John Wardle was an aimless lad growing up in East London in the ’70s when happenstance led him to attend a Bob Marley & the Wailers concert that would change his life forever. “It was just fantastic! Unlike anything I had ever seen before. Aston ‘Family Man’ Barrett was playing bass, and I just knew that’s what I wanted to do. To this day, it’s the best show I’ve ever seen by a country mile.”
Photo By : Brian Marks
Shortly after, Wardle got his hands on a Music Man StingRay copy with high action and practiced on it nonstop in his squat by holding it against his wooden headboard so the vibrations would carry. A few months later, his close friend Johnny Rotten, whose band the Sex Pistols had recently broken up, approached Wardle to create a new project, which became Public Image Limited (PiL). Also at that time, a drunken night on the town and the subsequent slurred speech of fellow bassist Sid Vicious (also of the Sex Pistols) led to Wardle picking up the permanent nickname “Jah Wobble.”
After a successful PiL run, Wobble embarked on numerous projects, bands, and collaborations, which established him as an influential dub bassist and a true post-punk innovator. His solo work as a songwriter and bandleader led to much acclaim over his career, most notably his ’80s outfit Jah Wobble & the Invaders of the Heart. Years later, the 59-year-old has returned with a new incarnation of that band and a new album, The Usual Suspects, on which he reworks classic songs from his catalog, along with a handful of covers and PiL hits.
Joined by Marc Layton-Bennett (drums), Martin Chung (guitars), George King (keyboards), Steve Rigby (programming), Sean Corby (horns), and Aurora Dawn and Holly Macve (vocals), The Usual Suspects exhibits Wobble’s deep dub mastery, his unique voice as an arranger, and even his stretched-out role on lead vocals. With a groove-centric mindset, the 23-song album gives an expansive look into the talents of an ex-punk turned Zen master who rewrote the book of dub bass.
How did you come up with this album concept?
The record and band all came together very organically. I’ve been playing with those mates for about eight years now, and we’ve played a lot of styles of music together, starting off with some jazz gigs we did some time ago. About three years ago I realized I had such a good lot of players that I should assemble them as a band. It was the first time in years I could play a lot of this material and have fun with it, because of how good these guys are. It made the music believable again. We toured for a while, and when that came to a stop, we went right into the studio and got down to it.
What was it like reworking older songs and giving them new feels?
That really was the fun of this project. The most stunning one for me is “Public Image,” because if you had told me ten years ago that I’d be singing lead vocals on that, I would have called you crazy. We gave it a minor-key vibe, and it really worked. That was one of the main tunes I was excited to do. Something like “Pop Tones” had a great guitar part that fit in with the bass so well, and it has such a rich sound. Each song came together in a different way.
Some of them I had worked out before going into the studio, but those boys are so good that I can just go in and shout the changes at them and they’ll just play it as we go. I can direct them in the studio as we write, and they’ll adjust. Some of this stuff was written purely out of jams, like “How Much Are They?” I like things to be a little free-form.
As expected, your bass tone is deep and booming.
I actually had to go back and redo the bass on some songs, because it was just a little too much. It overshadowed the other instruments a bit, so I went back and remixed it so it was right on the edge. It allowed the other instruments to breathe, and it brought out the musicality of what they were doing. I’m always trying to refine my bass sound and get the best tone I can out of the mix.
How did you capture it this time?
I ran a few tracks per recording, with one or two DIs, and then I used an amp with a mic. Sometimes I’ll add another line out from the amp as well. For this, I used my Ashdown 400 because it’s not too clean, and it drives a whole lot in a rock way. I used a Barefaced Audio 15" cab and an Ashdown full stack along with it, and they did the trick.
Did you try anything new in the studio?
The biggest change is probably that I’m not using a lot of effects anymore. That can be a big part of dub music, but I like things a bit more simple from my side now. I did this one really old-school, and very restrained, too. It’s like the difference between good food and bad food: You could go to a good restaurant with fresh ingredients, and the chef isn’t trying too hard and is creating basic French dishes just done very, very well. Or, you could go somewhere and the chef is trying too hard and doing too much, and the food suffers. Sometimes simple is best.
That’s a monster bass line on the new version of “Visions of You.” How did you originally write that in 1991?
I was mucking about with my friend Kevin Mooney, who was in Adam & the Ants, and he introduced me to Sinéad O’Connor, and I did some sessions for her. When I was writing this tune, I wanted to keep my playing simple and maybe do something like a mantra or a Gregorian chant, where the notes slide down and it becomes very modal, with semitones and passing notes that made for an Eastern kind of vibe. It was a simple loop with a melodic line, and I just went with it from there. Of course, it progressed a lot since I first wrote it to what you hear on this record.
The Ovation Magnum has become synonymous with Jah Wobble.
I do love that thing. Up until I found the Ovation I was using Fender basses, which have fantastic, second-to-none E strings and pretty good A strings, but their D and G strings just don’t do it. The Ovation is solid across all four strings. It has somewhat of an acoustic vibe, and it reminds me a bit of an old Ampeg Scroll bass that I have. It’s a very heavy bass, too—most likely double the weight of a regular bass—so you get a workout in your back when you’re playing long shows. The subharmonics are very rich on it, and it gets such a nice bottom end.
Tell us about your playing technique.
I play quite hard, but even when you get a low tone, there are a lot of dynamic possibilities from playing percussively, or playing very softly and stroking the strings. It’s good to be able to play both ways. For the dub stuff you have to stroke the strings a bit more and have some finesse. And, never be hurried with it. When you’re in the B–G–A kind of range, you don’t want any tread; you just want pure air coming out of the speakers.
How has your playing evolved?
I’m still quite a crude bass player, but I play in the pocket and I play the groove and it works. I’m not Jaco or anything, but I have my sound. I’m always trying to reduce my playing more and more. It’s a Japanese principle to reduce everything to its simplest form. I like that. But playing is a bigger thing for me now; it’s a meditative thing. It’s about losing my anxieties and sitting in the groove and feeling an expansive feeling. It’s a utilitarian thing.
Why did you choose to play bass?
When I went to dance parties in East London as a lad, there would be a lot of Jamaicans playing their music through huge bass reflex speakers, and they would blow your trousers right off. It was just pure bass, where you felt it all over your body, you felt it in your stomach, and it was a visceral thing. That’s always stuck with me. A Zen master once said that in a beginner’s mind there are limitless possibilities, and in the expert’s mind there are none. So I still approach the instrument like a beginner. Every time I pick it up I don’t know what’s going to happen.
In keeping with the theme of his new album, the Usual Suspects, and revisiting gems from his career, Jah Wobble updates “Visions of You,” his trippy 1991 hit featuring Sinead O’Connor [Rising Above Bedlam, Atlantic]. The first two measures of Ex. 1 contain the hypnotic main bass line with its straight 16th-note feel, into which Wobble implies a second feel via his swinging sextuplets on beat three of bar 2. Bars 3–6 show Jah’s new B-section bass line (at 4:59), a four-bar phrase in which he lays off the downbeats before issuing a sick open-string-aided fill at 5:07.
Jah Wobble & the Invaders of the Heart, The Usual Suspects [2017, 3Ms Music]
Bass Ovation Magnum I, Yamaha BB2024X, 1959 Ampeg Scroll Bass
Amp Ashdown BTA 400 Watt, Ashdown ABM 810H-EVO-IV, 1980s Ampeg SVT head, Barefaced Audio 2x15
Pedals Boss BF-3 Flanger
Strings Rotosound 88 Black Nylon Flatwounds
Photo By Alex Hurst