I can’t tell you the alias that iconic frontman John Lydon was registered under when we spoke from his New York hotel recently. I’ve been asked not to share that information. But if I could, it would tell you all you need to know about the current state of affairs for the one-time ringleader of punk rock pioneers the Sex Pistols. Lydon, performing at the House of Blues on Monday night with his other band, Public Image Ltd. (PiL), is as vulgar, hilarious, and controversial as ever.
Despite the Pistols famously imploding after only a single album in 1978, Lydon switched gears and formed the “anti-rock” group, PiL, immediately after. While initially alienating those looking for a Sex Pistols re-tread, PiL’s dark, methodical sound became every bit as influential -- and recognizable -- as the band that came before it. And then, after the band’s eighth album, 1992’s That What Is Not, Lydon stopped making music altogether.
He wrote a memoir. He briefly reunited with the Sex Pistols. And perhaps most surprising, the man once known as Johnny Rotten spent time doing various nature programs on television.
But now he’s back. And by touring on PiL’s new album, This Is PiL, he’s hoping to jump back into the fold with both feet.
Scott McDonald: May I speak with John, please?
John Lydon: Yes, speaking! Hello! How do you do? Who are you? What do you want? How can I help you? [laughs]
SM: I’m great. Thanks. Calling to do the interview.
JL: Well, that must be just fantastic for you! [laughs]
SM: So far, so good.
JL: [still laughing] Yeah, we’re rocking and a rolling here!
SM: How’s New York treating you?
JL: Well, it’s a town I know very well. So it’s not like I want to run around like a tourist anymore. But it’s hard work. I get precious little sleep. We’re trying to set up a brand new record label -- our own -- and remain completely independent of that filthy thing we call the recording industry. And we’re performing live every night. It’s harrowing! [laughs]
SM: But it has to beat working in a factory.
JL: Done that. And it’s actually kind of similar. I remember, when I was young, they threw me out of school. I wanted to pass my exams, so I worked on the building sites from 4 a.m. to 6 p.m., and then was at night college until 10 p.m. It’s very much like that. I’ve never been shy of hard work at any time in my life -- except for when I’m watching television.
SM: Looking forward to PiL coming back. Caught some of the set out at Coachella in 2010.
JL: Coachella was very interesting. We pulled an enormous crowd away from the Jay-Z thing that was going on. No disrespect and all that, but looking across the field at all them flashing lights and fireworks, it looked like a hideous Las Vegas fiasco.
SM: Despite all of that, there were a lot of people out there to see you.
JL: Yeah, some 15,000 it turned out to be. That really surprised us, and we were really, really chuffed. I mean, before we went on, we were looking at a black, empty field. [Laughs] But I think it’s the music that did it. I think a lot of people who otherwise wouldn’t have given Public Image any time or attention were drawn in. And that’s the thing. How do you get the alleged masses to pay attention?
SM: Well, hopefully, people will give some attention to This Is PiL. It’s as good as anything the band has done. But why did it take 20 years to make?
JL: Thank you. And I’ll tell you. It’s the record labels I was on. They were all deals that were extensions of the Sex Pistols, so I couldn’t get off of them. It kept me in such a state of financial ruin that it was impossible for me to function. It took me nearly two decades, really, to buy my way off and out of it. And that, to me, was a great personal tragedy to endure. But I’m not the only one whose had to run that gauntlet. There’s many, many people I know who have had to face similar challenges in life. And then there’s a terrible thing that goes on in journalism, where the journalists seem to sneer at bands re-forming. They’re not re-forming, they’re just getting the opportunity to get themselves back together again because of the mess the record company put them in. You know? Bands should be celebrated for having the endurance to recover from such stifling negativity. It’s so overwhelming, the burden they’ve got us all in. A lot of us are jumping up and down with joy at the demise of corporate record-company thinking. But at the same time, it’s left an enormous hollowness, and it seems like there’s no way of filling the void.
JL: The demise of record stores, for instance. Things like that have been taken away from us. And in many ways, I see that as the stealing of my culture. I’m very upset and angry about that. I’d like to reintroduce that old school style of sharing and tearing, because that’s where we learn all our acts of rebellion: from music. It is so vital to the young and old, all of us. It’s our freest form of communication. And in one way or another, the entire record company s--- storm took it off us, f---ed it up and then buried it.
SM: Well, even if it’s 20 years later, things like This Is PiL are still getting made. Was it strange to reintroduce yourself?
JL: It happened instinctively in the studio. We don’t spend a lot of time twiddling with instruments when we work. We just get on. We know each other so well, it all happens intuitively. And I do clarify my position in life. I did that using my very early childhood as a paving stone to base the album on. One thing led to another, and we ended up with a concrete staircase. And I don’t want to have to go through the drudgery of explaining to people that, ‘Yes, I was a Sex Pistol, but I was a human being before that, too, you know?’ More than anything, we wanted to clarify our positions to ourselves. Twenty years is a long time to be away from something that you love the most.
SM: Is the idea that with [record label] PiL Official going, this entity can get its sea legs and go again?
JL: Yes. That is definitely the ambition. And really, it’ll be sink or swim according to the live performances. It’s the major way of earning money, and that money then finances the next record.
SM: The current state of things does allow for a lot of different ways to make an album.
JL: Yes. We can alter all of this and make it for the best. Out of every calamity, there is a positivity. For 20 years, I couldn’t function in the way that I was born for, so I went through a great deal of learning. Rather than make this new album all misery, spite, hate and resentment for what tried to keep me down, I decided that revenge was for children. We just did what we love to do and celebrated life.
SM: Also, it’s not like you didn’t do anything in those 20 years.
SM: You wrote a book, released a solo record, did all kinds of TV stuff, and you even reunited briefly with the Pistols.
JL: Yeah, in 1996 we did a Pistols tour. We did that because we felt we needed to perform an act of friendship and bond between each other -- because of the way the band fell apart originally. We’ve done that, and no more. No need for it. Never. And I’ve had great conversations with them, particularly Paul Cook. We absolutely see it clearly along the same lines. It was a very healthy ending.
SM: Getting together, with both bands, and playing live is one thing, but getting back into the studio with PiL is another.
JL: Yes. It’s a full-on operation. And the press has somehow perpetrated that this is the Johnny Rotten Road Show and it’s not a proper band. But if you listen to the record, you realize what a bunch of nonsense that is and what level of commitment we have to one another. This is how life really is. And one further little point: What the hell would be wrong with the Johnny Rotten sideshow anyway? [Laughs] I mean, really? I have some value and worth in the world. Enough people have copied, imitated and followed my beliefs and musical principals. It’d be a good thing.
SM: Better than all the auto-tune out there.
JL: Oh! That is the worst! There is no need to listen to anything once that is put on it. The one thing as a species that we have to communicate with each other is the accuracy of our voices. And if you robotize that, you’ve eliminated humanity, and the whole thing becomes rather pointless.
SM: And now you’ve got [longtime collaborators] Lu [Edmunds] and Bruce [Smith] back to help you stay on point.
JL: Absolutely. With us, there’s a deep love and a sensibility of sound, point and purpose.
SM: And if nothing else, it sounds like friends playing together.
JL: Exactly. There’s a real warmth between us, and we fully respect each other. You can hear that. We’re creating new, adventurous musical landscapes, but we’re doing it naturally. And we’re doing it instinctively, with a great respect for everyone’s sensibilities. We’re not sitting around manufacturing weirdness. It’s the little details of our life experience. And it’s very enjoyable to make records this way.
SM: So that begs the question: More PiL albums to come?
JL: Yes, yes. We’re very prolific when we record. We have a whole bunch of songs we haven’t finished. The possibilities and capabilities are endless. We’re hoping it’s an ongoing process. But it’s an uphill climb.
SM: You talked about your influence earlier.
JL: Well, I hear it all the time. Even in the Top 30, I can hear our sound ideas, our viewpoint on mixing, balance -- all of it. I can hear how PiL-type sound structures have been absolutely taken lock, stock and barrel. I mean, rap music is full of PiL structures. But that’s all right. That’s fine. No problems.
SM: So how does the process work?
JL: For me, a song is always subject-matter-led. Then, the sound will automatically fit the emotion I’m trying to express in the words. Nothing can be contrived, because we all know that doesn’t work. You can smell that so clearly, can’t you? You’ve got Radiohead and Green Day for that. [laughs]
SM: Your music seems as political as ever.
JL: That’s the world we live in. Can’t really avoid politics. That’s the modern religion. These people are trying to tell us how and who we are. They’re trying to tell us what we have the right to do and what we don’t have the right to do. You’d be a fool not to pay attention. And I’ll always stand up and argue a point for the disenfranchised. I come from that: I come from poverty, I come from the slums. And many people like me do. Down there, we’re very mixed. We’re multirace and multicultural. We have multiple beliefs, but we do have a sense of equality about ourselves. And that’s what I’m trying to constantly push forward. That loyalty we hold among one another, it’s our main value. That’s my cultural bond and duty: to represent it as accurately and as well as I can at every opportunity. And until governments realize that if you don’t help your poor that they’re going to help themselves, you’ve got a real problem.
SM: Is it strange to be singing about the same things that you did when you started? I mean, punk rock has really changed, but it seems nothing that inspired it has.
JL: Well, a lot of the alleged punk rockers thought, "Oh, look at the Sex Pistols. They’re famous. We can be famous, too." And they didn’t pay attention to what the songs were saying and didn’t understand the social significance of the message. They just adhere to the clothing. And that’s the current climate of punk rock. It’s coat hangers, spikey hairdos, and studded leather jackets. And Green Day’s at the forefront of it all, which I think is a travesty. It’s a shame. But at the end of the day, at least I can take some credit for having been fashion-forward. [laughs]