A school mate of John Lydon’s, Jah Wobble (John Wardle) was still a teenager when he joined Public Image, Ltd., and he learned bass on the fly. Not a huge fan of punk—though he did like the Sex Pistols—Wobble embarked on his musical journey at the perfect, post-punk time, inspired by a diverse set of heroes that included Miles Davis, Aston “Family Man” Barrett, Clint Eastwood and William Blake. Leaving PiL after two albums, Wobble embarked on a long and fruitful career as a solo artist, in collaboration (with Eno and Bill Laswell, among others) and in his group Invaders of the Heart. PKM’s Bob Gourley caught up with Wobble after a recent tour in support of a new album, Ocean Blue Waves.
Though Jah Wobble began his career with John Lydon’s post-Sex Pistols group Public Image Ltd., the bassist was never a big fan of the punk scene that preceded it. His musical inspiration came from a variety of sources, including international music picked up on shortwave radio, reggae, and Miles Davis. When his school friend Lydon was looking to do something new, Wobble jumped at the chance to join what would become the more free-form and experimental Public Image Ltd.
Born John Wardle, he acquired his stage moniker after Sid Vicious drunkenly mangled his real name. Wobble remained with PiL through their first two albums, Public Image (First Issue) (1978) and Metal Box (1979), before embarking on a prolific and varied solo career. A primary focus has been Jah Wobble’s Invaders of the Heart, which combines world music, dub, and a variety of other styles and has featured such vocal contributors as Sinéad O’Connor and Dolores O’Riordan. He’s been part of many other collaborations, including work with members of Can, Brian Eno, and Natacha Atlas.
Wobble is actively releasing new music on his own label. Most recent is Ocean Blue Waves, a new album from Jah Wobble’s Invaders of the Heart. Last year, he released Realm of Spells, with frequent collaborator Bill Lasswell. Wobble also puts out completely solo work, as well as music he creates with members of his family.
PKM: You’ve said that you weren’t a big fan of punk, and have cited listening to shortwave radio during your formative years as exposing you to different types of music. Could you discuss your influences and inspirations going into PiL?
Jah Wobble: Yeah. I think I first started listening to shortwave radio in my very early teens or pre-teens even. I listened to it because I liked the oscillations, the sound. It was dreamy. It was mysterious; it really was. I found out later on that you are hearing radio signals from imploding galaxies and stars and all kinds of stuff. Radio waves that have been circulating around for forever. So it’s very deep. It’s like you are kind of hearing the Om of the universe. And one of the side effects of that was you kind of felt you were deeply in tune with something.
Anyway, as a byproduct of that process, if you want to call it that, I heard things like Radio Cairo and Radio Tehran. I listened to the music of Mohammed Abdel Wahab, the composer of Umm Kulthum. And I would hear that with the natural phasing that you get on shortwave. As the signal bounces down to us, set up to the stratosphere and down again, you get a kind of phasing sound, which of course, people use in music. It kind of alters the sound envelope on a cycle, which you hear in things like Lee “Scratch” Perry productions.
And so it was quite trippy, so that was a big thing. Another big thing was the urban music of the time. Where I lived in London, they called it Blue Beat, the ska coming from Jamaica. There were Blue Beat charts that ran alongside the top 40 charts, and I often preferred the reggae versions of pop songs to the original. Then there were great hits in their own right, from Desmond Dekker, and “Liquidator’ by Harry J Allstars. We regularly perform that track live, early on in the set as kind of a warmup. In a way, it’s kind of paying tribute to the stuff that’s turned you on over the years and influenced you. So that was a big influence on me. It led to dub music bass as a kind of visceral extension of the Om of the universe.
It’s like you are kind of hearing the Om of the universe. And one of the side effects of that was you kind of felt you were deeply in tune with something.
Bass, as much as being a musical instrument, was this really heavy thing. Of course, bass players like Aston “Family Man” Barrett were very heavy bassists but very musical bassists. I saw him play with Bob Marley at the Lyceum in 1975 on a sultry summer night. And that was incredible watching him. You know, just a guy up on stage with this instrument, but through his fingers, he’s plugged into the universe. You’ve got the power of the universe. That’s what you feel like with bass. So that was a big thing. Other big staging posts, Miles Davis, you know, there was a natural thing with me just to wanting to play. And there were groups like Lindisfarne and the Dubliners. My mum used to play the Dubliners; she had an all-Irish background.
And so I heard folk music, and I liked pentatonic scales. Lindisfarne was a big group in the ‘70s. Even something like “Maggie May” by Rod Stewart and the Faces has a mandolin on it. It’s by the guy who was in Lindisfarne. And so I was starting to take to this kind of modal thing. And of course, that also relates to world music, the various forms of folk music from around the world. I listened to lots of music, and there’s obviously lots of influences. I thought about music a lot, right from the basis of what’s the essence of this, in a way a German philosopher might.
You’ve got the power of the universe. That’s what you feel like with bass.
I had all these notions of how a band could play. It was a very abstract post-punk approach, very similar to the abstract expressionists of the 1950s, that kind of sensibility. You want to sort of knock down bourgeois tradition and be free and instinctual. Building on very simple patterns, bass patterns and textures and keyboards and collage, thinking vertically. Closer to the way a painter feels. You know, a painter looks at this total thing. It’s all there and now, rather than thinking of chords, left to right here’s the verse, here are the choruses, here’s the bridge, here’s a repeat of the second verse, chord progressions. I’ve got nothing against that. I love a good song. But that’s kind of where I was at that time with early PiL. I had the enthusiasm of a beginner. This Suzuki quote always comes to mind. ‘In the beginner’s mind, there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s mind, there are few.’ The next significant influence that came along is probably Miles Davis’s electric period. So we’d finished Metal Box and a guy called Kenny MacDonald, who was the PiL tailor, played me Dark Magus, which then became my favorite Miles Davis record, of course.
So we’d finished Metal Box, and I thought, I don’t think there’s a record quite like this. It’s very brave. And it challenges people’s conceptions about music. It’s very deep, and it’s primal, and there’s nothing quite like it. And then, of course, within a couple of weeks of finishing it, with Dark Magus, I heard the black jazz American version of wild, free playing. Incredible intensity and energy. So Miles became somebody I thought I’d check out, I was introduced to the whole library and became fascinated with him.
I was quite fascinated with Clint Eastwood as well. I loved the films of Clint Eastwood back then; he had a very interesting career. A guy who starts in a cowboy TV show and ends up directing these really thoughtful films. I know, unfortunately, he’s another one that I think was certainly prepared to give Trump a chance when he came to power, which I wasn’t sure about. But, whatever, it doesn’t matter. With Clint, I think he was a really good, very thoughtful director and a very thoughtful actor. He was a guy who was very American, this free spirit with a kind of vision only America could produce. So he was somebody that I was quite obsessed with and fascinated by, and Miles Davis. These were kind of heroes to me in a way. I mean Clint started having quite an independent approach to making films. He saw through the whole Hollywood thing without being histrionic about Hollywood or anything. Miles, obviously, was making music that was completely beyond the pale for traditional jazz fans. So I think he was very brave, very independent. And William Blake became a massive inspiration to me. The poet, mystic, as well as in a very independent spirit.
PKM: Having been around the formation of The Sex Pistols, did you have any interest at all in getting involved with a punk band at the time?
Jah Wobble: I didn’t. I backed away from it because I just found in the music very conservative, you know, sort of 3-chord rock & roll. I like some of the music. I thought the Pistols were a really good band. I wasn’t mad on punk, but I liked the odd track. I liked the Buzzcocks Spiral Scratch. I liked The Damned “New Rose.” I thought the Pistols were a really good band. But I wasn’t mad on punk. And I was a terrible networker. I was never a guy that was going to go out and network and try and make anything happen by myself. It was down to John. John came to me and said, ‘do you want to be in a band?’ Obviously, because it’s John and Keith’s involved. I said yeah, great because I was thinking a lot about what I would do if I were to make music, how I would make music. I was listening to a lot of weird electronic stuff, a lot of Stockhausen, and thinking in quite an abstract way.
PKM: Was there any hesitation, perhaps out of concern that it might not end up being the kind of music you wanted to make?
Jah Wobble: No, I seized the day. I just fancied the job. I played a bit of bass. Looking back, I had an incredible arrogance, just a real self-belief. And I’m from the wrong side of the tracks, really, in terms of British society. I wasn’t going to get too many opportunities like this. I wanted to seize the day. I knew what I wanted to do. I’ve never had a music lesson in my life. I’m self-taught with everything. Sometimes it’s good, but it means in some areas I’ll be weak. Let’s get that straight. I’m not saying everyone should be an autodidact.
I thought the Pistols were a really good band. But I wasn’t mad on punk.
PKM: So you’re self-taught? How do you think things might have been different if you had formal training on the bass?
Jah Wobble: It kind of scares me to think about what would have happened. Working with other musicians, you take a chance on it. Occasionally I’ll be in situations where musicians want to push you into a certain situation. It’s not getting the best out of you. They come in with a lot of preconceived notions, with a fixed approach. It’s a bit stale. I think if I’d had mentoring earlier on in life, the sky would be the limit. I never had any, which wasn’t rare for somebody from my background. I’m not going to cry about that. But it’s a fact. I’ve had to just sort everything in life out myself. Now, I mean, I’m talking every fucking thing in life, I had to sort it out. What I have had is the benefit and great kindness from strangers, which is the heaviest kindness. It’s the most beautiful kindness, the kindness of strangers, people helping you who don’t need to, when you’re down on your luck, and all that. But if I’d had good mentoring, who knows what would’ve happened. Would I go back and change anything? No. Because I’ve reached some point of realization, not like Buddha, you know, I haven’t had the direct experience of outward reality or anything. I had a couple of glimpses here and there, but you have a realization of where you’re at in life, what you are about, having a bit of humility. While I might not sound like having a degree of humility, I know I’m quite a restricted musician in lots of ways. The older I get, the more I realize I’m restricted, but restriction is a beautiful thing in a way, through that you can find liberation.
I played a bit of bass. Looking back, I had an incredible arrogance, just a real self-belief. And I’m from the wrong side of the tracks, really, in terms of British society. I wasn’t going to get too many opportunities like this. I wanted to seize the day.
PKM: Could you describe the experience of being in PiL for those first two albums?
Jah Wobble: Well yeah, it was generally good. We didn’t have a management, so we were able to have a budget but not be tied down to any particular type or style of music, or having to find hit records. There was a natural element to it. I preferred it when we worked at very cheap studios like Gooseberry in Chinatown in London. Besides it being much less expensive, I felt the bass sound there was the best, the engineers were really good there. For better or worse, PiL didn’t have management. I mean the financial side of things, I didn’t feel it was managed very well at all, it was quite unfair, not right.
I was the baby of the bunch. I was still a teenager when PiL started, which seems quite incredible now, how ill-equipped I was to deal with the kind of people I had around me and how ill-equipped I was to realize the level of snakery with some of those people. But I say for better and for worse because with no management there was some element of freedom with it. I’m very grateful for John, as the situation was that I could just come up with my basslines. No one ever said, ‘Oh, can’t you try playing that differently?’ A lot of people would have because we don’t exactly follow a key at times. So they’d want it a bit sweeter, somebody would say, ‘oh all that stuff’s a bit minor, you know, we need more major, can just change that to a major scale?’ That’s the kind of shit people would come out with now, or if you were in the wrong situation then even, and that never happened. I can look at and just think, oh, there was stuff I wasn’t happy with within a few months. But overall, it was good. I was lucky to be a rookie player and come and be very unfettered. It was lovely.
PKM: You recently toured with Invaders of the Heart, and put out a new album, Ocean Blue Waves. Is there anything you’d like to mention about the album?
Jah Wobble: What’s refreshing about Ocean Blue Waves is that increasingly albums, you have to have something, an interesting story. With this, there isn’t a back story. It was a case of going in the studio with Invaders of the Heart. There was one tune that I’d prepared, which is a tune that probably stands out like a sore thumb, “Take My Hand.” It is a little bit of a rock anthem I’d put together very simply a few months before. So I took that into the studio.
I’m very grateful for John, as the situation was that I could just come up with my basslines. No one ever said, ‘Oh, can’t you try playing that differently?’ A lot of people would have because we don’t exactly follow a key at times.
But the rest of it is just where my band was at. I’d come up with something; here’s bassline, here’s a change, but come do your thing. They’re kind of jazz-funk, that’s kind of their natural default setting. Rhythmically, it’s powerful. There’s like a 15/8 time signature on there is 7/4, and all that. But it’s the boys naturally doing their thing there. They’re a very good band, they’re very high-level kinds of players, very committed, can play any genre convincingly, and they’re very wholehearted. So it’s got that hypnotic element.
The key question is like, does it groove, can they groove, and the answer is yes. So that there’s no backstory; it was a case of a tour coming up, so, okay, let’s do another album. So we did, we did a bit in New Jersey, at Bill Laswell’s studio, a couple of backing tracks, which we did outside of Realm of Spells. We did a couple of backing tracks there for this and then finished it off in Manchester. No clever statement or a mission statement. Just that’s where we’re at right now. If we went tomorrow, of course, that would be another story.
“Uncoiling” from Realm of Spells album, Jah Wobble and Bill Laswell:
PKM: You took some time away from the music industry in the mid-’80s. Beyond getting sober, what overall effects did it have on your career? For example, did you discover any new inspirations during that time? Did taking a step back your attitudes toward music in any way?
Jah Wobble: It wasn’t that long. A lot of that stuff is down to me [in the past] saying ‘oh, I took a lot of time off’ But I didn’t, I got sober in October 1986. I was halfway through an album called Psalms. So October the 23rd, I got sober, spent another month or so finishing that album. And then I got a job. I’d stopped drinking. I got a job as a courier driving a van. It was quite bad weather as well—some dicey road conditions. I was traveling fairly long distances by UK standards. Anyway, I then ended up working on the subway in March. Now by the time, you know, year come around, I’m full of the joys of Spring, you know, I’m really happy, I’m sober, I’m back involved in life, and I want to get a regular job. And I started listening to a lot of music.
So I got offered a job as a postman, and a job on the tube—the underground in London. I took the underground because I thought that I don’t fancy getting bitten by dogs as a postman. And it’s early mornings obviously whereas the underground I knew you could swap your shifts, probably do evenings. That suits me more. I loved it; I had a great time there.
I’d listened to Anita Baker. I’d listened to “Soro” by Salif Keita. I was listening to a lot of Bryan Ferry; he had a couple of solo albums out I really liked at that time. So I was listening to a lot of music. Neville [Murray], the old percussionist from Invaders from the Heart, knocked on my door. He said to me, ‘do you fancy touring?’ I said, ‘you want to do it again after all the problems I caused?’ I could behave badly in PiL as well. I wasn’t a saint, you know, just get that straight. I could be a fucking nuisance as well over the years, completely off my own back. So it took me aback. We had a chat about what we would do; this was Invaders of the Heart mark two. I said I’d like some more Middle Eastern scales and we need a player like this and maybe a player like that. We got it up and running again. So we had a few rehearsals.
I also began getting sessions because the acid house scene had started. At first, I was working at stations on the underground. I was station staff, but then I was one of the few that moved over and become train crew, so I went to a depot, and I worked on the trains. I’d walk into the West End, from where I was living, I’m an East End boy, but I was living in South London at the time, I’d walk across Villiers Street over the embankment and Hungerford Bridge. And I’d see people outside clubs queuing to get in at five o’clock in the morning and think, hmm, that’s interesting. Of course, the acid house scene was starting. I ended up doing a few sessions. Within a few years, I’m touring; I’m back in the game. So I never really had much of a break from music, you’re talking a month or two, really. But it was part-time after that. So it took ages, it took four years before we finally got a deal. Andy Weatherall, God rest his soul; he died a couple of weeks ago. Andy released a record of mine on his own, the Bomba remix, which was terrific.
So, that was a really great boast, but I didn’t get a deal of my own back again until Oval/East West came in 1990 / 91 or something. So about four years working part-time. I was still in my first marriage, had a daughter, and another daughter. So I left the underground, which I still regret a little bit. I loved that job; it was a great employer.
I’d walk across Villiers Street over the embankment and Hungerford Bridge. And I’d see people outside clubs queuing to get in at five o’clock in the morning and think, hmm, that’s interesting. Of course, the acid house scene was starting.
PKM: You mentioned Bryan Ferry, which reminds me of your collaboration with Brian Eno, Spinner. How did that come about? What are your thoughts on it looking back?
Jah Wobble: Well, Brian had come into the dressing room after a show, and obviously, everyone loves Brian Eno. He wanted me to kind of use some little scraps of music he’d done for Derek Jarman [for the film Glitterbug]. I was a little bit like ‘why can’t we just make a bloody album?’ you know, why do you have to do this? So it wasn’t a big budget, and it was put together in my little studio. It was a little bit like Master Chef. Where they say, here, you’ve got a carrot, a tin of tomatoes, a lemon, make something from it. And they’re always ‘how can we do this?’ but they come up with something that everyone says is fantastic. So it was a little bit like that. There were these scraps of music that I’ve got to elongate and muck about with. At the time, I was walking a lot around London. I was walking up the Lea Valley, a lot kind of urban walking. Those places are corridors of glass and steel now. But anyway, it was a kind of a walking record. And I loved that record. Brian, he was a bit, ‘oh, do you think it’s good?’ It’s like, ‘of course I do; otherwise, I wouldn’t give it to you and say it’s done, would I?’ It sold well, and I think it’s lasted really well.
People increasingly talk about that record. I think a lot of the techniques we used were precursors to what the dance scene started doing in the noughties. We were working almost on a prototype version of digital audio. It was the early days of using computer technology, and I think it’s lasted very well. I remember it was quite left field at the time. The shape of the music and everything was kind of a low-fi almost. Having those programs where you’ve got a limited resource, limitations can lead to something else. I think some records don’t last as well as others, but that record seems to get better with age. And I think Brian has come to realize this is, this was a good record. I’m the only person ever to produce him.
PKM: Is there anything else that you’d like to add?
Jah Wobble: No, not really. I mean, I’ve got no ax to grind with anyone. God bless them all. And if I sound like I’m derogatory to anyone, I’m being an asshole as well. I wish I could say I hadn’t been an asshole, but I’m a human being.
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