By Jay Miller
September 24, 2016
The British folk-punk band The Levellers hasn't toured in the United States for 13 years, which is only one reason their brief, seven-date American tour this month is noteworthy. The sextet from Brighton, England is also celebrating the 25th anniversary of its most popular album, 1991′s “Levelling the Land,” and one of those seven stops is coincidentally going to be at Brighton Music Hall in Boston on Tuesday, Sept. 27.
There are various reasons why the band hasn't toured stateside for so long, but chief among them is that they can simply maintain their career by sticking close to home. Showing an impressive sense of the music business and where it was headed, the Levellers bought an old factory building in their native Brighton in 1994, and turned it into their own studio, headquarters, rehearsal hall, and music venue. Ahead of the curve on utilizing the internet, the band was quick to forge a formidable online presence, to help keep their music available to fans worldwide.
Then of course, there's the fact that, despite the group's debut album “A Weapon Called the Word” going platinum in the United Kingdom in 1990, and “Levelling the Land,” a year later, being even more successful, they never really translated that to widespread success in America.
“We get everywhere else,” said Levellers guitarist Mark Chadwick, calling from his home in England. “I'm not sure why we don't play the States more often, but we were never massive there. We like to go occasionally, though, and it seems that interest in building up over time on this album. With the advent of modern technology, smart phones, the internet, and so on, it is possible to stay in contact constantly with your fans. We're probably one of the first U.K. bands to go online extensively, and it works for us. That's probably why we never come to the States, but it is a very small global community now.”
“Of course, it is difficult to get into the States now,” Chadwick added. “We've been four months in the process of getting our visas. For U.S. bands coming to England it is very easy, but the reverse is tough, and we all talk about it. One of our guys was in a visa line with (famed director) Ridley Scott, and if he can have the same problems getting in, I guess that means everyone does.”
Formed in 1988, the band took its name from the 1600s, specifically a movement during the English Civil War between 1642-1651, which stood for populism, equality and religious tolerance, at a time when, of course, the monarchy was very strong. The inherent irony in them taking on that monicker was that, like many punk-rock bands of that era, they were expressing rebellion against the Thatcherite politics of the time. But at a time when grunge was overtaking punk-rock, the Levellers' use of traditional and even acoustic instruments also signalled a rebellion against the dominant styles of the time.
This tour will see The Levellers play their 1991 album in its entirety, start-to-finish, along with a variety of selections from throughout their career, which now covers nine studio albums, the most recent being 2012′s “Static On the Airwaves.”
We asked Chadwick if the '91 album works as the centerpiece of a concert, and mentioned that, then as now, there are some strange political things going on.
“When you make an album that's one of the first considerations; does it work live,” said Chadwick. “This one always has, through the years, even if we haven't been playing it like this, in sequence. What we did find is that, over the years, our interpretations of some songs have become so distorted from the original versions we had to go back and re-learn them. So we went back to the original versions to learn how to play them as we did in '91.”
“It is so funny about the politics,” Chadwick added. “When we first toured the United States, (Bill) Clinton had just been elected, and there was such a feeling of optimism in the air. Five years later we elected Tony Blair here, and it was much the same. Now, we are living in the United Kingdom where the far right has taken the reins again. Hopefully that doesn't happen in the U.S.A. But what that atmosphere does mean is that the subjects we dealt with in the '91 album are still meaningful. Not much has changed in the quarter-century since our record came out, which is a bit depressing. But the material we wrote then still resonates, I believe. We could be writing and recording “Levelling the Land-Part 2″ right now, and I wouldn't be ashamed to do it.”
The Levellers include Chadwick on guitars and vocals, Jeremy Cunningham on bass, Charlie Heather on drums, Jonathan Sevink on fiddle, Simon Friend on guitar, banjo and mandolin, and Matt Savage on keyboards. They all have input on the songwriting process, and are working on a new album, aiming for studio time in January, after they finish the Australian tour that follows this short American jaunt.
“We've written all the songs for a new one,” Chadwick noted, “and now it's mainly a case of nailing down a producer. If we can, we will test five or six of the new songs on this tour anyway. But we don't like to do too much of that. I always disliked bands who come out and ask 'how do you like our new direction?' and play things you've never heard before. I don't like us to experiment with our audiences–we are there to entertain, and there are things they want to hear.”
And the nightly setlists might include anything from their long history, according to Chadwick.
“From our least-selling album to 'Levelling the Land', which is the tops, and everything in between is what you might hear,” said Chadwick. “We will actually do more unusual songs than people might expect. We work out the setlists each night before the show, because we're not so good at thinking on our feet. But we always include a good amount of the more popular numbers, like 'Fast and Furious,' that people know best. We can also do an acoustic set some nights too.”
Looking at the band's instrumentation, and their obvious roots in traditional music, it is kind of amusing to note that they always resisted the “folk music” label. That became a moot point when the BBC-Radio 2 Folk Awards presented them with its Roots Award in 2011.
“The irony of that award was not wasted on us,” Chadwick said with a chuckle. “Folk music is such a broad church, from protest songs to traditional Scottish and Irish music. All of that kind of music is so popular now, but when we started out it was a dirty word. We felt in our hearts we were really a folk music band, but never said it.”
That blending of folk and punky elements has become almost a genre unto itself, with bands like the Dropkick Murphys perhaps the most obvious examples, so the Levellers' musical influence probably extends quite far these days. Opening the Boston date is Jason Bennett and the Resistance, a similar band which has reached out to let The Levellers know how thrilled they are to be performing with some of their musical forebears.
“We're now a legacy band, but not quite dinosaurs,” Chadwick observed. “It feels great, brilliant in fact, to have bands like The Resistance letting on to us “we're doing this because of you.' I don't know if we had any effect on the Dropkick Murphys, but you can't forget them when you talk about this type of music, they're a fine example; “Is it folk or is it punk?”
And 28 years or so into the life of The Levellers, the musicians still feel as eager and devoted to their music as ever. And also, to staying together as a band.
“Our motivation is really just as high as ever, which is ridiculous but true,” Chadwick said. “We have the same group of people, who've done various things, but have also continued to build on the name of the band. We have our own studios, our own festivals even, and we're all still great friends, which is very important to us. We control our own destiny–no record company looking over our shoulders telling us they need a new single–and we make and keep much more of our own money. So, in balance, we're quite happy and satisfied to still be doing what we all love.”