Touching The Big Mind: Jah Wobble Interviewed

Duncan Seaman sits down with Jah Wobble for a career spanning chat about working with members of Can, Bill Laswell's "for real" theft of Jackson Pollock's paint spatters and Zen Buddhism

Jah Wobble portrait by John Hollingsworth

At 61, Jah Wobble seems to be going through a creative purple patch. In the past 12 months the one-time bass player with Public Image Ltd has released a string of singles, a four-track EP of ‘dub excursions’, a collaboration with Bill Laswell plus an album with his own band The Invaders Of The Heart, called Ocean Blue Waves.

“I’m always at it,” the East Londoner – born John Wardle – notes in geezerish tones. “Basically I’m kind of monkey mind guy, slightly OCD-ish, although that’s not been terrible, touch wood, for a good while. My mind can just go all over the shop, that’s why I got into meditation over the years, going right back to the early days with Public Image, it shut me up. It brings the alpha wave in, so making music really captures me.

“All you’ve got to do is put a bass in my hand and an iPad and I’m away. This time of year I get up late and think, ‘What should I do?’ I get the iPad out and I start a track and within ten minutes it’s taken me. Every track you work on is very different.”

Presently, this is a case of “going very much back to the vibe that I had at the beginning [when] I did everything on a Fender P” – an instrument he returned to when he resumed his working relationship with US avant-garde bassist and producer Laswell for the album Realm Of Spells. “In the gigs we did around then I couldn’t be bothered to lug my big, heavy bass about. I said, ‘Just get me a Fender P’ and they got me a lovely old classic Fender P and I just fell straight back in love with it. I play differently when I’m on it, I get more compositional, you do chromatic runs and all that. So I’ve gone very much back to doing the kind of lines I was doing with PiL, more imaginative, very simple, naïve, but they’ve got a kind of groove.”

With his two sons with his second wife, Chinese-born guzheng player and harpist Zi Lan Liao, now in their 20s, he has also found more time to devote to music. “When they were teenagers I really took my foot off the gas pedal,” he says. “They’re both really good musicians – I’ve done a family album with them, a sequel to the Chinese Dub that’s coming out this year – but when they were younger my elder boy was into boxing, with my younger boy it was football, so I’d be taking them round everywhere. I wanted to get that right and feel that I’d put a shift in. I was still busy, still doing stuff, but I wasn’t as focused as I’d been in years past.

“These last few years I’ve really been focused. I’ve got a great band – two of them are Yorkshiremen, [drummer Marc Layton-Bennett and guitarist Martin Chung], from Huddersfield – so we’ve got out and steadily done a lot of live shows and built everything up again, and we’ve just been enjoying recording.

“At 61 you realise you’re much closer to death than you are to birth – maybe not rebirth, that’s another thing – but you think while you’ve got the health and the faculties to do to it, to do it.”

Where ten years ago he might have done more esoteric things with a jazz ensemble or Japanese music, today he says there’s less room to “muck about" when playing live: “You can’t go out into leftfield territory too much, I’m afraid. You can touch on it but now’s the time you get people dancing and you do a show. The market dictates these things. We’ve done a couple of leftfield things this year but for a while that was completely out.”

Wobble’s musical partnership with Laswell began in 1988, after the American was played a cassette of his music by “Bill’s sidekick at the time”, Nicky Skopelitis. It led to the three of them meeting over a “memorable meal, we had Greek food at the Astoria in Queens” while Wobble was in New York looking for a US deal for the album. That in turn was followed by an invitation to play on Ginger Baker’s Middle Passage, which Laswell was producing. “They didn’t let me meet Ginger, they thought that was potentially too explosive,” Wobble recalls. “I did meet Ginger two years later then I realised why they feared it could be like a kind of atomic fusion situation because of his short measure.”

Wobble says he “really respects” Laswell. “He’s the real deal, an enthusiast, he’s a music freak at heart. He has a similar view on a lot of things. The thing with Bill is it’s very easy, you don’t need to talk lots, you kind of get it, so you can work on a level that’s pretty fast, which makes it fun. You don’t get bogged down in some analytical horseshit, everything is very methodical, very straightforward. Things sound great and he gets good players in. I was so lucky that I met Bill because it meant that I was up in New York playing with the likes of Bernie Worrell, Amina Claudine Myers from the Art Ensemble Of Chicago and Aiyb Dieng, the Senegalese percussionist.”

His favourite story concerning Laswell came a couple of years after they first met. “We were in the old Greenpoint Studio that he had and were talking about abstract art. Bill’s a bit of a painter as well, and we talked about Jackson Pollock. He enthused about him then he said, ‘Let me show you something’. He brought a matchbox out that he had. He’d broken into Jackson Pollock’s studio at some point, slept there the night, and scraped a load of paint from the floor and put it into a matchbox, and you think, ‘Ah, you’re for real’.”

In the early 1980s Wobble worked with Holger Czukay and Jaki Liebezeit of Can. “They were incredible,” he remembers. “I’d left PiL with mixed feelings, it was a relief to get out and I earned a bit of money as soon as I left PiL. In PiL, the business side of it was really dense, it wasn’t efficiently run, it was a pain in lots of ways, it was all over the shop. But we’d done this great record [Metal Box] and toured America. It was a shame because there was masses of potential there but I thought, ‘I’ve got to go, self-respect won’t allow me to stay.’ I got advances in for solo records suddenly and it was exciting and then the other side was, ‘That’s it though, it’s probably done for me.’ I’ve still got that negative side, every year I think the game’s up for me or this is probably the last year, what will I do as an old bloke? It’s probably healthy, it’s kind of realistic because life is impermanent.

“My mate Angus MacKinnon from the NME introduced me to Hildegard [Schmidt] and Holger. He said, ‘You’ve got to work with them.’ I met them and I got on with them. Holger said at the time, ‘I wasn’t sure about you at first, you were drinking beer but then you started drinking wine’ and I thought, ‘You got that wrong, son. You should’ve thought this geezer’s mixing the grape and the grain, never a good sign early doors.’ We went to Gooseberry Studios in London with Mark Lusardi, which is another reason why that particular track [‘How Much Are They?’], was so successful. Jaki wasn’t about so we used an old Roland rhythm box that I had. I’d written the track, it was just bass with string parts and Mark did what he does, which is make a standard backing track sound fantastic. He’d worked with Dennis Bovell, and it was my favourite studio at the time. Holger took the quarter-inch [tape] and edited it more like a movie editor would work, rather than a music editor, which was interesting. Everyone thought, ‘This is fantastic’, so I was flown out to Germany and met Jaki. He’s the most special person I’ve ever met in music, he’s a master drummer and our DNA codes really locked in somehow. Holger had studied with Stockhausen.

“I’m 21, both of them are 42, exactly double my age, and I listened to what they said, I hung on their every word. I was a gobby kid at times but I did listen and they could see I really wanted to learn. How lucky am I at 21? I’m absolutely overcome with musical fever at that time, which I’ve still got, that quest for the soundwaves, and they strengthened so many good principles in music – one of them is just to play freely, play first, think later, which is kind of Zen-like. Don’t fill your head full of fucking concepts and obstacles before you play. Can were all about finding your identity, they wanted to avoid Anglo-American pastiche, they were very much into finding your own way in music, so they were fantastic.

“Holger taught me a lot with recording techniques. I’d already done a bit with Mark, but Holger did this methodical thing with guitars – he would slow the tape down, get in tune with the guitar, then play it back at the normal speed. It makes all those guitars sound like balalaikas. If you listen to that album Movies that he did, the guitars sound like balalaikas, doing that range of Melodica, but they’re guitars. He could work all these fabulous harmonies out. So they were a revelation to work with at that time, it was just an intense training course of music.

“[My friend] Youth was working there at that time with Conny Plank and he said, ‘I couldn’t believe it. I knew you’d left PiL and the next thing you’re in Germany working with Holger. I thought this guy’s cool, he’s working with Can.’ I was very lucky, and then I went on to work with Francois Kevorkian [on the album Snake Charmer]. That was very fortunate, the dance thing was happening and he introduced me to that scene in New York. He brought Holger and Jaki into that session, of course, but we also had a New York angle on things. The Edge came from U2. It was a heady time, there was a lot going on.”

Jah Wobble portrait by Bertus Gersson

Wobble launched The Invaders of the Heart in 1982. “The first eponymously-titled album was in 1982, it didn’t sell very well,” he remembers. “I’d had a bit a luck doing records after I left PiL, but it’s funny, over 40-odd years, you have little periods where sometimes it’s great running a label, but within a year or two it can change because independent distribution is quite tenuous and this and the other. I found it hard to sell it, but it was one of the things I did then that was like a little nugget, it’s really ahead of its time, sonically it’s a mixture of East and West, so it was an exciting time and I was absolutely on fire. You hear sounds and music and you wanted to record things, and that continued for some little time.

“It was a great little period but it quickly changed because I was so out there, I was self-medicating to keep my mind in order, so you start drinking way too much strong liquor and you’re back on the powders again. When I left PiL I stopped taking the powders for probably three years and then when I was touring America I started again so it all went mental. You really start to not fire on all cylinders and the worst parts of your personality come out. So I went through that for a few years between 83 and 84 up to 86 and then got my house in order again and started Invaders Of The Heart again. That was when Neville [Murray] knocked on my door and said, ‘What’s going on?’

“My attitude was I’d behaved very badly over that two or three-year period. I’ve always been a bit lively but that was a bit much and I was surprised he wanted to do it again. Anyway, Neville says, ‘I’ve got this guy, Justin Adams, he’s an old Etonian.’ We started laughing, ah, the indignity of it, but actually it was an eye-opener. I wouldn’t have changed it for the world because working with him taught me a lot about old Etonians. He wasn’t the worst guy in the world, they have the best social skills going, they know how to talk smooth and how to react over stress and think on their feet, they’re taught all that and they’re born to rule, of course.

“That was the start of a lovely little period, to be fair. We went on to do the Rising Above Bedlam album and I ended up back on Island, which was fantastic. It was a great period, they’d been bought by Polygram and you knew it was going to change but for a year or two even though they had the back-up of a big company, they had autonomy. At that point it was wonderful because over that period from 83 when I was starting to get out of order to 86 I really lost a lot of time. I was unhappy, I worked as a minicab driver as well at that time, I was all over the shop, trying to keep things together and I really ended up lagging behind. It was at that point I caught up with myself. Suddenly I got back up, this is where I’m supposed to be. With the Take Me To God album I finally felt, ‘Do you know what, I’m an artist, not only am I a bass player, I’m a recording artist.’ For the first time you feel entitled to say that about yourself. You don’t go around Tesco saying, ‘I’m a major recording artist on a major label’ – although I would do that for a laugh, I could say that to people and they’d go, ‘Fuck off’. I still do it with the boys when we check into hotels – ‘I was a founder member of Public Image’, [and the receptionist] would go, ‘What the fuck are you going on about?’ It makes me laugh, anyway.”

Since that era “there’s been no looking back” he says. “I made a living from it and within reason I’ve been able to make just about any kind of record that I wanted, so I’m quite happy with it.”

Wobble’s latest album Ocean Blue Waves contains some of his most philosophical lyrics. His interest in philosophy developed while he was studying Humanities degree at the turn of the Millennium.

“When I started doing lyrics to my solo stuff at the time you wouldn’t take it too seriously, you’d just have fun. I remember with Betrayal it was like something out of Cosmo. I just took the main theme and it became a pastiche almost. It was from a magazine that someone had left behind, one of the backing singers from the session before. And I remember that night we needed some lyrics, ‘Let’s get something from here’, that David Bowie cut-up thing where you take words and mix them up.

“The first meaningful song was ‘Out Here In Isolation’. The first meaningful lyrics were late 70s, early 80s and then by the late 80s that developed and then going into the 90s ‘Visions Of You’ is about being in recovery.

“I went and did a degree as a mature student part-time and I think it puzzled a few people around me, they said, ‘What are you doing this for?’ It was the height of everything, but I was a bit fed-up, although I loved the music. I was well prepared for it, by then you’ve experienced life and you see the kind of bullshit you get around the situations. You’re a happening act and you get a lot of people manoeuvring around you, a lot of people who speak with forked-tongue and will say what you want to hear, you know you’re being soft-soaped, it didn’t bother me, but you just want to go and do something real for yourself. I loved it and where that influenced me was the philosophy.

“Some of the concepts I discovered there have further strengthened my view of the world in certain respects. Certain aspects of Western philosophy pushed me down the Buddhist road. Some of what I came across about all phenomena being impermanent, you start to look at the truth of the world. The Buddhist Dharma contains the truth about the world so that was the big influence there, but lyric writing to be fair, I think I was already up and running.

“We did an album based on William Blake [in 1996]. I did a little critique on the good and evil angels illustration that he did and I used that as part of the thing to get into Birkbeck and I remember two people interviewed me. One had that middle-class thing, I felt, ‘This is a working-class person’, you’re classified as thick. The other guy was more sympathetic, a nice guy, a brilliant academic. I’d done a pre-access course and the guy there said, ‘Look, you’re good enough’. I hadn’t been in a classroom for years. That took place in Hoxton before it was trendy. So I got in.

“There was a guy in the philosophy department who used to wear a cricket jumper around his neck. You learnt don’t engage with those people, it’s their world, you’ll rear up and revert to type. But of course there’s always enough lecturers to get a bit of growth. But we live in this ridiculous class system. It’s basically a system of apartheid in regard to education, so that’s why we end up with Boris Johnson and these sort of people running the show. They’ll do a cosmetic thing where they present a few state-educated people, these new MPs up north, but you know nothing ever changes really. They’re very smart, it’s smooth how things are run.

“But anyway, to get a degree, I fucking loved it. I’ve thought about going on to do either an MA or a PhD a few times but life’s been too busy. It was hardcore, I was running the label, our first son had just been born in the middle of it all, it was quite intense, but I loved it and it was the philosophy that turned me on as much as anything and set me gradually down that Buddhist path.”

At the end of last year Wobble exhibited some of his paintings at a gallery in the Netherlands. Painting, he says, has become an additional form of expression. Things took off when he rented a cheap studio in Manchester, initially to write lyrics but, gradually lured by “the smell of the paint” from an artist he became friends with, he decided to try his hand at painting too. “I’d seen one or two musicians paint and I thought, ‘Just fucking do it’, so I started. I’m a very clumsy guy, I couldn’t ever be a fine artist, like I couldn’t ever be a fine technical bassist like Jaco Pastorius, it isn’t in my make-up. I knew I wanted to smear stuff with sponges. I like impressionistic art and I wanted to do that just for the fun of it, but also what I wanted to do, and it was very similar to when I first played bass, is to geometrical shapes, sequential patterns, symmetrical and asymmetrical, because I knew I’d find that calming. I make these mosaic patterns.

“Youth was painting too and he said, ‘Show me what you’re doing’, so I did, and he said, ‘It’s perfect for this cover’ and that got spotted by Angie [van der Helm], curator [at the HOK Gallery] in The Hague, and she said, ‘Do you want to do an exhibition?’ She came to the studio and I let her choose some paintings, they put them up on the wall and she sold them.

“I’ve got a thing about tower blocks. I think because Bradmore, Wickham and Ewhurst House dominated the skyline where I grew up. In Stepney in East London after the Blitz we had loads of tower blocks, we lived on an estate near them. In those days, apart from the Ronan Point disaster, where there was an explosion with the gas, at that point you didn’t have raging fires in council flats, there wasn’t any cladding. If there were any fires I don’t remember any of them spreading because the whole thing was concrete. It’s mad the way the world’s gone now.

“The thing that I keep coming back to is tower blocks with the sun coming up behind them, I was fascinated with it. They’ve got little echo systems around tower blocks where the wind used to really pick up, it’s the same as when you put your finger over a tap. My aunt Mary lived in Bradmore House near the top and you could look out over the docks from there. I’m glued to this kind of architecture. And architecture was a thing that was imposed on you, your environment was very much fashioned by that, and I think it influenced dub. To me, I somehow always imagined the space in between buildings and what that meant and what space meant. It has no beginning, where does it come from, where does it stay, where is its location, where does it cease? Is it existent, is it non-existent, is it in time and space, does it create time and space? What is this thing? One thing’s for sure, it’s not a malignant force. I don’t know if it’s completely neutral because it seems to pulsate with compassion at times almost. It’s luminous, it casts light, a bit like that Tarkovsky film Stalker, you can’t ever get a direct way to it, you’ve got to go through a number of procedures before it happens.

“We’re very lucky as musicians because we can touch on that thing. The Zen Buddhists call it ‘big mind’. I don’t know if you can really define space as because it’s similar to mind, you can’t say, ‘it’s like this, it’s like that’, you can’t invent concepts on it. It’s space and things are born from it somehow. That’s why dub meant something to me, you’re going from a relative state, this Brutalist architecture, into an ultimate state. It encompasses a relative state anyway. With the art, I like the smell of the paint, the primal thing of getting it all over your hands and smearing it, I find it quite therapeutic.”

Ocean Blue Waves is out now. Jah Wobble and Youth’s Acid Punk Dub Apocalypse is out via Cadiz on February 28. The Invaders Of The Heart are on tour now. More information here

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