MIKE WATT INTERVIEWS JAH WOBBLE: PLAY THE SMALLEST INSTRUMENT
illustration by nathan morse
Jah Wobble’s outer-space bass was one of the defining characteristics of Public Image Ltd.—as anyone who heard the deep-cut 45 RPM version of the metal box album can attest—and his post-post-punk career had him cutting classics with Can’s Czukay and Leibezeit (“How Much Are They?”) as well as heading his own long-lasting outfit Invaders of the Heart, who have a new album called Everything Is No Thing out now. Watt, of course, came up from Pedro with PEDRO spray-painted on his bass and held down the heavy parts for Minutemen, fIREHOSE and a long list of other groups, lately and locally with his Missingmen and Secondmen and overseas with his Il Sogno del Marinaio. (Remember to always check hootpage.com for all your Watt-work updates.) L.A. RECORD is beyond honored to bring these two titans together to talk about that low yo-yo stuff. Wobble performs on Sun., Oct. 2, at the Echoplex.
Mike Watt: I saw you play in, I think it was May of 1980 at the Olympic auditorium here in Los Angeles with Public Image.
Jah Wobble: Yeah—Mexican wrestling joint. And there was a fight. I got upset. I thought only the English were yobby and would have a gig like that. I couldn’t believe when I saw that in Los Angeles. I thought it was all laid-back guys with long hair.
Mike Watt: There was a lot of that but I think there was a kind of trend of spitting. Johnny Rotten had a big jacket with goggles—like an old World War I flying hat or something. I think you were wearing shorts and I think the drummer then was Martin Atkins.
Jah Wobble: That’s right, it would have been Martin. Jim Walker was gone. He was probably the best drummer PIL had for me. He was great.
Mike Watt: The guy on the first album?
Jah Wobble: Yeah. We were in a band together called the Human Condition for five minutes after PIL. He’s still a friend of mine and I hear from him occasionally. I think PIL upset him so much musically that though he was a great drummer, he stopped playing after PIL really, you know? He kind of went off and made a movie eventually. He studied to be a film director and I’m not sure what he’s doing now. I think he’s still around the edges of the film game. But yeah—I remember that gig.
Mike Watt: For a punk gig in those days that was a big pad.
Jah Wobble: You’re one of the few people who saw that original line-up. I think we did less than thirty shows. I think we must have done eight or nine in America—maybe in this country four or five or something? Actually it’s probably round about twenty shows that lineup did, which is incredible to think about.
Mike Watt: That’s the band that did the can. The metal box.
Jah Wobble: That’s correct. We used different drummers so I played a little bit of drums. I played drums on ‘Careering’ and Keith played drums on ‘Poptones.’
Mike Watt: We had the one that was three 12’ 45s.
Jah Wobble: That’s right. And there were probably another four or five drummers on that record apart from Martin Atkins. Martin was on one track called ‘Bad Baby’ and there were another four or five drummers played on that album.
Mike Watt: What about the ‘Death Disco’ single?
Jah Wobble: I may be wrong but I think it was Dave Humphrey who played on that.
Mike Watt: Now last week, you were in the studio, right? What are you doing?
Jah Wobble: Last week I was producing but before that we recorded basically a triple album of old and new stuff. Mainly the set that we do live now, we’re playing it so well. There are great interpretations of, like, Fleetwood Mac. ‘The Chain,’ and some strange cover versions that we do live that might surprise a few people and we also made a psychedelic album that’s pretty heavy—very well-played. I think it would be good for America, funnily enough, we all felt. So I’m starting to get a little bit more away from dub and jazz—even though we just released Everything is Nothing, we’re already moving a little bit away from the jazz sound and more towards a kind of rock psychedelic sound.
Mike Watt: I know your foundation, [Bob Marley bassist] Family Man and reggae…
Jah Wobble: Yeah, Family Man was my favorite bass player back then. His phrasing … He’s such a heavy bass player but so musical.
Mike Watt: You know who really likes him? Tony Maimone from Pere Ubu.
Jah Wobble: Really? I was lucky enough to see Bob Marley play at the Lyceum in London in ‘75. Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer were gone but he was kind of at his peak. It was just an amazing show.
Mike Watt: I got to see him in ‘79 at UCLA at a basketball gym but it was still great. The bass was pumping. I remember the lights: red, yellow and green. Bob Marley dancing and singing. His hair was like huge snakes in a way.
Jah Wobble: He was amazing. It was the 12th of July, I think—a very, very hot night in London. I’d never heard a band sound as good as that at the Lyceum ever again because it was a tricky place to get a good sound … but that was an amazing sound. It sounded just like the record.
Mike Watt: I think you guys, England, Jamaica, the connection … See, we didn’t understand reggae. He had this song called ‘Punky Reggae Party’ so we thought there was some kind of connection to the punk scene and that’s why I went to the gig, but there was nobody there, you know? White people with dreads … It was Black people in suits, in evening gowns. It was a trip. We got some cheap stuff and rolled big old ones out of notebook paper. Newspaper seemed a little rough. But no one else was doing this. They were laughing at us. It all changed in the early 80s and it got really big but in the 70s, not really. We didn’t know much about it.
Jah Wobble: Well, that was all [Island Records’] Chris Blackwell. He kind of made sure there was some real heavy rock lead guitar on Natty Dread, hoping to break the American market. Obviously just took a few years to do that. That must have been the ‘Exodus’ time. I liked Exodus but for me, Natty Dread and that period … Catch a Fire and all that earlier period was amazing.
Mike Watt: You guys had that connection early. The Rolling Stones brought out Peter Tosh as an opening act. Actually the black community knew about reggae because I found out later they were really influenced by Motown even though it’s kind of hard to hear.
Jah Wobble: You can hear some kinds of Cuban influences sometimes in Jamaican music.
Mike Watt: What did you think of Motown? Were you ever influenced by James Jamerson?
Jah Wobble: I loved Tamla very much but when I grew up it was reggae on the radio. We used to call it ska or bluebeat so as I grew up, reggae would be in the charts. It was the popular urban music of the time. There would be lots of Tamla, the Supremes and Marvin Gaye and stuff but then it was Philly. I was at that age when Philly really grabbed me. The Ojays and the string arrangements and the congas way up in the mix.
Mike Watt: Maracas really loud. Strings.
Jah Wobble: Yeah—it kind of grooves, you know? Sometimes I can still forget what shakers can be like just overdubbed and pushed up in the mix. It can just complete it. It was also a white woman who played bass on some of those…
Mike Watt: Her name was Carol Kaye.
Jah Wobble: She was great.
Mike Watt: She’s still around. She gives lessons. She’s, like, in her late eighties.
Jah Wobble: Some of the records she played on … and then there was Wilton Felder gets the bass credit. So the saxophonist for the Crusaders gets credit for playing bass on What’s Going On?
Mike Watt: That’s supposed to be James Jamerson. Do you know the story? That’s the only record he had his name on. He’s, like, on 200 top tens but Berry Gordy—no names. But Marvin Gaye making his own album wanted James Jamerson. By this time, Louis Johnson and this slapping thing got really big. So Berry Gordy moved to L.A. from Detroit and didn’t even tell the guys and the whole sound changed. They didn’t want this kind of thumping along with the finger. They wanted this slapping. I think it kind of developed probably from rockabilly, the stand-up slapping. Larry Graham actually came up with it I think—with Sly Stone. This whole style took over so James Jamerson couldn’t get gigs but Marvin Gaye said, ‘I want him on this song.’
Jah Wobble: This is one of those things that, on the credits, certainly back then, Wilton Felder was credited with playing bass. Seriously. I’m certain on the UK edition I saw that. I saw it with my own eyes and couldn’t believe it. I said, ‘That’s got to be James Jamerson.’ It’s his style.
Mike Watt: In fact on YouTube, some engineer isolated the bass track from all the music and it’s incredible. He did it in one take and they got him at some bar he was playing. He was doing three or four sets a night at a bar. He couldn’t get session work. So he’s drunk out of his head and he had to record on his back. He couldn’t stand up. So he’s on the deck on his back in the first take, improvised by ear, no chart. The guy was a monster. He comes from the stand-up world. U.S. rock ‘n’ roll had very blurry bass in the 60s, you know? Grand Funk and Credence Clearwater Revival. But in England, the bass was coming in loud on the rock ‘n’ roll records.
Jah Wobble: I don’t know what it is about the British that they produce great bass players.
Mike Watt: Can we go way back? What’s your first music memory?
Jah Wobble: The first single I bought was a theme tune off the TV. It was running around in my head. I used to drive my mum and dad mad singing this same tune at 6 a.m. over and over and over. It was some kind of kids show. ‘Animal Magic’ or something. Some kind of an animal thing. But the next single I bought was probably my mom’s influence on me. It was ‘Welcome to My World’ by Jim Reeves. The next one was Burl Ives’ ‘Froggy Goes a-Courtin’.’ I played those singles over and over again. And then the reggae thing was happening with Desmond Dekker and a lot of the Trojan explosion so that was the stuff I listened to.
Mike Watt: Was there a lot of music in your house? Did your parents play?
Jah Wobble: My mum had the Dubliners on a lot and other Irish music. She has an Irish background, out of County Cork, her family. My dad as well—actually, most of his family barring one scouser were out of Ireland. My dad was a vet—he was in the Second World War on the front line. He came back from the war kind of traumatized. I didn’t know until years later that he was traumatized. He was in the desert. When he came back he just sat in a dark room and I didn’t notice for a while but he’d learned to play piano pieces. Mainly German, funnily enough—which is kind of ironic, seeing as he’d been trying to kill them and they’d been trying to kill him. He knew mainly German piano pieces so you’d hear Beethoven. He’d had his ears kind of blown out so he had tinnitus and he’d be playing very loud Beethoven, which I don’t mind. I didn’t hate it. We’d listen to Beethoven really loudly in the kitchen. We lived in what I supposed you would call in America ‘projects.’ We lived in a council flat and the windows would be open and you’d smell cooking, you’d smell a lot of fried foods. Mainly Catholics and Jews and we all got along. There was never any racial kind of fighting between the Catholics and the Jews as I recall. So with our windows open you’d hear this loud Beethoven coming out, I’d be playing reggae. My mum would be cooking with the Dubliners on. And I liked the Dubliners. I went on to work with Ronnie Drew from the Dubliners, which was actually a huge big deal for me. A big deal, you know? We played some Irish music and stuff. So that’s kind of the background.
Mike Watt: When did you first start playing and how did that happen?
Jah Wobble: It happened because of punk. I wouldn’t be playing otherwise. I went to a college for further education quite young. I got kicked out of school and I ended up at this college just to try and do my O levels as they were called at that time. Basic education. A general certificate of education. I don’t know if you have a similar certificate in America. I know you get out of high school at 18 …
Mike Watt: It’s called the GED here.
Jah Wobble: Right. I took three of them, which I managed to pass, before I got expelled. I took a couple, like, English language and literature and then I got expelled. Then I went to this college where I met Johnny Rotten. Johnny Lydon, as he was then. I got one more—biology, funnily enough. It’s never been of any fucking use to me. So I know a little bit about osmosis. That was it really. And then punk started. John went off and came back. I said, ‘Where have you been?’ since he had disappeared for a while and he said, ‘I’m in a band.’ I thought, ‘Wow, really?’ Because it would have been more likely if he’d said he was training to be a pilot even. Even that wouldn’t have been as crazy. At that time, it was the time of Emerson, Lake and Palmer, Yes, this kind of very detailed neo-classical prog rock. You had that. And then you had the whole kind of Black music scene where you listened to recorded music. I’d go to discos. I liked disco music, you know? I would go to discos and so you’d get recorded music. You didn’t really go to live concerts. So it was punk that got me into thinking about playing but I never wanted to play punk music. I wanted to play patterns on the bass.
Mike Watt: Why the bass?
Jah Wobble: It was always going to be bass. I’d been to blues dances, like, these house parties with Jamaicans and of course seeing Family Man play. So you got this one guy with this one instrument called an electric bass and when you get the right sound it’s like you could directly connect to the fucking universe.
Mike Watt: You feel it a lot more than you hear it.
Jah Wobble: I still feel like that. You know—when you stand onstage and play the heavy bass you just feel like you’re plugged straight into the fucking universe. Into infinity. It’s an incredible feeling still. A guitar is a different trick—it’s a different kind of thing. Whereas with a bass you feel kind of rooted somehow as well so it was always going to be bass.
Mike Watt: What was your first bass?
Jah Wobble: It was a cheap Music Man copy with crappy action. It was too high and I didn’t even know. It was short scale. I got hold of a little amp and a jack-to-jack lead. Within a week or two I sold the amp and the lead to get some money to drink and stuff but I kept the bass. I ended up in a squat, just on my own, and I would play the bass and the only bit of furniture left was the headboard of the bed and I would lean the bass against the headboard of the bed and I’d get a sound. It was such a crap action. It’s kind of like those old blues players with a bit of string tied to the bedpost, you know? That was the same shit. When I then got hold of a proper bass, like a Fender P—black, beautiful Fender P—it just sounded wonderful.
Mike Watt: Were they expensive in those days in England?
Jah Wobble: Yeah, you always paid more for Fender. Probably a third more or a half.
Mike Watt: What about the amp?
Jah Wobble: Amps? It would depend on whether it was American or not. I still think it’s probably like that. I mean, over here you get a great big old Ampeg SVT 2—you got to be looking at 2,000 pound or that kind of ballpark. My favorite amp is the Ashton. My favorite cabs right now are incredible. They’re barefaced.
Mike Watt: Oh right, I heard about these babies. They’re, like, only fifty pounds or something
Jah Wobble: They’re incredible. My bass tech uses these lightweight amps. I’m like, ‘Fucking forget it. They have to have weight.’ ‘No, they’re really good.’ ‘I’ll believe it when I see it.’ So he got hold of some and I couldn’t believe it. I went to the factory. We played this show in Brighton and they showed me how they do it. It’s very clever—very rigid, clever structures. All hexagonal kind of shapes with the wood in the amp. They push air. They’re fantastic. So I use my system. I have a great … what they call ‘The Big Bastard,’ which is the big Ashton amp with an 8×10 bareface and two smaller bareface cabs with an SVT1 Ampeg amp in series because the SVT1 gives a better tone than the SVT2 so that’s my setup—and that pushes a lot of fucking air, believe me.
Mike Watt: I can imagine. I really want to try out them barefaces. I’ve heard so much about them.
Jah Wobble: They’re superb. When I tour, we’ll just be hiring stuff so I guess I’ll be using an Ampeg, you know.
Mike Watt: Do you remember your first gig?
Jah Wobble: My gig wasn’t like most people’s first gigs. I’d never been on an airplane at that point so we got an airplane to fly to Belgium. We flew to Belgium and there was a fight towards the end of the gig involving the band and the security guards at the theater where we played and so we ended up barricaded in the dressing room and there was tear gas released by the police. That was my first gig.
Mike Watt: That was at the end of the gig? Did you get to play first?
Jah Wobble: Yeah, we played to the end.
Mike Watt: What was it like to play for the first time in front of people?
Jah Wobble: Oh, very, very nervous. Really nervous and determined not to put a foot wrong.
Mike Watt: Do you guys say ‘clams’? There’s saying here when you fuck up: blowing a clam. It goes right back to the 20s and 30s. In fact, you know Buddy Rich, the drummer? There’s a famous tape. Some guy had a tape recorder on the tour bus and he would cuss them out after every gig and it’s all about blowing fucking clams.
Jah Wobble: Right, really—that’s fantastic?
Mike Watt: I should give it to you, man. It’s about twelve minutes long and I think he says ‘fuck’ 150 times.