Having first found acclaim as the original bassist of Public Image Ltd, Jah Wobble has gone on to have a prolific solo career. He’s collaborated with artists such as Bill Lasswell, Dolores O’Riordan, and Sinead O’Connor, run independent record labels and worked with numerous musical styles. Wobble recently headed out on tour again with his project Jah Wobble & The Invaders of the Heart.
Born John Wardle, he acquired his stage name when Sid Vicious of The Sex Pistols drunkenly slurred his real name. Following the breakup of The Sex Pistols, John Lydon asked Wobble to join what would become Public Image Ltd (PiL). Wobble stayed with PiL through their first two albums, Public Image (First Issue) (1978) and Metal Box (1979).
Wobble’s work with PiL showcased influences that transcended the punk era that preceded it, so it comes as no surprise that the musician has continued on an extremely varied music path. Reggae, dub, global, and electronic music are among the styles that Wobble has incorporated into his sound over the years.
In a phone interview, Wobble discussed his recent tour, time with PiL, running a label, and other topics.
What can we expect from the upcoming tour? What is the current Invaders of the Heart line-up?
Jah Wobble: This January/February tour has become a regular thing for the last four or five years, I think. It’s my regular band: George King on keys, Martin Chung on guitar, and Marc Layton-Bennett on drums. I’ve been with them for years now. I played with musicians like Neville Murray, the percussionist, and Harry Beckett for a long time. Harry passed away, unfortunately, and Neville has retired. He’s not been in great health as of late. He’s getting quite old now, as I am. I started playing with these guys; the drummer was actually recommended to me by Neville. George was recommended to me by an engineer I work with. So, I’ve been with these guys for a decade now, and they’re really good. They’re great players. They’re wholehearted; they can play just about any genre convincingly, and they can improvise. They’re nice guys, so I have a lot of fun when I’m traveling with them.
What about in terms of material?
Jah Wobble: I’d started doing a set a few years ago. It felt the time was right to reform Invaders of the Heart. The idea was to go out doing that kind of set again, with these boys whom I’d already done a few projects and records with. We started doing some of the Invaders of the Heart numbers from the 80s, and one or two Public Image numbers: “Poptones,” “Public Image,” and “Fodderstompf.” It went well, so we started doing that stuff, as well as whatever latest stuff we had.
We just finished an album called Ocean Blue Waves. It’s on Bandcamp now to start with. I really like Bandcamp. It’s great. That will be released just in time for the tour, and it’s even got a rock anthem on it. I’m always doing something; there’s always stuff going. There are cover versions in the live show. We play “Get Carter” from the film with Michael Caine. We play “Liquidator.” It’s an accessible show. I’ve done a lot of left-field stuff over the years, and at the time it felt right to do Invaders of the Heart again. It’s got all the fusion stuff, but it’s a bit of a legacy there, you know. In a way, the set starts out with me playing the stuff that turned me on, like ska music. I always say Augustus Pablo was the first guy I ever heard playing Oriental music. Even though he’s Jamaica, he used Eastern scales. We do “Java.”
You’ve been involved with many different projects over the years and been very prolific. How have the changes in the music industry affected you, for example, the shift toward streaming?
Jah Wobble: Oh, don’t get me started! You know, it’s something I’ve really struggled with at times. The streaming thing made it very hard. It made running a little label very difficult. 2012, 2013, and 2014 were tough. Since then, I’ve talked to a few people, and they say the same thing to me. It got unbearable because streaming for me had an effect on sales. Suddenly, you’re just not earning any money from recorded music anymore. So, your regular punters, customers, would say, “Oh, I love the new album. I haven’t bought it from you, but I’m listening to it on Spotify.” And you say, “Well, wow, okay.”
So, I actually sold my label. It wasn’t just due to streaming. At that time, I had quite a big catalog and it felt like a little bit of an overgrown garden. I think the streaming situation affected it for me. Just for a while, you get a little bit like, “Oh God, I’m fed up with this,” and I started actually working with a few different artists at that time, like Judy Campbell from LoneLady, from Manchester. We made an album, and I worked with a few different people and got away from doing stuff for my label. So, I sold my label and got a really good deal and was very happy. I sold it to some good friends of mine actually. Then what did I do? I started a new label anyway, because I can’t keep away from it. I started doing a thing through Pledgemusic, and we did an album. I did it with Youth; he kind of co-produced. That was 2015, I think. I didn’t have any expectations for it, but the Pledge model kind of worked, and then I bought it out on my new label. I’ve kept it going since then. I don’t want to tempt fate, but it seems to have picked up a little bit.
One of the things I’m doing now, by the way, is going back to that early noughties model of releasing the hard format first. I’ve got the website up and running again: jahwobble.com. I sell it on there, and then on Bandcamp. I think Bandcamp is great; you get a good return, and I’ve got a little bit of a following on there now. Then we do it through the other sites. Then we do it through a distributor, and we sell live obviously. Only once we’ve exhausted all that, then it can go up onto digital streaming platforms. I think they’ve gotten better. I’ve got a new person handling my digital, a new guy who’s doing really well. So, you know, it’s a bit of a better return, but it’s still not a big enough slice of the cake. Maybe it will become that.
I think we’ve all realized that the major companies have done quite well with the streaming, and I’m sure they love it. You know, they don’t have to press CDs and they’ve got huge catalogs, and I believe they got licensing advances on this stuff, as do some of the indies. We just didn’t know what was going on. At the time, I naively thought, surely the majors will step in and stop this. Of course, they looked after themselves, so this is one of the reasons why live performance is important and why you have to be very good live. And maybe that’s a good thing. That’s how you earn your living now really; that’s probably the bigger part of your income again, whereas it used to be the much smaller part of the income and recorded music was the large part. That’s completely changed. I think it’s moved a little bit closer again now. We’ll see.
Last year was the 40th anniversary of PiL’s innovative Metal Box album. What are your thoughts on that release?
Jah Wobble: I’m very proud of it. I think it’s a special album. With the fullness of time, it appears even more special in a way. It’s very primal, very extreme. Keith Levine is a very bright guy, but looking back, I don’t think the two of us realized what we had. We started with “Public Image,” the single and the first album. Metal Box is very unmannered. It’s not bourgeois, you know; it’s not a fussy record. It’s a very extreme record, and a lot of people didn’t like it at the time. It’s not a hum-along, and you don’t whistle along to it. It was a special record. I still do stuff off of it, and we do it in a way that hopefully shows respect. I think John’s lyrics at that time, stuff like “Careering” and “Poptones,” are very special.
A lot of studio experimentation went into that album. Do you feel that the evolution of studio and musical technology since that time has affected your creative process?
Jah Wobble: I always loved getting creative in the studio and playing about with effects, maybe like someone putting too much makeup on or something, I don’t know. But I loved it and I still do. Now, I can sit there on an iPad and freak out on my own. You can cut and paste. We still go into proper studios and record in a traditional way with mics and leads and all that, and we do use digital software to actually record. We do the recording the old-fashioned way for most of the records, but I do other stuff that is real, proper solo work completely on my own. And for that, I use an iPad. It seems that old way of stripping things down and mixing is gone. You can cut and paste, you have a complete mix and then you can go completely off-kilter and save the original mix and come back to it. It’s all good, and I quite enjoy it all. I still love it.
Since your time with PiL, you’ve explored many different music styles. Did you have these varied interests when starting out? What influenced you?
Jah Wobble: I’ve never really liked punk music. This is actually just something interesting to say about Metal Box. I went to university, and I started studying art and music a bit formerly. I learned the fact that visual arts tend to be about 30 years ahead of music. So, like the impressionist period or expressionist or whatever, the music is like 30 years behind. And for me, Metal Box is very much the kind of music of the abstract expressionist era. It’s a continuation of that, which obviously was like a 50s kind of thing. It wasn’t punk. I always found punk music to be, you know, quite commercial.
Don’t get me wrong, there are some punk songs I like. And I like some pop songs. I’m not snobby about it. But my own taste is kind of extreme in a way. I like Miles Davis’ electric period; that’s my kind of taste. I like quite broad, bold brush strokes, really. I never was crazy on punk.
I was listening to shortwave radio—Radio Terhan and all that—when I was a teenager. I was listening to Umm Kulthum, her composer Mohammed Abdel Wahab, and people like that. I used to listen to shortwave radio because it sent me to sleep. I was always a guy who had a little bit of trouble sleeping, so if I played shortwave radio oscillations, I slept well. They put me into another kind of state. It still does; those broad frequencies still really do the trick for me.
I would hear these Middle Eastern radio stations over the stratosphere with all that natural phasing. As the signal bounces down from the stratosphere to the Earth and up again, you get a kind of natural phasing sound. I’d hear these Middle Eastern radio stations, and I was very drawn in. I’m quite a sociable guy, so I’m interested in other cultures and other peoples and other ways of doing things. I like the fact that a lot of folk music is modal. Very early on, I used to listen to the Dubliners and Lindisfarne , who actually had pop hits. I liked Rod Stewart because of the mandolin; on the Faces, they had that mandolin player who was from Lindisfarne . He was the Lindisfarne ‘s mandolin player. I love mandolin. I liked that kind of folk being sometimes a country kind of thing. Music around the world tends to be modal, or it tends to be pentatonic. It isn’t like loads of rich chords and isn’t pop chords; it isn’t overly sweet. Again, I’m not knocking that; songwriting is a real art. All the sound of Phili I love, and McCartney/Lennon. I’m not against any of that, but I’m into something else. I kind of got into Arabic music and Chinese music. Not because it’s simpler; sometimes, it’s so complex. It’s very, very difficult to get your head around.
Of all the collaborations you’ve been involved with, do one stand out as being particularly fulfilling creatively?
Jah Wobble: I guess all this stuff with Bill Laswell. Anything with Bill is a lot of fun. The last album I did with Bill was Realm of Spells. We did that in New Jersey. Natacha Atlas always stands out as somebody who was really an amazing singer and very exciting to work with.
For more info, visible: https://jahwobble.com/