JAH WOBBLE INTERVIEWED (1996): Spiritual traveller stay-at-home

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JAH WOBBLE INTERVIEWED (1996): Spiritual traveller stay-at-home

The message had a kind of road-to-Damascus ring to it: “Jah will meet you at Bethnal Green tube station next to the ticket counter.”

And there he is: Jah in jeans and a sweater. Not quite what Rastafarians have in mind. But, accidentally or not, this child of Stepney’s working class streets has chosen an appropriate nom-de-rock because, once behind the doors of his modest two-up two-down nearby in a street remarkable only for its dreary ordinariness, it is philosophy which Jah Wobble – one-time bassist with Public Image Ltd and now ambient-trance master, remixer and bassist without portfolio -- is more than happy to discuss.

Yes, he’s got a new album out -- the blend of world music and ambience on Heaven and Earth which features Chinese flute players alongside former Transglobal Underground singer Natacha Atlas, keyboardist Bernie Worrell, guitarist Nicky Skopelitis and jazz saxophone giant Pharoah Sanders.

And yes, he’s remixed Brian Eno tracks for the Spinner album. And yes, he’s in a bit of a rush because he’s just finished writing a requiem and tonight the string players come in for the first time.

But as the room grows rapidly dark around 4.30 pm on this chilly afternoon, he settles back with a cup of tea and talks about Sinead O'Connor and William Blake, football and prayer -- and what has drawn him to the swirling North African sounds which have elevated his recent albums.

While the soothing, understated Heaven and Earth fits right into current world music/trance-ambient trends, Wobble’s earliest experiments in the field predated even quick-off-the-mark chaps like Peter Gabriel.

He traces that to picking up North African music while fiddling with a shortwave radio as a kid and feeling himself intuitively drawn to it. He tells of the composer Stockhausen going to Japan and, on his return, making music which others said was influenced by the experience. Stockhausen’s reply was no, he’d discovered the Japanese within himself.

It's an anecdote Wobble enjoys because it mirrors his experience as well.

“At that time you ’adn’t heard that North African stuff ’ere, that’s only come in the last decade or so with a couple of big mosques. It was that thing where you hear something and it’s so familiar. It's so fuckin' frustrating to talk about . . . as within, so without, this thing called an inner world And this music awoke that spark where you become aware of something inside of yourself.

“I believe we've got so many personalities inside of us and maybe it takes a quantum leap of consciousness to awaken it, but there’s a universality to it – sometimes you just hear the more folkloric aspects of it. Music is linked to a place and man is linked to the earth.jah2

“The [local] culture thing is there in the front but the deep thing is the universality, the linking thing.

“That North African music really awoke something in me, anything that inspires me tends to be the divine on the move. There is the feeling of the eternal, that which is always present and has a consciousness to it.”

He laughs aloud at how such esoteric talk is received in the studio; “I know what they think of me- ‘He talks a lot of shit sometimes!' -- but they know they can also say, ‘Would you mind if I try this chord?' because they know I'm not going to say no.

“I'll prattle away sometimes but it works and sometimes you don't want the same old thing or to be that specific about what you want. It’s about setting the conditions and sometimes it’s more about coming out of the intellect and more into the body.”

Setting those conditions means allowing for the accident, being open to possibilities by not anticipating a desired result and keeping the ego in check.

“The ego’s very clever and always coming up. I heard it described by some Tibetan geezer like, ‘You should embark on a spiritual path and the ego says it’s a great idea and it’ll come along with you’ and then it takes over. But this world now is a very nice time really, there are a lot of people coming into consciousness.

“There’s an authenticity about the way people are doing things, they are comfortable and developing their own ideas and hopefully not like a butterfly flitting.

“That's why I’ve got a lot of time for people that follow one discipline – that‘s a very practical thing to do."

Wobble himself doesn’t ascribe to any particular school of thought (“very much a personal experience”) but says he does pray: “Prayer is very much an action, music’s a form of prayer. The prayer is like, ‘Here we go and don’t let any shit get in the way.’

“I don’t pray for Tottenham to win or nothin’! It’s about getting the music through. And I think music comes from beyond the intellect and ego. That idea is more prevalent in the Middle East, there are certain musics and musicians that work with eternity and God-consciousness. Maybe it’s because the religion – for better or worse -- supports the culture which infects the music, whereas here it’s all Lady Di.

“You can still find those things about eternity in the West but you have to have a big heart. It's a more solitary path but it’s a great thing when you find it. The thing is about being ready to receive.”

Wobble’s spadework has seen him work with an extraordinary number of diverse musicians over the years; from borrowing Sid Vicious' bass as an 18-year-old before joining John Lydon’s noise-merchants PIL to work with German avant-garde types like Holger Czukay, the Edge and Jaki Leibezeit through his Invaders of the Heart Band (who scored a hit with the mantra-like, Sinead-sung Visions of You) to remixes and collaborations with the Orb, Bjork, Massive Attack and most recently the Spinner album with Eno.

It’s hardly surprising, then, when he ticks off his formative musical interests that Miles Davis' hard-edged urban funk of the early Seventies co-existed with the experimental approaches of Can, dub reggae and soukous music from the West Indies (“it felt like my indigenous music from all over the world”) and the pure noise that PIL sometimes explored.

Yet curiously, for one so drawn to the exoticism of music from various parts of Africa, he hasn’t been a great traveller.

Done the touring thing, he says, but that backpacking or traveling for its own sake is a middle-class thing to do; working class blokes like him tend not to. And maybe it’s dangerous for the ego to take something on before you are ready. And anyway, he’s a pragmatist, too. What needs to happen is for him to develop and come into consciousness so he can take on the karma of this place -- London, music, this time -- rather than look for a guru or answer elsewhere.jah3

Ever the tough-nosed East Londoner then?

“Oh yeah,” he laughs, “There's that division in people's lives between spirituality and practicality – but for me it's got to be practical to be spiritual. It's got to be efficient, which doesn't mean cold and robotic. Efficient is love at work, efficient is things working and when you work there should be some warmth and love there.

“I think basically I talk the way I do is because I've been exposed to some of those philosophies in practice. When that openness was there the experience could happen.

“By dropping pre-conceived ideas you give yourself the right to miracles and see the way laws of music, say, will work. I can talk about that rather than sit down and say all the clever things I've thought up.”

What Jah Wobble has been thinking up recently is a spiritually impelled music delivered by the likes of Sinead (“great singer, she's really loud but accurate - pretty scary the volume!”) and Natacha Atlas. And a spoken word album of William Blake’s poetry.

“I heard ‘Tiger, Tiger, burning bright’ years ago on TV and thought it was just – you know that middle-class delivery – like an actor. I thought it was some tosser trying to hunt a tiger. And a couple of mates I knew from college said, ‘You gotta check this geezer out, he’s the man.’

“So I done some readings and some music for that.”

And the remix album for Eno?

“That was different because it was just a load of stuff sent over on a DAT and I love that. I’d met ‘im only a couple of times before, so this thing come out the blue.” .

Why you then?

“I dunno, I forgot to ask 'im. Afterwards I met him and said, ‘Did you like the stuff then?' He said yeah and I forgot to ask why he thought of me. It was incredibly enjoyable because of this thing like people say about a cycle over a 10-year period and this brought back feelings I had in my early 20s about music and pure atmosphere, because that was a time when I was listening to really

Miles [Davis] stuff – and stuff that I didn't think was called ambient but was more atmospheric.”

But as the day falls into night and a requiem beckons it’s time to go back into the working class suburban streets.

Just a quick question, then; in John Lydon's autobiography No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs he dismisses bass-playing in rock’n’roll as just a big booming noise in the background.

True, Mr Bass Player?

“It’s not even that! As a kid listening to rock -- and there were some that I liked -- it was just lost because it was a dull little thumping noise behind the root notes. I still hear that where the bass is following the root note. I figure that's uninteresting -- a bass should be worth much more than that. What I think was missing from what I heard when I was young was the syncopation, like in older rock bands the bass was imaginative. Like John Entwistle in the Who.

“Rock’s lost that. Nirvana was the last proper rock band I liked. They just had it.”

Jah talking about Nirvana?

It figures.  

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