Three decades ago, a conversation in a pub in a busy South coast resort led to the newly-introduced Mark Chadwick and Jeremy Cunningham discovering they had plenty in common, not least their political world-view and taste in music.
As guitarist and lead vocalist Mark put it, “At that time, in 1988, there wasn’t really a lot of lyrical content in music. Brighton had a thriving music scene, with a few indie bands and rock acts, but it was all leather trousers and big hair. We were both into The Clash, wanting to do something in that vein, where something was actually being said. That was the basic germ of the idea – get together, create music that had lyrical content.”
They soon formed the Levellers, Mark and Jeremy (bass) recruiting Charlie Heather (drums), Jon Sevink (fiddle) and Alan Miles (harmonica, guitar, mandolin), with two self-released EPs – Carry Me and Outside/Inside – following the next year.
“We didn’t know what the sound was going to be. That came around accidentally, adding fiddle. That brought a folk element in. It lends itself to that direction but could have been added to anything. That wasn’t always the intention. As long as the songwriting was good, that’s what mattered.”
I seem to be forever talking anniversaries with artists of ‘yore’ these days. And somehow, Mark and Jeremy’s initial meeting in The Eagle appears to have been 30 years ago. Have those years snuck up on Mark?
“Yeah, like a bolt from the blue!”
Mark was at home when I called, handy for the band’s HQ, The Metway, in a resort he knows very well. Are they all from Brighton originally?
“I think we all gravitated towards Brighton, and some of us are from here. My family are.”
The Metway was originally a clock manufacturer’s factory, bought by the Levellers in 1994 while derelict and now housing offices, rehearsal areas, a bar, and a recently-refurbished recording studio. It’s an important part of the area’s cultural scene these days, as I put it to Mark.
“It is. A lot of artists have been through and have rented spaces. It’s well used.”
They remain strong supporters of Brighton’s music scene, giving upcoming bands use of the studio and rehearsal facilities, the likes of Orbital, Nick Cave and Electric Soft Parade also having recorded there.
Their new LP, however, We the Collective, due out on March 9th, was recorded straight to tape at London’s famed Abbey Road Studios with legendary producer John Leckie, whose impressive CV includes input on early ’70s George Harrison, John Lennon and Paul McCartney solo albums, through to Magazine and XTC later that decade, then The Stone Roses, Radiohead …
“Everybody! He’s done loads.”
How did they get to know him?
“He’s come to our festival, with his kids, for a number of years. And he was up for it.”
What was the first of his records that made you sit up and take notice?
“Probably those with Radiohead, and The Stone Roses.”
We the Collective involves a reworking of eight of the band’s singles, plus two new tracks, developing special acoustic arrangements. And the band are returning to the road to promote it with a two-part acoustic tour, playing those new arrangements with guest musicians, the initial dates including festival appearances at Glasgow’s Celtic Connections and London’s Roundhouse for In The Round. And their shows in Preston, Milton Keynes and Winchester – the latter at the Cathedral, marking the UK leg’s finale – quickly sold out. Have they played the cathedral there before?
“Not Winchester, but we’ve played Exeter, Rochester and Salisbury’s cathedrals, all great to play.”
The acoustics must be something.
“Yeah, and it’s the history of those places. Great.”
As there are ‘strings attached’ to this new album, can we describe it as an orchestral take on your hits?
“It’s not really orchestral, to be honest. It’s much more unusual than that. It’s not like we’ve got a 30-piece orchestra and have given them arrangements, with us banging around on top of it. It’s much more integrated, and totally arranged with the strings. They came up with a lot of arrangements themselves … and with no dots. They just played it as they heard it. It was really good.”
Well, strings have been part of the band’s sound from the start, after all, thanks to Jon’s fiddle.
“Exactly, it’s just augmenting that, really.”
Seeing as I mentioned Preston, I should note that the Levellers’ past Lancashire links include an early ’96 Blackpool Empress Ballroom gig recorded for their first live video and tie-in LP. And they’ve clearly retained a big Red Rose following.
“Without a doubt, in Manchester particularly … Morecambe too.”
“Ha! No – it would be preposterous.”
And have they kept in touch with the ‘happy hitchers’ who followed them from town to town early on?
“They occasionally show up, but don’t travel so far these days. But if we play their hometowns, they might just pop in.”
You’ve been an important part of their lives, and vice versa. You’ve a long, shared history.
“We have a very close relationship with our fanbase, always have, although it changes throughout the years. I’m not sure you can be that obsessive about a band for 30 years. If you do, you’re a bit weird!”
The fact that they sold out those venues so quickly suggests plenty of love still out there though. Is that just nostalgia, or a suggestion that further generations have also discovered the band?
“Definitely, and people get what we’re on about. It’s very much people’s music – not pop, not indie, it speaks a little bit more about people’s lives than most music does.”
Note that he didn’t use the F-word there. For this post-punk lad, folk was perhaps seen as something of a dirty word until the likes of The Pogues, The Men They Couldn’t Hang and Billy Bragg came on the scene. But I see now that it shouldn’t have been. And, let’s face it, it is folk that the Levellers play, in the true sense of the word.
“It is, in the proper sense – telling stories, with a conscience. Information, in a poetic way. And I always listened to folk music, right back, even Led Zeppelin in the ‘70s –Led Zeppelin III put me on to folk, Roy Harper, all that sort of thing.”
Am I right in thinking Harper was also produced by John Leckie?
And going back to the Levellers’ early tracks, songs like Carry Me suggest to me that The Men They Couldn’t Hang were an influence.
“They were actually.”
“Absolutely. And they’ve just recorded their latest album at our studio, actually.”
I was also going to mention The Waterboys, but I’m not sure they’d crossed over from rock to Mike Scott’s more raggle-taggle direction by then.
“No. they were headed that way, but at the same time as us. When Fisherman’s Blues came out, we were already going.”
On the other hand, I hear Jon’s fiddle sound in more contemporary artists like Seth Lakeman (whose brother Sean has produced two Levellers LPs in recent years), another artist who found inspiration from tellnig stories of the past, and too a less conventional route from folk music.
“Yeah, you wouldn’t really call Seth’s music traditional folk, at all. There’s something edgy about it, something different, which we really like.”
In fact, amid all their accomplishments so far, the band received a ‘Roots Award’ at BBC Radio 2’s Folk Awards in 2011, host Jeremy Vine labelling them a band that ‘stays true to folk and where it came from’. The presenter added, ‘Only the strong survive, and the Levellers have done it by staying true to their roots.’
The band are also set to head to Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands in early June, before more UK dates that month in Margate, Boston and Caerphilly, followed by their self-styled A Beautiful Day Out at Cornwall’s Eden Project (June 23rd) and Manchester’s Castlefield Bowl (July 1st), their Beautiful Days festival at Escot Park, near Ottery St Mary, Devon (August 16th/20th), and August 31st’s appearance at Lindisfarne Festival. And that’s just the next seven months accounted for.
Back to the early days, and the first Levellers album, A Weapon Called the Word, came out on French label MusiDisc in 1990, that debut LP eventually going gold, despite never charting. And while Miles soon quit, Simon Friend joined, that line-up – Mark, Jeremy, Jon, Simon and Charlie – still together today (with Matt Savage added on keyboards in the early 2000’s), the band soon signed to China Records by Derek Green, who was also responsible for snapping up the Sex Pistols. Was there always a belief that Mark and his band would make it big?
“From the outset. We were very serious. We formed quickly, and started playing live really quickly as well, when we had just seven songs. For the first gig we had to play those twice. But it was a really good gig, and people loved it, some following us from that point.”
It was the band’s second album, 1991’s Levelling the Land, that truly saw them break through, commercially, entering the UK charts at No.14, eventually going platinum. Did that LP’s success and those that followed – some selling even better – surprise Mark? Or was there always an underlying belief in your ability and potential?
“I think we did have that underlying belief, but it was a gradual but steep climb, so we didn’t really notice that until quite a while afterwards.”
I was surprised to be reminded that live favourite One Way – one of the singles reworked on the new album, and the lead track on Levelling the Land – wasn’t one of the hits, failing to make the Top 40. It sounded like it should have been though.
Listening back, I hear something of the Manchester sound early on – hints of The Stone Roses. Even The Charlatans maybe. So I guess I’m not surprised at their involvement with John Leckie.
Was there an element of learning on the spot in those early days? The musicianship across the band seemed to come together fairly quickly.
“It did, and I think we’re better now than we’ve ever been. Our level of musicianship’s quite good now. We always were a bit raw, but that was really the point. If we were giving the right amount of energy, we were happy.”
Beyond Levelling the Land, there were sell-out tours in ’92 and promotion from their earlier Travellers’ Field slots to Glastonbury Festival’s Pyramid stage by 1994, leading to the event’s biggest ever stage-front crowd at that time. It turns out that the band and their friends had been busy that morning handing out flyers, their finale that night with One Way still seen as a career high-point.
And from gold-selling album Zeitgeist – a UK No.1 in 1995 and one of 10 top-40 LPs – the single Just the One – one of 14 top-40 singles – led to a first Top of The Pops appearance, the tongue-in-cheek drinking anthem played in tuxedos, the song hasving been specially re-recorded with The Clash’s legendary frontman and long-time Levellers hero, Joe Strummer on honky-tonk piano. Was it a real buzz having Joe involved?
“Absolutely. A really nice guy. The Clash were a gregarious bunch, and so was Joe. He was instantly relaxed in our studio, totally cool, did what we wanted, had a laugh, stuck around a few hours, then went, and we saw him around a few festivals from there, saying hello again.”
He was coming out of a rather dark period around then, trying to re-find his way.
“Yeah, he’d been fairly quiet for a while. I think he was quite remorseful about the way The Clash ended.”
The link came via mutual friend, Simon Moran, the concert promoter having also worked with Joe. I get the impression that Strummer wasn’t one to commit if not interested fully. But when he did get involved, he’d throw himself into something whole-heartedly.
“He really did. We got this boogie-woogie piano in, so he could play it, and he had a go!”
He was also inspired by the concept of campfire music gatherings, somewhere you were coming from.
“Exactly – we’d been doing that years!”
The Levellers also featured in 2006’s Glastonbury film, directed by Strummer film biographer, Julien Temple. Are the band still regulars at that festival (he asks, in something of a leading question)?
“No. It’s too much now – it’s not the same festival for me. There’s too much television. I don’t like that. I find that a bit glitzy … it pats itself on the back a bit too much.”
Was that part of the reason you set about creating your own Beautiful Days festival?
“It was, seeing the gradual commercialisation of festivals. There are a few more now that aren’t like that, and that’s a good thing, but back in 2002 there weren’t that many. It was a new way of doing it.”
Yet, there are some big names involved at your festival now.
“Yeah, but not too big. People like it for what it is, not necessarily for the artists playing there.”
Originally called Green Blade Fayre, the event has been based at Escot Park for 15 years, consistently selling out in advance. Featured acts during that time have included the band themselves, plus The Pogues, James, Frank Turner, Seth Lakeman, and Public Image Ltd, with several awards accumulated along the way.
When the Levellers broke through, it was the era of Stonehenge protests and Government conflict with travellers. Was that a lifestyle you identified with and felt you were part of?
“We were, and we’d been living like that for a few years. It was a natural extension, when that happened … I didn’t personally live on the road, but Jeremy did.”
The new LP is for On the Fiddle Recordings, their own label, initially set up in the early ‘90s to distribute limited-edition albums to fan-club members. So they were fairly early, I put it to Mark, moving away from the major label approach, and when free of contractual obligations resurrected the label in 2008.
“By the time 2000 had come along, we were tired of the industry as it was, and you could see the writing on the wall. Our independent record company was bought out by Warner’s, and we hated that – we didn’t like being owned by Bugs Bunny … at all. So we got out.”
Many more acts have followed down that road since.
“I think so – some out of necessity, some out of choice.”
“More than a bit! Amazing. It’s where John did his training and a lot of his recording. When we said we wanted an acoustic record, he said, ‘Why don’t you do it at Abbey Road, Studio Two?’ And we were like, ‘Really?’”
The new songs on We the Collective are The Shame and Drug Bust McGee, the latter of which you can hear on the band’s website. Actually, I wrote ‘Busty McGee’ on my notes, giving a rather different ‘70s Carry On slant. Maybe they could adopt that for a remix, I suggested, to Mark’s amusement. So have those tracks been around a while, waiting for a home, or are they just two of many they’ve written lately?
“We have plenty more – more than enough for a new album. We haven’t recorded it, but we’ve been working on songs for a couple of years, writing together. We’ve had a really busy year, so it’s a case of finding time to sit down and record it.”
Four years ago, the story of the band – concentrating on their first decade together – was told in documentary, ‘A Curious Life’, the film directed by former Chumbawamba frontman Dunstan Bruce, another Metway-based artist. But while that film focused on their most-successful 10 years, it’s clear that they’re still finding plenty to get fired up by and write about.
“Oh yeah! Absolutely, the subjects are still there, probably more so than ever before.”
Well, if you can’t find something to rail against in this political landscape, you might as well chuck it in.
And 21 years after What a Beautiful Day was a hit, how many times does Mark reckon he’s witnessed special festival sunsets while playing that particular crowd favourite?
“Ha! Every time we play it, it rains … literally every time!”
The Levellers’ 2018 acoustic tour dates, with support from Ginger Wildheart on all dates except Glasgow and London: Thu, February 1st – Glasgow Old Fruitmarket (Celtic Connections), Fri, February 2nd – Wrexham William Aston Hall, Sat, February 3rd – Preston Charter Theatre (sold out), Sun, February 4th – London Chalk Farm Roundhouse (In the Round); Tue, March March 13th – Buxton Opera House, Wed March 14th – Cheltenham Town Hall, Thu March 15th – Yeovil Westlands, Fri March 16th – York Barbican, Sat March 17th – Milton Keynes The Stables (sold out), Sun March 18th – Liverpool Philharmonic, Tue March 20th – Basingstoke The Anvil, Wed March 21st – Cambridge Corn Exchange, Thu March 22nd – Leicester De Montfort Hall, Fri March 23rd – Bexhill De La Warr Pavilion, Sat March 24th – Winchester Cathedral (sold out). For more information, contact the venues direct, or go to www.levellers.co.uk and follow the band via Facebook and Twitter.