The mystic of Mile End Road

Jah Wobble offers Phil Johnson a mix of the sublime, the gorblimey and the ridiculous
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The Independent Culture
"I actually like bleak and barren landscapes," Jah Wobble says, "because only in those sort of places can you find God, and it's like the wilderness, you know?" He speaks with a heavy East End accent and I somehow hear "wilderness" as "Willesden". "Well," says Wobble, "there's deserts and there's deserts..." and he does his excited "yeh, yeh, yey, yey" laugh, like Muttley in Wacky Races.

When I transcribe the tape later, Wobble is babbling on about all kinds of mystical stuff while I can be heard agreeing sagely like a disciple, before the conversation suddenly veers off into football as he recites from memory the line-up of the great Leeds United side of the Seventies.

I'd been warned about this. Wobble is such a nice bloke that you get sucked in, and instead of asking about Johnny Rotten, PiL and the years of drugs and degradation, you end up participating in a seminar about metempsychosis. Looking more like a scaffolder than a musician or a guru, he presents you with a beguiling mix of the sublime, the gorblimey, and the ridiculous - rather like the sleeve for his new CD Heaven and Earth, which sets pictures of sheds alongside a shot of Wobble as a crucified scarecrow in a farmer's field.

In an attempt to break the cycle of slavish dependence, I've come along to his studio, the Greenhouse off the City Road, to beard him in his lair. The promised re-mixing appears to have been postponed, and instead I watch while the first home-demo version of Wobble's new "Requiem" is plugged into the brain of the studio's computer. We talk downstairs in the rest and recreation room, with the ghosts of pop stars past hovering around the pool table and fruit machine. "The title always seems to come last," he says, "but there's that whole ethos of the meeting of the physical and the spiritual worlds, like in martial arts, or in the Lotus posture. The basis is very, very simple, and it pertains to the world of the spirit as well, so, Heaven and Earth..."

In fact, the album mixes tracks recorded at the Greenhouse with the results of an excursion to New York, with cult producer Bill Laswell at the controls, in which Wobble's mighty bass is earthed to the contributions of Pharoah Sanders on sax, Bernie Worrell on keyboards and Nicky Skopelitis on guitar, plus sundry DJs and percussionists. The results are interesting, but the two funky New York tracks are largely subsumed within the polyglot Bladerunner mix of the other tunes, where oriental textures are used to decorate the big, bass-heavy riffs familiar from his previous work. The bass, however, continues to deliver a hefty thump - my normally capable speakers are reduced by the album to worrying distortion.

So how did a nice East End boy become so interested in the arcana of mystical bollocks? "I was always looking for something else just around the corner," says Wobble, "and I found booze, and then cocaine, and it was like, 'wow, this is it'. But even before that, when I was 13 or 14, it was music, and I'd find one track and play it over and over again for 18 hours, like that martial arts thing of doing a thousand punches, until it just defeats the mind. But I allowed myself to be forced out of my centre and I betrayed the eternal in myself and my talent, selling bass licks for beer money and depleting my spiritual reserves." This was the period of Wobble's slough of despond, after PiL and before the Invaders of the Heart, when he packed in music in favour of a job on the Underground - the metaphysical finding, for once, an all too real metaphor in the material world.

"The element that was missing from my life was always earth," Wobble says. "That rootedness. There was lots of heaven, but without earth it makes no sense. If you go to India or China, every mountain or hill has its element and that myth seems to link people to the land, whereas our life is transient, mad and unrooted."

But surely, I say, you can find the same myths and legends right here, in the gods of City Road and the Moorfields Eye Hospital? "Yeah," he responds, "you've already got that folkloric thing of 'Up and down the City Road, in and out the weasel', but we're getting more and more cut off from it, which is probably a process that's been going on since the Normans." The future for Wobble looks as if it will be more and more in the vein of the Requiem. "I don't know if I'm going to be run over by a bus in a few days or what," he says, "but I had the flu and this fucking Requiem came out and it was beautiful, you know? And you can even put a heavy bass with it too." It looks as if the mystic of Mile End Road is only just beginning his journey.

n 'Heaven and Earth' is out this week on Island Records