LISTS Mapping Jah Wobble’s Interdimensional Dub By Andy Thomas · February 25, 2021
Center photo by Alex Hurst

In 1980 Jah Wobble left his role as bassist for Public Image Limited to pursue a vast range of other projects—like the border-crossing fusion of his long-running Invaders of the Heart, and a series of DIY releases on his own label Lago Records. He’s explored everything from dub and funk to jazz, electro, ambient, and various regional musical styles. He’s worked with a wide range of similarly restless figures, including Bill Laswell and Brian Eno. His recent work includes a deluge of tracks uploaded to Bandcamp during lockdown, along with a second LP of Chinese dub recorded with his wife, acclaimed harpist Zi Lan Liao, and their two sons.

Born John Wardle in Stepney, East London in 1958, Wobble first felt the power of dub at reggae ‘blues’ parties in London’s East End. “The bass at these parties was beyond sound, it was physical movement,” he says. “I remember being drawn towards the speakers… I was like ‘Oh my god, this is just incredible.’ It was so strong and visceral, and it also moved your mind.”

The spiritual dub of records like Augustus Pablo’s King Tubby Meets the Rockers Uptown opened his mind to new sounds. “I was living in a little council flat [public housing],” he says. “So I would listen to dub while dreaming, looking out of the window.”

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Vinyl LP

Wobble’s friend from Kingsway College, John Lydon, shared his love of reggae. The two would hang out with punk’s inner sanctum at places like The Roxy and SEX, Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood’s infamous clothes shop. But like Lydon, Wobble soon tired of the limitations of punk. After hours spent studying greats like Aston Barrett and Robbie Shakespeare, he bought his first bass, recalling how “the thought of riding the power that I heard emanating from the reggae sound system was utterly enthralling.”

He became a regular at the West End nightclub Crackers, where soul and punk collided, alongside the jazz, funk, fusion, and disco of DJs Mark Roman and George Power. Soon, Lydon and Wobble would join forces to create some of the most exploratory post-punk of the era. Public Image Limited debuted with the LP First Issue in 1978, recorded for Virgin at Manor Studios. It was a visionary work, drawing on the group’s influences from dub, disco, Krautrock, and beyond to anticipate post-punk’s experimental trajectory. “I really like that album, and it was definitely a pre-cursor to Metal Box,” Wobble says. “I was using the Fender Precision bass at the time. And when you go back to play some of those old lines like on ‘Annalisa’ it’s amazing—how did I think of that? It was quite clever.”

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Public Image (First Issue) and the monumental follow up Metal Box are widely considered milestones in post-punk. But in 1980, after a factious American tour, Wobble left the group. His first collaboration outside of PiL was with Can’s avant-pop multi-instrumentalist Holger Czukay and drummer Jaki Liebezeit. “That was amazing,” he says. “I was so lucky, because they were like teachers to me. That stuff we recorded really was terrific.” Written by Wobble and Czukay, and recorded at Can’s Inner Space Studio, “How Much Are They” (released on a four track EP for Island Records and subsequently the Full Circle LP) became an anthem at David Mancuso’s New York party The Loft.

One of the regulars at The Loft was François Kevorkian who contacted Wobble after a conversation with Chris Blackwell at Island Records. The idea was to get U2’s guitarist The Edge in the studio with Wobble, who drafted Czukay and Liebezeit alongside members of Invaders of The Heart. Produced by Kevorkian, using the Linn Drum for the first time, the dub-disco-meets-electro-fusion track “Snakecharmer” (from the mini LP of the same name—which also featured the Arthur Russell-penned “Hold On To Your Dreams”) was tailor-made for the genre-blurring New York club scene that Wobble immersed himself in. “François introduced us to all these clubs. We went everywhere—from Danceteria up to Disco Fever in The Bronx,” he recalls. “What a magical fucking time to be in that city.”

Before long, Wobble retreated to his DIY roots, recording a collection of raw tapes in his council flat in East London. “I have always loved small, simple recording devices, and when I was living in this little flat, I had this multi-track recorder and a Tascam multi-track cassette deck,” he recalls. “That whole thing of DIY was always something I was into.” The results were a series of 12”s on his own Lago Records label, that spanned dub, synth pop, disco, ambient, jazz, and spoken word.

During this time, Wobble was also becoming fascinated by shortwave radio; late one night, he picked up a signal from Radio Cairo in Egypt. “I remember when I first heard the voice of Om Kalsoum coming through all the static,” he says. “The first thing I heard was the clapping as she took the stage. I was like, ‘What is that’. Then you hear that voice and it really was like a heavenly choir.”

While working on what would become The Bedroom LP, he would spend hours walking around London with the music of Om Kalsoum and her composer Mohamed Abdel Wahab, playing on his Walkman. “That whole period was very important to me in regard to preparing me for the future,” he says.

Here, we present a short trip through Wobble’s sprawling discography.

Jah Wobble & The Invaders Of The Heart
Invaders Of The Heart (Exotic Decadent Disco Mix)

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Released on Lago Records in 1983, the first Invaders of the Heart 12” was, in Wobble’s words, “A beautiful blend of Eastern sounds and a dub sensibility.” The single was also a secret weapon for legendary DJ Andrew Weatherall during the acid house years. A big admirer of Wobble, Weatherall would eventually mix the Invaders’s dub dance track “Bomba” in 1990, which featured Egyptian-British singer Natacha Atlas, whose voice would grace many of the Invaders’s LPs in the ‘90s.

Jah Wobble & The Invaders Of The Heart
The Unspoken Word (Jah Wobble Mix)

Founded in Ladbroke Grove, West London in 1988, Nation Records became a hub for UK world-fusion. Though it’s best known for releasing music by artists like Talvin Singh, Asian Dub Foundation, and Natacha Atlas, the label launched with Pulse 8’s “Radio Morocco,” a collaboration between Wobble and fellow Invader, Justin Adams. The second single released by Nation Records, “The Unspoken Word” is a storming piece of Eastern dub disco featuring an incredible vocal performance by Zahrema di Starace.

Brian Eno & Jah Wobble
Spinner

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Wobble has also continued to explore the parameters of ambient music, which he does on this collaboration with Brian Eno. “The idea was he gave me these really limited tapes—basically background snippets of ambient music from the Derek Jarman film Glitterbug [1994]—and asked me to embellish them,” says Wobble. Using scraps of sound from the original tapes, Wobble created music to accompany long walks around his neighborhood. “At the time, I would test drive the tracks while walking up the canal,” says Wobble. “I found the post-industrial malaise of that area of East London along the Lea Valley really atmospheric—a bit David Lynch.” The result is a darkly ambient LP featuring Jaki Liebezeit on drums as well as Invaders guitarist Justin Adams.

Jah Wobble & Bill Laswell
Radioaxiom: A Dub Transmission

Bonding through a shared love of Miles Davis’s Dark Magus LP, Wobble and fellow bassist and producer Bill Laswell, first worked together on Ginger Baker’s heavyweight dub fusion LP, Middle Passage, from 1990. Recorded at Orange Music in New Jersey, Radioaxiom followed shortly after Laswell’s Miles Davis remix project, Panthalassa, and tracks like “Virus B” continued in the same musical vein. The album features a stunning lineup of players including Sly Dunbar on drums, Karsh Kale on tabla, Amina Claudine Myers on organ, Nils Petter Molvær on trumpet, and vocals from Ejigayehu “Gigi” Shibabaw. “I really enjoyed that record,” Wobble says, “and what a lineup!”

Jah Wobble & Bill Laswell
Realm of Spells

In 2019, Wobble and Laswell returned to Orange Music for an LP on which he returned to the Fender Precision bass that had provided the cavernous-but-dextrous basslines for PiL. “I really wanted it to be intense in the way records were in the ‘70s when the band can naturally play,” says Wobble. Powered by the interaction of Wobble and Laswell’s bass and the intuition of members of the Invaders, alongside drummer Hideo Yamaki and saxophonist Peter Apfelbaum, Realm of Spells is given a razor-sharp edge by the production genius of Laswell. The highlight is “Code of Echo’s,” a 10-minute ride into the outer reaches of dubbed-out, jazz-rock fusion.

Jah Wobble & Family
Guanyin

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Vinyl LP

Released this February, Guanyin is an exploration of Chinese dub Wobble made with his wife, acclaimed harpist Zi-Lan Liao, and his two sons John (Tianqi) and Charlie (GZ Tian). Back in 2008, they worked together on the LP Chinese Dub. “I didn’t want this album to be Chinese Dub II, so we have brought in some of the more modern stuff as well as traditional,” says Wobble. “You can make a lots of different music ‘dub,’ but with Cantonese music in particular, it’s not easy because it’s always moving,” says Wobble. “You’re dealing with pentatonic scales. So it’s about how you approach the rhythm and those melodies and punctuate them so it’s grounded sonically without stopping the flow.”

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