Cooler than zero

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Dave Woodhall talks to a great British blues cult figure, Dennis Greaves.

It’s said that cockroaches will be the only things to survive a nuclear holocaust. Well, them and maybe Keith Richards. But if anyone else lives through Armageddon and throws a party to celebrate, they’ll have to invite Nine Below Zero to perform. They’ve been performing since 1979 and they might have had some time off since then but if they have, nobody’s ever noticed. Still one of the hardest-working bands in the business they have gigs upcoming at the Robin and the Assembly. Singer Dennis Greaves tells us their current state of play.

“This year’s gone absolutely mental. We’ve got Jools Holland’s radio programme next week, Loose Ends, the Stranglers tour but first we’re going out with Ben Walters, who’s a fantastic pianist. It’s really going well and we’re very busy.”

You’ve now got the classic, Young Ones-approved line up of the band after bassist Brian Bethell returned in 2012. Was that a case of him coming back as though he’d never been away?

“Absolutely. Brian’s one of those amazing bass players, really old style and for the music we play he’s the best. The other guy Gerry (McAvoy) wanted to be a guitarist and he would step over the drums and it got very frustrating. Brian just locks in with the drums, it’s incredible. It’s improved the band so much.”

You do seem to be permanently touring. Will you ever cut down?

“I don’t know. I was talking to Mark (Feltham – harmonica player) about this the other day. Our ambition is to be on Jools Holland’s television show before we’re 74. The Buena Vista Social Club were about 74 when they did it, so if we do we’ll probably give up then.

Back in the day, you seemed to be vying with the Hamsters and our very own King Pleasure to do the most gigs in a year. Did you win that particular race?

“I think King Pleasure won. They were amazing weren’t they? I was at the BBC the other night, watching a comedy show being recorded in the place where the Goons were recorded and I had such a buzz. I was talking to a couple of people and they said 35 years on and we’re still playing great. I said that my style of music is one of those things –my idols were 60 plus, Muddy Waters, Albert King, Robert Cray’s getting like that, but they were established, wonderful blues artists who got better and better with age. It’s the genre I’m in, we just get better.”

You’re still playing as well as ever, but will there be a new album?

“The big problem, the danger is whether people will buy CDs anymore. What I might do is put a Best Of out and record four tracks but the thought of spending three months recording, three months of your life, you live so much of your life when you make a record and for people to just then ignore it or the media to ignore it and you end up selling  thirty copies a night on your stall, it’s alright but I just don’t know anymore. Radio 2 daytime, all the radio stations in fact, it really annoys me. My mate Glen Tilbrook’s just brought out a brilliant album and they won’t play that but they’ll play Up the Junction. Elvis Costello, they won’t play his new album which is great but they’ll play Watching the Detectives. Everything is so risk-averse.

“I’ve got maybe fifty songs in my phone, or in my head, and I’m always having new ideas but if it’s just so much effort for very little reward. I’m not sure I can do it so I don’t know if there will be another album.”


You played some gigs recently with Wilko Johnson. How’s he getting on now?

“That was lovely. He looks amazing, he said to me the other night ‘I’m embarrassed to still be alive,’ and long may it continue.”

You’re playing locally, first at the Robin.

“You’re really lucky up there. You’ve got one of the best venues in the country, you’ve got to get the public to get off the arses and use it. The place has got soul, like when we played the Marquee when we were starting out and then the 100 Club. Amazing places. We backed Chuck Berry at the 100 Club and what can I say? He came over with his own band and his family. To be in the room during the soundcheck; it was better than the gig. He’d just arrived from Finland and demands that he drives himself around so he had this Mercedes and he always prangs them, the guy is just a legend and he’s such a great blues guitarist as well. You’re in the presence of something very special.

Then there’s the Assembly gig with the Stranglers.  It’s their ruby anniversary. Forty years – scary to think how quickly it’s gone isn’t it?

“Oh yes, do you remember the first time you heard Rattus Norvegicus or Peaches? But it’ll be amazing. We’ve played with them a few times over the years and they’re like us – they go out and give the fans a great time.”

The death of Pete Seeger reminded me of that lovely clip of him running off stage during Barack Obama’s inauguration gig, aged 90. 

“I’m not waiting that long. 74 and that’s it. But running off the stage? I know this business keeps you young but that’s brilliant.”

What a pity that so few modern musicians share his passion even at their young age.

“The world’s changed. My parents came though the war, I had pocket money and bought a record, went to football with my dad, played football, went swimming. My lad pays £80 for a pair of trainers and if he needs another pair it’s off to the bank of mum and dad. It’s a different world. I’m not saying it worse but it does mean they’re disconnected from that sort of experience.”

Nine Below Zero play the Robin 2 on Friday 14th February and the Leamington Assembly with the Stranglers on Tuesday 11th March.