A bass odyssey with deep roots in dub

Jah Wobble was one of the founders of Public Image Limited and has had a rich and varied career since. Duncan Seaman spoke to him.

Jah Wobble who will be appearing with his band Invaders of the Heart  at Hebden Bridge Trades Club next week.
Jah Wobble who will be appearing with his band Invaders of the Heart at Hebden Bridge Trades Club next week.

Next year Jah Wobble has a box set coming out. It comprises six CDs’ worth of material from the bass player and band leader’s highly varied career that began in 1978 with Public Image Limited and continues to this day.

The 56-year-old – real name John Wardle – is in the midst of writing liner notes when we speak. He cheerfully admits that if he’d had his way the set – called Redux – would have been even larger.

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“I asked for seven discs but I’m getting six. One is greatest hits, there’s an 80s disc, a world roots kind of disc, and an ambient music/spoken word disc. My favourite one is the covers disc, It’s got Liquidator on it and the Midnight Cowboy theme, the theme from The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, and the theme from The Sweeney. I’m completing that at the moment. I’ve really enjoyed doing that.”

The sheer breadth of his back catalogue reflects his restless artistic spirit. “I’m always moving, like the mind, always conceptualising,” he says. “A lot of it works on the basis of a hunger to put this with that with this – a bass line or a drum beat – there’s an effortlessness about it, really. Music makes itself, in a way. I set a frame for it to come into being.”

He’s even trying his hand at acting – in a forthcoming film called Power To The People. Wobble is due to film a cameo role in November.

“I did do some acting in the past,” he recalls. “I was in a Japanese soap opera – I played a tough guy. One day it will show up on YouTube...and I will have to go and live in South America.”

In recent years he’s also penned a successful autobiography, Memoir of a Geezer, and a volume of poetry, Odds & Sods and Epilogues. He’s currently working on another book. “It’s kind of a psychogeographical novel. It’s a factual book as well, and a travel book. It’s falling between many stools. It could be very good, I’m not sure. It could be the worst book ever written. Or it’s possibly so bad it’s good.”

He says he enjoyed stating his case in his memoir. “I was sounding off about the class system and Old Etonians. I touched on some issues in the book that sound very topical now. It still sells very well – and that’s probably why.”

As much as anything, he says: “I wrote it for my kids, to document where I came from, and working class life and a Catholic childhood, to an extent. It was not just particular to me, it documents an East End that’s now gone. Lots of people who grew up there were really touched by it – it felt like it was their story, in a way. I felt I was telling the truth, not just making an autobiography to make a couple of quid or make myself look good.”

Perhaps the greatest abiding influence on Wobble’s music over the past 35 years has been the bass-heavy sound of dub reggae. He says his interest in the music of Jamaica began as a youth listening to specialist reggae and blue beat shows on Radio London and Capital Radio

“There was a great renaissance of reggae circa ’73-’74, ’75 at its height,” he recalls. The groundbreaking album was King Tubby Meets Rockers Uptown.

“Engineers were staying behind after sessions, having fun in the studio, making versions that sound systems could play, DJs could test them out. The first time I heard dub it was like music from another universe.”

What appealed was its sense of space. “With space comes an element of solace and peace. At its worst it becomes dopey music; at its best it’s a form of deconstruction.

“It’s like taking the veil away, leaving something else that’s in nature very empty but very luminous.”

He’s philosophical about not being involved in PiL, the band he co-founded with John Lydon and guitarist Keith Levene in 1978.

“I think, as much as anything, it was ostensibly money,” he says. “I was offered £1,000 a week when not gigging and £1,500 a week when gigging. That’s pretty decent money but I was a founder member of something. I think when you deduct production costs a founder member deserves more than a weekly wage, but also a cut of the merchandise. But no worries, it’s just business.”

He has also, by his own admission, become “a real home boy” since moving to Stockport and raising a family.

“It makes a few issues for me going out on a major tour,” he says. “It’s good to do it but I’ve gotten to like home. I’m too old; I could not really care less, to be honest. I’m not that bothered with the world of music. I don’t listen to that much new music.”

Often he’d prefer to watch TV, he says. “We’re living in a golden age of television, I like to sit at home watching great art. I love Boardwalk Empire. They have great music in them as well.”

He has enjoyed running his own record label, 30 Hertz, describing it as “the best thing I’ve ever done”. “You can commission whatever you like, within reason. It’s great fun.”

To make life easier, though, he’s hoping to bring in a partner. “I started it 17 years ago. I did get another bloke in to run it but that was a disaster. My wife [Zi Lan Liao], who’s a musician in her own right, started running it with me. We got distribution and all that. But it’s become a moot point again this last year or two. I’m tired of talking to pressing plants, I’m supposed to be a bass player.”

As well as the book and the box set, he has a collaboration with some Moroccan musicians lined up and he’s working again with his 90s group Invaders of the Heart.

• Jah Wobble’s Invaders of the Heart play at Hebden Bridge Trades Club on November 7, doors 8pm, £17. http://thetradesclub.com/events/jah-wobbles-invaders-of-the-heart