August 20, 2022

Jah Wobble
All about Metal Box Rebuilt In Dub

On a dark Friday in late November 2021 we caught up with John Wardle by Zoom. Accidentally christened Jah Wobble by a drunk Sid Vicious, John grew from a face on the punk scene to a founding member of Public Image Limited, before steering a long and extremely varied path to the present day. A unique figure on the music scene, who always ploughs his own furrow, John has many albums and band line-ups under his belt. Here he delves into the story behind his new album (a fascinating reinvention of his PIL work) and reflects on his attitude to life and work.

Vanguard Online
How did you end up working with Cleopatra Records? I know you have your own label, so how did that come about?

Jah Wobble
I played on a Pink Floyd tribute. Have a Cigar. I just got a really funky B-line so I recorded and put that together and played the bass on that track. And that was for an external A&R guy. Then I met Matt at Cleopatra, and he was the one who said “Do you fancy doing a Metal Box real in-depth thing”. So that was how that all came about. As long as companies pay me, I don’t mind really, you know.

VO
Is that can I hear your son on the album? There’s some Chinese instrumentation or is that you?

JW
I wonder what that would be. John’s not on there – probably me. He’s on a lot of stuff I’m doing now – we’re doing like a library music project together. Which is music for companies that want background music.
He came out and played live with me in in Liverpool a few weeks ago at a festival, so I’m doing more and more stuff with him. He’s really good, you know, a very quiet boy, good player and he’s teaching me a few things about some of the Eastern stuff, some of the scales, his knowledge of it goes way beyond what I know. So some really interesting stuff, you know, so we work very easy together.

VO
It’s a lot of you on this album. How come you were doing it without a band?

JW
I think that Matt was a bit surprised. I think when he ran the idea past me he thought I might be sniffy about it. But I was very keen, because I’ve developed. When I was a bit younger, I wouldn’t have wanted to go back. If you’d suggested me going back doing old PIL I would have hated the idea, but now I love it. And I’ve been doing it with the group anyway. I intended to do this with a band. But lockdown had happened, and one thing and the other. And I happened to be working with John Klein, as I mentioned, working on this community project (Tuned In) we started off in London Borough of Merton with a guy called Anthony Hopkins. Not the Anthony Hopkins. He’s a good musician and an ex-footballer as well. So the three of us started. It was my idea – I started it up here but I found it easier to do it in London because they’re so keen and so good to work with and so I started to them with John. And so, some time into lockdown Matt suggested that we do the album. So I was working with John anyway and, honestly, you couldn’t find a better person to work on an album like that and anything Post-Punk – John’s your man. So it meant I had a guitarist who really knew what he was doing. To the nth degree knew what he was doing. And also was great in the production of it. So it was just me and him really. The only other musicians on it are George King and his wife on Swan Lake and the end part of Poptones – that gorgeous bit of strings. And Keiko, John’s wife, is on backing vocals on Fodderstompf. But that’s it, yeah.

VO
I had been going to ask like, why now? Why Metal Box? But it was just because it suggested to you and you thought why not?

JW
Well, we were doing those tracks live, you see. So had a version of Fodderstompf, which is really funky. We do a minor key version of Public Image anyway. And I, first of all intended to do them like the way we do them live and then I thought – I’ve already done these on record, on Cherry Red, years ago.

VO
On Usual Suspects (a fairly recent double with a lot of variety) you did about four PIL tracks.

JW
And I thought well, it’s already come out on record like that – actually, let’s really do a job here. And I was particularly excited with Poptones and Albatross because they’re crying out for changes. You can modulate, you can make changes and just basic triad chords on string sounds and pads. If you did it really carefully and kind of naively, would work really well. So I ended up doing a lot more modulations of those little semi-tone modulations in Poptones and a Japanese bridge. Oh, that’s me doing the Japanese bit. And there’s even a reggae change in there.
So those were the first two tracks to start with and I think Albatross is the very first. We sat down and I was just sitting at the keyboard, playing stuff over the backing tracks that I was putting together and sending them over to John. I think John was a little bit “Oh my God”, because it was so quick, so radical, what I did. John, at the beginning was, like, “shouldn’t we think about this more”? I’m just “NO!!!! just go, it’s gonna work”. And so John was like, “right, okay, go on it”. And that was it; off we went. It was all done on Zoom. And it’s because of lockdown it turned out the way it did. If it hadn’t been for lockdown I think I would have been likely to go into a studio proper, but it was fantastic not done in the studio. It was only really near the end of it, because we worked at such a rate of knots, when I heard it back, I thought; “this is really special”.

VO
I really enjoyed the way that Poptones broke down into like this sort of like really fast poppy thing. The playing around was nice.

JW
Yeah, I think I changed the tempo. There was a few little sections in there was able to really expand it. You can interpret that track and we just took it further that way, you know.

VO
Do you enjoy playing the keys, John? The last time I think I noticed you playing the keys was obviously when you did Requiem, which was a million years ago.

JW
Yeah, I like it, because you’ve got all the notes out in front of you. And you can play so many things off the keyboards obviously now. Horn sounds and everything. So it means I can be very autonomous you know. I love it. I do everything on the iPad.

VO
Some people play the bass through the keys, I’ve seen bands doing that, would you do that?

JW
I have done it, going back to the 80s and occasionally, it’s exactly the right thing to do, especially with using an old Moog can be great, or the low notes of an organ like Jackie Mittoo. So it can work that way. But, you know, I just like a Fender P (that’s a Precision, gear fans) sound. You know, just as simple as possible. No effects, you know, just a standard bass. The funny thing is those settings, I think a lot of those that are used on bass pods are obviously influenced by me. And it’s so weird. I’ve been using the pods I influenced so I’m very happy with them because it comes from the original sound. Does that make sense? That means I’m getting that sound I like really quickly.

VO
I have wondered whether the Metal Box thing was some method of narking John Lydon after he invited you to play on his tour.

JW
Actually, you know, I reserve the right to change my mind on this. But I really got intensely back into the album again. And his lyrics on Metal Box; he reached a high point where they’re actually great prose, like Samuel Beckett or something.
I was very respectful to Keith’s parts, you know, I was definitely wasn’t going into it lightly or frivolously. It doesn’t sound like Keith and that’s quite respectful to him.

VO
It doesn’t sound anything like Keith. And I think that’s a good thing. The whole thing sounds much more good natured, John, and playful.

JW
It’s quite expansive. We’ve got the benefit of hindsight.

VO
“Hindsight does you no good”, John.

JW
“Standing naked in the back of the wood”.
Now,… John Klein. When I said to him we’re doing it, he’s like, “Now then. Levene he doesn’t play with a pick nowadays”. I said “how do you know that?!” We got straight into the minute detail with everything to do with the guitar playing from the get go. And we discussed different sounds of scratching on the guitars like Post-Punk ala Wire so he’s your man, John, he’s very knowledgeable. We spent a lot of time discussing variations of scratching and tonality to Post-Punk guitar styles.

VO
Do you find it possible to look back and see Metal Box as this sort of work of art? Because it feels like that to me, but then I don’t have any memory of standing in the studio making it.

JW
At the time, we finished it, I kind of felt it was special. It was primal. Somehow we’d done that first album; we were already leaning in towards Metal Box with stuff like Analisa and Theme. A very modal kind of sound. And I don’t think it was exactly articulated like this, but me and Keith especially were: “okay, we started out with this kind of pop single and then we’ve done this and done that on the first album and now do we just develop it incrementally?” Or do you just go straight to gold and make something totally not Bourgeois? Totally not mannered? You know, totally kind of just very real, primal and authentic, quite Expressionist really? And that’s what we did.

Years and years later, when I started getting into visual art, I found out that it seems to be that every visual arts movement is 30 or 40 years ahead of the equivalent musical movement, so Berlioz and all that would have come in a few years after Monet and the Impressionists, etc, etc. And I think we were very similar to the Abstract Expressionists of the 50s. They were all bloody nihilist, as we were. So I think it stands up as great late 20th century art. But the other thing I was going to say is when we finished within a month or so Kenny McDonald, the PIL tailor, out at Brixton, played me Dark Magus and that was the first Miles Davis I’d heard. And that knocked me sideways because that was the Black American version of Metal Box in a way. Totally not mannered, incredibly raw, not giving a shit about convention or musical mannerisms or gestures. So I was really inspired and then a guy called Angus MacKinnon interviewed me about Metal Box and he then turned me on to the whole Miles Davis canon.

And, you know, PIL only lasted two years. It was great we did Metal Box and then it was good I left. At the time I really had the hump with them but actually, I realise now that that was it for that side, which is great – it’s great you don’t repeat yourself. That was the peak for that kind of approach. Then after that I don’t think John and Keith have done anything that serious. I really don’t mean that to sound snobbish but the words he had then and the whole balance; it was just fantastic. We really caught something in a way you would struggle to do now because we had the benefit of a major record company, no management, nobody saying “you can’t do that – we won’t give you any money unless you agree to go in with a producer wearing a pair of Kickers, who will make you play music with a chordal basis”. And thanks very much to John and Keith I’m able to be in a situation where I’m a novice that can lead with my basslines and nobody’s trying to make me change the basslines. So I was very, very fortunate.

VO
Yeah, it’s probably lucky that you were so young because you know, maybe if you heard more Krautrock, more Miles Davis, it might have changed things.

JW
I was still a teenager and I was with PIL. I was the youngest one of all of them, which went for me in that way and went against me in being wordly enough to deal with tricky, kind of slippery people in their early 20s. There’s a big difference between being 18/19 and being 21/22.

VO
Coming up to the modern day, John, it’s always a surprise to me, when you actually bring an album out, even though you release a lot. You never seem to push anything. There never seems to be a massive promotional push. Is that something deliberate?

JW
Yeah, I just can’t be bothered with it. You know, I’ve got a great faith in the process and taking your time and the William Blake thing, you know, just you do it for eternity. So you just do it, and you believe in it. It’s a glacier moving. So it’s actually this very slow moving thing, but that just feels right to me, so I’m not really bothered. And it means the world can catch up with you in its own way when it’s ready. And I’m happy with that.

VO
I’m kind of interested with the perspective of where you are at the minute. How do you feel about how everything has gone for you so far, John?

JW
Oh, it’s so good. I’ve never had a career plan. As soon as you start to get into kind of a career plan, it’s a commodity. Everything’s a commodity. It just cheapens it and it bores me to tears. But for me, I never worried about it. It’s just been, whatever appears and unfolds at that time. You want to make a certain kind of record. I’m very happy.

VO
You’ve gone through phases, haven’t you?

JW
So maybe things are starting to slow down that and that’s fine. Eventually, I won’t be able to play or I’ll die. Maybe I’ll die suddenly, and it would be a quick cut off. Or maybe I’m gonna go slowly and I’ll start to disintegrate and won’t be able to play some at some point. And I’m obviously closer to the end than the beginning. I’m very happy.

The name of the game, as my mate Billy said is you want your intray empty, karmically speaking. So you don’t want to leave a load of shit for people to go through and you don’t want to leave a lot of unfinished business, if possible. And music should be the great opener of consciousness. It’s been a great teacher to me – it moves quicker than the intellect. You know, like in football, the ball moves faster than the man. The music and the spirit of pure consciousness moves faster than the intellectual process, no matter how intelligent you all. It’s so central – to try and see it as kind of a commodity is not part of my plan.

VO
I’ve never seen that. It’s never appeared that you did have a plan job. I’m curious with a hindsight aspect. Have you got any plans at the minute or you’re waiting for something to turn up?

JW
I think it’s lovely to wait. There’s nothing. You know, it’s nice to get away from the ‘what’s next’. The ‘what’s next’ is a curse. Because it keeps everything kind of sequential all the time. So you know, so with music, what’s next? What’s the next thing I have to do? Or spiritual development? What’s next? If I say another 100 mantras, and I learned to meditate for 30 more minutes a day, eventually, I’m going to become enlightened. Well I’m enlightened already, that’s the whole point, you just didn’t realise that. And same for the music, you know, it should be effortless, let it pour out of you. And obviously, if you get drawn to make a certain kind of thing, then okay, your intellect is there for a reason. And it comes into play.
I’m just having fun. I think it was Jaki Leibzeit said; the best way to be a musician to be a professional amateur. So, an amateur ethos with a professional execution.

VO
It felt like there was a thread at one point when you were doing a lot of collaborations with musicians from different countries, different parts of the world: Molam Dub, other dubs, Japanese mask changing, Chinese…..It felt like there was a kind of a thread pulling you along.

JW
I think half of that was I felt this was going strong and I had a bit of budget – releasing new records was totally viable. And you knew you could budget to spend five grand, and make it back quickly, and now, it’s not as much like that. I always knew those these days would come. So I was totally fine with it. So we could bring Molam Lao from Paris on the Eurostar and make it work. And one of the reasons I so urgently made records with different people was because I knew the window of opportunity was there and I must take it now because the window will close. Budgets will disappear, get tied up and all that – you could see the lie of the land.

VO
And you’re right, it’s happened but I suspect you’re going to sell quite a lot of these (Metal Box Remixed In Dub). There’s a lot of very excited middle-aged men.

JW
Yeah, I think so. Which is right and I’m really really happy with it. One of the fantasies I’ve got that I think a lot of blokes our age have, is going back like that Life On Mars programme – back to the 70s. I love the idea of being just deposited somewhere in London, circa 1973. And it’s lovely, the thought of going back and being able to deal with something with the benefit of hindsight. And I was obviously going back in time without having to battle my ex-fellow band members about what he should be like (laughs). So it really feels like it’s squaring a circle, in one way, and then in another way, as well, my book is going to be reissued by Faber’s. Which is wonderful. So it looks like I’ve got the right home for the book, it’s great to have gone back and done Metal Box, not the way I originally would have. Sometimes on stage I would find myself hearing some of those parts. So when we play Socialist, which we do a drum and bass version of, I’d hear these high vocals in the harmonics, and it was great to get an opportunity to do that, which is like The Swingle Singers! And we put Heavy Metal over it and there’s big drums. Hopefully a lot of old boys especially are going to be attracted to it.

John is a chatty man, a raconteur, and the discussion devolves into aspects of COVID-19, boxing, touring, setlists, John Keenan and the Futurama festival, why John doesn’t like buffets, and so on. John was more than generous with his time and we thank him.