Jah Wobble & The Chinese Dub Orchestra
Album: Chinese Dub (30 Hertz Records)
“I’ve won? I’ve never won anything in my life!” Jah Wobble, the man who fronts the Chinese Dub Orchestra, has just been told his project has won the Songlines Cross-Cultural Collaboration award, and it’s fair to say that this has been one of the better weeks in his life. We were supposed to meet four days earlier, but a Spurs victory over Chelsea had given him such a buzz, he had phoned up on his way back from the game. “I’m too happy right now, I won’t be able to speak any sense.”
The man born John Wardle (then rechristened with his professional name by Sid Vicious) has been making sense of the music industry for 30 years. Some might remember him as the bassist with John Lydon’s Public Image Ltd. Others will have first come across him when he was a favourite at early WOMADs with the Invaders of the Heart, a group that had Justin Adams, Natacha Atlas, Sinead O’Connor and a cast of dozens more pass through its ranks.
If that was a commercial highpoint, it also made him realise he had to take control of his own career. “The corporate world was doing my head in. I had an album that sold 80,000 and made £750,000 profit, but then the record company issued an edict that every album must make £3m in its first six months.” So he jumped ship, starting his own label, 30 Hertz (that’s one less than a low B, bass fans), now home to more than 25 releases, taking in English roots, Laotian dub and the great Uzbek singer Yulduz.
“I got a lot of stick from people saying I was going to destroy myself,” Wobble says with a little relish. “But technology was driving the break-even point down to 4-5,000 copies, and once you’ve six or more releases, you’ve got a catalogue and a steady stream of income.”
It’s his most recent project that has garnered some of the best reviews of his career, however: The Chinese Dub Orchestra album, which was showcased at last summer’s festivals and concert halls. If you saw the tour, with its funk, fire, fancy costumes and the incredible ‘mask-changing dancers,’ then you are unlikely to have forgotten the experience. If you didn’t, YouTube is your friend.
The first steps were somewhat prosaic and domestic. Wobble’s wife, Zi Lan Liao, plays the guzheng (zither) and yanqin (dulcimer), and their sons are in the Pagoda Youth Orchestra in Liverpool. “I hate working with the missus,” the bassist admits. “It’s the only time we argue. I kept saying that I loved particular tunes, that I could do something with them, but she and the boys kept saying, ‘You can’t do that’. Yes, I can, it’s only music.”
Though immersed in Cantonese music via his in-laws, Wobble kept coming up against a brick wall: “They patronise Europeans a bit, think we’re barbarians and that they’re much more advanced. They’ve got 5,000 years of cooking culture, and they know what is Chinese music and what isn’t. And they hate the cod-Chinese stuff. So it had to be true to them, and they don’t understand why we like to repeat stuff to get a groove going. It was a challenge.”
Initially, the couple were planning to work up one or two tracks for a show with the Youth Orchestra as part of Liverpool’s spell as European Capital of Culture in 2008. Yet the reaction was such that more grants were forthcoming and the project spiralled. They travelled to Chengdu and Beijing and found singers Gu Yinji and Wang Jinqi, plus so many dancers the touring party numbered 20. A logistical nightmare, but an artistic triumph.
Wobble has a habit of constantly moving forward, never repeating himself – but surely the response to Chinese Dub has been encouraging enough to make him consider another tour? He pauses for reflection. “The happiest times for me are when I begin a project, and I’ve got this crazy [Gustav] Mahler thing I’ve just started. Massive strings, insane, with a funky dubby modulating bassline. But if some bright spark wants to book five festivals around the same time and do a budget bringing in the musicians and paying them properly, then fine.”
“Anyway, I’ve got my autobiography coming out and I’ve just done a Radio 4 documentary on Sid Vicious. Now I want to relax, listen to some other people’s music and catch up on reading. It’s a lovely life and I’m a lucky geezer.” That’s what a Spurs win will do to you.
© David Hutcheon, originally published in the June 2009 #60 issue of Songlines