The Gospel According To John Lydon
“I always forget about this bit. You go to all the effort of making a record and then you have to go and talk about it. It’s alright though, I like talking.”
Yes, John Lydon certainly likes talking, and with good reason – he has plenty to say. MusicRadar speaks with the punk icon on the eve of the release of What The World Needs Now…, the second album from PiL since the band's 2009 reformation. It's also the second PiL record that was entirely self-funded by the band themselves – they famously received a cash injection for the recording of 2012's This Is PiL from Lydon's appearance in Country Life butter TV ads.
Given the chop-and-change nature of the band's line-up since Lydon left all things Johnny Rotten behind in 1978, it is perhaps a little surprising that the band has made it through several world tours and two records since reuniting (although today's PiL sees Lydon as the only original member).
“We put out This Is PiL and then we toured so extensively that we were gagging at the bit to raise enough money to get back into the studio so that’s what we did,” says Lydon of the band's resurgence.
He may have a new record (set for release on 4 September) to promote but during our chat Lydon has plenty more to talk about, as he shoots on everything from the uniforms of modern punks to being musically raped by producers. A few minutes into our conversation we realise that this isn't any old interview, this ladies and gentlemen, is the music industry gospel according to John Lydon.
Lydon on... his creative process
“[PiL has] a terrific way of working. We go in, leave the mics on, everything is always on record and everything gets used. It led to great adventures on songs, something like Corporate, there is a real journey going on in that. Big Blue Sky as well. All of us love the desert and we wanted to grab that atmosphere.
“A lot of the songs come out of conversations. When you tour as closely as we do, we're all on the same bus, conversations matter. They shape-shift your brain into preparation whether you know it or not. Big Blue Sky was a great journey into desert atmosphere.
“We've got a million ideas floating around in our heads. We just look for something to trigger us in the right direction. We're instantly in tune and empathetic with that bang, bish or bong. I laid off instruments this time. I don't like to do that too much. I like to put all of my emphasis these days into just perfecting the most accurate vocal that I can to describe the emotion that I'm enduring at the time [laughs].
“We go in there with just blank paper. The page is blank but fortunately the brain isn't. It never is with me. I don't think I've had a relaxing day in my life and I'm very grateful for that. When you've lost your entire personality when you were young [John lost his memory aged seven after contracting meningitis] you're hardly likely to be dolloping around doing nothing. Nothing doesn't happen any more. Everything is attracting my attention and focus. It's a sheer joy to be in music and to be able to use music in the way that we use it. That said, time wasting can be a delicious choccy treat [laughs].”
Lydon on... the studio
“Where we recorded the new album wasn't technically a studio. It's a barn where Steve Winwood likes to rehearse and it has a small recording facility. But it's an exceptional barn. It's stonewall and 60 foot high. The ambient echo in the place is quite brilliant. I've always loved that cathedral-y natural acoustic reverb. James the engineer was fantastic, the fifth member of the band. For me, to this day, I'll say, 'What's the red button do? Oh, I shouldn't touch that?' Well that's the first thing I will touch. It's kiddy world.
“We're very far removed from mainstream. For us, just to create the sounds that we wanted, we knew that mic placement was of the utmost importance to us. We love that big open sound and you can't really get that if you're focused on the mixing desk side of things. It's ambiance that we're looking for. We have a few overdubs here and there, a few cherries, but that's it.
“We self-produced. I've always found producers to be really difficult. They come in with their concept of a sound and producers technically really work for the record labels. They are dictating to you. They are taking your work away from you and telling you how they see it. That is an incredibly rude feeling of being raped. We keep away from that. Not all producers are like that, I've worked with some exceptional ones.”
Lydon on... inspiration
“Just being alive inspires me. Everything and anyone will pop an idea into my head and I will let that run and run for months and even years sometimes until I find the root cause of it. There might be an incident in the studio were Lu dropped one of his weird stringed things and I really loved the racket it made and bing all of a sudden all these thoughts became very coherent to me. I got up, grabbed the mic and free-formed it away, yipee.”
Lydon on... collaborations. And Kate Bush, Obama and Donald Trump
“[PiL collaborators such as Ginger Baker and Tony Williams] are human beings. They will laugh at the overblown egotism that the press can leach onto. They're just regular fellas.
“It's a shame that there aren't more women in the world doing that kind of thing. I love the ones that are. I love and adore Kate Bush, I've always been a fan of hers. I almost worked with her once. I was obviously just a tad too on the crazy side. She asked me to put some song ideas together. I did and it was about rescuing parrots from the parrot trade in Brazil. I called it Bird In Hand. She said, 'Um, not what I had in mind, John!' I think she was looking for a ballad. The right idea but the wrong time, maybe.
“I was so disappointed to miss her concert. I was abroad, if you can call the US abroad. I am now an American citizen. I became an American citizen because in believed in Obama. I've lived here for nearly 25 years. Obama showed me that there is hope for this place. I don't ever want to be part of a society that has to be told that you need to look out for your afflicted and your ill in order to be a decent, proper place. There's great hope for America...and there's also Donald Trump! It's swings and roundabouts.”
Lydon on... self funding
“It's very difficult to [self fund] but it's worth every second of the effort. We're not being dictated to. This is two albums we've got under our belt doing what we want. We don't have to have artistic rows with the financiers. I do miss the 'artistic development.' That was when you spent a load of money and you found yourself in an incredible amount of debt. That's why I couldn't work for nearly two decades. I had to make records on a shoestring.
“[On Pledge campaigns] You're still not spending your own money. With us we tour relentlessly and that covers it well enough. When we don't work for a period of time we all have other things to get on with. We're not tied down by any restraints at all. I don't need to join a consortium to be independent. I notice the contradiction in that. What we're doing works for us so we're not going to change. It's not easy but it is enjoyable.”
Lydon on... touring
“I don't support governments or political regimes. I play to the people because they're people like me. For me there is no us and them, there's just us. If we're going to allow the politics of their unfortunate situation to dictate what they can and can not be enjoying, that's the wrong move. And it's a wicked move.
“It was an amazing thing to play in Israel. We had Arabs and Jews in the audience and had 6,000 Jews and Arabs singing together to an old PiL song called Four Enclosed Walls. We tore the roof off the building with joy, peace and positivity. That does a hell of a lot more than any student union waving a flag. The most bizarre thing is to call Jews fascists. Really? Have we forgotten history so quickly? Oh my god, students are nowhere near as well read as they used to be.”
Lydon on... Glastonbury
“[On PiL playing Glastonbury in 2013] It's not the old Glastonbury that I went to as a very young kid where it was a plastic pyramid in the rain and mud with one stage and 50 bands. It's very organised now. There's celebrity tents and things like that. There's an audience that aren't quite as knowledgable about you as they should be. I think we shape-shifted them into realising all the prejudice and hate they've ever read about poor old Johnny Rotten is all a fucking lie. The response was brilliant. We sounded fucking great. Let's see if they ever invite us back.”
Lydon on... modern punk
“After the Pistols in came all of these lesser acts and created a really fake and false punk manifesto. It was an agenda that was tied down into the rigidity of a punk uniform and hairdo and a studded leather jacket. To me, it became like a Tesco sensation.
“I thought, 'Who's listening anymore?' So the king of punk upped his tools and formed PiL and this is where punk now truly is. It's a do-it-yourself environment. We don't live in this world to maintain the integrity of a bubble that closes us off to the outside world. The more we learn the better we become.
“The sneering at me and people telling me I have done wrong somehow, now there's irony for ya. The irony isn't lost on me. There's a lot of ignorant people and what can we do about them? Unfortunately there's an awful lot of them. But, there should be no us and them, it's all us. What the fuck's wrong with you? Read a book, learn, grow up, progress, make the world a better place.
“We don't need pathetic, rampant, copycat misery. My problem with genres is that a whole bunch of bands are forever trying to emulate the same sound. That's a very dull thing. You get one or two exceptions from a genre but then they'll be a whole heap of mimics. That kills music.”
Lydon on... longevity
“[John's PiL bandmates] are my friends. I respect them so much. We give each other everything. This is how the world should work. There's no egos, no jealousy, no private vendettas, no secrecy. Everything is just declared. That way you can be incredibly forgiving and you have to be when you work with a lunatic like me.
“The way we work and the respect we have for each other in the studio is quite exceptional. In all the years I’ve been making music I’ve never found a company of people to be so excellent and happy. It’s a happy family and that is a rare quality that I haven’t found up until this point. That influenced the record in an amazing, progressive way. This is our most exceptional piece of work.
“We had terrific arguments, we ain’t saints. More than a few ales were quaffed but it led to a great work environment. Rather than being shy and nervous I was gagging to get in there. Everything should be open and transparent. None of us can tolerate a liar, there's no room for it. I think it's key to the longevity of a band, it's values, not morals. Morals are religion, we don't want none of that around here.”
Lydon on... the future
“We've booked a pile of gigs and we'll see if that takes us to the next step which is doing what we love most which is relentlessly touring until we're into a situation where we have enough money to record again. It's basically all down to the public, if they shun us, we're fucked! I've always been cap in hand, 'Please sir, can I have some more?!'”
What The World Needs Now... is released on 4 September. PiL's 13-date UK tour kicks off in Glasgow on 18 September. Visit www.pilofficial.com for full details.