“A World of Mooching About”: Jah Wobble in Conversation
Music, like language, is full of relativities. Would a European listener who immediately associates the opening notes of “Ode To Joy” with happiness also understand the sorrow in the traditional Indian Raag Maru Bihag? When our favourite artist expresses their anger through a fast, aggressive track, we might think we recognise the emotion ourselves, but we can’t truly know whether we are feeling the same thing. Even so, the aspiration to a universal, shared basis of experience is vital to the work of a musician.
In the 1950s, Miles, Mingus and ’Trane sought to attain it through the conception of modal jazz, liberating themselves from the established, self-referential harmonic patterns of bebop by writing tunes that were more melody-driven and less insistently chordal, each one structured around not a progression of cadences, but a unifying mode. The aim was for the music to have an absolute, rather than relative, significance; to epitomise freedom and eschew emulation; and to operate not in the moment, but through time.
Bass guitarist Jah Wobble, born 1958 in Stepney and christened John Joseph Wardle, developed his modal style of playing and song writing in a more serendipitous fashion. In Memoirs of a Geezer, the Public Image Ltd (PiL) founding member and Invaders of the Heart frontman wrote, “I used a lot of open strings and made geometrical shapes based on where the dots on the fret were. To me that was very simple. I didn’t know it at the time but that placed me firmly in a modal context.” This approach served him well, adapting itself equally to the hypnotic minor-key post punk of PiL as to the pentatonic rap of Molam, rootsy English folk, or jazz suites with avant-garde pioneers like Pharoah Sanders and Evan Parker. But as suggested in his distinctive stage name, the key ingredient is reggae. Wobble's embrace of big, physically present low-end, and swirling, repetitive dub hooks, has defined his sound throughout a prolific and varied career. A frequenter of blues parties featuring “big old bass bins” when growing up in the East End of London, he’s written about the calming mental effect that loud bass has on him; a visceral experience that overrides the restrictions of thought and identity: “When you really groove, you forget yourself”. Situated within a spectrum of low-frequency sound that relies on an appreciable material presence for its production – the largeness of the guitar and the strings, the speakers and the rigs – such vibrations themselves have the seeming ability to dissipate “permanent physical form or boundary”. It’s the clearest demonstration of how music, while in some senses of a place, cannot be contained by it.
This duality is reflected in Wobble’s work, in a number of ways. There is a strong theme of transcendence in his music, lyrics and song titles, while the choice of style and subject matter often evokes a particular location. The chorus to “Minds Float Free” [Ocean Blue Waves, 2020] plays cheekily with that dynamic, where spiritual statements rely on the names of apparently unconnected settlements for their rhyming resolution: “Our minds floats free / From Felixstowe to Waikiki / Smooth torrents of consciousness unbroken / And yet by the self-same token / Our thoughts remain unspoken / Whether here or in Hoboken”. Of course, though, places are always connected, as much by the communicative power of resonance as by the striving urge to travel, to build routes, to displace yourself.
Infrastructure and architecture often play this sort of role in Jah Wobble’s songs, evoking a sense of movement, contact, building, that goes beyond the physical. You can hear it on the spoken word “A13” [Without Judgment, 1989], where the trunk road connecting London with the marshland of Essex becomes an astral corridor from which he observes and connects with the human essence of a place via its “oil refineries, motor factories, motor works, sewage plants, factory farming, theme pubs, launderettes, transport caffs, haulage firms, betting shops” and “swaggering aggressive young men who hate themselves.” The built environment, and what it’s like to live among something so solid, paradoxically encapsulates our transience: “A giant metaphor for nowhere”. And then there’s the album Umbra Sumus (meaning “we are shadows” in Latin), which features sounds Wobble recorded while walking the waterways of East London. As he outlined during our discussion, walks remain a source of continual subconscious illumination for him.
The clearest evocations of place in Wobble’s music come from his exploration of world musical traditions. His long-running band, Invaders of The Heart, were conceived as a fusion between an “African (both North and Sub Saharan) vibe” and “a London/UK earthy dub meets ad hoc trance-acid-house thing.” In 2001, his independent label 30 Hertz Records released Molam Dub, a collaboration between The Invaders of the Heart and Molam Lao, a group of vocalists and khen instrumentalists originally from Laos but who, unable to safely return there, had settled in Paris. This cultural dispossession puts a poignant slant on the ability, through making and hearing music, to connect to faraway places. But the songs themselves (even to someone totally unfamiliar with the language, style and tradition) are irresistibly joyous. As Wobble puts it: party music.
I spoke to John over the phone on a snowy February evening. I’d been thinking about recording artists and their experiences over this last year, wondering whether working in a studio had come to feel particularly claustrophobic. But then, Jah Wobble is a man well at home in a recording studio. There’s a memorable passage in his memoir where he describes the “killer bass sound” of Gooseberry Sound Studios on Gerrard Street in Chinatown, a low-cost studio popular with reggae and punk acts. “Me and Mark Lusardi would spend a bit of time positioning my bass amp to get the best resonance for the particular set of notes that I was playing. For instance, if the root note of a line was ‘A’ we would find the part of the room that had a good resonance around that note.”
Stories like this – about the journey made by music to your ear – are even more exciting in these shuttered days.
BRICK: Could you describe the influence reggae has had on you as a musician?
JW: It was massive. I grew up listening to blue beat, which was another term for ska music, in essence. There was a blue beat chart at the local record shop, Paul’s on Cambridge Heath Road. I come from the East End of London, and he had a stall as well, on Whitechapel Waste, on a Thursday, Friday and Saturday. He had a separate blue beat chart to the top 40, and some of it was top 40 hits done in a blue beat fashion, because blue beat was very popular with the skinheads. It was very much the urban music of its time, really.
I grew up listening to that, and I just loved it. Even then, I was kind of attracted to the bass, the bottom-end thing, because you could hear a bit of that going on. The Jamaicans would employ sound systems and were already getting aware of bottom end. Then I think it was Aquarius Rock was the first album – it was a dub album – where you first heard delays and reverbs used in a very overt way – very early ‘70s.
The genre was dying down a bit at that time. You had people like Desmond Dekker having hits, and Dave and Ansell Collins and people had mainstream hits. There wasn’t as many hits, and the hits weren’t officially as big as they should have been, because of the chart return policy at the time. It tended to penalise – I believe, but it’s a common view – reggae records, so it was even more popular than was acknowledged. And maybe there was an agenda in keeping it that way.
BRICK: An establishment view.
JW: Yeah, so you had the same old pop records and all that, and reggae probably suffered as compared, but there were other leftfield acts who’d go on to say that, right the way through into the ‘80s.
Anyway, the genre started to die down a bit commercially, but I stayed with it. I used to listen to Radio London at midday. They would play some reggae tunes, and that’s when you first heard some of the very early dub, stuff like Aquarius Rock. Then it really came back big in ’74/75. It just exploded with Bob Marley. So ’73/74 – it’s when it really came to the fore. I used to listen on Capital Radio; Tommy Vance had a reggae show… actually before [David] Rodigan, I believe. So I always thought he was this mad white guy that was into reggae, when he was actually really a heavy rock guy more than anything.
Me and my mate Ronnie would chance our arm. We’d go up to Hackney and go to blues dances, and that’s when I first heard proper sound system stuff. It just knocked the socks off of me. It sucks your trousers in, actually.
BRICK: Were there any particular sound systems that you followed?
JW: Saxon – I think they were around Bow. I might be wrong there, but they played a lot of soul. Soul was very popular; I was as much into imported soul. There was Bali Hai club at Streatham ice rink, South London – it’s still going, the sound system. We went over there. I’m trying to remember – it might be Jah Shaka sound system. There was a west London sound system we went to; that was a bit later on.
A lot of those ones we’d go to were just quite informal. People’d get the boxes. You have this setup with the big bass reflex speakers, and it was literally like a physical, pure movement of energy or something. It was visceral. So that was going on.
My favourite record at that time was “King Tubby Meets Rockers Uptown”. Of course, when you find out more about King Tubby, I believe he was an electronics expert guy, as well as being quite musical and being into jazz – so it’s a very interesting, scientific thing going on there, in a way. And it was mainly singles, but you did have King Tubby records at that time. As well as Paul’s record shop, where you could buy a lot of the dub stuff, there was an enclosed market; it was under a kind of car park on the ground floor at Petticoat Lane, in Middlesex Street, that part of it. You’d go there and there was a stall where you could buy a lot of dub albums at that time. They had a lot of King Tubby stuff on that stall.
And “King Tubby Meets Rockers Uptown” – obviously people would make a tune and there’d be a dub version. The tune was “Baby I Love You So”, sung by Jacob Miller. When you hear the dub version, the actual arrangement is different; it was done with edits, I think. He’d cut it up, King Tubby, and obviously Augustus Pablo was playing on it. There was a real deep thing going on, deeper than people have acknowledged, maybe, at times, with the dub thing.
At that time, in ‘74, Bob Marley was really coming into the mainstream, because of Chris Blackwell and Island and everything. I then saw them play at Lyceum in ‘75; their record had already been out for several months before they played in July. They played two nights. That was the best concert I’ve ever seen, by a country mile – it knocked my socks off. And in terms of influence they had my favourite ever bass player, Aston “Family Man” Barrett.
So you’ve got one extreme, you’ve got dub, quite modal sometimes, very simple dub tracks, and on the other hand you’ve got Bob Marley, writing proper songs, and Aston Barrett really having to play bass, with these quite proper pop chords. They were a lot of the same chords The Beatles would use, you know, but his phrasing made it so special. He’d work through, probably playing inversions sometimes. It’s very musical. He’s playing through the chords on “No Woman, No Cry” or whatever, probably just a regular key of C, and he’s leaving lots of spaces in the bassline. So a lot of the bass players will check for Barrett. Robbie Shakespeare is fantastic, and Flabba Holt and people, obviously superb, but that was it.
Bob Marley wrote great songs. They’re really proper, old-school songs. They’re so tasteful, for fuck’s sake, so musical, and yet this eloquent, relaxed phrasing, so that’s a big influence on me. I’m a quite anxious, neurotic kind of guy, is my natural default position, but somehow when I play bass it calms me down, and it makes you take your time in a way I don’t take my time in regard to speech. I rush things; I tend to interject. I’m like the quiet silent guy, who when he does talk, everybody listens.
Another big influence for me directly at the time was Matumbi and Dennis Bovell, who’s a mate of mine. Dennis is a multi-instrumentalist. I’m making a record at the moment with Patrick, who played trumpet with them, believe it or not. He’s a lovely guy. They were a big influence on me. Cimarons were also around in the mid-’70s. There were some great bands on the circuit at that time.
Sonically, the shape of reggae was just the natural way of being for me, with the strong bass. I’m working on a track as you call, and just making sure the bass drum – I don’t want it too loud in the track, but I want it so you feel the thud of the bass drum. It’s a one-drop pattern that I’m using.
BRICK: Building the layers to give the music a physical shape, almost.
JW: Yeah, well, you might see a painting, but you’re seeing it vertically, whereas a lot of the time in music, writing chords, it’s kind of left to right. It’s a linear sequence, in a way. That’s how the mind will perceive it. Most of the time, with me, it’s vertical, as in substrata. Here’s the bottom end, and on top of that we put this and that and the other. With Public Image, so a track like “Theme” [First Issue, 1978], that’s how I was seeing that. It’s interesting because, aesthetically for me, it’s like standing in front of a Rothko painting. It’s not, “Look at the sequence there. Figurative, from left to right, we would read this.” It’s just this big imposing thing. You look up at it, you get lost in it, and that’s the relation with dub music. You got lost in this ocean. Dub, as well, suggests space, and space goes with silence, so there’s something very quiet about dub, in a way. It invokes the quiet mind.
BRICK: And it links in with having this ostinato, that you can start with one bass line and then build on top of it.
JW: Exactly, which is quite gothic in its own way. It’s architecture of sorts. I went to university, for fun, believe it or not, in my thirties. I went to Birkbeck and did philosophy, but I did some music. I couldn’t resist – did a couple of modules with music and the history of art. When you study that period, you think, “God, yeah, I’m a more medieval, early Renaissance man than bloody Bach, thanks very much.” I like symmetry and building, whole tones, not too many semitones. You build it upwards.
BRICK: It makes me think of a monastic chant, or something.
JW: Well, don’t get me started. I tweeted a load of plainsong a couple of weeks ago. I like ambient. I’ve discovered a group called Stars of the Lid in lockdown. That to me is ambient, secular plainsong, in a way. I know there’s more to it than that, and the Gregorian chant modes, but yeah, it is very pre-Renaissance thinking. There’s a totality to the whole event. As you look at it, your eyes are drawn upwards, your ears are drawn upwards, you’re drawn upwards, and you’re drawn into a quiet space. It functions to quieten the mind, and of course, being a bit neurotic and having anxiety states, that’s why I liked it. It was very simple; it fulfilled a function.
JW: Yeah, exactly. What is meditation? Basically, I suppose, on perceiving what is and letting the whole relative thing just take its place. Not to try and get away from it, because the relative is part of that absolute, whatever that absolute, indivisible, clear, luminous thing is. So, yeah, you’re talking my language.
BRICK: Fantastic. So you’ve taken these modal structures into your bass playing. Does that give you the freedom to experiment with other tonal systems? I guess lots of global traditions are more pentatonic-based, and that sort of thing.
JW: It’s back to that medieval, pre-Renaissance thing. These forms have lasted, these simple, straightforward note clusters. Yeah, of course, it’s just really simple. When you think most languages, I suppose – I’m not an expert in languages – are very simple things. “Hello, I’m non-threatening. I come in peace. I have food. I will share my food with you and you will share your food with me.” This is our commonality. This is a common mode that we can use. It’s a communal artefact of some kind that we can utilise in order to communicate, whereas, if you’re going to go into sophisticated chords, that’s another thing. There’s a whole room there for misinterpretation. Even now, it’s not something I talk about much, but the last album we done, there’s a track where you’ve got very simple modal-ish chords, kind of an A minor but you could see it as a mode.
You’ll often get that, where a guitarist who’s come from a more folk background will have that discrepancy with keyboard players, say, who are classically trained. You can end up with over-rich harmonies as you move away from the simple modal approach, if you know what I mean, in terms of harmony. I guess somebody might go, “What, do you mean jazz chords? Is that it?” In a way, yes. It can just get a little bit too nuanced, in a pointless way. Sometimes the straightforward, honest gesture of a triad is enough.
BRICK: Make sure everyone’s speaking the same language.
JW: Yeah, that simple basis to start with, and then things don’t get muddied and over-seasoned and all that. And the great thing with Eastern forms – there’s no harmony, most of the time. What a fucking relief.
BRICK: And these dubby modal bass lines are what gave PiL its really distinctive, hypnotic sound.
JW: Yeah, we went straight to go, me and [Keith] Levene especially. He’s very smart, you know, and I think there was an element of, “Well, we could take this from here to here, and then do this and then do that, or we could just go straight to the most extreme position immediately.” They say music follows visual art movements thirty years late, so Berlioz or whatever came thirty years after the impressionists, all this kind of stuff. I think we followed the abstract expressionists of the ‘50s. We had the same hedonistic ways; we wanted to get away from quite bourgeois tradition or something. To me that’s the same ethos as Pollock or somebody, but in music. It’s quite spirited and non-conformist, in a way.
JW: Yeah, I think so, abstract and expressionistic in a real way.
BRICK: How has your playing and song-writing style evolved since then?
JW: It still comes down to the same. I can write chordally and I can kind of blag that a lot better than I ever could, but I’m happiest when I get the most simple two-bar beat or one-bar beat, and you get a hypnotic line, and it’s still that. It’s still a feeling of: “Where did that come from?” It’s still a feeling that this somehow existed prior to me playing it, somehow. That magic is still completely and utterly there, exactly the same as I had then, a feeling of lightness and openness, somehow, as you play. You’re tuning into something, and there’s all kinds of words you could use for that.
So much has developed. There’s so much information now in terms of art or whatever, and this whole nonduality movement, I must admit, seems a bit Popularist, but a lot of what they talk about is Vedantic, really. I read the Upanishads aged fifteen, so I was very drawn this way, in essence, by what the Vedantists might call the true self; the isness. That’s the thing, this indivisible, fathomless, ineffable thing, that it all comes from. Or this condition phenomenon appears from that and then disappears back into that. If you analyse it, at first it’s cause and effect that goes on, and when you really look at it even that’s a bit of a mystery and a bit illusory, the way phenomena arise and disappear.
Music’s very close to that, for me. It’s very formless, and that thing’s formless and very empty, ultimately. It’s just waveforms moving. It’s still very much the Suzuki quote: “In the beginner’s mind there’s many possibilities. In the expert’s there’s few.” It’s still very simple, where I don’t even question it. I pick the bass up, I play and it’s great, and it connects me to something.
BRICK: If I take Deep Space, for instance, with these soundscapes and ancient pipe instruments.
JW: Yeah, I’d had, in the ’90s, a bit of commercial success and it had been great, but you just get to the point where you want to go, literally, back to that source.
BRICK: So a foundation.
JW: Every time you call it something: “insufficient term alert”. The “basis” is not enough. That’s why people call it the isness. Some people would call it god. Well, that’s alright, as long as you just mean the process rather than some old guy in the fucking sky or something. It’s everything that’s not, in a way. I suppose it’s what Kubrick was going on about, Arthur C. Clarke, 2001, into the black hole. Then you end up seeing yourself as an old man eating your dinner, somehow. It’s a very loaded film, where he’s the observed and the observer.
Do you know what it is like, Deep Space? It’s like when you want to run to the fucking ocean. It’s like Truffaut, 400 Blows, the poor kid, which I really identified with that kid when I saw that film. It was on BBC2 on a Saturday night, and I was completely moved by it, because I was probably at that age. I was about fourteen, and obviously I’d heavily identified with this kid. He was in the French version of a borstal, which I luckily avoided by the skin of my teeth – but he ended up absconding. That great word, “absconding.” There was always talk of people absconding from borstals. You deserted from the army, but you’d abscond from borstal. He gets to the ocean, and the old bill are closing in from both ends of the beach, and the ocean is this escape. I always thought, “Can’t he just fucking jump in the ocean?” Anyway, I was drawn to Deep Space in the way that on a hot, claustrophobic, humid day, you want to run into the ocean. You want to get lost in the absolute, yeah. It’s very much that with Deep Space. I got letters from people: “Please make Jah Wobble see this. In the ’90s he was fantastic. I went to see this and I was absolutely disgusted by his performance. What the hell was that?” It’s like, “Oh, fuck off.”
BRICK: You’ve got some pretty specialist instruments on there. I mean, the crumhorn.
JW: Well, the funny thing is, when I saw your number and saw “31”, I thought, “Is that France?” I thought it might be Jean-Pierre Rasle, who’s supposed to call me. We could never work out what key he was in. It became a very loaded issue, which is fantastic for all the other musicians. “This is in E.” “Well, not really. It’s actually D flat.” He would really freak everybody out. But, yeah, we used ancient instruments. I like the wind and air moving, and strings being plucked, so I’d get them doing drones and all that stuff. I got into compound times, and I stuck with Mark Sanders, who’s a free jazz drummer really, because I wanted the bass and drums to move together, as well, so there was an elasticity to time. This whole thing, the isness, is not in time. You’re not in space, you’re not in time, you’re lured somewhere else.
BRICK: It’s just like a mental state you’re reaching; that’s kind of my experience of listening to it.
JW: Do you follow some spiritual path or something? You’re obviously quite up with all this.
BRICK: Yeah – not consciously, I suppose, but –
JW: Yeah, well, even that spoils it in a way, because it just sticks a fucking label on it, you know. I did have this plan to have a record album with a room, with everything labelled: “cup”, “tray”, “table”, “window frame”. Label everything you fucking could, out of the absurdity of it, so “Buddhist”, “Hindu”, “Christian”, “Protestant”, “Reformist.” It’s fantastic, because it’s all just a dense forest of fucking words that get broken down and, yet again, doesn’t mean anything. They’re all bloody signposts really. It’s not really the thing. It’s not really the experience, you know. You can change the names, but the essence of that thing in the context of the ultimate doesn’t change.
BRICK: I wanted to ask about how you express yourself through bass. As an example, “Visions of You” [Rising Above Bedlam, 1991] has got this very uplifting theme and it’s encapsulated in the syncopation of the bass line. Do you have a process where you kind of shape the mood of a song through the bass line?
JW: Well, funnily enough, sometimes you can’t remember exactly how you wrote things. The basis of that was written on a Tascam four-track cassette. I would have had one of those Indian drone boxes, so I would have put that down to start with. The drone would have been in D, and so I would have just made a line that sat nicely with that.
I started with the chorus, the part with Sinéad O’Connor, “I love visions of you.” And I guess, actually, that is quite chromatic, and I think that will have come from the whole Indian vibe. I was listening a lot to mantras, one mantra in particular at that time, and I still like mantras. I’m a mantra kind of guy, and the bass lines are actually mantras. It’s all mantras within mantras, if you like. I was lucky; because I knew I was going to be working with Sinéad O’Connor, I was thinking with her vocal in mind as I wrote it. I could very clearly hear her singing that, so that’s how that got written, in just very composite parts. It was a drone, a B-line and basically a mantra: “I love visions of you.”
Yet again, you’re into that absolute, in a way. This ineffable, going beyond, divine mother sort of stuff. Lyrically, it was about addiction, where you’re numbed out, and before addiction, as well, really, you learn to freeze yourself and just to freeze stuff, to deal with it. You can’t possibly process stuff, and so it’s better to freeze it. The whole thing of getting afraid, you actually freeze with fear. Everything narrows: your breathing, your airways. Everything narrows and gets squeezed and tight. “I’m scared.” You get anxious and you freeze and you’ve numbed yourself, in a way. You numb that freaked out feeling.
Of course, with addictions, you drink on it and you fuel the numbed out thing. You stay away from feelings, and feelings are transitory anyway. What are they, these component parts? They’re very empty. You can’t bottle a feeling – drinks manufacturers might pretend you can. But when you have this thawing thing, as part of the spiritual path – Krishnamurti is great with all this; he’s somebody I’ve always had a lot of time for – you become tremendously sensitive, and it’s fine. You don’t have to be particularly vulnerable with that; you just become incredibly sensitive to things, and that’s as it should be, so you’re not numbed out anymore. You’re sensitive to things, and it means you can then have some kind of movement and some receptivity. You can receive a bit better.
BRICK: You’re breaking down these restrictions on yourself.
JW: Yeah, exactly, and the B-line is a mantra. And what’s a mantra? In a way, it’s a mind-protector of sorts. Most of my bass parts, not all, but most of them are mantras.
BRICK: How does location affect the sort of music you make, particularly being in a city? I sense a real influence of cityscapes and architecture on your music and on, for instance, your album covers where you feature your paintings, like “Tower Blocks on the Marshes.”
JW: Absolutely, yeah. I think there’s a lot to be said there. There’s something about being out in the evening, so those walks that start in the afternoon and they sort of finish in the evening. There’s something about the twilight time, so I’d often walk by water or end up by water, by the Thames or the River Lea, and it’s dusk. So you’re in an in-between place; you’re in a kind of bardo state to start with, and the whole thing of flowing water and all that. There’s something about dusk. You know those ragas that you have in Indian music, set for the time of day and place.
Now, everywhere should become home. Anywhere I am should be home, because when I’m really good, when I’m in tune, there’s nowhere else I need to be, because everything’s relative. There’s no one else I need to be. It’s fine. But obviously, as we move through time and space, you have to be someone, somewhere, doing something. And it has to be said that certain places hold a certain resonance, so I’ve got very vivid, mystic fucking memories, on my own.
I don’t know about this, but there’s supposedly a ley line in Greenwich and that straight line down the River Lea, and I guess it’s possible. All I know is, round that area where the Olympic stadium got built, when it was really derelict and open and weird, fuck me, what a strange place. You’ve got the Bow backwaters. And I’d walk down this Three Mills River, where the chemical industry had been, long since decayed, and just the weirdest vibe around, you know?
I was fearless; I walked through the fucking night and stuff. There are a lot of scrapyards and that round there, with those crazy junkyard angry dogs, because they’re chained up all the time or whatever, or they’re trained to be quite game, and they’re barking furiously and everything. I can remember so many weird, lurid skies of demented powder blues and pinks, as dusk came. I suppose what goes with that is like an alpha wave thing. Because you’re walking through space, your active mind decreases.
Funnily enough, I got a blast of it on Thursday or Friday of last week. I went with Tyson, my Staffie, to my little studio in Ancoats and we walked up the Ashton Canal. It was only afterwards you realise you’ve really got into one of those quite deep states without realising it. It’s to do with the forefront of your mind dissolving, and then you get these impressions.
For a while, I’d go down to London, and I would go out with little Yamaha sequencers and go for long walks. I could put it in my pocket really easily. Then, when I came back, I’d put headphones on, on a bus or a train or tube, and quickly write a sketch about what I felt, whatever came to light. I do it with an iPad. I went for a long walk through South London, and I got a 176 bus and sat there, and quickly sketched. It became a track called “South London Dub Symphony.”
You can capture those just afterwards, while it’s fresh, not in your mind. There’s nothing in your mind if you catch it, that feeling at the forefront of your mind. You’ve just got nothing but an impression of the sky. I take a few photos as well. I think photos can get in the way of that state, but sometimes it just seems so fucking beautiful. There’s something about urban walks that I love. I would walk for miles. When we done the Eno record [Spinner, 1995], I was doing a lot of hardcore walking up the Lea Valley. I think those walks round there are less fun now, because a lot of the waterways around there have turned into glass and steel corridors, unfortunately, with the buildings.
BRICK: I noticed in your memoir that you visited clubs in the Bronx in the early ‘80s, where you saw rappers involved in the scene there. I wondered if you could describe what the energy was like.
JW: At that time, in New York, you had Danceteria downtown, and then there was a famous club, right up in the upper Bronx. The energy was unbelievable. Manhattan at that time was really funky, quite a young demographic, I suppose, a bit like London became before lockdown. A lot of people in their early twenties partying, and a real, incredibly manic energy. You had that loft scene downtown and all that, and uptown the rap thing going on. We hung out with some of the younger rappers at that time. I can’t remember the guy’s name now, but he had a rap, “Don’t smoke or you’ll be dead. If God wanted you to smoke, you’d have a chimney for a head.” I just remember that one line. It’s a vivid memory. He got on the mic that night, and it was fantastic.
Yeah, we hung out up there. I mean, it was very down-at-heel, those days. It was the first time I ever went through a metal detector machine to go into a club. But I was fucking buzzing and not bothered about anything really, so we had a great time there.
BRICK: I guess the grim conditions are acting as the fuel for that passion and anger that’s so important.
JW: Yeah, it was great. Danceteria was wonderful. It was a really nice vibe there, a very sexy vibe as well. I remember Quentin Crisp saying this: at that time, New York was the centre of the universe. It was always London was second best to it, as far as I was concerned, really. You had to admit that, but then London in the end part of the ’90s overtook New York, incredibly. That became the real international city. I think Brexit and the pandemic will put paid to that, to be honest. I think it will go into a little bit of a down cycle for a while now, which is not all bad. It means people might be able to afford rents there again and all that stuff, but I’d be surprised if London can just ride out this situation.
BRICK: Have you been releasing music during lockdown?
JW: I’m a musician, so my natural default setting is to mooch about on my own, go for walks and make music, to paint pictures and all that. So it’s not made much difference to me, honestly. Obviously it’s knocked all the touring on the head and all the gigs, and that’s a pain financially. I have to say, though, part of me enjoyed being locked down, and not having to travel is kind of nice. It feels quite efficient. I’ve spent so much of my life stuck on planes and trains and cars, and gigging. I’m not staying at chain hotels. Normally, at this time on a gig day, I’d be having a little kip, maybe just waking up from my afternoon nap, getting room service at a Holiday Inn Express somewhere, in Telford or something. Getting ready to do a show tonight, 8:30 on stage, as twilight comes. I don’t miss that side of it. I miss hanging out with the band, and I miss all the joking and everything, but I’ve rolled with this.
I’ve started a community music thing off in South London as well that’s going great guns. I was actually supposed to do that from Monday to Wednesday, three nights a week, and then do my gigs on the Thursday and all that, so I had a little flat there. I was supposed to be staying there half the week, and obviously lockdown put paid to that. But we have carried that on, on Zoom.
The other good thing, you never know now with the English. Do you hug? Do you kiss? Because, as a kid, you didn’t hug anyone. You might kiss an auntie, but you didn’t really want to kiss an auntie. “Go on. Give auntie a kiss,” or something. You only shook hands if you sold a car or bought a greyhound, or something. There was no bodily contact. So, in the ’90s, it was when I worked with Can and Holger [Czukay], they’d hug – which was quite a shock to me, this hugging thing. Then, with the rave thing, there was a culture of hugging people. That’s fine, but then some people want to be hugged; some don’t. No one was quite sure of the rules, so of course, great, lockdown’s put paid to that. We’re back to the default setting. You know where you stand. Everyone knows where we’re at, so that side of it is good.
We are releasing records, actually. We’ve got a single coming out in about a month. We’ve got a track called “Lockdown”, and it’s brilliant. This guy, who’s like a rap guy, but it’s a very laconic style, talking about lockdown and all that. It’s very topical. And we’ve got a family album that I made with my wife and my two sons, so that’s coming out properly for Record Store Day in April.
So there’s a lot of stuff going on. Yeah, I feel sorry for younger people, students and stuff. It’s pretty shit. I play football still, and I know some of the fellas who are very congenial people, they really miss the human contact, so I do get that. But, as my mate Steve, who’s got mental health issues, said at the beginning of this, “Well, you’re all in my world now.” And, in a way, I’m part of that world. So this is my world – a world of mooching about.
This is story was originally published in BRICK Edition 10.