“I had guineafowl, with cranberries and pumpkin, very acidic ... ” Jah Wobble is on a roll now, eyes turning upwards in ecstasy. “And it was the best meal I’ve ever eaten. It was a ... religious moment!” Briefly, the memory of eating at the Chelsea Arts Club reduces him to uncharacteristic silence. “And then I spoiled it. Next day I had the same thing again, and it was good, it was still really good, but it just wasn’t perfect.” He is rueful. “I should have had the lamb.”
Food is important to Wobble. But the guineafowl was more than a meal – it is a metaphor for his whole creative life, a reminder of the importance of never repeating himself. Bass guitarist, world fusion pioneer, philosopher and reformed punk, Wobble, who is about to release a new album, Chinese Dub, has thrown away more and better careers than most musicians have ever had.
He was born 50 years ago in Stepney, east London, christened John Wardle. He came from a family of Irish Catholics and was taught by nuns. “The Sisters of Mercy. They were girls from rural Ireland and essentially they were like prisoners with no chance of parole. That’s OK but if you’ve got no compassion, you’ve got f*** all.” (Wobble’s cheerfully profane discourse today would elicit speedy retribution from the Sisters.)
When he escaped the nuns and went to secondary school, he was, by his own admission, “a handful”. He was expelled – framed, he insists – for allegedly bringing a motor-cycle to school and causing considerable damage. For a while, he educated himself at home. “Zola, Orwell, Steinbeck, Salinger. Foreign films on BBC2 – I still love French film.”
Somehow, Wardle ended up at Kingsway, an adult education college in central London. “It was a sea of hippies. In the East End, if you were Bohemian, it meant you were gay. If you wore sandals, you’d have your feet stamped on by dockers.” At Kingsway, he met John Lydon, soon to be Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols. And he met Lydon’s friend, John Ritchie – the future Sid Vicious – who misheard Wardle’s name and dubbed him Jah Wobble.
This was the turning point. “You become the name – waveforms, reggae, all that.” Sid’s appellation fitted perfectly. He also urged Wobble to take up the bass guitar. “Which was odd, ’cos Sid was a shit bass player.”
Wobble gave up on Kingsway. (Later, he took a degree in humanities at Birkbeck College, part of London University.) He threw himself into punk, and at one point was considered as a replacement to Vicious in the Sex Pistols. “I never knew about it at the time. I would have been a shit Pistol.”
When the band split in 1978, “John felt betrayed by [Malcom] McLaren. He wanted to form a band with people he trusted.” Rotten’s new band was Public Image Limited, with Wobble driving the sound on bass. “It was modal, groovy, dark, expressionistic. I stopped it being too commercial. Anything I get in, I will pull away from commercial success.” Wobble’s playing owed as much to free jazz as to punk. “I was listening to Ornette Coleman, lots of reggae, soul, Philly. [Jazz saxophonist] Pharaoh Sanders is not a million miles away from PIL.”
He was fascinated by dub, the dark art of reggae remixing that strips away melody and leaves its echoing shadow. “In the 1980s, there was lots of shit dub, brainless, at crusty raves from Devon to the Baltic. The old stuff, though, was played by really disciplined Jamaican musicians. In proper dub, three-quarters of the signal is bass. There’s no mid-range, it’s very empty, happy to be repetitious.”
After two years, though, he grew fed up with Public Image. “Lots of drugs. It got boring. Though I totally honour John for what he did for me. And the music was always good in the studio – it got pretentious off the field of play.”
Quitting the band, he recorded with Jaki Liebezeit of Can, and with François Kevorkian. He started his own record label. “It all peaked in 1983. In 1984 it started to go wrong, with lots of drugs. By 1986, I was out of the game.”
For a couple of years, he took a job with London Underground before he worked his way slowly back to full-time musicianship.
His next vehicle was a reformed pet project, Invaders Of The Heart, born of his love of world music. “I had listened to a lot of Oum Kalsoum on short wave, on Radio Cairo; I bought a lot of cassettes on the Edgware Road.” Many musicians passed through the Invaders: Justin Adams and Natacha Atlas, both now leading lights of world music in Britain; BJ Cole on pedal steel, Annie Whitehead on trombone.
With the Invaders, Wobble accidentally invented the genre of world fusion. “It’s like a chef mixing ingredients. Cooking is the best analogy: you have maybe a lemon base, but then you balance the acidity up.” Throughout ran his heavy basslines. “The bass is the DNA code; those three or four notes played a certain way. In essence, it’s simple but it’s very mysterious, deep and weird.”
But eventually he laid off the Invaders as well. “My happiest times are when I start something new in a small way.” He experimented with English roots music (“the Jocks and the Paddies have kept their traditional music; ours was hijacked by Cecil Sharp”).
Last year during Liverpool’s stint as European capital of culture, he was commissioned by Liverpool 08 to produce a live show, Chinese Dub, with his wife, Zi Lan Liao, a guzheng player. Together, they travelled to China to seek out musicians and dancers to build into a touring spectacle, with fire eaters and acrobats. When it reached last year’s Womad festival, Chinese Dub was stuck away in an arboretum. But crowds flocked to see Wobble leaping around hyperactively, plucking out juggernaut basslines even as he cued his band in and out. Two dancers high-kicked and whirled their cloaks, swapping masks at lightning speed. For those who saw it, it was the undisputed highlight of the festival.
As a show, Chinese Dub was a logistical extravaganza and probably unrepeatable. “Zi Lan put in so much work, sorting out all the visas, she ran herself into the ground.” Bringing musicians from China brought legal problems and one of his singers, Wang Jinqi, was recruited into the Red Army.
The album, of necessity, lacks the pyrotechnics of the live version of Chinese Dub. “For the show, public money did the trick. Totally down to 08 and the Arts Council. Without the live thing we wouldn’t have done the record. But I can make a record for a thousand quid. Big money, big problems. Big band, big problems. Big budget, big f***ing problems. You don’t need money to make a good meal.”
It’s obvious that Wobble is easily bored. “This is the best hot chocolate I’ve ever had [from Apostrophe on London’s Lower Regent Street, and indeed excellent]. But I wouldn’t have a second one. You keep on moving forward, and you don’t repeat yourself. If you do that, you become a spiritual warrior.” For his next project, he wants to work with the Japanese Ainu musician, Oki, and with Jaki Liebezeit.
Half an hour later, strolling up to Chinatown, Wobble points out recording studios and pubs where he has played. He sits on a doorstep in Gerrard Street, waiting for a photograph to be set up, inscrutable, patient, an old pro. And then suddenly he is animated again. “That restaurant over there, in that next block. They have the best eel. Eel and pigeon. You should try it ... ”
Jah Wobble’s ‘Chinese Dub’ is released on January 19 on 30 Hertz