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Music Interview: Jah Wobble

Music Interview: Jah Wobble
Image by Alex Hurst

For almost half a century, English bassist, Jah Wobble, who was one of the founding members of post-punk band, Public Image Ltd (PiL), has been making music inspired by influences from all over the globe.

A brilliant new four-CD digipak compilation, Dark Luminosity – The 21st Century Collection (Cherry Red Records), shows just how diverse his output has been, taking in dub, jazz, folk, dark and cinematic compositions, ambient, film scores, world music, Asian sounds and spoken word.

It includes his work with his band The Invaders of the Heart, as well as collaborations with female vocalists Natacha Atlas, Liz Carter and Julie Campbell (alias LoneLady), North African-born duo MoMo (Music Of Moroccan Origin), electronic band Marconi Union and Shakatak’s Bill Sharpe, plus tracks he wrote and recorded during lockdown for the moody, late-night album Nocturne In The City and the more celebratory and ecstatic record, End of Lockdown Dub.

Jah Wobble
Image: Alex Hurst

The collection has been co-compiled by Wobble and he’s written the sleeve notes, which provide details of his recording techniques and some of the people he’s worked with.

hi-fi+ got him on the phone to talk about putting the compilation together and some of his influences and inspirations.

“I’m very lucky to be able to do my own sleeve notes and explain what I’m about to people,” he says. “So much time passes, you release stuff and you should say something. It’s genuine and I’m a very honest kind of guy.”

SH: This box set focus on your work in the 21st century – in 1999, you had a massive change in your life, when you and your family moved from the East End of London, where you were born and raised, to Stockport, up north. Why did you do that and how was it?

JW: It was like, ‘Oh my God – what am I doing?’ I had no idea, but we needed a bigger gaff. I’m sitting in my front room now and we’ve got a harp in here.

I run a label – the law is that no matter how much you plan with distributors, you’ll always end up with cardboard boxes in your hall.

We had to bite the bullet and go – it was a bit hairy where we were living too. You know London – you can be within two or three streets away of it getting heavy.

To be quite honest, you had a lot of people moving in because it was trendy – it was an ‘artists’ area.’ You’d hear these stats… ‘There are 45,000 artists…’

Oh, f*** off! Says who? And why are they artists? It all got a bit daft and it felt like it was time to go. It [Stockport] was also near to my wife’s mum and dad – active grandparents are very important.

I only had one active grandfather and he was a pisshead, God bless him. He loved me – he was great – but he was rough as f***. He’d give you a florin and a tangerine and a Bounty bar at Christmas.

You’ve been closely involved with putting the new CD collection together, haven’t you?

Yeah – John Reed started it. He really got it and understood it – we deliberately made it a bit left field. We left off a few tracks that would be considered potentially more populist. In essence, that’s where I was at the time, going into the 21st century, he says, grandly.

Was it hard to decide what to include and were there any nice surprises when you were going through all the music, or things you’d forgotten about?

There were loads, like the Alpha One Free album. There were a few albums that were pretty obscure and I was like, ‘Wow – I’d completely forgotten about that.’ Most importantly, I’d forgotten where I was at when I did it and how ecstatic I was. I worked upstairs in the loft at that point – half of it was a studio space. I used to work there until the early hours of the morning. It was very solitary and it was quite spooky – you could really feel a presence. It was probably the presence of my consciousness – it’s like a force looking over your shoulder.

You sometimes go to some dark places for your musical inspirations, don’t you, as well some lighter areas? The title of the compilation is Dark Luminosity…

Yeah – maybe it’s like those f***ing people who are in recovery. It’s like picking a stone up and seeing what lies underneath – shining a light on the darkness. As my mate Billy used to say, many years ago: ‘If you don’t go down to get the demons, they will come up and get you.’ That’s very much dark luminosity – dusk is a time in nature which is brooding. The night is about to start – a whole new shift of animals come on. It can be a very dangerous place if the darkness isn’t your friend. Darkness is a kind of friend to me in a way – I’ve always liked moving around the city, late at night.

There’s a real soundtrack feel to some of the tracks on the compilation…

There are lots of cinematic things – I did the Fureur soundtrack. I just knew at the time that it was special.

I really like the music you did with Marconi Union, which has that John Barry and Ennio Morricone feel, and the Nocturne In The City album, which you made during lockdown and is also very cinematic…

Jah Wobble

That’s right. I’m a big John Barry fan. I often do a stupid quiz on stage: ‘Where did the British composer of ‘Midnight Cowboy’ hail from?’ People never guess it’s York…

His dad was a cinema projectionist…

That’s it – that’s where he got his love of soundtracks from. I came to John Barry quite late and then I realised that what I was doing was cinematic. Doing film music comes with its own price – a lot of musicians don’t realise that. It’s as much a straitjacket as writing pop songs.

For me, what I’m writing for a lot of the time is a soundtrack to life – reality. There’s no difference to me because life is like a movie.

Jah Wobble
Image: Alex Hurst

If you look at it like old celluloid film being projected, the thing that interests me most is the bright, white light that shines through the celluloid onto the screen. That whole process – we are the light and we are the screen. The things we aren’t are the characters – the things we think we are, we’re not, in essence. Which would make a good case for the defence in court, I suppose…

Who would play you in the Jah Wobble biopic?

That’s the thing – it doesn’t matter. It’s the music that matters and I’ve very much gone that down path. I’ve stuck to my guns and it keeps everything simple.

I can remember, back in the day, when everybody was trying to get onto soundtracks – it’s easier to just f***ing relax, make the music and have faith in that and the long haul.

I was surprised by how eclectic the new collection is – you’ve done so much diverse stuff, including dub, ambient, cinematic music, jazz, world music, folk, spoken word… The box set is a treasure trove…

Yeah – it’s very varied. At the moment what sticks out for me is the solitary stuff – I was really on a bit of a solitary sort of trip for a lot of it. Having said that, lots of it is ensemble because I can never stay away from working with people for too long.

Some of the tracks that stand out for me are from the 2003 English Roots Music album – folk songs, like ‘Unquiet Grave’, which you did with The Invaders of the Heart and vocalist Liz Carter. How did that project come about?

It was very simple – if you like world music, you like folk and roots music. I’ve got Irish ancestry – I grew up listening to Irish folk and then I heard Scottish and English folk and thought, ‘Oh my God – why is English folk so prissy?’ It was like a parody of folk – Cecil Sharp and the whole Victorian attitude to folk music. It was almost like butterfly collecting, where you get it in the net, put chemicals in it and then put it under glass – it’s a dead thing now, well done…

Obviously, there were people like the Carthy family… I realised there was a scene and started taking an interest in it. I thought it would be nice to just make a simple little record, probably up north, and do some folk.

I was staying in Hartlepool and I met Liz Carter – we tended to do shows at a place called The Studio, so I stayed there and recorded a folk record. It was a fun and low budget recording – it’s a unique little record and it’s off-the-wall. It achieved what we wanted, which was to make rootsy, dubby and passionate versions of some of those ancient songs that were hundreds of years old.

I like the English Roots Band’s version of Dawn Penn’s reggae song, ‘No No No’, that’s on the collection – it’s a spacy dub. You’ve put your own stamp on it…

That’s right – it was a question of working with the musicians I had around me at the time, who were a bit folky and a bit jazzy. I also did a thing called Deep Space – a lot of people hated it, by the way. It was like Metal Box [the second PiL album] – probably more people hated it than loved it at the time.

When people hate something, you have to take it with a healthy amount of cynicism and a pinch of salt.

We took a lot of stick from traditional folk fans and because we weren’t doing more commercial world music things.

The box set shows that… You’re doing some Metal Box Rebuilt In Dub shows this year…

We’re doing Metal Box again. It came out in ’79 – I started to get a bit of a fascination with it again. I started playing a Fender Precision again and it got me back into those basslines and the unique sound of Fender.

With The Invaders, we’ve been doing numbers off Metal Box for a few years and I went out with Keith Levene [founding member of PiL] in 2012 and we did half a dozen shows. Keith was ill and sadly passed away.

I’ve been working with Jon Klein [Siouxsie and The Banshees] – if you want a post-punk guitarist, he’s your man. He’s a very talented guy – he’s very good technically and he’s very creative. We’ve also made an album and it’s coming out on Cleopatra in the fall, as they say in America. It’s called A Brief History of Now and it’s pretty commercial.

How was it revisiting and rebuilding Metal Box in dub?

It’s more than dub. There are a lot of strings on it. I love strings – the Philly Sound – they do the job.

Are you pleased with the new box set?

Very much – there’s some great attention to detail. They’ve used some of my artwork but for the front cover, I said, ‘Stick a photo of me on it.’

It’s you, wearing your Apple headphones…

I’m Apple’s f***ing bitch! That’s where I’m at – I’ve always got headphones on.

Music Interview: Jah Wobble, Music Interview: Jah Wobble

Dark Luminosity – The 21st Century Collection is out now on Cherry Red Records. It’s a four-CD digipak set.

Jah Wobble is on tour this year: www.jahwobble.com

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