In their own words

‘I’m never going to give up’

Interview with Paul Roberts by Mark Van Dongen – Hotel Z, Zaventem (Brussels), Saturday 12th November
 
 
 Soulsec’s whirlwind tour of Belgium took in two shows, both in Brussels. The band went down a storm in Kortenberg on November 10th  with Paul conquering the audience in typical style.
 
 However, Zaventem on November 12th was a bit of an anti-climax.  The reason for this was the venue: to start with ‘Hotel’ Z turns out not to be a hotel, but a café which wasn’t suited to live music at all. Furthermore, for some strange reason the owners of Hotel Z had decided not to charge an entrance fee, which meant you had people walking in and out (in front of the band’s noses!) all through the set. Understandably this pissed Paul in particular off no end. Though it has to be said that the lads bravely finished off their set with Paul throwing in a good dose of sarcasm and cynicism in between the songs (for details see the interview!).
 
 As a result, I wasn’t expecting Paul to really be in the mood for an interview. However, I was immediately made to feel welcome by Paul. Surprisingly he started off by saying: ‘Haven’t we met before?’ and indeed we had (albeit for just a couple of minutes backstage after a Stranglers’ gig in Aarschot last year). So with yours truly a bit more at ease I fired my first question at Paul…
 
 
 You’ve been a Strangler for 15 years. Do people recognise you now?
 
 No! Well, I do get recognised but people tend not to come up to me a lot. I don’t think they’re confident with a singer because of their attitude. I think singers are a bit scary to be honest!
 
 Is being in The Stranglers a help or a hindrance for your own band Soulsec?
 
 I don’t think it’s a hindrance as we’ve got a very different approach to music.
 
 Do you think The Stranglers are a good vehicle for your songwriting talents?
 
 I don’t think anybody in any collective group of writers can ever achieve their full potential simply because you always have to leave spaces for other people. It’s not a negative response; it’s purely because you focus completely on what you do when you’re on your own. When I write I experiment with many, many things. I lock myself in my house, so it gives me a lot more time. It’s easier, you can’t waste anybody’s time that way. In a band your input is a totally different thing. There are aspects that are already there, set in stone - like with The Stranglers. It’s a really enjoyable thing to do because it gives you a different aspect on your writing. I really enjoy writing with other people, but I enjoy writing on my own too. Then I can do exactly what I want and that is exactly what I do! 
 
 How do you write?
 
 It can be a lyric, it can be a melody or it could be music… Two years ago we (= Soulsec – ed.) started approaching classical pieces. Every one of the members is a skilful, classically trained musician in a certain way. These guys don’t write. So for me it’s fantastic. I love the idea of a band. It’s a fantasy and obviously I’ll never dream about being an 18-year old singer making it big. But it’s such a pleasure to hear the band, just standing back and listening to the musicians creating. If I ask them to do a solo they just do it. When I’m not with The Stranglers, I’m with these guys …or on my own!
 
 Is it your dream to one day go it on your own?
 
 Not a 'dream' but The Stranglers aren’t going to last forever as my band won’t last forever either or maybe my band won’t last longer than The Stranglers, so it could be either.Who knows.....hey i feel a lottery ticket comin' on... But I’m never going to give up.
 
 (It’s at this stage that the interview gets the first of many ‘musical’ interludes with Paul’s bass player gallivanting around playing the horn – a case of ‘don’t give up your day job, mate’! It was very entertaining though.)
 
 How is the new Stranglers album getting along?
 
 We’re co-writing at the moment. We’ve recorded two pieces already and we’ve got about 15 other ideas to try out. There are always ideas. I was very happy with the result of Norfolk Coast and I think we can go on and do an even better record now. It was a very good experience and we had a  very good year with it. I have to take my hat off to Mark Wallis and Dave Ruffy as they did a great job and they kept us together.
 
 Are they also going to produce the new album?
 
 That hasn’t been decided yet. We’re still in the pre-production stages at the moment, just trying things out.
 
 You’ve got the Shepherd’s Bush gig coming up. Is that show a highlight for you?
 
 I don’t really see why Shepherd’s Bush should be a highlight. I enjoy playing other places too, my favourite place is Glasgow. I love London, it’s my favourite city as I was born and bred there. I spent 43 years there, so it’s always special to go back. But everyone deserves to be treated the same way. I feel that whether you’re playing to one person, a thousand people or a million people, whether it’s London, New York, Paris … it’s the same.
 
 The set is going to be different for the gig in Shepherd’s Bush compared to the set that you’ve been playing for the last couple of years. Is that going to be a one-off change?
 
 Hopefully not! It’s not really the greatest thing in the world to continuously be playing the same songs.
 
 Why weren’t there any songs from the post-Cornwell era in the set? In my view there are some really great songs from that period in the band’s history.
 
 Thanks very much – I’m responsible for a lot of those songs. I think you’re right. We did play Golden Boy last year at Shepherd’s Bush and it went down fantastically well. We do have a good catalogue of songs we can draw on from the post-Cornwell era and pre-Norfolk Coast… I’ve suddenly become aware that that was the case so maybe we should put a few back in the set!
 
 You come across on stage as a real livewire. Are you as restless offstage?
 
 Yes! (laughs) No, I’m reasonably laid-back. It’s just that playing music is something I’ve wanted to do all my life. Every night when I go out on stage I always think this is my last night, because it’s a privilege to do and to be paid for it. I’m very lucky and I’m in a very fortunate position because I never trained as a singer or as a musician. I just enjoyed music and I dreamt that I would be in a band one day. But it’s a hard life sometimes. Not simply because it’s tiring and it gets stressful, but it can get very lonely sometimes. I get very lonely on the road occasionally, but I have a lot of friends in the crew.
 
 Yes, I could tell backstage last year in Aarschot that you got on well with the crew.
 
 Yeah, they’re good lads and they’re really lovely people. They work hard for us and I’d just like to put it on record that we couldn’t do without them!
 
 Did you have a big role in the film ‘Norfolk Coast’ (which will be premiered at the Shepherd’s Bush gig)?
 
 Oh yeah.... I brand a child’s neck and then I’m in an ugly mask for about a minute! Fantastic film career, isn’t it? I have acted in the past – I did some theatre. I was asked to do a part by a reasonably famous London singer and I was also approached by Trevor Nunn who’s a big theatrical guy. It was interesting but I don’t know if it was particularly my bag. I was also asked to do some ‘gangster’ parts in a couple of adverts!
 
 The Rat’s Lair is asking for photos and information for a new biography of The Stranglers. How is the new biography going to be different from No Mercy?
 
 Well, I think it’s just going to be an expansion of No Mercy. There was talk of David Buckley doing a new set of interviews. We were going to do it last year but we ran out of time.
 
 One last question. Has the ghost of Hugh Cornwell  finally left the band?
 
 No but we have respect as a separate entity now...... i guess people like to think it has, but there’s never that possibility. It would be very naïve of me to think that. Other people are entitled to their opinion though. There was a classic period for the band which made them famous and successful. We cannot ever ignore that; it would be like an artist ignoring one of his greatest periods of work.
 
 Is that something you’ve come to terms with now?
 
 Oh Christ, yes! A lot of people were very kind in the press recently. To be fair I’ve never changed my attitude. I’ve worked with a lot of producers in the past who’ve wanted me to sing this way and that way because I’ve got a very big range and they wanted me to use it. But I never thought it was right for The Stranglers. Unfortunately, because you’re the front man shit gets thrown at you!
 
 (At this stage I point out to Paul that he can dish it out as well. For example, during Soulsec’s set that night Paul levelled his frustration at the incredibly apathetic audience with these gems:
 Anybody else want to leave before we bolt the door?” Or how about: “Paul (Smith -  Soulsec’s biggest fan and a great bloke! – ed.), get your arse from in front the door, there are some people who want to come in. Typical Chelsea fan, ladies and gentlemen, think they own the place.” My personal favourite was: “Thank you for talking so much through that song, ladies and gentlemen, it just means we can crank up the sound system a bit more.”) 
 
 It’s not easy when you’re confronted with idiots and I’ve got no time for those people. I don’t suffer fools gladly, but I’ve got a hell of a lot of time for anyone who wants to listen even if we disagree ultimately. And because I’m a music fan I understand how people feel, but if you don’t want to see me, don’t come to the show. That’s how I see it. 
 
 I have to admit that I was extremely sceptical the first time I went to a Stranglers gig though. I grew up in the 80s and liked all their pop stuff. But it was only after I’d seen the band play live with you as lead singer that I really became a big fan.
 
 That’s fantastic! Yeah, you become a little bit isolated. And that’s pretty much what happened to me. I became totally isolated - very willing to listen to other people but I wasn’t really interested in sitting down and talking to people about myself and Hugh. I’ve got a lot of respect for Hugh both as a vocalist and as a guitarist (I say vocalist because I don’t think he’s ever been a singer). I admire his delivery, I admire his guitar style and I admire his writing. I’ve watched artists that I’ve loved change line-ups and it’s never really worked for me, so I can understand people who are sceptical about The Stranglers.
 
 But it really works well now though…
 
 Well, I think it’s quite sad that people fight among themselves about this, that and the other, but they’re entitled to do that. It’s understandable when you’ve invested your hard-earned cash and your emotions in a band. I don’t hold it against them. But to bring it to me is a waste of time because I’m not interested! My life is mine and I’m not going to change just to suit other people. If people want to come with us, fine. If they want to leave, no problem. Basically as the front man in any band you’ve got to soak up 85% of the shit that comes on stage. That’s your job and if you can’t take it, you’ve got to get out. It doesn’t bother me in the slightest. It takes a lot to push me over even though I’m a little guy!!
 
 On that note I finished the interview off by thanking Paul for his honesty and for being so generous with his time (his food was being kept warm while we did the interview!). Long live The Stranglers and Soulsec and long may they prosper…
 
 (Thanks to Soulsec’s PA Ruth Smith and the band’s tour manager Phil Round for their help in setting up the interview).

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