but we seem to live in a world where oil and guns seem to be more important than lives. It’s a shame that there aren’t more bands standing up and speaking out, but record labels and radio producers shy away from that sort of stuff. They’re too scared to play it. The industry has become very insular like that. I could rant about Clear Channel and people like that for hours; they’re taking over all the small labels and venues and only putting on what they want, so all you hear on the radio is what corporate companies want you to hear and that’s how people get influenced. I guess young bands don’t want to fall at the first hurdle and instead deliver something that will be accepted by radio and other media.
MZ: But there are plenty of radio stations playing your music, surely?
Simon: Yes, there are. I would say that because of our heritage we do get played, but there are plenty of younger bands with a similar message that have a much harder time trying to get support because of what they choose to sing about. I do think though that if some of those radio stations realised what we were talking about they probably wouldn’t play it!
MZ: How about the music magazines? I remember NME having to begrudgingly feature you back in the early 90s because you had become so popular, but turning their back on you at the earliest opportunity. Do you get support from any of the others?
Simon: They are now. In the early to mid nineties we were lumped in with this horrible “crusty” tag which was a media invention, a derogatory term for the travellers. We shook that off eventually. Times have changed so much now that it doesn’t matter anymore, and we’re no longer asked about it. We see far more prejudice in other areas of music nowadays than with what we’re doing.
MZ: You’re playing The Royal Albert Hall as part of your tour this month. Some would say an odd choice of venue for a band such as yourselves?
Simon: Again, that’s people’s perception of the place. At the end of the day it is an old institution but an amazing venue with a great history – Led Zeppelin played there in the 60s, and the press hated them too! It’s our 20th anniversary this year, so we thought we’d celebrate by playing at a legendary venue, in the heart of the establishment to get our message out there!
MZ: How did your festival “Beautiful Days” fare this year? Many of the established festivals struggled to sell tickets and there were one or two casualties…
Simon: Ours sold out again this year. We had a disastrous summer last year so I think people have been wary this year, but we put on a great festival, so ours is safe for now.
MZ: You played to a huge crowd at Glastonbury too
Simon: Yeah, it went very well. We played on the Thursday night, so there wasn’t much else going on at the festival, so it seemed the whole site came to see us.
I was quite concerned actually – last time we played on the Jazz stage and had the biggest turn out that field had ever seen. This time we played in a marquee and I was worried about the capacity and how many might come along.
MZ: We were there, and it was a real crush! We had to get out eventually as the ground was muddy and too many people were slipping over and getting crushed…
Simon: Personally I can’t stand the place anymore. I used to love it as a kid in the eighties, it was brilliant, but it’s nothing like it was. It’s gone very corporate and is very sanitised, but again it’s suffered because of the paranoia of the government and the criminal justice act. It’s a shame because this country always had fayres and little festivals, but they all got wiped out and criminalised. It’s great that festivals are becoming so popular again because this is where people get to discover new music and escape from normality for a couple of days.
MZ: I remember some of those free festivals with great fondness. Are you trying to retain some of those edgier elements with your own festival?
Simon: We’re trying to retain the non-corporate idea. We employ people we’ve known for years to run it, so we know that we’ve got a good vibe there with people who are all part of the Levellers family. We’ve done so many festivals that are like cattle markets, you know? Chuck ‘em in, give them expensive crap burgers to eat and throw them out again. You’ve got to include some exciting elements, so people don’t know what’s going to happen next. So we try to provide a safe environment for people with plenty of unexpected, strange sites for people to see while they’re wondering around. We’re lucky that we’re not too big, I think we’ve got the size just right, with the right kind of people coming along.
MZ: You have your own studio and rehearsal space in Brighton – is this exclusively for your use or do you hire it out?
Simon: We used a lot of our personal income to buy it and kit it out, and now it’s there as a kind of community space for young bands to use. We’re not doing any of this for the money – I’ve lived in the same house for 20 years – we’re more interested in using the royalties to put something back, and we can do that with the studio.