Jah Wobble: Magnum Force

wobble 2001Post-punk legend Jah Wobble chats to Hugh Gulland about life at the top of the bass tree

Announcing his presence in 1978 with the soul-shaking bass notes of PIL’s debut album and single, ‘enthusiastic amateur’ Jah Wobble entered the post-punk fray as a seemingly fully-evolved talent. Touting a fluid sound grounded somewhere between the deep resonance of dub reggae and Krautrock’s adventurousness, Wobble’s unfettered sense of expression asserted itself further through PIL’s seminal second album Metal Box, and a rich multitude of his own projects since. Reconnecting a couple of years ago with original PIL guitarist Keith Levene for the Metal Box In Dub gigs, the pair completed an album of new material, Yin & Yang, which found the old PIL dynamic still sparking.

Jah’s pioneering work on the early PIL material represented a definite break from the dominance of the blues-rock format. His approach to the instrument turns out to have been largely intuitive, tells us: “Yeah, I was lucky. I kind of picked up the bass, I knew how to make it work, and I did these pattern modes. Basically, I just work in patterns; I wasn’t interested particularly in peddling the root note of the chords of the guitarist. And then I was extremely fortunate, because I’ve never been short of a bass-line, and I was able just to work bass-lines. And I came up with a line, they liked it, and they’d put something to it. So rather than being the poor old bass player who normally has to play second fiddle to the guitarist, that’s how it was.”

The deep bass sounds Jah was experiencing at Jamaican blues parties would prove to be a pivotal influence, he adds. “When I first went to blues parties as a kid, the bass hit you in the stomach, like a waveform hitting you, which I suppose is what it is. It took me to another world. And I’d never have been a guitarist, because I’ve got great big hands…”

Wobble had little truck with tuition materials when he set out to hone his craft, as he explains:

“I liked music, and I liked bass-led music, and just at the time I began playing – or for the last year or two before that, for the first time ever – bass had really come to the fore in recorded music. I think that had a big effect on me. It was all fortunate timing, really. I couldn’t wait to get on it, I was born to do it, was the feeling.”_TK04637001

“I have had one other thing,” he adds, to our surprise. “I did clay pigeon shooting. I’d never done it before, but I was quite handy. They said ‘You’ve done this before haven’t you?’ and I hadn’t. I was knocking them all out the sky, even the sneaky ones they were shooting along the ground… Anyway, it took me three attempts to pass my driving test, and I’m not a bad footballer, but bass, I had a clear idea. Once you have a clear idea about bass, that means you start to have a clear idea about music principles. It’s quite a medieval thing, it’s modal – it’s not to do with chords. I’ve since learned to write using chords, that natural kind of composition. But it’s all about patterns, and kind of trying to be baroque in a way.”

When quizzed about which other players he admires most, Wobble naturally looks to Jamaica first. “I’m a big fan of ‘Family Man’ Barratt,” he says, “because that was so off the wall, with such strange phrasing. Listen to the Bob Marley bass-lines, listen to the bass on those Marley songs… And people like Robbie Shakespeare: a direct, efficient sort of bass player. And there were people like Cecil McBee, who played with Expansions, Pharoah, people like that. I was listening to Weather Report today, and we’re doing a modern jazz thing at the moment. I like Jaco Pastorius, but Alphonso Johnson was the bassist. He played with Weather Report for a while, and I liked him because he grooved, and I like groove players. Pastorius obviously was a technical player – a wizard, incredible player – but I actually preferred Alphonso Johnson. They did one album and it’s just extremely groovy, I like that kind of groove. Not many players can groove.”

As far as his choice of instrument goes, Wobble will forever be identified with his distinctive Ovation bass. “It’s a Magnum,” he tells us. “Funnily enough I’ve been using a Yamaha BB for the jazz thing, it’s a Yamaha thing. They told me – and they might have been saying a load of bollocks to me – that it’s been spun around in a machine so the molecules point a certain way. It doesn’t look much but it really has got a full-bodied sound, it’s exact. The Magnum’s another thing, they’re bloody heavy, and it’s got really terrific overtone on it. And it’s the subtones, the subharmonics, which really make the bass. With modern basses back in the 1980s and 1990s, it became all about getting rid of the ghastly subharmonics and overtones, [but] that’s what I like – it gives it the character. It’s heavy, very heavy wood, it’s got an incredibly dense resonance – it’s fantastic for dub. At the same time, you can really play it, and all the strings sound good. The E string’s fantastic on a Fender, but you go up to the G string, it gets progressively a little bit weedier.”_TK04646001

In PIL’s early videos, Jah is often seen playing seated, but this was not part of their anti-pop star stance, as it turns out. “I found it easier to play sitting down, and I still like sitting down,” says the great man. “It just felt natural. In the studio you’d often play seated, and it was easier, certainly when I was starting. It was about really playing in time, and being really focused and, every note being as focused, and concentrating on not being sloppy. That’s what I knew you had to be, really tight, and in time, and clear, and I’ve kind of stuck with that.”

As far as amplification and accessories go, Wobble has made some recent changes to his traditional setup. “I was [using] Ampeg, but the big change is, I’m now using Ashdown, what they call the Big Bastard. That’s what they call it,” he chuckles. “For the last studio session, I had an Ashdown, and I just loved it, I thought, it was the business. And I use Rotosound strings, 88s, the black nylon ones. I never thought I’d ever use nylon, but I have been using them for the real dub stuff. I thought it was a real bad choice at one time, but now there’s metal in the core, and I quite liked them. It’s all in the fingertone of course, all in the phrasing. I use them on the Magnum, and it’s pretty heavy.”

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