Wilko Johnson chats with Louder Than War’s Andy Duke about Marijuana and his latest album of new material in 30 years – Blow Your Mind.
Although Wilko Johnson has remained a mainstay on the international live circuit since his days in Dr. Feelgood, new material has been three decades in the waiting. But why the dearth of fresh songs? Wilko laughs and explains, “this thirty year business is not quite true. But for a long time the records I’ve released have been small independent things that have disappeared somewhere in Belgium”. Future disappearance into Low Country obscurity is thankfully not a remote possibility with his latest offering – Blow Your Mind. Bolstered by the chart success of his collaboration with Roger Daltry (2014’s Going Back Home), the Game of Thrones star subsequently signed to Chess Records and enjoyed the comforts of a plush residential recording studio for the new album. Wilko reminisces, “we went to Rockfield Studios to record. It’s been decades since there’s been a record company giving me this kind of backing. It takes a lot of money to hire a studio like this and you realise people have invested some serious dough”.
Despite this famous Welsh studio being the location where many a famous yet over-produced album has been realised, Johnson and his long-standing band comprising of Norman Watt-Roy (bass) and Dylan Howe (drums) recorded quickly and very much as a live unit. Twelve songs were tackled in a swift thirteen days. The 70-year old frontman details the process, “we were live in the studio. I don’t play with headphones, man. I want to hear the band. It was the three of us with Mick Talbot (keyboards) and West Weston (harmonica) joining us on a few tracks in the studio”. The Telecaster wielding frontman is also happy to extoll the virtues of his partners in crime on the new release. “It’s been great doing this album because the band is so good. Playing with Dylan and Norman – it’s like we’re one instrument”.
Surprisingly, much of the new album was written on the fly and born out of improvisation. “Far and away the best band I’ve had for that. When we were driving along to the studio, I was in a bit of a panic thinking I’ve only got two songs”. When asked if the rest of the team knew about his anxiousness, Wilko stressed that he was generally trying to give the impression that everything was completely under control. “Sometimes I was panicking a bit and sometimes they realised it. I had two songs in my head that I was writing lyrics for while we were working on a third one. And they’d jokingly have a go at me by asking ‘Why don’t you write lyrics for THIS one?’ We’d record until midnight every night and then I’d go back to my room to work on new lyrics”.
One notable exception to the off the cuff approach featured during the recording of Blow Your Mind is the lyrically dark and introspective Marijuana. When I enquire if this ode to THC was themed around his pain management programme while battling pancreatic cancer, the guitarist explains that his cancer was beyond treatment. “They had said it was inoperable. Wrongly. It (marijuana) was just used to get stoned. Some nights, sitting at home alone, I think it’s sensible to get stoned”. Despite its upbeat feel, this first single from the new album is anything but light. “After my cancer diagnosis, I wrote some songs. I never intended to use them. Didn’t expect to be around to use them. One of them is that song. Basically, it’s about sitting at home waiting for the end. Waiting to die. Although it sounds rather jollier than that”. And it really does.
With Norman Watt-Roy’s health scare from last year and Johnson’s triumphant yet medication heavy recovery from a terminal diagnosis, I ask about what adjustments the pair have had to make. “In my frail dotage, I’ve gone from teetotal to getting too much out of it. But we don’t have alcohol on the rider. Norman has to be careful as well. We will tell each other off for any digressions. Norman leapt back from his heart attack. We only had to cancel one gig. He only had a couple of weeks off. He’s fine now”.
Another exception from the new album that has lyrical content dating back long before its recording began is Low Down. 49 years of preparation, in fact. Wilko explains the gestation of this haunting track and its unique spoken word delivery. “That one was improvised musically in the studio. Dave Eringa (the album’s producer) had an idea of a bluesman talking in the background. He put a microphone in the mixing room to record my small talk. Like I’m Oscar Wilde or something! I said, I don’t know. It’s ok hearing something once or twice with that delivery but I didn’t think it would stand repetition. After a bit of bishing and bashing, I found this poem I’d written a long time ago. You’re allowed to write bad poetry when you’re 21. And I just put that on it. It’s almost a sonnet”. This willingness to take on the producer’s suggestion is testament to the strong working relationship that was cemented during the pair’s collaboration with Roger Daltry on Going Back Home four years ago. “I dig the way that Dave Eringa does it. He just gets what we’re doing and captures the band the way I’ve always wanted us to sound”.
With so many of the songs from Blow Your Mind having been realised in the studio, I ask if Wilko has had to learn the tracks in preparation for the band’s forthcoming live dates. “You bet, man. I’m forgetting the words. Even songs that you’ve been doing for years that automatically come to you, as soon as you think what’s the next line, it goes. But, with the new stuff, I think what the bloody hell am I talking about? What rhymes with this?”.
While this national treasure is willing to consider any acting roles that “involve a character who has had his tongue cut out and can’t speak” a la his tenure as the executioner in Game of Thrones, Wilko’s passion remains music. “I Love playing so much. Here I am. Still here. My greatest joy is to get up with Dylan and Norman and play. It rides on a feeling. I can stop and wave my arms about and it still sounds good. I am so proud of them”.
You can check out Marijuana from the album here
Wilko is online here
Andy Duke is a London based raconteur, musician, writer, collector of soda syphons and the man behind ‘The Dukey Radio Show’ podcast.