In such politically charged and challenging times, XS Noize chatted with Mark Chadwick, the lead singer from punk-folk rockers The Levellers. We discussed the reaction of their current album, ‘Peace’, playing with Neil Young, a hat-trick of appearances on Glastonbury’s Pyramid Stage, his ties with Belfast and how it all started in Brighton.
The ‘Peace’ album has been out for six months now. What's the reaction been like, now that the album has found its level, so to speak?
Mark: It's been very good, as far as I know. It's hard to know for sure because we’re kind of in a vacuum and only dealing with social media. We’re not out there playing it, so we're not getting reactions directly from the people. Trying to get it out there to as many people in a new world that's the challenge. We’re tramlined. You can't really break out of that, as we’re not even playing any festivals. But those who have managed to get hold of the album love it. It does nail the times we're living in pretty well.
There was quite a gap between ‘Peace’ and the previous studio album. Was there any particular reason for the gap?
Mark: We did have a release in-between that was a different kind of an album - sort of an acoustic project. There's no reason for it, no rhyme or reason when the chemistry is right, and it's all good, and the vibe is good, and that's what happens. I think we literally just recorded the video (for ‘Peace’) when lockdown happened and then came home, and that was it.
One of my favourite songs off the album is ‘Burning Hate Like Fire’. Could you tell us some more about that one and how it came about?
Mark: It kind of ties in with the album title ‘Peace’, really. They all kind of do, talking about the different aspects of what peace of mind feels like. Talking about anxiety, confusion, a lack of place, and sort of like feeling out of body almost. All kinds of things that happened to me over my life at different stages, different points. And I'm sure a lot of people sometimes suddenly wake up, and the world doesn't fit you anymore. It's like observing that and other people observing it in yourself. Really just learning. The “burning hate” is more like frustration with yourself than with anything else. Hate doesn’t really help, so ‘burning hate’ is kind of a metaphor.
I watched you guys on a Zoom session about a month ago, and I think you were all sort of catching up with each other. It was really good fun to watch it, especially when Jeremy got out his toy dinosaurs (both laughing). But it's great to see the chemistry in the bond is alive and well, getting along very naturally and obviously, the music is a testament to that.
I picked up from the chat you're a huge Neil Young fan. Is there a song or album of his there that you would continually go back to?
Mark: Yes, for me, it's ‘Live Rust’. It's got great acoustic songs, and the electric guitars have never sounded bigger and scarier. And the collection of songs is really good. We played live with him a couple of times over the years, and he was nice enough to come back to thank us for one gig because we weren’t supposed to be supporting him. We were on tour in Austria or somewhere and got a phone call to our agent saying (because we had supported him previously), ‘Neil Young needs you tonight. You’re gonna cancel the gig you’re going to tonight and take a diversion because Neil Young is desperate to have you guys support him.’ The local guys that the promoter got to support him; he just sacked them all (chuckling). So backstage afterwards, he was really nice to hang out with.
That's amazing. Yeah, what an experience. Just talking about live music, what would be your favourite Levellers song to play live?
Mark: It really depends where you are, and the room you're playing in, and the country you're playing it in and everything like that. It’s really difficult to say, but anything rebel-rousing or ones the crowd can sing along with.
One of my favourite songs I would go back to continually would be ‘The Boatman’, from one of the earlier albums. Who came up with that one, and why do you think it touches so many people?
Mark: Simon wrote that song. He wrote a whole bunch of songs really quickly together in succession when he was in Derby. He was at that age when he was yearning. He was stuck in a place where he really didn't wanna be, but he had the time to write. So he wrote quite a lot of yearning songs. That's the impression I got from him anyway over the years.
You can really tell that in the energy in the song as well. I think that's what I like about it because it has that sort of slightly melancholy feel to it.
Mark: It’s about wanting to be somewhere else than where you're at.
Another song that sticks out from one of the middle albums is ‘This Garden.’ I am curious to know what or where the song was about. Was it written about a particular place?
Mark: It was written in a haze of ecstasy, if I remember correctly, in a recording studio in the middle of Summer. A really beautiful recording studio in a village called Box. It’s the Real World Studios, which is Peter Gabriel’s place. It’s pretty beautiful round there with really nice people, and I think it was a Glastonbury weekend as well. It was kind of a jammed out song, really. We got Steve Boakes in on his didgeridoo and got this kind of groove thing happening.
So, just to come back to where it all started in Brighton, There's a song from ‘Peace’ called ‘Albion and Phoenix’, which is about those Brighton landmarks and those early days in Brighton, Was there anybody in the Brighton area or in the music scene at that time that you guys looked up to for inspiration and creative energy?
Mark: Yeah, there really was. A local band of musicians called ‘McDermott’s Two Hours’, previously ‘The Bliffs’, actually ‘The Bliffs’ really more for me. It was kind of folk music, Irish folk music, but with bass, drums and Sligo fiddle. Just straightforward songwriting, but using the open tunes of folk music. We had no idea that we were going to make that kind of music. We knew a few of the characters in the band anyway around town. I just watched them play that sort of stuff, and it just got people going. It instantly got people going. Jeremy still produces some of their stuff. Nick Burbridge is the main writer from the band, and we’ve put out a few of their albums through our record company. And you know, ‘Dirty Davey’ is one of their songs. So yeah, they were the band that inspired us the most. It was a sound that no-one else in the country was making either. It was unique.
Under normal circumstances, when you're able to travel again, would Brighton still be a haven that the guys would meet up in, like a central meeting point for everybody or not so much anymore?
Mark: Oh, no, it is. We still have our studios there. Our offices, our studios, our building, The Metway is there. It is our HQ, always has been. Some of us moved away; Simon to Scotland, Jon lives in Devon. I've lived in London. Charlie lived in London. We've always had The Metway there, from about ‘96? There's a focal point.
Yeah, that's good that you haven't lost your Brighton roots.
Certainly, up to a couple of weeks ago, I could feel the anger towards the current government. It was quite palpable. It almost feels like a sort of boiling over point from a lot of people from many different circles and justifiably so. It can feel very dark, uncertain and dangerous in many ways. But they say things are at their darkest sometimes before the dawn.
Mark: They often are. We've been here before, but never this dark, never like this. I've never known a government quite as dark, as cynical, as manipulative, as corrupt and evil & really as disgusting as this lot. They're shocking. I'm hoping people are picking this up. A lot of people aren't, but a lot of people are. They will get their comeuppance. It's just horrible. This is the worst time I've ever known in my life—the existential angst of it all.
Yeah, you can really feel it from people you know?
Mark: Yeah, I could cope with COVID even if these bunch of cunts weren’t there, but they are, and they’re hanging over everything. And you know every decision they make, they are making shit worse. I fuckin’ hate them. I would cheerfully stab anyone of them in the eye.
But do you feel we're on the verge of something momentous happening, ultimately for the better?
Mark: Always! Everything goes around. It always has done. Nothing stays the same. They (the Government) are unsustainable. Their power over the media is baffling. Most people in the world are pretty fucking nice. This lot aren’t. How they pull the wool over people's eyes is quite incredible. But that's the power of the media. But it can't sustain because people are coming at them.
I've seen you play live three times, all in all in Belfast over the years. What's your relationship been like with the Irish audiences over the years?
Mark: My Mum’s from Belfast, so I know the place really well. I had an accent even darker than yours until I was about 10 years old. She was from the Sandy Row area (of Belfast). I want to go over with the band again as we haven’t played there in ages.
I first started getting into Levellers, ‘91, ‘92, ‘93, when peace in Northern Ireland still wasn't quite a reality. Sadly, there were still some pretty horrific things happening around us. Music and the Levellers music was a real crutch for me as a late-teenager growing up.
Mark: That’s good. That’s always the thing with the music. There’s no point in our kind of music being made to suit one particular viewpoint. It has to fit all viewpoints because we are all the same, and all of us are getting fucked by somebody.
Jon’s (Sevink) fiddle playing is just awesome. You know, it's such an intrinsic part of The Levellers sound, especially hearing it live. I think he's one of the best out there, like Steve Wickham from The Waterboys. I think they're definitely comparable, and I see some of Steve’s playing in Jon’s fiddle playing.
Mark: They communicated in the past, not sure if they ever played on-stage together. But they’ve definitely spoken.
I suppose that sound leads me into asking about those early days with the band. Was there a particular sound that you were aiming to create? When you listened back to the recordings, did you say, yeah, that's where we want to be or was it more organic than that?
Mark: It was a bit more organic than that. If you can get the folk & the punk elements right, and the energy levels right, and the lyrical content right; getting all of those things together, then we're winning. We're creating the bigger music, music that was bigger than us. Yeah, when you got that, then suddenly there's a whole sound happening. That's The Levellers sound, that’s the thing. It's got that pagan desire and that urban desire in it as well. All nicely mixed up with an urgency and honesty, and clarity. That was the idea. Yeah, so when it was good, it was good. When it was shit, it was shit. (laughing).
I wanted to ask you about Glastonbury ‘92 & ‘94. I know there was some vinyl released last year to celebrate it. I have heard that it was quite a different experience for you in ‘92 and ‘94. Could you tell me what your memories are of both and how they compared?
Mark: Well, the first one (1992) was really nice because we weren't headliners. We were on the bill, but we weren't expecting quite the reaction and the number of people there to see us. It was like we were the biggest band at the festival, even though we were nowhere near the headliner. Everyone was in our T-shirts. So when we actually did that gig, there was slightly more daylight as well, so you could actually see the crowd and how many people were actually there, and that was fucking terrifying. But you can actually have a reaction with them, and it was awe-inspiring. It was fucking mind-blowing! Yeah, it was incredible, and it pissed off all the other bands after us and the ones before us. They were saying, “how the fuck did that happen - a bunch of hippies coming on and doing that?” But it did, and for whatever reason, the stars aligned and said this is gonna be you.
So yeah, but when we returned with the headline banner, it’s a different thing altogether. So the expectation is there, but you know, we didn’t play brilliantly. But it’s dark; you can’t see anybody. It is literally black. You can see these fires and ice-cream vans in the distance. They are miles away. You can’t really see the audience; you can’t see their faces. From the Pyramid Stage, the audience is about 100 metres away. They’re as far away as the size of the venue you normally play. We did it again a few years later as we were asked to come and fill in for someone, so we had the honour of playing the Pyramid Stage three times which was pretty cool! We have a good relationship with the place. But it’s a very different affair now. I’m not so keen to go these days. There’s our own festival (Beautiful Days), which is more like the green fields of Glastonbury.
With the recent announcements, is the Beautiful Days festival still likely to happen this year?
Mark: We don't know yet. Again, the government have cleverly given us a piece of string, a wet piece of string. Leaving us all the expense and margin of error. It could literally ruin us. The insurance company is gonna go, ‘we can’t cover you for that.’ We will be announcing in April when we are more sure-fire about what is gonna happen.
Before we sign off, Mark, is there any new Levellers music or re-releases on the horizon for the rest of this year?
Mark: Yeah, there's always new releases and stuff happening all the time. Yeah, we are working on it. Actually, at the beginning of lockdown, I wasn't writing at all. So I am writing again. We’re gonna do another album quite soon - a re-invention one, but yeah, there will be.
Any other messages that you want to send out to the Levellers fan-base out there?
Mark: Yeah, whoever is listening, let’s keep the faith with good old live music. I miss it so much. I want to play to people. The first opportunity that people get to see The Levellers get out there and come on down. It's gonna be quite emotional.
Okay, Mark, it's been an absolute pleasure. Thanks again for making the time. I hope you guys keep making your music for a long time to come because it's been a big inspiration and a joy to listen to your music over the years. Long may that continue.