How can you encapsulate the essence of the Jah Wobble experience for beginners and long-standing fans alike? The release of `Redux’ – a sumptuous six CD Boxset anthology, complete with mini-book of sleeve-notes – would be a pretty good start. Containing the old, new and reworked, it’s not the complete works of, but something of a six course banquet to feast on, covering work in genres as diverse as Punk, Jazz, WorldBeat and Ambient.
As a musical force, both live and in the studio, Jah Wobble – real name – John Wardle – has long-ignored fads and fashions to follow his own inimitable journey. There’s a consistent thread that runs throughout his work that’s gathered him a large and loyal following: that of quality musicianship (both from him and his chosen co-contributors) and the unmistakable originality of his dub-inspired bass sound, whether it be the Post-Punk-Modernity of PiL or his East-Meets-West Worldbeat sounds.
`Redux’ was originally scheduled for release in March and we met up with John at an earlier warm-up gig for his current tour at Hebden Bridge Trades Club. It’s pre-gig chaos in a tiny dressing room filled with the latest incarnation of his band, the Invaders of the Heart. There’s loads of laughter and banter, mostly inspired by Mr W’s quick-fire, dry sense of humour. He is affable and down-to-earth, appearing ever the old-skool East End Geezer with his trilby and shirt braces, but you get a sense that a less-obvious element to his demeanour is the always-on-duty maestro, quietly organising, directing, thinking.
So new band of Invaders of the Heart and new tour… new material too?
“No, too old to be bringing out new material now,” John says deadpan, before grinning. “Yeah, actually we’ve got tons. Jamie’s got me to do a new version of `Public Image’, so that’s down to him. (Jamie Crossley, sequencing Invader, also of Marconi Union) I said `no, I couldn’t possibly do that!’ He said `But in a minor key!‘ So yeah, we done it. With the boxset it is a proper `Redux’ – meaning `revisited’ – because we’ve gone and done another version of `Visions’ and `Becoming Like God’ too.
“There’s an album of covers with George and Marc (King and Layton-Bennett, Invaders keyboardist and drummer respectively) like the `Sweeney theme’ and `Midnight Cowboy’. There’s also an EP, a white vinyl 10 inch for record store day as well.” He fiddles with his i-phone. “and a track called `Hey Ho Psycho’ (appearing on Redux and the B-Side of new single Merry Go Round as `Let’s Go Psycho’). Here we go, this is an MP3 of it. This is the real me, Punk… I realise all the Worldbeat stuff was a big mistake now,” he says to guffaws of laughter all round.
With its political rant-rap `Let’s Go Psycho’ sounds slightly Crass (the band, not the adjective!) in its anger, with a hint of tongue-in-cheek. Speaking of that `anarchic’ era, it’s interesting that all the original members of PiL – with the ironic exception of John Lydon – have continued with what for me was the true legacy that emerged from Punk: That of a take-back-control DIY approach to the music industry rather than being enslaved to Corporate Record Company. Jah Wobble seems to have embraced this ethos early on via his own label 30 Hertz Records, now homed within Cherry Red.
“Yeah, I’ve been doing that for years, a long time… but I think you really have to nowadays. Everyone is doing it for themselves now, simply because they can’t get record deals. It’s a very different business compared to what it was back then. It’s not as easy at all to sell hard-format music. Vinyl’s come back a bit, but nothing like it was.
“People have to go out and play live and do it themselves, get gigs and sell stuff in order to hustle a living… it’s a lot tougher. Even older legacy kind of acts are having to do it now. And actually if they do it smart – because you can publicise yourself now a lot easier now and a lot of the production costs have come down – you’re better off to do it yourself, because you’ll take more without it getting syphoned off. Nowadays you can reach your niche audience without needing a big corporate company, and sell yourself directly to them.”
He also refers to his need to be independent of the corporate music industry within the detailed sleeve notes of `Redux’, giving the impression it would have stifled him. He also seems to have shunned the usual band set-up since the PiL days. For the same reason?
“Damage Manual was going to be one… I quite fancied it, 10-15 years ago. I thought that might be a laugh to be in a group again and not have to worry about doing everything. But then the people you’re in a group with go and do stupid things!
“If you can make your own thing happen, that’s what everyone in a band dreams of, but I actually got kind of forced down that road. And what fun, when you can put together a band like this,” he gestures to the various Invaders seated nearby, “that’s got real verve and imagination and all sorts of differing aspects to it.
“It’s much more interesting than just being in one of those bands that are like one of those unhappy marriages. They start looking like each other, getting all grumpy and can’t live with each other, but can’t live without each other either. Married couples stay together for the sake of the kids, but they stay together for the sake of the money coming in. I’m not saying all bands are like that, but there’s a fair few.”
Was PiL a marriage of convenience at any point?
“No, never! Not even for two minutes, because it was just very genuine. I knew John, we were mates, we come together, the punk thing happened, he got in the Pistols… then he formed PiL and I was in that with him and Keith. We were just these three geezers floating round London. As it got fucked up, I stayed in it in the last couple of months just to go to America and I knew I was going to go… but it never felt stale.
“The only situation I stayed in where it was doing my head in was the last straight job I had, working in a glass warehouse. It was horrible and I ended up in trouble there. That was about 26-27 years ago. If you can be your own creative force going forward in life, then why not, you know? If PiL hadn’t been as dysfunctional, I would have stayed with it.”
I was lucky to be here at the Trades Club for one of a handful Metal Box In Dub gigs Jah did with Keith Levine. A really powerful and memorable event, both musically and visually. With typical humour, he got Nathan Maverick from The Sex Pistols Experience in to do vocals. Somehow he transcended the pastiche to effectively out-Lydoned the original with his riveting performance. He also appears on vocals on the `Yin and Yang’ album.
“Yeah, Nathan is really good, but he’s kind of more busy than everybody else doing the other thing! Otherwise we’d do more stuff with him.”
There have been various spats and in-fighting between the original PiL members, both past and present. What do you think of Keith’s crowd-funded project to release his version of PiL’s `Lost 4th album’ `Commercial Zone’ and all the ensuing drama surrounding it?
John shrugs. “Good luck to him. I don’t really have a point of view on it. I didn’t even really care what happened to it 30 years ago, to be honest! I left Public Image in 1980 and it had a side to it that was a bit of a circus really. You do records and then you don’t listen to them again for years on end, so I didn’t listen to `Metal Box’. When I came back and started playing some of the songs again, I was surprised thinking `well some of this is really good’. It was actually really clever and very musical in a way.”
Martin my partner who is a huge Wobble and PiL fan interjects: `I remember standing in The Rainbow (Theatre, London) in ’78 and even after the punk stuff, I’d never hear anything like that. It was incredible for its time and it still stands out.’
John nods. “And what you saw back then with punk was pretty special, cos it was only like that for 5 minutes and it was over. Punk itself only lasted 8-9 months really. It really started really brewing up Spring and Summer ’75 and really kicked off with that hot summer of ’76. By about March ’77 it was really getting ugly and we’d got bored with it anyway.”
Important and innovative as his work with PiL was, Jah Wobble’s solo and collaborative career since has created a catalogue of music that is as inventive as it is diverse. A delicious hybrid fusion of dub, West-East and elsewhere. Where did that World-music influence originally come from?
“I just like music from around the world and I ended up listening to music on Radio Cairo on short-wave and was just captivated with it. I’m just very curious. With some of the stuff I like, they tend not to have harmonies, and they have pentatonic scales and stuff.”
Did it encourage you to travel and go to the places where that music was being created?
“I think you can find the world in your nut – in your head – so although I have done, I don’t think you need to travel to do it really, I’m not really a traveller. Today I heard me and my wife (Zi Lan Liao) playing together on some travel thing on the BBC. I said to her do you like this track and she said yes, is that you playing bass? And I said yeah and that’s you playing as well! She plays gu zheng (Chinese harp/zither) and my eldest boy plays too.”
Did your wife introduce you to a lot of traditional Chinese music? Is that how Chinese Dub came about?
Yeah, but her dad did as well, he died last year unfortunately. He was a musician too so they played a lot. All the stuff on Chinese Dub, a lot of the basic melodies, I first heard the Youth Orchestra play and could hear the bass in it. I thought about how I could add dub to it and that’s how it started.”
There’s some great photos and sleeve notes in the boxset written by John which explore the influence of his family on this album in depth. Alongside Redux there’s upcoming tour dates and a new single – Merry Go Round – the possibility of a film role… not to forget his adventures with social media (“It’s all on Twitter now, innit?”) and I believe you’re writing a novel as well?
“I’m writing a psycho-geographical novel.”
“I’m hoping it’s possibly one of the worst books ever written,” he states to reverberating laughter round the room. John grins before continuing “because it kind of falls in-between lots of different stalls. It could possibly be so bad, it’s good.
Presume that’ll be self-published too then?
“I dunno there might be a publisher out there who’ll take it. But probably no-one else will and I can’t be bothered to hustle. It was tough last time. My memoirs originally got taken on by a proper big book agent but they started saying things like (affects posh voice): `The good news is that you can write, but you can only write 75,000 words, no more, maximum. Or you’ll have to either edit it or pay for one. And as you only have 75000 words, you really have to kiss and tell.’
“I did actually get and pay for an editor and he started saying things like `well all this stuff about childhood… everybody’s childhood is the same, so I think that has to go’. So I said `tell you what mate, fuck off. Keep the £300 quid and destroy what I sent you. Then I turned round to the agent and said right, you’re off the case, I’m going to do this myself. She was in shock. No-one had ever said that to her.
“I just thought fuck it I’d rather do it myself and sink… and then a geezer called John Williams heard about it from Charlotte his wife – sadly she died a short while ago. She picked up on it somehow and liked it and passed it on to him who then got Serpents Tail to do it. And I got the rights back which is very unusual.”
So perhaps this is the essence of Jah Wobble. Uncompromising in the very best sense. Staying true to his values, creative and otherwise even if it means turning his back on the corporate big bucks.
The interview ends as its time for him and the Invaders MKII to take to the stage for what turns out to be a yet another electrifying barnstormer of a gig. A packed-out venue, everyone dancing, smiling ear-to-ear. Jah Wobble makes great music that demands regular re-visiting. It may be easier to download or stream, but investing in the hard-format luxury of Redux is a must, as is catching the live show. Don’t deny yourself hearing the real depth and textures of the music as it’s meant to be heard, in its entirety. Pay the man and his band – they deserve it.
The Redux Boxset is out now and available at Cherry Red Records.
Catch Jah Wobble and the Invaders of the Heart Live:
19th June 2015 Gardyne Theatre, Dundee
20th June 2015 King Tuts, Glasgow
2nd July 2015 The Junction, Cambridge
3rd July 2015 The Cellars, Portsmouth
10th July 2015 The Brudenell Social Club, Leeds
11th July 2015 The Live Rooms, Chester
23rd July 2015 The Bowery District, Reading
24th July 2015 The Globe, Cardiff
25th July 2015 The Fleece, Bristol