The LEVELLERS: Mark Chadwick EXCLUSIVE Interview! The Power of Protest!

Published on 16 February 2023

Mark Chadwick is a hilarious person to talk to. Happy to engage on subjects both serious and less so, he’s always ready with a dry remark and a hearty laugh, which makes talking to him a real hoot! 

Our occasion to speak is the release of Together All the Way, the second release from the Levellers Collective, an extended gang of musicians gathered together to reimagine existing songs both from the Levellers’ own career and from Folk music’s own catalogue. ‘Relevance’ is a word that Mark uses often in our conversation, and it’s clear that we need bands like the Levellers now, maybe more than ever. Their passionate music contains a very simple, continuous voice of reason. In an increasingly uncertain world, it’s a very welcome voice indeed.

The voice of protest. It’s something that the Levellers have provided us for over thirty years now, and it’s something that is curiously lacking today, at least in any mainstream sort of way.

Back in the late 80s and early 90s, when the Levellers began to enjoy success, they came into a world where authoritarian government bodies were cracking down on the festival scene, with gatherings being broken up and music fans being arrested and jailed for attending events. The Criminal Justice Act, passed in 1994, brought highly controversial powers into place to stop gatherings and festivals from occurring, which caused a schism throughout the country.

In response, the Levellers and many other bands rose against this aggression by releasing music that encouraged free thinking and awareness of the facts surrounding many people’s lives. The Levellers’ hit One Way crystallised a collective voice and became something of an anthem for the dispossessed and dispirited.

  

We’re a long way from those days now. Those battles seem to have been fought in another age, but it’s clear to many that the days are not necessarily brighter.

We address these questions, and a great many more, with Mark as we discuss the new record, the 20th Anniversary of the Levellers’ own Beautiful Days festival, and indeed the band’s 35th anniversary.

We joined Mark on a Zoom call and found him in excellent spirits, laughing and cackling as he shared stories on performing, writing, taking charge of business and handling one’s own affairs. We covered a lot - and no subject was refused - as we covered the current state of the nation, in language that does get relatively strong at times! Proof indeed that the old passions are not far from the surface! We had a great time chatting, and so the complete conversation is transcribed below.

 

Mark Chadwick Interview

guitarguitar: So, why don’t we start off with Together All the Way, the second of your Levellers Collective records. It’s great, it’s a really beautiful sounding album. There’s one thing that immediately struck me to ask you about. These are re-imagined and reinterpreted versions of songs that you’ve been playing for twenty five years or more: is that a strange or difficult situation? To dive back into songs you’re so familiar with and then play them differently?

Mark Chadwick: Yeah! Yeah your muscle memory’s an enemy! (laughs) It really is. You’re changing time signatures, keys, stuff, vocal lines, things you’ve done forever. It’s quite good fun doing it, because we’ve really paired down the sound. The essence of the process was to really focus on the lyrics. The words really stick out, and their meaning certainly alters when there’s more focus on them. It’s like, shit, actually this is what the song’s about? I never realised! In that respect, it changes the camera angle slightly. We’re all sitting round analysing the songs and going ‘that’s quite a menacing song, actually, this one! The lyrics are a bit dark!’ The actual tune we’ve done is quite bouncy and happy, so let’s do the dark, menacing version, you know?

GG: That makes a lot of sense, yeah. And with that in mind, how did you select the songs for this record, given that you’ve already done a bunch for the last Levellers Collective album? And with those re-imaginings, did you go down certain directions with songs that were either ‘no, this is not working’ or ‘wow, this is amazing’?

MC: Yeah, that would happen! We sat down with acoustic guitars and went through all the songs that we’d been vibing. Some were just not viable, they were too ‘rock’, so forget it. That narrowed the field down to a couple of hundred, really! (laughs) We used our imagination beforehand, thinking which ones would work, and some that we thought would be great turned out to be absolute fucking garbage! And some that we thought would be garbage turned out to be great. It’s just literally not caring, you know? Detune the guitars, or put a capo on, play the basic theme, see if it vibes out differently. I think we probably messed about, this time round, with probably twenty songs, and only ten made it through the full test, basically.

(Photo: Rob Marrison)

 

GG: I wonder: with the original songs, there would’ve been stuff you worked on back in the day that didn’t happen at the time, or dead ends, or stuff you wanted to try. Did any of that come back to you as a writer when you were reimagining?

MC: Yeah, it did actually. One or two of them was like, you know what? We should’ve explored that more, originally, and now’s the time to do it. We didn’t have the skills back then! We were pretty shit musicians back then. We’re a lot better now (laughs). We’ve improved over the years, so that really helped, our musicianship improving!

GG: You hope so, after 35 years, don’t you?

MC: Yeah yeah, exactly! You don’t wanna sit around twiddling your thumbs.

GG: There’s a distinction between the Levellers’ output and the Levellers Collective. Obviously it’s part of the same thing, but this is a situation with more members, strings, backing vocals and so on. I wonder if this is something you would agree with, but I feel like the vibe or ethos of the Levellers was always that there was an important attachment to community and a collectiveness in a way. Is that part of this project? Does it reinforce that ethos?

MC: Well, exactly. The Levellers is an amorphous family, really. It’s made up largely of five or six of us that are normally there, but essentially it’s a bigger thing. There are people who work in our offices and our studios, in our companies, in our festival, in every aspect of what we do. That’s it, really, with the fans included: we’ve often got fans up on stage playing with us. That’s what it is; it’s the ‘destroying ego’ part of what bands are about (laughs). We’ve never been that comfortable with that side of things, so the Collective is another aspect of that, really. It’s like, this is where we get serious music people in, haha!

 

"The main focus is to be relevant, and the lyrics have to make sense to the day, right from the minute. This minute, right now."

 

GG: Haha, totally! Now, this is only my perspective so please do correct me if I’m wrong here, but these songs have changed form from how they once were. Again, that seems to me - along with the communality and collective spirit of the Levellers - but it seems that there’s a lot of energy attached to ‘change’ and the idea of the possibility of change. We could talk about that in political terms or humanitarian terms, but it’s also musical. Is that something that’s central to the idea of the record too?

MC: It’s about relevancy. Those songs as they exist will always exist like that, and we’ll always play them like that, you know what I mean? These will be played in this version on this record and on the next tour. Maybe never ever again. It’s the plasticity and the relevancy; we wanted them to be relevant to the places we’d be playing them, which are sit-down theatres. It’s a concentrated effort, and it’s hard work for the audience and for the musicians as well, to pull that off. So that’s the main focus of that: that it has to be relevant. And the lyrics have to make sense to the day, right from the minute. This minute, right now. Fortunately, as a band, we’ve always tried to write out of time anyway, out of history-time, you know?

GG: Timeless.

MC: Basically, yeah. That’s really important for us, and kind of what makes us woke-proof, if you know what I mean? Because we already were! (laughs)

GG: True! Very true! The relevancy thing is interesting, because it’s kind of almost, as you say, your music wasn’t ever trying one way or another, because you have this folk sensibility: it’s already timeless. It’s not like you have some cutting-edge keyboard sound that all of a sudden sounds out of date, right?

MC: Exactly, yeah. Exactly that. That’s allowed us the freedom to do this Collective record and the previous one. It’s like, well, these are folk songs: that’s all they are and all they ever have been. Folk songs with electric guitars and bass & drums behind them. To present them in this way (the folk Collective way) seems on paper to be straightforward, but it’s not! (laughs) We don’t write enough verses for folk music! Some of the songs we really want to do, it’s like: ‘Guys, there’s only fifteen words in the fucking song! That’s not folk music!’

GG: Haha, yeah, if it’s Martin Carthy, you need to have another five stanzas!

MC: Exactly!

GG: Now, this kind of relates, and I’m more asking for your thoughts or a response on it. It’s that idea that there’s always been an element of protest available for people who want to hear it in your music, and I don’t really hear a lot of that happening these days. The world’s kind of a mess right now and I don’t hear many bands making a noise about it. I wonder if you agree with that?

MC: It’s a shocker! I’m shocked. I really am. I listen to bands like Slaves, who are supposed to be a really political band, and I’m listening…I’m not hearing it! Listening, not hearing it! I’m hearing words, they sound political, but I’m not hearing a thread here, you know? I’m not hearing even a presentation, I mean like presenting an argument, or an opinion, in any sense of what we see, to inform people, to open their eyes a bit. I don’t even hear that, so it’s like, ‘okay’. 

Even pop music in the 80s was political! Can you remember that? Chart-topping music was political, and that’s where we came from, so for us it’s a natural thing and we’re still doing it. I think for a lot of people to write political music - unless it’s in a rap format or something like that as some stuff is, but it ain’t popular. You’re not hearing massively popular…it baffles me, how the fuck can these people get up in the morning and go through their day going ‘Yeah, it’s all good! I’m alright with that! Well, I’m upset about my girlfriend. D’you want to hear about me being upset with my girlfriend? (laughs) I’ll write a song about my girlfriend and let’s all be upset for me!’ Fuck off man! You’re mental! 

 

"The strange thing about the Levellers is: all we've ever done, all we've ever talked about, is common sense"

 

GG: Hahaha, I’m glad you agree with me! I wondered about it - again, this is more of a conversational thing - but as a musician myself, I understand that when you put something up on the streaming sites, nobody’s buying records anymore, and there isn’t a lot of money. So, I thought to myself, surely that means that people won't be worried about losing income over saying something that’s maybe inflammatory?

MC: Yeah, exactly. But still no! But still, no. It’s actually quite a hard thing to do, to be fair. Without writing sixth form polemic, right, it’s fucking hard to do. And to make it reach an audience without it being preachy or moany, it’s a fine fuckin’ line! I’ve been accused of being bitchy and moany: it isn’t. It’s an easy thing to throw at people, because ‘yeah, I hate that sort of music’, and it’s like, well, you haven’t ever listened to it, have yah?

It’s like Billy Bragg: he writes 99% love songs!

GG: Yeah!

MC: Hahaha, do you know what I mean? Get your head around it. ‘Oh, he’s political!’ Yeah, that’s between the songs!

GG: Yeah, that’s an important distinction, because he has that tag, and a lot of quote-unquote political artists, you don’t just have to turn to them when you’re pissed off with the government, they have other things available too.

MC: Exactly.

GG: So it goes! One thing I wondered about, and it’s a bit of a tangent: because the Levellers have been on indie labels, major labels and now you manage your own label & studio. To me, that sounds like the dream! You’re not having a big company telling you what to do and all the rest of it. Is that what it’s like? Are there downsides to looking after your own affairs entirely?

MC: Well, yeah, you can get bubble-ised, you know what I mean? It’s like, I got a message the other day that was like, ‘Mark, can you help me out with a business thing?’, Pfft, I don’t fuckin’ know! (laughs) I don’t know the business! I haven’t been in the business since the year 2000. The last time I had to meet anybody that was a ‘suit’ of any kind was probably 2005, not that they wore suits, but you know. People with a media degree who didn’t know anything! Haha! I realised we could do their job ten times better, and we’re not the most effective of people but we do what we do and it works for us. We self-finance and we do okay: we’re not brilliant; we’re not billionaires by any stretch of the imagination, or millionaires, or thousandaires! We survive quite well by owning our own studio, by owning our own festival, our own publishing company and record company. All that crap. You don’t need to farm it out. But we did get a start with the big money, you know? And that’s largely gone: it does exist, still, for some artists when they’re starting out, but not as much as it used to.

GG: Certainly.

MC: I really fucking fret for new, fresh artists that are different and are out there and are doing something a bit special, because it’s hard without someone saying ‘Here’s million quid, go and spend it globally’, (laughs) you know what I mean?

GG: Yeah, it’s a conundrum because it’s great to be independent but as you say, you did have the support of a big major label back in the day.

MC: Yeah, and their connections. That was important back then. I mean, literally, we don’t know how to go about anything, it’s like ‘Oh, let’s release a record in Germany’. Mm, do we have to? Haha! We don’t really know how to do it. We employ people who are actually in business and are good at it. There’s a lot of freelance people out there now who used to work in those big companies and are now on their own with smaller, more effective businesses.

GG: So you can go straight to the sources that you require rather than a big mad package from on-high that probably eats all your money.

MC: Yeah, and you talk to one guy one day, and turn up the next to find someone completely different because they got the sack, or fucking left, or developed a massive coke problem, generally. (laughs) So, it’s like, okay: what do you know about the Levellers? ‘Yeah, I really like the bit that goes ‘Kshh!’’ What, the snare drum? Fuuuck off!

GG: Yeah, totally! Bye! So, we touched on the Beautiful Days festival. I’m gonna get to the 35th Anniversary of the band in a second, but it’s also the 20th Anniversary of the festival. To the best of my knowledge, it’s all independent in the sense that you don’t take sponsorship, is that the fact?

MC: None. Nothing.

GG: Has that made it easier or more difficult to keep going with that?

MC: I think it’s made it easier, to be honest. We never had it in the first place, and that was our principle: we didn’t need it and the band’s name sells it, generally, and the choice of the kind of festival that it is, people like the fact that it’s unbranded and they’re not forced to drink crap at exorbitant prices and pay over the odds…yeah. No Coca Cola signs or fucking BBC signs or ITV4 signs or whatever, you know what I mean?

GG: Yeah.

MC: People appreciate that because it’s theirs. It actually becomes theirs, they claim ownership of it because there’s no spectre of a corporate ownership or a faceless organisation that you don’t know. ‘Who runs this festival?’ People generally don’t know, but when it comes to Beautiful Days, it’s like ‘Oh, this is the Levellers, they own it. Oh, and there’s one now, walking about’, haha. That’s the brilliant thing about it, people come up to us and talk.  It’s brilliant, we love it. And it’s a real moment for the weekend, and that’s what people value, and we value it.

GG: It’s almost as simple as treating people as adults with a bit of respect, right?

MC: Yeah, exactly that! (laughs)

GG: Imagine that?

MC: Yeah, it’s not difficult. The strange thing about the Levellers is: all we’ve ever done, all we’ve ever talked about, is common sense. Basic common sense. Every business decision we’ve ever made: fucking common sense. Every interaction with every third party: common sense (laughs). It’s just that! We’re baffled by the world, we really are! How can people make things so complicated? It’s crazy, I don’t understand. Maybe we’re just idiots and we don’t know.

GG: I think maybe the opposite is true: I think you’re the opposite of idiots. But what’s interesting is that everything’s common sense, and yet, if you consider a lot of bands who started in the late 80s/early 90s, your band is relatively niche sounding - even though you’ve had hits - it’s more niche than Oasis or whatever. But you guys have your own festival, your own label, your own premises for recording and so on. It sounds, from an outside point of view, that you’ve actually got it all massively figured out! But you’re kinda saying it’s just what most bands should’ve done?

MC: Back in the day, the first thing we ever did was make our own cassettes, printed our own t-shirts and made our own tour bus. So, when we first signed up with a record company, we already had everything going in anyway. They were like, ‘So, you don’t want to talk to our art department?’ No. (laughs) Know what I mean? ‘What about our touring department?’ No, got all that. It’s all sorted, you just fucking give us money! We’ll try and spend it wiser than you can!

GG: Brilliant!

MC: The record advance was like 180 grand. We went and bought a building with it and built a studio, instead of giving it to some existing studio and some wanker-expensive producer. We bought a desk, put it in an empty factory and recorded the album. With the money from that, we did the place up!

GG: It’s just…

MC: Common sense! Hahaha!

GG: Common sense, exactly! So true! Okay, now, we kind of touched on this earlier, but I wouldn’t mind asking for more depth. We’ve all just been through this mad pandemic, and now things are returning to the point where we’re going out to gigs. I wouldn’t necessarily say that things are back to normal, but they’re better than they were two years ago. The government really didn’t do anything in particular to help artists & venues, and they continue not to, because it seems to continue to be a bad word, to be an artist or performer. Thinking back to when you guys were active against things like the Criminal Justice Act, do you think things are better or worse now than back then?

MC: (laughs) You’re joking, aren’t you? It’s never been so bad! It’s horrific, it’s like I’m waking up in a fucking nightmare every day, it’s appalling! I’ve never known such shit. I thought things would’ve improved by now, actually. A little bit. Every day is getting twice as bad as the day before. Fuck me! I’m just appalled. It’s like, what’s the fucking point in us writing all this stuff (laughs), do you know what I mean? Fucking hell! I don’t understand what’s going on in this country. Well, I do understand, I understand all too well and I think it’s fucking disgraceful.

GG: Even the notion of having laws to prevent people from protesting seems to me to be…

MC: Every day there’s something worse than the day before. It’s wearing me out!

GG: Which is why we need artists to fight the good fight by putting out messages that are relevant and related to it.

MC: Exactly. We’ll keep battering away in our corner, keep beating our drum. That’s it, really, that’s all we can do.

GG: Yeah.

MC: It’s gonna get darker before we get dawn: I don’t think we’ve been through the shit yet.

GG: Okay. I hope the dawn comes sooner rather than later! So, I’ve just got a couple more questions for you, Mark!

(Photo: Rob Marrison)

 

MC: That’s fine, carry on!

GG: So yeah, it’s 35 years of the Levellers and you can take a snapshot of any part of your career and see that what you had at the start, you never lost. It’s quite clear that you’ve had a consistently vital sound. I wonder how you’ve achieved that? Not many bands do!

MC: Don’t know! (laughs) Honestly, I don’t know. I think we enjoy it now a lot more, maybe, than in the past. We just really like playing live: we like making the noise that we make. It gives us a real thrill. To keep it up-tempo, as energetic and as vital, and I love singing. I really love singing, John loves playing the fiddle, and everyone loves playing their instruments. It’s like ‘Yeah, this is the best thing we do all day!’ Life is basically a bit fucking dull otherwise, haha! The time to get in the studio and the time to get on the stage are the best times to get.

GG: Brilliant. If you feel that way about it, it’s like: how can you fail?

MC: Yeah, exactly.

GG: So, the record’s out in March.

MC: Yeah, it’s out while we’re on tour. We’re hoping to get some CDs out, but the backlog with vinyl, it’s backed up for months now. It’s embarrassing, haha! Not for us, but for the industry. Sort it out!

GG: I know, it’s like finally people want to buy something and you can’t have it to sell to them! So you’ll be touring to promote that, and you have the Beautiful Days festival and day events coming up later in the year. Because it’s your 35th anniversary, do you have anything special or unusual planned to celebrate?

MC: We’re too lazy! (laughs) We’d have to have a meeting or something!

GG: Exactly, right? 

 

"We just really like playing live. We like making the noise that we make, it gives us a real thrill."

 

MC: No, we’re running out of time. Time goes too quick, man. I know it’s January, but it’ll be  the middle of the summer before we know it, and we haven’t organised anything, and we’ll have a panic, then we’ll sort something out.

GG: Haha, a panic meeting three weeks before.

MC: Yeah, yeah.

GG: So, briefly in terms of instruments and so on, I sense that you’re not a big gearhead?

MC: No, to be honest, I’m not a wanker about instruments: they are tools. As long as it does its job you know? Acoustic guitar sounds big and full; electric guitar: Telecaster. Just industry standards that fucking work. Not too flashy, because I’m not that kind of guitar player.

GG: Absolutely. Well, it’s kind of like: with the Levellers, the lead guitar is the violin anyway, isn’t it?

MC: That was the whole idea, about getting a violin in the 80s. Guitar solos? We’d had enough guitar solos by the 80s, you know what I mean? Well, we need a top line player, let’s get a violin! That’s how the music became the music it became, not because we added a lot of musical direction. We wanted to form a band with sensible lyrics, and a top line that probably comes from something else.

GG: D’you know, it’s such an effective sound. I would call it a kind of acoustic punk, but the addition of the violin makes it so immediately effective, it gets your ears. I wonder why more folk haven’t ripped you off? It’s such a cool sound.

MC: Oh, they have. Hahaha! They just don’t make it! Trust me, there’s a swathe of Leveller bands.

GG: Ahh right, their songs just aren’t quite good enough?

MC: Ah, they’re the typical ‘I hate tanks, I hate guns, diddle-iddle-dah’. I’m being a bit disingenuous there, I know a lot of those people and they’re cool. But yeah, the Levellers are a slightly more complicated beast, I’d say.

GG: Definitely. Now, one thing I wanted to ask to finish up about guitars is the tunings.

MC: Yeah, shitloads.

GG: Haha! Have you had to change the tunings for your voice as you’ve gotten older? Like, bring the tunings down?

MC: No, I haven’t had to do that, no. My voice is probably stronger now than it was then. No, I just like tunings for creation, to inspire the chord progressions. It’s the same old shit probably, but it sounds different to me!

 

"We're not billionaires by any stretch of the imagination, or millionaires, or thousandaires! We survive quite well by owning our own studio, by owning our own festival, our own publishing company and record company. You don't need to farm it out."

 

GG: Do you have any particular favourites?

MC: I like Drop D a lot, and Open C and G, and DADGAD, I really like that.

GG: Excellent! So, to wrap things up, we know the record’s out soon.

MC: Yeah, that’s that, really. And then we’re doing some electric tours at the end of this year, we’ve got the acoustic tour to rehearse for. It’s quite an intense thing, it’s really quite different. It’s quite a hushed affair, it’s interval drinks and that, haha! So it’s quite intense: you can’t fuck up!

GG: That’s an interesting point! I hadn’t considered that. The Levellers sound is big - Jeremy’s bass sound is huge - so this stripped back thing is a whole different relationship between yourself and your audience.

MC: Yeah, it’s really different. It’s intense, man. But it’s brilliant because you really focus! Everyone’s looking at each other, going ‘We’d better get this note right!’ If you fuck up, everyone stares at you!

GG: Hahaha, it keeps you on your toes!

MC: It does, it really does!

 

All in all, it seems like it’ll be a vintage year for Mark and the rest of the Levellers. It’s good to see they’ve lost none of their edge, not their spirit. 

The Levellers release Together All the Way on March 10th and will be touring in support of it all over the country. Head on over to the official Levellers website to grab your tickets, albums and all the rest.

We’d like to thank Mark for giving us such an engaging, not to mention hilarious, interview and for sharing so much! We’d also like to thank David Sullivan for putting us in touch.

Thanks, as always, to yourself for reading another one of our exclusive interviews! Please head over to the guitarguitar interviews page to find over 150 more, featuring a massively diverse range of artists.

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Ray

Features Editor, Warehouse

I'm a musician and artist originally from the South West coast of Scotland. I studied Visual Arts and Film Studies at...

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