Published: 05:00, 27 November 2021
| Updated: 09:18, 27 November 2021
It's 15 minutes since my Zoom interview with Levellers frontman Mark Chadwick was due to begin and I'm still looking at my own face gazing back at me from my computer screen.
Reluctantly I log off, put it down to crossed wires, and make a mental note to try to reschedule.
Ten minutes later my phone rings - it's Mark, full of apologies for the no-show caused by some unavoidable life admin and all ready to go.
The only trouble is that by now I'm taking the dog on her lunchtime walk and find myself frantically scribbling answers down on any scrap of paper I can find - and at one point even a fallen leaf.
In a way though it’s a fittingly unconventional setting for an interview with a band who, 33 years into their career, continue to do things their way.
Google The Levellers and the most common fact will be the still-record crowd they drew to Glastonbury’s Pyramid stage back in 1994, security breaches (aka fence-hoppers) swelling the audience to an estimated 300,000.
But the band’s real legacy is more likely to be the blueprint they set for operating outside the music industry - one of DIY self-sufficiency that many bands now follow through necessity.
Don’t trust the music press? Simple - just publish your own magazine. Don’t want to find yourself chained to a record label and burdened with unrecoupable debt? Well, just open your own recording studio and make records at your own pace. You get the picture.
“The music business hated us for it, but that's the model that everyone has to follow these days," Mark says.
“Everything has changed - nobody can make money from streaming, you have to do it on your own.
“The direct relationship with our fans has always been really important to us - we used to do a monthly magazine, now we have our own app. It cuts out the press - you can never trust them to tell the truth anyway.”
The band’s decision to set up their own recording studio and creative hub, The Metway, in their hometown of Brighton more than 20 years ago is a key factor in the band’s longevity.
It has been used by some of the city’s biggest artists, including Nick Cave and Royal Blood, but it has also given a helping hand to many of the area’s up-and-coming bands and acts as a base The Levellers themselves can always retreat to.
“Brighton is still important to us and The Metway is still really important to us,” says Mark, who now lives a few miles out of town in the market town of Lewes. “It employs a lot of people and it’s really busy.”
Neither time nor trends may have been able to stop the band, but Covid could - and lockdown hit The Levellers hard.
The band were looking ahead to a 30th anniversary tour in celebration of their classic Levelling The Land album when the live music scene - and the world at large - came to a juddering halt.
Mark admits it was a tough period for a band who had been on the road almost constantly since their formation.
"It was really hard, and there were times when it was difficult to see when it might come to an end,' he said.
"I think the low point was just before Christmas - it had looked like things were improving and then it all came back again. It looked like we'd all have to go begging Ed Sheeran for money..."
True to form, the band stayed busy throughout - and the result is The Lockdown Sessions album.
It's a work partly born out of frustration.
The Levellers 12th studio album, Peace, had been released in August 2020 as lockdown restrictions began to ease - before promptly being re-imposed. For the first time, the band had an album they couldn't take on the road.
Eschewing the idea of a full band concert over Zoom, the band instead convened in the Metway recording songs from Peace and a selection of greatest hits live - it's effectively a document of the tour that never was.
"It was hard. We had the album, we released it, people liked it and it went top 10 which was great but we couldn't tour it - and that's what we do," Mark recalls.
Mark also staged a run of solo shows and a couple of Zoom performances, but the full band would not make their live return until their own Beautiful Days festival in Devon in August.
"It was hard. We had the album, we released it, people liked it and it went top 10 which was great but we couldn't tour it..."
It saw The Levellers grappling with the challenge of maintaining the slight air of anarchy and spontaneity that the best festivals generate whilst operating within new Covid safety guidelines.
"I was really clear on it," Mark says. "It was important that it felt normal, there couldn't be any social distancing inside or anything like that.
“We had to ask people if they were double jabbed, but it couldn't feel weird once you were inside. People appreciated it, the reaction was great."'
Mark’s earlier mention of the media takes the conversation back to The Levellers' fractious relationship with the then-influential music press back in the 1990s when weeklies like NME, Melody Maker and Sounds could make or break bands' careers.
The latter two have long since folded, while NME is now a digital-only publication unrecognisable from its print heyday.
"It was important that it felt normal, there couldn't be any social distancing inside or anything like that..."
Despite the hostility his band often faced though, Mark takes no pleasure from their demise.
"Is it better now? No, it's worse - it's much worse. We all live in an echo chamber now.
"You put out music, people say it's great but there's no real criticism. People just write about the things they like.
"We hated them (the music press) but they served a purpose, I think it's important to critique things."
With live music back - for now at least - The Levellers are set to finally begin their twice-postponed Levelling The Land tour, including a sold-out date at Dreamland in Margate on Wednesday, December 8.
It's a tour that extends into the Autumn of 2022, including a headline set at the Lake Garden Music Festival in Brightling, just over the East Sussex border, on September 10.
I recall a Twitter thread I've been following in which users post their best gigs and the band they have seen most often.
The Levellers cropped up more than any other band. With a band as well honed as the Levellers can there still be, I ask, such a thing as a bad gig?
"As a band we're pretty tight. The audience is so important though, if it's a bit flat that can affect the gig. So much of what makes it enjoyable when you go to a gig can be affected by what's going on in your own life or mind too.
"The first proper indoor gig we played since all this nonsense was in Newcastle and it was brilliant, but there are other times when you can sense people are still feeling a bit wary of being together again.
"But as a band we're pretty solid. We don't fall out, we don't **** up."
The Levellers play Dreamland in Margate on December 8. Tickets are sold out. The Lockdown Sessions is out now.