Nine below forty

Dennis Greaves from the legendary Nine Below Zero has a chat.

Nine Below Zero have done more gigs than just about any other band, haven’t let a pandemic stop them and they’re about to begin a UK tour celebrating the fortieth anniversary of their Third Degree album. The first show is at Birmingham’s Jam House on 10th November and singer Dennis Greaves told us about it, plus a few other things.

You start the tour at the Jam House. Will you be playing the whole album through?

“Bands, especially of our age and longevity, do it and this album lends itself to it. What we’re doing is side one, then some catalogue stuff, then go on to side two, just to split it up.”

Kids nowadays, who don’t know so much about how vinyl albums evolved, must wonder why the big tracks of old albums are in the middle, which was the end of side one and then the beginning of side two. It always strikes me that albums then used to be like a live set – you’d have a big opening, a couple of fillers, then in the middle it picks up, drifts a bit and then track eleven would be the big one, the set closer and the final track would be a bit different, the encore if you like.

“When you made an album back then, as you were writing you were planning it and it was a piece of art. With streaming sites and new artists they’re interested in getting the hit.

“I was writing with Al Kooper who produced Lynyrd Skynyrd and he said they’d make an album and the last track was always written like someone else. Or what about when Black Sabbath were doing their album, they needed one more song so they went to a pub, came back and wrote Paranoid? That blows my mind.”

You’ve told us what’s going to be in the set. Do you still play Eleven Plus Eleven at the same speed?

“You’re joking intcha? I’ve been listening to the album a lot obviously and thinking some of them are too fast, and they’re wonderful and energetic and youthful, but sometimes slowing down the tempo matures a song and makes it better.”

Since you’ve gone back on the road after everyone’s enforced absence, have you noticed a change in attitudes from venues and audiences?

“Absolutely. It’s quite tragic. Lots of venues are struggling or closed. The public for me still haven’t got the confidence to get tickets early. People buy very late, they’re still worried that things might be cancelled. And don’t forget in the pandemic creative people were told to get another career, so it’s going to take a few years to get back. Funnily enough the big enormodomes and the massive stadium gigs don’t seem to be affected, it’s the grass roots area where we learned our apprenticeship and these young bands that need a place to play that are worrying. It’s so important that we do go and support them, we do buy our tickets.”

Then you’ve got winter coming up so they don’t know if they can ever afford to go out.

“That’s the other thing to prioritise. You want to take your family to a football match or to a gig or the theatre, or do you buy food? It’s worrying. But we need our music, we need to go out and forget about what’s going on.”

When the band started you were at the end of the seventies, we had strikes, IRA bombing campaigns, power cuts and perhaps the best two or three years ever in terms of quality records. Music has always done well out of adversity.

“I’m 65 and I keep looking at things happening in this world, then going back and they were happening then. When I was writing back in 80, 81 we were under the threat of nuclear war and now we’re revisiting that area where we’re scared of Putin maybe having a strike on the rest of the world. Nothing changes.

“I’m sure going out and seeing a band makes you feel so much better. Going to a venue and watching a gig is the best feeling, it’s like a football match except your team never loses.”

Naturally, talk of football leads us off at a tangent which would be of no interest to anyone else, but eventually talk got back to music, and Nine Below Zero in particular. You were always a hard-working band. Was it easy to get back on the road?

“It was fine. I don’t know anything else. I left school and had a couple of jobs then formed a band. That’s the frightening thing, I don’t know anything else. The music business took me round the world and I’ve educated myself through travel. It’s taken me on this great journey and the day I don’t enjoy it I’ll stop.”

When we spoke previously you said you’d got some great songs but you didn’t want to spend three months in the studio then knock out thirty a night on the merch stand. You brought out the album Avalanche in 2019, so what happened?

“I changed my mind. The great thing is we’re always evolving, always changing. I had ideas on my phone, on scraps of paper and I had to write an original album, just do it with the brass section and Charlie, our female singer. I really enjoyed that, it didn’t sell many in the shops because there’s no shops now so it had to be sold online and at our gigs but I am very proud of Avalanche. Really proud of it.”

It had the big band line-up. Will you be touring with them?

“No, I cant afford it. We’re a six piece on this tour.”

I saw your other band The Truth during the summer. Are they doing anything else?

“Yes, we’d always be doing stuff with the Truth. It’s so enjoyable to go away from Nine Below Zero into my other seven year career that I had. I wrote a lot of songs and got a lot of memories. I’m very fortunate to be able to do the two, keep yourself fresh. We wrote four or five lovely songs, it wasn’t just the old stuff. Again, nobody cares but you’ve got to do it.”

You spoke about age earlier. When we did speak in 2014 you said you wanted to pack it all in when you got to 74. Is that still going to happen?

“I’ve changed my mind again. No I can’t, I have to keep on gigging. It’s important to keep active and keep my mind going. Why did I say 74? Ah, Buena Vista Social Club, they started when they were 74. Oh yeah, we’ll have some of that. I started writing a song called Guitarists Don’t Retire They Just Die and maybe I should finish that song. Even if I was doing some other sort of job I’d still be wanting to carry on.

“My son’s in the band now on drums and he’s given me the energy, to play music with your children is very hard to explain, it’s a very special thing. Sometimes we’ll start a song together and not even look at each other or count. We’ll just know. Mind you, he’s just had a couple of cymbals arrived and I wondered, ‘Who’s paid for them, eh?’.”

I saw Glenn Tilbrook a few months ago and he had his son performing with him. Russell Hastings had his lad working with From the Jam. You could get new generations, doing franchises and getting your kids to play in the bands you formed.

“I’ve got another concept called Fathers and Sons where I’d like to make an album with my children and see what happens. It’s funny, when they found my vinyl in my loft it was astonishing watching them go through; ‘Dad, dad, have you heard of this band called Santana?’. They’ll hear this, Led Zeppelin and Lynyrd Skynyrd and they’ll go ‘Wow!’.”

And so began another tangent about bands, singers, venues and musicians. Had he not had better things to do we’d have been talking still

Nine Below Zero play the Jam House on 11th November. Tickets.