Public Image Ltd’s Metal Box was an album that transformed the post punk landscape, Getintothis’ Banjo looks back at one of music’s masterpieces.
Ahead of a UK tour, Sun 13’s Banjo spoke to bass legend Jah Wobble about a busy 2020, Chinese dub and pushing the borders.
Jah Wobble is something of a renaissance man.
First learning to play the bass as part of John Lydon’s post-Pistols band Public Image Ltd, he has explored the edges of World Music, Dub, Post Punk and anything else that may have caught his magpie eye.
At the age of 62, Wobble still has a crowded diary for 2020, starting at The Cavern on January 16.
Before this, we spoke to him about his plans for the year, being a nuisance and Sinead O’Connor’s Chi.
Wobble is a talker.
Before our interview started properly, we had already been talking for getting on 10 minutes, taking in such subjects as commuting, cell phone coverage and cooking.
He frequently starts off on one subject only to be distracted by the ideas and connotations this subject sparks. He asks almost as many questions as he’s asked and seems genuinely interested in the replies.
An interview with Jah Wobble isn’t one-way traffic, it is a conversation.
is back catalogue is so large and diverse, that my first question is really to pinpoint what he will be bringing on his upcoming tour.
What’s your latest musical project, what are you bringing to The Cavern?
“I’ve just put it up on Bandcamp today, it’s an album called Ocean Blue Waves.
The title is from a painting I did and we’ll be doing a couple of numbers off that. There’s a number called Take My Hand, it’s kind of a rocky number, and then the title track of the album, which is very jazz-funky, but quite earthy as well, I don’t like over sweet jazz funk.
So that’s the latest project and then I ‘m doing a thing with the family. My missis runs the Pagoda Centre in Liverpool, so moved to Liverpool when she was about 13, 14. She’s a really, really good musician.
And my sons, one boxes a bit and the other’s a good footballer and we’re all musicians. And they play Chinese instruments and western stuff as well, so we’ve done a family album. We did one called Chinese Dub in 2008 and this is kind of like the follow up. It’s pretty fantastic mate, if I say so myself.
So I’ve got plenty going on.”
How is it making music with your family?
“Actually, it used to drive me up the wall, but this time it’s been fine. I’m 61 now and I think I found it a lot harder 11 years ago. And my boys were younger as well, so they might have been a bit naughty, but now everyone’s sensible and they know what they’re doing.
And the older I get the more I get on with my wife really, she’s easy going. There are times when you’re younger you know, you clash when you’re making music. And I defer to them with this, the Chinese melodies and stuff.
That’s how this all started, they would come back from Pagoda with this old Chinese melody, March of the Generals, and I would deliberately fuck about with it, change the arrangement. And everyone liked it and said ‘Do you want to do a record?’
And ever since then I’ve been thinking at some point we should do it again. And you never know how long you’ve got left, so let’s get it together now. So that will come out I suppose in Spring time.”
It’s going to be a busy year for you.
“Yeah. And I’m doing a thing in South London called Tuned In, which is a community project. A friend of mine works for Merton Council, he’s quite senior but he gives a toss, gets involved you know what I mean? So we hit the ground running with a load of people.
It was designed for old blokes, you know – divorced, used to play in punk bands, probably drink a bit too much, a bit isolated, living in tower blocks and all that and thinking ‘let’s get them out of their flats, get them active.’
The funny thing is though, we’ve got the old blokes, but we’ve got youngsters coming as well, we’ve got the homeless coming. And it’s a jam session, but it’s so successful we’re building a studio to record in and we’re running recording courses and I’m going to make an album.
It’s going to be a proper album and it’ll be in every way brilliant! I can’t wait to start that.
So I’m doing that Monday to Wednesday and I’ve got the shows booked in Thursdays to Saturdays. Sundays a Scrabble day. And we’ve got a few jaunts abroad planned so I’ve got to keep myself in nick. I’m a little bit scared of the schedule coming up.”
I first saw you playing at Manchester Belle Vue back in ’78 with Public Image, and you kind of grew up in public as a musician, didn’t you, you were learning you craft on stage back then.
“Yeah, very much. And when I left PiL I was lucky, I went to work with Can and everything and I had a strong idea about how things should work, what kind of shape the music should be.
I always speak in terms of shapes and patterns rather than chords, which I came to realise years later is quite a mediaeval way, early music way. It’s a very modal way. I think that came with the OCD I had when I was younger.
When I left PiL, apart from doing that stuff, working with Holger and Jaki, The Edge and Francois Kervorkian, I started working with The Human Condition with Jim Walker. That was a big part of learning my craft, playing live with the prototype Invaders of the Heart.”
I’ve gone back on Fender Precision now. That happened when I went over to America, I can’t be bothered travelling with a bass anymore and I got fed up with the Ovation because they’re so heavy.
So I travelled to Toronto and the promoter got me a really fantastic vintage Fender P and I just fell in love with it again.
All the old stuff was done on a Fender P, so I ended up sounding like I haven’t since back then, and funnily enough, it got me into the mindset I had then. And what I was thinking is how inventive I was back then and I’ve got that back again. More than I think I have for quite a while.
And playing with Tuned In as well. There are some very good musicians there and some of the players there are unique and they get you playing uniquely as well. And it’s got me enjoying it, it’s a fantastic rehearsal for me, it’s been quite inspiring. And it’s very inventive.”
Speaking of being inventive, we looked back at the 40th anniversary of Metal Box recently. What are your memories of making that record?
“PiL had a really good feel-good factor to start with, and then the drugs and drink started creeping in. I’ve probably talked about that a lot, so I’ll be careful not to dwell on that. I was part of that, I’m not in any way trying to be holier-than-thou or anything, but by the time we did Metal Box a lot of stuff had soured. But when we got together, we could rise above it.
So all this stuff about us being in the studio and absolutely hating each other wasn’t really true. I did get pissed off with people at the time. And with John [Lydon], John could be a bit lazy at times. But when he got on it, he was great.
With Keith [Levene], he’s very bright and I think I was half bright and we never had to talk much about it. When we came to Metal Box, there was no regular drummer and I think there was a feeling of ‘we can go to there, to here or we can just jump to there.
And ‘to there’ meant not being mannered, not being bourgeois, let’s just jump straight to the heart of the matter, do something very deep and very primal.
And John’s lyrics, like Careering, were fantastic. Poptones is my favourite. John came up with those lyrics and we knew it was something special. Very expressionistic.
I still like to learn more about art and music and I heard that visual art sets the scene, the impressionism or abstract expressionism, and music catches up with it 30 odd years later. And I think PiL were very much in tune with the 1950’s abstract expressionism, nihilistic and looking to break beyond formal structure.
So we knew it was a special kind of record and it was really out there. And I went on developing the bass.
When I left I thought ‘how ridiculous, we’ve got so much potential but it’s so crappy I’m leaving, we don’t work, we don’t do gigs, we’re just lounging about.’ But actually, I’ve come to realise we were done.
I don’t mean that the everyone else was done but I carried on, I don’t mean it like that, but we were done with that thing at that time, it was enough. It makes it more special that there wasn’t a Metal Box 2.“
After that you collaborated with a lot of people, Sinead O’Connor, Can, Primal Scream, The Orb. What sticks in your mind as producing the best music, or perhaps the best people to work with?
“Bill Laswell for sure. And I can tell you why, I can tell you a story. I’d known Bill for a while, maybe eighteen months, a couple of years, and we were talking about art and about Jackson Pollock, who he really likes.
And he broke into Jackson Pollock’s studio and he scraped a bit of paint from the floor, you can imagine what the floor was like, and he put it in a matchbox. He showed it to me and I thought ‘this geezer’s for real’ and a lot of people you feel are not 100% real, there’ll be soft soaping you a bit and they’ll try to convince you they’re a great artist, but he’s for real.
I’ve met some other great people, I’ve worked with Baaba Maal and Natacha Atlas, Sinead O’Connor, who I saw break a membrane on a mic, and it was the sheer supernatural power of Chi that broke it.
Jaki Liebezeit is the most amazing person I’ve ever worked with, we were hand in glove.
The last time I saw Jaki was in Liverpool and I held him out of a hotel window by his lapels while he smoked a joint, so he didn’t set the smoke alarms off.
I said ‘do you trust me?’ and he said ‘I trust you onstage and off’ and I held him while he smoked his joint.”
Do you change the way you play depending on who you collaborate with?
“Yeahhh, to an extent. You have got your own DNA, but if you try to get me to be Jaco Pistorius I just can’t do it. I haven’t got the musicality or the knowledge of keys, let alone the technique of running through those keys.
But you try and be amenable, you try to meet people halfway and kind of fit. But there are times where you’re working as a session player and you’re there to do a job and you might have to change your sound slightly and fit in a bit. Often the compromise will be not playing what you think is the better line, but you’re quite restricted.
And that’s where the likes of Paul McCartney, Ronnie Lane and Glen Matlock, they’re British bass players who are great at playing 4 chords imaginatively.
And Ashton ‘Familyman’ Barrett had that, he’s my favourite bass player. They were proper songs Bob Marley wrote and Ashton ‘Familyman’ Barrett would phrase the b-line along, he was the most musical of Jamaican bass players with his phrases.’
Speaking of Glen Matlock, there is something I’ve always wanted to ask you. Is it true that John Lydon originally wanted you to replace him after he left Sex Pistols, but the rest of the band were too scared of you?
“Apparently so, yeah that’s right, but nobody told me at the time. I was quite wild you know, I was a wear out, I was a nuisance and it would have been the biggest mistake ever. PiL was much better because I had a blank canvas.
When John disappeared, I knew he was hanging around the Kings Road and he came back to the college of further education where we were and I said ‘Where’ve you been?’ and he said ‘I’m in a band.’ And he might as well have said he was training to be a 747 pilot! So he was in a band and I went down a week or two later to see them rehearse and I thought ‘this is going to be fucking terrible’
’ve got that thing about being nice to people, being quite emphatic. I’m a narcissist but I do read situations and I know when to be nice, but I thought ‘it’s bound to be shit. Don’t tell him it’s shit’, so I was ready to tell him it was great.
When I got there the first person I saw was Matlock and I thought ‘fucking hell, he’s really good.’ He was the best one of them, the most musical, you know he could play tunes on the bass and knew what he was doing. He was great and kicking him out was a really mad thing.
They were a great band the Pistols and Matlock was a big part of that.
I see him occasionally, he’s a nice bloke. A bit taciturn, but I think everybody is from that generation of punk and post punk, in London especially. It was like they’d all been given the winning lottery ticket that was then duly torn up in front of them. None of them made any money, it was all a big disappointment, you know.
With PiL it was ‘wayyy, we’re in the top ten’ and I’d moved out of my squat back in with my mum and dad and everyone was saying ‘what are you staying there for, you’re on Top of the Pops?’, wondering where’s the money gone. And all I wanted was a bit of money so I could rent a gaff somewhere, that would have done me.
But I put my name down with the council and they gave me a ‘hard to let’ for two bob a week, which was fantastic, so that did me.
But [joining the Pistols] would have been a big mistake, it wouldn’t have worked well. The PiL thing was much, much better for me to develop.
It was a very fortunate situation, where you’re a rookie but the majority of what happens gets based around what you’re playing, it was fantastic, it built me up.”
And what a build up it was. I can think of no other musician who was placed at the centre of such a storm of expectation, attention and scrutiny while learning their instrument. The fact that Jah Wobble did this so spectacularly and that he came through it all with his sanity and credibility intact speaks volumes to the man’s character and the force of his personality.
I also struggle to think of a musician who has charted a course through so many different types of music and managed to make this part of his journey rather than some disjointed attempt at session work.
He seems to have arrived at a good place in his life, where the love of his family and his place in music allow him to be himself and to still make the musical journeys he loves.
What we can expect of his upcoming shows and what follows them is open to guesses, but you can bet your bottom dollar that it will involve one of our most genuine and idiosyncratic musicians doing what he thinks is right and what continues to push the borders.
Jah Wobble is a legend. The fact that he is also an engaging and thoughtful individual is just a bonus.