NME, November 20th, 1982
Transcribed (and additional info) by Karsten Roekens
© 1982 NME
INVADER OF THE LOST ART
Richard Cook meets the musical nomad Jah Wobble who has now found the Arab in himself but not stardom.
"I'll never be a big pop star... if I'm on the dole next year I won't mind, I'll have had me run." He's been plying the fringes of attention for so long he seems like a fixture, a rentable oddball, ready for anything. Jah Wobble's enterprises stockpile into a profusion of activity; he gets bored easily. Let's meander through the recent history.
THE HUMAN CONDITION "It was a weird band - pretty good but, I dunno, I just got a bit bored. We did about 17-18 gigs altogether, loads of quiet little gigs with no publicity. Most of the time people went 'What the fuck is this ?' And then they'd get into it. "We did a cocktail bar up in Liverpool - worse than London 'cos I thought they'd all be mad Scousers but that decadence cancer's spread everywhere now. I suppose they thought it was going to be white reggae. So we did the heaviest set we ever done and it just drove them out. That's my kind of gig."
INVADERS OF THE HEART "The new band's fuckin' great as well. I must admit I lose concentration with things, but there's a lot of possibilities with this one. "I got the name off a video(*) of a Romany Trail through Cairo. The Islamic bands there have a name and the nearest translation is Invaders Of The Heart., "These birds do hypnotic dances and the way the geezers play is supposed to invade your heart. It's a bit tongue-in-cheek 'cos there's so many doing this 'Oh, I'm into drum sounds from Gambia' bit." Jah Wobble snaps on a tape of the Invaders' only gig to date(**).
A mighty coiled sound roars from the speakers. Guitars do a cod-Casbah chiming line, a synthesizer loops fabulously away into the ionosphere, and Wobble's grunting bass levers up a rhythm like a slow fever. "I wanna get some birds in to do a bit of that", he shouts above the music, going into a Wilson, Keppel and Betty sort of Pharao's dance. Now it's going into a Brazilian rhythm - "whatever we want to do, we do." A trombone parps in inebriate accompaniment to the others. It sounds like no other group on earth. Wobble's head nods in appreciation. With his bearded face, hair frantically aspray and quick clever eyes he has the features of a humorous lion. "So that's what's happening now."
"I think I must have that in me blood. I was working on all these rhythms and then I heard these record series, 'World Of Islam'(***), and they were the same. They're great because they're all so committed. I think religious maniacs make the best music. Religious maniacs, alcoholics and general nutters like Holger (Czukay, a frequent collaborator). "He phoned up the other night. He's got a message on his Ansafone about 'I vos Adolf Hitler's shepherd dog' and he's taping everyone's reaction to hearing that. And he's working on music from satellites and stuff."
Wobble is pleased at the enterprise. He has a new single recorded with Czukay, apparently held up through record company doubt (****). A familiar problem to him. Jah Wobble loves music, sounds, the propensities of noise, the possibilities of sonics. His cosy flat, situated near the disheveled and dying docklands of the East End, is full of machines to record or play or adjust. A big bass leans respectfully in one corner. A silent television flickers patiently. Wobble lies on a comfy-looking mattress and ponders the living qualities of natural instruments. "You can't wipe out something that's taken millions of years to develop, just because it's the '80s. I fuck about with rhythm boxes, they're quite handy at times. There's always people who do interesting things in that field, but mostly they're pretentious arseholes."
The key to Wobble's work is its organic sense of growth and flow. In his fascinating series of records this year alone - the pulverising Human Condition 'Live In Europe' cassette, the 'A Long, Long Way' single with Animal and the new 'Body Music' single for Island - Wobble's inquisitive moulding of whatever meets his ears is more than mere dabbling: it's a concern to breathe in unfamiliarities, not just poke tentatively at them. The obsession with the sheer physical presence of sound can bring it to devastating states.
"Island let me do a one-off now and then. I went and said I want to do a new record, and they said why don't you do some African music? I said - African music! They said, well there's an advance, and I said oh, you can get into it, can't you?" Wobble can tell a good story. "Me and Ben (Mandelson, of Orchestra Jazira) wrote the piece by playing around with different riffs and that. I don't think it's an African record - I can't play bass in the African style - but it turned out nice, uplifting, some good little changes. If it got to number one it wouldn't help in any way African music."
What would it do to him? "I'd be in beer money for a few months. Oh yeah, I'd probably do it again too. If anyone asked me to do a Chinese record I'd have a go. You can't afford principles with the price of beer today. I said to them, what about some Islamic stuff? But they said no. "Music's just music. I think it's dodgy when somebody says do it in an African style, but when you're offered... if you were offered £ 500,000 to do the story of Van Halen, you'd do it, wouldn'tcha?"
I'd think it over. But what of the temperamental artist - musical principles, all that? "Sure, but what the... You lose all your dignity in life anyway. You can afford principles if you've got the money. I could probably bash out a few pop hits if I put my mind to it. "I love playing in a heavy band and arranging a sculpted, total, heavy sound. With this group we thought we'd forget it and earn a few bob with a little pop band, but then we started fuckin' about with a few rhythms and right, it's another heavy band - another non-commercial proposition! "I can't concentrate on anything commercial, 'cos my mind always wants to strain everything to the limits. So I talk about having no principles but really I can't help but be an artist. I have to be engaged in making new sounds."
Wobble's plain honest face is without self-consciousness. "I'll never be a big pop star but if I have five years in the game I'll be all right. If I'm on the dole next year I won't mind, I'll have had me run." I wonder, thinking back to Wobble's swinging pop ('Betrayal'), total noise ('Dan McArthur'), heavy metal jazz (The Human Condition), is there anything he wouldn't try? "Nothing. Just crazy music. I saw Stockhausen at the Lyttelton Theatre and what he talks is absolute sense. He was saying that music is the same wherever. It's just notes, and there's only a certain number of notes we can hear, and that's it. "When he went to Japan people said oh, you're being influenced by the Japanese. He said no, I've found the Japanese in me. Well, I've found the Arab in me. Music's everywhere - it's there to be plucked out of the air."
We roam the world for a moment - Africa, India, Latin America - cultures cross and dissolve. I listen to try and catch the universal humming in the atmosphere. Wobble's cheerful, irresistible irreverence is one way in this cosmos. The talk gushes on. "I always find working in tandem with someone else is better, rather than a group. Just a couple of people bouncing around ideas. There's never really room for more than two egos. "But I'm always interested in working with other people. I dunno about producing - I've had a couple of offers but I'm not sure I could give them a hundred per cent. I ought to get four or five years more experience in studios first. "What I could do is work with a young group who wouldn't know if I was making mistakes. Actually I've helped a couple of people out that way this year, advice on setting up gear and stuff.
"I've got a kind of tunnel vision anyway. I like neat sounds, getting the rhythm section nicely lined up, wide soft stereo tones from the guitars. I'll do any work fast, in a couple of hours, 'cos I've got a short attention span. I just burst in and do it. "I never think of 24 channels, just of one sound, a whole entity. A whole set that you play is one thing from start to finish - that's how it was with Public Image. Most bands have notchy sounds, and that doesn't cut it. "It's like this cancerous thing. I know a lot of people like it, but a lot of people like crap. The highest TV ratings are when there are Satans on every channel - 'Game For A Laugh', that stuff - people being humiliated. Other people like to see that.
"I feel like we've only got a few years left. The whole culture's dragging. If there's such a thing as national mood then here it's despair. "We went up Moss Side when we played in Manchester and it was all gloom and nothingness. People just ain't got dough now. Everyone who's out of work just sleeps all day in bed and then the one thing to do is drink.
"I came in the other night - I'd had a drink - and AJP Taylor was on. Even HE was saying it's the end, an old establishment geezer like that." Then why does he stay here? If all is misery and despondency why not look for a different base for Wobble Inc.? "Well," he says, working it through, "I don't travel very well. And I've got some ties here, my girlfriend and that. But it's something that I've been thinking about. I've done a bit of travelling and always looked forward to coming back, to the down-to-earth British, and last time it was like coming back to East Berlin. I wanted to cry. Everyone's desperate. People certainly are close to the fuckin' edge.
"I've always felt you can travel in your head anyway. There's something dodgy about Englishmen abroad - you meet these expatriates and there's something dodgy about them. I suppose my advice to anyone who's rootless is pack up and go to America. They love the English over there. And there's always more respect - even for jobs people spit on over here, you get respected for whatever you do."
FAME AND FORTUNE
Wobble left PIL at a point where, had he stayed, he might have secured a lasting piece of a lucrative pie. As the group stumbled through the ludicrous 'Flowers Of Romance' album it became clear how much of a debt they owed to Wobble, usually branded as the erratic layabout of the team. How does he feel about the prospect of fame now? "Public Image was always Rotten's vehicle. I figured that out. I took about nine months for me to decide to leave, and it was finally because I couldn't stand the pretentiousness of it all. "Three quarters of the signal on 'Metal Box' is me - it could have done with a bit of editing, and the playing could've been a lot tougher. But it seemed pretty deep, even having it in a box, something to be dug up in a thousand years' time.
"I just like discipline in a group - working comfortably. I think you're lucky if you're in a group and I wouldn't abuse that position. Public Image went a bit... it was supposed to be an umbrella organisation, which it never became. "The video, our own label, none of that ever happened. I started to feel embarrassed. Those gigs in America, playing for twenty minutes and getting into this corny audience conflict situation - it wasn't leading anywhere. A performer has got a responsibility, especially in a ritual music like PIL played. It's give and take.
"The same thing's happening in football society - it's a lack of respect for people. Respect is always missing. As a performer you're a servant of the people. That's where we could learn a lot from the East - everything is turned around on itself. "I'm not too interested in fame, not in people running down the street after you. Once you've been in a big group like PIL you have to start all over again when you leave. You learn quickly what the big record companies are like, that they're just a big jail. Once they know you've got them a bit sussed, they're very dubious about long-term deals. The PIL thing with Virgin was very dodgy."
How would he use the influence accorded by greater success? "It's a Catch 22 thing. If you get so big it's having a mass appeal. The very strength of you getting there is the big weakness as well. The bigger you are the less can you do, 'cos you're tied up in a hundred contracts. But to be free of that is to lose your appeal, so it's totally hopeless. "There's certain groups, like Siouxsie And The Banshees I respect a lot. They never got up on a soapbox, they've kept their mouths shut, put out the music they want, kept their dignity. They've earned my respect. The other bands from that time - The Clash, they're happy-go-lucky geezers but they're one of the biggest embarrassments."
Nothing seems to bother Wobble much - the world is there to be given to, learned from, worked with. What plans or ambitions does he have left? "I've started to plan a bit more ahead now." he says, stroking the two cats that pad delicately over the floor. "A couple of months anyway, and always to have something happening, a continuity of action. This next year will probably be my busiest. "The Human Condition was like a celebration of the end, but now this band is much more about release - a rush of the old spirituality up the arse. It's uplifting. A lot of these instrumental bands that are about now don't understand about holding a groove and turning it inside out, knocking out notes without even thinking about it.
"These cassettes did about 7000 or 8000. I thought the cassette market would take off a lot more than it did. People still just like vinyl. I like small contained things like cassettes, they're more refreshing. The Human Condition was a contained band like that too. "One thing that Jim Walker (Condition's drummer) and me agreed on was to be around for 20 or 30 years. The rock industry is about the quick burn-out and when you meet rock stars you realise they're very scared people. They know they could be on the way out. People like me and Holger, we get a small and steady little following and we're all right.
"It's weird. I gave up Catholicism when I was 13, 14 and had a lot of battles with my family about it. I've talked to other Catholics about how it's haunted them - you get guilt feelings instead of a sense of discipline. It was always an ecstatic religion. "I went through a very tough Catholic primary school and sometimes those images come back to me, in dreams or something. God seemed like something to be feared, an indiscriminate slapper. "We were all scared of the altar, like it was somewhere you didn't wanna be on your own. Rotten turned it into a vogue to be a tortured Catholic, but it really bothered me when I was young. "They taught me well, but it fucked me up then. They want you to feel guilty and unclean. I don't disbelieve in the strength of the religion but I think a lot of the mystery went out of it when they changed the Latin mass to English. The Latin mass gave people a release anywhere in the world, and bringing it down to a chat on the doorstep wasn't too clever.
"I can push bad experiences away and then in the middle of the night they'll come back to me. I used to do the requiem masses for meths drinkers and that. We'd have to prepare the altar for some geezer in a coffin with no mourners. An image that stays with you forever. "People don't want everything brought into the light of day. They need mysteries. We're not that far advanced. We're nearer to the jungle than we are to a brave new world."
He jumps up to play a tape of a Latin mass taken off the radio. The rosary is being said. The celebrant intones the grave elegance of the words, as Wobble's bass lowers ominously in response to the other voices. The spirit sings. Suffused with memory, fuelled on the here and now, Jah Wobble has a long, long way to go yet. I hope he's still here in those 20 or 30 years to come.
(* the video was 'Romany Trail part 1 - Gypsy Music Into Africa', directed by Jeremy Marre, 1981 / part one of a trilogy, all now available on DVD)
(** London,The Venue, 3.11.1982)
(*** 'Music In The World Of Islam' (1-6) on Tangent Records, released in 1976 / all now available on CD)
(**** the two longish tracks ('Full circle' and 'Mystery') were not released as a single, but together with the 'How Much Are They?' EP formed the 'Full Circle' album in autumn 1983)
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