Sitting across the table from Jah Wobble, it’s rather hard to believe this mild-mannered, conservatively dressed gentleman is the world-famous dub musician that once ran with the Sex Pistols and is rumoured – he insists unfoundedly – to have set his former drummer on fire.
Truth be told, with a white button-down and a nondescript pair of jeans, he looks like someone who should be picking the kiddies up from school, not laying down tooth-rattling bass lines as part of his latest dub track.
Talk to Wobble, however, and you’ll soon realise he’s still got the nihilistic spectre of 1970’s London perched on his shoulder like a cartoon devil-or angel, depending on your point of view.
“You’ve got to put you’re fucking morals ahead of fucking money,” says the man whose nickname stems from the uneven gait he exhibited while drunk. “Fuck fuckin’ money. Fuck it all.”
What’s less obvious in casual conversation than his stance on capitalism (“fuck it”) or his opinion of most modern pop music (“no fuckin’ style”) are the eclecticism and the ingenuity that have driven him to deconstruct and reassemble different genres of music like a real-life Dr. Moreau, leaving him with a Long Island ice tea of a discography and a laundry list of musicians with whom he has collaborated.
“I was always told that I was trying to do too much at once,” says Wobble. “But now I’ve got this huge catalogue of music. But that was never my goal. All that is just a by-product of me doing what I love, which is exploring different kinds of music.”
On his latest album, for example, Wobble fuses dub-style beats and bass lines with traditional Chinese instrumentation and melodies to create a sound all his own. The Chinese Dub Tour, which kicks off July 5 in Liverpool, will mix in one more element by featuring traditional performers from China and Tibet.
“I decided I wanted to dub some of these old songs that my kids had been playing in their Chinese youth orchestra,” explains Wobble. “I sort of felt that by breaking these songs down I was getting at their original meaning. They became clearer, more elemental.”
In many ways, this tour represents the most ambitious effort of Wobble’s unexpectedly sophisticated career. Ironically, Wobble was introduced to the bass guitar by the Sex Pistols’ Sid Vicious, a man legendary for his inability to play the instrument. (Think of someone taking jousting lessons from Don Quixote, and you’re on the right track). But despite being a contemporary and a protégé of the Pistols, Wobble’s tastes took him in a different direction.
“Punk opened the door for me, but I never really liked it,” admits Wobble. “But the first time I heard dub, that was incredible. It was like music from another universe.”
Patterning his sound after the likes of reggae-inspired King Tubby, Wobble took to the bass guitar like some kind of savant. By 1978, his massive bass lines were doing the heavy lifting for Public Image Limited (PiL), the groundbreaking group John Lydon formed after leaving the Sex Pistols.
Wobble climbed the Billboard Top 10 with PiL, but the next decade would see him fall like only a rock star could. He battled drug and alcohol addiction before leaving music altogether in favour of a series of ordinary day jobs. He gave his most memorable performance of the mid 1980’s as an employee of the London Underground when he announced to a train full of commuters, “I used to be somebody. Repeat, I used to be somebody.”
It wasn’t long, however, before the hypnotic rhythm of dub music drew Wobble back into the spotlight, first as a member of the Invaders of the Heart and later as a solo artist.
Clean and sober for 22 years, Wobble’s life now bears an uncanny resemblance to one of his classic dub tracks. He has stripped away all the distractions that nearly derailed his career-and his life-in the 80’s, leaving only his family, his music and a philosophy degree as a backbone on which he can build his masterpiece.
Musically, Wobble has never enjoyed more artistic freedom than he has now. Having formed his own label, 30 Hertz Records, in 1996 for the sole purpose of “making some fuckin’ weird music,” Wobble is free to play musical mad scientist without interference from management types desperate to make his music marketable.
On paper, many of Wobble’s pairings seem as logical – and every bit as appealing – as a fudge and ham sandwich. Once he’s finished stripping the music down, building it back up and drenching it in reverb, however, there’s just something about it that works for him, and that’s all he really cares about.
“I’m not terribly concerned with whether or not people like my music,” he insists. “My music is a part of me. Saying you don’t like my music is like saying you don’t like my nose or the shape of my ear. Point taken, but fuck off.”
Jah Wobble’s Chinese Dub tour begins on the 5 July in Liverpool. He’s playing with his English Roots Band on 15 June at the Mela Festival in Bradford.