The Levellers – Interview 2014

Rewind to Glastonbury 1992. A different era, a different time; no mobiles, no social media, no internet. It was still regarded as a 'hippy' festival, nowhere near the kind of festival it is now, where more cappuccinos are consumed than pints (well, maybe…). For Brighton band the Levellers it was the moment they realised that they had made it, after only four years together as a band. But they didn't know it until they got to the stage, a daytime slot on the esteemed Pyramid Stage. "It was effectively our Glastonbury," says Mark Chadwick, singer, songwriter and guitarist with the band, as can be heard in the new and excellent documentary of the band, A Curious Life. "Even the media – who hated us – knew it. We didn't understand why everyone wanted to talk to us. They knew before we knew that we'd broken, that we'd made it. It was a shock, they knew all the words. It was absolutely nuts!"


This moment was also during the days when film cameras were a rare beast. Nowadays the BBC are all over Glastonbury like a rash. Back then, a band like the Levellers would need to rely on radio (which wasn't ready for them), the press (who largely ignored them), or gigging a lot and the power of word-of-mouth. Even now there is a ludicrous under-appreciation of the achievements the band have made since 1988: eight top 20 singles, 15 top 40s and eight of their studio albums have made the top 40, including a number one, Zeitgeist, released at the height of their popularity in 1994. And they success continues; their last two albums have made the top 40, they tour continuously around Europe and beyond, and organise an annual festival, Beautiful Days, an event that sells out six months before it actually happens. The Levellers, of course, always headline on the Sunday night.

Following the 25th anniversary celebrations last year, which included a nerve-wracking hometown sell-out gig at the Dome, the band continue on their merry way with no sign of slowing down or, in terms of their deep rooted political, social and environmental beliefs, mellowing with age. They may not party like it's 1999 anymore, but the fire still burns inside their collective body.

They've just released a Greatest Hits album, featuring almost all their singles, an accompanying DVD of many of the promo films made for the singles, and four tracks that have been specially re-recorded by the Levellers for the album, but each one featuring guests; Imelda May (Beautiful Day), members of Bellowhead (Just The One), Frank Turner (Julie) and Billy Bragg (Hope Street). "I didn't realise we were that diverse," says Mark about the compilation. Although primarily known as a folk-rock band, many of their songs have pop, dance, punk and rock sensibilities. The consistency is remarkable, and it's obvious after listening to it all, that here is a band who know how to craft a good song, and write a great melody. "Those four re-recordings are all good in their own way, they each 'own' the song," says Mark. "They literally came in here (The Metway recording room, where we are talking), and the first one was Frank Turner. He loves that song – Julie – and he said 'this is how I'm going to do it…' He did it like Frank Turner. We'll be your Frank Turner band in our heads… The same with Imelda and Billy. With Bellowhead their brass section came in, and later on Jon Boden sang the vocal. It's great. Some people think it's sacriledge to do that. Well, you've still got the original." says Mark.
And then there's A Curious Life, a film made by Chumbawumba's Dunstan Bruce, that will be shown this November as part of Cine City in Brighton, and which will be toured next year, the band playing acoustic sets after each showing. It's a lovely little film, put together over a two-year period, and which loosely concentrates on the first ten years of the band; from their beginnings to their mid-late 90s zenith. As well as a history of the band, including plenty of interesting archive material, it's also a portrait of Jeremy Cunningham, the band's bassist, in-house artist and writer of many of their finest songs. Catching up with Jeremy and Mark at the Levellers office-cum-recording studio since 1994, The Metway, it's just a short hop, skip and jump from his Jeremy's home. He looks pretty much as he has always done, with that highly distinctive mop of tied up and dyed rusty red dreads, and an ever growing collection of tattoos…

Famously, the core of the band met and hung out in The Eagle pub in Gloucester Road, the heart of the North Laine, which they revisit in the film. "I met Jez (Jeremy) there. He was in a band called The Fence, with Charlie Heather (who became the Levellers drummer)," says Mark. "I fancied his girlfriend," says Jeremy, but I quickly realised that she was really into him…" They talked about music, and setting up a band, and Jeremy suggested Jon Sevink, who was a fiddle player, a dynamic musician who used his instrument like a lead guitarist would. "When we first played with Jon, the noise that came out is pretty much what it still is," says Jeremy. Remarkably, those four have remained with the band ever since. Initially there was a fellow called Bucky who played guitar for a few gigs, before Alan Miles took over, becoming an integral part of the band's development before he too left, to be replaced by Simon Friend in 1990. Matt Savage then joined in 2002, the line up remaining the same ever since. "We didn't want to be part of the Brighton music scene, which was then all about being a rock star and wearing leather trousers," says Jeremy.


"We gravitated to these pubs where there was a lot of folk music going on, and listening to the words. They were saying things that all these punks were saying. The music is folk, but the attitude is punk," says Jeremy. And so, pretty quickly, the Levellers found their voice; a punk-folk-rock amalgamation, with contemporary themes running throughout. After all, this was during the late 80s, a period of particular turmoil in England, with rising antipathy towards Maggie Thatcher, a looming Poll Tax showdown, the repression of travellers and various other social injustices that were bubbling to the surface. "People say we were influenced by The Pogues and The Waterboys, which is true, but the one for me was McDermott's Two Hours," says Jeremy. A Brighton band led by Nick Burbridge, the lyrics resonated deeply with Jeremy and Mark, and later on with Simon, the main writers in the band. "They played Irish folk and folk from all over the place. They were angry but the lyrics were subtle, and poetic. They were the biggest band in town then, wherever they played they would fill the place up. To me, singing about an event that has just happened, and which affects a lot of people, is proper folk music." With an on-going relationship over the years, the Levellers and McDermott's Two Hours have even co-made three albums together, and last year McDermott's supported the Levellers at Brighton's Dome Concert Hall, a rare outing for them nowadays.

"We booked a gig, and wrote seven songs for it," says Mark, talking about the band's first ever show. And people were dancing, we couldn't believe it." That gig, which took place at Brighton Art College student union, where Jeremy had recently graduated, was an immediate justification for the band, and the Levellers were truly born. They quickly recruited a team around them, including Terry Johns, who was their tour manager, and very influential in helping to form the band's politics, as highlighted in the film, and who instilled the doctrine of crew and band working as one, an equal unit, a practice that the band have wholeheartedly adopted throughout their existence. "We had our own philosophy without having to talk about it. We came from that DIY punk scene, it was all about doing stuff for yourselves. We had a pretty clear vision," says Jeremy. Phil Nelson became their manager, and some of the people who attended those first gigs became part of the extended Levellers family, some even to this day. The band became a predominantly democratic unit, a loose co-operative with no leader, which ultimately has worked in their favour throughout the years. Despite calling the Levellers existence as '25 years of subsidised dysfunctionality', Jeremy believes that, "we're better at the consensus thing. We sometimes think there should be more conflict than there is…"

A big misunderstanding about the band is that they gathered their first fans from the free festival, squatters and travellers scenes, but as Mark points out, this is far from the truth. "Not many of those people became our fans, most of them came from universities and colleges. That's where most of our initial fanbase came from." I can recall them playing City of London Polytechnic in 1989, and was deeply impressed with their upbeat sound and stage presence, a barefooted Chadwick exuding confidence and charisma. It wasn't long after that I moved to Brighton, and one of the very first gigs I went to was the Levellers at the old Richmond… "I had no shoes on and everyone was sitting down. I was waving my feet to get everyone to stand up. 'You will dance!' If you're playing those places, for an intense three years, that's a whole generation that have seen us and stayed with us. Unfortunately, it (the student gig circuit) doesn't exist anymore. The biggest mistake ever was getting rid of that budget. Most of the people who now work in the music business all learned their trade working in student unions. We know them all, that's where we met them, like Charlie Myatt (who became the band's agent). Bands could go out and earn good money, have a guaranteed audience, a good experience, and you could buy good equipment with the cash. I feel sorry for new bands that don't have that now."

While on tour in the early days they sold cassettes and t-shirts at gigs, before releasing a couple of EPs and fan club releases via there own label, Hag. They then signed with French label Musidisc, and released their debut album A Weapon Called The Word, before pricking the ears of China Records boss Derek Green, who is also interviewed in the film. "When we signed with Minidisc it was a good signing, good to be signed to anyone at that point," says Mark. "A no-brainer; they had money, they could finance the record. But we needed a bigger label… Derek Green was really into us and he made Musidisc some sort of gangster offer they couldn't refuse. He's a great guy, I really liked him. We always had a very healthy relationship with him; he was independent and he loved his music." says Mark.

Jeremy Cunningham Playlist

Signing with China also saw them suddenly enjoy some of the trappings of being on a bigger label. They recorded their second album, Levelling the Land, at Ridge Farm Studios, about 40 miles north of Brighton which has seen the likes of Oasis, Thin Lizzy, Roxy Music and Queen grace its studios over the years… "There was a swimming pool!" says Mark. "We didn’t have a pot to piss in…

"We made an album where every single song actually makes a statement about the times and situation," says Mark. "I thought every album would be like that, it's the best record we have ever done," thinks Jeremy. "We were outsiders and we were not cool. The success of that album was a shock to many. People were wearing our t-shirts and talking about us. What happened!?!" exclaims Mark. "It even feels a bit of a mystery today. But, the words chimed with people. They just go it," says Mark.
 
With the momentum behind them, a strong independent label in China, a hard work ethic and a loyal team backing them up, it wasn't long before they became noticed by the press. But almost from the off the relationship turned sour. Mark believes it went downhill early and can pinpoint a major reason why… "We had a launch party with Musidisc, the signing of the band party, and Barbara Ellen (music journo with NME at the time, now currently feature writer for The Guardian et al) and James Brown (future editor of Loaded) and three or four other journalists were there, and I went over to them and had a go at them… They were sitting in the corner being cliquey and NME-ee.. 'C'mon, party'! 'No, fuck off'. 'No, you fuck off'. That was it! (laughing). These Levellers are a bunch of cunts, watch out…


"It was really strange, a lot of it was really bad, it really was… Jeremy was quite right (as featured in the film where he sits on the bog in The Metway, going through some of those hilarious, yet rather obnoxious 'reviews' and comments about that the band), it wasn't an attack on the band, it was an attack on the culture around them. 'Hang on a minute, you're being really horrible about people going to gigs…' That doesn't normally happen, they normally laud people who go to gigs. We rubbed them up the wrong way. Although Sounds was good." Unfortunately, the music weekly folded in 1991…


Some of the clippings shown in the film make for much hilarity, as Jeremy re-visits them in the bogs of The Metway. Headlines such as 'Agitplop;, 'Shitegeist', 'Crusty White Oafs', and 'From Bad to Wurzel' abound, as do some choice comments and 'reviews' from the NME and Melody Maker, the two remaining weeklies after the demise of Sounds. 'They want critical kudos. Fuck them and the convoy they rode in on', is one. 'The Levellers, they sell a lot of records. They are also shite', is another. Andrew Collin wrote a particularly scathing review of their second album, Levelling The Land, summing it up as: 'A dog on a shoestring'. Jeremy then decided to send Collins an actual shit in the post, providing unnecessary ammunition for the press… But when the album was re-issued in 2011, Collins wrote the liner notes, revisiting and re-evaluating the times in which the original review was written, and upgrading his critical praise: 'Never having sought anybody’s blessing in order to go about their business, the organic growth of the Levellers fanbase, its hitchhiking loyalty built upon the storming and inclusive nature of the band’s live shows, and an ideological affinity somewhat out of place in the apolitical late 80s, went largely undocumented at the NME… The Levellers, willfully unfashionable and defiantly single-minded, were making it without our permission!' wrote Collins.


"Now, the problem for us is getting a mention in something like Mojo…" says Mark. A few weeks ago he was invited to Steve Lamacq's BBC 6 show as a panellist… "On the panel there was the editor of Mojo, and I went: 'Right, you! What the fuck is your problem? 26 years of being one of the most consistently popular bands in this country, and not one mention. Nothing. Like we don't exist. What are you going to do about it'!?" says a half-serious Chadwick. "We'll see, chipping away at the edifice is fucking hard work. Not that bothered… we got Classic Rock which sells more, got a good feature in that… that's all good."


This relationship with the press over the years has in truth been a bit of a side-show. Of course, the band would like recognition for their work, who wouldn't? But at the end of the day, the success and enduring popularity of The Levellers has had very little to do with the press, a reason that Jeremy and others in the band cite as being a big part of why the press weren't so kind in the early days.


This word-of-mouth phenomenon reached it's first peak in 1992, when they played the Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury, an 'event' that has gone down in folklore… "We were too in the moment to realise what a big deal it was," says Jeremy. "And I was travelling at that time, with my missus. We had already played Glastonbury (1990) in the travellers field. Basically, (Michael) Eavis – Glastonbury's founder – allowed the travellers field on condition that it was open to the rest of the festival. We played there, but there was a lot of trouble, some of the security got into fights with people (the so-called 'Battle of Yeoman's Bridge'), some of them were corrupt too, selling drugs… I wasn't happy at the time, but later on I learned that Eavis had housed some of the travellers on his farm (from 1985 onwards, in the aftermath of the Battle of the Beanfield)."


Along with some rare and excellent archive footage from that 1990 festival, Michael Eavis is interviewed for A Curious Life. 'There were too many (travellers) in 1990,' says Eavis, who cancelled the following year's event largely as a result of these problems. 'There were thousands and thousands of them, creating anarchy. It didn't work, they were so bitter and anarchistic. I decided in 1990 that that was the end of the convoy. And, referring to the onstage antagonism of the band of 1992: "It was in such bad taste, doing it on my farm… that public slagging off." Cunningham had expressed his distaste for the travellers situation, while Chadwick called Eavis a cunt on stage… "Eavis came backstage after the gig and Chadwick bolted…" says Jeremy.


"We were a little bit vitriolic, and I regret it," says Mark. "But then Michael Eavis does go on to say in the film that he doesn't like the travellers, that they need to go. I thought that was a bit fascistic; it's not your decision to make, Michael, you're not God. I don't blame him though, they (travellers) are fucking nihilist anarchists. It's a dangerous culture, pretty scary. We were very around it, but it was a reflection of the times we were living in."

 


Following that momentous performance, it was onwards and upwards for the Levellers, with a little blip here and there along the way, such as Jeremy succumbing to the evils of heroin, something he talks about a little reluctantly in the film. In it he says he took to the drug because of the sudden fame and success of the band, which he found hard to handle. However, their commercial fortunes continued to rise, their eponymous 1993 album reached number two in the charts and contained some of their best known songs such as This Garden, Julie and Belaruse. And the following two years saw them reaching new peaks, firstly with a headlining performance at Glastonbury in 1994 (Eavis being a forgiving sort of chap), in front of the then biggest ever stagefront audience, and the release of the number one album, Zeitgeist, in 1995.

Zeitgeist was recorded in their new home, The Metway. Snuggling neatly on a residential street, it came with a long history of light industrial activity, including clock manufacturing, and it remains their home to this day. "I found out recently it was a brewery once," says Jeremy. "I met this really old guy outside of the Metway and he told me this. He'd lived around here forever… I showed him around and he pointed out the little bits of evidence that showed it was once a brewery."

Housing their offices, rehearsal area, a bar and a recording studio – initially equipped with gear bought from Tom Robinson – moving to The Metway was certainly a key factor in the band's continued success, and togetherness even. Not only did it enable them to realise their dream of becoming self-sufficient, but it has also acted as a hub for other creative and activist types, providing cheap rent and rehearsal and recording time for the likes of Orbital, Electric Soft Parade and Schnews, the weekly alternative paper. For the band, it's doubtful that they would still exist if it wasn't for The Metway. "I've no idea how we have kept it together. We're asked this question a lot," says Mark. "We're not greedy, we all get paid equally, and we've invested in the future at every point, for example The Metway and buying the rights to all our records as soon as we could, setting up our own label, publishing, and festival (Beautiful Days). We've taken the power away from those who can suddenly turn around…" At this point Mark suddenly remembers an incident that has stayed with him… "I've been on a tour bus, with another band, who shall remain nameless, and they were doing a sell-out tour, but the record wasn't doing great. On the tour bus it was a party, a proper party. Really great, hardcore lads… The tour manager came up and said, 'Got some bad news, boys. Got a call from the record company, your wages will be stopped as of the end of this month. You've been dropped by the label. It's over. After this tour you've got to start again'. I was like 'fucking hell'! I never ever want to be in that position, where someone makes an arbitrary financial decision that you're fucked." Jeremy concurs: "I think it's been really important that we still have The Metway, it's a reason why we are still here."

Not that they have been averse to sacking and changing things when the need arose, particularly in the darker days of the early noughties when their fortunes were taking a nose dive. When China Records got swallowed up by Warners in the late 90s, the band signed with Eagle Rock, a label that ultimately didn't know how to handle a band like The Levellers, and sales started dipping, and gigs were getting smaller, although they were still enjoying hits such as Come On and Make U Happy, their last top forty in 2005. They briefly consider cashing in and selling The Metway, but ended up keeping it and letting go of their manager Phil Nelson, who had been there since the beginning, and their agent, Charlie Myatt. "I don't remember panicking," says Mark. "We sacked everybody. We took a loan out just to keep The Metway going, and we started again. Eagle financed a couple of records and that helped us, but we ended up setting up our own label, and our own festival. We also went out as a folk band, and played all the folk festivals, which we did really well out of, although we didn't quite fit in. It's a twee world," he smiles. "And we got into a relationship with Dave Farrow who pretty much turned things around really." Farrow was an early fan of the band, having been a squatter in Amsterdam where they played a few times in the late 80s, and now acts as their agent, as well as partner in the running of Beautiful Days festival, an event that now sells out months in advance every year. "It was my idea," says Mark. "You're just fucking crazy," thought Jeremy. "But I never said it 'cause I felt he was onto something…"

 


"We made £9 profit in the first year (2003). Fucking hell, we can do it now!" remembers Mark. What on the surface sounds like a derisory sum of money, was in fact the signal that things could be alright. Festivals invariably do not make any money in their first year… "I had to fight pretty hard for it, it took two or three years, and I had to re-mortgage my house to make it happen. At that point the band didn't have any money.

"Dave was a promoter in the south-west and we said, 'you find us the land'. The first one was called Green Blade Fayre, and was going to be in the Bicton arena, and it's the poshest part of the country… One neighbour got wind and went bat-shit crazy about it, and that was it, it didn't happen. So we moved it five miles down the road to Escot Park. Lord Escot is a nice guy, same age as us, and a hard working landowner and environmentalist. And he's not greedy, and nor are we. Greed often kills festivals. You can still get three pints for under a £10…"

Jeremy's parents, Brian and Sheila, are a big part of A Curious Life, and Jeremy visits them with the film crew. Dad had archived all their early stuff – helping to give the film some background – and Mum talks about her son's love of art, which was apparent at an early age. If it wasn't for the Levellers, Jeremy may well have gone on to be a professional artist; he had just graduated from Brighton Art College and was hawking his portfolio when the band took off. But, he has been the band's artist throughout, designing their distinctive 'rolling A' symbol, all the covers and all the merchandise, usually working with his long time friend Francoise Hall, who does the graphics. "I still produce everything by hand, and Francoise does the graphic design. He was working on computers even in the really early days. He was the guy I gave the rolling A to sort out. Mark had said to me that we should have some kind of symbol, to get our image over, and I came up with that, although (unbeknownst to Jeremy at the time) it does look a little too much like the Afrikaner Resistance Movement flag (the South African anti-apartheid right wing organisation led by the notorious Eugene Terre'Blanche)."

In his spare time, as well as devouring history books, mainly medieval ones, Jeremy continues to draw prolifically and paint, mainly large-scale works, which he makes at The Metway. "I haven't exhibited for a few years, I'm never quite satisfied with my work enough to show it… What I do for myself is a lot less accessible than the stuff I do for the Levellers. They don’t want stuff that is above people heads! A lot of the work I do is pretty intense, I try and do it with as little intervention as possible, which is why it sometimes comes out all over the place. But I think it’s a more honest way of representing what is going on in your head… and a good way to get it out of my head!"

A Curious Life ("I don't know why it's called that," says Jeremy) is a very fine document of a band who have defied many to become one of the most successful British bands of the last 25 years. As well as being informative, it's entertaining and full of humour, as well as featuring the odd moment of poignancy. It's a testament to the director, but also to the band and their colleagues, such as long-time Levellers office man Steve Moore, who all helped to make the film happen. But as far as the creative content was concerned, they took a hands off approach. "It was emotional, to be honest. I loved it, I thought 'this is funny'. I think it does portray us in our actual, honest light." "It's Dunstan's film," says Jeremy, "he had free reign." "Even if we looked like total cunts at the end of it, that is what we agreed," says Mark. "'You are making a film, you have total editorial control over it, we don't want it'. It had to be someone's vision of what they are seeing; we can't see it, we're in a bubble.

"I didn't see it all until they premiered it in London, and we sat down, and I was expecting to be pretty pissed off, but I loved it. I was terrified too, you're watching 25 years of your life squished into 90 minutes," say Mark

And no problems about the occasional disparaging, albeit humorous comments? Or the interesting revelations from the band's inner circle? For instance, there's a hilarious anecdote from their producer, Al Scott, who spilled the beans on film about the band's hero, Joe Strummer, and his supposed piano playing on their 1995 hit, Just The One. In the film, Scott reveals that he replaced Strummer's guest piano spot, because he thought Strummer's was poor. Jeremy and Mark both admit to me that they had no idea it wasn't Strummer's piano they were hearing on record until they saw the film And in the film they both, rather amusingly, say that, yes, Strummer could play piano. "That was brilliant," says Mark.

So, after 26 years of being a Leveller, and based in Brighton, what is it about the place Jeremy enjoys? "The girls," he laughs. It's the girls!"

Jeremy's parents close the film with some insightful comments of there own, a summation of the Levellers character. "They all have this freedom of spirit," says Dad. "They put their money where their mouth is," says Mum. "They followed through what they felt, through their music, and their supporters, and their little community."

Jeff Hemmings