John Lydon: Anger is an Energy

After taking sixteen years off from the music world in order to write an autobiography, chase through the jungle after silverback gorillas and scuba dive with great white sharks off the coast of South Africa, John Lydon (AKA Johnny Rotten) is back. Late last year the lead singer and front man of The Sex Pistols and Public Image Ltd. managed to get his mitts on enough musicians to reform PiL and play a handful of gigs in Great Britain. He didn’t just get any knuckle-dragging clowns, either. His bandmates have played with the likes of The Damned, The Mekons, The Pop Group, The Slits, Bjork, Elvis Costello and The Spice Girls.

Mercifully responding to the crying and tooth-gnashing of their American fan base, PiL has decided to grace America with a month-long tour. They visit Salt Lake at The Depot on Friday, April 23. The Holy Gods of Rock and Roll smiled on me, and I had the dream-come-true opportunity of talking to Mr. Lydon for what turned out to be some of the most nervously thrilling minutes of my existence.

SLUG: Public Image Ltd. has been back together since last year. How and when did you decide to reform the band?
Lydon: When the money was available. I mean, we get no record company support. I’m on a serious hunt now for a record deal with someone that understands what I do and will properly finance us.

SLUG: So are you planning on going back into the studio soon?
Lydon: Yeah, yeah. Again when the money’s available, which is why we desperately need to be touring. I’ve always made records to get back out on tour anyway. I prefer the live gigs to sitting home and listening to plastic or vinyl reproductions, even though that’s enjoyable in itself. The spontaneity of the moment can really change a song. And that’s all to do with the crowd’s reaction.

: Do you think the crowd will mostly be original fans, or will it be a younger, second generation audience?
Lydon: I have no idea. Why should I be the one to predict that? Am I an astrologer? No. I’m pleased that people want to listen, and it does seem to be, as it always has been, an incredibly varied crowd. At the gigs we did in England, there were diehard PiL fanatics out there. They’re still there, but there’s this new lot as well. The gigs we did in Britain were, to my mind, beyond my expectations. It’s almost like we’re perfectly attuned to each other. We know where to take a theme, and we’re constantly improvising inside the theme, which is what PiL has always been about. It’s not static. We’ve limited our format. There’s only four of us on stage, but we sound like a full orchestra. There’s an awful lot of instrumentation going on between just four people.

SLUG: I was going to ask about the lineup. How did you end up with these musicians? What’s the story there?
Lydon: Well these are people I’ve known a long time—all except Scott [Firth], the bass player. What tipped it for me was when I heard he went on tour with the Spice Girls. I thought that was hilarious and said, “why not?” because, let’s face it, they need someone to play some music for them, and I would imagine that to be one of the more difficult things. Pop music is not easy. People underestimate and devalue it all the time. It’s easy to claim yourself as a jazz musician and make it up as you go along, but if you’ve got any sort of respect for the song, there are certain structures that you have to pay attention to. I mean, I haven’t put a duff band together yet, and I don’t intend to.

SLUG: Fans can, of course, expect to hear all the classic PiL songs. Do you have any surprises? Are you going to be introducing any new material?
Lydon: We’re constantly flirting with the possibility of new things, but I don’t want any young whippersnapper sod out there to come out to gig and go, “Oh, I’ll rip that new bit off.” I have to be very careful what I do, but yeah, we’ll be changing the songs from night to night according to the mood and the push of the crowd, and that leads us into other areas. It’s quite great. We’re doing some festivals, so obviously they insist that we do a shorter set, but generally speaking we can play anywhere up to two hours into three hours.

SLUG: Now, you’re starting the tour at Coachella …
Lydon: And I think they’ve listed us as a punk band. Really dopey, considering Public Image has always been a bigger band than the Pistols to our audiences here.

SLUG: Did being invited to play Coachella spark the idea of a US tour?
Lydon: Of course. You need something to start you off. So now we’re trying to fill in dates, but, as you well know, in a recession it’s kind of a stupid thing to do. It’s always been a struggle and it always will be. But so what? It’s worth it in the end. It really is. Being on stage with Public Image is the best experience.

SLUG: What’s it like to be back on stage after such a long hiatus?
Lydon: After taking such a long time off and then going on and doing nearly three hours a night seven nights a week, that’s quite a struggle. I’m up to it. I can do it. I’m physically much more astute than I used to be. Onstage is a place where I really enjoy myself. Yet it’s a nightmare before I go on because of nerves. I really, really want to be the best I can be.

SLUG: You still get nervous before you go on stage?
Lydon: Totally. Stage fright something wicked. Every time. The once or twice in my life when I didn’t have it is where I’ve been a complete letdown and I cannot bear the thought of letting people down. It really upsets me. It’s actually a good thing. It’s what the brain does to get you into the right focal point once you get on that stage. Without that nervous stress and energy beforehand, you’ll never have the mental capacity to cope with what’s to come. So something that appears to be awful is actually something really good. The challenge of it is astounding. If it was all dead easy, I would lose interest very, very quickly.

SLUG: Do you follow anyone who’s playing Coachella.?
Lydon: I think Jay-Z’s on the same day. He was on the same bill when I did the Pistols on tour back in Poland. I just thought it was show business. It’s all just tapes and loops and people dancing and flashing lights. I think it’s rather idiotic, but many people seem to like it. Well good for them. There’s room for all of us. I was there in the very early days of rap in New York, and to see what it’s digressed into is rather upsetting. It was a very multicultural thing when it first started, very open-minded. It’s now become just nonsense with a gangster lean. When I see these people shooting and killing and fighting with each other about who’s the best, I think they’re absolutely in the wrong industry. For me, music was a way out of the ghettos, and I’m certainly not going to drag my music and the people who listen to me back into it and keep reintroducing troublesome attitudes. I don’t know what it is. What makes them think it’s cool to be stupid? It’s not. It makes you a slave to the system. The system is the very thing that kills creativity.

SLUG: What do you listen to?
Lydon: Everything and anything. I’m a constant music purchaser. My attitude towards the music industry is that I’m not one for the freebies. That doesn’t interest me. I like to go out and purchase because I believe that I am sustaining someone’s career by doing that—and that’s everything from Tibetan folk music to just any form of music, except New Orleans trad Jazz which I’ve never been able to come to terms with. There’s just something about it that sounds like clutter to me.

SLUG: You’ve been to Salt Lake a few times before, haven’t you?
Lydon: Beautiful to go skiing up there.

SLUG: You’ve skied here? Where’d you go?
Lydon: Uh, up in them there hills. I don’t remember.

Check out John Lydon and Public Image Ltd. at The Depot on April 23.