The Seeking Path
by Anil Prasad
Copyright © 2020 Anil Prasad. All rights reserved.
There’s virtually no context Jah Wobble hasn’t explored with dub bass. Whether it’s punk, jazz, electronica, Middle Eastern, African, Celtic, Chinese, Japanese, industrial, or avant-garde realms, he’s figured out a way to make it work seamlessly and imaginatively. The British multi-instrumentalist and composer has built his career on defying expectations and taking chances. His prolific and diverse discography of dozens of albums serves as a testament to his drive to keep learning, evolving and morphing.
In just the last 18 months, Wobble has put out four albums, two EPs and many singles. Two of those releases, Ocean Blue Waves and Realm of Spells, were made with his multi-decade group Invaders of the Heart. He first formed the band in 1982 as a way of bridging the worlds of dub, world fusion, jazz, rock, and pop. Ocean Blue Waves is its tenth album.
Realm of Spells finds the band collaborating with bassist and producer Bill Laswell, who Wobble has worked with on several projects, previously. The album was inspired by Wobble and Laswell’s shared interest in Miles Davis’ Dark Magus period, during which the jazz legend was performing his most experimental, rhythm-based music.
Wobble also has two recent efforts with Youth—Acid Punk Dub Apocalypse and A Very British Coup. The former’s title captures the album’s vibe accurately. The latter is an EP also featuring Mark Stewart, Keith Levene and Richard Dudanski. The title track is an anti-Brexit anthem that looks at the UK’s self-inflicted chaos, using the country’s own history as a filter.
In addition, Wobble has released two full-length solo recordings, Thames Symphony and Lockdown. Thames Symphony captures Wobble’s moods during his walks across the Thames. Lockdown was made during COVID-19 quarantine and channels the mercurial emotions we’re all feeling as we navigate this challenging period of uncertainty.
Wobble just completed a forthcoming release titled The Family Album. It’s a collaboration with his wife Zi Lan, a guzheng virtuoso; and his sons GZ Tian, a vocalist, rapper and erhu player; and Tien-Chi, a yangqin player and percussionist. Chinese music is the core influence on the album, but it’s also a whirlwind of myriad genres, energies and cultures.
Of course, no conversation about Wobble is complete without discussing his time as a founding member of Public Image Ltd, often abbreviated as PiL. He was a key part of the late-‘70s British punk renaissance. In fact, his stage name emerged out the Sex Pistols’ Sid Vicious mumbling his real name, John Wardle.
After the Sex Pistols broke up in 1978, John Lydon asked Wobble to join PiL, which included dub and Middle Eastern elements in its mix. Wobble was a key contributor to the group’s initial two albums, First Issue and Metal Box. The recordings were among the most important opening salvos in the post-punk movement. They began the process of taking the incendiary energy of punk and infusing it into more sophisticated musical settings. Wobble left PiL famously and acrimoniously in 1980, though threads from the group still occasionally weave their way into his projects.
This interview resulted from multiple sessions across the last eight months, including a late-May 2020 Zoom call that began with a discussion about the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.
How has the COVID-19 crisis affected you artistically and personally?
On one side, I lost all my work. It’s gone. At first, I thought “My poor band and the musicians I know.” Then I suddenly realized three weeks later, “Actually, it’s me as well.” I don’t know why, but it took a little while to hit me and understand “Oh right, I’m not going to earn any money this year, either.” And I need to earn money. We had just finished a tour last February and at age 61, I’m in good health. But there’s always a feeling like the merry-go-round could stop at any moment. And then this happened.
So, I’ve turned this into a spiritual retreat. I’m doing yoga pathetically. I’m learning Spanish pathetically. I’m doing some sight reading. I’ve got my amp and bass and I’m learning a lot of Aston "Family Man" Barrett’s parts. I’ve realized I can slow things down. We’re impelled forward by the modern world so much. That’s always been a problem with my life. I’m a practicing Buddhist and the school of Buddhism I follow says we’re impelled forward with karmic impulses. We come into life and we’re already stumbling forward at speed. What you always want to do is stop the clock from racing forward to create a bit of time and space. So, in that way, I can deal with what’s coming on.
I’ve accepted that we have a lockdown. I believe COVID-19 exists. I realize that’s a crazy thing to say, but I’ve had discussions with people who tell me it doesn’t exist. Now, if you meet somebody who is pro-Brexit, you know they will be pro-Trump, anti-climate change, anti-vaccine, and be a COVID-19 conspiracy believer. It’s pretty straightforward and I’ve had it. It’s caused some issues with old friends of mine and some family. I just can’t deal with that level of stupidity. I know 12 people who’ve had the virus. One of them has died. Others were in poor health or hospitalized. It was mild for only one person.
My son Charlie Wardle has come back home from university in London. He has a record deal himself as GZ Tian. He’s a keen footballer. He’s happy to be with us, but misses his girlfriend. I don’t think he bargained for weeks and weeks of lockdown. It’s dragging on and I think the British government has deliberately been sending mixed messages, so if it all fucks up again, they can say “It wasn’t us. The people did the wrong thing.”
COVID-19 has brought a lot of stuff into view. I thought we were long past the base racism thing, but it’s come to the fore again. Brexit brought the lowest common denominator to the fore. I thought this country wasn’t as square as that, but it is. Roughly 30 percent are conservative and a good number of those people are still stuck in the time of the British Empire. It’s a very unrealistic view of the world and this little country’s place in that world. One of the things that’s probably also going to happen is that the United Kingdom will split up. The Scottish will probably go their way. Ireland will probably become a united island at some point in the not-too-distant future. The Welsh are also making noises.
What responsibility do you feel as a musician right now, given the state of the world?
Music goes beyond all theories. It’s such a formless thing. It challenges and offers commentaries on the world. The Anglo-Saxon world is a disturbed hornets’ nest on both sides of the Atlantic. This process has been well underway since free market economics began. I’m a left-of-center guy. Music has its place. Some songs are anthemic and mean something. They’ll resonate with people at a certain time. You’ve got to be careful with not getting too carried away with emotion. The real thing for me is music that comes from a more philosophical and spiritual basis. What’s going on with Brexit and the right wing is fucking bullshit. But when you react in a Pavlovian sense against it, that’s also fucking bullshit.
I’m very critical of Brexit. The single “A Very British Coup” I did with Mark Stewart and Keith Levene is an anti-Brexit anthem. It’s talking about Harold Wilson’s British government in the ‘70s. We weren’t far from a military coup in this country during that period. Those right-wing reactionary forces are always there. Similarly, the anti-Brexit cause is close to my heart—not that I have any illusions about the EU. It’s all bullshit, but some bullshit is better than other bullshit. The EU isn’t all bad. It must be doing something right. France, Germany and England are no longer at each other’s throats as they traditionally were.
So, going back to the value of music. There are songs I’ve liked that are political, but you have to be careful not to rise to the level of the corny counterculture. In the ‘70s, we always saw through the bullshit. I think that’s one of the defining characteristics of my generation, compared to people 5-10 years older than me.
You have an uneasy relationship with the word “dub.” Why?
Through the ‘90s, it became synonymous with a kind of lazy, dopey kind of thinking. It started in the ‘80s with a crusty mob—squatters and dogs on a bit of string in North London. Dub was there a lot. It became the lowest common denominator at that point. It became very generic, lazy and lacked the kind of revolutionary insight it once had, when I first heard it. I got tired of that scene.
Dub in its true sense was very fundamental. It was a real revelation. When I first heard dub, it made me feel very free. It made my mind feel spacious. For a guy who’s naturally very anxious, that was fantastic. When I first heard King Tubby that absolutely rocked my world.
No other form of music has rocked my world the way dub did. It has emptiness and reflects the interdependence of everything. Dub isn’t a fixed state. It’s not about any kind of concrete reality. It shows that everything’s in a state of flux, including people. I embraced that philosophy and reality. It resonated with me. It has all these dharmas and theories, as well as being an expression of emptiness. It’s about the relationship between the temporary and what’s constantly moving.
You’ve incorporated myriad global musics into your work across your career. What’s enabled you to do that so effectively?
It’s simple. It’s the classic dub approach we just talked about. It’s a heavy, modal kind of bass. There aren’t many notes. Sometimes the bass lines are quite fast, but they’re rhythmic, dubby and have low bottom end. It’s an all-pervasive approach that can wrap itself around anything—even Cantonese melodic music.
Because of that modal, pentatonic, block unit approach, it’s not connected to Western harmonic approaches with major keys. Dub tends to be rhythmic and melodic. Those two elements connect. That means you can put me together with Korean folk musicians and I can rustle up something with them. I just go “Right, let me learn what your favorite mode and groups of notes are and we’ll take it from there.” That’s much easier than working with a funk keyboard player from where I used to live in Ruislip in Middlesex. [laughs] I’m not that fluent on the theory of augmented chords. I can work it out by ear, but I like to just go with the sound and general tonality of what’s happening. The actual spoken word involved in music with lyrics doesn’t really enter into things for me. In other words, I can work with Chinese, Korean and Arabic music easier than I can with classical music.
I come from a dock area, so I found the whole idea of going to sea quite romantic. So, if you want to get on a boat and travel many miles, chances are you’d also take an interest in other cultures. Somehow, that’s in me to do that. I was also very influenced by The Dhammapada. I was reading The Upanishads at age 15. I became a Buddhist along the way—a serious one, not just a guy that has some statues knocking about. I’ve followed the dharma the best I can. I’m very at home with general Eastern philosophies. I’m very inclusive. It doesn’t matter what fucking color you are or anything. Life is about sensing what people are about. So, fuck borders. We’re all just people. Everyone’s included. Everybody’s welcome to the party. There’s just one starting point for music: human beings.
Of course, there are musical categories. There are labels. But those are just temporary measures. At the heart of music should be some warmth and love. There should be a bit of a spark with some humor, too. When I work with people, I want to find out what they’re about. I want to have fun. We’re a community. We’re pack animals, really.
In Buddhism, you have five Skandhas. You’ve got the material form, or the physical world, feelings and sensations, perceptions, mental formations, and awareness or consciousness. We all come into this life with a certain momentum. Our consciousnesses are coming forward from some other state.
I’ve definitely had tendencies to be an asshole at times in life, without doubt. But I’ve also had, for whatever reason, a desire to get past that. I embrace Eastern perspectives. The first reggae music I really loved was Augustus Pablo, because he was using Chinese scales. I introduced his work to my wife Zi Lan, who’s a Chinese musician. She loved it. The Pagoda Chinese Youth Orchestra now does a couple of Augustus Pablo numbers and they do them well. So, somehow, everything I’ve been talking about all fits together.
Tell me how the Realm of Spells album with Bill Laswell emerged.
It began with my band Invaders of the Heart. We got these three-year work visas for America, so we toured there in 2016. We played festivals like Hardly Strictly Bluegrass in San Francisco that year and Bill came and played with us in New York City. We did those shows and went back home.
The band said to me “Why don’t we go back to America and use the visas?” I said “Yeah, but the US is always difficult. You need a festival to hang a tour off of.” They then said “It’d be great to make a record with Bill.” I said “I’m sure Bill would record an album. Let’s do it.” So, they put the idea in my head. I called Bill and he was up for it and that’s how it started.
Another reason I wanted to do it is for what will sound like a grand and melodramatic explanation. I thought “This may well be the last time I ever work with Bill.” The visa thing is getting so hard in America. At our ages, either of us could also get sick suddenly, and then who knows what will happen? So, I worked with Bill for two months on the album. We did it after his series of gigs for his residency at The Chapel in San Francisco in 2019.
The starting point for the music was “Let’s take this away from dub a little bit and turn it—for lack of a better term—into free-flowing Fender jazz.” I love that bass sound Miles Davis had going on in the ‘70s on his electric records. I wanted to create something quite intense. The boys in Invaders of the Heart are good players. We can do that stuff with them, rather than just keeping it steady doing a dub thing. Bill was happy to do that.
How does Realm of Spells build on the basis you formed with Radioaxiom, your last major project with Laswell from 2001?
It’s definitely connected to Radioaxiom. I love that album. It’s one of a half-dozen or so things I’ve done that I think are really great. I wanted to do something even more dense than that. I wanted to be able to pick out the details in the music, like certain high-hat patterns and bass lines by Michael Henderson from Miles’ band. I used a vintage Fender Precision Bass on the album to capture that feel.
I really wanted this to be an authentic album. I wanted to bring mental volitions—those tendencies we got from a past life—into it. It’s not a case of “I was Joan of Arc in a past life and that’s what I’m bringing to this life.” That’s horseshit. I’m talking about tendencies and processes.
The album was really a case of just playing and seeing what happens. Bill was up for it. The band was up for it. Sometimes musicians I work with would say “Right, we’re improvising. But let’s prepare some loops to work with.” For this album, I said “Look, don’t prepare anything. Just turn up without any preconceived ideas and just be in the moment.” It’s a very intimate thing to do. It’s not that removed from making love. You’d never say to someone “I’ll come over and make love to you. I’m going to do it exactly in this sequence.” No, if you love somebody, you don’t know where it’s going to go. You might have some idea, but you don’t know exactly at what point something is going to happen. Maybe I’m too old to be talking this way. [laughs]
How did you approach the complexity of two bass players working together on Realm of Spells?
Bill’s just very intuitive about it. You can’t be in the same register at the same time. It’s just not going to work. When one of us goes low, the other goes a couple of octaves higher. And even then, you’ve got to be careful. There’s an “either/and” and “if/either/or” set of decisions being made. With Bill, it’s not a problem. We’ve got Bill’s electric, fretless vibe. He’s sometimes going up high and doing some left-field things. I have that heavy, dubby bass sense. It’s quite a combination I think.
How did you first meet Laswell?
My good friend Angus MacKinnon, who used to write for the NME, said he thought I’d be interested in hearing the stuff Bill was doing for the Celluloid label in the ‘80s. When I worked with François Kevorkian in the early ‘80s, I once jokingly said “Bill’s the only one I’d really want to work with. He’s the only producer for me.” I used to have a laugh about it, never thinking I’d actually work with him.
I got into a bit of a mess with drink and drugs in the ‘80s and stopped all of that in ’86. I continued making music and also did straight jobs at that time which was good for me. In ’88, I became more serious about music again. I started having musical concepts and wanted to make things happen. In 1990, I did an album called Without Judgement that included world music elements. I was very much into making musical fusions and mixing up stuff.
Once that idea developed in my mind, I thought “I’d love to work with Bill.” So, I posted a cassette of Without Judgement to Celluloid in New York City. I also went over to New York around that time. Nicky Skopelitis, who was Bill’s right-hand man then, gave the cassette to Bill. They got in touch and said “Where are you?” I said “I’m in New York.” Amazing.
I first met Nicky, who took me out for a lively meal. I think he wanted to check me out to see if I was okay before I met Bill. He would filter people. I sealed the deal with Bill, because Nicky asked me what my favorite album was and I said Dark Magus by Miles Davis. At the time, this was a very obscure Miles album. It happened to be Bill’s favorite Miles album as well. So Nicky said, “Right. You’ve got to meet Bill.” He said to Bill “This is your guy. He loves Dark Magus!” [laughs]
So, I met Bill and we got on like a house on fire. He brought me over to play on Ginger Baker’s Middle Passage album. Everything just felt right when it came to working with Bill, from the beginning.
What do you recall about making Middle Passage?
They kept me away from Ginger. Bill said “It’s a bad idea if you meet him. He’s really difficult.” So, six months after we made it in 1990, we went on a tour of Japan. Ginger was playing with Bill and Nicky. I was introduced to Ginger at a restaurant. We were looking for a sugar hit. We were in this big hotel complex and wanted to find the part that had Western desserts.
So, we’ve got these two London geezers in Japan. There was no bullshit with us. We got on. We both had that attitude of knowing we could both throw a right-hander. So, that was all lovely.
Now, the waitress comes up and said “What do you want to order?” I’m always about apple pie and custard. I’m very straightforward. I think Ginger went for the treacle tart, which isn’t a bad choice to me. Instead of treacle, they brought him rhubarb and he went mental. I think the rhubarb tart got literally thrown. It ended with the wait staff being very upset. I got agitated and thought “This is way over the top.” I calmed him down. I think the boss of the complex was summoned down and came up to us and bowed. Very Japanese. At the end, Ginger calmed down.
You’ve called Laswell the most inspiring musician you’ve ever worked with. Why?
He just understands everything. He’s very smart. He’s very deep. He sets the scene for you to do your thing to the max. He’s got a real respect for the music and the art. The point at which I knew Bill was for real was after I got to know him a little while. We were talking about abstract expressionists like Jackson Pollock. Bill has that in his post-punk sensibility—the one that says “Music follows visual art, 30 years later.” I think that’s right. I think the post-punk generation of musicians are the musical versions of 1950s abstract expressionists that ignored the rules and were kicking against the establishment.
When Bill and I talked about Pollock, he said “I managed to break into Pollock’s studio. I spent the night in there.” He said he scraped paint off the floor and put it in a matchbox. You know how some people might own the bones of a saint? Bill had paint powder from Pollock. Bill’s an enthusiast. He’s for real. That’s important.
Let's discuss The Butterfly Effect, a politically-oriented album from 2018 that looks at the world’s large-scale financial models and their ripple effect throughout societies. How did that project materialize?
It came from a book of poetry I wrote called Odds and Sods and Epilogues. In 2011, I was able to use a studio that was cheap as chips in Manchester called Rogue. I thought "I'm going to use this place for lyric writing. I'm going to do a little poetry book and it's going to be quite funny. I’ll write about the nature of the mind and stuff."
So, I did that and we did a little bit of music and some of it is kind of okay. It’s nice. The idea was to be quite psychedelic somehow. It was one of those situations in which I’m shouting out the chords and changes and the band are so good, they can follow it. The band that played on the album are really great musicians. It suddenly hit me that this was the music I’ve been waiting for to accompany the lyrics.
A similar thing happened with The Inspiration of William Blake album I did years ago. I knew I was going to do a very Blake thing, but wasn’t sure the music would emerge for it. But it did. Suddenly, we recorded music and it was like “This is it. This is the music for the Blake album.”
The album talks about the interconnectedness of things. It’s also about social change and protest music, especially on something like “The Iron Lady Got Rust.” I’m really critical of Thatcher and free market economics in it. I wanted to talk about money, business and the corporate world on it. So, the album features a heavy kind of poetry.
I understand Odds and Sods and Epilogues was also partly a reaction to the streaming environment that had just started taking hold then.
I remember when streaming came in in the early 2000s. It was really killing us and deflating everyone’s confidence in regards to our ability to sell new music. People would send me emails—regular punters—and say “Hey, I stream now, so I don’t buy your stuff. I just wanted to say I’ve heard the new album. It’s fantastic. Keep the good work up.” I wanted to reply “Well, how the fuck can I keep the good work up, if you’re not going to buy the record? Think about what you just said. This is crazy. We don’t get paid properly for the stuff if you don’t.”
I did the Odds and Sods and Epilogues book when I realized that running my label at the time, 30 Hertz, was now going to be impossible. So, I wanted to do one more thing and push the boat out. I was so cynical about the press at that time too. I thought “What’s the fucking point of desperately hustling to get reviews in the broadsheets any longer? No-one gets it. Fuck it. It’s just not worth it.” So, I just put out that book and hoped people would find it.
I eventually sold the label and did a lot of live stuff again, and made all kinds of records with other people for other labels. But streaming is just bullshit. People keep telling me it’s going to get better, but it’s only going to get worse. We put out Realm of Spells in a way that seems ridiculously old-fashioned. We went back to the model we had in 2005, which was “We’ll keep it out of the digital domain for a year. We’ll get the sales we can and then it can go out digitally.” You have to use your intuition now in how you put things out. I’m a survivor. People have to give me that.
Tell me about the creative process that informed Ocean Blue Waves, the last Invaders of the Heart album.
It’s simply where I’m at with this group of musicians in Invaders of the Heart at the moment. They’re great guys and very good players. I gave them some rhythms, bass lines and a couple of chord progressions, and that was it. The rest of it is just them playing and naturally doing what they do during that period. That period actually started in Bill Laswell’s studio, because at the time we were making Realm of Spells, I was already thinking towards the next band album. I cut some of the backing tracks in Bill’s studio. We had an idea it would have 7/4 rhythms with musical changes—a fusion music of sorts that’s got a jazz and funky feel.
Ocean Blue Waves is quite hypnotic, well-recorded and well-put together. It’s a very relaxed album, because no-one’s trying too hard. It just is what it is. The reason we could do it is we were going out on tour last January. We thought “Let’s do a new album that we can play and sell.” We played three tracks from it every gig and revamped them slightly, as we always do. So, the album was a way of keeping things going with the band.
When you make records together, it keeps you together. It makes musicians feel like they’re part of something real. You’re not bullshitting them and saying “Okay, you’re my band. Now, do exactly what I want. I’m not going to really let you express yourself.” We’ve played a lot of my old tunes the last few years on stage, so this was a great opportunity to let them play a part in the writing process. There’s one track on there called “Take My Hand” I’d written on my own a few weeks before we made the album. The rest of it is us just playing together.
Invaders of the Heart is a multi-decade band. Tell me about the original vision of the group and how it evolved over time.
It was simply about fusion and mixing stuff. I got the name Invaders of the Heart from a Romany musician who said “Our music, we say it invades people’s hearts” in a BBC documentary called A Romany on the Trail. I thought that was lovely and romantic. The documentary charted the journey of the Romany people from Rajasthan through to Andalusia. Some came through the Balkans and others through the Middle East.
Part of what I wanted to do was romantic music. I’m a romantic. I try to hide it, but I am. I wanted to do something that’s both pure and mixes stuff from Middle Eastern modes and melodies, as well as folk melodies and jazz. And I didn’t have a bloody clue at first, really. I was a very wet-behind-the-ears young guy when it started. But sometimes in a beginner’s mind are possibilities that an expert wouldn’t consider.
Now, you’ve got to be very careful with the tonality inherent in a lot of jazz when you combine it with folk musics. Some jazz has incredibly sophisticated harmony and it can constrict things. It’s like starting out with a simple folk peasant dish from Northern Spain and then adding too many spices and tropical fruits to it. It becomes over-seasoned with too many competing tastes and flavors. So, we tried to create a simple fusion with some dub elements. There was also a general trance-like thing happening, which I saw in Middle Eastern and Moroccan music, especially.
I also had the sensibility of dancing, movement and music being hypnotic. It was a little bit away from the rock tradition. I like rhythmic, repetitive music. I naturally play the way I do because it calms anxiety states down. It’s like a form of meditation. It expands your mind.
The concept for Invaders of the Heart came right from the early days of PiL. I was always thinking conceptually and in an abstract way. PiL didn’t want formal boundaries or formal chord progressions. Things were abstract and that’s what we were about. We made a few songs that had chords, but really, we couldn’t wait to just do a primal scream.
I was already thinking about collages and textures, rather than strictly musical forms. Heavy bass at the bottom with rhythmic patterns. Invaders of the Heart was also very much about African rhythms. I love congas. I had a guy called Neville Murray who played congas with me for years. Justin Adams was also involved, singing and playing darbuka.
Invaders of the Heart Mark I was quite jazzy. We had people like Ollie Marland and Annie Whitehead in it. Annie was a really well-respected trombonist. And then I spooned up, of course, boozing too much during that period. Then Mark II came along in the ‘90s and went a lot more towards Middle Eastern styles, but still quite jazzy. We had people like Harry Beckett in the group.
The current band is Mark III. We’ve gone back a little bit more towards jazz, funnily enough. There’s even a little bit of rock now. We’ve also touched on English folk. During that period in the mid-2000s, we didn’t call the band Invaders of the Heart. Instead, we named it The English Roots Band, just to annoy the really conservative people—you know, those people enthralled with Cecil Sharp House. I knew they’d despise it and they did. I got letters of protest from people. [laughs]
You’ve released two recordings with Youth in the last year: Acid Punk Dub Apocalypse and A Very British Coup. Tell me about the confluence of history, music and politics the projects reflect.
I’ve known Youth for a long time. He popped up on the scene with Killing Joke. I met him when he was trying to get that going. I remember seeing them in Germany, working with Conny Plank, while I was working with Jaki Liebezeit. After I left PiL, Youth always said “God, you left? I couldn’t believe it. And then you were working with the guys from Can. How cool is that?” I was like “Yeah, I know, it’s great.” [laughs]
But I didn’t work with him until he came to a gig we did in 2014 in Brixton. We had a chat and he said he would like me to produce a band. He always has great engineers and people at his studio. I said “Yeah, maybe.” The next day, we were in the studio anyway, just for fun. It was at a studio called Intimate in London that I’ve used for years. I had some backing tracks and thought “Maybe this is good timing. I’ll give them to Youth.” They had a good shape, with A, B and C parts. I told Youth to make of them what he will, and he did a great job. We added tracks to what we already had and it came to fruition in 2015.
We did A Very British Coup around 2016 as well, with Mark Stewart. I was part of that from the beginning with the backing track. Mark had those lyrics about the Harold Wilson government for a while, which we discussed earlier. But of course, they make great sense for Brexit as well. Brexit is even more of a very British coup, if you think about it. It’s very English and very saloon bar. To say “Yes, let’s walk away from our biggest trading partner, the EU” is something any basic textbook on effective trade would tell you makes no sense—especially, whenever we get to post-COVID-19. But instead, it’s “Oh, we don’t need them. We’re going to be global Britain.” There’s this bullshit branding thing that’s part of it.
We sold off our public utilities and train companies, because it’s just about making money for the upper classes. That’s all they really care about, even though they say this is about getting back sovereignty and control. From what I hear, these Brexit people are gung ho, because they feel COVID-19 makes it a perfect period. They know the country is going to take a hit. There’s going to be quite a heavy recession coming because of Brexit, but now they can blame it on COVID-19.
You’ve been releasing a lot of online-only exclusives in recent times, including 2019’s Thames Symphony and 2020's Lockdown. Tell me about those releases.
I write a lot of stuff and the fact that I can make music, use a photograph I took for it, and just put it out online instantly is fantastic. It’s like releasing personal snapshots.
Thames Symphony is what you could call a hobby album. I did it on my own, on the side. I often go for walks and then I’ll sit on a train and compose on an iPad. I captured a certain, very vivid mood from those walks. I’ve done a lot of walks across the Central and West parts of the Thames during the last few years. I’ve taken a few photographs as well. When I get home, I put real bass and keyboards on what I’ve worked on at my little studio. I’ll also put a bit of percussion on it and build it up.
Thames Symphony is deliberately gritty and urban. It hasn’t got a proper symphonic structure, but it comes back to some common things, like a sax hook and other sequences. It modulates in a certain kind of way, which keeps coming back at you over and over again.
I also thought, "Oh, wouldn't it be fun to make an album in lockdown?” There's a uniformity to the Lockdown tracks. They’re pretty bleak. I was thinking about the deserted streets of Midtown and Manhattan in New York City. Somehow, I could hear this very sparse, slow, mournful music when I thought about them. The music starts with a barren landscape and then it cheers up a little and starts moving about a bit. It’s simple, melodic, instrumental music, with very together drums and bass, and interesting rhythms.
I saw a 2010 video on YouTube with you and Keith Levene, along with a Sex Pistols cover band singer who calls himself Johnny Rotter. This was right around the time you declined to participate in the PiL reunion. What can you tell me about the dynamics in play during that period?
It was very logical. I wasn’t doing it to cock a snook at John, particularly. It wasn’t a case of “Well, I’m going to get a lookalike and take the piss out of you.” The business of PiL was awful back in the day. There wasn’t management. Money went walkabout. I wasn’t looked after properly as well. It was really poor, so I fucked off and went and worked with Holger Czukay.
I met John Lydon in 2006 while on tour. He didn’t mention it, but I knew he was just meeting me to see if I was interested in PiL reforming. I knew there were big offers coming. So, I met him and wanted to confirm “Is this guy just the same as he was?” And he was very much the same person, very likely to do the same things. These sorts of tours involve taking in a million quid to begin with—and that’s not even taking into account merchandise. And so, the offer from his people to my people was £1,500 a week when gigging. That’s a week—not for each gig. And £1,000 a week when rehearsing. I pay my band more than that, if you average out what they get per gig.
Now, I’m not saying that’s a terrible wage for somebody, but at the PiL reforming level, and when you think about what happened in the past, John had a chance to put things right. He could have made everything right. But that was never going to happen. And no mention of merchandise was made. So, the business part of it wasn’t good enough. That was the first problem.
The second thing was the material. I knew he was going to want me to play some of that kind of lump of rock stuff he was doing under the PiL name in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. No way am I touching that with a barge pole. I’m not interested in that. And thirdly, I said to him at the time, “You should really talk to me about who you get playing drums and guitar.” I would have gone for Kelvyn Bell on guitar. I thought that would have been fantastic.
I thought we could do Metal Box, the early stuff, and make a new album—something that’s fucking astounding. And then we would go and play venues in an unusual way, because we’d be PiL, right? That’s what I would have done. But I knew none of that was going to happen.
People said to me “Don’t be so negative. You’ll be crazy if you don’t do it.” I said “No. It doesn’t matter.” In a way, I realized, the end of the Metal Box period was the beginning of a musical adventure for me. John and Keith Levene were drying up towards the end of that. Since then, John hasn’t done much music like that. I’ve continued to do, hopefully, kind of inspiring basslines since. I don’t think John has done that much really that’s been that far out or interesting.
Keith, of course, is such a talent with such a great harmonic sense. I said to Keith “You’ve just fucking wasted it. You’re one of the guys, but you wasted it through bad living.” So, we get to the point where we’re not going to do the PiL reunion, and Keith and I are talking. He contacted me around that time. People always think I told Keith to fuck off straight away after PiL, but I didn’t. I told him to fuck off in ’96, because there was junkie bullshit going on, you know? I should have told him to fuck off after PiL, because he was a snake then. Keith is a public school boy. He’s very well-versed in music. He’d never admit it, but I came to realize this guy has really been taught a lot about chordal theory. He’s learned a lot and is a bright guy.
When Keith approached me, I said “Are you clean?” And he did seem to be clean. So, I said “Look, let’s do something. Let’s do Metal Box live and we’ll call it Metal Box In Dub.” It kind of had that dub sensibility to it anyway. There was a very good trumpet player named Sean Corby I was playing with at the time, and I said “Let’s draft him in.” The reason I did that was because Kenny MacDonald, PiL’s tailor, played me Dark Magus right after we finished Metal Box. That’s when I’d heard Miles Davis’ electric period for the first time. It was amazing. Metal Box seemed like a one-off. It’s primal. It’s dark. It’s going beyond. It’s not mannered. It’s not bourgeois. It has a pent up anger. It’s quite imposing. There’s a dark force there. It’s not a million miles away from Dark Magus.
The thing at the time was the question “Who do we get to sing if we’re going to do Metal Box?” That’s how we ended up with Johnny Rotter. In fact, I said to him “Tone it down a bit, because you don’t need to do the parody thing.” So, we got it done and did half-a-dozen shows, including the Fuji Rock Festival in Japan. But the main thing is we had somebody that sounded like John.
It's funny, as I got older, my view on PiL has changed, broadened and deepened. I haven’t got an axe to grind with PiL. I’m just very thankful for that time I was there. We came together and did it. At the time, I was indignant. I thought “Fucking assholes. The music was working so well. You haven’t got a fucking clue. It should run better than this.”
Looking back, I came to realize “Of course, I had to leave PiL. We couldn’t have bettered that. That was the time. That was it. I had to leave because I’d done my bit.” John Lydon was an unbelievably important figure, culturally, as well as musically from ’75 to ’81. The Sex Pistols into PiL were important years. I knew John before it all started. I thought “Maybe he’ll go on to do something amazing.”
I often joke I was in a band with the two worst people in the whole universe. I’m tongue-in-cheek when I say that, because people are what they are. My life would be very fucking different if I hadn’t met Johnny Rotten, let me tell you. He was a very important person in my life, and Keith Levene in his own way, too.
Snake Charmer, your 1983 recording with Holger Czukay, Jaki Liebezeit and François Kevorkian was recently reissued. How do you look back at making it?
It was a fantastic time. I had just left PiL. I was very lucky because Angus McKinnon introduced me to Holger and Jaki. We also had the connection to Island Records and Chris Blackwell. François contacted me then too and he plays on it. So, we ended up making this really hip little record. I learned a hell of a lot on that record, because my eyes were wide open about how you did things. I was a fast learner about producing. I was very hungry in that way.
François was very much a drummer from a dance background. He was amazing on a LinnDrum. In fact, working with him was the first time I’d seen a LinnDrum. But there was a famous standoff between Jaki and the LinnDrum. Everyone was saying “This LinnDrum is amazing. It’s perfect.” Jaki said “There is a fault with it.” François said “What do you mean?” Jaki replied “It’s losing time.” Everyone said “It can’t be, because it’s a machine.” Jaki insisted “I tell you, you must study this. It is losing time. It is not correct.” He got really fucking pissed off with it.
The one thing I regret not recording is when Jaki did this very angry cross-beat over the LinnDrum beat. He was furiously angry. He was playing along with it and then a puff of smoke comes out of the LinnDrum and it suddenly fucked up and malfunctioned. It was literally like out of a science fiction film. A puff of smoke came out and it blew a circuit. I wasn’t recording when this happened. What he was doing was just mental. I loved what he was doing. It was one of the best beats I ever heard.
When we listened back to some of what we recorded, Jaki was absolutely right. The LinnDrum was losing a beat a minute. Most people wouldn’t have heard that, but Jaki identified it within 10 seconds.
When I left PiL, people said “It must have been terrible when you left the group.” No, it was actually a fucking party. [laughs] I was working in Cologne with Jaki, Holger and François. It was such an exciting time.
Czukay’s Full Circle from 1982 was also just reissued. What do you recall about making that album, together with Liebezeit, who is also core to that project?
It started as an EP in London. I met Holger and we went for a lovely curry with Angus. Holger said “At first, I was concerned, because you were drinking beer. Then you started to drink wine. I prefer wine drinkers.” I said to him “You should have been worried that I’m mixing the grape and the grain in the course of an evening. You should have seen what was coming, you know?” [laughs]
I took Holger to a studio in Goosebury, where I did some of the best PiL stuff. Forget The Manor and Townhouse Studios—Goosebury Studios was the place to be. The engineer Mark Lusardi played a big part in it, sonically, as far as dub goes. He’s a big part of why that record was successful. He was the unsung hero. He’s a bit of an outspoken guy. I remember one of our guys saying “Maybe we should try this for the mix?” And he’d say “No. What do you fucking know? Fuck off.” [laughs] He wasn’t diplomatic at all. He didn’t suffer fools.
Everyone liked the first track we put together and we thought we were onto something. I went over to Cologne, met Jaki and we did another three tracks to make it an EP and kept going from there. I was young at age 21—half the age of Jaki and Holger. I was a handful. I was a spirited kid, but I really hung on every word they said.
I remember Holger would say “Play first, talk later.” If Jaki ever said something about the music, it was “Play first, think later.” Jaki was a master musician and an incredible person. He had a certain power and concentration in every beat. Every beat was focused. When I play with drummers now, some of them think they’re better than they really are. They’ll be in time, but there’s a subconscious element to their playing that isn’t good. The whole thing should be an emanation of consciousness—you should be very conscious of what you’re doing. You should be very mindful of every beat. Jaki really had that. He was the engine room. He built things up. He wasn’t afraid to build things up very slowly, like the way an Indian musician would approach an afternoon raga. He had that control. He also had that triplet thing going on in the way African players do. He was a very weird guy and very deep. I used to call him “Rain Man.” He had this perfectionist streak about numbers and beats. He had a theory of beats that held up. It wasn’t some bullshit thing.
When I used to live in squats years ago, I’d always run into the crazy junkie—like a guitarist who smokes lots of dope, who’d say “I’ve got this theory of music I’ve written down.” And when you get into it, you just think “No, you’re just fucking mad. That’s not really a system.” I must have had that happen to me 50 times. You don’t want to be rude to people, but there’s no point. It’s an approach, not a system.
Jaki’s thing was a real system. You saw it in how he set his drums up in a semi-circle around him and how he played the bass drum with a beater, by hand. He dispensed with a pedal, which made absolute sense. Jaki’s bass drum approach had a more clipped, precise and economical quality. That was typical Jaki. He was always thinking about his approach.
I remember the last time I saw Jaki. The one thing he loved to do was smoke dope and watch TV. The last time I stopped by, we did a gig in Liverpool. I held him by the lapels out a window while he smoked dope, so he wouldn’t set the smoke detector off. We were seven or eight stories up. I said “You must really trust me.” He said “I trust you on and off the stage.” And then we went and did a fantastic gig. That’s my last memory of him.
Tell me about the forthcoming Family Album.
At age 61, I thought “The boys are playing really well.” Charlie plays erhu, a Chinese violin, sings and raps. John plays Western and Chinese drums, and yangqin, which is like a dulcimer. Both have one foot in the West and one foot in China. My wife Zi Lan plays guzheng. My family can really play. I felt “Let’s make a proper album now.” We did one called Chinese Dub together in 2011. So, it was time.
I also felt that events could come and overtake us all. I’ve been feeling like that for the past few years. I think it’s what happens at the end of all civilizations. They last 250-300 years. What was a compound comes apart in the end and I think we’re probably looking at that now. I thought “If something happened, we’d have a big regret. So, let’s do some great music while we’re all together.”
Chinese Dub was cooked up in the home studio. The Family Album is more of a Rolls Royce of a record. I wanted to take it to the max. It’s got music you could do Tai Chi to. It’s got modern Chinese pop. It’s got a couple of very old traditional pieces on it. It’s quite fusion-y. We’ve got traditional and modern instruments on there. It’s also got a very heavy dub element and a massive drum sound. I love how it turned out. It’s got some real deep stuff. It goes from yin to yang. The music is always rippling and changing, like reflections in the water.
In addition to being a musician and writer, you're a painter, with a profile elevating in prominence. Tell me about your interest in the visual arts.
I became friends with a guy called Mark Kennard who has a studio. I said “I really want to do something physical. I want to paint.” I had an idea to do something kind of impressionist—sunset-y kind of shit. I wanted to paint tower blocks. I had this image of three big tower blocks I grew up opposite of when I was a kid. So, I did that.
I also wanted to make geometric shapes, like the cover of my Everything Is Nothing album. I found creating that was a lovely way to spend an hour or two and have the rhythm of working, like making a track. I developed my own little system for getting a painting done over the course of 45 minutes to an hour.
And then, lo and behold, somebody saw the artwork and said “Do you want to do an exhibition?” Can you believe it? We did one in The Hague. For two solid years I was painting all the time. It tends to be an autumn and winter thing for me. I’ve got a lively little studio in Manchester now. I get there in the afternoons, walk up the canal with the dog, then go paint like mad.
Things seem so negative and bleak in the world. What’s something good or hopeful people can hang on to right now?
I think we have to look at ultimate reality and make sense of the world we live in. And you can’t just pick out some relative thing. The problem is we get stuck in crumbs of comfort and relief from suffering. So, one looks at that and comes to the conclusion that all phenomena is about suffering. All phenomena are impermanent. All phenomena lack a self.
I’ve heard the situation described as being in a hotel. We’re in a hotel and it starts to become quite crummy. So, we think if we get an upgrade, that’ll take care of the problem. But you can’t upgrade out of the state of the world. You can’t upgrade by making relative moves. You must have some realization beyond all of this. We happen to be in a really shitty period of history, granted. But there’s suffering anyway, even in the most sublime moments of life. There’s always a small degree of discomfort.
This is basically a Buddhist perspective. It’s not something I learned during a conversion on the road to Damascus. It gradually came in over the years. That’s why Buddhism is quite a radical message for me. It’s not a bland, wishy-washy thing. When I came to realize the relativeness of what appears and disappears in life, one starts to relax about it. There’s no point in moving the furniture around. It’s not going to stop the suffering.
So, if it’s all impermanent, that means I better get on with it. We’re all really lucky to be here. And as my mate Billy used to say, “We’re here, because we’re not all there.” That’s why we’re fucking here. Life could finish tonight for me, so I’d better show some urgency, right? If I’ve got anything to do, I better get it done. Impermanence means death, ultimately. How do I know it won’t come tomorrow? How do I know it won’t come in 10 minutes? That’s the thing that makes sense for me. I have faith that I’m very much a guy on the seeking path. I’m not a fully-realized person, but when you relinquish the ego, you are fully realized. And then, if worst comes to worst, hopefully I’ll have sown some good seeds. The next consciousness arises with good conditions again. Maybe better than this one.