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Public Image Ltd
John Lydon Opens Up About The Digital/Analog Blend & Recording in a Stone Wall Barn
John Lydon is just sitting down to breakfast when I dial his number, and he answers my call with alert, sunny cheer. His grizzled British voice is immediately recognizable as that of Johnny Rotten, the eternally sneering spokesman for generations of dispossessed crust punks. But it is also friendly, optimistic, dad-like. “Hold on, hold on a second,” he mumbles, laughing. “I’m eating a sausage.”
Punk’s elder statesman has plenty of reasons to be in good humor. In 2009, after a long hiatus, Lydon reformed Public Image Ltd (PiL), the project name under which he helmed some of the most innovative, jarring recordings of the postmodern era. The tenth PiL album, What the World Needs Now…, is out now on the band’s own PiL Official label. The singer and bandleader is excited about the new album and eager to talk about the band’s production workflow, his personal aesthetic framework, and the inspiring philosophy that underpins PiL’s relentless productivity.
You’re the only constant member of PiL, but this line-up [featuring Lu Edmonds of the Damned, Bruce Smith of the Pop Group, and Elvis Costello collaborator Scott Firth] seems to be one of the band’s more long-lasting configurations. What is it about this particular group of musicians?
I think something like 49 people have been in PiL. Unfortunately, it’s been a revolving door because the instant somebody comes into PiL they use it as a leaping board to launch their own career. And that’s a very good thing, by the way. I worked with Bruce and Lu some 20 years back, so we’re far more attuned to each other these days.
Was it personal or musical compatibility that keeps you four together?
Musicianship…I suppose it’s relevant, but it becomes secondary to personality blends. If you’re all of a similar mind frame – e.g. easygoing and optimistic about the future – you’ll find you’ll get along far better than if you put it all down to note twiddling. We want music to represent our personalities, and that’s more important that our musicianship. If you can directly, accurately reflect your inner thoughts and feelings – which is what we do, we explore the terrain of human emotions – well, then that’s much better than anything you’ve learned in music school.
Would you consider yourself an optimist?
Yeah, but not the way things go when they go wrong. What I believe is that we have to be able to – as a species as well as individuals – be observant of our mistakes and correct them. So self-analysis is very, very important, to know when you’re doing a thing wrong, and to do your best, to get it right, you have to be prepared to listen to the people around you. I couldn’t be anything like what I am today without paying attention to my immediate surroundings, and I’m sure the fellas feel that way too.
So when you’re making a record your “immediate surroundings” are the psyches of the people around you?
Yeah, and that’s the way we gel. When we tour we travel together, obviously, and it’s all on the cheap and cheerful. There are no personality clashes, there are no egos, there’s no one dominating the situation. And that sets you up mentally for the recording side. All of us were gagging at the bit. We toured for two years solid, and that had worn us down and drained us somewhat. All of us were very very eager to get into the studio and release new music from our brains. And this time, with this album, the pressure was off. We don’t have to be weird for the sake of it, we don’t have to be anything for the sake of it other than that we’re here because we like making the music. And I think the record shows that. This is us with the reins off, and then we find reins on our own. What we found ourselves doing was exploring the inner textures around some pretty strict rhythms.
“Reined in” is an interesting way of putting it, because this is a very disciplined record, especially with Firth’s drumming on “Shoom,” which is a relentless 4-to-the-floor drive. It’s very gridded, perhaps more so than any other PiL album.
Yeah, but that’s a mental thing. We don’t just sit there in the studio and go, ‘More rigidity, please.’ We’re fiddling around, but also trying to do a really tight rhythm. After dinner one night, after a few ales quaffed, I just ran into the vocal both and thought, ‘I’ll try this out.’ And it’s pretty much improvised. It’s quite a lot of that, from all of us. We’re also a very good blend of analog and digital. We’re finding that happy ground in between, because if you go too computer-led it sounds inhuman. Sometimes when you’re fiddling about with something you don’t understand, you’ll get better results. All of us have a learning curve, and then we’ll fall off that curve at some point and think, ‘What if I do this?’ and that leads us all into so many beautiful different directions, and it pulls us to the basic hook, the point and intent of the song.
What’s your recording workflow? Do you single-track or record live?
Most things are generally recorded live, because there’s always this live aspect to us. We’re always going to have to play these songs live sooner or later, and we can’t fill a stage with electronica. That would be very uninteresting for us and for anyone else.
Do you show up at the studio with these songs complete in some form?
Hahahah – no, no! Nothing at all.
You recorded both the new LP and your 2012 record, This Is PiL, in Steve Winwood’s studio in the Cotswolds. What brought you back there a second time?
It’s a stone wall barn with very high roof so it has a beautiful, natural, church-like echo. And that creates an enormous amount of reverb that you don’t then need to go too heavy on the mixing side. You don’t have to go into all of that awful production stuff. So you can record basically monitor mix style, and you can keep the sound live, raw, and essential. Microphone placement is massive too, but we achieve these results because most of the effort is where you put that damn microphone. If the room offers you those delicious natural acoustics, then you’re way ahead of it.
Your vocals are mixed high and dry on the new album. What are your thoughts on vocal levels and treatment in the mixing process?
When I did Metal Box, I was having arguments with the record companies. They were being very difficult, saying, ‘You can’t have that much bass on a record.’ And I thought ‘Yes I can! But something’s got to be sacrificed.’ So I generously sacrificed the level of the vocals, which you can imagine didn’t make them too happy, though it achieved what we wanted…But now, because we’re recording raw, we’re able to get those levels in. I like a microphone to be very, very close. It adds immediacy to the record.
You do add some minimal effects to your vocals, but nothing extreme. In contrast, there are a lot of heavy post-production effects that get added to vocals these days. Do you have a strong opinion on that, or do you think it’s a personal choice from band to band?
You do what you need to do. Some bands love studio gadgetry to the point where you’re listening to robots, but that can have interesting end results, too. For me, I like the voice to be raw. I like to do my takes in one go, and if I fuck up a line then I’ll go back and redo a whole section. Then later we’ll sit down and listen and we’ll go, ‘You know what? The mistake’s better than the replacement.’ It’s six of one, a half dozen of the other. You do the best you can, but always with me I have to know that I’ll be able to sing this live. So if I can’t sing the whole thing through in one take, it’s not going on tape.
We’re dancing around a question about contemporary production in general that’s relevant to a lot of DIY musicians. You financed this record. You don’t have to go to a label gatekeeper and ask her to bankroll it. That means in this case no one else made the call: you chose to record in a studio. But you have other options. Recording technology is ubiquitous and affordable. What are the advantages of having a dedicated studio environment and working with an engineer, as opposed to working nearly for free on your own?
It depends what you want out of it. We came from a time in music where live performance was seen as all-important, and for us it still is. We’re not going to give that up as if it’s a ghost of the past. There are alternatives out there, but come on…there are live bands, or you dance to a DJ. Which is it you want? I do not enjoy the laptop approach. I don’t get how this will ever relate to live sound. It’s digital, therefore there’s a stifling of information which you will never get from the analog vibe of a band in a stone room. That’s irreplaceable. But I gotta say it’s not strictly a studio where we record. This is a barn, and it’s Steve Winwood’s funhouse that he built to jam with his friends. It’s not a recording studio as such. And that suits our purpose beautifully.
Are you interested in exotic, post-punk lo-fi recording techniques like This Heat’s use of one grotty microphone, or the tape artifacts of Swell Maps, or the deliberately-muffled mixes of Guided by Voices?
No, one mic wouldn’t be good enough. I know that from experience. Several mics well-placed gets you the best effect. You always have to be wary of art for art’s sake. If you take the approach of ‘Ooh, it would be crazy if we did this,’ that disinterests me because it becomes fake and pretentious. I know a sound in my head that I want to have, and that’s where we’re going. We’re very deliberate in PiL. There’s some craziness there, but first we’re deliberate. These songs are about human emotions: get that right, then fiddle about. That’s more important to us than an art statement. These things have to be relevant to your life, not just a mind game.
Lyrics can work on two different levels: they can work on a subconscious “it sounds like it feels good to say,” phonetically, in the manner of symbolist poets like Rimbaud or Verlaine or sound poets like Sitwell or Ginsberg. And then there’s the more concrete, semantic meaning of the lyrics. Which end to you approach writing from?
I try to use the least amount of words to achieve the maximum possible amount of feeling in them. It’s an anger and a rage all pent up and contained in very clear sentences and very minimal amount of words for maximum effect. The hook chorus [of “Know Now”], “no no no no no no no no,” came instinctively because of that. That’s the release of tension. It was a very tight wire we were running in that song, and it was thrilling to record it. It was a knife-edge of tension, and it could collapse so badly. I love that. I love pushing a thing to its utmost, it’s sharpest point.
Can we talk a little bit about “Shoom”? The lyrics are a stammered, chaotic rant that float around a pattern of calling random things “bollocks.” It ends with the demoralizing line “What the world needs now is another fuck off.” Where were you coming from on this one?
Particularly in the English pub scene, there’s always this old gentleman in the corner that moans and groans away and complains about everything, but if you really bother to listen to them it’s humor they’re delivering. It’s like stand-up comedy, and it’s a beautiful, brilliant solo performance with a touch of total amusement with the world, in a very ironic way. It can be incredibly rewarding listening to old folks doing that. I’m zooming in on that, ‘Botox…it’s bollocks.’ You know you’ve heard someone say this!
I have a feeling that in a very slightly alternate universe if I went to a shabby pub in London tonight I might here you in the corner saying those sorts of things. Is there a piece of this “old gentleman” in you?
There’s a piece of that guy in all of us. That’s the beauty in human nature. When we find faults in others, that’s really self-analysis. We need to start listening to each other and understand fully what it is we’re saying. Everyone has something to say. Everybody contributes to society one way or another. We need a generosity of spirit. In a weird way, I suppose [“Shoom”] is like my father, talking to me. This is the voice of my dad, and how much I miss him…God…because he died before the making of this record.
You keep making consistently good, interesting, groundbreaking music. How do you keep up the flow, even in tough times?
As long as you’re mentally astute, good work will follow. I’m not one for canceling a gig because I’ve got a boo boo on my ankle.
But what about these bigger knocks, like losing your father?
You have to take them in life. One of the lessons of the illnesses when I was young – and my mom and dad instilled this in me – was “no self-pity allowed.” It achieves nothing and it makes you look ridiculous. You just have to get on with it. These are the cards you’ve been handed in life, and you’ve got to play the game well.
photos by Paul Heartfield