Jah Wob­ble

The leg­endary bass man looks back at his work with PiL, Can, Eno and more

UNCUT - - Contents - TOM PINNOCK

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.”


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.


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.


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.


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.


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!


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’.


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.


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.


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

uN­cut cLAS­SIc

An odd cou­ple: re­united with Keith Levene in 2012

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