Jah Wobble is reflecting on a creative purple patch with customary frankness. In the past 12 months the bass player – born John Wardle – has released a string of singles, a four-track EP of ‘dub excursions’ for Record Store Day, a collaboration with Bill Laswell plus an album with his own band Invaders of the Heart, called Ocean Blue Waves.
“I’m always at it,” the 61-year-old says. “Basically I’m kind of monkey mind guy, slightly OCD-ish, although that’s not been terrible, touch wood, for a good while. My mind can just go all over the shop, that’s why I got into meditation over the years, going right back to the early days with Public Image [Ltd], it shut me up. It brings the alpha wave in, so making music really captures me.
“All you’ve got to do is put a bass in my hand and an iPad and I’m away. This time of year I get up late and think ‘what should I do?’ I get the iPad out and I start a track and within ten minutes it’s taken me. Every track you work on is very different.”
At the moment, he says, he’s “going very much back to the vibe that I had at the beginning [when] I did everything on a Fender P”. He’d returned to the instrument after resuming his occasional working relationship with US avant-garde bassist and producer Laswell for the album Realm of Spells. “In the gigs we did around then I couldn’t be bothered to lug my big, heavy bass about, I said, ‘Just get me a Fender P’ and they got me a lovely old classic one and I just fell straight back in love with it. I play differently when I’m on it, I get more compositional, you do chromatic runs and all that. So I’ve gone very much back to doing the kind of lines I was doing with PiL, more imaginative, very simple, naïve, but they’ve got a kind of groove.”
With his sons now in their 20s, he has also found more time to devote to music. “When they were teenagers I really took my foot off the gas pedal,” he admits. “They’re both really good musicians – I’ve done a family album with them, a sequel to the Chinese Dub [Orchestra] that’s coming out next year – but when they were younger my elder boy was into boxing, with my younger boy it was football, so I’d be taking them round everywhere. I wanted to get that right and feel that I’d put a shift in. I was still busy, still doing stuff, but I wasn’t as focused as I’d been in years past.
“These last few years I’ve really been focused. I’ve got a great band – two of them are Yorkshiremen, [drummer Marc Layton-Bennett and guitarist Martin Chung], from Huddersfield – so we’ve got out and steadily done a lot of live shows and built everything up again, and we’ve just been enjoying recording.
“At 61 you realise you’re much closer to death than you are to birth – maybe not rebirth, that’s another thing – but you think while you’ve got the health and the faculties to do to it, to do it.”
Where ten years he might have done more esoteric things with a jazz ensemble or Japanese music, today he says there’s less room to “muck about if you go out live”. “You can’t go out into leftfield territory too much, I’m afraid. You can touch on it but now’s the time you get people dancing and you do a show. The market dictates these things. We’ve done a couple of leftfield things this year but for a while that was completely out.”
Wobble’s musical partnership with Bill Laswell began in 1988, after the American heard a cassette of his. It led to them meeting over a “memorable meal” at The Astoria Hotel while Wobble was in New York promoting the album, which in turn was followed by an invitation to play on Ginger Baker’s Middle Passage, which Laswell was producing. “They didn’t let me meet Ginger, they thought that was potentially too explosive,” Wobble recalls. “I did meet Ginger two years later then I realised why they feared it could be like a kind of atomic fusion situation.”
The east Londoner says he “really respects” Laswell. “He’s the real deal, an enthusiast, he’s a music freak at heart. He has a similar view on a lot of things. The thing with Bill is it’s very easy, you don’t need to talk lots, you kind of get it, so you can work on a level that’s pretty fast, which makes it fun.”
Wobble originally launched The Invaders of the Heart independently even further back, after he left PiL, the post-punk innovators he had co-founded with John Lydon. “The first eponymously-titled album was in 1982, it didn’t sell very well,” he remembers. “I’d had a bit a luck doing records after I left PiL but it’s funny over 40-odd years, you have little periods where sometimes it’s great running a label, but within a year or two it can change because independent distribution is quite tenuous and this and the other. I found it hard to sell it, but it was one of the things I did then that was like a little nugget, it’s really ahead of its time, sonically it’s a mixture of East and West, so it was an exciting time and I was absolutely on fire. You hear sounds and music and you wanted to record things and that continued for some little time.
“It was a great little period but it quickly changed because I was so out there, I was self-medicating to keep your mind in order, so you start drinking way too much strong liquor and you’re back on the powders again. When I left PiL I stopped taking the powders for probably three years and then when I was touring America I started again so it all went mental. You really start to not fire on all cylinders and the worst parts of your personality come out. So I went through that for a few years between ’83-’84 up to ’86 and then got my house in order again and started Invaders of the Heart again. That was when Neville [Murray] knocked on my door and said, ‘What’s going on?’
“My attitude was I’d behaved very badly over that two or three-year period. I’ve always been a bit lively but that was a bit much and I was surprised he wanted to do it again.”
Ocean Blue Waves is out now. Jah Wobble and The Invaders of the Heart play at Brudenell Social Club, Leeds on January 18. jahwobble.com