WHO KIDNAPPED JOHN LYDON and replaced him with the measured, respectful and good-humoured 60-year-old who’s phoning MOJO from L.A.? All sing-song dynamics and mustn’t-grumble optimism, there’s no sign of the Tasmanian Devil he can still unleash when provoked. Perhaps it’s a good day – even a good decade. “My cup is half full,” he muses. “All those years of having to ponder around in the wilderness kind of paid off.”
PiL is certainly Lydon’s favourite subject, and there’s a difference between the Lydon who speaks about the Sex Pistols – burdened by their history, it’s like he bends himself back into 1976-77’s twisted shapes – and the Lydon who discusses PiL: his band, after all, not Malcolm McLaren’s or Steve Jones’s. PiL has served as a no-holds-barred means of personal expression for 38 years, and enjoys a new phase of stability, with Happy? album veterans Lu Edmonds and Bruce Smith joined by Spice Girls/Steve Winwood bassist Scott Firth – a line-up UK fans can enjoy again at shows in November.
“I consider myself a folk singer, and PiL a folk band.”
“It was a superb blend right from the start,” notes Lydon of the line-up already responsible for two excellent PiL albums, 2012’s This Is PiL and 2015’s What The World Needs Now. “The first rehearsal, for instance, I turned up late and I heard them. Of all the songs in the world to take on, they were doing… Albatross! And they got it in one! I just burst the door open and dramatically ran up to the microphone and dropped straight into it. From that point on it was like a marriage made in heaven.”
You seem to have a greater appetite for gigging than ever.
It’s what I always wanted. A unit that’s very close-knit and respectful of each other. Oddly enough, once I found myself off the major labels that’s exactly what happened. We earn our money from performing live so live is what all of this centres around. That’s the bond. We travel together, travel with the crew. We’re like a jolly little pirate ship.
I’ve always loved it when I’m on stage but now I’m absolutely eager to be on stage. It’s a different scenario, because I don’t see any pitfalls coming, because we’re so finely tuned. What you might call a bum note – to us it’s an opportunity. Where can that take us? There’s a great deal of looseness inside the structures of the songs. And those improvisation moments are dreams come true.
What is it to be on stage for you? Is it catharsis? Do you lose yourself?
Well I’m usually ill with fear. Seriously! The stage fright – it’s taken me a long time to get to grips with it, many a decade. It’s still there now, but I enjoy that fear beforehand. I can wield it like a weapon. I realise, from reading other people’s autobiographies – actors, or whatever – almost all of them have that stage fright thing. Those chapters in books thrill me and I just try to reap the benefit of their experience. And try somehow to apply it to my own work. The fear is an important part of it.
Because it means something’s at stake?
There’s something at stake, yes. Because you really care about what you’re doing. And we’re all like that – a bag of shitty fucking nausea! Gagging at the bit to get on and deal with it. You need to be uncomfortable – this is something I’ve learned over the years – before you can be comfortable. To know the difference...
The intensity – how do you maintain that over a tour?
Well there’s no excessive drinking going on. There’s none of that. I don’t mix pleasure with the business at hand. Selfish pleasure I mean.
Has that always been the case?
No. Not in them early days, in A Previous Band. Sometimes Dutch courage would play a discreditable role. I was far from perfect, but trying to learn my chops and wasn’t receiving much of a pat on the shoulder. It was all an uphill struggle.
You’re in powerful voice currently…
And in this version I get to really let loose and experiment with my voice. And I find I can do things that I never got credit for in the past. In the early days we lacked the time and money and probably the capability to experiment. We went as far as we could. On Metal Box I deliberately sacrificed the full vocal presence in order to get as much bass into the grooves as possible. So something had to give, and rather than be an egomaniacal pop star, which I was determined never to be, I sacrificed the voice, but I think it adds to the strength of the songs. Or I hope so.
The way you do This Is Not A Love Song is extraordinary – the vocal, the way you segue into Poptones…
Well thank you. So it’s right, the way we approach things? Well we rehearse very, very hard, but there’s a still a looseness about it. Because we all know the most serious rehearsal you ever do is absolutely live in front of people, up close and personal. When you connect with people’s eyes, Oh, the energy that can give you! I read it in their eyes, willing it to be better and better. And so harder and harder I go at it.
“You’ve got the Russian fleet gearing up for a float-by shooting. That’s ominous.”
How does it feel, when you’re back in Britain?
Personally speaking, the whole Brexit thing was a nightmare, very frightening. Are you really listening to these worn-out Tory fakes? Lo and behold, they’ve led you into this exit from Europe and God knows what that will bring. On the up side, at least you’re independent. I connect that with my own career. Out of the EU, you’re off the major label. Yippee yi yo. But unfortunately, at the same time you’re saddled with these old has-been Tories dragging you back to the old horrible ways. Theresa May – she’s bringing back Class warfare. In a heartbeat. And divided we fall. Ouch! Meanwhile you’ve got the Russian fleet gearing up for a float-by shooting. That’s ominous. There’s talk of a World War III in all the newspapers – this sabre-rattling nonsense, stop it!
The recent reissues of Metal Box and Album – have they thrown up songs that make you think, that really speaks to me right now, we should have a go at that?
Well there’s always Home, but we messed that up so badly at the Isle Of White Festival – which wasn’t our fault, it was the PA blowing up – that there’s kind of a booby trap to it emotionally, but it’s a song that I love. But it’s a lot more complicated to do live than you would imagine – a lot of changes. But I’m always up for trying it.
Whole Life Time [from What The World Needs Now…] is one of the most moving recent PiL songs…
Yes, that’s about meningitis and my childhood illnesses. Picking over those things. It’s poignant in any situation. This is what you discover writing songs. You think you know what it’s about, then you open up newer and newer pages. Look at what Rise turned into. Started as a couple of lines of moaning and it’s opened itself up into a major movement of a song, an anthem of civil rights. From little acorns bigger things can grow.
What music are you currently enjoying?
I genuinely like most things – I don’t follow genres. My biggest problem is the lack of record shops. Because I’m an avid collector, and I like the hilarious thing of buying things without knowing what they sound like and taking them home and finding out that they’re incredibly marvellous or incredibly stupid. I get great enjoyment out of that.
“The stage fright – it’s taken me a long time to get to grips with it, many a decade.”
Fans will often give me cassettes of their own music. And bringing that home at the end of a tour and sticking that on, that’s just the best entertainment. You’re not judging it on expertise or production – the heart and soul is so in it. It’s incredibly rewarding. I’ve got a cupboard full of that stuff.
It’s unmediated, unshaped by record labels or…
Yes, it’s not at all like that. None of these people have anything like those facilities. They’re just doing something completely from the heart. That for me is the essence of why we do this in the first place.
You sound happy, John. Are you happy?
Weeeell… yes! I’ve lasted this long, haven’t I? I don’t have a powerful industrious publicity machine behind me, I don’t need it. What I’m doing is still of interest to people, it’s still motivating them, I can see that in their eyes, every gig. Yes, that’s a very happy place to find myself at only 60 years young. I must have another 40 years left in me, surely? If I consider myself a folk singer, and PiL a folk band, which I do, well then there is no age limit. You can go on till the day you die, as long as you’re doing it truthfully. That’s what folk music is all about.
I’m not sure I’ve ever heard you call yourself a folk artist…
Well I know it’s a dangerous comparison, because Melanie pops into mind. Rebel songs from any culture – that’s what I’m talking about.
PiL Live: 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