The Wire OCTOBER 1995 - by Peter Shapiro


Via new collaborations with Brian Eno and Bill Laswell, the music of Jah Wobble is attempting to express the ineffable; to fuse divine, ethereal atmospheres with the physicality of the bass.

Moving from punk anomie to neo-hippy spirituality, Jah Wobble has made an itinerant career of spanning the irreconcilable. As he talks of breaking things apart in order to achieve a perfect unity. Bethnal Victoriana and the image of the dynamic, resourceful Britons building roads where it was 'impossible' to build roads, yet recognises it as a myth used to sweep the dirty reality of gaping social divisions under the rug of history. Wobble has wholeheartedly embraced the Buddhist ideals of interconnectedness and acceptance, but he'll fly off on a tirade against the "self-satisfied, fucking tossers" who play "bland jazz". It's the sort of meeting of bullshit and vision that makes Sinead O'Connor such an insufferable wretch. In Wobble's hands, however. It's rather disarming.

Wobble's the geezer down the pub always ready with a joke or a tall tale; the one with the chummy charisma who can convince you of anything, no matter how outrageous, in spite of your better judgement Except that now he's put the pint glass down permanently in favour of a couple of mantras and the Tao Te Ching. Talking about the rather unique worldview of taxi drivers everywhere, he says, "I don't mind if you muck me up a couple of quid, just don't talk bollocks to me." This is one of his pet peeves - people convincing themselves of falsehoods by hiding behind the mask of self-delusion. His speech is peppered with phrases like "pretentious wanker" and stories about middle class people being "cold and loveless with each other" in restaurants and lazy mystics who "just want to go somewhere and sit under a palm tree and have a guru come up and go Zap."

"You can get into a dodgy area [with meditation]. It's like that Tantric stuff - 'you've got to really know your sexuality before you can...' Thats just an excuse to bunk up with loads of birds, you know what I mean? There were a lot of people in the '60s who were, probably still are in Ashrams, using it as an excuse, you know what I mean? [Adopts sarcastic, hippy, holier-than-thou voice] 'To know sin, you've got to sin'" Of course, as he would be the first to admit, with such a determined effort to cut the crap, some inconsistencies are bound to develop.

"Where you get A, you get B; yin and yang," Wobble says as he attempts to reconcile a belief in individuality with a deep desire to attain the bliss of oneness through regimentation and structure. "Where you get the most extreme yin, it'll be the point where yang is born and all that bollocks. But it's not bollocks, it's fact. At the highest point of yang, yin is born. At midday, the night is born because the sun can only get weaker. I still have that heavy dislike of authority, but there's still that feeling, 'Oh, it's great being looked after in an institution.' It's like if you've ever been in hospital and it's time to go. 'This is outrageous. You can't reject me like this.'"

Wobble is a walking contradiction - divergent impulses and desires seem to be pulling him every which way - yet he appears to be thoroughly at peace with himself and his past His journey m search of what he refers to as "the eternal" in music began in Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood's Sex shop in mid-'70s London, looking for the same kind of energy he heard in Jerry Lee Lewis ("a happening geezer") and early Who records. "What happened to the syncopation in rock?" he asks semi-rhetorically. "What happened was all that rhythmic awareness that was there in a very crude way seemed to go. And when the rhythm goes, I'm fucking out of here, unless the atmosphere's really good."

It was a combination of 'atmosphere' and a radical reconfiguration of rock's rhythmic impetus that he explored with John Lydon and Keith Levene in Public Image Limited. Using Can's sonic blueprint but dispensing with their giddy instrumental chatter, PiL's masterpiece, Metal Box, created a new sound by fusing Euro-minimalism with the bass menace and dark funk of electric Miles Davis (his favourite album is Amandla, but he loves the Pete Cosey-era records as well) and by exaggerating the dynamic range of dub's sonic architecture out of all proportion.

On the forthcoming album Heaven & Earth, Wobble makes this link with funk explicit on two tracks recorded with Bill Laswell in New York. As he talks about working in New York, he reminisces about the first time he went to America with PiL. "One of the exciting things was being able to listen to soul stations. You know. The Isley Brothers' Fight The Power, that stuff is way up there. The two main sources of music that inspired me were reggae, way back to when it was called bluebeat, and that American soul thing... I particularly like the soul way of putting breaks in the songs - little bridges and stuff - and the way they use strings - the orchestration."

Perhaps influenced by his conversations with Laswell about obscure Jimmy Castor Bunch records, two tracks on Heaven & Earth, Gone To Croatan and Hit Me, feature scratching and the searching, yearning saxophone of Pharoah Sanders, while the latter has Wobble imitating some of his '70s heroes by indulging in a little slap bass. Despite its more sexual bounce, funk bass has the same unfathomably deep sound as the ground-shaking reverberations of dub. It's a sound that obviously holds a deep meaning for him. "The sort of funk I like has quite heavy lines: that good Fender bass sound, that good, tight E string. It was nearly always the rhythm element that got me."

Given Wobble's status as a leading light of the new global fusion, it's unsurprising that his fascination with the brooding, rough-cut funk of '70s Miles has recently given way to a more 'lightweight' use of the bass. "One of the things I grew up listening to was Philly [Philadelphia International]," he says. "I loved the strings, and their instrumental lines were really good." Like Motown's James Jamerson or Philadelphia International's Ronnie Baker, Wobble now uses the bass as a conduit between the bodily groove of dance music and the out-of-body release of a spiritual merger. "The bass can be wonderful, but it can also be very overpowering. It shouldn't be that you always have this heavy bass - it takes up a lot of space. When the bass is used properly, it anchors everything, but it also links everything. It's the link between rhythm and harmony."

Wobble treasures the bass. He protects it and caresses it even when he's just talking about it. He says, "Most people think the bass is this thing that comes out of the woofer and it's really heavy and there you go, that grounds and roots the music. The phrasing of it is so important as well. That's where people don't really understand the totality of the thing . They can't really understand how the energy works." His approach to the bass links up to the famous story about him picking up Sid Vicious's bass for the first time and immediately feeling some spiritual connection with the instrument. When I tell him about a study that found that women respond to the bass more appreciably than men, he waxes philosophical: "It tends to be a feminine power, but it can be a male power as well. It's a feminine power insofar as it comes from earth and it's all-pervasive. It also has male qualities, it can penetrate and it can also be very dynamic. But the main thing for me is that its all-supporting. It's very much the quality of the Divine Mother."

Wobble recognises that the most effective and memorable art is born of this tension between opposites. Just as jazz musicians find their own individual voices by immersing themselves in the genre's traditions, Wobble attains spiritual release through structure. "There's a lot more discipline, I think, than people realise in the Invaders Of The Heart structure," he says referring to his current group. "It's quite heavy at times for the players to keep to certain patterns, thereby finding freedom. I still have that adolescent dislike of discipline, but I do know that it's that that can bring freedom. And funnily enough, people forget that freedom can bring discipline." The resulting music is a buoyant take on Jon Hassell's Fourth World sound, in which the reassuring mechanics of Western pop give Wobble's pan-ethnic fusion a recognisable geography among the anonymous locales of this new, borderless world.

While his work with The Invaders Of The Heart might end up sounding more direct than his incongruities would suggest, a new collaboration with Brian Eno, Spinner, is a paradoxical combination of warm, tactile textures and cold, precise, digital edges. The edgy ambience of Spinner is a result of Wobble adding drums, bass and treatments to Eno's soundtrack for Derek Jarman's Glitterbug. Describing his search for intimacy in the music, Wobble says, "I was looking for warmth - I like warmth, it gets the spirit moving. There are some dark shades as well. With something like this, it doesn't work if you use great big, real drum sounds. You want something where everything is breaking down: the separation between different instruments or effects are breaking down and the whole thing makes a whole."

Again, his music returns to what he calls "atmosphere": atmosphere is non-representational, and as such, it is the means through which 'spirit' travels and communicates. Both Spinner and , which is a solo project, are largely meditative, instrumental affairs drenched with the piety of someone trying to capture the essence of the unattainable. Although the music can drift into the Ambient cliches of holy solemnity and lite spirituality, talking to Wobble, you get the impression that he is trying to articulate something beyond his or anyone's vocabulary. "I fancied playing drums, so I played a lot of drums on this album, " he says, explaining the working process behind Heaven & Earth. "I put stuff together thinking they'd become songs, then the ideas became increasingly instrumental and more orchestrated than they have been in the past.

"There's nothing wrong with actual words," he continues, trying to put his finger on why spirit moves through atmosphere rather than lyrics. "Like mantras - you say this word that comes around in a circle and the bullshit goes... This ties up the intellect, as it were, and lets the big things come forward. You give yourself far more chance to move when you're dealing with atmosphere, when you're allowing people to breathe and stretch and add this sense of air moving, a very basic element. The reason why that's more possible is that you're not so tied down to divisions of time, divisions of length. Things are just moving and changing as they're allowed to."

Wobble's spirituality is linked to the uncertainty of a world whose rate of change is escalating out of control. Like the apocalyptic hedonism of clubgoers for whom every weekend is an explosion of the configurations of time, Wobble's conception of his music comes from the same root as Chaos Theory: change - whether development, or becoming, or relocation - is valued above all else. It's that fundamental paradox all over again: change is the only route to 'the eternal', whatever that might be. In word-based, or more precisely, voice-based expressions of the ineffable, singers such as Al Green and Marvin Gaye located 'the eternal' at the fulcrum of the spirit/body split. Instrumentalists like Wobble don't locate it anywhere specific, they just try to make it manifest out of thin air. "[Meditation's] the hardest thing in the world to define, even though it's easy to say what it isn't. I'll tell you one thing meditation is - it's active, it's not passive. Music is meditation as much as anything. It pertains to unity and to the eternal."

Spinner and Heaven & Earth are out this month on All Saints (through Vital) and Island respectively