So, when I set up this interview with Jah Wobble (thanks to Ian Cheek PR), I was warned to keep any mention of football until the end, otherwise I’d never get John Wardle (Jah’s real name), off the subject. However, both sharing an addiction to our beloved Tottenham Hotspur, who were top of the league, it seemed churlish to start anywhere else. Despite having lived in the Northwest near Stockport for the last couple of decades, Jah is a season ticket holder and up until a few years ago, an actual London Underground tube driver! You can take the boy out of London etc. We talk all things Spurs and the difference in house prices between London and Manchester (both of us being exiles) for a while, before getting down to the music. Despite moving north for more space and to be near his in-laws, he’s a regular visitor to London, South London to be more accurate, where he was instrumental (pun intended), in setting up a studio as part of his charity project “Tuned In”, more of which later.
Originally from Stepney, East London, Jah is probably best known for his involvement in Public Image Limited, the band formed by ex-Pistol John Lydon (nee Rotten) after having left the Sex Pistols in 1978. Jah had known Lydon since the early 70’s when they met at Kingsway College. His first musical involvement with Lydon was as a member of The Four Johns, which also saw fellow Johns, John Grey and John Simon Ritchie (who later became Sid Vicious). Indeed, it was Vicious who inadvertently gave him the name Jah Wobble, through his drunken mispronunciation of John Wardle.
“Well, nobody was going to forget that, so I adopted it” explained the bassist.
Do you still go out to gigs these days?
No, I don’t go out much. The sort of stuff I listen to is mainly sort of ambient more than anything. I suppose you’d call it minimalist. I listen to Apple Ambient Essentials and all that. To be honest I’m quite private.
I just wanted to say that whenever I buy a new piece of audio equipment, I always test it by listening to Metal Box.
So how does Metal Box – Rebuilt [Jah’s 2021 dub version] sound? We tried really hard to make it sonically as close to the original as possible.
To be honest I haven’t heard it on a physical copy yet, so hard to say. Is that where you felt the album could fall down (if the comparison was too different)?
Yes, very much so. You’re trying to reinterpret an iconic record, which sounded very powerful at the time of recording. I did another record afterwards [1983 – first solo single as Jah Wobble And The Invaders of the Heart] also on 12 inch, which I didn’t hear for many years after release, and I thought wow, this is sonically as good as anything now. Its that kind of vibe when you get a really powerful Rolls-Royce engine, it’s really clear. The top ends are really pure, there’s no harshness to it and the bottom end is heavy but not boomy. I think we got the compression right. I learnt really early how to best record bass and get the compression right.
How easy was it to go back and pick up those tracks [Metal Box] all these years on. You started from scratch presumably?
It actually wasn’t that hard. I’d already been performing a lot of the Metal Box tracks with my band [Invaders of the Heart] and we’d revamped quite a few of those tunes, so I had an idea of what I wanted to do. I’d always wanted to get the opportunity to really push the boat out with this stuff. Particularly with Albatross and Poptones. So, when Cleopatra [US Record Label] asked me to do it, they didn’t realise that I really wanted to do it. They thought I’d dismiss it and say no! There wasn’t even any, I’m not sure, I’ll have to think about it, it was yep, let’s do it! What they hadn’t realised was that during lockdown I was working remotely with Jon Klein [ex-Specimen, Siouxsie & The Banshees], who was the very best person in the whole world to get to play Keith Levene’s guitar parts and take it further. He’s that good, he really is the post-punk go to guy! We’d become friends on the community project we’d worked on, Tuned In, down in Southwest London. I’d already said to them [Cleopatra] that I couldn’t do it with Keith, as he’d become too difficult to work with at that point.
Tell us more about this project. It sounds really interesting.
Well originally, I’d had this idea for a community-based project, aiming to help older guys who were isolated and I found there was a real desire for this, but never got any support from the local council. So, I contacted someone I knew down in Merton, and we relocated the project to Southwest London. I felt that it was fundamental [tackling loneliness] as loads of other people target addiction, but I thought let’s help those people who feel isolated. So, we built a studio. Jon’s incredible both artistically and technically, I couldn’t be doing it [Metal Box Rebuilt] with a better person. So, the day after we got the offer to re-record it, we started!
I was fortunate enough to be at the show, about 10 years ago at the Ruby Lounge [Manchester], when you and Keith [Levene] played Metal Box dub and had a series of guest contributions. John Robb [Membranes] got up and did the vocals on Careering I think.
Yeah, we had another guy come and do the vocals at some of the other show. I think the trumpet player was also there that night.
It’ll go down as one of my musical highlights!
Thanks. Glad you got to see that, as I thought those few shows that we did had a relaxed quality about them. [Jah never got to tour the UK with those songs live, as he left PiL in 1980 and there was no promotional UK tour at the time]
So, has there been any reaction from Mr Lydon over the album?
No, not that I know of. I doubt he’s even heard it. I think there was a bit of bad feeling back when I was reworking it with Keith, doing the live shows, but I’ve not heard any rumblings about this new version. No feedback either negative or positive so far!
Were you invited to rejoin PiL when they reformed back in 2009?
I was but I didn’t agree with where the shows were going to be and we couldn’t agree on the money, so it never happened.
You are both in the most recent issue of Vive Le Rock Magazine. Not sure if that was the editor’s idea to run Lydon’s interview straight into yours, but I felt that the interviewer gave him an easy time over some of the more controversial aspects of some of his views. Especially the rally against the “woke agenda”, on Being Stupid Again. He seems to have gone down a bit of a right leaning rabbit hole of late, what with his support for Trump and Brexit. The latter being a moot point as he’s an LA resident these days! Whereas I know that you’ve trod a more “enlightened path”!
Well, I’m not “super woke” by any means. I’m certainly anti-Brexit, anti-Trump. Every argument nowadays, you’ve got to be so careful you don’t get dragged into the culture wars. I’m an old boy now , so I don’t have hard and fast views on a lot of stuff. The older you get you realise that life’s quite complicated, and that’s not avoiding the issue. Brexit was absolutely wrong and one of the few times that you could agree with Sir Alan Sugar, when he said he couldn’t see one benefit from this [after the referendum]. I know John [Lydon] has gone down that route and it’s obviously not the path I’ve followed, but I have to say that a lot of my contemporaries have!
Bob Vylan recently played Rebellion Punk Festival and spent a lot of time goading some of the ageing punks, about how the older you get, the further to the right you lean. It certainly hit a raw nerve with some.
Jah and I then go down a rabbit hole of our own making, about how the current administration are a busted flush, discussing water pollution and crumbly concrete in schools, before resurfacing.
The arteries harden, there’s a little bit of a sense of humour failure. When any of that stuff rears it’s head [sewage in the sea, public buildings being closed because of RAAC] all you’ve got to do is kick off a culture wars red herring about something and everyone has that knee jerk, very angry pavlovian reaction. I’ve tried to avoid it as much as possible.
John has been a Buddhist for a good few years now, although in his words “I wear it very lightly”.
Yes, you have to avoid that middle class thing (adopts posh voice), “oh I’m a Buddhist, oh I’m a vegan!” Good for you. I don’t bang on about Buddhism as such, but a lot of the eternal truths in life are attributable. There’s only one ultimate reality, not a Buddhist reality or Christian reality, but the Buddhist dharmas are a pathway to it. I’m not the Buddhist version of a bible basher. I’m not trying to convert anybody or anything!
Finally we steer a course back towards the music, and eventually to his latest album.
You’ve had a busy year . Three albums is that right? The Bus Routes of South London, Thames Symphony and of course “A Brief History of Now”.
That was done a few years ago [Thames Symphony], I had it up on Bandcamp. I have done three albums. My sons have got an album coming out. [John has two sons, John and Charlie, with wife Liao Zilan, a Chinese international concert performer. They have released tracks together as a family and the boys have their own band called Tien] and I’m claiming that as well as I’m on it! So, yes, three albums! That’s their album. They put it together not me.
Have platforms like Bandcamp opened up the music industry?
I think it’s probably a matter of time before some corporate entity gets hold of it. Everything is speeding up. The world is on a fast cycle, things just don’t last that long, but Bandcamp’s been great and long may it continue. It was when all the other streaming services came in, that’s when it got really hard to earn your living as a musician. End of.
Am I fair in saying you like a collaboration? [To date Jah has guested on more than 30 albums with the likes of Bill Laswell, Holger Czukay, The Edge and youth]
Yeah, I’m social, I like playing with people. It’s nice, it’s just easy. Of course I like working on my own at times, I’m more of a solitary person than not, but yes I do like a collaboration?
Anyone living or dead that would be on your collaboration bucket list?
I would probably like to work with Miles [Davis].
It would be a good night out with him!
Well that’s the thing now, I don’t drink so when I meet people, other musicians, as far as I’m concerned lets’ have a cup of tea, lets play together, get tuned in! I find making music [with others] a more direct form of communication than talking! A kind of meditational being, sharing it all with each other. Spiritual.
So lets talk about “A Brief History of Now“
I think the record company thought I wanted to do something quintessentially British, but my first thought was to write something American. I read a lot of American literature when I was younger, Salinger, Kerouac, that sort of thing. It just flowed, bassline after bassline and then the lyrics. Again working with Jon Klein, it was such an organic process.
What’s the track S00 135 about? It conjures up those passages in action movies, where there’s a thrilling car chase or some such similar scenario and the volume goes up and you strap yourself in.
Oh, you’re going to enjoy this story! The record company suggested we write something for Siouxsie Sioux. Get a famous punk singer on the album and her name had come up and Iggy Pop as well. So we set out to write a track with a venomous post-punk vibe, you know, with a real edge to it. That was the idea behind it originally, but it just became an instrumental. We thought this sounds really good but weren’t sure how Cleopatra would take it. However, Matt Green the A&R guy at Cleopatra, really liked it and said this has to stay on the record. And not only have it on the record but quite early on in the running order.
The track, Wrong side Of The Line. About wealth creation, rich for sake of being rich?
That’s another one! It’s one of the only tracks I’d started before the album was ever talked about. I started it out at home. It was written with a famous football manager, who’s a mate of mine, singing it, someone who does a bit of music. I had a few lyrics and the main backing track down, but before I could get all my lyrics down, Jon Klein then did some lyrics. I said they’re really good, but he said, no they’re just like a guide, but I said no, actually I think this track has really got something. He said really? I said trust me, believe me, keep the lyrics and your voice as it’s just really evocative. Jon said, well you should add something as well. Anthony from the Tuned In Project played some guitar on it, and we got a guy in to play some sax on it too. And so it was seen as just this other mad track, which might be an out take. I really liked it, but yet again Matt Green insisted that it made the final cut. Those two tracks were quite anomalies really in the scheme of things. I don’t think Siouxsie was even sent the track in the end, I might be wrong. The other instrumental 80 Beats Per Minute, we got Terry Edwards in to play some saxophone, its a got a weird creepy vibe to it.
You covered Wire’s I Am The Fly, which I have to admit took me by surprise as I didn’t look at the track listing beforehand.
I was literally just exchanging texts with Colin Newman just before this interview by the way, and he said he absolutely loves it! I told him how glad I was to hear him say that! It’s a tricky little song for bass. It’s very clever but then they’re a very clever band. We didn’t record it for this album in the beginning, we just did it for a bit of fun and we were discussing doing an album of various post-punk covers, thinking that might be a fun thing to do. Again Matt was behind that idea, so who knows? We even did a Rammstein cover believe it or not, which was fun, very dubby. In fact a couple of weeks ago we even did Start Me Up by the Rolling Stones!
Your book Memoirs Of A Geezer, any chance of a reprint of it. It’s going for £90 on Amazon?
I’m behind that! I’m controlling the price ruthlessly [laughing]. I know I’ve heard its fetched as much as £300! Crazy really. It’s being reissued, a new expanded version by Faber early in 2024.
And so a very enjoyable hour drew to a close. I’m left feeling that I’d only really scratched the surface of such an interesting and thoroughly pleasant guy.
A Brief History of Now is out now on Cleopatra Records and all the usual platforms, but treat yourself to a physical copy, you won’t regret it.
You could also pop over to his Bandcamp page and check out the myriad of dub recordings and stuff he’s recorded with his family.
Whilst you’re there you could also check out this!
Wobble continues his extensive UK touring this year with further dates throughout the autumn. The JAH WOBBLE & THE INVADERS OF THE HEART dates revolve around a number of Metal Box Rebuilt In Dub shows which rework the second Public Image Ltd album with additional tracks from the debut album First Issue. The Metal Box dates will also feature Jon Klein. Full UK dates as follows: Tickets here
Wed 25 EXETER Phoenix (METAL BOX)
Thu 26 NOTTINGHAM Rescue Rooms (METAL BOX)
Fri 27 SOUTHAMPTON 1865
Sat 28 BARTON ON HUMBER The Ropewalk
Wed 01 SUDBURY The Quay Theatre
Thu 02 TUNBRIDGE WELLS The Forum
Fri 03 WORTHING The Venue
Sat 04 LONDON Camden Forge
Wed 08 DEAL Lighthouse
Thu 09 NORWICH Epic (METAL BOX)
Fri 10 GUILDFORD Holroyd Arms (METAL BOX)
Sat 11 MILTON KEYNES MK 11
Wed 15 GLASGOW St Lukes (METAL BOX)
Thu 16 EDINBURGH La Belle Angele (METAL BOX)
Thu 23 MANCHESTER Blues Kitchen
Fri 24 LEEDS The Wardrobe
Fri 01 TRURO The Old Bakery (METAL BOX)
Sat 02 CARDIFF The Globe
Sun 03 BIRMINGHAM Hare & Hounds
Thu 07 ORMSKIRK Edgehill University Arts Centre
Fri 08 LEEK Foxlow Arts Centre (METAL BOX)
Sat 09 BRISTOL Thekla (METAL BOX)