Interview - Wilko JOHNSON
Friday 2nd December 2011
Les Abattoirs (Bourgoin/France)
We are pleased to welcome on rock-interviews.com the English guitarist and songwriter Wilko Johnson.
You were born John Wilkinson, that's why you choose Wilko Johnson as your stage name.
No, it's actually my real name! (showing his passport)
AM : I think it was very clever to reverse the syllables.
Yeah I thought it was quite clever, you know, but then I was very clever back in those days!
AM : Do you like literature and playing with words ?
Yes I do like literature, as is witnessed by (showing his kindle), I love it.
If we go back to the past, do you remember why you have chosen to play the guitar, and why not another instrument?
I've learned to play the guitar when I was a teenager in the 60's. At that time,
I'm talking about 1963-64, something like that, every teenage boy wanted to play the guitar.
I Knew nothing about music, I just thought, well I like to play the guitar,
for no better reason than that, just because everybody else was doing it.
I had one difficulty, I am actually left-handed.
AM : I am left-handed too.
Yeah. When I started to play this way round, this was before
so it wasn't very groovy to play this way round, also I was very bad at playing,
so I decided after a while to learn to play this way round, which I thought might help.
But I had no good reason to choose to play the guitar, apart from that, everybody did it.
AM : Who inspired you ?
When I first started to learn to play I really didn't know anything at all about music,
I just liked the idea. Soon after that
The Rolling Stones
emerged and this led to forming
a great love for american rhythm'n'blues, that whole style of music was fantastic,
facinating to me, I mean it was so much more powerful than pop music I've heard before,
and round about the time I got into this I also had heard a record By
and the Pirates it was quite an old fashioned English group, but the guitar playing on this
record really knocked me out and this guitar player was called
and I just wanted to play exactly like him. I spent a long time trying to copy him, I never did
learn how to do that but I think if my style is based upon anything,
it's really based on Mick Green.
The other members were John B. Sparks on the bass, who was actually Lee's friend,
Lee Brilleaux was four or five years younger than me and
John Sparks was his friend and I brought my friend into it also to play the drums John Martin, we called him
The Big Figure because he is a big guy. It was just like any normal local band you know, just for fun.
What is the meaning of this name Dr Feelgood?
The expression comes from American folklore, It's an expression meaning Doctor Feelgood,
it's obvious what it means. With the band when we first got together to learn some songs,
one of the songs we learned was Johnny Kidd and The Pirates's version of the song
Dr Feel-good. This song was originally recorded by Willie Perryman, a New Orleans piano player.
he had had a success in the early 60's and he had called himself Dr Feelgood and The Interns.
Anyway, we had had our first rehearsal and Sparko the bass player came round to me later
and said, look we have decided to call the band Dr Feelgood and I said, well man this name
has been used before but nobody on Canvey Island would know, so that's why we called
ourselves Dr Feelgood. In later years I heard that Willie Perryman, the original
Dr Feelgood was a little bit upset about this but, sorry about that!
AM : I think it's also a slang term for heroin, is that correct?
AM : The drug, heroin.
Perhaps, I just think about, you know what it is, Dr Feelgood is anybody that can
come along and make you feel good by whatever method, you see, any method,
anybody can be a Dr Feelgood if you just make people a little bit happier.
Could you please describe the music of Dr Feelgood in one sentence or 3-4 words?
Really I think it's the thing that happens when English people listen to black
American music and try and do it, they come out with this kind of English,
I call it beat music.
AM : Energy, high energy.
How many albums did you release with Dr Feelgood?
I would say three and a half. With our first album we were beginning to become successful
and well-known, the second album went into the charts and we were getting very well-known
and then the third album which was a live album went straight to number one and was our most
successful album and when we were half way through recording the fourth album when we had a
terrible argument and they threw me out of the band, so I would say that
I did three and a half albums.
You left the band in 1977. What is your best memory with Dr Feelgood and with Lee Brilleaux for instance?
I mean, we were very great friends in the beginning and you know restrospectively,
what a waste of time, I don't often look back on things, I like to remember that
as a time we were friends and accidentally we started to become very famous and
successful and that was quite amusing, although it ended up with bad feelings.
I don't know, you see that time was only when we started to be serious around
about 1973 and by the beginning of 1977 I was out of the band, so it's a fairly
short period, but it was fun
If I tell you : OCC, what does it mean to you?
Oil City that's where I come from!...Canvey Island.
AM : Yes and Oil City Confidential, is a film documentary directed by
and released in 2009, so this is it. What is it about ?
It's about Dr Feelgood. It's about the band and Canvey Island and the mid-seventies.
I think it's a great film and all the credit is due to Julien Temple because when they
told me that Julien Temple wanted to make this film, I was thinking, well you know,
cause he is a brilliant and famous guy and he's done The Sex Pistols and The Clash.
I also said how can he make a film because Lee Brilleaux is dead, we really insisted
in the times before there were video cameras you know, so there was very little actual
footage of Dr Feelgood from that time. He made a very fantastic film,
I was very pleased with this film. I mean it's pretty good to watch it.
AM : I think he likes you, he likes your music and the band.
Wilko you play on a vintage
Fender Telecaster and you have developed your own style,
a choppy guitar style with some jerky movements.
Do you know what is your nickname?
What is that ?
AM : The machine gun guitarist.
L'homme à la mitrailleuse.
AM : You said that you are left-handed but you play the guitar like a right-handed
guitarist but you don't use a pick, a plectrum.
AM : Why?
Well I always give the reason when I was trying to learn to play right-handed it was
just another complicated thing to do, people may laugh but think of all the money
I've saved, over the years.
AM : Maybe for you it's easier because if you have a pick maybe you cannot go
back and forth on stage with the jerky movements of an automaton.
Exactly, I mean everything I do is been very carefully thought out, carefully planned
and there is a perfectly logical reason.
AM : I really love when you're on stage and you move from the left to the right
of the stage doing this with your feet, you're so unique!
Your band is called Wilko Johnson Band and your are working with two musicians. Could you please introduce them?
Well what can I say, I've got the most fantastic band because on the bass
I've got Norman Watt-Roy, there he is, look at him. I'm not going to say anything
about him whilst he is in the room (Norman is laughing). Norman has always been my
favourite bass player in the whole world, I think he is the best bass player anywhere.
(Norman who was in the room said I'm going!), here he goes...I first met him when
I joined Ian Dury and The Blockheads. In fact when Ian Dury asked me to join the band,
one of my main reasons was that I would like to play with this bass player, and as it
happens we got on very well, we became very good friends so we've been playing for a
long long time now. I get a kick playing with Norman which means I still really like
doing this you know, because he is still a kick and just to make it even better we
recently, two years ago, Dylan Howe, also an ex-Blockheads joined the band and he
is a superb drummer, so I've got two musicians in my band and they are both really good,
they can read music and stuff like that and me I just play, it doesn't matter what I do,
if I stop it still sounds great. I'm also personally in a very good and very friendly
situation in the band which is a very important thing.
You released "The Best of Wilko Johnson" in 2 volumes? Here's Volume 1. What is your favourite song on this CD?
I don't know, all the songs have a different story behind them, so I think probably
I have to say Back In The Night, because it's the most popular one and it's the one
everybody enjoys. I think it's a kind of happy song and I've played it for many years
and people like this song, so I would say yes it's probably my favourite.
As a songwriter what comes first for you when you write a song, the words or the notes?
The music really, when I write a song, I'd be playing the guitar and I just think about
a guitar riff, and when you get a guitar riff going and you think what does it sound like?
It could sound like very dramatic, it could sound very silly, funny and then you have to
write some lyrics in keeping with that feeling. It's probably the hardest thing if you
care about lyrics at all, it's difficult, especially with my generation because the leader
of us is Bob Dylan and if I'm writing songs it's a strict rule, don't listen to any
Bob Dylan because if you listen to this man you say I give up, he is just too good you know,
I like to write intelligent lyrics and it can be quite hard.
What do you put in your lyrics? Any themes?
What do I put in them ? (looking at the CD). In Some Kind of Hero, it's just a rock song,
it's just a series of ideas. Back In the Night, we spoke about that. In Cairo Blues
is about two girls, one of them was very wicked, I dispose of her within the two verses
and then in the final verse I come to my new girlfriend and she was lovely and she had
a Cleopatra hairstyle, so I decided she was from Cairo. The next song, Paradise,
is a love song to my wife. Keep on Loving You, yes it's like that. Come Back and Love Me,
these are rock'n'roll songs. These two songs, one is called She's Good Like that,
it's about a girl and the next one is called The Beautiful Madrilena, it's the same girl
and of course she came from Madrid and she was beautiful. A song must just be about stupid
idea you've had, and may be not very profound, very tragic, really the point is just to
make some rock'n'roll. Any meanings inside these songs, people might say that this is
about this person or that person, it doesn't matter because obviously the person who is
listening to this song doesn't know and it should not be essential, they just hear a
song and understand it and believe me it's very easy to understand my songs because
they are quite, almost childish really.
You are doing a tour in France (8 dates) and your first gig is tonight not far from Lyon,
in a city called Bourgoin-Jallieu, the venue is Les Abattoirs, do you know what does Les Abbatoirs mean?
It means the slaughterhouse.
AM : Yes. Are you're going to kill the audience with your gun machine guitar tonight ?
Well, I mean it's possible!
AM : Who are your best musicians friends, at the moment?
Well these guys.
AM : I know, but I mean the guys who are not playing with you.
Ah man, I hate them actually most of them, they are bastards, you know, many of them
are much more talented, they are more successful than me, so I hate them,
well you know you get friends all around.
AM : Yes. You supported for instance The Stranglers on their Black & Blue
UK tour in March 2011.
Well there you go, there is someone I can say without reservation, they are very good friends.
Jean-Jacques Burnel, we first became friends back in the seventies, yes he is an excellent fellow.
AM : And you were at the Stranglers Convention in London 19th - 20th November.
We were there, but sorry we didn't have the pleasure to meet you there, but we have
the pleasure to meet you here, so it's okay!..
We know Wilko Johnson as a guitar player but you're also an actor.
Well you might say, I mean, really I'm an accidental musician, I just get involved
in this by accident and it's true that I recently accidently become a film star.
AM : Mister Ser ilyn Payne.
This is it. It's a very good part actually cause this fellow has had his tongue cut
out and he cannot speak, so I've got no lines to learn, he said nothing,
I said who do you want to play this part, it's just somebody ugly who can just
glare at and do that, so I just walk around and looking very pissed off with everybody.
AM : The series is called The Game of Thrones (Le Trone de Fer).
AM : You win or you die, what is it about ?
I don't know, I haven't seen it. It's a kind of, a sort of medieval fantasy world it is
set in, when they asked me to do this they told me it's like Lord of The Rings with violence,
so I said alright, well don't you hate Lord of the Rings? I mean well Lord of The Rings,
but this is great, everybody gets killed. But I have this month, I've just finished the
second series, I'm not very much in this one but I can say that I've survived to the end
of this one, probably I'm in the next series too, most people get killed but I'm so tough!...
What are your plans for 2012?
I'm going to go early in the new year with my younger son, I'm gonna go to see my grandchild,
my grandson who was born in October, but he lives in Dubai, my son lives in Dubai,
so it's very good because this little boy is called Dylan Johnson and I will be
very happy to see him.
You have also made an autobiography.
Yes we are still completing that but it's got to be completed in a while.
AM : It's called Looking Back at Me.
Which was a very clever play on words you see, because you have to see the cover to understand it,
it's got this picture of old me looking back at young me and also in the text I'm talking about
my father who I hated and the trouble is that I really take after my father and the older
I get the more I look like him so every time I shave, I see that bastard looking back at me
(laughing) so it's rather clever I thought.
AM : It's written in association with Zoe Howe, who is the wife of Dylan, so we keep it in the family.
AM : And you are also going to do a UK tour, with special guests, Virgil and the Accelerators.
You know more than me now!...Most people do.
AM : Do you know the guys ?
Do we know them, do we ? (Dylan says : Not really).
We've been recommended. No doubt that we should be great friends.
AM : And maybe a new Wilko Johnson studio album in the pipeline.
AM : Thank you very much for your time Wilko.
We wish you a great gig tonight and all the best for the future. Merci beaucoup.