In depth interview : Jim Walker was the Public Image drummer : memories of those times and what he’s doing now
PiL band pic by Desmond Morris
Far too many albums over the last four decades and change have been granted the status, and by extension the artistic gravitas, of being a: ‘classic album’. One album however, released in dim & distant 1978, bangs that particular gong loud and clear. The album in question is Public Image Limited’s peerless, avowedly fabulous First Edition, and its status as a game-changer over the intervening decades has deservedly morphed to the ‘nth’ degree.
The two ‘name’ members of this London-based four piece we were already cognisant of: ex-Pistol John Lydon (the ‘Rotten’ soubriquet had been temporarily shelved), and ex-Clash member and guitarist Keith Levine. After listening again to try and finally determine where the secret sonic sorcery truly resided, it suddenly becomes clear: it was in the muscular grooves, propulsion and deft interplay of the band’s agile rhythm section: Canadian drummer Jim Walker and his sub sonic partner Jah Wobble (known to the Inland Revenue as John Wardle). I mean, they even have the same initials!
So after having this little Damascene moment I felt compelled to check to see if Jim Walker was signed up to the omnipresent and usually fallacious Facebook, and blow me down with a Fender, he was on there and his profile listed him as being a film director, and I notice in his photo section some amazing collage pieces that he’d completed recently.
I therefore contacted him and asked if he would do an interview based on the premise that this could be a good opportunity to address and dismiss a lot of the rumours and downright falsehoods that still seem to swirl around that seismic first album, and perhaps more importantly, it would be a good chance to get people up-to-speed with his post-PiL projects, and being the complete gentleman that he clearly is; he agreed…
LTW : I believe you were born in rural Edmonton in Canada, and then made the moved to Boston in the US to study jazz/ jazz drumming at Berklee College. Was the transition from ‘country boy’ to ‘city boy’ difficult?
Jim Walker : Edmonton was a city of around 400,000 people, formerly a fur trading post. The part of Canada it’s from is where oil is found, which along with cattle ranching fairly sums up its mentality. I was raised in a small town north of that place until I was 14. Literally on the edge of the frontier.
Boston shocked me. It was bigger than anything I’d ever seen. It was full of roaches, rats, and anarchy – an example being that the police wouldn’t respond to anything less than a murder. People instead would call the fire department who always will show up. It was weird. It was like the US Marine Corp boot camp for me. It completely opened my eyes to the reality of the music world. Three years later I was in London – which REALLY was weird, but that’s another story.
LTW : Once settled, how were the college years? Were they as you expected them to be. what did your syllabus consist of; and who/what your artistic influences at this point?
Jim Walker : Sorry to bust any bubbles but I was only there for a ten week Summer course. It seemed like years. I had no expectations whatsoever. It was (the program) set up to offer serious (not me) music students the chance to study music properly, also to experience jazz music which in 1974 was still somewhat of a going concern. I was into Buddy Rich, Miles Davis, Weather Report, Thelonious Monk, Benny Goodman (swing era), Count Basie, all kinds of stuff. I was really a rock drummer though. Jazz had a mystery about it that I never felt possible for me to ever understand. My rock influences were The Who, Hendrix, Led Zeppelin – the usual suspects up until the 1970s when I gave up following rock.
I suppose I was just this somewhat crazed, fanatical music student. That sums it up.
LTW : Post-college, what qualifications did you attain and what was your next step in terms of employment?
Jim Walker : Once again, I only went for a summer course, and never tried to make it seem like anything more. The funny thing is, as soon as people hear “Berklee” they’re instantly pigeonholing you into some kind of a box. As a high school dropout and almost a 100% total teenage loser at the time, I wasn’t even allowed to go to college properly.
After Berklee I returned to Canada, Toronto, and instantly found myself rehearsing with one of their top bands who couldn’t wait to get rid of me. I’m a horrible bandmate anyway, but at the time one particular band knew I had no respect for them, and couldn’t wait to suck everything I could from this band before moving another step up the success ladder. In that way I used to feel like a boxer – who has to make a mark in that sport well before the age of 25. Having no one to challenge me, wandering around the earth as I did I was forced to provide my own motivation.
LTW : I believe your first band were called the Furies. What were they like genre/stylistically and if they were not jazz- influenced, how easy was it to adapt your style to the kind of music they/you played with them?
Jim Walker : The Furies were Vancouver Canada’s first ever punk rock band. We essentially sounded like Johnny Thunder’s Heartbreakers.
The music was ridiculously easy to play. Also, I was hired before the others even heard me – that punk rock ethos really impressed me. At the time I’d been preparing to return to Boston, attend college for 4 years and use that time to practice 6 hours a day; but when punk rock came along I just couldn’t resist the chance to go out and express another side of myself. The punk rock train was leaving the station and I had to make my mind up fast.
LTW : Were you particularly inspired by the 1976/77 punk bands, and did this directly prompt your move to London (I believe in 1978) ,and what were the circumstances whereby you hooked up with Public Image
Jim Walker : The Furies broke up in September 1977. I left for London in October, 1977. Vancouver couldn’t support musicians. In fact, there were three places for a young would-be musician to go: Los Angeles, NYC, and London. LA was for old people in their late 20’s, NYC was interesting but it’s scene appeared pretty established – only London seemed to offer a real instant shot at success.
I auditioned for The Damned two weeks upon arrival here. Trouble was, I didn’t have the style required to copy Rat Scabies, and to be honest I never saw myself as a replacement type player. They still wanted to hire me, but I had no documentation (Musicians’ Union membership) and they were in too much of a hurry to wait until I got it.
PIL didn’t really exist when I joined. There was no name. I don’t even think they were sure of what line up they wanted as there was a second guitarist at my audition. I answered an ad from Melody Maker.
The audition was funny – I’d been told by the record label not to expect anything so I arrived without expectations. There was another drummer ahead of me, who I wanted to kick out of the room since I’d decided I was getting that job. It’s very competitive, going to auditions. Eventually I got my turn and hit the drums so hard they went flying around the room, which seemed to impress them enough to hire me on the spot. From that point I started hanging around with Johnny Rotten.
LTW : What were those first initial PiL rehearsals like before any recording sessions took place – did it all happen ‘organically’ and experimentation encouraged?
Jim Walker : Pure terror (for me). I always expected to get sacked which was ironic, since it was probably the only band I’d have never got sacked from, ever. We had a tiny repertoire which we’d go through – I was taking in so many things other than the music since I’d been living in London for about 6 months by then. We rehearsed on Tooley Street, near London Bridge.
We quickly got into a method, whereby either myself or else Wobble would start something up – either my drums start something followed by the bass line…or else a bass line followed by my drum part… Keith never did anything much until the bass and drums and drums had already begun something – although he’d listen and make suggestions from time to time.
That’s how PIL worked. Everything coming from either the bass or drums. Guitar was added next and the vocals written/performed last.
Experimentation was vital. We were meant to be a cutting-edge band from the start. It wasn’t discussed at all, though. Just at the back of everyone’s mind.
LTW : The rhythmic foundations and ‘tone’ of the songs on that First Issue album are for me absolutely dominated by your patterns, rhythms and Jah Wobble’s bass. Was this something you had to develop and work on or did it just happen?
Jim Walker : Every PIL song I was associated with either came from the bass starting a riff, or the drums starting its own kind of thing. Everything just happened – like the others being deeply into reggae, with me totally being into New Orleans based American jazz.
PIL never had to work particularly hard at anything. Things just occurred to us.
John/Jim pic by Pierre Benain
LTW : How, generally speaking, would a song evolve, was there a typical ‘gestation’ period for a song to form? Could you possibly comment on ‘Theme’ or ‘Annalisa’ for example?
Jim Walker : Annalisa started with my doing a free form drum beat that literally was free form until the day we recorded it and then I had to tighten the thing up for public consumption. Richard Branson dropping by the studio one day got mine and Lydon’s attention in a big hurry.
Myself, Wobble and Keith would run through all of our repertoire every time we practiced. The songs evolved by each stage of production. Wobble + I would set the basic tone, Keith added the high end to this before finally John would write a lyric; and suddenly the whole thing made sense.
LTW : Did you realise what an incredibly bold statement starting the album with ‘Theme’ was? Not just in terms of its sonic sorcery but because ‘punks’ were used to 2-3 minute songs?
Jim Walker : I basically disagreed with that whole album, so it’s hard to comment. Only half of it is of the quality we really should have provided to the fans. For example, both ‘Low Life’ and ‘Attack’ were so badly recorded they’re nothing much more than rough demos.
‘Fodderstompf’ is puerile. People who buy LP’s deserve more than this. Ditto the single. One track with unlistenable garbage on the B side. Sad.
LTW : Was the inclusion of the song ‘Fodderstompf’ a point of contention internally at the time, or did your dislike of that particular song develop later?
Jim Walker : It was probably an “hours before a deadline to get an LP out for Christmas” that did it.
LTW : Once the recording of this remarkable song cycle was completed, were you involved in the mixing and sequencing of the songs?
Jim Walker : Every PIL song was taken as an individual entity. Typically, we’d arrive at a recording studio around 7-8pm, be ready to record by 12-1am then we’d work through the night. We’d emerge around 2pm the next day with a 100% finished track. I used to really like this method, which saved a fortune in studio bills.
In terms of mixing, I remember doing the drum mix on ‘Annalisa’. That was great fun.
LTW : The mix of ‘Religion II’ is err ’interesting’!. The verse and chorus are two entirely different mixes, and on the verses the drums are only heard in the left channel!
Jim Walker : Nothing to do with me!
LTW : You intimated to me on your *Facebook timeline that Miles Davis would have been someone you would have loved to have worked with at this time?
Jim Walker : Yes. I only recently learned that in 1978 Miles was retired from music. He was probably fed up with trying to be a ground breaker while constantly touring, and having to deal with the shit that goes on in show business. He was still young enough to function. I’d seen him in Boston in 1974 and was blown away.
Also, the jazz world didn’t really like him in the 70’s. He was going his own way, while the jazz world was either trying to play traditional styles, or else jazz rock. Miles played neither style of this jazz.
LTW : Bearing in mind that you were a formally tutored professional drummer but, and no disrespect to the other three members of PiL, the others had picked up their skills on-the-fly, do you think they would have been intimidated by the notoriously irrascible Mr Davis?
Jim Walker : The most impressive thing I discovered about PIL, and Brits generally speaking, is their ability to ‘wing it’. The four youthful louts who comprised PIL were not intimidated by anyone. The others didn’t really even know who Miles was, so I seriously doubt if they’d have been intimidated. Miles on his part would have probably been bemused at working with 4 white boys. This is only conjecture, but I think we’d have all gotten on famously.
Miles would have seen all he needed to from us. We played without fear. In my experience, playing without fear is a rare thing.
LTW : Lydon is of course renowned for being cantankerous and ornery, and Wobble and Levine had pharmacological issues at that time, but there must have been some good times too as evidenced by pictures taken by ** Pierre Benain and Dennis Morris?
Jim Walker : Until the contracts emerged (stitch up job handing the band over to Rotten) we were all best mates. As soon as the contracts came out and were signed and money arrived we instantly turned into enemies.
LTW : Why did you decide to leave the band? Had you achieved all you could or wanted a new challenge?
Jim Walker : In 1976 I was working as a land surveyor in Calgary Canada, earning 150 pounds- equivalent per week. In 1978, as a member of PIL I was making 60 pounds a week, had nowhere to live, and faced the threat of getting the daylights beaten out of me from every Rotten hater in the UK. This simply didn’t add up.
Also, I was the only one who understood that PIL needed to tour the USA. The others, egged on mainly by Lydon talked like they didn’t even want to play live which galled me. PIL played few gigs. Once the money arrived the rehearsals stopped being regular, and they weren’t particularly profitable viz making new music. Also, Rotten had stolen the band, and was in the process of filling the organization with his mates – some of who I professionally and personally despised. It was an impossible situation.
I never wanted to leave, but wasn’t being given any reason to want to stay either.
LTW : A friend of mine who is a drummer opined that although he loves the first two PiL albums, the absence of your jazz inflections on ‘Metal Box, meant that you de facto took a large part of ‘the magic’ aesthetic with you when you departed?
Jim Walker : I never took to Metal Box. It’s got 2nd rate drumming. Not even borderline 1st rate drumming. Name a classic record with flat out lousy drumming on it. Are there any? There aren’t many.
I half want to re-record Metal Box with myself adding drum tracks on top of what they already have – backwards approach but it’s the only way forward. It’s better than the 1st LP, just the same.
LTW : He would also never forgive me if I didn’t ask you on his behalf if you were influenced by Can’s Jaki Liebezeit specifically, and indeed any other drummers/ percussionists?
Jim Walker : I had never heard of Can until I joined PIL. I like Can, but I also feel there are far better places to find great drumming. Take John Bonham, for example, who does things no one else has even attempted to this day. Strange as this sounds, I probably see myself as a hybrid between Buddy Rich and John Bonham – failing (miserably) to master either drummer’s techniques but still being massively influenced.
LTW : Post-PiL I believe you played with Wobble in the musical collective Human Condition? How do you feel now about this band and the music that followed?
I have many happy memories of that band. I co-ran it together with Wobble. If they’d have had another drummer they might have really gone somewhere.
LTW : It was at this point that I believe you decided to drop out of music for a while, moved to New York, and I’ve heard that you became a builder/labourer? Your online ‘footprint’ is virtually invisible at this juncture?
Jim Walker : By the early 80’s my career was dead so I decided to go to college try to make something of my life. I worked one summer for an Italian owned + operated road construction company. It was a lot like that Marlon Brando movie, “On the Waterfront”.
LTW : At which point on your ‘timeline’ did you first start expressing yourself within the format(s) of collage/ cut up?
Jim Walker : I made one piece in the 90’s. I put it away and forgot about it until 2012, when I decided it might be a good idea to create something new, in order to justify my existence. I think I have a talent to make connections between disparate things. Collage offers this opportunity.
LTW : I love the evocative and visceral collage work that you have uploaded to your Facebook page (see ‘photos’ on Jim’s *Facebook page). Unusually they don’t seem to have ‘formal’ titles as such – is there a specific reason for this?
‘Brexit’ Collage by Jim
Jim Walker : I’m lousy at making titles. It’s probably a confidence thing.
LTW : One powerful piece concerns China & Russia, and another is a commentary on the ‘Brexit’ debate, which still rages with no clear exit strategy or timeframe. Could you elaborate on these two particular pieces please?
Jim Walker : I’m more than happy to talk about any of these pieces. The Chinese one shows how little power the USA has in that part of the world. How China has emerged from a shameful and horrible recent history to stand tall as an emerging superpower. How Russia is China’s ally, along with Iran, and that US/globalist propaganda offers little more than war.
The Brexit one was originally free from those pro-Brexit slogans. It’s just a piece to show how the Brits stood up in 1940 vs the Nazis. I thought it was fitting, given the state of the EU – which in my opinion is stripping away all regional culture – replaced by a seriously crap “euro-culture”.
LTW : Would you consider exhibiting your collage artworks formally in a gallery setting for example at some point?
Jim Walker : That might work. Depends on the gallery, of course. I approached the Saatchi gallery, and the manager was kind enough to tell me to fuck off for being too old.
LTW : Charming! Under your ‘birth’ name of James Walker you are in the process of directing a film called ‘Dark Journey’. Had you done ‘shorts’ previously and thought, ‘now I’m ready to do a main feature film’?
Jim Walker : I’ve dabbled in documentary, TV, commercials but the only thing worth pursuing is feature film. That being said, the process of movies is challenging. Thousands of people desperately chasing their dreams hardly makes for stability.
LTW : I simply have no head for making shorts. They always have to be cute, and I don’t do cute well.
Jim Walker : Directing a full feature film is an amazing stylistic volte-face for a musician, because the usual route is try acting initially. Have you done any acting at all?
LTW : Acting is incredibly difficult. I like actors a lot. I’m just not very good at it.
Jim Walker : It’s from a terror of the subconscious that I believe every human being carries around with them. It’s a tale of a North American who comes to London hoping to escape from her sad past. So many people come to London, hoping to overcome their own sad pasts.
Shooting in London was a huge test, particularly as we had zero official permission to shoot anywhere.
LTW : Has the film been completed and when will it be released.
Jim Walker : The film is completed. It’s called *** “Dark Journey”, and it’s currently available to buy on **** Amazon + film platforms like Reel House, Selfie etc.
LTW : Are ‘dark’ themes something you would like to explore further, or do you feel you would like to try other genres?
Jim Walker : Currently I’m focussing on doing more Artwork. Movies I love, but they tend to enter/exit my consciousness on a random basis.
LTW : I believe that you are now based in Hampstead in London? This might sound a little ‘off topic’ but are you aware that Hampstead has a reputation for occult history?
Jim Walker : I left Hampstead about 8 years ago. I wasn’t particularly aware of much occult activity per se, but always had a feeling it was going on behind the closed doors of my neighbours. We had a running joke about there being two covens on my street with them arguing over which of them was more evil, following Satan properly etc. In other words, a typically British argument between parties that hate each other – and recentlyI’ve become a huge fan of old English movies.
LTW : If you don’t mind me prying into your personal beliefs, are you a spiritual person and if so do you subscribe to a particular religious credo/tradition?
Jim Walker : I was born Roman Catholic. I was raised Protestant, which didn’t help that very much. Spiritually speaking I remind myself of Christopher Walken’s character in “The Dead Zone”: sometimes I see things before they happen.
LTW : What does the rest of 2017 hold for you in terms of your projects and work?
Jim Walker : I’ve been offered some interesting sounding drumming work recording – no idea how that’s going to play out – and Art of course.
LTW : In closing, and I’m not being entirely serious, are there any ridiculous rumours about you that you would like to put to bed for once and for all?
Jim Walker : The more rumours about me the better I like it! My innate egotism simply likes the attention, whether it’s right or wrong it makes little difference to me.
LTW : Jim Walker, multi-media artist, thank you for your time!
* ~ *
And so, we seem to have come full circle, courtesy of an artist who supplied those extraordinary rhythms that still resound, reverberate and influence to this day, at least to those, like him, who have an open heart and mind.
I’d like to thank Jim for his transparency and engaging and absorbing recollections and for confirming what we suspected all along, that that remarkable first PiL album was the work of four individuals.
Isn’t it also equally astounding, and some respects inspiring, that someone who was a consummate musician, after becoming disillusioned with that particular mode of expression, simply switched to another. That’s quite a career arc: musician-labourer-director/collage artist!
One last thing: I would urge you to check out both ‘Dark Journey’ and Jim’s collage work, because if either are even close to the artistically astounding as his contributions on ‘First Issue’, then they will be very much worthy your time.
And next time you listen to ‘First Issue’, you should bear in mind that, as Schopenhauer once opined, ‘talent hits a target no one else can hit, while genius hits a target no one else can see’…