Q&A: John Lydon of Public Image Ltd.
Contrary to his image, John Lydon, also known as the Sex Pistols' Johnny Rotten, was a pleasure to speak with during a recent interview with SoundSpike, ending a conversation about Public Image Ltd.'s recent reboot with the Irish blessing "May the road rise."
But still, he has to put up with questions about his demeanor.
"I just spoke to a journalist just before you," Lydon said via telephone from Montreal. "He was telling me that his friends think I am a nasty, difficult person to talk to. I've not found that in my life.
"There's an element in the press that still wants to perpetrate some kind of negativity. I think it must be coming out from a jealous angle, really. I've done a lot in my life. The people that tend to put me down are the people who haven't done much themselves. There's too much in humanity of us pointing fingers at each other and sneering and back biting and being nasty.
"My only enemy is no human being at all," Lydon said. "It's institutions and governments. What I do is I stand up and I fight for the disenfranchised and I do that very loudly, and that can upset a lot of people that would like to maintain the status quo."
Lydon is doing that through his tour in support his band's first new album in 20 years, "This is PiL," released May 29 this year via its own PiL Official label. The eclectic lineup -- which also includes guitarist Lu Edmonds, bassist Scott Firth and drummer Bruce Smith -- wraps up the tour in Austin on Nov. 3.
Lydon spoke to SoundSpike about the tour, PiL's recording "hiatus" and his opinion of William and Kate.
SoundSpike: Tell me about the making of "This is PiL."
John Lydon: We'd been touring for two solid years and didn't have any time or the money, really, to go into serious rehearsals. So we just booked a recording studio, which was more or less a rehearsal barn, set up the microphones and recorded afresh. We created new ideas basically out of conversations we'd had while traveling in between gigs. We know each other so well and the bond is so tight. That's how you can achieve those results.
Was it an easy process?
Not initially. You're covered in fear: "Oh my God, we're all gonna go down in flames." It's that fear that gets the adrenaline going. It's a bit like stage fright, which to this day I have before I perform live. I never get over that. That gives me the energy to get through it. Once I'm on stage, I'm fine. Once we've broken the ice with the first one or two songs in the studio, we were there. Everything became an instant idea and a workable solution to things. It's the way we worked, too. What do we want out of the song? We want resolve for the emotions expressed. It's that combination of written words and musical tone that leads to the conclusion, which hopefully is beneficial. I see every song I write as a question looking for an answer. It's all about human emotions.
What was your biggest fear in recording?
Being born. I think that stuck with me throughout my life.
Tell me about the songwriting process for "This is PiL."
Great fun. Some of it very punishing because you want to do your best. You want to strive as hard as you possibly can. That, of course, puts you into fears and phobias and self-doubt zones -- even those I find as useful tools in songwriting. I want to explore every avenue of human existence as I possibly can and hopefully, accurately, portray that in a song.
How was it to record after a near 20-year hiatus?
Hiatus nothing. That was record companies keeping me bankrupt. They stifled me out of the one thing in life I think I'm actually good at -- that's songwriting and performing. Better than come back and be a bitter twisted old fart, I think I preferred the moral high ground of getting into and involved in what I truly love which is, you know, songs about humans for humans. I'm not the kind of person that can carry a hatred for anybody for very long. It doesn't happen with me like that. Even my alleged worst enemies, I can take a good long look at them and still see some good. That's just the way I am in life. I think I prefer the alternative. I've seen too many people allow their hatreds to eat them alive. When you waste your whole days and all your energy on hating another human being, what you're really doing is hating yourself. I don't mean to be lecture-y about it; it's more or less a simplistic way of summarizing my efforts in life.
What inspired the record?
Life. Yes. What I did was for me, as the main lyric writer, I went back to my very early childhood and explored my own youth and my own early experiences. Kind of a self-analysis, really, to take me to where I am now. That's something I hadn't really done in songwriting. I hadn't gone back that far. That was torturous and painful on some songs but had to be done.
I think, really, self-assurance. It's very important. I'd been away from music for so long I needed to clean the slate, really, and not put myself in the position of imitating myself from where I left off from the previous albums.
What can folks expect from your live show?
To be vastly entertained. To enjoy yourself. To learn how to dance -- properly and freely -- and to open your heart and your mind and enjoy a truly excellent experience between band and audience is a joy to behold. I love PiL more than anything. We play for a good solid two hours and we don't mess about. We're there to free you up. It's a cross between an Irish shindig, rave, a Turkish wedding with a Greek wedding party. It's a combination of things. I'm very musically adventurous. We hold no fear where we go. There's a lot of improvisation in the songs, too, all with a danceability. As always with PiL, we shape shift. Nobody leaves a PiL gig without a huge smile on their face. It's just not possible.
America is infatuated with William and Kate. What do you think about them?
Um, through no fault of their own, they find themselves in the position of being parasites sponging off a nation that can ill afford such exccesses, but that's fine, too. A bit of feudalism in your life won't go amiss.
You've lived in California for some time now. How do you like it there?
Very much. I love California and I really like the people. It's so varied, the States, between the north and the south, and just the differences of it. It's the happy-go-lucky thing that people don't seem to age. At any age, everybody's out doing something -- Bungee jumping at 89 I think is a fantastic life option. I like that. I like getting up very early in the morning. I love watching the sunrise. For me, that's a great joy. I like listening to children squeal with delight on the beach. It's how life should be. I think people misunderstand Mr. Rotten. Rotten, I'm not really rotten. I'm a sweet bundle of joy, I tell ya.