For 25 years, Jah Wobble has weathered the agony and the ecstasy of an ever-changing music industry

For 25 years, Jah Wobble has weathered the agony and the ecstasy of an ever-changing music industry. He's survived enough to know when to be content with his lot in life. The artist formerly known as John Wardle talks to Jim Carroll

There is a first time for everything. Musicians don't usually turn up at the airport to pick up journalists, preferring to employ flunkeys and acolytes to do such menial tasks and act as a buffer between the act and the hack. But obviously no one ever told Jah Wobble this, because he's waiting at Manchester Airport for the flight to arrive.

It's hard to imagine his one-time bandmate and old pal John Lydon being so amenable. Then again, Jah Wobble (aka John Wardle, until Sid Vicious drunkenly gave him a new moniker) has never been predictable.

Called up initially to play bass with Lydon's post-Sex Pistols outfit, Public Image Ltd, Wobble's musical adventures are as deep as they are wide. Over the past quarter century, he has flitted from ambient pop to world music and back via albums based around the poems of mystic poet and painter William Blake, the music for a Requiem Mass and spoken-word productions. A prolific collaborator, his studio accomplices have included Sinéad O'Connor, The Edge, Brian Eno, Ronnie Drew, Natasha Atlas, Can's Holgar Czukay and Jaki Liebeziet, Bill Laswell, Harold Budd, Pharaoh Sanders and countless others.


You'll find all of these sides of Wobble on I Could Have Been a Contender, a recently released three-CD anthology of his work. He claims in the sleevenotes that the release is down to him still being pretty enough to pose for publicity photos but, while there is a current interest in all things PiL, there's no denying that a Wobble retrospective was long overdue. And there was certainly a lot of material to consider for the release.

"It was never going to be chronological, but it was always going to start where it all started, with Public Image," says Wobble. "It's a great start, like a cup of really strong coffee first thing in the morning. I wanted one CD to have the song stuff, there was another CD for the ambient stuff, which is the stuff which has Eno and Pharoah Sanders, and then there were the odds and sods, which is what is on the other CD."

Seated in a corner of a Chinese restaurant, with enough dim sum on the table to feed a small army, Wobble seems content with his lot. Having had a fruitful relationship with Eastwest and Island Records during the 1990s, he abandoned the major ships in 1996 to launch his own 30 Hertz label. A plethora of records has since emerged from 30 Hertz, and there are enough sales worldwide to ensure a good living.

"I've found my niche in life," he says. "I make records, I tour with my band, I do things with 30 Hertz. Occasionally, I'll feel a little uncomfortable because I'm stressed out about this or that, but then we'll play a fast and furious show and everything will be OK again."

Having survived the music industry rollercoaster for so long, Wobble is articulate and insightful about its woes. He believes the problems began when people stopped caring about the music.

"When I went to Trojan to do this record, they started talking to me about music and I was gobsmacked. It really shocked me because for the last seven or eight years, whenever I've dealt with other companies, no one ever talks about the music. It's the last consideration. Once, people in record companies were there because they loved music. Then the city boys and the accountants came in and demanded profits and got rid of that buzz" For Wobble, the only way to survive and thrive is to stay independent. "I have learned that the major way of doing things is a load of bollocks," he says emphatically.

The anthology's release has given some the chance to drag out old war stories about Wobble, and he winces at the thought of these. "Sometimes I think there's too much emphasis on the old stuff and this time around, the whole 'Jah Wobble yob' thing has made me very uncomfortable. For fuck's sake, I am 46 years of age; that was years ago."

The Public Image thing also has currency, but Wobble doesn't complain because he knows it gave him the kickstart he required.

"Back then, I was terribly callow and suffered from a real lack of self-esteem. But there was another side to me when I started bass, I would lose myself in the playing. I don't think I would have become a musician if John (Lydon) hadn't got me into PiL. I certainly wouldn't have gone and looked for it."

He remembers the PiL days as "dark, destructive and nihilistic," a far cry from the Wobble of later. "I prefer warm and light and people who are open, and I think collaborators pick up on my natural enthusiasm for the music."

Besides this anthology and forthcoming live shows, Wobble continues to be prolific, working on three different albums at the moment. Each release reaches an audience ("about 5,000 people around the world get it; that's a lot of people, especially if you put them all in one room") and Wobble hopes this anthology will up that number significantly.

Still, he's nothing if not pragmatic. "Occasionally you get asked that question: What would you do if you weren't doing music? I always say, well, I'd drive a lorry or be a postman, and the interviewer is always surprised by that. But I mean it. It's something I think about every month, what would I do if this all goes tits up. I need to work. I'm used to grafting and getting my hands dirty. I'm a fiercely independent geezer and I've always looked after myself in this game."

I Could Have Been a Contender is out now on Trojan. Jah Wobble's English Roots Band play Nerve Centre, Derry tonight; Crawdaddy, Dublin on Saturday night; The Bodega, Cork on Sunday; and Roisin Dubh, Galway on Monday