Jah Wobble: The ace of bass

Jah Wobble tells Alastair McKay why, despite the offers, he's not looking for a reunion with his former PiL bandmates

The three Johns - Rotten, Vicious and Wobble - were pals from Kingsway College of Further Education - so it seemed natural that Wobble should be asked to join Public Image Limited, the group Lydon formed after the Sex Pistols. The fact that Wobble didn't know how to count in a tune was incidental. Lydon and Wobble shared a taste for reggae and dub, and PiL was conceived as an experiment: Lydon's bitter lyrics were wailed over Wobble's loping bass runs and Keith Levene's wiry guitar.

PiL were one of the first post-punk groups to abandon the R'n'B template of rock, forging a link between the sound experiments of Jamaican dub and the avant-rock soundscapes of groups such as Can. This was an instinctive thing, to the extent that it is possible to hear the joins. Wobble cites PiL's "Bad Life": it has a rumbling bass, and the tune is propelled by a ride cymbal, so it remains close to a pop production, but the music is heading towards a darker place. By their second set, Metal Box, PiL had journeyed further into modal music.

Wobble uses a comparison with art to explain the progression. "They always say music trends follow art trends 30, 40 years on. That post-punk period is a bit like post-war modernism and expressionistic art. It's kind of modernist, monolithic. Maybe because me, John, and people like Sid, grew up on council estates in towering modernist architecture, it's towering, brutal music."

He has mixed feelings about PiL now. "John was full of fire with his lyrics. I found the first album more interesting than Metal Box. You can almost hear decision-making, and formative moments in the music.

"As it progressed and got into Metal Box, something desperately dark was going on. It was desperately sad around that time. You had heroin users, amphetamine sulphate users. I'm sure if crack had been around we would have taken that, but coke wasn't on the itinerary because it wasn't as powerful as methadrine crystal. There was a lot of booze about. It was a very poisonous atmosphere."

PiL set itself up as an alternative corporation, but never got around to achieving its grand ideals, and was a disaster as a business. Group funds were kept in a shoebox at PiL HQ - a house off London's King's Road - and when he left, Wobble felt justified in taking the shoebox with him. But time has been kind to PiL. The post-punk music of the early 1980s has never been more fashionable, and Wobble has found himself fielding phone calls about a reunion. His answer is a qualified "no". If they had good new material to play, he might consider it. "I'd like to get hold of the money, but not have to deal with John and Keith," he says, laughing heartily.

"That's not dissing anyone. I watch Withnail and I, I think of John and have a tear in my eye. Seriously. I do." (He has the Withnail character in mind.) "He'll probably hate me for saying that, but, bang on, that is John. If you chucked a bit of Kenneth Williams in there, a little bit of Ian Dury, and you make an amalgam of them. A little bit of Margaret Thatcher even. That would be him. Completely fuckin' awkward at all times."

Wobble's relationship with Levene was never straightforward, though he only stopped talking to him in 1994, 14 years after leaving the group. His attitude has softened slightly. He now suggests that Levene should be fired from a cannon to somewhere far away - possibly Turkey. "Funnily enough, I saw John Hurt in The Sweeney the other night, and he was like a better looking version of Keith. He was playing a very bitter character who works a drugs heist. Everyone else gets caught, but he gets away with it. He fucks off to Rio with a hundred grand. It reminded me of Keith, so I wanted the Sweeney to catch him. But they didn't."

The music business, says Wobble, is full of people who find it easier to manoeuvre than to make music. "The seven deadly sins do apply, and I suffer from them, of course. Pride is the biggest. That's my biggest woe. The others are like little mountains compared with that. But the one I noticed is laziness. The music business is full of lazy people who'd rather hang out, get high, get other people to carry their bags. With that laziness, gluttony comes in, and then sloth and envy. You're struck with indolence. PiL was that thing, unfortunately.

"It is interesting; in the way that watching those warped up weird freaky films of the Sixties or Seventies is interesting. Or watching Performance, which was a big favourite of people in PiL. There's a certain louche quality, a certain charmlessness that you don't get now."

Wobble argues that the ideas behind post-punk were more interesting than the music, and allows himself the luxury of imagining that he could go back to that time knowing what he knows now, and pursuing it with the energy of an 18-year-old. "There are fantastic areas to explore there, texturally: the concrete thing, the German thing, those weird soundscapes.

"Then again, we were all coming at it from a post-industrial landscape, literally. That David Lynch, kind of empty factories feeling. Maybe that's not there now. It was a thing that grew out of decay."

Since PiL, Wobble has pursued an idiosyncratic path. He touched on mainstream success with his album Take Me To God, a double set with 12 guest vocalists, but with typical obliqueness, decided to follow it with an album in which he offered a tribute to William Blake. His other albums have pursued the far shores of ambient and world music, including fine collaborations with Eno, Bill Laswell and Can's Holger Czukay.

"There's a feeling of natural progression, of everything moving along without trying too hard. I just follow my instincts really. I've got more inside of it somehow, understanding rhythms. That's the basics of music, really - a gut understanding of rhythm."

His new album, Mu, is a collaboration with Mark Lusardi, a Pil associate, who cut his teeth on reggae productions, and who shaped the dance music of the Nineties, with his invention, The Mutator, a form of oscillator which can be heard on records by Massive Attack. "That kind of Nineties dance music was similar to Lee Perry productions, with phased reverb, a phasing quality to the sound."

Mu was initially planned as an experiment in 5.1 sound, which Wobble explored on the soundtrack to a French film Fureur, but the complexities of recording meant that he and Lusardi reverted to stereo, while still employing the shifting layers of sound which 5.1 allows. The result is a lush, accessible record; from the endearing reggae of "Viking Funeral" to the geezerish philosophy of "Sansara". "Kojak Dub" takes the theme from the cop show for a stroll in the souk. At times, the album sounds like the soundtrack to an intergalactic kung- fu movie.

Wobble wanted the album to have a relaxed feel: "Like the French football team of two or three years ago, consistently playing within themselves." As the work progressed, he sensed that the concentration on production was making the music too bland. "I normally work off the cuff, like a chef frying fish and vegetables. Twenty minutes, it's done, there you go. It might be weak on the presentation, but it's a hearty dish.

"On this one it was, let's take a bit a time, so we went back and re-did stuff because it was a bit too much like wallpaper."

Though Wobble now lives in Cheshire with his wife, the Chinese musician, Zi Lan Liao, the album was inspired by the bleaker corners of north London, from the Lee Valley to Ponders End, where it was recorded: "It's as close as London gets to New Jersey. But it's one of my favourite places for walking, through the Lee Valley. It gets beautiful in that urban way, but then you go through soap factories up near Ponders End. It's got a wonderful, dislocated, alienated feeling."

The title refers to Wobble's interest in spirituality. He represents a collage of impulses: believing in God, but admiring the directness of Zen Buddhism, which he discovered through his passion for martial arts. In Zen meditation, Mu is reflecting on nothingness. "You can never get to the core of anything. I certainly think that's the case with music. And I do meditate. There is a feeling of nothingness sometimes. In a good way. It used to scare me 15 years ago."

In 1986, Wobble quit drinking and taking drugs, and worked away from music for a period of months, first as a courier, then on the London Underground. He was soon drawn back into music. "I remember listening, when I worked on the Underground, to a lot of Salif Keita, and thinking 'I still fancy this job'."

Wobble describes himself as "a primitive self-taught savage of a musician", but is disturbed that some profiles refer to him as a thug; something he puts down to class prejudice. He is a working class boy from Stepney, and a compulsive character. "I'm a geezer. I was living in squats, started to do a lot of drugs. God knows what would have happened to me, because PiL and the bass gave me a direction. But I wasn't an evil fella. I've never mugged anyone, I've always tried to be respectful to people."

Nor is he stupid. In 2000, he gained a humanities degree from Birkbeck College. "There is a class thing in Britain, so I still get treated like a thick barrow boy. You take it in one ear and out the other. If you're working class you have to learn not to be like Don Quixote. You'll end up tilting at every windmill if you're not careful."

Last year he released I Could Have Been a Contender, a fine career-spanning compilation, showing how he has developed a style which allows his bass - a thumping, pervasive presence - to act as the glue in various forms of music, from reggae, to ambient, to Molam Dub. It's what happens when you let a reggae fan from Stepney dream while tuning into Radio Cairo on shortwave radio. "The line I wanted to take was: 'I've been lucky. This is what happened.' The one thing I was good at, I stuck at it. I stayed at it like a dog with a bone. Somehow I need to. If I don't, I'm anxious. It's like an appendage, this big bass, these big stacks; I don't want to be bothered with it, but you have to."

'Mu' is released on Trojan on Monday

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