The Levellers are fast approaching their 30th anniversary – a band who quite rightly won the Radio 2 Folk Awards in 2011 for ‘staying true to folk and where it comes from.’
Musicians Mark Chadwick and Jeremy Cunningham met in The Eagle, a pub in Brighton, in 1988. Discovering that they had a fair bit in common, including a left-wing view of politics, they decided to form a band. They soon added Charlie Heather on drums and Jon Sevink on fiddle (the only classically trained musician in the group) and, after a short while, Alan Miles to play harmonica, guitar and the mandolin. After the release of Weapon Called the Word, in 1990, Miles quit the band and was quickly replaced by Simon Friend. That Levellers line-up of Mark, Jeremy, Jon, Simon and Charlie continues to this day (with Matt Savage later joining on keyboards).
In 2003, they started their own festival, Beautiful Days, which has been held annually ever since in Escot Park, Devon. It has an incredibly successful record and sells out year after year.
Setting up their own record label in the early 1990s ensured The Levellers regained creative control after they became disillusioned with the way various record companies were producing and marketing their albums.
As part of their Folk Award back in 2011, they were commended for their longevity and resilience in such a difficult industry. Indeed, the truth is that ‘only the strong survive and the Levellers have done it by staying true to their roots.’
We met up with the fabulous Jeremy Cunningham before their Leadmill gig and was able to spend a little time with him catching up and reflecting on life with one of the most successful folk-punk bands ever.
The Levellers have given us folk-punk with Carry Me and In This Garden, the anthems of Hope Street and Beautiful Day and social commentary throughout. How do you feel your song themes have changed over the years?
Well the themes haven’t really changed that much because we only ever talk about our lives really, what we’ve seen, what we’ve experienced and what we’ve seen through news, social media and what have you. So, the themes stay pretty much the same which is why the songs kinda stay relevant but the music has changed over the years. There’s always going to be themes running through it, there’s always going to be similarities running through it as it’s played by the same six people but you know sometimes we’re more guitar heavy, sometimes we’re more acoustic and we’re just about to release early next year an acoustic album but at the same time we’re just writing a new real two guitar punk rock album which hopefully will be out next year as well.
Do you have a title for either of those yet?
Not really – I think the acoustic one is going to be The Levellers Acoustic Collective but there’s no title, as yet, for the other one.
How would you say the song writing process has changed for you all over the years?
Well, that’s stayed the same. Basically, there’s three of us who write lyrics – there’s me, Mark and Simon – and there’s two that write whole songs – which is Mark and Simon – and the others write music but don’t write lyrics. So, what will often happen is I’ll write the lyrics – like for example I wrote Hope Street –
That’s my favourite.
Is it? Well, I gave that to Simon and he wrote the music for it and then Mark ended up singing it. Same with Before the End – I wrote it, gave it to Simon and Mark ended up singing it. Or they just write full songs – like Simon wrote Men-An-Tol on his own, Mark wrote Carry Me on his own, and so basically, we get songs which are the lyrics and acoustic guitar then we give it to Jon and Matt who start working on tunes for it and we then sit down and arrange it all together.
The Levellers formed in 1988 – when I was only fifteen years old…
Yeah. Thirty years next year!
I know! So, what do you put your longevity and resilience down to?
Well that’s pretty easy really. I mean, we haven’t really got terribly big egos. I mean we’ve got some egos because you need that to get on stage obviously but we each know how important the other is for making the noise of the band. The noise of the band is bigger than the total of its parts and the thing is we’re all still friends – I mean the amount of time we spend together – I can’t imagine doing it if we weren’t. It’s would be just too depressing – haha – we’re all sensitive artistic types you know…
Mal: Don’t you ever fall out?
Yes of course – haha – but only ever about the music. Yeah nothing really bad. Not anything that would ever jeopardise the band. I mean all of us have been thrown in to rehab at some point or another but not all of us at the same time!
Haha yes …
Well, leading on from that, A Curious Life, released this year, told from your perspective, has been described as ‘an uplifting film about battling demons.’ Can you tell us a little about how it came about and why it was so important for you to do?
It came about because the director, Dunston, he was the singer in Chumbawamba, you might remember from those years, well he started making films and we’d seen a film of his about Chumbawamba actually called Well Done Now Sod Off, [released 2000] which is a really good film. We invited him out on tour with us a few years ago to do a video blog on every day of the tour and that was three or four weeks that he was with us every day and then after that he suggested, because he’s had such a good time doing it, he kinda just said, ‘I’d really like to make a film about the band’ and we went ‘Yeah, alright! Haha…’ And it ended up being about me because at that point Simon’s partner had sadly just died and Mark had just had a baby and so I was the one that was around all the time – although everyone’s in it but I provided continuity.Plus of course Dunston and me live pretty close together and pretty close to The Levellers’ Metway building. [Metway Studio is The Levellers’ tracking, mixing and mastering facility based in Brighton] So that’s pretty much how it came about.
You’ve talked a little about your addictions and that you’ve been in rehab over the years – how does the film touch on that?
Yeah – it does touch on that. I was a heroin addict for many years and it touches on that and Mark was in for alcohol and Simon was in because he’s just batshit crazy- haha! – just like the rest of us but yeah. So we’ve all been in The Big House for a few weeks but like I said not all of us at the same time so the others of us always managed to pull the black sheep out.
Northern Exposure support homelessness and mental health charities – both causes which are close to your heart –
Can you talk a little about the way you feel these issues have changed over the years and how you as a band have responded?
Well things as far as I can see have only got worse. With years of Conservative government not really giving a fuck, we’ve ended up doing more Homelessness benefits than we’ve done for a long time and we see a lot more people on the street in Brighton than we have done since we were living in squats so I’d like to say something more positive but times have got worse.
Which is your favourite Levellers song and why?
I’ve got a few really. Probably England My Home because it says everything that the band want to say in one three-minute song. And it was one of the songs that me and Mark wrote together which is unusual because usually one of us writes. So then he wrote the music for it and we all arranged it. I mean it was one of the first songs we wrote as well – the third or fourth song we wrote together. So it just has a special place in my heart – haha.
Your own record label, On the Fiddle, was set up to ensure you had control over your music and your difficulties with record labels are well documented. What advice do you have for musicians coming in to the business?
Well it’s so different from when we started, everything’s changed really. It’s a lot easier to start but it’s harder to make yourself heard because with the technology now you can make an album in your bedroom with drums and everything. I’ve been doing it and producing other bands and we’ve been using a studio to do drums but then they’ve been doing the rest in their front rooms. I mean now you’ve got internet you can record your stuff and get it out on Sound Cloud and Spotify and it can be heard by a lot of people. The problem is there’s so much out there so people aren’t as loyal as they used to be to a band. There used to be a fierce loyalty but now people will listen to a couple of songs and then move on to a couple of songs by someone else and their attention span has just gone whereas people used to buy our albums or twelve-inch on vinyl and it was a big deal for them as it was for me. I used to buy the Clash’s first album or ACDC’s third album and it was always a big deal and that just doesn’t seem to exist anymore. We produce vinyl still and vinyl is coming back so hopefully maybe that will change things a little bit.
Mal: Some of the things changing is bands not ever getting paid for gigs – venues never want to pay a fee …
Well, they never did! I mean back in the day sometimes we had to pay to play a gig and we just refused to do it – I mean we never did it. We had to come to an arrangement with the venue that we would get a certain number of punters in otherwise they wouldn’t book us again. So, instead we did benefits in Brighton to get the money up to hire coaches to bring our people up from Brighton to play our first gigs in London – so it can be done but it’s just hard work. Nobody wants to help you when you’re starting out. It is hard. As soon as you get a bit famous everyone wants to give you everything – haha – but starting off it’s hard work. That hasn’t got any easier.
So, how does it feel being back at the iconic Leadmill again?
Yes, we’re back up here – we’ve been to the Sheffield Arena in our time, Doncaster Dome and every venue in-between. Yeah, it’s good.
Mal: I saw you down in Margate about thirteen years ago now ..
At the Winter Gardens? Yeah, we still do that occasionally – it’s a nice old venue, like an old music hall. It’s good being back here – like you say it’s an iconic club.
Mal: Apart from the dressing rooms …
Yeah, it’s proper spit and sawdust. Yeah, we did one of our first proper gigs here supporting a band called Les Négresses Vertes – a French band.
When would that have been?
Late ‘80s I think. They came up a little bit then their singer had an overdose and died [Helno Rota de Lourcqua died in 1993] and they disappeared but they were on the cusp for a little while.
What can we expect from you next?
Our last album is four or five years old – that is Static on the Airwaves. Letters from the Underground – the last album before that – had been a punk-rock album but Static’s a bit more acoustic – it still has the guitar element but it’s more acousticy kind of songs like our early stuff. Then the album that we’re just about to bring out next year is an acoustic album that we recorded at Abbey Road up in London with a whole load of friends of ours playing with a string quartet basically. We got a whole load of interesting stuff on there. And we record all our albums live as well in the studio so it’s pretty quick to record but it takes us ages to rehearse it and get it all worked out.
Mal: That’s the best way to do it because you don’t get that clinical sound, do you?
No absolutely. And the guy we were working with – a guy called John Leckie [English record producer and recording engineer] who’s recorded every song – he’s really good at using all that overspill to make things sound live, you know? And he won’t let you play more than four takes. If you haven’t got it in four takes you move on to another song. Haha! Which is alright for us because we were so well rehearsed by the time we got there because Abbey Road is so fucking expensive – haha – that we had it in two takes most of them!
Yeah – we were only there for four days!
We have a special question from two huge fans of yours – Dom Kincaid and Fiona Neale:
Do you have much input choosing your Beautiful Days line up?
Yeah … we do.
What would your dream line-up be?
Oh blimey – Neil Young? We could never afford him – hahaha- basically all the people we could never afford or that are dead!
Yeah. Mind you – The Waterboys [Scottish folk rock band] are playing again this year – we’ve had them a lot – and we just did a big gig in Manchester with them as well at the Castleford Bowl – outdoors on the canal – biggest gig we’ve ever done in Manchester actually. Yeah it was really good.
So, you pretty much choose your bands then?
Yeah – we choose some and our agent chooses a lot of up and coming bands that we haven’t heard of, people we wouldn’t think of because we don’t necessarily listen to the same kind of things as people who go to beautiful days will want to hear. He wants to keep the festival for those people but we both agree – us and our agent – that it won’t get any bigger than what it is now because people don’t want it to get bigger. So yeah, we have a lot of input but not 100%.
Thank you so much for your time. It’s a busy year for you then..
Yeah. We’ve got gigs coming up but they’re mostly sold out and then we’re not doing anything else over the winter because we’ll be doing this electric album – finishing writing it. Yeah. Just a few more festivals to go. That’s it really.
You can catch The Levellers at these upcoming gigs:
August 5th Wickham Festival
August 17th-20th Beautiful Days Festival, Devon
November 8th Leamington Spa
November 9th Bury St Edmunds
November 10th Shiine on Weekender, Minehead
Check out www.levellers.co.uk for the huge back catalogue and merchandise. Most recent additions mentioned in the interview are:
Static on the Airwaves – The Levellers’ tenth studio album
Letters from the Underground – The Levellers’ ninth studio album
A Way of Life Authorised Biography – by Niall Hickman with foreword written by Mark Radcliffe available now on pre-order but available to buy from early 2018
A Curious Life documentary released 2014 now available on DVD