They’ve been together for almost a quarter of a century but as they tell Dave Woodhall, the world according to the Levellers hasn’t changed that much.
After 24 years and ten studio albums the Levellers could be described as part of the rock establishment. If, that is, you could call a band whose fierce commitment to hard-edged and often militant politics has never wavered during that period, ‘establishment’.
We spoke to the band’s bass player and lyricist Jeremy Cunningham about the new album, Static on the Airwaves. The single from it, We Are All Gunmen, out on 16th September, has been described as sounding like the Kinks meet Dylan and the Subhumans.
“Well, I like them all. It’s songs from the heart. There’s a long tradition of bands like the Clash that we tap into. They’re songs about daily life.”
You recently played the BT London Live shows that were part of the Olympics celebrations. Being part of such a festival of commercialism might seem at odds with your alternative lifestyle.
“At the time we were offered the gig I didn’t know it was for the Olympics. The band agonized over whether to play it for a while but eventually we agreed because it was free – if it hadn’t been there’s no way we would have gone ahead. It wasn’t really our thing but in the end it was a good gig and a lot of people heard us who might not have done otherwise.”
You’ve been around for 24 years. Does it depress you that we still seem to have the same problems in society as we had then?
“Yes, it was especially noticeable two years ago when we toured the Levelling the Land album for its twentieth anniversary and the songs on it were still relevant. I suppose it’s good for us as a band but it’s very sad on a social level.”
We spoke on the day that the Hillsborough Independent Panel announced that the South Yorkshire police had lied about the disaster and there had been a cover-up since 1989. This must strike a chord with a band who were so closely linked with the traveller scene and in particular the Battle of the Beanfield, when police attacked travellers in 1985 during scenes criticised by reporters whose TV reports later mysteriously vanished.
“These events have helped open people’s eyes to the sort of conditions we expected to exist in the old Eastern Bloc countries. In the end they’re freer than we are. We might not get such blatant injustice now, but day to day hassles are far more obvious. And there’s an apathy that’s especially prevalent amongst young people now. Everyone seems to look at the problems we face as long-term and overwhelming.”
There certainly seems to be a growing acceptance to accept CCTV and constant surveillance as the only way to cut crime and to make people feel safe. Are we being conditioned by fear into accepting oppression?
“Freedom is being curtailed thanks to the scaremongering and xenophobic lies being spread that make people afraid of their neighbours and believe everyone in a burqa is a potential terrorist.”
Which leads to the question everyone in a similar position asks. Where’s the new music? Where are the angry voices emerging in the way that you did?
“There are a few bands around. The Skints blew me away when they played our festival. They’re a ska/r&b band with a great girl singer. There’s also King Blues, who do a similar kind of thing.”
You won a Radio 2 Folk award in 2011 but you were always reckoned not to be a folk band. What’s that about?
“We always have been a folk band. What happened was that when we first started out our record company told their staff that we weren’t folk and to treat us like a rock band. We went along with that, but somehow it was reckoned it’s what we said. It’s bollocks. We’ve always been a folk band.”
The Levellers are arguably best-known for their 1994 appearance at Glastonbury, where they pulled in what’s reckoned to be a record stagefront crowd for the festival. Do you worry about how many of that audience subsequently might have gone on to become Tory-voting accountants?
“Yes, it does, or at least it did. When we started playing larger venues we found it difficult to come to terms with the fact that most of the crowds wouldn’t be affected by what we were doing. We’ve always said to our audiences ‘We love you coming to see us but you have to change things yourself. We can help you with the tools, but you have to go away and do it.’ That’s not going to happen so much with three thousand people in a leisure centre. But I also talk to people who say they were saved by our music or were inspired to go on to do something by us, and that’s good.”
You’ve been around for 24 years. What will the world be like in another 24? Will there have been more Levellers albums?
“I hope so. Hopefully we’ll still have something to say for a long time to come. I think there will definitely be less freedom in the future, more globalisation. I hope I’m wrong but I can see us giving up more of our freedoms. One cause for optimism, though, is that with protests taking place around the world there’s a global unease amongst young people. They’re demonstrating but they don’t seem to know what they want. Someone with vision and a plan of what they do want will come along and cause changes.”