Levellers Interview – Jeremy Cunningham

Spend some time with us in the company of one of the nicest blokes on the festival circuit at the moment. Jeremy is the dreadlocked bass player who once replied to a bad NME review with a pooh in a bag. We think he's great!

[r-zone3]With a new album (their seventh studio production) and a single on the way, The Levellers are gearing themselves up for another tour of UK and European venues. Not, that is, that we have ever noticed any discernable pause in the band’s relentless series of live performances. Often notching up 200+ shows a year, The Levellers are still as happy playing to a half-full pub as they are packing out massive stadium and festival venues.

[l-zone2]We had the opportunity to grab a 20 minute chat with Jeremy Cunningham in the lead up to the release of the single ‘Come On’ that is taken from the forthcoming long player -‘Greenblade Rising’. The be-dreaded bassist was on his usual charming form, and responded to my slightly embarassed revelation that I hadn’t got a tape in the machine that he needed a drink anyway. So after a minute’s delay we got on with it.

VF: The last time I saw you was back at Distortion in Nottingham when you had to shoot off to do the Guildford Festival on the same day. What was the worst thing about having to do two shows back-to-back like that?

[r-zone4]JC: I guess it was just being mingingly hung over for the lunchtime show. I’d been out ’til about four in the morning the night before, and I was absolutely minging – luckily I was able to sleep a bit on the bus, but it was still a bit hairy (and that’s saying something coming from this infamously dreadlocked old crusty). What I can’t understand is how we got such good reviews for that gig. Everyone was saying we were brilliant, but I can’t even really remember it!

VF: Well I was there – just  – I think you were on a bit early and we were running late, but I do remember hearing the compere announce you as ‘the best accoustic punk band in the world’ – If you’re the best, then who would you rank as second?

[l-zone5]JC: It’s gotta be Neil Young – and he’s the best really – no doubt about it! 

VF: Okay, well lets just call the compere a lier then. Now festivals. I can hardly not talk about them some more, because we are, after all, Virtual Festivals – and you are one of the major festival acts. I guess we’re kind of made for each other in a way.

[r-zone1]JC: Sure – I remember you doing all that stuff with us back at our Isle of Wight thing a few years back when you followed us around all weekend – you even shot all that footage in the dressing room.



[l-zone1]VF: Well that was a great little event. Maybe the ice rink was a bit of an odd venue, but it was about proper fans getting to see their band in a friendly setting over a long weekend. I seem to recall we did so much on that one that you used our stuff as the official coverage.

JC: Yeah, that’s right. It’s a real shame that we didn’t get the Greenblade thing off the ground this year because that was going to have been more of the same thing.

[r-zone2]VF: I’d been going to ask you about that. Obviously the problem you ran up against was a nervous licensing authority. What impact do you reckon that the recent events at Leeds Festival will have on these sorts of license applications next year?

JC: Well we’re definitely going to have another go at Greenblade for next year – but I hadn’t really thought about the Leeds issue before now. Yeah, I guess that it could be a factor though – particularly up North. We’ve found that on the whole the Police have usually been alright about festivals up there in the past – it’s only been in the South West that they are absoulte f*****g monsters. It was typical of us to choose the most difficult place to hold a festival! So thinking about Leeds I suppose it could be a concern to the Police and others.

VF: So from what you’ve said then, could I guess that Greenblade 2003 might be a Northern event?

JC: No – we’re going to aim for the same place again.

VF: Gluttons for punishment, obviously!

[l-zone3]JC: Not necessarily, I mean after the whole license refusal thing down there there was a whole load of stuff in the local press saying how we had been grossly misrepresented. It boiled down to the fact that earlier press coverage of the application had been steered by a single ex-policeman who’d been pretty senior when he was serving in the force. He’d spread the idea that the whole hippy convoy thing was going to park up at this event and never leave. So that was the main reason they refused our license.

VF: I thought everyone had noticed that those bad old days were long gone now?

JC: Well absolutely. And most of the local residents really wanted the festival. First off they were getting free tickets, and secondly it was something for their kids to do. There’s so little for the kids in the area that their drink and drug problems are astonomical. And oof course the foot and mouth problems are still affecting them badly, so anything that brings people in is seen as a good thing down there.


[l-zone2]VF: Sure. And of course the foot and mouth thing came straight after that fiasco with the eclipse events. Then they had the opposite problem of giving too many licenses over one weekend – and then told everyone to stay at home because of scares about weekend long traffic jams! We saw you down at that one as well I remember at the Lizard Festival when pretty much onlly the headliners played because nobody else was getting paid!

[r-zone1]JC: Yeah, that was a surprisingly good one though even so. I think the promoters were running about three events in the area, so when they realised what was happening they just cut their losses and let people with tickets from the others go to the Lizard one. We were happy ‘cos when we played the tent was absolutely rammed full!

VF: Does the band have any preferences these days for the sorts of festivals and events you like to play? Do you still get off on the big shows, or do you prefer the smaller venues that are a bit more intimate?

JC: We don’t really mind. We still love doing the big shows – it’s great to get over to so many people at once…and that’s really what we are all about. But at the same time we still like to do lots of the small ones to. The intimacy is great, and you actually get to meet people. At the end of the day we just like playing live gigs – that’s what we enjoy doing.

[l-zone3]VF: That enjoyment certainly still comes across – I think often that thats why people still keep on coming back to see you play every time. It really is refreshing to see a band obviously having fun. Thinking back, whhat ranks as your favourite festival – although that’s got to be a difficult question because you’ve done so many.

[r-zone4]JC: Glastonbury ’94 has to be one, and the anti-Nazi rally we did in Brockwell Park was mad. It was a massive thing with about 250,000 people there, just ludicrous! And funnily enough the last one we did was a festival in Belgium, and it’s the onlly time that we’ve been called back to the stage literally 15 minutes after the show was supposed to have been over. There were all these thousands of people still shouting and screaming and even starting to rip things up, so we had the promoters back in the dressing room with us just begging us to go back on. And luckily we’d earler been back in our local pub doing an acoustic session just for a laugh really and we’d dragged out some older stuff like One Way that we haven’t done for ages. So we pulled that one out of the hat for a last song at this Belgian thing, and everything just completely kicked off. We were really grateful for that experience, because it’s not usual for bands to get that sort of chance – and our crew were brilliant as they’ed already started to pack things down. They had to gget the gear and the PA set up again just in time for us to bring the house down!


VF: I’d have loved to have been there! I got married nearly ten years ago, and I remember that we nearly used One Way as our wedding march song – there were just a few too many oldies in the place, and the sound system was rubbish anyway, so it wouldn’t have done it justice.

JC: I understand – it would have been cool though!

VF: Going back to that Leeds business, it’s obviously hot news at the momennt. From your perspective then where would you have laid the blame? With the organisers, the authorities or the crowd?

JC: I don’t really know. Iwas actually on holiday at the time and I’ve only just got back. My manager showed me the pictures, but I haven’t had a chance to read much about it.

VF: Were those the pictures in this week’s NME?

JC: That’s the ones.

VF: Those were all ours. We were pretty much the onlly journalists left on site, and one of our team decided to brave the rioters and the riot police to get the lowdown, so he ended up with exclusive shots.

JC: They were cracking! I loved that one of the guy silhouetted against the flames at night! So what did happen then?

VF: Well from what we could see it was a couple of dozen hard core types in balaclavas who crashed through the security fences to the toilet blocks and just started torching everything. After that it just got out of hand.

JC: I can’t see the reason for that at all. I mean if it had all been sponsored by someone f*****n horrible then it might have made more sense. I just don’t see the logic. What’s the point in pure mindless destruction?

VF: Our guy was askking people just that question, and he was saying to some of them about how their actions might have an impact on other events – but they just looked at him blankly.

JC: Well it certainly isn’t likely to happen in Leeds again! They didn’t want to grant the license in the first place did they.


VF: Funnily enough there are senior people there saying already that it will get the green light next year – but maybe at a different site…maybe on a farm further outside the city or something. Okay, on a much lighter note, and relevant to nothing we’ve spoken about so far – was it deliberate to make Charlie [the drummer!] look like a young John Travolta on the artwork for the Come On video?

[l-zone1]JC: That wasn’t my artwork for a change. It was done by the computer animation company that are upstairs from us at the Metway. I always draw Charlie as a pig! Of course Mark hasn’t done much better – he looks like a cross between Lenny Cravitz and David Essex!

VF: Lastly, NME have given you there usual luke warm review for the single. I think they say something like, ‘If The Levellers can’t write a decent protest song then what’s the point?’ Would you say that that is criticism of your current stuff or praise for your earlier work?

JC: Hard to say really – but I think that Come On is a fair stab at a protest song though!

VF: So if they were to give you a real slating would you ever consider one of your now infamous retorts?

JC: I think that’s behind me now [boom, boom] – really the NME has never been that big a part of my life…I just couldn’t care enough about them!

[r-zone2]So on that note we sadly have to leave Jeremy. The Levellers will continue to play to packed crowds for as long as people want live music to be fun and exciting. Whether you like their music or not, check them out the next time they play at a festival or pub near you.