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Southampton Music Home Page > Features > Levellers - June 2015

In 1988, vocalist Mark met bassist Jeremy Cunningham in Brighton pub The Eagle, and bonded over mutual views on left wing politics as well as a shared love of drinking. Ignoring the fact that Jeremy was trying to crack onto Mark’s girlfriend of the time, the two formed a band with drummer Charlie Heather, adding violinist Jon Sevink and named themselves the Levellers; after the democratic faction of Oliver Cromwell's New Model Army. After releasing a couple of EPs (including the brilliant ‘Carry Me’ whose title track is still a firm favourite among the fans) they finally came together with guitarist Simon Friend in 1990 and they’ve been that way ever since.

Throughout these troubled times, the Levellers have inspired people to question authority, to make a difference, and not to be kept in their place through their uplifting folk punk. Yet the perception that they are an angry band is very untrue, since a lot of their music is designed to rouse and uplift as well as incite. Nor are they necessarily a "political" group, in fact the band consider themselves to be "anti-political", and believe in people power more than any form of ruling government.

Last year The Levellers released their documentary ‘A Curious Life’, which charts the band’s phenomenal career; achieving huge international mainstream success, releasing a No. 1 album and more than 14 Top 40 singles, and performing to record crowds at Glastonbury. We were lucky enough to grab a few minutes with bassist and iconic red-dread-head Jeremy Cunningham to learn a little more about how they’ve survived more than 25 years in the business…

How does it feel to have passed the 25 year milestone?

Oooh, I don’t know, I mean we didn’t even have a 5 year plan, let alone a 25 year plan, so it’s good, it’s great! It means we don’t have to get a proper job – happy days!

And you’ve maintained the same line up since pretty much the beginning, what do you think it is that keeps you all together?

Basically because the noise that we make is bigger than the sum of the parts. It’s as simple as that.

You’ve just released a film about the band and it’s told from your perspective. What made you decide to approach it like that?

It was basically that we had Dunstan [Bruce, former Chumbawumba frontman], the director with us on the road a couple of years before that and he’d done a load of video blogs, doing a little film every day and he kinda liked the way that I was in front of the camera but the main thing was that at that particular point, Mark our singer was about to have a baby. Our other singer Simon, his partner was sadly dying of cancer and so they couldn’t really do it so I was kind of there by default really because I had the time haha.

What was the process like for putting the film together? Was it quite emotional looking back?

Well putting it together was all Dunstan but yeah, to look at it, year it was. Especially seeing the early days because a lot of that footage, I didn’t even know had been taken so it was quite amazing. No one really seemed interested in the early days other than the people that were there, which was a very small group of people at the time so I suppose we were lucky that we had a lot of friends from art college who were making films about us for their projects and yeah, Dunstan managed to get hold of it which was great.

Speaking of art, you do all the artwork for the Levellers don’t you? Is that always something you’ve been interested in?

Yeah! Well I went to art college too. I’m trained as a painter haha and I’ve just done it since I was a kid. For better or for worse.

If you hadn’t been in the Levellers, do you think that’s the path you would have taken?

I would have tried! I was trying before I was in the band but it was f*cking heartbreaking. It’s even harder than being in a rock band because you’ve only got your health y’know, you don’t have anyone else around you when you’re there on the tube with your work being bent all around you by people. Yeah, I would have tried but things worked out differently…

On your 2014 Greatest Hits collection you collaborated on some of your biggest hits with bands like Bellowhead , Frank Turner and Billy Bragg. What was it like sharing those tracks with other musicians and did it help to refresh them for you guys?

Yeah, it was great. A lot of those songs, we’re quite funny that we don’t always play our biggest hits, we’re not that kind of band, so it was interesting. We just basically got people we’d met at festivals, apart from Frank who we’ve known for f*cking years, and said well, if you’re up for it, have a go at this song and you can arrange it however you like. We’ll be the backing band, we’ll all come into our studio in Brighton and just record it live and that’s what happened. So we got to look at the songs we’d written from a completely different angle and get to play them all again and it was so easy. I can’t tell you how easy it was recording all that stuff live with people who are that good and that focussed on what they’re doing. It was great.

Your live shows is really where your music comes to life, how do you keep the shows exciting for yourselves after so many years of playing your hits?

It’s really easy haha. We’re excitable people and as soon as we see anyone getting into it, we’re done for. That’s it. That’s us. It’s that reciprocal thing between band and audience, that energy, it’s all about that.

Festivals, in particular, are a great place to catch a Levellers show. How did the idea to start your own Beautiful Days come about?

It’s pretty much Mark’s idea. At that point, in the late 90’s we were doing loads of corporate festivals all over the world and we were getting really disillusioned with the whole thing and he kinda said ‘why don’t we try doing one ourselves? A small festival like the ones we used to go to when we were younger’ and I actually thought he was mental! But he had so much conviction that I thought, let’s do it and it wasn’t till it actually all happened, and it was a risky business y’know, we had to put everything on the line to do the first Beautiful Days, but f*ck me, he was right.

It reminds me of the smaller old school festivals, where people are really friendly and everyone takes care of the site. You don’t get that these days at the big commercial festivals

Well those festivals are almost pointless now, they’re all on telly so why even bother going? I don’t want to sound like a boring old fart but back in the day we used to go to those festivals because it was to get something different and strange and something you’d go away from feeling a bit educated, even if you didn’t wanna be and see some bands and meet some weird people and see some strange things…

But before you hit the festivals you’re warming up by swinging through Southampton, a place you’ve played many times over the years. Are you excited for a good show?

Yeah, we’re doing Southampton before heading out to Bergen. We always like to do a smaller club show before heading out to the festivals so we’re at the 1865 and then we’re off to Norway so love it, should be great.

Do you think that there will ever be a time when you say that’s enough and call it a day?

Yeah, yeah of course there will. We can’t do this forever, our knees will give out haha! But at the minute it’s great. I can’t see that point happening, although obviously it will do at some point, either when people lose interest or we lose interest or none of us can do it with any dignity but at the minute, it’s all good.

And finally, how long have you had your dreads for and do you have any tips for maintaining them?

Well I’ve had them probably since I was 18 or 19, maybe a bit younger than that even, around that kind of time. Looking after them is just common sense! Mine just kind of behave themselves, keep ‘em clean and it’s all good. I do have to chop mine off though, I have to say, cos playing the guitar if they grow too long you can’t play cos they snag in the strings! You don’t wanna go for the big note and nothing come out – and that happens, I assure you. It’s a hard learned lesson!