Everything is nothing but mind: Interview with Jah Wobble

Iconic bassist and composer Jah Wobble talks music, spirituality and politics

Jah Wobble

Punk icons are often completely shit.

They lose out to becoming less than their careerist paths, and/or heroin. Hagiographies aside, John Wardle has intersected artist, musician and lyricist with greatness and grace. Trebuchet spoke to the John before one of the smaller gigs where Wobble delivers musical nirvana each and every time.

Your last gig had about 14 people on stage.

I always vowed to keep the bands smaller in size, but it always gets big. You always go ohh… because someone comes along and they are so good that you have the get them along to the next gig.

Not all of the them played on the album, we have a new sax player called Phil Meadows who I think might be playing tonight. Nick Turner, he was there [on the album], plus all my band.

I definitely felt a few years ago that I needed to get a new band (from the one I had during the 00s) to freshen it up with some really good players behind me. So I got Mark the drummer from Neville my old percussionist, who played last night. Neville was in the original lineup of the Invaders of the Heart. I met him in 1980 in a session, and then George King. Chungy and the keyboard player I met through an Irish engineer I know in Stockport. He’s very good mates with Mark the drummer and I met him independently years ago performing. He was really good, but it took a while until he was free.

I’ve been playing with these guys for six years and that’s enough time to build up a relationship. I actually like them and they’re really nice guys. We have fun playing. They’ve got experience, while still having some youthful energy.

Was it a conscious decision to have your bass less in forefront on Everything is No Thing?

It made itself that way because it’s not dub. At times it might have a dub feel but it’s not dub. I’ve done a lot of jazz over the years, enough to compile an album for Redux last year.

I worked with Pharaoh Sanders, Larry Beckett, other great guys over the years, as well as this band for Jah Wobble and the jazz ensemble. With the bass we’re were mixing it differently and of course, playing further up the fretboard. In some groups I’m playing even more runs than this. I did a record with Bill Sharpe from Shakatak a few years ago that was very jazzy. Which also had Sean and Mark on it as well.

My interest in jazz started when I heard jazz musicians via soul records. I’d think, ‘Who’s this guy?’ and then you hear that they played with Pharaoh and you’d listen to that, etc. So you’d start checking out more and more jazz. Then I started listening to Miles Davis.

After Metal Box this guy called Kenny McDonald played me the Dark Magus album, which was kinda like Metal Box. I thought we’d done this completely unique thing and almost within a matter of days (someone said) ‘Hey, if you like that you’d like this’. I can see both records are very close. Primal, you know? That’s from the world of jazz though. [Metal Box] is different.

Any reflections on Metal Box?

I think it’s lasted pretty well. It’s not a record that sounds particularly dated. It was well recorded, the balance of the instruments was ahead of it’s time, it’s not too effected. I think when you effect it a lot it tends not to last as well.

Do you mean in terms of pretension?

No in terms of having loads of flanges on things. It has quite a classic electric bass, a real drum kick, vocals, guitar. It’s lasted.

Did you play your Ovation bass on that?

No I had a Fender Precision, I was very much a Fender guy until 1988 when my soundman at the time, Hugo S, brought that (Ovation Magnum) bass for me to play. It was his and I took it off him. I think it’s 74-75 or maybe even earlier, I think.

They’re very heavy, it weighs a tonne. Because of the heavy wood it gives a good sub harmonic which is great for dub. They were out of production in the late 70s (maybe I’m wrong). I think they brought them in to rival Fender.

Apparently you can move the poles within the neck pickup, have you altered it at all?

You’ve got the weird dampening thing which puts it out of tune. Which I haven’t used for years. Maybe I’ll use it soon. I don’t even know if it works anymore. But the bass has a great sound.

The Yamaha BB is really good for jazz, when you’re playing up the neck. What I like about the (Ovation) Magnum compared to the Fender is that it’s good across all the strings and. The BB does also. It’s got a tight punchy sound that is very accurate so you can hear every note of the line. And it’s still got a lot of tone. It looks quite plain though, its looks like a hatchback. It’s really nippy, you know!

You’ve got a distinctive voice but there are fewer vocals on this new record.

I’ve done so many records, if it’s right you do it, if it’s not you don’t. Funnily enough I never really thought about it for this material. The story of this was that Youth came to a show in Brixton and I hadn’t seen him for a while, so it was nice to see him. We never talked about him producing or doing anything.

That same night we were staying in a hotel in Tower Bridge around the corner from a studio that we use and I booked us in there just for fun. We did some stuff and we talked about doing some stuff with him. Then he said he’d like to produce the band. The trouble was getting a schedule together, and so I said that we’d got some stuff that we’d done already that was quite nice. Backing tracks, you know, that were quite cool compositionally. I pulled out changes so they were quite ready. But two of the band said they didn’t like ’em, said they were quite heavy rock. In the end I said stick with it. I’m glad we did.

I made some nice compositional changes that were good for someone to work with. I gave Youth three tracks to work with as he wasn’t around long enough to work on any more. They were so good I said ‘It’s a shame it you can’t do them all, because what you’ve done is really good’. I never trust someone enough to hand over the tapes, but not only was Youth good but the engineer Michael was really good too. So very early on I walked upstairs to bring the files to him. As I did I heard the drum sounds and I thought, wow! The engineer told me he was referencing the James Brown drum sound, and that is the correct answer. It was right. I felt he knew what he was doing. Then the Killing Joke tour got postponed (or whatever), so he had the time. Fantastic. In the end he did it all.

How did it work with both of you onstage, two basses?

No problem at all. I did it with Bill Laswell before, no problem. The worst thing in the world is if you’re both living in the low register, but here Youth is playing six string and playing up quite high, so it’s fine.

Those lyrics for ‘Visions of You’, how did they come about?

Yeah, I was in a lucky position to know that Sinéad was going to sing for us so I was able to write these lyrics with her in mind.

You reference spiritual themes in your lyrics, where do they come from?

At the time it was about being on a spiritual path and moving away from addiction, which is a shame-based condition with regard to alcohol and drugs. ‘I’m not numbed out anymore, I’m not drenched in shame anymore’, because if you’re using like that you’re not feeling good about yourself. I just moved that way.

I was brought up a Roman Catholic. I was an altar server. For some reason I was drawn to that spiritual stuff very early on. At 15 I was reading the Upanishads and I went along that way over the years in fits and starts. I was introduced to Buddhism 25 years ago and I thought this was really interesting. Originally, I thought: ‘I would never ever be a Buddhist because it’s not really a religion, but it is very interesting’. After a while it started making more and more sense, then all of sudden I’m a fucking Buddhist!

It took a long time, but that’s my path, so most of my records reflect that. Everything is No Thing (as a title) has a Buddhist sort of vibe.

Now it wouldn’t be ‘I’m not numbed out anymore’. Numbed would be a feeling with no real substance or thought or concrete quality. ‘Shamed out’ is temporary, everything is temporary anyway. So everything dissolves into mind, which probably doesn’t exist anyway. The biggest refuge is the gorgeous emptiness in the fact that none of this shit is real in any way, in the way that we think it is anyway. It’s there, but it’s completely temporary, just a continuous coming together of every moment.

Buddhism relaxes our illusion and allusions away, hopefully. A sense of spaciousness. Not easy to do if you’re walking down a promenade in Nice [Mohamed Lahouaiej attacked the Bastille day celebration the previous day] last night, I understand that. Then you’re in the hell realms.

People seems to be politically active at the moment, which is good. However, not all outcomes are going to be good.

When I was younger I was to the left and I would still be naturally drawn that way. I wasn’t happy at all with the Brexit referendum. I’ve a lot of sympathy for the people that voted Leave but I’m afraid for once I’d agree with Alan Sugar. These people are lionized as people to listen to, but they’re really just businessmen. He’s a ‘stack em high sell em cheap’ guy, but actually he said he stayed awake all night trying to work out one good thing about leaving the EU and couldn’t find anything. Nor can I. There isn’t one.

I have every sympathy for a lot of the people that voted leave. It’s not just a race thing, it’s an East End thing. I was in a pie and mash shop and there were a couple of black people, cockneys, just getting their thing (and talking about voting Leave). There is an island mentality (here) that is boorish at times, more with the English than the Scots, that’s quite self-centered. But you’re not the only ones, you’ve got people in Africa moving across borders because of fucked-up Western policies.Jah Wobble

Isis wasn’t created by the West but certainly the Iraq war acted as a huge catalyst. The conditions were there and it acted as a perfect catalyst. In retrospect it was a really dumb move because you should think about going to war and you should really really think twice about what happens after. Are we really prepared?

With this Brexit thing you think, wow. I mean, making Boris foreign secretary… you just think ‘You know what, we’re just a joke to the rest of the world’.

A mate just came back from the continent and he was saying that a lot of people are denying being English now. It’s that bad. You just don’t want to get into it with people. I don’t know what to say really. It’s to do with the class system, etc., etc., but this is ludicrous stuff.

A lot of my old friends voted Leave, people with Jamaican heritage voted Leave. That shouldn’t be surprising, you know? I don’t even like the term ‘Jamaican heritage’. We’re English!

People talk to me about my Irish heritage or whatever but I’m not, I’m English actually. I was born here so I’m English. I’m really not happy about being English right now. Some people would probably call me lily-livered, wimpy or something, but I’m not happy about it. What a stupid thing to do. And they will regret it.

If you had the referendum again I’m 100% sure people would vote to Remain. I mean, they voted to make a statement but you know, ‘act in haste, repent at leisure’. Now you really put yourself in a weak position. If you think these people will have any respect for you in future and your human rights, you’d better think again. These people are potentially very dangerous in a way that we’ve not seen in our lifetime. For me there is not an active democracy now, it’s quite obviously a plutocracy. There are powerful people in the background that obviously hold sway. What you see is not what you get. The new Thatcher is the woman out the front serving, she is not really in power.

Corbyn for me. A lot of the younger people (and people in their 40s to late 50s), they really like him and maybe he’ll prevail. If it is Game of Thrones, he’s the high sparrow. He kind of looks and acts like the high sparrow. He’s kind of like the middle class hard line left winger that came up in the 80s.

He’s from that era of politics which I though would mean he wouldn’t be taken seriously as a leader in politics. But maybe the ones in power will screw up so badly he’ll get it. But I don’t really see it… I mean, it feels like once again the Labour party fiddles while Rome burns.

I didn’t believe in New Labour. Like many Labour voters I was very sad when John Smith died, he was kneeled on to lead the country. Kinnock came in but it didn’t quite happen. Major won that election in ‘92. Labour had been out of power for thirteen years, it was over. You already had a split and then Blair managed to get control over to the Blairites and we’ve ended up with a situation we have now.

Back to the album, you mentioned that geometry relates to your playing, can you explain more?

When I first played bass I got a book called So You Want to Play Bass and had things like ‘American Patrol’ by Glen Miller, but I thought ‘That’s not me. I’m not feeling this. I want to make my own thing, now’ with some sense of urgency. So I used open tuning and geometrical shapes and found out years later that that made modes, which is quite sophisticated in that the notes fall in between major and minor keys. Happy/Sad sort of thing.

I started to paint a couple of years ago, and I used to write poetry to make myself work. I will go and write a poem. Even if it’s only a limerick, I will go and write something. Get away from the television and be in this quite sparse room. I wanted to paint and work on these big canvases and do what I did with bass.

At first I did some impressionist paintings and they were ok. I never had an art lessons or music lessons, I had this big canvas and I just knew what I wanted to do. Same with the bass. Some people may not like it, they may say it’s very basic, it’s very minimal, limited, or technically unaccomplished, but you know what – if it feels right….

Something you’ve mastered, and one of the interesting things about dub, is that it uses a lot of repetition. But within the whole song those repeating parts become fascinating.

Bill Laswell told me a great story about playing a Prince Far I album which I really got. He listened to the first track and then the second track, which seemed to have only a slight difference, and then the third track was only very slightly different again and on and on. He thought this was a genius concept, but then he realised that he’d actually had it on the first track the whole time. He was laughing when he told me but he said he was disappointed, because he liked the idea of the same ideas coming at you again and again and again. My paintings are the same, they have the same concepts coming at you over and over, my basslines are the same thing. I think that it’s like some mandala thing, some ancient wisdom, acoustic mandala of some kind. It comes from some deep place.

Dub and reggae are similar, they have these component parts that come at you again and again.

With Temple of Sound we wanted shades of light and dark. William Blake was like that. What I like with modes is that you make these different colours rather than just going into a minor key. You get a natural darker hue with modes which is like something coming up from the subconscious – this dark place where germination happens.

Jung said ‘One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious’. Does that make sense to you?

That’s it! But I think consciousness really is just consciousness. It was Krishnamurti who said ‘What is consciousness but it’s content?’. If you want to know the content you want to shine some light. Consciousness shouldn’t be split into unconscious and conscious, it should be one flowing thing.

As we are conscious of every moment there should be some sense of things flowing, so we’re not getting locked and stuck on stuff. Things should be just flowing the whole time because that’s what’s going on anyway, it’s a continuous flux of cause and effect and stuff coming together. There is no fixed state. Where does ‘mind’ live? Maybe consciousness is one thing and mind is another, maybe consciousness is a different aspect of mind but everything probably comes from the primordial mind. From my perspective consciousness is indeed an aspect of that. As the seeing sense and hearing sense is an emanation of that, everything in a way is. That term you used to hear with the siddhas, the play of consciousness, I remember that in the Upanishads. It’s all a play of consciousness in a way the mind works. I mean you have to be careful though, you meet some enlightened people, some buddhas, and you have got to be careful. When I talk, you have to be careful not to make it sound like I’m a Buddha cos I’m not [laughs]. Really!

In making records you change, you mature. You might double back on yourself and you use an earlier approach. It’s not really thought out. You’re in the moment. A spiritual master should just adapt to whatever situation there is, interact with it, it’s all good.

To be honest I see my whole career as just going with the situation is. People probably see me as this burgeoning ego, and I’ve probably got a big ego, but you know with some of this stuff, what happens? I’ve got a great band and great musicians, who are great players, we go a do a gig in Brixton and Youth comes along, we go into the studio and again we’ve got guys who are positive: “Let’s go in the studio and make something happen’, and we make something fresh and people are positive and Youth knows enough to know how to produce this with his great engineer Michael to help with that vision. All these things are factors and my little part in that is always one where I know I’m at my best, when I’m open and I’m not conceptualising things. Cos that’s to do with the past. I’m not like that.

Funny enough, I knew when you mentioned the lyrics that actually we’re going to have to do a new album for Invaders of the Heart. OK, so that means writing lyrics again, but I didn’t have to do that with this. So is this really an Invaders of the Heart record? Well it must be because it’s the same band. So that’s where we’re at and originally the Invaders were very jazzy.

Photo by Kailas Trebuchet, not to be reproduced without express prior permission.

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