UNCUT INTERVIEW: JOHN LYDON | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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Emily Ingram catches a rare glimpse into the personal life of John Lydon ahead of Public Image Ltd’s gig at Newcastle’s Riverside on Sunday 20th September.

First of all, Public Image Ltd’s newest studio album is set to be released this September – how was the recording process?

With us – quick, cheap and cheerful. We don’t believe in spending vast amounts on ridiculous electronica- we’re certainly not time wasters in the post-production area either. There’s not piles of expensive recording equipment, it’s all kind of mid-level, which is fine! You don’t need to go to extremes. If we can’t record it basically live, we’re not very interested in it after. So that’s the way we approached things: we sorted out a barn with the most perfect natural reverb possible. It had very high ceilings, you could open the doors and the only thing you’re annoying is sheep for a hundred miles! It’s quite brilliant to be able to do that. I think we’re able to achieve very dramatic results. You can con the wealthy, but you can‘t con the smart. The downside, of course, is that in the evening the place is crawling with rats, you know, and it’s not nice seeing rat poo in your jam sandwich.

But I love working with these fellas, these are my friends. It’s taken 35 years of making music before I’ve finally found myself in an environment where I really, really respect every single person in it. It’s not just the band, it’s the way everything operates behind the scenes too- I’ve got great friends there, like Scott Murphy and Johnny Rambo Stevens, so things work now. Nobody lies to anyone. It’s all out in the open, so nothing is vindictive and hateful, which makes for the production of some really good songs.

Alongside this back to basics approach in recording, you’re known for being particularly eloquent within your music. There’s always something there you want to express.

Wow, really! I can hardly bear that, that’s the most thrilling and frightening compliment I’ve ever heard! I find it hard to take a compliment or praise. I’ve got so used to learning to endure the negativity, it’s become almost second nature, so thank you, you’ve made me blush.

So, with that in mind – do you think there was anything that you wished to communicate with this record, musically or lyrically?

The audience will gather it. There’s songs there that cover all manner of topics and subjects. One is a very subdued vocal delivery from me but it totally captures the atmosphere of what I wanted, it reminds me of a teenage disco. Those church led events or local social club events where you were very shy, and you wanted to talk to the girls but there was T-Rex on the system and they were dancing to that. Trying to remember some of those ridiculous chat up lines in the hope you wouldn’t be rejected! That’s me remembering what a spotty awkward teenager I was, so to me it’s a song with great affection, shyness and humility. It’s a delicious torment to remind myself with those moments- I’ve left myself open, explored all the emotions.

Other songs are corporate, I think it’s obvious what I view of big business, so they’re honing in on specifics. Warning people that if you simply accept these things they’ll turn you into the monster you most resent. What runs parallel with the song is a reminder of how hip hop and rap have just completely taken over via NIKE and brandwear, and I think the worst, most awful example of a youth being misled is through clothing lines. It’s dopey. It’s ridiculous. There’s no individuality in it.

This record is your first since This Is PiL, released in 2012. Was it a long time coming?

For us, this is very quick – our shortest time ever! I don’t like putting records out if there’s any sense of having to rush them, things should come when they’re most natural. There’s a great song on (the album) called Shoom, and the title of it was really just something Bruce was playing with on the drum machine that made this shoom sound. But I really liked it! It was just an endless loop he was having fun with when he had nothing to do one afternoon. So I remember after dinner we had all consumed a few bottles of wine, and I laid down a vocal in one take to it. What I had in mind was a homage to my dad- I loved him as company, I loved his sarcasm and his sense of irony and his GENIUS timing – he was a very dry comedian. What to an outsider may seem like a grumpy old git was actually just a sense of humour, which the working class understand and it’s very difficult to explain to anyone else! It’s like, “It’s all bollocks!”, though of course I didn’t fake the Irish accent, I have my own language. But the song is my dad talking, because he died a few years back and I miss him. Thank you dad, you gave me life, I won’t forget.

So there’s a mix of different themes running through the album, personal and otherwise- that sounds great!

Well there’s a couple of things- not a specific song in itself- but there’s lines all over the place that refer to my early childhood, which I’ve had to come to grips with when I pulled out my book Anger Is An Energy. For the first time ever in my life, I’ve opened up and explained what went on with me when I was young. I’ve always kept quiet about that, I’d worry that people thought I was pushing the ‘self-pity’ button, but I think I’ve done enough work now to share it. Self-pity is something I’d never tolerate and it’s certainly something my mum and dad have instilled within me never to put up with.

So there we go, it’s a sharing thing, and the personal elements have – shall we say ‘infected’? Yes, that’s the best word for it- infected some of the songs, as the two projects (book and album) were running together simultaneously. Of course, halfway through I was preparing for Jesus Christ Superstar! I was gonna go off and play King Herod in a musical! Really was looking forward to that, it’s such a shame they pulled the plug. So there we go, with all that it’s ended up in my mind being the best record we’ve ever made, and you know I’ve made quite a few! I always say that, because I’m always excited for the latest. But because of that sense of comradery that we’ve had for each other, the respect and the openness, it’s a very uplifting record for us lot.

Lyrically, lead single Double Trouble is a pretty striking one. Could you explain a little of the meaning behind the track?

There’s plenty of humour in double trouble. It comes from a situation of my own making- an argument with Nora, Mrs Rotten, about a broken toilet. I was doing a lot of interviews, so I didn’t have time to go up and fix the damn thing. The trouble was, a few years earlier I got a new toilet and installed it myself. So an argument ensued,”why waste money when we know you can do it?” and “get a plumber!”, and on and on it went for weeks like that. Finally we did get a plumber and they fixed it. I was being both lazy and occupied by other things. I thought it was worthy of a mention in a song, and rather than letting it turn into a bitterness, we laughed about it! Nora now loves that song and we have a laugh when we play it because we remember that row.

In my mind I would recommend it as the theme tune to the United Nations, as it’s a domestic scene that shows really how the world works.

john lydon paul heartfield

“Self-pity is something I’d never tolerate and it’s certainly something my mum and dad have instilled within me never to put up with”

Following the release, you’ll be embarking on another tour, including a date at Newcastle’s Riverside. Is there anything in particular you enjoy about the North East in general?

The people. Oh my god, I love those little corner pubs. They’ve got a glorious culture, the Geordies, I love them very much. I’ve had nothing but good memories from the place. It’s just great company, and everybody’s up for a good laugh and a giggle. I love it, because I never run into violence or animosity in those situations. It warms the heart, though I can say this about anywhere in England really, but I like the working class culture very much. There’s a great sense of humour, comradery and spirit, and that’s the essence of the whole album. It’s more or less the same wherever you go, it’s just the accents that change. It’s a wonderful thing to be accepted- you know, I’m well known for being an outsider, but really I’m an insider.

Speaking broadly now, PiL have had a variety of different line-ups over the years, and you have spoken previously about how much you love working with the band currently. What has it been like for you personally to have worked intimately alongside so many different musicians?

I’ve enjoyed working with all of them! It’s always financial situations that dictate proceedings and bring in trouble, but currently we all do other things besides, so it’s a healthy way of working, as things don’t get on top of each other. I’m incredibly lucky. There’s 49 people in PIL and each of them has been able to open up their own world of musical exploration, and all good stuff comes from that. Even the ones that hate me, I still feel fondly of. Hate’s as good an emotion as any I suppose. It’s only love in disguise.

Do you feel like your sound has varied a lot as a result of the different influences?

It varies according to the subject matter. What we try to do is get the music to be as best a representative as the emotions as possible. I know a lot about words, but I know there aren’t enough words in the world to describe emotions, and when you combine that with music that’s appropriate you achieve incredible results. That’s where we are, we’re experimenting in that area and it’s a work in progress- I’m only 60 years young, I’ve got a whole lifetime to correct it! That’s a reference to one of the songs, of course.

Finally, you’ve been incredibly busy over the last few years- both personally and as a group. Any idea what lies in store for the band in the near future?

More of our neurotic behaviour. I’m constantly thinking, worrying and working things over in my head, there’s no time for a holiday. It doesn’t matter where I am geographically in the world, the brain won’t stop. Everything is about creating. To quote my mum many years ago- “You’re a creation you are!”- and she was right. So there we are, we’re gagging to get out and perform live, as that’s the essence and point of it all. I like the audience to be well lit so I can see the faces, I love seeing that they’re understanding what we’re doing here.

We’re not coming on as big, pompous rock stars, we’re a community voice. For me, it’s always been that way. It’s not ‘us and them’, it’s just ‘us’.

PiL play at the Riverside, Newcastle on Sunday 20th September.

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