Brumlive’s Mark Veitch was offered a golden chance to talk to one of his heroes, when the opportunity arose to interview the legendary John Lydon: pioneer, innovator, iconoclast, hero and anti-hero, PiL front-man, and of course Sex Pistol. Unsurprisingly Mr Lydon had a lot to say and the wide ranging interview was so vibrant and uncompromising that we have included the whole conversation, but in two parts so you can catch your breaths halfway through. This has to be one of the most entertaining and insightful things we have ever published on Brumlive.com. Whether you agree with the opinions expressed or not, it”s a delight. So sit back and enjoy. Over to Mark:
Here was one very excited and nervous Brum Live contributor, with a short notice chance to run an interview. An interview with someone whose records I was listening to thirty five years ago, as a young teen first discovering music of my own. An early starter raised on my parents old rock’n’roll records I graduated to the most accessible Punk band around, The Sex Pistols, with my formative Punk Rock years coinciding with UK82 Style Punk. The Pistols were already long gone but the guttural vocals of their Dickensian front man had me at first listen. Shortly after, I first heard the post-Punk discord of Public Image Limited and whilst their front man was that same scary but enigmatic figure, the sounds remained totally inaccessible to my naive youthful ears until a couple of years later. Videos and TV appearances of a no-nonsense, sarcastic caricature giving short shrift to interviewers over the years have been indelible etched onto my memory, and so it is with nerves that I pick up the phone to dial California.
Shit! No tone on the house phone. Nothing. Nada. Jack.
Okay, mobile phone it is. Probably be only a swift five minutes call anyway.
Double shit!!!! Can’t get through. Stare at phone….shake phone…. try again…. Panic!!!
Fifteen minutes later I’m round the girlfriends, having dragged her back from a training session and am dialling her phone with trepidation hoping against hope that I haven’t blown it.
BL: Hello. Is That John?
JL: It is!!! Is that…. Buuurminggghomm?
BL: It is, yes.
JL: You’re late ya bastard.
Laughter from other end of the line tells me that I’ve not blown it but still doesn’t allay my fears of a rough ride. A brief explanation of my panic has him laughing and telling me that it is fine. And that is it…. No caricature, no defensive or even offensive verbal barbs, no guardedness. Maybe he can tell that I’m not a ‘journalist but actually a fan with admiration for his art yet not with hero-worship tendencies. Maybe he knows that it’s just honest interest. Whatever it is he does know, he comes across as humble, genuine and friendly, and as we discuss music, human connections and football for the next 55 minutes it’s pretty obvious that there is no act.
BL: John, I have a number of questions that I’d like to ask but I’m cognizant of not wanting to ask questions that you’ve had to answer a million times in the past…
JL: Well, that eliminates question time then, doesn’t it?
BL: Basically what I’d like to talk about is the new….
JL: Whatever you like mate, anything that you come up with, ya know…
And this sets the tone for the whole interview. As I start to tell him the subjects that I was hoping to discuss, I get as far as mentioning the new wholly owned independent label and the reigns are dropped and we’re away at a gallop before I finish. That’s my loose ‘agenda’ out of the window then and that’s me winging the interview, with me rarely getting a full question and John understanding what I’m asking without getting the whole! Sharp as a razor.
BL: I was hoping to talk to you about the last couple of albums, the troubles that you’ve had in the past with the record label and…..
JL: Well, do you know what. I can really briefly explain this to you really well. It’s kinda like we had a Brexit situation about ten years back and had to get off them major labels which were definitely a hindrance, and were keeping me in financial ruin, and you know… had to buy my way out of that, and since then we’ve set up our own label completely independent of that nonsense and those voices from above who’s faces remain a mystery to me.
BL: Would that be the people who dictate what should go on the releases?
JL: … The accounting department of the record label who don’t understand very much other than balancing the books and in a weird way that’s what went on with the EU and I see a great comparison in that and so…. Hello!!! We’re freeeeee!
BL: And to me, that’s a very Punk rock attitude. To take it DIY and….
JL: Yes it is. And ya know…. It works. It gives you a sense of industry and pride in yourself and that’s absolutely a prerequisite of all exciting business ventures and that’s what Brexit did for England. It’s shame the Tories are still in charge.
BL: Yeah, I think we’ve got the Tories in charge for a long time to come.
JL: Well all those butt-holes are going to do is try to reintroduce class warfare, ya know, the us and the them and we go back to that pre-70s vibe and that’s not healthy. But then I’m looking at Jeremy Corbyn and I can’t trust a word that fella says. He’s impractical! None of them have understood the daily economics of trying to survive on a tin of baked beans but with him it’s a dramatic public statement that he travels on public transport. It’s all very high drama and it doesn’t strike me as particularly realistic. But, there ya go, in light of that, our Brexit moment, we’ve created two albums which we love and adore and we’re really happy working with each other, as a solid unit, struck a rich vein inside each other because we were independent of that… those unknown voices; laying down diktats that didn’t make sense artistically or even economically to us.
BL: So with that in mind, if you had have had complete control of your artistic output, would there have been much difference with the albums that we’ve had in the past?
JL: The trouble is that we’ve always had that and that’s what earned me the reputation of being difficult to work with. I wouldn’t concede. But listen, this is the first time in my life that I’ve been able to keep a band together for more than one record.
BL: And quite a band! Looking at those guys, the pedigree of the people that they’ve worked with…. I mean, Lu Edmonds, that guy is much more than a guitarist, he’s….
JL: Yeah, Lu and Bruce, I’ve worked with before in PiL and they were two of the longest serving members, and then in came the record company slamming debt on me, and then nearly two decades we couldn’t work at all really and I had to go into TV land. I found a beat and a pulse to it and I didn’t think that any of my TV work was too bad? I did a lot of internet radio for America for a station called eYada which was very political and for me that was a thrilling journey into learning what American intellectuals really are. And that’s set me up lovely for the current situation.
BL: Are you still working in radio…
JL: Very little. Very little because of my involvement in the band. This is 24/7 now, to run a label and to keep that financially efficient and the band… it’s errrm…. a challenge. But it’s one I highly recommend rather than waiting for instructions from abroad. We’re back to labels and Europe!!! I do draw a comparison there. I really feel it. So…. Fret not Blighty. We’ll get out of this, we’ll do alright together.
BL: So, going back to the band, Scott Firth, he’s worked with an incredible list of people and I notice he’s worked with Steve Winwood [Birmingham connection], and I believe the last two albums have been recorded at Steve Winwood’s home studio.
JL: Well, yeah, it’s really a barn in the middle of sheep country and the nearest pub is like a three mile hike. Yeah….. Thank you Scott!!!
BL: It’s been keeping you fit then.
JL: [laughs] It’s actually fantastic. It’s a way to not having to deal with city traffic and all them domestic situations that you really don’t need on top of you when you’re in creative mode. You need to be isolated from that, deprived from shall we say, the daily grind and in order to analyse it properly and put that into perspective in a song format. Because it’s such a tight unit…. these are my closest friends now… and that’s a situation that I’ve always wanted with bands. Everyone I’ve ever worked with has been a friend regardless of what criticism they send my way, I find it highly affectionate that they even bother to remember my name.
BL: Could you just take us through the process of writing a PiL song? Does it come together through writing the song as a band unit or…
JL: Yeah, usually it’s agonising because we’re a little haphazard and deliberately so in that we don’t sit down and force ourselves to conceive the concept of a new song. It’s happen-chance and it can be something a dumb as a drummer dropping his snare drum or a broken piece of equipment making weird sounds and that will kind of draw us in and we’ll expand from there. Luck of course is 98% of it when you put songs together otherwise they’re just too contrived. Don’t call us Coldplay!
BL: Listening to the last couple of albums today to re-acquaint myself I was listening to a track called “It Said That” and I was listening to the way that the melodies were running through it. I could hear a lot of Egyptian type melodies and….
JL: Ahhh…Yeah, there’s a lot of undercurrent keyboard going on in there courtesy of Scott and to try and go for a lot of those different notes and….. It’s a song about gossipers and people that use red-herring rumours to destroy others so there’s an anger in it but… Wow… In that anger and that search for accuracy in that song we found all these wonderfully undulating textures that evolved quite naturally and forced me as a singer to really stretch myself and go up into them nether regions and be able to wander around.
BL: Now, you see, you pre-empted one of my questions as that was one of the routes I was going to go down. Does this band send you into areas that you’ve not been before. Does it stretch you?
JL: Yeah, every outfit I’ve worked with before… every collection of people does that for me. I try to find out what the personalities are all about rather than the instrumentation. And that…. That’s the root core of me… Because I’m just a bloke who’s talentless with an instrument.
BL: Well, I’d question that because I read a quote from Ornette Coleman…
BL:…. that said you sing in the same way that he plays his saxophone so I’d question…
JL: Well, you see I found my own rhythm and scale and I had to and I had to do that very early on. From the first band onwards. For me singing was something that I never wanted to do because it meant that the priest had access to you…. I went to Catholic school you see. It meant that they’d put you in the choir… And that wasn’t what you wanted to be near. [Laughs] So I spent most of my early life avoiding singing and deliberately being off key or anything I could to not be conscripted into that … And… errrm… It kinda paid off over the years because from the Pistols onwards, whatever my voice was, no matter how much I tried to subdue it, it wouldn’t fit in anyway. [Laughs]
BL: Okay, so…
JL: And when I thought I was being off key and awkward, I wasn’t, I was actually expressing my genuine opinions on life, and so there it is. The only thing missing was the words and once I got into writing them down, I could let my heart rip on them.
BL: Another question on the last album and your singing style is that listening to last years album the rhythm of the singing seemed to have changed. In a couple of the songs, and you’ll have to forgive me because I can’t recall their titles…
JL: That’s quite alright.
BL: … There’s a staccato feel and the only thing I can liken it to would be a Morse code rhythm to your singing…. If that makes sense?
JL: Ahaha!!! Well I don’t think the messages are quite so secretive… I’m imagining now, here in my mind, dot dot dot… dot dot dash…. Maybe possibly so. I would have thought that I was possibly doing that in my first band… I don’t know. But there it goes, it’s all part and parcel of trying to explain those human emotions in the most accurate way that you can with as few amount of words as possible. Because one of the few things I did learn in school was that the best English is simple English and plain English. And I still end up with five pages per song which I can’t read ‘cos I’ve got bad eyesight! [Laughs]
End of Part 1 – stay tuned for more from Mr Lydon (and Mark)
Interviewer : Mark Veitch
Special thanks to Penny “Race against time” Johnson for saving the day and the interview!!
Photograph: courtesy of PR
PiL have just announced another run of and UK and European tour dates. Details below.
John Lydon – PiL UK / European Tour Dates
Salisbury, City Hall, UK, Tuesday, November 15th 2016
Leamington Spa, The Assembly, UK, Wednesday, November 16th 2016
Birmingham, O2 Institute, UK, Friday, November 18th 2016
Leicester, O2 Academy, UK, Saturday, November 19th 2016
Sinner’s Day Festival, Hasselt, Belgium, Sunday, November 20th 2016