The Levellers – Interview 2018

“Bands are weird things, they have their ups and downs,” says Mark Chadwick, lead singer of The Levellers, Brighton’s veteran survivors of a ruthless music industry, and the most successful band to have ever come out of Brighton, with 11 albums under their belt (including a number one in 1995 with Zeitgeist) and 15 top 40 singles.

It certainly has been a year of mixed fortunes for the band. There was the personal tragedy suffered earlier this year which de-railed their already announced tour in support of the new album We The Collective, which was also put back. Then the scheduled line-up announcement for their annual Beautiful Days festival was delayed for some time to allow the dust to settle, as much as it could settle bearing in mind the circumstances.

However, The Levellers are nothing if not survivors. A band who have suffered far more than their fair share of bile and criticism over the years, for deigning to be political, alternative, environmentally-conscious, and for having built up their success largely without the help of the music press, in a nascent DIY way that is much more commonplace now. Yet, some things remain the same; a new Levellers record is largely ignored by the mainstream press.

“Not a lot of PR went into it, it just did itself,” says Mark. “It sounds really honest in this day and age. That’s very rare. It’s very direct, it’s very analogue. It’s the room and the mics. It’s as simple as that. When we walked into that room, the piano was there, the same one The Beatles used. You hit the A minor chord, like at the end of ‘Day in the Life’, and it sounds the same. How could that possibly be true? But it’s true. The drapes are the same. It’s incredible.”

Inspired and produced by the semi-retired John Leckie, a man who helped shaped Radiohead’s The Bends and Stone Roses’ debut album, We The Collective is a collection of two new tracks and eight re-imagined re-workings of songs from their back catalogue, including classics such as ‘One Way’ and ‘Hope Street’, but also lesser known songs such as ‘Elation’ and ‘Subvert’. It was recorded in the most famous studio of them all, Abbey Road, a place where Leckie started out as a tape operator in 1970, working on George Harrison’s post-Beatles solo masterpiece All Things Must Pass.

It’s a straight recording from Studio 2 in Abbey Road, which is a brilliant sounding room, with the best microphones in the universe. ‘1, 2, 3, 4 go’, and then we go and have a listen, and ‘yeah, that’s great’. It works. There was a lot of rehearsing in The Metway (their home studio complex in Brighton) beforehand, so as not to waste time when we got there, working with these new musicians; Hannah and Ollie from the Moulettes, and Mike Simmonds from Mountain Firework Company. Really excellent musicians. You didn’t have to draw for them, if you know what I mean. They inspired themselves and played along to what we were doing, instinctively.

“It’s ridiculous. You can’t play fiddle with fingers like that, but he can,” says Mark, referring to Mike Simmonds’ fiddle playing. “And Hannah is really, really musically talented. She and John also came up with most of the string arrangements. The one she did for ‘Elation’ just kills me. It brings me to tears on the stage which is quite embarrassing.

“It was John Leckie’s idea. What we had been doing up to that point was writing a new record, very guitar-based, the poppy side of the band. He said “I want to do an acoustic record with you in Abbey Road’, and we went ‘Yeah, alright then’,” laughs Mark. “That’s where he did all his training, and they’d known him forever. Funnily enough they don’t get that many bands in there anymore, probably about two a year. It’s ridiculous. Everyone there was really excited to have us there. ‘Oh, look. Real musicians! Rock and rollers!!'”

The enduring collective spirit of the band, and their continuing passion for their social and political landscape continues to inform the band’s work. The two new tracks, ‘Drug Bust McGee’ and ‘The Shame’ concern shady undercover police operations and the desperate plight of migrants, respectively. “‘Drug Bust McGee’ is based completely on undercover police operations and our own experiences. They’ve been around us over the years. Inveigling themselves in innocent people’s lives and treating them with suspicion, when actually they’re the ones who should be under scrutiny for that sort of behaviour.”

Two years on from the EU referendum, where Mark voted to remain, how does he feel about the turbulent political landscape now? “Sick to the bottom of my stomach. I really am. I’ve just been to Europe, and it’s so brilliant. They are so free. What people in this country have got very confused by is that the EU doesn’t pass laws, it just makes suggestions. In Europe they just ignore them all. They do not adhere to any of them. I don’t think they ever did. In Belgium people are smoking in the pubs, no health and safety anywhere. They’re riding mopeds without helmets on. ‘Hang on a minute, what’s all this’? Their bananas are bendy,” laughs Mark. “It’s only our country that adheres to these things as strictures. They never did anywhere else. It’s nuts. People are concerned about immigration and all that. You know what? It’s going to happen anyway. It’s nothing to do with the EU.”

Even if their hopes are receding, their collective spirit lives on, as epitomised by the cover of the album, which features everyone involved in the recording. “Yeah, it’s the collective. That was the vibe we had. Not just us, but including John, all the musicians, and all the engineers as well. They are all part of what happened. That’s the sort of thing The Levellers do. We’re a very inclusive bunch.”

In the meantime, it’s very much upwards for the band. There’s the upcoming acoustic tour to look forward to, Beautiful Days festival in mid-August (featuring Manic Street Preachers, The Hives, Gogol Bordello, Suzanne Vega, Calexico, British Sea Power et al), and work on their new album, which was put on hold to do We The Collective instead.

“We’ve now got about two albums’ worth. We need to get it down, it’s starting to bug us a bit. That’s why it was important to put new stuff on the record (We The Collective), to let people know that we hadn’t stopped being completely creative. We’re looking at the first half of next year to release the new album.”

So, despite all that has happened this year, you just have to keep going? “We do, we do. You have to.”

Jeff Hemmings