Punk, bass player, pioneer, mystic... Paul Tingen meets a musician who lives life at breakneck speed, and isn't afraid of the dark.
Few people could more appropriately be called a walking contradiction. The man was once a major proponent of the punk movement; but today he's known as one of the pioneers of world music, and he's recently written several orchestral pieces, one of which was performed by the Liverpool Philharmonic. He was once an extremely angry young man who got up many people's noses with his nihilistic, destructive attitude; today he's one of the most respected and liked characters in the music industry, a positive, constructive man who likes to talk about sacred music and spiritual transformation. He was once a working‑class lad from the East End of London who didn't think much of his own musical talent, and ended up dropping out of music to become a train driver on the London Underground. Today he's graduated to the music industry's aristocracy, his collaborative favours sought by the likes of Brian Eno, Björk, The Orb, Massive Attack, Mick Hucknall, Sinead O'Connor, Primal Scream, The Shamen, Pharaoh Sanders, Bill Laswell, Bernie Worrell and The Dubliners' Ronnie Drew. And in the recording studio he refuses to deal hands‑on with digital and computer technology, avoiding what he calls "MIDI hell", yet he writes an astonishing six albums a year in his kitchen on the tiny Yamaha QY20 sequencer.
Jah Wobble is the man's name, and to many people it doesn't only conjure up a bundle of contradictions, but also many legendary tales eagerly told in pubs around London — such as how he acquired his musician's name through a slurred mispronunciation of his real name, John Wardle, by a drunken Sid Vicious. Or how he taught himself to play bass guitar in a few weeks by picking up Vicious's bass, immediately joined Johnny Lydon's Public Image Limited at the tender age of 20, in 1978, and went on to stamp a mighty musical mark on the band with his muscular bass‑style. Or how he was sacked within weeks from every job he tried his hand at as a teenager because of his belligerent attitude. Or how he made a habit of insulting or beating up people during the first half of the '80s, when he was under the spell of drink and drugs. Or how he was sacked from London Underground for screaming obscenities over the intercom (this is untrue, he says). Or how his descent into the underworld of the Underground tested and purified him and caused a resurrection of Biblical proportions, when he returned to the daylight as a messiah of world music (this story is way over the top, though it holds some grains of truth).
Given this reputation, you're bound to approach Jah Wobble with some trepidation, but the press officer of his brand new record company, 30 Hertz Records, assures me that Wobble is "a very nice, unassuming man", and this proves to be an apt description of the Wobble I meet in an East London recording studio. It's called Intimate Studios, and in it Wobble, his regular engineer Mark Ferda, and assistant engineer Cai Murphy are working on a brilliant reggae‑influenced song that will be on the forthcoming album Journey To The Soul, expected to be released this autumn. Wobble isn't only "nice and unassuming", but also charming and passionate; hardly ever lost for words, he speaks very fast in a Cockney drawl, switching constantly between matters musical, mystical and technical. Journey To The Soul, he explains, will be his first album of songs since 1994's Take Me To God:
"After doing songs for a long time, that format can become really tiring. Since 1994 I have wanted to stretch a little bit, doing instrumental music or music with spoken words. Music is a really flowing, abstract form. It's pure spirit moving, and I wanted to make some music without the interference and definitions of form that spring from singing."
Wobble's musical output had already been extremely eclectic on the five albums he made before Take Me To God. After leaving PIL in 1980, he released three solo albums in the first half of the '80s, Betrayal, Snake Charmer, and Psalms: the crude, dark, but adventurous music on these albums confirmed that his contributions to PIL had been crucial, and broke him out of the punk ghetto and into a rock mainstream audience. The period 1986 to 1988 was when Wobble dropped out of the music industry, working as a taxi driver and for the London Underground. His 1989 comeback album, Without Judgement, introduced the world music and mystical themes for which he is now so well known. Rising Above Bedlam (1991) developed these themes even further, and was hailed by various music magazines as a masterpiece. Take Me To God was in a similar vein, and featured the talents of Baaba Maal, Dolores O'Riordan, Natacha Atlas and Gavin Friday; The Guardian called it "gorgeously imaginative". Wobble then increased his output, embarking on a series of experimental albums, the first of which were Spinner (1995), a dark and moody ambient/dub collaboration with Brian Eno and the instrumental Heaven & Earth (1995), which featured Bill Laswell, and instruments and musicians from Thailand, Iraq and China.
In Western rock everything is so homogenised — there's a lack of colour and a lack of meaning there.
Island Records, who had released Take Me To God and Heaven & Earth, apparently started to grow tired of Wobble's excursions into uncommercial terrain, and accused him of trying to sabotage his own success. Wobble wasn't impressed with their ideas of what constituted a music career, and released his acclaimed The Inspiration Of William Blake (1996) — which featured him reciting Blake's poetry — on the small All Saints Records label, in collaboration with the record company that he was setting up, 30 Hertz Records. The same year saw the first genuine 30 Hertz release, The Celtic Poets. It was another record centred on the spoken word, with Dubliner Ronnie Drew's gravelly voice fiercely reciting Celtic poetry over a backing that included instruments as varied as pipes, crumhorn, sitar, pi‑saw (a Thai flute), ku‑cheng (a Chinese harp), khene (a low‑pitched Thai wind instrument) and shakuhachi — hardly a Celtic ensemble, but then authenticity never was high on Wobble's list of priorities. And now 30 Hertz Records are planning to release Wobble's orchestral piece Requiem, which features classical voices, plus the aforementioned Journey To The Soul, which will not only include some songs, but may also contain the orchestral piece called, The River, that Wobble wrote for the Liverpool Philharmonic. And, believe it or not, in the middle of all this frantic activity, Wobble still finds time to do the odd remix for various artists — most recently for a Mick Hucknall track.
It's an incredible amount of releases, topics, information and different types of music to come to grips with, and trying to disentangle it all isn't made easier by Wobble's tendency to jump from subject to subject with the agility with which a mountain goat jumps from rock to rock. During the interview he asserts several times that speed is of the essence to him, and eloquently demonstrates this with the way he speaks, words tumbling out of him at a breakneck pace.
"People keep saying to me that I can't release six albums or so in a year. But I can't stand that process of one album or less a year and then touring. It's too slow for me. I'm on a roll creatively at the moment and I want things moving very fast. Five or six albums a year seems about right, and they're all long, about an hour each. I just sit in my kitchen with one of my three Yamaha QY20 sequencers, a notepad and a pair of small speakers, and write lots of music. Do I have problems with quality control, like Prince? No, not at all, because I know that the stuff I'm doing at the moment is good. I feel that since Take Me To God the quality of my output has been consistently high. It's exactly right, and I'm just totally on it. This might not be the case next year: I might feel that I need to slow down a bit, I might start to make mistakes. But at the moment I have no doubts. It's just flowing."
Wobble appears to have found himself, and the critical acclaim that has greeted every one of his releases during the '90s suggests that music, and an audience, have found him as well. It's all a far cry from the confused days of the early '80s, when a post‑PIL Wobble made life very difficult for himself and everybody around him by descending into a daze of drugs and booze.
"I had no career plans before I joined PIL," he reminisces. "I didn't know what the fuck I was going to do with my life. I loved music, but I never thought I'd become a professional musician: that seemed totally out of my league. You had more chance of becoming the captain of the QE2. Then punk came along and suddenly it was OK to have a go, and I discovered that I had a talent for bass playing. I never liked punk music, I thought it was absolute shit, but I'll never slag that period off, because it got me into music. However, there was a collective anger that was never going to go anywhere, and that burnt itself out. We were a very angry generation. I look on us now as little orphans, all dressed in black, and I must say that I still feel a bit drawn in that dark way."
"You'll find that people who are on a path of sorts are often very angry and unhappy, and that's why they try to find solutions to their inner problems and inner conflicts. You don't want to get stuck in anger and darkness, like some of these people who today still walk around with a punk state of mind and wear punk clothes. Darkness that's cathartic and leads somewhere is great, but when it becomes a thing in itself, it becomes evil, stagnant, because there's no movement there. I became conscious of my spiritual journey in 1986, when I stopped drinking alcohol. I had a terrible drinking problem and I was halfway through working on my Psalms album, and realised that if I didn't stop drinking, I'd die. I woke up at five in the afternoon every day, I was stinking dirty, and I'd lost a lot of self‑esteem. It was really a choice of, do I want to die, or do I want to live and show a little balls and stand on my own two feet and take responsibility for my life? I was also completely fed up with the music business, which just seemed completely shallow and fake. I was burnt out and wanted an ordinary everyday life. "
I was halfway through working on my Psalms album, and realised that if I didn't stop drinking, I'd die.
"So I finished Psalms, dropped out of the music industry and ended up working for London Underground. It was one of the best experiences of my life, totally exciting. I went to work at the times when I normally would come back from the night clubs, and I loved it. When I was a teenager I was sacked from every job that I did, but this was the first job I resigned from, and I can to this day still get a good reference from them. It gave me my self‑esteem back. I didn't think I'd get back into music again, but I started to listen to music again, especially Salif Keita's Soro, and that inspired me. Then percussionist Neville Murray asked me whether I was up for something, and so we started a band together, and gradually it became like starting all over again. But the music industry wasn't exactly cheering on the sidelines at my return, and it took a while for things to start to happen again. I was still working as a taxi driver until 1991, three years after I'd left the underground. And it wasn't like I was then really bad and had now suddenly become really good. It was more a question of opening up, and I still have good and bad inside of me. Good and bad, dark and light always come together. There's this incredible, continuous coming into being that goes on when dark comes into light. William Blake understood that. Miles Davis understood that."
In his sleeve notes to The Inspiration Of William Blake, Wobble writes that life is about "a perfect balance between heaven and earth, good and evil, man and woman, yin and yang, two archetypal forces moving against each other and yet in harmony. Both are separate and yet contain each other. Neither can live without the other and therefore nor could human life." One could add to this: 'nor could music'. During our conversation, Wobble and I agree that New Age music is so insufferable and flat because it tries to be all light, and that darkness is an essential ingredient of music, or any work of art, because it's a prerequisite for creating depth and shade and form. In his music of the '90s Wobble has been incorporating an amazing array of shades and colours, drawing influences from the Far East as much as from Africa, the Middle East and North and South America. He sees no problems with such stylistic diversity:
"There are only two types of music, sacred and secular, and my natural inclination is towards the sacred and the ritualistic. It's why I picked up on world music, because in Western rock everything is so homogenised — there's a lack of colour and a lack of meaning there. The roots of my interest in world music probably come from the reggae music I used to listen to as a teenager, and then I learnt how all the musics of the world have lots of things in common. North‑African music relates to European music, which relates to American music. And Indian and Irish music, sitars and bagpipes, both work with drones and overtones; pentatonic melodies can be found all over the world."
Nevertheless, Wobble's albums sometimes sound like an ethnomusicologist's wet dream, with a bewildering variety of styles thrown together. Wobble manages to hold all these disparate colours and sounds together with the unique and instantly recognisable sound of his bass guitar. It rumbles deep and low and dangerous, supplying much of the music with necessary darkness and depth. Mixed way upfront, and with influences of dub and dance very evident, Wobble's bass has more a melodic than a harmonic function. Back in the late '70s, when Wobble was still playing with PIL, Melody Maker were already noting that he was capable of playing "some of the most awesome and original bass lines in modern music". Wobble elaborates...
"I just knew how you made bass lines. They went around in circles and I played them really simply, and it was great to play the same line for two hours at a time. Through this I got into listening to resonances. People think bass lines are just about repetition, but I learnt that the more you play, the more you also pick up on the resonances and overtones of the players around you, and that relates very much to the phrasing on the bass and the notes you play. To me, this makes the difference between a good and a bad bass player. A good bass player can hear the overtones in, say, the toms, and connect that to his bass line. So you're picking these things up in your playing, and that can be really magical."
The word 'magical' crops up more than once while Wobble is talking about music, and he asserts that it's a quality he's become more aware of since he started to walk the spiritual path consciously after coming off alcohol in 1986.
"Since then I understand music much better, on one level. There are two main worlds, the world of relativity and the absolute world. In the world of relativity I have a better understanding of music, but there's also something I still totally don't understand about music. Music is a very demanding mistress, and it's dangerous when you start thinking that you understand her. You always have to be humble enough to be able to forget everything you thought you knew. You have to let the music dictate to you where you're going. Miles Davis talked a lot about listening, about letting the music guide you, whereas the Western tendency is to try to control and dominate things. But when you're open you can expect the miraculous from music. And this openness is a technique of the mind. I know people sometimes think that it's incredibly clever what I'm doing on the bass guitar, but I'm just being open to hearing the resonances that are already there, and that may suggest a note that's outside of the chord. And that one note in there is the one that creates the magic."
But where once all Wobble's musical magic was created on the bass, nowadays much of it is called into being when he sits on his own at his kitchen table with a Yamaha QY20 sequencer and two little powered speakers. It's somehow amusing to imagine this tall, mighty, spiritually‑driven ex‑punk doing his trade on a tiny little machine the size of a video tape. Wobble recalls that he encountered the QY20 for the first time a little over two years ago, and that the whole of Heaven & Earth, Requiem, The River and much of the William Blake album were written on it. Only The Celtic Poets was conceived without the help of the QY20. He elaborates on what's clearly a favourite topic: "Everybody knows that I don't give a fuck about what bass guitar I use or what studio equipment I use or what other equipment I use. But when I saw the QY20 I thought 'Mmm, that's small', and it sounded quite good. I started mucking around with it and got really addicted to it. It's fantastic and it has a really great reggae horn section which I love. My QY20 has become my musical sketchpad, and I write all my things in there without even going into song mode. I just stay in pattern mode, and once I'm done, Mark Ferda transfers it straight into the Logic Audio software that we have on the Mac. It's a bit embarrassing to have a prototype sequencer at this stage in my career, but I love it, and some of the sounds actually end up on my albums."
I want things moving very fast. Five or six albums a year seems about right.
Wobble admits with a mixture of pride and shame that he actually has three QY20 sequencers. His liking for them has a simple reason:
"I'm totally low tech. I hate setting up or programming sequencers, or working with computers. It's like MIDI hell to me. That's why I prefer to play everything live into the QY20; I don't quantise at all any more. In the past I used things like the Roland CR78 drum machine, the first analogue drum box with the wooden cover. I like analogue drum machines. They might be cheesy, but they definitely had their own sound, and there was some sort of mystery to them. Whereas the Linn had much too clean and pompous a sound for me, and contributed to making the '80s a terrible time for music. I also used to work on a Portastudio, working out the skeletal structure of my pieces, taking care not to go into too much detail, otherwise you get that the‑demo‑has‑more‑spirit‑than‑the‑final‑recording syndrome. So I was looking out for a sequencer that was very simple and very easy to learn and which allowed me to get my basic ideas down very quickly, without going into too much detail. The QY20 is ideal for that. People think I'm bullshitting them when I talk to them about the QY20, but I'm serious."
Wobble is also serious about his aversion to the underworld of 'MIDI hell'. Given that his music involves the application of huge amounts of computers, MIDI, and digital recording gear, he explains, his way of staying in music heaven is to use the talents of engineer, programmer and keyboard player Mark Ferda, who has been assisting him since 1989.
"Without Mark I would be fucked. He's brilliant, because I work manically fast, and I'll come into the studio with six hours of stuff on the little QY20, and he'll load it into the Mac and process it all. I made a decision a few years ago to not go too far into technology and engineering. I think that's a mistake many people make. I used to have a Brennel 8‑track tape recorder in the '80s, and a little drum machine and a little bit of outboard, and I knew how to work that, and that was how far I wanted to go into technology. I come from the generation that grew up before the digital explosion, when everything was still very logical and easy to understand. But now it's a pain in the ass to keep up with just knowing about all the new formats and technologies that come out, let alone knowing how to work with them. Now there's Zip drives and this and that and I start feeling 'Jesus Christ, I need an intensive update'. All this new technology is supposed to be helping me get some music together, but with all this fucking talk of disks and systems, it's all become so sterile, it's like the world of graphic design or something."
Despite his dislike of the hi‑tech complications of the late‑20th‑century recording studio, Wobble acknowledges that it's actually this very technology that allows him to do what he likes most: work fast, frighteningly fast.
"I want to get my ideas down, right now. I can't wait. It's painful for me to be in the studio, it's like giving birth. I want to get the music out of me as quickly as I can, because it's such a strain to wait. I'm totally impatient. So the important thing for me is the people that I'm working with, and that they can work whatever equipment we use very fast. But I couldn't have made all this stuff the last few years without all the new technology. I could never have written The River and the Requiem so quickly if it hadn't been for the QY20, and the possibility of transferring the MIDI data into the Macintosh and Audio Logic, which Mark runs via Session 8. And we've recently used the Otari Radar hard disk recorder, and it's pretty fast too. I hate being held up by technology so much that if I'm not working with Mark, I'll work totally analogue, because I do not want to be fucking about with people who don't know how to get the digital stuff working. A lot of people are quite slow working with digital and MIDI equipment. I've been on quite a few sessions with other people when you're waiting for five hours because things don't sync up properly or something else isn't quite right, and that can be very frustrating. People get tied up with technology and formats and the simplicity gets lost: what's lacking is good music and good ideas and good approaches. We have enough formats as it is."
Darkness that's cathartic and leads somewhere is great, but when it becomes a thing in itself, it becomes evil, stagnant, because there's no movement there.
By contrast, what Wobble clearly doesn't think we have enough of is his music. Compare his six releases during 1995‑97, and his aim to release five or six CDs per year, with the output of that other pioneering champion of world music, Peter Gabriel, and you wonder whether they're actually inhabiting the same world. But it's not just modern technology that allows Wobble to be so prolific; he wrote, recorded, and mixed The Celtic Poets in 16 days, without help from his ubiquitous QY20.
"I made some keyboard and percussion loops and got Jaki Liebezeit [the ex‑Can drummer, and a long‑time collaborator] in to play against that, then wrote parts for other players, which were recorded one by one. They were all older players who knew what they were doing, and so you can work very quickly. The CD starts with a dramatic opener about the Great Famine, written by Shane MacGowan. It's called 'The Dunes' and it's very, very heavy. You'll notice on the Celtic Poets album and on the Blake album that there are very few moments where there's a rhythm in the music behind the spoken words. I don't like breaking up the rhythms of the words and making them fit the rhythm of the music, as in rap. It's tiring for people to listen to. I like to keep the poem's rhythm. So the backing is going to have to be plaintive. But you don't want something sentimental, you don't want to convey the feeling of someone who has lost their pet budgie or cat, so you avoid minor keys and you have something between major and minor, something modal. Again, it's the area between dark and light that interests me."
And so, a decade after his return from all manner of nocturnal, Underground and dark worlds, Wobble now inhabits a mythical, magical musical world somewhere in a twilight where he can safely explore both light and darkness, without risking falling into some abyss again. It may seem odd that a man who's lived in East London for most of his life has become a champion of world music and spiritual awareness, but Wobble quietly and eloquently solves this seeming contradiction by declaring London a magical world city.
"I very much identify with Blake, who lived almost his whole life in London. He was one in a long line of Cockney mystics, and a lot of his spiritual visions were tied up with London. It's my city and it's a very special, deep, subtle city. There are references to London on the Celtic Poets as well, and to the Thames. All rivers are holy, and the Thames is my river. London was once a Celtic city, and I'm of Irish descent, so all these things weave together. All cultures, whether Celtic, or English, or Buddhist, or Aboriginal, or Mongolian, or Indian, represent eternal truths that are very ancient, but still very alive today."
"I've been working with Wobble since 1989," says his regular engineer Mark Ferda. "Before that I was a producer, and I hated it. I was either looking for jobs, or I was having to beef up egos in the recording studio. When I met Wobble, that was it: it was a perfect musical partnership. I play keyboards in his band, engineer and program, and also help run the record company, 30 Hertz. Music pours out of Wobble; he gets bored when I mix, because he can't write music. He writes everything on his QY20, and I'll dump all the MIDI data into the Macintosh, on which I use Emagic's Logic Audio and Digidesign Session 8, and we then work in a combination of formats, usually
24‑track analogue, no Dolby, with Session 8. Recently we've used the Radar hard disk recorder instead of the analogue tape machine — it's quicker and quieter — but I still prefer to move things around in the Mac. The Session 8 has also become our main sampler, which we use to create drum loops and sequences.
"We also have a home studio, 30 Hertz Studio, which features a Mackie desk, a Mac with Logic Audio and Session 8, a Jupiter 6, DX7, Korg 01/W, Yamaha CS01, Akai S1000, and three QY20 sequencers. That's pretty much it. [See the picture caption for a full list.] We used to work a lot at Greenhouse Studios, because they had a fantastic Neve desk, which Wobble and I loved. But then the studio burnt down, and they replaced the Neve with an SSL. Wobble hates the sound of the SSL, so we relocated to Intimate Studios here, where they have this incredible mixing desk, the Harrison Series 12. It's a digitally controlled analogue desk that's mostly used in film, and this is the only one used for music mixing in the UK. It has full instant recall and a very warm sound. I love its ability to switch between different songs very quickly. The Neve sounded slightly better, and the Harrison takes a little while to learn, but it's a brilliant desk."