Anglo-French bassist and co-founder of rock band The Stranglers, Jean-Jacques “JJ” Burnel, spoke to The Independent Online about the perils of growing up as “a Frog” in the 1960s, his passion for motorbikes and why Plato’s The Republic changed his life.
What would you normally be doing if you weren’t talking me? I would still be at the gym probably. I just rushed back from there. I teach karate so I like going to the gym to compliment it two or three times a week. Either that or I do a bit of rowing. I’ve recently fallen in love with rowing. It’s not very rock ‘n’ roll but it gives a kind of balance to my life. If I didn't do it I’d probably be dead by now.
If you were Prime Minister for the day, what would you do? [Laughs] Wow, just for the day? I think I’d probably have all criminals who murdered and raped rounded up and put on island. No, seriously, I’d take British troops out of Iraq and Afghanistan.
Is there a phrase you use all the time? My girlfriend says that I say ‘It’s a numbers game’ quite a lot. In reference to everything, actually.
Describe the house you grew up in. I grew up in a couple of houses, but the one that I really remember was a thatched restaurant - my dad was French chef and my mum was front of house. It had a lovely lawn out front which my parents tended to, a dry stone wall and, obviously, it was thatched. I worked in the restaurant every weekend from the age of fourteen, which meant I didn’t get laid until much later than my schoolfellows. But, there were some advantages, as by the time I was 17 I was able to afford to buy a Harley Davidson motorbike with my own money.
What did you want to be as a child? I can’t remember really, there were different peer group pressures. But overall I just wanted to be English. I’m a British citizen and I sound native, but technically I’m French. Growing up as the kid of French people in those days was tough. There weren’t so many immigrants then and I was born in Notting Hill where they all used to come in initially. Being a Frog was not a great option at the time. It got me beaten up on more than one occasion. Also, do you know the song ‘A Boy Called Sue’? Being called Jean-Jacques was a bit like that. My mum might as well have called me Sue.
Name a book that changed your life. A book that really struck a chord with my when I was in my early teens was Plato’s The Republic. It was so interesting discovering the way that political thought develops in society. How you go from an aristocracy to a tyranny to an oligarchy to a democracy. It awakened certain things in me.
What the best advice you’ve ever received? It was from my dad, he said: “Always look at her mother.” [Laughs]
What advice do you wish you’d received? Never marry a French girl. Especially one from the South of France - someone should have warned me!
What were you like at school? Very uptight, because I was French. Pretty classic otherwise. Bit of a rebel. But I actually really appreciate the school I went to now.
If you could meet anyone from history who would it be and what would you ask them? It’s a toss up between Alexander the Great and Napoleon Bonaparte. I’d ask Alexander why he started wearing Persian clothes. And I’d ask Napoleon why the fuck he went to Russia. [Laughs]
The Stranglers are headlining at Triumph Live, a festival celebrating 20 years since the relaunch of Triumph Motorcycles alongside Mumford & Sons at Mallory Park, Leicestershire. Details and tickets can be found here .