I had an opportunity to interview Jah Wobble a few years ago, when Emotional Rescue compiled the sides released on his defunct `80s label, Lago. A super excited fanboy, I blew it. In prep for the chat I sent out a list of questions – topics that I wanted to cover – that ran from John Lydon to William Blake, taking in Adrian Sherwood, and alcoholism, along the way. Honestly, it went on for pages and pages, and reading it back now I know I must have seemed like a nut. In my defense I was super excited, and sure that I`d only get one shot.
Regrouping, below is a much more focused conversation, largely, centred around the recording of The Invaders Of The Heart club, “balearic”, classic, Bomba. Following the initial knockback, and in the knowledge that I must have come across like a stalker, pre the call I was a tad nervous, but any preconceptions that I had of a “giant”, reformed “geezer”, who didn’t suffer fools gladly were immediately blown away by an hour and half of friendly, expletive-filled, London banter (Otter.ai could make neither head nor tail of either of us) with someone that it felt like I`d known for years – and, in a way, I suppose I had.
How has the lockdown been for you?
Well, I started this thing called Tuned In, in London. It`s this community-based project. We hit the ground running. We got money, built a studio. So before the lockdown I was staying in London four nights a week, as well as touring. When the lockdown happened I had to stop all that and in a way that was great. I was secretly relieved to take my foot off the gas pedal for a bit. Between Tuned In, and gigs, my wife would say, “Are you sure you want to be working a six-day week?” and I`d say, “No I`m not.”
After reading your memoir I’m surprised that you were willing to move back to London. I mean I know that you love the city, but in the book the impression you give is that you were done with it at that point.
I was really. I still love going down there. I just don’t want to live there. And I was living there half the week, in a little flat in a tower block. I did get into it again. I was thinking, “This feels very familiar”. You know I was back on my little London manor.
Has touring opened up again now?
Yeah. We’re looking forward to Belgium in a couple of weeks for two nights. That’ll be the second show we’ve done since it all kicked off. I`ve deliberately left it a little later than people wanted me to. They wanted me back in the autumn and I just thought I suspect that things won’t settle down properly until the next year. So we`re going out on tour in January. We`re doing Ronnie Scott’s on the 8th of Jan, and then we`re on the road for three months.
What was it like getting visas with the Brexit situation? Was it a pain in the arse?
The promoter tells me that it`s all good. I`ve got an Irish passport now anyway. Which I’m happy about. For Belgium, it`s only two nights, so they’re saying that there’s no quarantine. But let’s see. It`s all shaping up as if its all a bit too easy.
How many people are in the band now?
Well, we played as a seven-piece in Liverpool the other week – with my wife, and my eldest son, who’s a good drummer – but for Belgium its just a four-piece. I try to keep it down to a four-piece for touring. It`s tight and you get to know how everyone plays, so you can improvise and it doesn’t get messy.
I guess you`ve been leaning more and more toward jazz.
With four it`s okay, but once you get to five seats, and you’re jamming, sometimes it`s one too many voices in a conversation.
Are you still touring under the name of The Invaders Of The Heart?
Yeah, very much so. There’s been three distinct phases with The Invaders – you know, in the early `80s, the early `90s and then in 2014 I basically reformed the band again. I`d say this is the best one, but then of course I would say that. They`ve got the musicality of the first Invaders, but we’ve also got the repertoire from the second Invaders – and we`re able to use some of the same loops and stuff that we used back then. So it`s kind of the best of both worlds.
I saw you play The Astoria at around the time Visions Of You came out and the band were absolutely amazing.
That would have been with Justin Adams and Neville Murray. Neville sadly passed away this year. Nev was a big influence on me. I play percussion now and that’s down to Nev. You know, I`d get on the congas and watch him play, copy him, and get those basic Afro-Cuban fills. He was a very, very, good conga player. You could put the loops up and he would be tight with it. We had a period where we struggled to find a drummer that I was comfortable with. The guy I`ve got now, Mark Leyton-Bennett – I’m probably fucking tempting fate here – I don’t think I`ve ever heard him drop a beat on stage. He’s like a fucking machine, and that’s a big deal. You don’t say that about most drummers.
I guess your standards must be pretty high, since you played with Jaki Leibzeit.
That’s right, and also Jim Walker, in PiL, who’s a proper good drummer. He had that rock power – you know like John Bonham – and he could kind of put in that “push note”, the “dotted eighth, and straight eight” kind of note – so there’s a slightly funky element to the drums.
To be fair I`ve got even higher standards when it comes to the guitar. I think I said this in the book, I think it`s a bad as a tenor sax – where you`ve always got the ghost of Charlie Parker and John Coltrane looking over bloody your shoulder. As guitarist, you`ve got Hendrix and other people – its difficult to find your own voice.
As a bass-player, to be a dependable bass-player is a virtue, you know? I mean that’s what I am really, a dependable bassist.
Well you’ve definitely got your own voice, it’s so distinctive how you play.
I guess so, if you`ve thought long and hard about what you do, and you work at it, being a bit obsessive about it, you know?
Have you got the list of questions that I sent over?
No. I didn’t even look at them, but don`t worry. Bomba, yeah? Fire away.
The first question I’ve got is, how long was it between the recording of Without Judgment and the recording of Bomba?
We recorded Without Judgement in 1989 while on tour in The Netherlands – with Justin Adams and David Harrow. It was the spring of `89, and it was raining all the time. We drove – in a hired brown Vauxhall estate car – and of course you’re driving on the wrong side of the road, so you`re always a little bit nervy at first, and it was all wet road. The inside lanes were all flooded, so we were ploughing through water a lot of the time. I think that would have been `89, and then Bomba, that was just before we had the deal with East West, and Oval. Out of all those new tracks, Bomba, was the first thing that we recorded. We recorded it at Alaska studios, which was complex of, a batch of, or whatever the collective fucking noun is, it was it was a complex of rehearsal rooms – just a real rundown place on Alasaka Street in Waterloo. It was a classic little demo studio really, rather than a proper studio. The desk would have been a Fostex 16 track, probably. I’d been working literally around the corner from there in a glass warehouse, under the same group of railway arches. We did it there. It wasn’t done at what you would call a big flash studio. There was a cafe / bar next door, run by this chap, Mario, and his mum, and we`d get these big sandwiches from there. The guy from The Great Train Robbery, Buster Edwards, used to sell flowers just over the road. It was near Waterloo Station, on The Cut. I lived not far from there, 10 minutes walk away, with my first wife, so I was over that manor. It`s not where I come from but it`s a manor that I know very well, that part of South London.
Weren`t there some Italian tailors down there, on The Cut? I used to buy Gabicci knitwear from there.
There was a really good schmutter shop. There was a great tailors down there, that I’ve got some fantastic gear from. I don`t know if it`s still there. I talked about it on Robert Elms radio show once.
So you just happened across the studios while you were working. You just noticed that they were there?
No it was bloke called John Kingham, who I rented out my flat to for a while while I was touring. He never paid bloody rent, which annoyed me, but whatever. John worked there with a girl called Marian, who I knew from the East End, who was out of Luton originally. Animal, who was my guitarist in The Invaders Of The Heart in the early `80s, and my previous band, Human Condition, used to work at Alaska as well. Animal was a real working class London guy, and the sort that always really appreciate what you do. They`re the only people, generally, to say at the end of a tour or whatever, “Thanks John,… for fucking buying the meals, you know,…thanks for making it happen.” Whereas some of the other people I’ve worked with – at the end – are kind of, I don`t know, like they want a fucking gold watch and a fucking pension or something. They’re not particularly appreciative, they want to rinse it for everything they can get, you know what I mean? Anyway, we`d use Alaska as a rehearsal place – since right back in the days when I was still drinking, in the mid `80s – you know what I call my Drinking Years. Justin lost an original Les Gibson there, or Les Paul. He left it outside the studio one day, and somebody just walked off with it. We all wanted to curl up and adopt the fetal position. It was a pretty rundown kind of place. I stopped drinking in `86, and then I was working on the London Underground, this, that, and the other. By the time 89 came around I’d got this job at that glass warehouse. Maybe at the beginning of 89 and I can’t remember, or the end of 88. I was working there, and I was part time back into music again. We used Alaska to work up ideas. When we did Bomba I had the whole concept for the next phase of The Invaders Of The Heart. You know it was really coming together. David Harrow had gone. Justin was still there.
That was another question that I was gonna ask, is that the band lineup changed quite dramatically didn’t it between Without Judgment and Bomba. You say that David Harrow went , but you brought you brought some new people in didn’t you?
Mark Ferda was there by then. Nick Burton played drums. They were both Welsh, but living in London. I don`t think they were close friends, but they knew each other. They joined via Ned Morant, who is a really good guy who used to live opposite Grenfell Tower. He was a lovely guy. Like Animal, Ned was one of them London boys, Anglo-Indian, background, a lovely fucking geezer and he brought the Welsh fellers to the table. Then there was Dawson Miller, who I knew via Annie Whitehead – Annie, again, was in the first Invaders. Dawson came in, who was a guy that had studied Middle Eastern percussion.
Wasn`t there a particular Algerian percussion instrument that he played, a darbuka?
Yeah, that`s right, I really wanted that sound in there you know. That`s exactly right. Dawson came in through Neville Murray. It was Neville who actually got me to reform, and make The Invaders Of The Heart Mark II. He came and “knocked me up”, just turned up on my doorstep. I said, “What, you want to do it again?” and he said, “Yeah I miss it.” I went, “Really?” Neville was also the one who found Justin. I`d told Neville that I wanted to do something more Middle Eastern. I mean we`d had aspects of that in the past, but I wanted more of it, and that darbuka sound (mimics sound – daka dum dum daka dum dum) was part of it. Neville said, I`ve got a guitarist who kind of gets what those scales are about. He said the only thing is he’s an Old Etonian, and that’s like, you know, the archetypal toff for me. At that time, around the squat scene, which me and Neville both knew, you had quite a lot of public school boys and girls kind of slumming it – and often they`d keep quiet about where they came from. So when Neville said he`s an old Etonian, we said, “Oh no.” But you should just take people as you find them. I mean I met Justin and he was super amenable and bright eyed and enthusiastic. Justin was an important part of it back then.
Was this the first time that you’d worked with Mark Ferda?
I don’t think so. I think there was a time I that worked with him doing something for Channel Four – at some studios in Brixton. Again I think this was in `88 or `89, but before Bomba. Mark and Ned had been in a band, Savage Progess, they were I think, managed, or “handled” by Nicky Picasso – who was lovely. Nicky was also a Channel Four presenter. This was when Channel 4 were doing Night Network. It was the start of them running all through the night, and it was a bit trendy. It was all a bit kitsch, but nice, you know. So we did a couple things for that. Mark was a programmer – it was in the days when you had a “programmer”. It was exciting for me because the issue had always been finding a good solid drummer. It was always a bloody problem, you know, to get someone who could groove – so drum machines were getting used a bit more. You could find good percussionists but you couldn’t find really, groovy, great drummers necessarily. Well, that’s what I found at that time. So being able to program stuff and then bring real percussionists in around that worked really well. It’s funny, I was working on a track last night, using a kind of Roland drum beat with percussion over the top, you know, and it had me thinking of that time, how well it worked.
How did you meet Natacha Atlas?
Natacha, I met through Kath Canoville. Kath ran a record label on the “frontline” in Notting Hill, The All Saints Road. It was called the frontline because there were flashpoints there between the young kids and the police. Kath ran the label with Aki Nawaz. It was called Nation. Kath thought that Nat and I should play together. At that time Nat was a Latin singer, believe it or not, which you can hear in Bomba, to be fair, you know, actually when you think about it – you know, “Musica!!!” When I heard her voice I was like, “What the fuck! I`ve got to work with this person!” Bomba was the first track that we did with Nat, so that was really the beginning – that exciting time when everything`s really in a state of flux and everyone`s really enthusiastic and you`re just putting this new team together. It was really the beginning of the realization of this vision that I`d had. Bomba, was done before we had the deal to do the album, Rising Above Bedlam. The album and the deal, it all came from that demo.
The sound on Bomba with is so different to Without Judgment, isn’t it? I mean, I know that Without Judgment was recorded in pretty unique circumstances, where you recorded on the road, between tour live dates, and later collaged it all together, but it’s quite dark.
We did. That’s right. A lot of the “darkness” that`s down to doing it with Dutch people, people with a really deep artistic sensibility, you know, where British working classes, especially will be shy about having a philosophy. I don`t know if you’re a football fan, but you know, British football tends to be quite prosaic. It`s about getting stuck in, running around a lot, and there`s a distrust of proper ball players, whereas the French will talk about football as if it’s an art form, you know. So I think a lot that sound is down to doing it in Holland with that European sensibility. You know, we could quite unashamedly talk about “dark hues”. It was a little bit similar to working with Can – Holger and Jaki – you know, you play and make something, and it’s only two track anyway, so you can’t really change much, but you’ve also got to honour it, so whatever little overdubs you do, you’ve got been very careful. You’ve got to really think, “Well what’s the essence of this thing?” and you don’t want to fuck about with that too much. It was a unique record – one of those records where you really capture something.
It’s a bit like a fever dream isnt it, the way that it`s edited.
Exactly. The whole thing was to make something very European, very in the moment, whereas with Bomba what I had in mind was something really quite colourful. It was a bit like right I’m going to cook a fusion dish and I’m going to utilize a bit of chilly, you know, a bit of coriander, you know, a bit smoked paprika…you know this is gonna have a tang to it, yeah?
You certainly certainly achieved that because its much brighter. It’s a very upbeat sound.
Very much so yeah. A bit major-y and a little bit you know, feel good…and then that changed back a bit when we then went on to do the album, Take Me To God. I wanted a wider vision there. I wanted what we had with Bomba, but I also wanted a very sophisticated wide palette, where you’ve got the jazz element coming back in, which we had in the first line-up of The Invaders Of The Heart – so a bit of jazz, a bit of soul, add some orchestration and that darker hue again.
You started to do more poetry and spoken word again, didn’t you?
Exactly. Using a mix of techniques – it’s a bit post punk.
How long were the Bomba sessions?
We probably recorded it in a day. In an afternoon. We wouldn’t have started in the morning, because I don’t like to start in the morning. I had a bass-line, the groove kind of worked out, I worked up the sequences, the changes, I put the basic track together, and I then got the others to come and play and do their thing on it, you know? I spread the publishing all around, equally, for everybody, to make everyone feel good about it. I should have been keeping at least 50, 60%, and splitting that more with the singer, to be honest.
The synth and guitar sounds on Bomba, in places sound a bit like Steve Hillage. You’ve got this kind of a whale song sort of stuff going on.
Thats right, because that was something that I listened to in the `70s. We were working with loops and stuff, maybe more obviously than we had before, and it’s very sort of textural as well. We were merging that ambient thing then. I wanted the ambient vibe. The dreaminess. I also concentrated on not starting on the one. Bomba starts on the two, it`s halfway through the bar okay? One, two (mimics Bomba`s bassline) getting that lazy kind of playing off the one thing going on.
Bomba was released on the Boy`s Own label. How did that come about?
Well, we once we`d finished the track and Andrew (Weatherall) heard it and loved it, and immediately he was like “I want to do a remix”. Basically that’s how it all happened. He was such an enthusiast.
Do you know how Weatherall got to hear the track in the first place, if it was still an unsigned demo?
Probably through Bobby Marshall. There`s a guy called David James, who`d been in Modern Romance, who was helping to manage us at the time. David had lunch with Charlie Gillett – who was working for publisher called Eaton Publishing – run by a chap called Terry Oaks, a trumpet player. I remember Oaks had the rights to The Sweeney Theme tune – which we play live sometimes, I love that tune – and I was very impressed with that. Dave gave Charlie Gillett the demo, but Bobby Marshall, who I was very friendly with at the time, was the person who knew Andrew, and would have passed the DAT to him. The remix and everything was done before the deal with Charlie and Oval / Eastwest. It was that Boy`s Own record, Bomba and the remixes, that got us the album deal.
We did some shows, we did a tour, with that line-up – shows at like the King’s Head, in Islington, which were really good, and I was thinking, “Fucking hell, we’re doing really good shows”, but we couldn’t get arrested. It proved a little bit harder than I expected to get signed. In 1989 a chap called Basil booked us to play WOMAD, in Germany, and we did another really good show there. We made a bit of money, but I was still with the glass warehouse at that point. I just thought this is a really great sound, it`s really coming together, and its a great band, and I just couldn’t understand why wouldn’t anyone want to sign us. It took a while, but eventually Charlie Gillett came in. Initially though he offered peanuts to be honest. He said, “How much money do you need?” and I said, “Thirty or forty grand”, and he came back with an offer of two grand, and I was like, “Fuck off!” I didn`t even get back to him, I thought I can’t be bothered with this. He was like, “Why haven`t you replied?”, and I said, “Well I told you how much I need”, and then they came through and they did a deal via Eastwest. But this all came after Bomba – which I`d paid for…the session and the demo. I was the owner of the master tape.
What was your connection to Bobby Marshall?
At that time I was also doing stuff, with Gary Clail, and Bobby was Gary`s manager. He manages Asian Dub Foundation now. I knew Bobby through Adrian Sherwood. Bobby was from around Brighton, and one of those people who always tries to be helpful, you know?
The single was pretty successful, wasn’t it. It got you back in the press again as well didn’t it, the connection with Boy`s Own.
It really happened yeah. Nina Walsh, Andrew`s girlfriend at the time, was working with Boy`s Own and she was important in pushing things though. You know, Andrew really helped to get the thing going again, get me back in the game. It all happened within two or three months.
Had you worked with Weatherall before? I mean, you obviously you went on to work with him again later, but you worked with him before Bomba?
Not that I recall.
Did you sit in on the remixes? The remixes were done at Battery Studios weren`t they? Were you there? Or did they just did they take the demo, Andrew and Hugo, just the two of them?
No. I might have popped in to see how things were going, because they were very open to you doing that, but I was starting to get really quite busy.
After Bomba everybody wanted to sound like Jah Wobble didn`t they? I mean you were you were playing with Sinead O’Connor, The Orb, Primal Scream, you did the soundtrack with Bjork, Tim Simenon, and David Arnold.
Working with Sinead was down to John Reynolds. He’s a nice guy. The Bjork sessions were down to Island. This was around the time that I’d gone to see a well-known music business guy – the story is in my book.
Oh this is the executive who tells you that you’ve put on too much weight and you’re too old and you’ve got no hair.
He was like, “You`re fat, you`re old, You`re bald, fuck off”, and then he`s the same guy who then came up to me after a gig, pinched my cheeks, and said, “I told you that you`d be back”, and then bowed to me.
This is probably wrong but I remember reading an interview around the time of Bomba, probably somewhere the like the NME, and you tell this story about how you resigned from London Underground because of the success of the record. About how you made an announcement over the public address system?
No, no, I did make that announcement, and I did leave the underground, and I still regret it slightly…but it was well before Bomba. I was in the wrong fucking depot. I was living in St. George’s Circus, and there`s a depot near there, the Bakerloo Line for the Elephant and Castle, but instead I`ve gone over to East London, and I`ve got put on at Hainault, which even at the time I found a bit “Brexity”, a bit right wing, and so I felt a little bit, “I`m not sure about this.” And so I left, because the music was happening a bit again, but I actually really liked working on London Underground, and I made a bad move really. I did make that annoucement. I was on the Underground at Tower Hill, I`d crossed the divide from station staff to train crew – not many do believe it or not – and I was on the east bound District Line. There was a hold up, and the delay meant that within a minute you`ve got a full platform of people. The intercom system was on the wall and I went up to it and said, “I used to be somebody. I repeat, I used to be somebody”, and I could see the whole platform do this kind of Stephen King thing you know, a mass of people just swaying. They`d become like a flock of birds these people, they`d become like a mob, and it was like out of Stephen King book where the announcement had kind of disturbed their zombie-like state. That was in 1987.
I went back and re-read your book in prep for this call and, yeah I realized that I’d got the dates wrong. It would have been a great punchline for the article, though.
The money shot. It was a few years before. To this day I regret leaving that job. I really enjoyed, really liked, that job.
What did you make of the Bomba remixes when you first heard them?
I was delighted, absolutely delighted and just thought this is fucking great, you know, I mean selfishly I was thinking, “This could really do a job for me.” I was absolutely delighted.
The remix starts off with a Miles Davis sample, and I know that you’re a big Miles Davis fan I was wondering if you were the person who chose to stick that in there?
No. I was surprised to hear it in there, and delighted. Fucking Miles! (mimics the famous trumpet fanfare). I mean it was great for me because, you know, I`d been through all that corny drink and drugs bullshit, you know, where you really self destruct and all that. You know it had been a dark time, and then suddenly I was in demand. People wanted me for sessions. That kind of that next generation, that kind of acid house thing. It had been a dark time and suddenly people want you and need you and it`s a lovely feeling.
Did you ever hear Bomba played in a club? I have to say that I was a bit of a Weatherall groupie back then, and Bomba was like a call to arms because that would be his first tune, so you’d be at the bar having a drink when you`d hear that shout of “Musicaa!” and then we’d all just run to the dance floor.
I remember we were at Dingwalls, in Camden, when Andrew played the track, and the place went potty. People were coming over and saying, “This is your song, I love it”, and I was like Fucking Hell! It was a great feeling, because I`d been out in the wilderness for a little while, and it felt like wow you’re back again.
Andrew was a very helpful guy. When I went on to do the Primal Scream work, he tried to get me publishing on Screamadelica. He said, “Come on this guy deserves it”, but I just got a session fee. Well, you have to push hard for things as a session player. Some you win, some you don’t, you know, whatever.
The Dub Symphony track, is basically you isn’t it?
Weatherall also tried to get me on the Screamadelica tour. He was thinking, “Well, you`ve got a part of this, you should be on the tour.” You see he was thoughtful of other people. Just before he died, we were talking, round at Youth`s place, about doing some stuff together – we were going to get together and make a record – which I haven`t told anyone about but it`s true.
He and Nina worked on the recent LP that you did with Youth didn`t they?
Yeah, yeah, that’s right. I said, “I`m staying in this flat in South London”, and he was like, “Fantastic I`m working in Tottentham, I`ve got this studio at Seven Sisters, but I`m getting a place together in South London”, and then, suddenly, sadly, he passed away. Andrew always looked out for you. He always made sure that I was looked after properly, and he was a big part of me getting back in the game. He was a good guy, Andy.
I don’t think I’ve got any more questions, at least about Bomba. Was there anything you wanted to add about that track? John, help me out, give me punch line.
Bomba was an absolutely key track – because of Andrew, Nina, Boys Own, it got me the deal with Eastwest. It was very important. When I look back I’ve got very vivid, and very happy memories of it.
Jah Wobble & The Invaders Of The Heart start a three month tour at London’s Ronnie Scott’s on January 8th. You can find more about the tour dates, and purchase tickets here.
John has been incredibly prolific during the pandemic period and a ton of great bass-heavy music can be purchased over at his Bandcamp page. Tyson RIP.
Postscript: In the light of Robbie Shakespeare`s sad passing, I asked John, “Was Robbie a direct influence on your own playing? Did you ever work with him, was he a friend? Do you have a favourite Robbie Shakespeare bass-line?”
This was John’s answer:
“Shakespeare was a giant of a player. I never met him, but obviously, so many B-Lines…I think if I had to pick one it would be “Guess Who`s Coming To Dinner?” It’s got that lovely little hammer-on in the line.”