Despite being part of British punk’s early days—palling with Johnny Rotten and Sid Vicious—John Wardle didn’t mesh with that music’s aggression, choosing instead spiky reggae as his calling card, and waiting until post-punk to make his move: becoming bassist/composer Jah Wobble. As one-third of Public Image Ltd., he crafted an ominous, muscular mix of dub and krautrock, a blend that steadied him for projects after leaving PiL with Can members (Jaki Liebezeit, Holger Czukay) and U2’s The Edge. When he wasn’t busy as a collaborator (Brian Eno, Primal Scream, etc.), Wobble found a solo sound mixing tones from China, the Middle East and North Africa with various forms of post-bop jazz for his Invaders Of The Heart project, whose newest album, Everything Is Nothing, is a lush, silvery Miles Davis-ish masterpiece. He’s a damned fine painter and writer (autobiography Memoirs Of A Geezer is frank and funny), and 2015’s six-CD Redux is a must-have for Wobble completists.
Considering your lengthy, wide-ranging résumé, I’m guessing you’re not a man to stand still in one job. What was your last proper non-musical gig?
I quit everything and did the clean-and-sober thing in 1986. I was out of music, maybe a few weeks, and got a straight full-time job while doing music part-time. I worked the Underground in London. I did some driving job. I also managed a glass warehouse during that time, which was the worst. All of it though, it was nice to be a regular guy in a canteen drinking tea. Very grounding.
Redux is a cool package, a real clearinghouse of who you’ve been in the last 30 years. In its text, you write about having an incredible love of family. I know you’ve worked with your wife (Chinese zither player Zi Lan Liao). Are you John or Jah to them?
My youngest son is a professional footballer. My oldest son’s a pro boxer. Both are musicians. I feel as if they like me, that I’m not the dumbest guy in the world. I joke with my wife how she came to this country, married “Jah Wobble” and that it must be a true fairy tale for her.
I wasn’t going to bore you with PiL, but … When John Lydon formed a band that was a self-contained corporation, what was your reaction?
Well, all John asked me, at first, was to join him and make a new band. We were both inclined to something dubby. He got Keith (Levine) involved, one of the best guitarists around at the time. John wanted people he felt secure with—it was only after that that he decided on making PiL a company; one at first, which was all about taking the mickey out of corporatism. It was good fun, until, eventually, it all became very corporate. It reminded me of what happened with the Pistols and McLaren’s Glitterbest. All the money went into the company, but none of it came out to us—certainly not into my hands, so the business side of PiL was very bad. What you don’t realize is that PiL went into receivership—chapter 11 and everything. It took forever to get any royalties out if it, and even then, our Virgin deal meant that we split that with them 50/50,
Everything Is Nothing is very Miles Davis in several ways. Why use that as a frame of reference going forward?
Miles truly became a part of me. So many people have turned me on to more Miles since I started. I hardly listen to him now, but it obviously lasted, not just the specifics of his trumpet sound but also how he went about doing music and living life. Like I did with Stockhausen, I’ve read every Miles interview. He was very anti-bourgeois, hated cliché players. And he’s right. You should never be cliché or too mannered—so it goes beyond musical influence into something more, a deeper part of you, really.
Beyond just Miles, his longtime producer Teo Macero—his spirit is very much a part of the new album’s sound, futurist post-bop, blissful yet aggressive. It’s as if you channeled Macero and Miles through the lens of the Invaders and your compositions.
I can’t believe you’re saying that. Wow. I just had this long conversation with Bill Laswell about Miles’ whole Teo Macero era. Now that my boys are older and I can work more, I started thinking of ways to segue from my ’90s stuff like Rise Above Bedlam into the present and future. I have a lot of new material, too. We did a show in Brixton early last year, and one of our favorite studios is there, so we went in for fun, and I just started calling chord changes out to the band—go to E, broad strokes, just express yourself. That’s very Macero.
You roomed with Vicious. Your best buddy was Rotten. Forty years since punk’s birth, what say you?
Well, years pass, the compound breaks down. Punk was very important because without having punk as a catalyst, there would be no post-punk, no PiL, pretty sure no Jah Wobble. I probably would not have become a bass player. It was a coming together of a lot of interesting people, punk was. Lydon and me were working-class London. Meeting Malcolm McLaren and his kind, dealing with Situation-ism, watching it all collide—that was magic; right time, right place.
You say you could not have become Jah Wobble without punk, but your musical instincts, sense of timing, innate jazziness—your chops—were there. No other musical inclination before punk?
No, that gave me the context to start to play. Like so many other people around me then, we were experiencing playing instruments for the first time. That said, I also had no interest in being in a punk band, so I kept my powder dry. I had no desire to hang under a bridge playing limited three-chord punk. I knew even then that I wanted to do different kinds of music.