INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
Far Out MARCH 7, 2021 - by Jordan Potter
JAH WOBBLE: DISCUSSING NEW MUSIC, POLITICS AND THE HISTORY OF PUNK
It was around lunchtime on a Thursday when Wardle's infectious grin popped up on the video call. He seemed a little flustered as he had just got back from a game of football he had played in the morning with some of his friends in his hometown of Stockport. He explained that he was having a relaxing day off in between the dates of his current tour with Invaders Of The Heart, and aside from his friend visiting later on in the afternoon, he had plenty of time to put the world to rights. After some initial customary issues with wi-fi connection and a struggle with audio settings, Wardle's tea had steeped and we were ready to chat.
Early on in our conversation, I asked Wardle why he chose to play the bass guitar, or whether it had been the bass guitar that chose him. He said it would have to be the latter, and elaborated: "It was the sonic end side of things that really grabbed me at first, especially with the blue beat, or ska, music." With these forms of music "the bass end of it was becoming a bit heavier than other contemporary records," he said. "I didn't even articulate it that much at the time but it drew me in". Wardle then went on to describe how he had been to see a Reggae Soundsystems event in the mid-1970s and he described the bass as having been the most prominent instrument: "It was this feeling, you know? It was incredible." Wardle explained that what sealed it for him "was watching Aston 'Family Man' Barrett with the Wailers at the Lyceum in 1975. I didn't come out of there thinking 'I'm gonna play bass' because the punk thing hadn't really happened yet, but I was just fascinated with the bass players".
Clearly enthused, Wardle exemplified that he loved the simplicity of the bass guitar: "It's only four strings, you don't play any chords as such, and when I've tried to play the guitar in the past I've thought 'ooh, this is horrible'". He addressed the size of his fingers as the reason why he found the six-string guitar such a struggle, adding: "I've got big, massive hands and fingers" he said, lifting his hands to the camera. "They're yellow fingers, not because of nicotine anymore, but from eating biryani... I've got biryani fingers now!".
Clearly warmed up and more comfortable with speaking into a computer, I asked Wardle what his thoughts were on Paul McCartney, both as a bassist and as a rock icon. Funnily enough, he had been talking to a friend about McCartney earlier that day at his football game and had been discussing how "the British somehow produce these really great melodic bassists that are really imaginative". Touching on the subject in more detail, Wardle elaborated: "McCartney is very imaginative in playing inversions of the chord rather than just pedalling the root note, and he's also, obviously, a great writer".
He continued, describing his feelings towards the Beatles: "I think we all got a bit fed up with the Beatles though - there is bloody life after the Beatles". Wardle explained that he didn't really take to the Fab Four as a youngster at first, he saw them as the band that all the girls at school and parents liked. But then he recalls "that point where they did Strawberry Fields and the mums and the dads didn't like them and it came out that they had been doing drugs and there was Yoko Ono, this bad, sinister influence from the East". Referring back to Strawberry Fields Forever, he added: "There's something about that record, though, that drives me nuts, I absolutely love this record. It was so weird, Strawberry - Fields - Forever, beautiful".
Our conversation was off to a reflective start, and I asked whether Wardle perhaps sided more with The Rolling Stones during that era of rivalry. He explained that, again, they weren't his favourite band, but his father had been particularly unimpressed by the Stones, he would jovially say that they were only good for "mine clearance". Wardle did, however, explain that he didn't mind the band though and enjoyed some of their tracks. He named Start Me Up as a personal favourite but insisted, "I'm not having it with that Mick Jagger".
Following this, I wanted to move on to his work with Brian Eno, and we began to discuss how he came to work with him on the 1995 album Spinner. Wardle explained that Eno had a few snippets of ambient music that he had used for the soundtrack for the 1978 Derek Jarman film Jubilee. He explained that Eno had approached him and asked to see if he could make an album using the snippets. Wardle explained that he took on the task reluctantly, at the time he had wondered "why can't we just make the fucking record? Why do we have to start with this in particular? But that's I guess typical Brian - and so it worked out" much to Wardle's surprise; he explained that they had been on a tight budget and were using "a prototype audio logic setup that used to crash more than bloody work (...) but it kind of worked alright, I didn't listen back to it for a good few years, but when I did, I thought didn't sound at all brittle, it actually sounds really classy." He commented that the "landscape [Spinner] engendered was the Lee Valley - very post-industrial".
While on the topic, I asked whether the album being called Spinner and having an image of a spanner on the front was a joke - if you mistakenly referred to the album as 'Spanner' you are a spanner yourself. Wardle replied: "Yeah, that was Eno's thing, very clever, very weird - spinner? Spanner? What the fuck? Irritating (he chuckles)".
On the subject of collaboration, I was keen to uncover Wardle's view on contemporary music and, if the situation ever arose, whether he would with a modern artist. In response, he explained that he gets asked this from time to time and he said he always struggles, tending to "always think of dead people, which says something about me psychologically". He continued to explain that he doesn't really know, but he likes the idea of doing something with visual artists or filmmakers and explained that he really enjoyed the 2021 film The Power Of The Dog, and added that the director Jane Campion was so clever and that "in terms of concept, I'd like to work with someone like that because she really knows how to convey hidden sinister undertones".
Back to the musical side of proceedings, Wardle explained that there was an Irish gentleman called Rowan he knew in the '90s who he would love to work with again. He explained that he played the uilleann pipes brilliantly. He then added that he'd also "like to go back to the whole post-punk thing" and that there was "one or two singers from the '70s and '80s that he would like to work with again".
When asked whether he was a fan of the modern resurgence of post-punk music with bands like IDLES, Dry Cleaning and Fontaines DC, Wardle explained that he was a fan. He elaborated explaining fondly that post-punk, for him, has always been "about breaking the rules, going beyond the rules, it wasn't about being mannered. It was about using different media, using collage - it was this thing of having a very broad horizon and not worrying about musical terminology or being shackled by stuff too much".
Changing lanes for a moment, and discussing the biggest challenges for the music industry over the coming decades, Wardle explained that he's at a point in which he tries not to worry about it too much now, he likes the fact that vinyl is making a comeback and while he isn't a fan of streaming, it's a modern reality and that there wasn't much that could be done about it. "So that's where you're at," he said, "You have to go out and play live now".
The idea of Jah Wobble observing contemporary music from the sidelines was a fascinating one for me, and we rolled through everything from new bands, the challenges they face, and charitable industries such as the Music Venue Trust organisation. While Wardle confirmed that he isn't a member of the MVT, he did clarify: "I've heard of it and it sounds like a good thing. You've got to keep it alive and keep it moving". He explained that his sons were in bands and he always reminds them of the importance of getting out there and playing as many small gigs as possible. He concluded by explaining that "about 60,000 tracks a day get uploaded to Spotify you know? God, it's so hard to earn a living on there!".
Following this, and attempting to tap into his vast experience, I asked Wardle if he had any advice for young aspiring musicians. He answered with a general message that encouraged people to remember why they are there, remember to enjoy it. He explained, "It's like when people start playing sport at a high level and they might be in an FA Cup Final, they have to be reminded before they go on [to the pitch], 'don't forget to enjoy it'". He concluded that people must always try to be "mindful", "aware", "present" and live in the moment. "If I don't have that awareness, I tend to be uptight, worried and fearful that the track won't be a success, or that I won't play well," he said.
Given that our interview was a rolling conversation without any real desire to tie him down to one specific topic, we moved onto politics, and in particular, I asked Wardle why he thinks John Lydon, his ex-bandmate from Public Image, has moved toward the political right in recent years with his outspoken support for Brexit and the likes of Donald Trump and Nigel Farage. He responded candidly, explaining that of course he "can't speak for John Lydon, but there is this thing - I discussed in my book [Memoirs Of A Geezer], about this blue-collar disaffection". Wardle explained that often the working class will be led away from overarching issues and longer-term repercussions due to their present issues and misleading information. He added that during the Brexit campaign, as an example, "There was this feeling [in the working classes] that they have some power, at last, they can change something." He explained that it was more a whim of anger toward current circumstances as opposed to specific issues in the EU for the most part.
Returning to the question's focus on Lydon, Wardle claimed that "a lot of those fellas, the old rockstars, are pro-Brexit and pro-Trump and what have you because they're of an age. I think when people get older, they get a bit more reactionary, more angry, life makes less sense or something... younger people appear annoying somehow, or threatening". He concluded by explaining that he does believe that there's perhaps something in Lydon that makes him feel he should be naturally antagonistic, he will always side with the working classes as that's where his roots lie.
It was on this topic of former bandmates that the conversation turned a little lighter, and when I asked Wardle for the funniest memory of his days as Sid Vicious' close friend, he explained that the anecdote he was about to tell was somewhat bittersweet. He replied: "Oh very simple this... right, this is terrible really because I did a Suicide Prevention Course just this week, so this is terrible now looking back. The funniest thing was just me and him. He was seeing a psychiatrist, this was around 1975-ish sort of time in the summer. In North London the bloke had a clinic, I think attached to his house, where he saw clients."
He continued, explaining that Sid had approached him following a session with the psychiatrist: "He said 'my shrink wants to meet you', I said 'why's that?' and he said 'I've been thinking of topping myself, and he thinks that if he meets you, because you're my mate, and he thinks that you're like me (...) he thinks that you can help talk me out of suicide.' So we both saw the opportunity for a bit of fun".
Upon meeting with the psychiatrist, the shrink spoke to the pair of rascals together in an effort to help Sid overcome his suicidal thoughts. Wardle continued: "The shrink said 'John, I know you're really good friends with John [Sid], and I know a bit about you, that you play football, you're into movies, you've got a girlfriend and that you're involved in life. So I'm really glad that Sid is hanging out with somebody who's..." Wardle suddenly cut out of the story and said: "I've just suddenly realised, for the first time ever... he obviously saw me, as the most normal person that Sid knew... not casting aspersions on any other people, including the other Johns. But this (regarding himself) is an exemplar of normality? (he chuckles)".
Continuing the story, Wardle adds: "So he's talking to me about Sid taking his own life which is crazy, and he asked: 'could you be of some help to him?'". Wardle said in response to the psychiatrist: "Well I don't really know if it is worth Sid continuing to live from where I'm standing" and "Sid looked at the bloke and said 'See, see, even my friends think I shouldn't live', and the poor bloke looked horrified and was really upset as you would be. So we just did this deadpan thing and then left, then we walked off down the road, [we were] laughing. But actually, chillingly now, when you look back... many a true word said in jest". Wardle's final comment, of course, refers to the horrific fate that Vicious met in 1979 when he was found dead following a drug overdose. The strange circumstances of the death have been subject to widespread speculation and conspiracy to this day.
Of course, the music of The Sex Pistols didn't end with the demise of the band. In our conversation, we returned to Wardle's days with Public Image Ltd. in the late 1970s. I asked whether he thinks that, had he remained with the group, he would have had the power to change the direction the group headed sonically over the early 1980s. He explained, in response, that he wasn't sure if he would have had the power, but he certainly wouldn't have chosen the direction they went musically. He said: "Maybe I'm being egotistical, but [after Metal Box] I don't think they did anything at that level again". He went on to name 1986's album entitled Album with the hit song Rise as the only work that came close.
Wardle, in what appeared as a particularly reflective mood, explained that the rest of the group had been "really lazy" around the time when he was departing: "I think I played less than twenty shows with PIL. Can you believe it?" he commented. It appeared Wardle had been somewhat upset by the lack of enthusiasm from the other members. In fact, Wardle revealed that the famed record producer Mickie Most had wanted to work with them, "Mickie Most loved the band and wanted to do something with us, and we ended up just blowing it out - just not turning up on the day. You know... it's pathetic!".
Just before saying goodbye, I asked what's on the horizon for Wardle over the coming months. He explained that he has planned to make a record with Jon Klein (formerly of Siouxsie & The Banshees) and explained that he would love to schedule some more time in the studio with his musically gifted wife Zi Lan Liao and their two sons to make more music as a family.