The legendary bass man looks back at his work with PiL, Can, Eno and more
Album By Album with the bass Invader
With three records lined up for release after his new double album, The Usual Suspects, Jah Wobble has a lot to look forward to – but the bassist, band leader and founding member of Public Image Ltd is always considering retirement. “I’m still enjoying it as much as ever,” he says, “but it’s healthy to be happy not to outstay your welcome as soon as you’ve dried up or the world doesn’t wanna know.”
After burning most of his bridges in the late ’80s with his wild behaviour, the always-curious Wobble has reinvented himself as a learned polymath, as interested in psychogeography and modal jazz as he is in Cantonese folk music. “It’s an interesting world out there,” he marvels. “Even back in the day, I was into stuff. Eventually, in my thirties, I realised, ‘Oh, this is it, I’ve actually become a recording artist, isn’t that wonderful?’ Now I’ve started painting, and I feel like I’m an artist, generally.” Today, Wobble is delighted to discuss some of his finest records, from PiL’s
Metal Box, via collaborations with Brian Eno and Can, to his new album with the Invaders Of The Heart. “You’ve gotta earn your rite of passage somehow,” he says. “Half the joy is just joining up all these dots, philosophically and spiritually and musically. It’s wonderful.”
PUBLIC IMAGE LTD FIRST ISSUE VIRGIN, 1978
The first PiL album, a fiercely adventurous mix of punk, dub and avant-garde, featuring Wobble’s first bassline and biggest hit JAH WOBBLE: I had my head round the business side of it pretty early, and I thought, ‘Well, we can go to The Manor and pay £1,000 a day then, or we can come to Gooseberry Studios and pay the equivalent of about £200 a day.’ The engineer is the most important thing, and we had Mark Angelo there, who went on to be my engineer for many albums. We eventually ended up at Wessex, where I think we did “Public Image”, the single. John Leckie was there and apparently I mugged him, which was a bit horrible – but I’m friends with John now, he’s a lovely bloke. We did “Fodderstompf” at Gooseberry. That was at the end, there was no money left, so we went to this cheap studio. But of course “Fodderstompf” sonically is fantastic. I’d played bass for a couple of years before, on and off, and I’d developed an approach based on geometry – I’d make geometric shapes on the fretboard. So I developed a style that’s a little like the kora, the African harp. It’s determinedly modal and quite Early Music-ish, there’s a lot of octaves and fourths. With PiL, we were too wild to be bourgeois, having middleeights and all that. We started out with “Public Image” – so I always feel that the very first bassline I ever came up with was commercially successful, and then it’s been an incredibly slow descent since! Everything started with the bass, then it would be drums or guitar. Me and Keith [Levene, guitar] never really hung out, but when you put us in a room something would always happen. He knew where I was coming from. The icing on the cake was always the lyrics – they weren’t always forthcoming, though, which is why there’s instrumentals on Metal Box.
PUBLIC IMAGE LTD METAL BOX VIRGIN, 1979
An hour of pioneering post-punk, featuring stunning basslines from Wobble on the likes of “Poptones” and “Albatross” By this point, Keith was struggling to do anything meaningful. I think his issues with heroin were getting more profound, he was going off to score more and more. He was like, “It’s easier to do this on a synth.” When John [Lydon] put the vocals down, it was like, “Wow, that’s incredible, that’s wonderful.” Really good lyrics you could read in different ways. You knew he was really on the zeitgeist.
I remember the making of “Poptones” well. We were at The Manor, there was nothing going on, but I was desperate to work. So I would go off to Gooseberry, where I laid down things like “The Suit”, and the bassline for “Poptones”. I brought it back to The Manor, and Karl Burns from The Fall – a really good drummer – started playing an uptempo, punky beat. But Keith was like, “Nah, fuck that.” And he got on the drums and played that [slow beat] big ride cymbal. Of course he was a bit out of time, but it made it better, loose, something else.
Around that time I went out with John and Nora [Forster], and Joe Dever, who had a Japanese car. So we were driving through the woods
in this car, it was really hot, the road was melting and you could smell it – we’d been up for days, coming down. The news was this kidnapping had gone on. So that’s the most vivid PiL song lyrics-wise, ’cos it’s all about being in that car. “The
cassette plays poptones…” We went to a country funfair that day, and I got banned from the ball-throwing things ’cos I’d just knock ’em all down and win all the prizes! When John then put the lyrics down, it really resonated with me. “Fuckin’ ’ell, this is something else.” Because we didn’t have a producer, everything was pretty natural.
The thing about them not being happy about me using PiL backing tracks on my solo album [1980’s Betrayal] only came out after – they had to say something after I left. There were a lot of pharmaceuticals around and a lot of bad calls being made, so I phoned John and said I was leaving. There were a lot of people that shouldn’t have been allowed to hang around the group, too many energy vampires. At the end of the day, all these bands – PiL included, for all its avant-garde business – Spinal Tap! It’s as simple as that. It could have gone on, we could have done more without a doubt. Two albums is better than none, though, isn’t it? And maybe that makes it all the more special.
HOLGER CZUKAY, JAH WOBBLE & JAKI LIEBEZEIT FULL CIRCLE VIRGIN, 1982
Wobble teams up with the Can members for this eclectic, groovy set of explorations So I’d left PiL, and I was working with Sidney Carter. He introduced me to Holger and [Irmin Schmidt’s wife and Can manager] Hildegard – obviously I was aware of Can, and I got on with them. We decided to do a recording, so I took Holger to Gooseberry, because of Mark Angelo, and that’s where we did “How Much Are They?”. It worked fantastically well, and I used my Godwin string synth. I’d worked out some basic string parts, and Holger thought they were naïve but groovy. He added some French horn. Then I went to Germany and we made an EP, and we dedicated it to Ian Curtis. I met Jaki Liebezeit there, and wow – a fantastic person, I thought the world of him. They were sound fanatics, and so was I by that point. I’d hear rhythms everywhere, I was besotted with music. Of course, I was into the whole collage thing [that Can and Czukay did]. I went to see Stockhausen around that time. I was like, “This is a million times better than seeing a fucking band!” Then we made Full
Circle into an album. I think Hildegard probably encouraged that – she always used to talk about “making the maximum from the minimum”. Working with Holger, there wasn’t that preciousness, it was just about going with the moment… what I’d wanted a bit more of in PiL. We’d record and then Holger would chop it up. He taught me a lot about editing.
JAH WOBBLE PSALMS WOB, 1987
Inspired by a host of world music, Wobble creates this genre-bending record after nearly destroying his career and himself Since I’d left PiL, I stopped taking powders, but I was drinking too much. We went to America and I started taking coke again in LA. Everything started going mad, I was drinking too much – Hemingwayesque, you know what I mean? By the time ’85, ’86 came round, I was in a bit of a mess. My star had plunged, suddenly I was becoming too hot to handle, I could be really abusive. I’d had warnings off Jeffrey Lee Pierce from the Gun Club: I’d looked at him years ago and thought, ‘This cunt’s got a problem, fuckin’ ’ell, look at him…’ Well, Jeffrey Lee Pierce said to me, “I’m telling you, you’re dying, you carry on how you’re going…” I was drinking bourbon at breakfast in Rotterdam. The ironic thing is Jeffrey cleaned up, but he died. I’d demolish walls in hotels to make one big room when I knew someone from the band was next door. We went to Glasgow, and I decided I didn’t want to go back, so I slashed the tyres of our bus so we couldn’t go back until the next day, then made a big play of saying to the driver, “Fuckin’ Jocks, they’re mad, in’t they?” But he knew it was me all along. Psalms was an interesting record because it was a precursor of all the world music mélange stuff that I went on to make in the late ’80s and ’90s. It’s pretty accomplished, and you’ve got Bim Sherman, Julianne Regan. In the middle of this LP, I stopped drinking, then went back on it. I stopped drinking fully on October 23, 1986, I went to AA, and tried to make it good with people. I had high hopes for Psalms – it did OK. I went off and got a job on the Underground. Then we started Invaders Of The Heart, and we did a proper European tour when I was able to take a month’s holiday from the Underground. I said, “I wanna add more Middle Eastern influences, maybe an Arab player.” [Drummer] Neville Murray said, “I do know this guy, but you’re not gonna believe it, he went to Eton.” And I said, “Oh my God, no!” But it ended up it was Justin Adams, and that’s where we started the thing going again. Not long after that, [single] “Bomba” happened. We got a deal with Oval and Warners/EastWest and we suddenly had a successful record with Rising Above Bedlam and I had the chance to work with Sinéad O’Connor. I wrote “Visions Of You” with her voice in mind.
JAH WOBBLE HEAVEN & EARTH ISLAND, 1995
Wobble teams up with Pharoah Sanders and his future wife, Zi Lan Liao, for this album, featuring the 15-minute epic “Gone To Croatan” With Island, it felt like I was going home again. It was incredible to work with Pharoah Sanders. With “Gone To Croatan”, I think [producer] Bill Laswell wanted something like “Poptones”, that kind of bassline. Then Pharoah did his thing, and I think Pharoah was quite surprised – I caught him looking at me a few times, like ‘Fuck, who’s this guy? This fuckin’ white geezer playing these African
things…’ There was another track on there, “Hit Me”, which is a kind of jazz-funk thing. I said, “Bill, as well as this heavy one, I wanna do something in the style of Johnny Handy, more commercial.” My wife’s playing Guzheng, Chinese harp, on the title track, and my father-in-law, Kui Hsiung Li, too [on bamboo flute] – he was a very taciturn man, he didn’t suffer fools at all. That was the first time he’d played with me, and apparently in Chinese he said, “Actually, he’s not a mug, is he? He knows what he’s doing, this is a good track.” I remember everyone in the studio was amazed, ’cos he killed it. “Dying Over The Ocean” is some image of the West Country, and it was a subliminal influence from British saxophonist John Surman, who did Road To Saint Ives, very modal. A lot of this was written on a QY20 MIDI sequencer. “Divine Mother”, I wrote that on sequencers and then I played drums on it. I remember someone slagging it off in a review, but saying, ‘Of course, Jaki Liebezeit’s drumming is superb on it.’ I was like, ‘Well, hey, that wasn’t Jaki, that was me…’ So I learned well from the master!
JAH WOBBLE & BRIAN ENO SPINNER ALL SAINTS, 1995
Invited by Eno to collaborate, the pair create an ambient-dub conceptual record through an unusual process Eno comes in the dressing room and wants to work with me, but there was this caveat with it – he says, “I’m gonna give you these tiny snippets of music from a movie I did with Derek Jarman [Glitterbug].” I thought, ‘Oh God, we’ve gotta jump through some existential hoops here, but OK, no worries…’ A lot of the stuff Eno sent me reminded me of Schoenberg’s ‘Six Little Piano Pieces’, which I’d studied as a mature student at Birkbeck. So I knew where Eno was coming from – I did think, ‘Why don’t you come in the studio with me, and we’ll make a really great record?’ But it’d be too easy, so there was all this existential stuff… Around that time, journalists would go and meet him and Brian would be blindfolded – “Are you there? Oh, yes, come in. I’m just denying myself the sense of sight…” And you think, ‘Oh God, I’d gutpunch him just for a laugh…’ So there’s a little bit of that [in Spinner], but you know that’s gonna come with the territory. He sent me this fax saying, “Oh, I wish you’d treat me a little bit more like a Moorish maiden…” And you think, ‘Mate, you’ve given me these tiny snippets, literally a few seconds long, so fuck off. If you wanna make something Middle Eastern, let’s get to it, no fuckin’ problem, mate…’ It was like those weird chef programmes in the afternoon, where you have, like, one chicken fillet, one onion, a lemon, a bit of carrot and some flour and butter, and you’ve gotta make a really good dish. It’s actually lasted incredibly well, though. The title track is my favourite on the album. At the time I was doing a lot of walks up the Thames and up the Lee Valley – there were still a lot of areas that were derelict, so I’d get this vibe in my head, and I composed these tracks for that dreamscape. I might have even suggested to Brian that we call it ‘The Lee Valley’.
JAH WOBBLE AND THE CHINESE DUB ORCHESTRA CHINESE DUB 30 HERTZ, 2009
Encouraged by his wife and sons, Wobble creates this singular take on Chinese folk My boys, John and Charlie, play in a Chinese orchestra, so when they were young – nine or ten – they’d come back with my wife Zi Lan [Liao], they’d be buzzing with the music they’d been playing, things like “Command Of The Generals”. I’d just fuck around with these tunes, put in all these silly fills – they’d be like, “Dad, that’s not how it goes, it’s wrong!” I’d wind ’em up. My missus would say, “You actually like that tune. Do you want to record it with the orchestra?” So I said, “OK, we’ll record a couple of tracks.” She got a bit of money to do it, and then said, “People are showing an interest, would you do a live show?” I said, “Fuckin’ ’ell, it’s a lot of work, you’ve got to rehearse and that…” But she said we could use Chinese singers and other performers, so we found these incredible mask changers from the Sichuan opera tradition – amazing. I recorded some of these tracks in my little studio with Zi Lan and the boys, and I did some stuff with the orchestra using real dub drums. I kept the original Chinese melodies, most of them Cantonese, and instrumentation, but set that jewel in a dub stone, so to speak, with simple bass and drums.
JAH WOBBLE & KEITH LEVENE YIN & YANG CHERRY RED, 2012
Wobble reunites with Levene for live shows and this one-off record People think I fell out with Keith when I left PiL, but I fell out with him about ’96, a long time after. But he was getting back in contact, kind of straight, so I thought, ‘Let’s just see if we can make a few shows happen.’ We did Village Underground in London and that was amazing. Shame we didn’t tape it – we had Eel Pie Mobile down there, but the police wouldn’t let them hang the wires for 60 yards. I brought a trumpet player in, like ‘Let’s get this a little bit Dark Magus-y, so it’s Metal Box, a dubbier vibe to it, but it’s also got that Miles-ish thing as well.’ We did George Harrison’s “Within You Without You”, turned it into a 7/4 thing. I expected it to be complicated [working with Keith], so after those shows and the album I thought we’d call it a day. But at least we’d gone out and recorded together again, and that’s cool. But it was getting complicated, as it will always do with him. Some of it is just down to his personality, to be honest.
JAH WOBBLE & THE INVADERS OF THE HEART THE USUAL SUSPECTS 3MS MUSIC, 2017
A double album showcasing Wobble’s spirited Invaders, trying out new takes on “Public Image”, the Get Carter theme and more This band’s really energetic, really game. There was a feeling while recording this that it’s quite similar to the original concept of the Invaders Of The Heart in the early ’80s. We did it at Smokehouse, aka Intimate, and I thought it was like being an old weaver – how long will all this stuff last, being able to go to a proper studio with an analogue desk? So I thought, let’s get this record out and make it classy. They are top-notch players, the best since the original lineup. But how long can you keep a great band like that together? We did Everything Is Nothing, a new album, last year, and we have another two or three LPs ready to go after this, believe it or not! There’s a psych double album coming out in January, really crafted, great musicianship, but not an ounce of fat on The Usual Suspects. We did a minor-key version of “Public Image”, which is very punchy. We’re playing two-and-ahalf-hour shows, to people who don’t want us to get off the stage, so it’s all good. I took my foot off the gas pedal a few years ago, so I could be around for my sons. But now they’re older, I’ve really upped the ante and I’m back working pretty hard again.
The Usual Suspects is released on June 30 by 3MS Music
“It will always be complicated working with Keith… Some of it is just down to his personality”
Unholy trinity: PiL in 1978 – (l-r) Keith Levene, Jah Wobble, John Lydon
An odd couple: reunited with Keith Levene in 2012