MIKE WATT INTERVIEWS JAH WOBBLE: PLAY THE SMALLEST INSTRUMENT
Jah Wobble: I’ve got to check that out. The thing that I had about me was: sit down, concentrate, make sure you’re in time and exact with your playing and that’s exactly what I did. So the first gig ended up in tear gas but I didn’t make a bum note. I got involved in the fight at the end with the security guys. And the second gig was in Paris and suddenly everything went black in the middle of the show. I’d been knocked out virtually. Somebody threw a frozen pigs head from the circle so it hit me and I thought, ‘What the fuck?’ But I managed to carry on playing and I played it OK. So that was the second gig.
Mike Watt: Jeez. I got hit with used condoms once in Vienna. Never a frozen pig head. Batteries hurt.
Jah Wobble: A used condom?!
Mike Watt: Yeah, like, ten or eleven of them. Somebody really worked on it. It was the same thing though. All the power went off and when it came back on I saw all these things stuck to my chest and my neck and my hands.
Jah Wobble: That’s fucking gross.
Mike Watt: It was Minutemen and Black Flag. In fact this club is still there. It was a squat called Arena. It’s now a legitimate place. It was an old ceramics factory.
Jah Wobble: Were you upset? You must have been really upset.
Mike Watt: I was laughing in a way. I couldn’t believe it. I mean, somebody obviously put some time into this. D. Boon got a whole cup of piss thrown in his face so I kind of got the lesser …
Jah Wobble: Funnily enough, for the first time we played, like, a punk festival, which is kind of strange for us—there was quite a lot of bad behavior, which I hadn’t seen for a long time. They kind of liked the band. They were all loving it but people were trying to get on the stage and all that stuff. Just fucking around. And all quite old. Not young punks. Old fucking punks doing that! I remember there was this kind of subset of people who wanted to act like teenagers, I suppose. There were younger dudes weren’t doing that. It was all the older lot. No one spat, thank fuck. That would have been a problem.
Mike Watt: Do you remember your first recording?
Jah Wobble: A little bit. I do remember going in with PIL, yeah. I think it was doing ‘Public Image,’ the single. We had John Leckie producing it, who is a friend of mine now … It turned out that apparently on one of those first sessions, I went in and I mugged him. I went off with his wallet, which I don’t really, kind of …
Mike Watt: Jesus!
Jah Wobble: It’s a vague memory. It’s a pretty crazy thing when you have your first band. There’s a studio, there’s a producer, you want to drink and do some other stuff. And I fucking mugged him, which wasn’t really my style to do that but that’s what I did. It wasn’t really my style at all but that’s what I did apparently.
Mike Watt: You guys know this thing called ‘red light fever’? It means when the recording red light is on, you get all nervous. Did you ever get red light fever?
Jah Wobble: No—I mean, I do in a good way. I love it. I love the studio and I get nervy but it’s an adrenaline rush. I love it especially when it’s a tricky part. I love it. I love the thing in the studio. For me, it started out with PIL. I think the best backing tracks for PIL were recorded at Gooseberry studio in Chinatown with Mark Angelo. It was like a very cheap basement studio in Chinatown under a Chinese restaurant. And that’s where I did ‘The Suit’ backing track and we did ‘Fodderstompf’ there, you know. And ‘Another’ was done there. That’s the best bass sound for PIL. It was just a great engineer. I’d rather have an engineer that knows his stuff backwards, like Mark Angelo. Mark Angelo trained at Decca and then he worked with Dennis Bovell.
Mike Watt: That guy mixed the first Pop Group album.
Jah Wobble: That’s right. And the Slits. He’s a friend of mine. So Dennis and Mark were the two engineers down there and that’s like having some guy that flies some old beat up plane but knows every inch of the plane and knows exactly what he can do with that plane. In a way, it’s like those reggae guys like Lee Perry. They have a four-track but they knew it intimately, you know. And they could just coax a magic out of that that some guy on ProTools with all the infinite possibilities couldn’t fucking do now.
Mike Watt: Right—they’ve got skills and technique.
Jah Wobble: Yeah, they’ve got something and they know their shit inside and out.
Mike Watt: Artist’s touch.
Jah Wobble: Yeah. And what we’d do there is turn the amps against the wall and make a bass track so you really recorded the pure air resonance. If it was a round bass line, you might use three or four mics and get the ultimate bass so you really kept it in the correct resonance. Then you’d mix that down into one or two tracks.
Mike Watt: Yeah, because bass frequencies are very wide. They happen far from the speaker.
That’s exactly right. They’re very transient. There’s a whole weird thing with sub harmonics. That’s why I use a Magnum bass.
Mike Watt: Why did you start on a Magnum bass?
Jah Wobble: A guy called Hugo. I think he’s definitely one of the very best sound guys in Europe. He’s a Dutch guy. Hugo brought it along for me to use in ‘88 and he said, ‘I think this would be perfect for you.’ And I took it off of him and I never gave it back to him. At some point, I gave him 800 euros, which I think he was happy with, and that was it. I kept it and I’ve still got it. That was ‘88. Up until then I would use Fender Ps. Sometimes an old Ampeg scroll neck.
Mike Watt: I’ve seen pictures of you playing one of them.
Jah Wobble: They’re great but they’re semi-acoustic. You’ve got to be careful with the feedback.
Mike Watt: What about a big old Ovation?
Jah Wobble: The Ovations are really heavy. I mean, they give you an aching back.
Mike Watt: Kim Gordon had one of those. I played it in the studio and I couldn’t believe it.
Jah Wobble: Yeah, they’re heavy. We play for two-and-a-half hours some nights, three hours. So you really do feel it. You need to get a massage in every few weeks to loosen those back muscles up. But I love it. Because it’s old wood there’s a lot of resonance. There are a lot of sub-harmonics that go on and give it that flavor.
Mike Watt: Right. The mahogany, like Gibsons. That’s much different than a Fender.
Jah Wobble: Gibsons are very punchy. A very punchy bass. I like Yamaha BB, which is very plain looking. It’s like a small car that doesn’t look like much but when you get in you can do so much.
Mike Watt: Can I ask you about bass as a composition? It seems like bass is always the last … well, not reggae maybe but it seems like bass is always the last thing added on. Do you think there’s value in composing on the bass? Do you compose on the bass?
Jah Wobble: Yeah, I can compose on the bass. I think all the PIL stuff started on the bass. What you can do is you can put a line down and you can give the guitarist or the keyboard player a line as well on top of that and then you can work a harmony out on the bass. So yeah, you can absolutely work on the bass.
Mike Watt: Because I’ve found in a way that we leave a lot of room for the other guys. If you give somebody a demo with the piano or a guitar, you’re already telling them where a lot of harmonic stuff is. With the bass I think we’re more like a launchpad, a springboard for the other guys when we compose on the bass.
Jah Wobble: That’s right. That’s exactly right. I see myself a lot of times with Invaders of the Heart because the musicians are really good. They’re really great players and you give them a basis to work from. I keep it simple at the bottom end and give them a good platform a lot of the time.
Mike Watt: What do you think about the future of the bass? Is it more strings?
Jah Wobble: No, I don’t think it is. I’ve got a couple of five string basses, with the low B.
Mike Watt: What do you think of the low B? It’s good for stuff in D, right, so you can do turnarounds. But doesn’t it get in the way of the kick drum? Like, what do you think of the bass guitar and the kick drum?
Jah Wobble: A lot of the time I stay away from the one because the bass drum is always on the one. You kind of get this flexible kind of rhythm going where you’re playing off the one, off the bass drum.
Mike Watt: Well, the closest note to us on the stage is the kick drum, right? I know it looks like a guitar but we’re closer to the drums.
Jah Wobble: That’s right. That’s absolutely right. And that low B, I have used it, it can be quite good at times but generally you don’t need it. The bottom end, because of the sub harmonics, the E is beautiful. That’s as low as you really need to get, you know. The only reason you might go lower is just when something’s in the key of, like, D minor or something. But to be honest, I’m happy tuning the E down to a D anyway. It’s fine, you know.
Mike Watt: Oh, you drop D on the E string?
Jah Wobble: Yeah, just tune down. I even do that on stage sometimes if we’re improvising. Just tune it down. You can hear it and tune it yourself very quickly. And I don’t have the best pitching ears but even I can kind of do that. The only time I use a low B is if I’m going all the way down to B but it gets a bit flappy and to be honest, you’re better off to play a keyboard bass.
Mike Watt: These things with the higher strings, the higher notes? That’s kind of crazy. It all gets covered up when the band jumps in.
Jah Wobble: Well, the only way I can understand that is if you’ve got somebody who’s a good bass player, they can play a bit of guitar and they’re going out live and they haven’t got a guitarist. There’s a keyboard player there maybe and a singer or maybe a drummer. Fine. I can see that. Then you can go and you can play a few chords and you’ve got a nice big register there. You can play along with the keyboard player or something. That’s fine. Or if it’s some strange thing where you’ve got a violinist and a singer and a drummer and then … there you are. You’re the bass player guy. You’re the electric guy in that situation, then fine—but by and large I don’t really get it, no. It really is bass players who want to be guitarists. Well, I don’t want to be a guitarist. I want to be a drummer.
Mike Watt: I’d rather be a drummer too. What do you think about effects?
Jah Wobble: I’ve got one of those Boss effects pedals and the only really good sound on it is one I’ve programmed on it—the Larry Graham slap sound and that’s great.
Mike Watt: Scoops out the midrange.
Jah Wobble: I do use a bit of flange and modular, like a little bit of phasing live sometimes, but just for two or three very specific kinds of numbers.
Mike Watt: Yeah—I’ve found the effects really rob you of your punch and your depth.
Jah Wobble: We use it on an old composition called ‘Every Man’s an Island’ from the Rise Above Bedlam album, I think. I don’t think I played an effect on the record back then but when we play it live there’s this 24 or 32 bar long sequence in the middle where the band really rocks out and I go up an octave and the guitarist does, like, a blues solo and that’s really great—but it’s a cheesy fucking kind of phased sound. The keyboard player really locks in and he’s playing quite low notes so it’s really effective. It really works, you know. And there are a couple other times in a set when I might use those effects and it kind of accentuates the high notes really. If you go into that for a few bars and then go back to the dub sound, then it’s like … wow. It’s almost like you’re playing a dub record and you put a bit of an effect on it in the studio and then you go back to the heavy bass. It works there so I’ll wrap those pedals up and use them three or four times in the gig. That’s it. Just three or four times for a few bars and that’s that. When we tour America I probably won’t use effects at all because I think we’ll be backlining with a local backline guy for each show—is the idea—and I’ll just keep it simple.
Mike Watt: So you get back from this tour: what’s your plan after that?
Jah Wobble: More and more gigs. We come back and I think we’re playing pretty constantly. We’ve got a new album out. There’s a ton of stuff going on so I think that we’ll probably just be working through. I think we’ve got shows all the way through October into November. We’ve got a biggish London show on the 24th of November and then I think I might be doing some stuff with Harold Budd again in December. I love Harold. I think I’ll be going all the way through to Christmas just playing live. I mean … because I’ve got a good band I just want to go out and play live. You rarely get a thing where everyone’s on fire, where you’ve got five guys who are all really on it and playing out of their skin.
Mike Watt: There’s nothing like it. It’s bitchin’.
Jah Wobble: We’ve got a great singer here and a great trumpet player. I might be taking him to America but I’ll be getting one or two American players to sit in with us, I think. In New York, we’re going to get one or two really good dark fiery sax players because some of the stuff is quite modal that we do.
Mike Watt: Your long journey in music—somebody just getting into this, what would be the advice?
Jah Wobble: God, I think now the advice would be you have to enjoy it. You’ve got to enjoy it and you might as well be true to yourself now. More than ever before because in the past sometimes people would get sidetracked into trying to sound like something they weren’t really to be on the radio, to make some bucks—and for some people sometimes that works and they make the bucks, but more often than not it doesn’t anyway. And now the whole game seems so different and so basic again, really. You may as well really be true to yourself, you know?
Mike Watt: Yeah—have some integrity.
Jah Wobble: You may as well just be true to yourself because you’ll make a better fit with yourself if you do that. You as well be really true and play the shit that you really want to play, you know? And have faith in it. This new album that’s come out is kind of a jazzy Afro-rock thing and how it happened is we had a show in London, in Brixton, in May of 2015. I put us in a hotel near Tower Bridge and there is a studio I use a lot around the corner called Intimate. I said to the band, ‘Hey, you know, we’re playing on the Friday night and on the Sunday we could get up and go to the studio for fun.’ ‘Yeah, yeah, great.’ So we went in there and I said, ‘Look, here’s a line and there’s a change.’ And I remember one of the guys says, ‘Aw, that sounds too much like heavy metal.’ And I said, ‘Look here, be cool, just do it.’ Anyway, it was just a fun thing. I didn’t know what would happen with it. When we were doing the PledgeMusic album I hooked up with Youth again … he’s an old friend of mine…
Mike Watt: The Killing Joke guy, right?
Jah Wobble: Yeah—he came to that gig we did in London and he’s a big time producer and he said, ‘I really want to produce the band. If only I could just get you in a studio for two days.’ And I said, ‘I’ve got a load of stuff I’ve done in the band in one day but it’s not commercial.’ ‘Oh, give it to me, give it to me.’ He was supposed to do just three tracks. He was supposed to go to America to tour but their tour got postponed so he was able to do all of it and he did put some really good sax and did a really good job with those backing tracks that we’d done. They were the backing tracks with changes and it looks like it’s been quite successful. The crazy thing is there was not one second’s thought towards being commercial. Not one. We just had fun. I gave it to him and I said, ‘Well, that’s fucking great but no one’s going to buy it because it’s like jazz, kind of Afro-rock.’ ‘No, the thing is the jazz thing is popular now.’ ‘Really? I had no fucking idea.’ Five years, six years ago when we were doing jazz with these same musicians, people said don’t use the ‘jazz’ word. It’s dead.’ This is what I mean. Just be true to what you do. So this new album, I did the cover for it because I do a bit of painting. It’s all just relaxed and I feel really creative at the moment. You know—it’s all good. That’s what I say to younger players. You have to enjoy it. I suppose the other advice I’d give is, ‘Learn to play a smaller instrument.’ Play the smallest instrument you’re comfortable with because it makes life a lot fucking easier getting around.
JAH WOBBLE AND THE INVADERS OF THE HEART WITH THE PART TIME PUNKS DJS ON SUN., OCT. 2, AT THE ECHOPLEX, 1154 GLENDALE BLVD., ECHO PARK. 8 PM / $18.50-$26.50 / 18+. GET TICKETS HERE! JAH WOBBLE AND THE INVADERS OF THE HEART’S EVERYTHING IS NOTHING IS AVAILABLE NOW FROM JAH WOBBLE. VISIT JAH WOBBLE AT JAHWOBBLE.COM.