The resurgence of Public Image Ltd, and thus the reemergence of John Lydon—aka Johnny Rotten, the greatest rock band frontperson who ever lived—has been one of the more surprising and delightful occurrences of the past decade in music. The new PiL album, What the World Needs Now, is a brash, bracing hybrid of styles that features the same band as 2012's This Is PiL: Lu Edmonds (guitar), Scott Firth (bass, keys), Bruce Smith (drums). But even if the record isn't quite your cup of tea, the reconstituted band is incredibly vital onstage. If PiL can be defined as a 37-year journey through Lydon's radically divergent musical fancies, the current incarnation is evidence that his appetite for the disruption and disturbance he helped to invent is very much intact. People love to talk shit about Lydon, but he remains irrepressible, and the world is a more interesting place for it. He spoke to The Stranger by phone in advance of the PiL show Mon November 23 at the Showbox.
This may be an obvious thing to say, but PIL really sounds like a band these days.
Well, the way we work together and the respect we have for each other as friends really pays off.
Why did it take so long to make two consecutive PiL records with the same lineup?
It's never been through any fault of my own. It's always been either money issues or ego issues and/or issues generally—but always fueled by record companies. We managed to break away from that, and lo and behold: consistency. When you enjoy the workplace—we call it the worklab—as much as any one of us does, you're not going to turn your nose up at that. It's a really great place of creativity. There's no time wasted, no drudgery, no animosities going on. And there's no superstar factor. Unfortunately in the past, a lot of the members considered themselves as such, which is appalling, because I've done everything I can in my life to completely walk away from that superstar stuff, let alone put up with a temperamental brat.
You've said this is really the first time you've had that kind of friendly situation in the studio. What are the benefits of harmony, as opposed to the tenser working environments you've been accustomed to?
I've had to, as I've said, smile in the face of adversity really right from the very start, when I first joined the [Sex Pistols]. I had to very quickly find a voice, and face an enormous wall of animosity doing that. So I just thought that's the way it always will be. When I first started PiL, I went scouting out for friends who I'd known a while and felt comfortable with. That turned on itself. But I've endured. I've always known the cause to be good and valid—if not damn expensive from time to time. It's something I've had to finance myself on many occasions, in order for it to work. And the recording industry out there very rarely did precious fuck-all to help me. They've done nothing for me, really. None of them labels. They've just made life very, very difficult over the years. No, you can't have me now. All you've done is try to muck me up and tell me not to do this and not to do that. I think I've made the right moves musically since the onset.
Did you ever feel that your opposition to label control adversely affected the music or made you contrary for the sake of it?
No, because it was never the staff. It was always someone lurking behind in the accounts department that the problems were coming from. Watching the way labels would slowly be taken over by those kinds of people, it led to all manner of troubles. Now, that doesn't mean accountants are bad people. The way record companies account for their pennies is the real problem. They starve you out of existence if you don't do what they want you to do. The whole idea of signing anyone is surely to let them be themselves if it's an artist-led situation, well... the truth be different. I could say I was misled by the expectations.
Even if they're not bad people, as you say, it does seem like the corruption goes along with the fact that there's really nothing stopping them a lot of the time. The whole business is built so that there's no transparency.
The original ideas of starting a record company had to be good ones: It was all about integrity and investment and development and art and all of those wonderful notions. Slowly but surely, in time, the kind of people who had that ideology were replaced by, shall we say, more mechanical creatures, and it became just like most corporations, headless chickens. They don't know why they're doing it anymore because the original ideology has been abandoned.
But you've always been interested in reaching a large audience, haven't you?
Well, look, I'm not a hermit! I don't want to live in a cave and squeal to myself. If you've got something to say, you want to be heard by as many people as possible. But I draw the line at hiring promo agencies and the like. Of course when we do press, we have to get that together, but we do that with good friends. It's very in-house with us. As for maintaining the stupidity of superstardom, that's a no-no. That's what's ruined the industry. You can fool audiences into believing that's all there is, and that it must be good because you're being told it's good, just through overpromotion.
But don't people always seem to figure out the difference eventually?
Eventually, yeah. That's why people like me keep at it. I do hold out very great hope for us as a species.
In spite of the evidence?
No, in spite of the spiteful!
A lot of bands seem to be asking why bother making records at all.
Well, it's not a problem of mine anymore because we're completely independent of all of it. Of course that brings endless problems on its own—just the prospect of it is frightening. But it's puppet strings that needed to be cut, because they were indeed strangling us. We're oddball people. Everyone in PiL always has been. There's no place for us in that mollycoddled industry, so we have to go out and explore new terrains. It's a challenge! But again, everything's been a challenge. Nothing has ever been made easy for me, not ever. I can't think of any situation where it's been, like, handed to me on a plate.
Would you like it if it were?
No, I'd probably resent it by now due to experience!
The new album makes it clear that you haven't lost your angry energy—
It's the very tool that is most efficient to eliminate self-pity.
Do you have a tendency toward self-pity that you have to guard against?
Yeah. But self-pity would not have brought my memories back when I was younger. [Lydon's recent memoir, Anger Is an Energy, recounts the process by which he regained his memory after contracting meningitis at age 7.] It was anger. That's how I refound myself and regained my personality, so that's stuck with me. Open honesty, integrity, and anger—those are all positive things.
There's a cultural perception that anger is something you're meant to get over.
Ha-ha-ha. Well, yes, that's because you've misused it and misunderstood it. I understand the assumption is anger is a mindless activity. It's not. It's a tool you use internally. You don't use it on others. You use it to research inside yourself, to see what's going wrong. When you clean up your own kitchen inside your head, you can start looking at other people's kitchens. In my songs, if it's about people issues, it's an internal rage that's going on, an internal battle. It's never bitter or twisted or turning into spite on individuals. There's no gossip in me. I find that to be one of the lowest crimes we can commit on each other. That pettiness can break up relationships. It's not to be endured. That's what the wonderful iCloud head has turned into—people being destructive and spiteful toward others, and those comments are read and believed. It's damaging. If that's the best we can come up with given a tool like that, well, it's a sad indictment of us as a species. But it's also one that can be cleared quickly with transparency. I don't see why you should be allowed to say anything negative about anybody without putting your name to it. I need you to fess up.
People like to say the internet connects people—
Oh, I think it dissipates human contact. In a weird way, it's connected to live gigs. This is a struggle we're taking on because venues are closing down at an alarming rate. People don't seem to be very inspired to go out and make human contact and listen to what other humans are doing. And indeed to contribute as a human being to that situation. That's the lifeblood of music: human contact. You take that away, and it very quickly becomes mindless and pointless.
Have you found that the quality of human presence at your shows has changed for better or worse in recent years?
Well, it's very, very annoying to look out and see cell phones being held up and pointed at us. It's like, are you not here for the personal experience? What, are you gonna watch the gig later? Hee-hee-hee. If you really want to properly understand PiL, it's the atmosphere that's going on around you, and that activity takes you away from involvement. It distances you.
People seem increasingly conditioned to be uncomfortable with the kind of direct involvement you're describing.
Well, it's a trend. But like with all things, one bad trend can lead to another, and before you know it, there it goes. Like, why bother doing a live gig, you know? You can hold your cell phone up to the TV broadcast. It really is that silly. When the instrument becomes more important than the actual communication, well hello! Johnny should be a wake-up call for that.
I know the album title What the World Needs Now is somewhat tongue in cheek, but is there a bit of conviction in there as well?
It's an open-ended question. It needs the involvement of everyone. It's a demand for transparency, really. Or a request, thank you. The only people who need secrets are the damaging fucks.
In the song, the question gets answered: "What the world needs now is another fuck off."
Well, that's a kind of requiem for my father, because he had a great sense of irony and a delicious sense of timing, and he'd say somewhat outrageous things. I remember this very fondly now looking back: In my childhood, I'd bite the bait of course and get into a full-on argument with him, and he'd just laugh his ass off at me. It was a learning process. When I finally twigged, it became really, really lovely and a warm place of fun. And a correct use of all those words in there, which is the root basis of dialogue if you're from the kind of background I am. We use everything that's in the dictionary, and some that isn't. The only bit we edit out would be the Latin. We're Anglo-Saxons and Celts.
And a little French with "C'est La Vie."
That's an homage to America. I've become an American. But there's a sadness to it as well. There's a sad farewell to something in "C'est La Vie." It's many, many issues that all seem to meet in the right place. There's a despondency. When I finally received my passport, and the signing-in ceremony, I thought it would be like trumpets blaring and brass bands, and I went home and it was nothing. It was as disappointing as my favorite football team winning the FA Cup—nothing came after it. If you use success in that way, it has a hollow ring after.
"Success is bollocks" is one of the best lines on the record.
That's me dad. I do come from something. I've told this to a few journalists, but if he was alive and heard that song, he'd say [adopts Irish brogue], "That's bollocks, that is." As ironic as ever.
Oh, yeah. That's the fun of it. That's the integrity that I love. The depth of what sounds like a flimsy insult but is a really caring remark. Isn't language wonderful, if used properly?
I'd be remiss if I didn't ask you about the song "Seattle" and your relationship to the city. [It's often said to be a rebuke to the band Green River, who opened for PIL in 1985, but the lyrics don't reflect anything specific.]
Well, we had a week off in the tour for some reason, due to gig rearrangements and/or whatever, and I flew back to LA, but the band hung out in Seattle and they started jamming about and rehearsing and started putting together a really catchy tune. So I flew up, and the words just flowed out instantly. It's a great song. The subject is about rioting, really, and when you see them World Trade Organization riots, it's kind of appropriate. It's an homage to Seattle, a town that's never done us any harm. A town we feel quite warm about... great atmosphere, the gigs are always amazing. It feels like home to me.
Well, I can't speak for anyone else, but as far as I'm concerned, you're always welcome here.
My favorite song in the PIL catalog is "Religion," both versions. Are you surprised by the persistence of religion in popular culture? No matter how many examples we're given that it's a dark and repressive tool, people keep embracing and celebrating it.
Well, there will always be cowards, you know? And religion is the perfect act of cowardice. It's a tool used by morons who can't think for themselves and let others do their thinking for them. We've gotta fess up: There are a lot of sheep on this planet, and a lot of them are on two legs. Now, I don't mind people being religious. It's hilarious to me. But I do mind when they think they can dictate their beliefs on me. All right? You see this now that they won't allow gay weddings. Well, when I was young, it was single mothers they were casting judgment on—Jezebels! Nonsense. It's about human beings accepting each other. If for any reason whatsoever in a particular religion you find that you can't do that, that your belief system is more important than the human race, well then you are a great evil. Listen, I've gotta go now. Good chat. Try to mention the gig please, will you?
May the road rise.