Interview: Jah Wobble

I met Jah Wobble, bassist, composer, producer, philosopher, raconteur and legitimate Cockney geezer, backstage at Nottingham’s Rescue Rooms. We’d loosely arranged to meet before his pending gig, but when I called him to say I’d arrived, he apologised, said it had slipped his mind, and could we meet straight after.

I was already suffering minor palpitations because this man is my major musical hero and a human of almost mythical fame.  Now I had to wait.  So I curtailed the booze (so as not to make a prat of myself in front of said hero) and relaxed into a glorious ride through three decades of his music, played by a ridiculously talented group of truly inspiring musicians.  So not all bad.  And then I was escorted backstage and we chatted thus:

There’s been some interesting research into the effect living on estates has had on the music people make, like the BBC’s Estates Music.  Do you think growing up on an estate, particularly in East London, with its mix of cultures, has influenced your music at all?

Yeah well I think there’s a number of factors, but one of the things was the lack of space, you haven’t got much space, physical space, you’re in a pokey little council flat, certainly a bit overcrowded, and you haven’t got a lot of living space around you, so you’re looking for some sort of inner-space kinda thing, and then there’s living in East London, the people around, all the different cultures, and I think especially as you went up to Hackney, just up the road there, that was a Jamaican area, you know, West Indian and Jamaican, so you’d hear the Blues music and that, and it was also, as I grew up, there were a lot of South African musicians, ‘cos of Apartheid, they lived in London, you had great groups like Kocomo, Osibisa, there was a lot of Afro-rock on the circuit, there was a lot of that.  You felt like you were in an International city for sure, and I think as well, you know, I come from a dock area, so there was a thing of everyone mixing in, and Cockneys anyway, we’re a heady brew, of mixtures of races.  It’s not talked about.  All this Brexit thing, they’ve all gone out to Essex now and they’re pro-Brexit. It’s all a fucking cocktail, DNA-wise, so fuck off.  I mean seriously, really, fuck off.  You know, we’ve got Middle Eastern, you know, Irish and all that, all mixed in.

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Some people would say you “found” world music

Well I used to say “I invented world music in 19 whatever”, I’d say I invented world music, and then I invented ambient music and some people go “oh really?”, you know, but yeah, I was playing it a long time ago, mixing stuff.  It’s like a cook.  If you’re a cook, what are you going to do but mix cultures, you know, and you might have one particular discipline you come back to, like there’s those 4 pillars of French cooking, so you might use that, but you might expand on that in a respectful, careful way, you don’t just chuck a load of cumin in with a load of this, and a load of that, you know, but you just see what works, and of course I’m naturally a modal player, so I play patterns. I didn’t learn chords or anything, you know, so just patterns really, which is how a lot of folk musics from around the world are, and that fit with me.  But the other thing, I used to listen to short wave radio, the oscillations, because it made me feel sleepy, and dreamy, and so by chance I then heard stations.  I’d hear Radio Cairo, I’d hear Umm Kulthum, the Eygptian singer, and of course Mohamed Abdel Wahab and you’d hear that because the signal bounced up to the stratosphere and then down again.  With shortwave, you got a kind of phasing sound (makes whooshing phasing sound), so that’s how I first heard Egyptian music, like that you know?

Voices from the universe

Yeah, well actually, those oscillations are from long ago galaxies that have exploded and all that, and you’d hear the most incredibly dense sound patterns, and they’d evolve over time, you know, and I’d listen to them, and you somehow I felt connected to the Prana or energy of the universe or something, that kind of thing.  I was into that quite young, you know.  So I listened and started to hear stuff from around the globe, like Radio Tehran, and I was very drawn to that stuff.

I actually watched a video of you from 1984, where you said “I’ve always wanted to make music in a ritualistic way, you know, in a way that’s gone on for centuries, where you’re uplifting people’s hearts, in almost a religious way – I’m not being a cosmic prat about it or anything”. Very much what you are saying now.

And I still feel the same, like tonight, you’re trying to uplift people, there’s a ritualistic element, an element of opening up “big mind”, Buddhists might refer to it as big mind, other people might call it the true self or something, that you’re getting out of the narrow, neurotic mind, into the fearless, relaxed state that is the real karma abiding energy of the universe, you know, and I’m still into that.  You just get better at it, hopefully.

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I think you play the bass like a shamanic drum

Yeah, well you’re really feeling it, and you really feel it’s going into people’s hearts.  The name Invaders of the Heart, that came from a two part documentary on the BBC called The Romany Trail: Beats of the Heart, and it chartered the path of Gypsies from Rajasthan.  One lot went through the Middle East, through Egypt and all that, and the other lot went through the Balkans.  And the lot that went through the Middle East, they called their music, well they said the invaded people’s hearts.  And I loved that, so that’s where the term Invaders of the Heart come from.  So you get right to the depth of people’s being.

So, your early influences from growing up, do you think they’ve sustained.  Are you influenced by new things, or do you go back to the music that influenced you initially?

I think the initial thing is this state of pure mind, or pure being, you know, your true self, which is completely fresh, so it’s the thing the sages would say, unborn, uncreated, has no location, you know it’s this completely fresh thing, and from that comes wonderful, spontaneous, acts of creation, somehow.  And miscreation if you’ve got a bad thing going on, you know. So that’s really the fresh thing. But it comes from that eternal source, somehow, some people might call it God, to some people God is a being, a deity, to other people God’s a process.  Religion, you know, I try to tend to avoid religious jargon, as such, you know, because you get tied down, literally, in dogma, so that’s the precious thing, the unchanging thing, the unchanging thing is if you’re in tune with that funnily enough, that’s where all the great change will come from, and spontaneity.

You’ve been so prolific in the last few years, and seem to be getting more prolific as you go on. Do you feel like you’ve reached your peak flow?

Yeah, I know, it just seems to be flowing.  But I don’t take it for granted, you know, when your times up, your times up.  I could have a stroke tomorrow, you just don’t know, you know.  I’m just rolling with it. I try and honour it as best I can, and do good shows, and be as consistent as possible.  And not drinking and drugging, it’s a big deal, (I put down my bottle of beer and look guilty)  – don’t be guilty, don’t feel guilty.  The band drink, the boys drink, but they’ve not got a problem.  A lot of my peers really had a problem with stuff, you know, and that’s to their detriment, but these (the band), they’ve all got hollow legs these boys, but I’ve never seen them really get out of order, you know, so…

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But you feel giving up has really made a hell of a lot of difference?

For me, yeah, I think so, absolutely, because it makes you, well you have to grow up, and you have to deal with life, and you have the responsibility to deal with your talents, and your down side, and you have a responsibility to, well, function in life, rather than be dysfunctional.  If you’re functional then you should be doing what you do in the world effectively, and consistently.

And you feel what you’re doing is what you should be doing in the world

Yeah, for sure, yeah I do.  I found my vocation, which is lovely.

Early on as well

Yeah, yeah, early.  I was very lucky.   I would have liked to have had a go at acting, as well, but you know, the bass and the music, all that has been great.

And you’ve been writing poetry.  I loved ‘Air’, I think that’s’ a gorgeous poem.  It touches on all your “themes”.

And it’s fun as well. And I managed to get one of my favourite words in there, vestibule

Ah, yes, “by Bjork in vestibules”.  And you managed to get Jo Strummer in there as well

Yeah yeah, and he has died and that’s a bummer.  Yeah, it’s fun, but that’s actually a good point that is, because it’s fun, but it’s actually saying, you know, what’s time?  It’s kind of saying its relative, it’s literally saying we breath the same air as Buddha, you know, its saying there’s not as much difference between us, and it makes you think of the very air you breathe, if you think about it, and the connection you feel with everybody else, there’s a deep thing going on, obviously.

So what was it like, doing Redux, going back over your back catalogue

Well it’s funny, because I did Anthology, and thought “well I never have to do one of these again, ha ha”, and then it’s another bigger one with Redux, and you think “well that’s finally that thing done”, and then as you’re doing it you think “oh, fuckin ell, there’s this other album” and since then I’ve done probably four or five albums with another two or three to come, so there might well be another Redux, another Anthology, yeah.

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People seem to listen to what they’ve done before constantly or just don’t listen to it at all. Do you think looking back has influenced the stuff you’ve done since?

No, well I’ll listen to the latest thing over and over, then that’s it, you know.  And then when you come back to re-learn it, if you might occasionally play something live, it’s like, its completely alien, you’ve got to learn it all again.  And it’s stuff that you don’t hear for years, then you hear it and think “oh that’s really good, I love that” and remember what it was like when you did it, but the whole thing’s always moving and changing and developing, you know.

Do you have any regrets about anything you’ve done?

Oh fuckin’ ‘ell, yeah yeah, but very little.  I’ve pretty much stayed true.  There’s a couple of pop things where people have convinced me, you know, we should do a pop thing, then I think “this isn’t very good”, you know, but no, not really.   I have stayed pretty true.  I’ve never thought “I’m going to make a record like that” I don’t really feel it, you know, “If I make a record like that, everyone will think I’m clever and I’ll make a lot of money”, I’ve never really done that, I’ve always worked from the heart.

And that’s how you play the bass as well

Yeah, yeah, I play from the heart.

You’re the reason I learnt to play bass. And I’ve only just got the “pattern” thing

Oh, right, thank you. Well yeah, that is actually how early music, medieval music, was done, because cosmology was all fixed patterns, and you know, well Bach is actually almost this mathematical thing, most Eastern music isn’t harmonised.  And you get a weird, natural overtone, another kind of overtone, undertone, harmonic thing going on, which really lives and breathes, where harmony becomes very mannered.

Did you feel that with the Japanese and Chinese Dub work?   How did you end up doing those albums?

Well my wife is Chinese; she was born in China. She come to Liverpool when she was 14 or so.  And the reason she’s here, her Dad, whose dead now, Mr Lee, he went to China and ran the Pagoda Chinese Youth Orchestra, Europe’s first Chinese Youth Orchestra, and so our two sons, well that’s why I moved up North, so they could be in that.  I wanted them to have that culture around, ‘cos my culture was decaying, I knew it was decaying, kind of fascinating as it decayed, and it become all very Essex, everyone went out to Essex, and it become kind of “East End Light”, and eventually it’s mutated into Brexit, and I do see a real funny side of it, and I don’t just look down me nose at them neither.  Well that’s another story.

So they (the boys) would come back from their practice, and they’d be singing these old Cantonese melodies, like *sings old Cantonese melodies* and I used to fuck about with them *sings skat version of old Cantonese melodies*, and change all the accents on it, and they’d go “No, Dad, it’s not like that”, and they’d get really pissed off with me and my wife said, “Do you really like it, you keep singing it” and I said “I do really like it, we should record it”.  So it started out, well, because it was Liverpool year of culture, she got a bit of money, a bit of budget to record a couple of tracks, and then it mushroomed into an album, and then it mushroomed into a tour.  So that’s how it happened, and we’ve just recorded the sequel, with all of us, like the fuckin Partridge Family, yeah, me and me missus and me two boys.  Its good, if I say so myself.  It’s heavy.

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When is it out?

It’s out, in probably about 3 or 4 months’ time.  It’s got me younger boy, Charlie he plays erhu, my elder boy, he plays drums and yangqin, me missus plays Chinese harp.  She was sent away in the cultural revolution, at 3 years of age, to a residential nursery, they go “you’re going to be a Chinese harp player”.  Yeah.  So, Charlie, he raps and sings, he’s got a deal as well, he went off his own bat, doing singing and rapping and all that, and he plays keyboards, but there’s a track called ‘Dim Sum’ on there where he raps, and it’s just like “well, that’s a hit”, you know, if I say so myself.

Do they think you’re a cool Dad?  Or are they embarrassed by you.

Ah, well I think they think I’m cool?  I get on really well with my boys.  They’ve both left home, but yeah.  They seem to not think I’m an arsehole.  They ask my advice on stuff, and they get me to come and play bass, on some of their stuff.  And they know what they want.  They go “No no, I don’t want it like this, I want it like that”, you know.  Yeah, I get on good with them.  I guess I kind of faded out a little bit, I was still making records and doing gigs.  Not as many, because Charlie was a good footballer, he become a professional, he had to choose between football and music, and I said, go for music.  I mean, I love football, but go for music.  And me elder boy, with him it was boxing, you know. So I’d take them everywhere, and I got very involved in all that, so you can talk to them, you know, when there’s difficulties in life, they can overcome stuff.  And me missis, she’s really easy going.  She was there in the cultural revolution, she was the little girl with the red flag, and all that, and then she come to Liverpool, and was in a comprehensive suddenly, and she didn’t speak English, and the teachers, well the kids are going (in a Liverpool accent) “Well no, fuck off now”, and she was like “I think they’re saying no to the teacher?” When you’re from an authoritarian state, you know, she was like “I can’t believe they’re having a go at the teacher! And the teacher’s not smashing them to bits!” ‘Cos in China, they’d smash you to bits.

So, a last question on the last album. You played some tracks from it tonight.  It’s got quite a different sound.  How did you go about writing the album?  Was it a collaborative thing?

There’s sometimes a back story, but this was very simple.  It’s a band album.  The only song on there I did was ‘Take my hand’, that I wrote separately, but the rest of it is just, ok, let’s play naturally, lets write, compose, jam naturally, and that’s where we are all at as a group.  It’s very relaxed, everything just gels together, they’re really relaxed players, its good.

And with that the legend that is Jah Wobble says he has to go, gives me a big kiss on each cheek and leaves the room.

Jah Wobble & The Invaders of The Heart play Harpenden Public Halls on 6th March and Norwich Arts Centre on 21st March, the album Realm of Spells is out now.

Interview and Photography by HJ Nicol


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