The Levellers interview: "We stood up and wore our hearts on our sleeves"

After three decades folk-punk legend The Levellers show no signs of stopping. Ahead of a headline appearance at Folk by the Oak festival Marko Kutlesa caught up with the band's Jeremy Cunningham.

Skiddle Staff

Date published: 17th Feb 2017

Image: The Levellers

Although rarely considered the trendiest of bands, The Levellers have earned a place in the hearts of hundreds and thousands of gig and festival goers over the last three decades. Formed in Brighton in 1988, they were inspired by both the music and politics of punk but emerged with a folk and acoustic influenced sound - their rock music frequently featuring fiddle, mandolin and sometimes even didgeridoo.

Their debut album A Weapon Called the Word was released in 1990 and, from the off, the band garnered a loyal following that would travel everywhere they played. In 1991 they released Levelling The Land, which contained the much-loved festival anthem 'One Way'. They were embraced throughout the festival circuit and played memorable performances at Glastonbury in 1990, 1992, 1994, 1997 and 2004.

In 2003 they founded their own festival, Beautiful Days, at which The Levellers play each year alongside some of the best folk, reggae, punk and psychedelic bands on the circuit. They were awarded the Roots Award at the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards in 2011 and 2014 saw the release of Levellers documentary film A Curious Life.

Their scheduled festival appearances are already skyrocketing for 2017, with one early confirmation seeing them top the Folk by the Oak Line up. Ahead of that, we caught up with bassist, featured band member in A Curious Life and the man responsible for The Levellers artwork and visual identity since the start, Jeremy Cunningham, for a chat about the band's career.

You've been in charge of the band's artwork, their visual identity, since the start. Can you tell me a little about any education you had in this area, about the methods you use and about any particular influences that you draw from?

Well, I went to art college, an old school independent. It taught me a lot, painting, influences mainly, I suppose, American abstract expressionism. For Levellers stuff it's first principals: the pamphlet artwork of the original levellers. And German expressionist woodcuts. And more recent propaganda art like that from ETA and the Red Brigades. We all wanted it to be immediate and easy to copy - to spread the word!

In the early 90s your music was popular among members of the travelling community and around that time there seemed to be a lot more cohesion between that lifestyle and other areas of young society, particularly at festivals (some free) and among gig-goers who would travel to see music. I don't see as much of that cohesion nowadays and I don't see the travelling community as being as large as it was back then. Would you agree and, if so, could you give your opinion as to why that is the case?

I don't see as much of that cohesion nowadays and I don't see the travelling community as being as large as it was back then. Would you agree and, if so, could you give your opinion as to why that is the case?

Yes, the travelling community has definitely gone back underground, but it's still there. In fairness, when it became so public back in the early 90s it became less attractive to the folks who had been around on that 'scene' for a while. They'd been living that lifestyle to be out of the public eye! A lot of our friends - and us for a while - ended up in Europe, getting away from all the hype.

That said, those lawless sites and festivals were a melting pot of the old hippy thing, punk DIY ethics and the (then) new rave culture. They were definitely exciting times! But I suppose all old folk say that about their youth haha - or they should!

You've played a number of highly memorable, sometimes record-breaking shows at the Glastonbury Festival. Can you tell me what it felt like to play that first big show there in 1992? How was the 1994 performance in comparison to that?

Well our first Glastonbury was actually in 1990 on Wango Riley's stage, to a packed field on the travellers' site at 4am as the sun rose! Now that was amazing! And surprising. 1992 was great but it didn't really hit us till afterwards, it was all a bit of a blur! And 1994 etc. I dunno, we have always done okay there.

Sometimes you walk on stage and it's all just perfect. Other times it's hard work. But those early Glastonbury's were kind of out of our hands, the crowd were there to have it right off! We were in the right place at the right time and singing the right thing. Special times.

Melody Maker famously went against popular opinion and came gunning for the band, printing some not particularly nice things about you. What were the things they said that upset you most, why do you think they went for you like that, and do you take any satisfaction from the fact that you're still around and they're not?

Melody Maker and NME both hated us. Sounds was more positive. But looking back I think partly they just genuinely didn't like our songs - which is fair enough! They hated the fact there was no 'glamour' around the band (ironically that's why most in the folk scene embraced us) and we used acoustic guitars. They had no idea about where we came from so they made it up; we were rich kids looking like beggars etc, living in squats n buses. It all seems quite bizarre now.

We never read the press so it upset our manager more than us. We always presumed the press would like us haha! We stood up and wore our hearts on our sleeves, had no money so lived in alternative accommodation. And no, none of us came from wealthy backgrounds. All seems strange now. Still, it is true that any publicity is good - and we got a lot - but for all the wrong reasons haha.

Did you meet famous film director Alex Cox, who directed your 'Too Real' video, through Joe Strummer? If not, how did that collaboration come about and which of Alex's works in particular are you fans of?

We loved Alex because he introduced an indie film night every week on telly back in the mid 90s. And he'd made Repo Man and Sid and Nancy. We just took a punt and asked him if he'd do a music video. He'd done “A Pair Of Brown Eyes” for The Pogues back in the 80s which we loved, but we never thought he'd say yes! Luckily it turned out he was also a genuine outsider and was well up for it.

Funny enough it was nothing to do with Joe Strummer, though I'm sure he'd recommended Alex when we were hanging out. We thought Alex was too big a film director to be interested though. Haha, it was couple of years till we got up the courage to ask.

Your 2008 album Letters From The Underground charted at number 24, your first Top 30 album in over eight years. What was it about that album do you think, that re-connected with a wide audience?

I think Letters... was just saying the right thing at the right time. It was consciously political and stripped back kinda punk rock. Sean Lakeman was a great producer too, kept us tightly focused. The whole thing was really creative and great fun.

In 2014 the film A Curious Life was made about you and the band. How did it feel for you personally to be made the focus of the film and why do you think that happened? Did you learn anything about yourself or the band through examining your personality, history and career for the purpose of the film?

Do you think director Dunstan Bruce's experience of being in a band that mixed political thought, folk music and punk music (he was formerly in Chumbawamba) gave him an advantage in understanding The Levellers?

I kinda became the focus for A Curious Life because I was around the most. Mark had just had a baby and Simon's partner was very ill, so it came to me by default. Dunst didn't want to make a 'music doc', he wanted a more human angle, so that's why it ended up being more about a person in the band, rather than 'the band' per se.

Maybe he planned it that way all along? I know he was editing for months, cutting together three years of footage. Dunno if I learned much about myself, I don't really sit there watching it haha! My favourite bits are actually the really old footage of our earliest gigs - I had no idea they were filmed. Charlie, our drummer, tracked that footage down.

I think Dunstan being in a band gave him a perfect insight, but it was more about us trusting him, really. We knew him, which helped, and he'd done a daily tour diary for us the year before he suggested the movie. You'd have to ask him for the details, but yeah, his knowledge of music and politics, plus his obsession with the human angle was definitely what made the film different.

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You've had a broad range of fantastic acts on at Beautiful Days, from 70s rock giants like The Groundhogs, Gong and Hawkwind to some of the best English folk, reggae and punk acts currently playing. What are the most memorable performances, musical and otherwise, that you've seen at the festival and are there any acts in particular still outstanding who you'd love to appear?

I loved seeing The Pogues at Beautiful Days. And Midlake. Plus legends like Lee 'Scratch' Perry and PIL. But it's often the more underground stuff in the Bimble Inn etc that grabs me. I like a surprise. I'd love to have Neil Young play but there's no way we could afford him haha!

On what's perhaps your most famous song, you sang “But the noise we thought would never stop, died a death as the punks grew up”. What noise were you singing about specifically and do you still believe this noise has died a death?

That line was about the break-up of Crass. They always planned to end in 1984 (there was a count-down on each album sleeve), but it still felt like a void. Other anarchist punk bands tried to go 'overground' and became a travesty. Crass always said, "go do it for yourself". So, that's pretty much what we had to do, after the initial shock. We were younger so had seen the old punks grow up and disappear after that. 

No one could make a more challenging noise than Crass so I, for one, ended up listening to acoustic and folk music, which was lyrically similar, plus free in a few local pubs. That's how I met Mark. He was similarly disenfranchised and busking. The rest is history, as they say.

It was obvious from the moment the band emerged, not least from your name, that there was strong, alternative political thinking in the band and this was reinforced in some of your lyrics. The band is based in East Sussex and holds its annual festival in Devon where, in 2002, a group of locals convinced the council to reject your license application. 

Have you always felt apart from your surroundings in these places where a majority of people hold a much more traditional mindset than your own? At times you champion British folk music and some British political movements. How do you square any feeling of separateness with these specific displays of national pride? On the song 'England My Home' you sing about forgotten roots? To which roots are you referring?

'England My Home' is a song about loving your country but hating nationalism and generally feeling disenfranchised.

Our first attempt at a festival got quashed by a member of the licensing committee who was ex-police and remembered us from Stonehenge days. He convinced the other members we'd turn up in hundreds of buses and never leave haha! So we moved to the next county.

We don't feel particularly separate from where we live I don't think (well, apart from we're the type of folks who never felt like we 'fitted in'), we just didn't want to try and do a festival on our own doorstep cos it'd be too loaded. We always wanted Beautiful Days to have a life of its own, as well as having The Levellers play each year. That's also the reason for our championing of various artists/activists and indie folk etc. But it's all pretty organic really.

You can see folk punk legends The Levellers at this year's Folk by the Oak Festival.

Tickets are no longer available for this event

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