The former Public Image Limited man spoke to Marko Kutlesa about his place in punk history, encounters with Prince and his lengthy list of genre traversing collaborations.
Last updated: 26th Jan 2017. Originally published: 4th Jan 2017
It's not every day you get to conduct an interview that name-checks, through first-hand contact, Prince, Viv Albertine of The Slits, Bill Laswell, Joy Division, Ashford and Simpson, Sid Vicious, Tony Wilson, Holger Czukay and Jaki Liebezeit of Can, Francois Kevorkian and Arthur Russell. But it's not every day that you get to interview the legend that is Jah Wobble.
Born John Wardle in the east end of London, he met friends John Lydon (Johnny Rotten) and John Ritchie (Sid Vicious) in the mid 70s and was a close witness to the rise of Sex Pistols, the band they were in. Sid Vicious gave reggae fan Wardle the nickname Jah Wobble, a slurred version of his real name and after Sex Pistols broke up, John Lydon formed Public Image Limited with Jah Wobble on bass and Keith Levene on guitar.
They made two brilliant studio albums Public Image: First Issue and Metal Box before Wobble left the group to embark on a successful solo career that continues to this day.
Early on in that solo career he found himself collaborating on several projects with Krautrock royalty Holder Czukay and Jaki Liebezeit and has since added many others to the list of his collaborators. This also includes producer Francois Kevorkian, U2's The Edge, producer/bass player Bill Laswell, saxophonist Pharoah Sanders, singer/songwriter Julie Campbell (LoneLady) and ambient band Marconi Union.
Wobble appears playing bass on Primal Scream's landmark Screamadelicaalbum, on The Orb's standout singles 'Blue Room' and 'Perpetual Dawn' and alongside Bjork on the soundtrack single 'Play Dead'.
But he has achieved similar amounts of success with his own endeavours, particularly with his longstanding group Invaders Of The Heart who were Mercury Music Prize nominees in 1991 for their Rising Above Bedlam album. That release, plus the follow-up Take Me To God, saw the band bolstered by vocalists like Sinead O'Connor, Natacha Atlas and Dolores O'Riordan and explored different world music styles which, alongside dub reggae, have been reoccurring pursuits throughout Jah Wobble's career.
Along the way he has also explored poetry, English folk and jazz and, in 1997, founded his own record label 30 Hertz Records on which his releases have been prolific. Energised by having given up alcohol and drugs in 1986, outside music Jah Wobble has, in the latter part of his career, also written book reviews for broadsheet newspapers, studied for a degree, written a brilliant autobiography (2009's Memoirs Of A Geezer) and produced a BBC radio documentary about his old friend Vicious. In 2015, Cherry Red Records released Redux, an impressive 6-CD box set that, while expansive, offers only a glimpse of the vast back catalogue Jah Wobble has amassed.
You studied part-time for four years at Birkbeck, University of London, graduating in 2000 with an upper second-class honours degree in the humanities. For an idiot like me, please can you explain what are the humanities and why did you choose to study that?
Firstly, it was the best thing I ever did, or one of them. I was always in bands with middle-class people with degrees and getting a degree myself was great, because it debunks a lot of myths and you realise it's just a process. I think some working class people don't realise that half of life is just a process and we can become estranged from that. Humanities is like English language, English literature, philosophy, the arts, painting and music.
To me it's the stuff of building one's personality and becoming cultured. It's kind of pooh-poohed now, now it's business and science. But it's not some luxury subject; it's an important way to improve your intellect. It's not just philosophy and English, studying humanities allows you to decode a lot of society and understand context. I did it part time and it wore me out with running a label and having a baby, but I loved it.
In recent years you've written book reviews for both The Independent and The Times. What are the best three books you've reviewed?
They always used to give me educational stuff and mad spiritual stuff, with the odd musical thing. Swedenborg's Secret by Lars Bergquist was quite interesting and All Too Beautiful a biography of the guy from The Small Faces, Steve Marriott, by Paolo Hewitt and John Hellier.
I would never have read that if I wasn't reviewing it and I really enjoyed it. There was another one that was quite interesting about a woman from the East End who went to become a Buddhist nun, Cave in the Snow: A Western Woman's Quest for Enlightenment by Vicki Mackenzie.
Was there anything that didn't make it into your 2009 autobiography "Memoirs Of A Geezer" because it was too libellous or too honest in a way that could have been permanently damaging to your career (The outspoken Wobble has previously described Jools Holland as a “glorified pub pianist” and issued brutally honest comments about former collaborator and powerful world music player Peter Gabriel)?
Yes, absolutely. There's always stuff that you know of in the music business that you couldn't hope to print. I can't even allude to some of it, but absolutely, yes. Some of it would stir up a hornet's nest and why? To what effect? The feedback I got from people was that I'd been quite nice when writing about some people, maybe too nice. I didn't feel that was the case.
Everyone you meet in life, especially people you work with, they all add something to your life. They all teach you how to do something or how not to do it. I wanted to be honest, to write a good book and when I was critical, try and be balanced as well, so I would look at people's good aspects as well.
I remember starting to buy what was called 'world music' back in the 90s and it all seemed so exciting to me, this whole new world of sounds with different instruments, vocal styles, rhythms and even scales compared to what I'd been used to hearing.
It wasn't until the internet and things like YouTube became more popular that I realised that what I'd been buying was not just the tip of the iceberg, but often a blinkered and perhaps sanitised version of the real thing, blunted by whichever generous benefactor from the Home Counties or wherever had graciously released the music.
Is now the best time so far to be alive for the more intrepid music consumer?
[Laughs] I think your question contains a lot of good comments and observations. It's about right. That's very much how I felt about world music. It was like going to a new restaurant, “What an incredible taste! What's that?”, in terms of scales, styles, everything. I came to realise that it's a very controlled market, by public school boys. And they guard it jealously.
It's funny, because a lot of this stuff is from the third world and yet it's controlled in this kind of old colonial fashion. It feels like how the Victorians would have seen 'exotic' people from around the world, rather than just seeing them as people who are great musicians.
It became a ghetto. It's such a parochial little world, the British world music scene. Out of all the music scenes I've been involved in, punk, post-punk, jazz, folk, reggae, the British world music scene was definitely the most uncomfortable one I had to deal with. Lots of middle-class and upper-class baggage comes with it. And they'll stop someone like me from working with those musicians, I'm their worst nightmare really.
These days, perhaps you don't need those middle men so much, but you still need to make a name. And I think you have to play live. When you play live that has a bigger effect these days because of things like YouTube.
In 1981 you released the How Much Are They EP with Holger and Jaki Liebezeit and appeared on Holger Czukay's On The Way To The Peak Of Normal LP, with the Full Circle album appearing in '82. How did the hook up with the Can guys come about?
A writer called Angus MacKinnon, who worked for the NME, did an interview with me for Metal Box and we got on like a house on fire. We're still friends to this day. He introduced me to Can, so I came out of PIL and went straight to work with the Can fellas. Amazing!
Tony Wilson gets a thank you on How Much Are They and the EP is dedicated to Ian Curtis. What was the connection to those Mancunian figures?
I just really liked Joy Division. I liked Hooky. I've got to know him a bit over the years and I like him. When I left PIL it was a disgraceful situation. For young men to be treated like that, it was disgraceful. The conduct of a lot of the older people, lawyers and the like, was very poor. I was caught in the middle of a mess.
Tony Wilson found out what was happening and he stepped in, saying it wasn't right. He paid for me to have an initial consultation with a lawyer and that was the most important one and that lawyer got me out of the whole deal with both Virgin and PIL. It was a steep learning curve about the music business, I saw it at its absolute worst.
I thought Ian Curtis was such a fucking star. I guess it's easy to make people icons once they've gone, but in those songs it's so heartfelt. There's something so genuine about him as a front man. If you'd have said to me back then that I would've ended up living in Manchester I would have laughed. But from all the travelling I've done, I do seem to have always got on with people I met from Manchester.
I got on with all that Factory lot. It's a shame they all fell out, because they didn't need to. PIL was just a mess, it was obvious it was going to happen. But with them lot it didn't need to because, I felt, they were all better people.
Holger looks like a mad old fish, I always imagined him being like some mad professor type, with his crazy tape samples maybe, because of the weird moustache, a bit of a musical Salvador Dali type.
Well, that's about right. He was bonkers. But in a great way. He had a great big radio antenna that went from one corner of his front room to the other. He would eat erratically. Really, he was like a mad professor. Looking back, he was the first proper, proper artist that I met.
He did a lot of early video stuff at that time. He had a real sense of humour too. Although he played bass, when I met him he was really all about the collages, the loops and samples. Cutting and editing. I think Movies had 5000 edits on it and a tonne of loops, only they weren't digital loops like nowadays, he'd had to do it all manually. Incredible.
Jaki's a really interesting player. I remember at some point in his career he really fell out with the bass guitar, I guess the position it took sonically in the music...
I saw him have an argument with Holger one day. Jaki was protesting something and Holger said “You don't understand” to which Jaki replied “No, YOU don't understand” and then they argued furiously in German for a few minutes. Holger turned to me and said “One thing you have to understand with Jaki; he might have short hair, but Jaki is a hippie!” But then, typically German, they just got on with the rest of the day's work.
Jaki really liked me. He always said I was his favourite bass guitarist, I think because I always kept it really simple. I filled up the space between the drum beats sufficiently, with some kind of elasticity, because you've got to have that. The bass is almost like the sinew connecting the bones of the drums.
I just think he's amazing. He's not the kind of guy who does a thousand drum fills. Every time he hits the drum it's very measured. As he said, he sees it more like martial arts. You don't hit a drum a hundred times, it's a series of single hits and you might do a hundred of them. It's all about complete focus. A lot of musicians aren't really focused on every note they play. You can really tell the difference.
The older I get, the harder I find that, because you tend to drift off when you're doing a longer set, thinking about the upcoming saxophone solo that you have to cue in or even what you might have to eat after the show. But with Jaki there wasn't any of that. He was focused on every beat. And I had to be too. When I was given this opportunity to play with PIL, I was such an amateur, I was absolutely focused on not putting a single note wrong.
Jaki also changed from playing his bass drum with a foot pedal to playing it horizontally positioned, with a stick...
Yeah, that's right and he would do the cymbal with the uppercut. Whoosh! He's got that really clipped tonality to his playing. When you play a bass drum like that you get a completely different feel. You can play quicker, it's more controlled, you can choose where you're going to hit it. It's actually very smart.
Just as he might have fallen out with the bass guitar for a little while, have you ever become disillusioned with any particular instruments, even your own, throughout your career?
The guitar. Especially guitarists. Sloppy at times. It's totally my prejudice, but a certain kind of bloke often gravitates towards the guitar. A lazy bloke, who wants to do just enough in life, wants to get the plaudits and pull the girls. So you get a guitar and you learn a few chords, then you blag your way through.
A lot of guitarists have annoyed me because they've just not got that rigorous rhythmic sensibility that someone like Jaki has. I've played with some guitarists who've gone on to earn good names for themselves, but I lost respect for some of them simply because they didn't work hard enough. They worked harder getting in with people rather than on their instrument.
Tenor saxophonists are sometimes difficult, as are some other jazz players, because they've always got the giants of jazz looking over their shoulder, so they're never happy. And never being happy is a drag.
Did you ever meet Arthur Russell, who wrote the lyrics to 'Hold On To Your Dreams' on the Snakecharmer EP?
I'm pretty sure I did, at a party held by Francois. Frankie, we called him. I was at this party, pretty pissed, at Frankie's and I wasn't out of order, I was just pleasantly pissed. I remember Frankie saying “This is Nick and Val” and so I was like “Hello!” I thought Nick and Val were his neighbours or something, so I'm talking to them for ages and it was Ashford and Simpson, I think. Maybe I'm wrong? Maybe it was his neighbours. [laughs] I think Arthur Russell was there and we had a chat.
You have to remember, I'm the guy who played with Prince. We did this show and this guy was like “Prince is here, he wants to play with you, man” and I got him muddled up with Sylvester, the gay disco artist. So I thought “Great! It's Sylvester”, but I got it completely wrong. “No, this is the 'Purple Rain' guy”.
At that time I was listening to lots of heavy jazz. At the end of the night we were invited back to Paisley Park and I said “Well, he's nice and all, but let's make an excuse and go and find a nice Irish pub somewhere.” I was never a good networker, crap at it. I've always tended to gravitate towards just good human beings, rather than important ones. That's why I ended up becoming such good friends with Bill Laswell, because Bill's just a good human being.
Weird, to me, that you should have had noted collaborations with two guys who played the same instrument as you, Holger and Bill Laswell. There's a correlation between yours and Bill's career in that his Material project sounds very post punk in its early stages, like PIL, and then he later explored more world music flavours with it, like you did.
That early stuff, that was that cassette Temporary Music, right? I heard that through Angus, he said “You've got to hear this!” So, I was very aware of Bill from the word go. I used to wind Frankie (Kevorkian) up by saying “Bill Laswell is the guy I want to work with, not you!” just to get him going. But he was actually a good producer in his own way, Frankie. I learned a lot from him.
When I stopped drinking and drugging I made this off the wall record Without Judgement and we sent a tape of it to this label Les Disques du Crepuscule thinking that someone might like it, but it just ended up in a box somewhere. Nicky Skopelitis, who was Bill's cohort at the time, found it, gave it to Bill and he got in contact. I went over and the first thing I worked on was the Ginger Baker album Middle Passage.
It was great. He was the only person who I used to say to people “I want to work with Bill Laswell”, never thinking that I would do. He's a great producer. But then Holger's a great producer too. It's a circular argument, in a way, because you do often find that bass players do tend to make great producers. They're also often the nicest person in the band.
Drummers are frustrating. You could hold up a piece of paper to a drummer and say “This is orange with green spots” and they'll see the opposite. Drummers live in a parallel universe. My son's a drummer.
There's a nice tradition at folk music concerts I've been to where the performer very often cites where they've sourced a song from. Two songs from your English Roots Music project, 'Sovay' and 'Byker Hill' are from the repertoire of Martin Carthy. Is that where you got them from?
No. 'Byker Hil' was very much to do with being in Hartlepool and being with the vocalist Liz Carter who, like the song, is also from the North East. We did a gig up there and I really liked it so we went to this local studio and Liz was the administrator there and she suggested it and sang it. But I have heard a lot of Martin's stuff and I have a lot of respect for it, it's gutsy. And I saw his daughter, Eliza, perform and she's incredible.
I really liked your Psychic Life album from 2011 with Julie Campbell (LoneLady). How did you two meet and do you have any desire to work together again?
I loved working with Julie, she's a real character, very old school. She really gets it, like an old head on young shoulders. I had some meeting at Warp Records and they played me Julie's stuff and I was really enthusiastic. It wasn't what I had been expecting. We met on Deansgate and it was slightly at cross purposes.
She thought I was looking for a singer, I thought she was looking for a producer. But we clicked and laughed about it and ended up making a record anyway. It was a real post-punk record, it did well. We stayed in contact so I wouldn't be surprised if we work together again.
Keith Levene from PIL contributed to a few tracks on that album. Are you still in touch with him?
Yeah, I took a deep breath to see if I could work with Keith again. We were kind of putting Metal Box In Dub together, which was only six or seven gigs. I'm not currently in touch with him, but I'm sure we will be. Those shows were really good, especially the one at Village Underground. It was a bit of unfinished business.
You also worked with Marconi Union on the album Anomic which was released by your label 30 Hertz in 2013. How did you meet those guys?
I live in Bramhall, or 'debtors retreat' as they like to call it in Manchester, and Richard lives near me. It was a really easy thing to do, just go round and put some basslines down, add a few lyrics. I like ambient music, although the stuff I tend to like is really ambient, no rhythm. I do a bit of painting and you can have it on when you're painting. It has a real spiritual effect on me. I think that Marconi Union album is going to be reissued on vinyl soon.
What kind of emotions were stirred when you undertook the making of the radio documentary In Search Of Sid Vicious, about your old friend and did you discover anything about him that surprised you?
Fuck me, yes. It was the weirdest thing. It was moving, like writing the book, because you're writing about your people. Really it's about them, it's not about you. With Sid you've got all those pictures of him looking daft, a bit sullen, a bit out of it, this icon, this sociopathic monster. But actually, he was quite humorous, a funny bloke.
I knew a couple of my mates had looked after him when he first moved to London. He had a bit of a Bristol twang when he arrived. What I didn't know was that a very old mate of mine Terry, who I know from the East End, from going to Tottenham and who had nothing at all to do with music, had also looked after Sid after his mum had kicked him out.
There was a bit that had to be taken out, for BBC compliance regulations. I guess things were quite hot there for a while after the Jonathan Ross/Russell Brand thing. But Viv Albertine told me that Sid had a secret girlfriend that used to come round and visit him. This was before Nancy and nobody knew about her, everyone thought that Nancy was Sid's first girlfriend. It was really sweet and fascinating to discover, but I couldn't put it in.
It also surprised me when Viv told me that he got drunk on Newcastle Brown and pissed the bed. Even I come to see him as this dyed in the wool junkie, but when she said that I remembered back and realised how we would go and have a drink together and how drunk he could get. He couldn't drink very well, but it was a laugh.
After the Sex Pistols split and Public Image formed you were in a band with another heroin user, Keith. To me, the effects of heroin don't make it a natural bedfellow for the energy contained in punk rock music. Much more fitting would be the amphetamines and alcohol that you were partial to in your early days. How do you think heroin became a thing in the punk scene and was there any kind of drug snobbery around on that scene that made some drugs more acceptable and others taboo?
My best friend became a heroin addict. What happened, as I understand, when the Shah was deposed in Iran a lot of money was taken out of the country in the form of heroin. Prior to that you had registered addicts and I'm guessing there would have only have been a couple of thousand in the country. Then it just flooded in post '78. The people who turned a lot of the punk scene onto it were Johnny Thunders and The Heartbreakers.
I worked for them as a roadie. My mate got me the gig and I told him, get what you can from them, rob 'em, but then leave it. Be careful. Because it wasn't a good scene. I knew he wouldn't listen and he got drawn into it, so I saw the effects. It's funny, if you give 100 people heroin every day, you'll soon have 100 heroin addicts, but if you give 100 people booze every day you're not going to end up with 100 alcoholics.
Heroin was very much looked down upon in the early days of punk, it was all amphetamine sulphate, but where you get the up drug, you're going to find the down drug. Where there's crack you're going to find heroin. I very much looked down my nose at it. It's not a very energetic drug, it's not something where you want to do stuff, so I don't get that.
You've collaborated with a lot of musicians in your time. If you could work with any one of them again, which would it be? Who's the best singer you've worked with?
It was always a pleasure to work with Bill. I saw him a couple of months ago in New York and we played together. Jaki is someone you'd always be happy to work with again. Sussan Deyhim is a wonderful singer. I worked on some of her stuff, although I don't know how much of it came out and she also sang live with us.
She's an Iranian singer and she's on 'Requiem III'. Natacha Atlas, especially in the 90s, the way she was singing then and for the style of music we were doing then, she was really good. Great tracks like 'Erzulie' and 'Soledad'. Julie Campbell was great and the singer we're working with now Aurora Dawn, who's from Alabama 3, she's on the latest LP.