As they say, there are those moments in life that catch you off-guard no matter how much you prepare for them. Talking to John Lydon is surely one of them. After nearly three-plus decades, the iconic singer, who came of age as Johnny Rotten, the notorious frontman for punk legends the Sex Pistols, remains as irascible as ever. As you should be able to tell from our exchange over the phone lines, he doesn’t take kindly to questions not fully formed or even the slightest implication of besmirchment against the integrity of his intentions. In other words, this infamous sly character is everything you’d expect.
The occasion for our conversation was that Public Image Ltd. (PiL) recently released its first new album in 20 years, This Is PiL. While it is the Sex Pistols whose renown has far outlasted their career (just three initial action-packed years before a couple reunions in the ’90s and ’00s), it is with Public Image Ltd. that Lydon really came into his own. Rather than continue to propagate the snotty image and reductionist rock sounds for which the Pistols had become known, Lydon plowed into new ground when he formed PiL in 1979. Working with the line-up of Jah Wobble, former Clash member Keith Levene and Martin Adkins, Lydon created a milieu of minimalist post-punk dub on albums like Metal Box, considered a seminal work of the band. As line-ups changed, so too did the PiL aesthetic, venturing into a more accessible realm of tuneful alterna sounds. The line-up of the late ’80s and early ’90s that put out albums like 1987’s Happy? proved to be the longest lived. When Lydon finally reconvened the band a couple years ago after putting the kabosh on PiL in 1992, it is to these band members he returned, with guitarist Lu Edmonds (also of the Mekons) and drummer Bruce Smith joined by new recruit, bassist Scott Firth. In a manner finally realizing PiL’s hope to be more company than band, they released This Is PiL themselves after first raising the money to record by touring for a couple years. A tautly wound slab of varied influences and modernist rock, it is definitely not a return to form, but a new chapter, as Lydon and I discussed, among many other things, in the interview below.
In other interviews, you’ve talked a lot about how contractual and financial difficulties kept PiL from working, but I was wondering what the original reasons for putting the band on hold were.
John Lydon: Aren’t those good enough?
I didn’t know if those were the reasons...
JL: Yeah, I couldn’t afford to keep it running any longer, and I had to play a waiting game that turned out to be two decades long. It’s unfortunate, but that’s how corporate record labels approach life. They hit you with a thing called recoupment, and until you’ve earned the money back that they’ve loaned you, you really can’t continue. It’s a catch-22, and it’s six or one half-dozen of the other if you can survive through that period. I had to learn great patience. You’re not dealing with any human beings at this point. It just becomes a matter of accounting, and no answer can ever come of it. So I had to wait for contracts to expire, and in fact I still owe money that I am still paying back personally. The debt doesn’t just vanish! The way it is with PiL, the debt has always landed on my lap and mine alone. Many people can claim that they were PiL members, but I’ve never seen them dip into their pockets like I’ve had to! That’s why if you want to talk PiL, you talk to Johnny!
But did you always feel that there would be another PiL record and that the band would reconvene?
JL: Oh yeah, of course! Songwriting is the thing that I love doing most in the world and to be denied access to that felt criminal to me. The horror stories I could tell you—I don’t want to—of other people in other bands and solo artists, the things that they’ve endured. Some of them turned into junkies through despair. You have to have the staying power, the stamina and the resilience of a rhinoceros to get through it. The lessons I learned from the difficulties of my very first band really paid off in the long run. I was quite literally thrown in the deep end—we all were. Some of us don’t survive, some of us do.
I’m curious about the title of the record. It’s a very positive statement. Is that directed at people who might question the legitimacy of this reunion?
JL: Who would be that silly?
I don’t know. I’m just curious what your thoughts were behind that kind of definitive statement.
JL: Because this is PIL. This is PiL, plain and simple. I am PiL. I’m him what set this band up many moons ago. I’m him what got the record deals, raised the money, and paid for all the equipment, and to this day that is exactly what I’m dong. If there’s any doubt about that, I think you need to be looking at who’s got such audacity. I put my money where my mouth is. A lot of people just talk cheap. I’m John, and I’m true to my word, I am. I’ve got no room for lies.
Listen, from the very first day I began in music, I’ve had to endure this non-stop idiocy and suspicion about myself. And yet, I’ve always been true to my word, I’ve never let anybody down, I’ve never stolen from anyone. I’ve not done one wrong move against any human being. My record speaks for itself. Every single thing I’ve done has been original, from the heart, pure and true. And anybody who has a word to say against that has to merely put their record up on the table and show me what’s what. I’ve had to deal with it on that level for so long. The record labels were murder to me. Do you know how difficult it was to convince them of the complete unknowns I was using as band members? How difficult it was just to get that record even done? And that’s just the first PiL album! And the second, and the third, and the fourth, and the fifth, and on and on and on. I’ve helped launch so many careers. I really don’t want to hear from sour pusses and jealous fucks. I’ve done no harm to no one. I’ve put money in people’s pockets and launched them careers, and anyone who’s got anything different to say on that is a fucking lying hound. I’d like to see the list of what anybody’s done for me lately!
Let’s talk about this new record. Did you have specific ideas of what you wanted to accomplish, either musically or thematically, going into it?
JL: No, it was a very difficult process because we had to raise the money just to even get in to rehearse. We knew damn well it was going to be a long arduous journey, but an enjoyable one, of touring for almost two years in order to raise enough money to use a recording facility. Once in that facility, we let it rip. We were gagging at the bit to get into new material. These are the people I’ve known the longest in any PiL format, Bruce and Lu, and I think when you hear the record you know that I don’t make foolish decisions. They are the dog’s bollocks of it all and a pleasure to work with. And they’re my friends, real friends.
Doing those shows and playing the older material, do you think that influenced the direction of the record at all?
JL: Not at all. I’ve worked on several PiL albums with Lu and Bruce, and they’re all very different from each other. Why would you assume that I’d be wanting to imitate myself? That’s not possible. I can run the full gauntlet of PiL because I wrote the songs and that’s my story. That’s my life experience, and that’s how we approach it live. We have an enormous catalog—PiL’s really been a proficient band over the years—so live wasn’t a matter of anything but doing the songs we enjoyed doing the most. And like I said, Lu and Bruce have been involved the longest compared to anybody.
I’m assuming if John McGeogh hadn’t passed away, he might have been involved too...
JL: Oh, poor old Johnny!
And it seems like you’ve experienced a good deal of death in the intervening years...
JL: I’ve experienced all manner of sadness from band members. Some of them turned into junkies, some of them just greedy fucks that couldn’t be tolerated, others just blatant liars, but mostly really decent, talented people with genuine honesty and integrity. But Lu and Bruce, those two are founding fathers for me.
Some of the songs in your past catalog have been critical of your homeland...
JL: No, not critical. It’s an analysis. To understand the problem of things collapsing financially and socially all around the world, you really have to come to grips with it in a deeply personal way. By doing so, I was analyzing my own childhood—and I mean a long time before music—and how I felt as a young person with no economic opportunity. Hence the refrain, “We are teenagers. We are the ageless.” We are still facing the same economic stumbling blocks from governments that don’t care about us. Unfortunately, it always ends up in riots, because what else can you do? Rioting is an instant form of relief, but the end results are always negative, with somebody getting hurt or killed. I don’t condone rioting at all, but I have a sense of empathy for those involved, because frustration always boils over. There seems to be no pressure release of that cooker. It’s creating enormous problems.
Kids have less now than we ever did. Yes, there is internet and video games, but it is all pretty damn mindless. It takes you away from socializing. It all becomes solo efforts. The youth is fractured and aimless, and that’s a sad thing.
Having lived in America for so long, do you feel like you write from more of an American point of view these days?
JL: I don’t ignore my childhood lessons—that’s where I learnt my values initially—and I’m explaining that on the album. I live in America now, but I’m seeing the same problems worldwide. We are, after all, all just human beings. We all basically have the same needs and we’re all victims of greed. The point being it doesn’t really matter where I am located, the situation is the same. For me, I’m trying to grasp some sense of unity here and trying to get people to start rallying together in order to change this. As with all things, you change them initially in your mind, in your own way of thinking, and don’t just accept that that is the way it is. If you allow that to happen, then, quoting myself from very early youth, “there will be no future for you.”
Speaking of which, are the Sex Pistols still an open-ended concern?
JL: No, no...
You’ve closed the book on that one?
JL: Yes, I have. It’s a wonderful part of my inheritance, and I will love it forever, but I can’t operate in that area any longer. There are too many business interests that detract from the original message.
I was watching Martin Scorsese’s documentary on George Harrison when I heard back about talking to you. So then listening to the new record after having watched George Harrison play with Ravi Shankar, I was noticing more of the Eastern accents on the the title track and “Lollipop Opera.” Who brought that influence to bear on the record?
JL: Again going back to my early childhood, the area I was brought up in was a poor working class area with very mixed races: Greek, Turkish, Irish, Jamaican—all manner of peoples. That was a great childhood because these things were there constantly. They’re not just influences I would have acquired like, say, George Harrison with Ravi Shankar, but things I was actually brought up with. They are part of my rich tapestry. They’re what made my values. As a mixed culture, we got on very well with each other. There was no racism in Arsenal land. So to put it down to having a bloke from India twag on a banjo, there’s a lot more going on here, mate!
Lu, for instance, is a cultural ambassador for the Russian government. He’s helping re-introduce traditional instruments in a lot of those Far Eastern countries because they’ve actually lost their own culture. With The Beatles, it was all about finding yoga and discovering “om.” They’re very different experiences.
Our approach is one of world community. The way I sing and the things I do, I require a different vocal scale. Lu requires a different music scale. We’re not just interested in the Western scale because there’s not enough notes in it for us. The way we’re trying to project our imagery, we need to expand our musical universe, and that’s what we’re up to.
Being the singer, how do you give the band direction as far as what you want musically?
JL: It’s not like that. We take and feed off each other’s ideas in a very open and happy way. We truly are friends.
But do you come up with melodies?
JL: No, not always. Sometimes, sometimes not. There’s no rule book to it, and that’s what makes it so heartwarmingly joyful to be a member of PiL. There’s a basic principal that the words and the music have to be cohesive to each other, otherwise whatever feeling or emotion you’re trying to express is just a shambles. The noises I get out of my voice have to be well accompanied, and Lu feels the same about me: the things he plays, I have to be able to match. There’s a constant push to be better. Because we have toured now for almost two years solid, we are finely tuned with each other and have true empathy.
You were talking about the noises coming out of your mouth, it seems like the song “The Room I’m In” has a strong phonetic...
JL: That’s a song dealing with drug addiction and council flat living. Many people I know are still enduring that existence, and I’ve been through it myself and there’s only one way to deal with it. The musical backdrop is quite twisted and gnarly. You can feel the tension in it. From the word point of view, I thought that almost deadpan delivery summed it up best. I know what it’s like to have a drug comedown—I’m no saint—and that’s the mode you go through. I was dealing with that self-realization aspect, where you realize that you have to change your life at this point or this is the way it’s going to be forever. You have to be able to analyze your own faults, and indeed any kind of addiction is a fault. It’s not a disease, it’s a fault.
You’re credited with the artwork for the album, and it looks like it’s a painting...
JL: Yeah, it’s an oil painting.
Is that something you do outside...
JL: Yeah, I’ve loved the theme of wild buffalo for a long, long time, and I’ve been painting a similar kind of thing. I loved it for the album because it’s about a creature that’s clearly individual, clearly proud of its freedom, bouncing around in the meadows there, and should not be locked, confined or caged. And that’s the PiL spirit.
Is painting something you’re pursuing...
JL: No, it’s something I’ve always done. When I was very young, I would have loved to have been a painter, but for one reason or another that didn’t happen. I would have loved to have been a writer, but for one reason or another that didn’t happen either. When I came into the world of music, it was a brilliant opportunity to combine those two things. I learned to write songs in the Pistols, but I learned to tell it as it really is from a human being’s point of view as accurately as I could in PiL, and that, to this day, is what I’m continuing to do. I think I use words to paint pictures. For me, it’s painful sometimes, but it’s also a great release of the stress and tensions and angers you can build up when you can’t fully express what the emotion is that you’re going through, the pain at the loss of a family member or a friend or watching the endless suffering of the disenfranchised on CNN— these endless emotions that don’t have words. It’s almost like a rage, and I’m trying to put that to words. But sometimes words don’t do it, you need tone and all the audio tapestry that is available. We understand that this juxtaposition between words and sound creates true feeling. It’s how you clean your soul, and I’ve always pursued it this way.
When PiL was first starting, you expressed that it wasn’t a band. Has that concept changed?
JL: No. It’s a very noble concept. Sometimes it was taken quite literally, meaning that we could invest in film or we would be able do this or that. Until you get the right blend of personalities, all those noble ideas don’t really work, so for me it’s taken the first 50 years of my life to fully get to that position. I’m a work in progress—like I think every human being is—and I’ve learned not to rush that process. The end result is that I view myself as 50 years young, and I’ve collected an awful lot of knowledge about my fellow human beings and I find it’s mostly favorable. We’re marvelous! What a great creation!
In that regard, is there anything that would ever cause you to hang this up or will you just keep going?
JL: How could that be? It’s my life! I’m explaining my life and my experiences and my friends’ experiences and my family’s experiences. I got lucky and got the role when I first started, and I’ve learned not to throw that gift away, but to keep at it and make it as accurate and truthful as I possibly can. I was given a great opportunity in life, one that won’t be neglected. Writing’s in my soul, music’s in my soul. As Lady Gaga would say, “I was born this way!”