Interview by Jason Gross
Part 2 of 4 (May 2001)
Our story continues in an exclusive, extensive interview with Clash and Public Image Limited founder, Keith Levene. Join us as Keith spins the ballad of PiL and the birth of their debut and Metal Box. In case you missed all the previous fun, please see part 1 of the interview.
PSF: Weren't you working with Viv Albertine (Slits) before PiL?
Shit man, there's so much that I did in punk that I never got a word in! I formed the freaking Slits, man! It's all a bit much now.
PSF: It would be good to hear your perspective on this.
OK... I used to live in a squat with Vivianne and friend named Q. All these magical moments... I really liked her. But we weren't having a scene or anything. I REALLY fucking liked her and she really liked me. She'd come to me for this and come to me for that. She's talking about how fucking interesting Johnny is and 'I wonder what it would be like to meet him.' And 'oh, by the way Keith, could you teach me how to play guitar.' And the next thing is that she's got a Les Paul Jr. and she can't play. A real punk rocker. So I taught her how to play and I was great to her.
I see this drunk... It was me who named Paloma Palmolive. I basically just got it together. Nora was managing them and the reason was 'cause every time they needed something, I'd say 'Nora, they need this or that.' Obviously, the link was that Ari Up was in the band.
Those bastard, fucking bitches man... I went up and did sound for them. Then they go get Dennis Bovell to produce them, which on a career level, I suppose made sense. But it was real cold. If I produced it, we'll never know now... I had a lot to do with the Slits. I went on a lot of gigs for them and did their sound. I fucking REALLY, REALLY helped them. Arianna really kept to herself and got on with it.
There's the Slits in a nutshell for you. It's more involved than that because Vivianne Albertine was having this scene with Mick (Jones). And she used to really torture him and give him hell. She lived in the same squat I lived in.
When we were in the Clash, Mick would come over and he'd always be yelling at me. When he found out that I was three years younger than him, actually this is a key point in me leaving the Clash... On my 18th birthday, he found out I was 18 (Mick was 21). Me with Mick standing at this bus-stop (laughs) and Vivianne said 'Oh, it's Keith's birthday.' He said 'Oh, I didn't know that. How old are you now?' I told him and he went 'You're never 18.' Vivianne told him I was. When I was 14, I fell head over heels for Vivianne. So this all goes back years.
So I showed Mick my driver's license. Ever since that day, he was just this total fucking bitch, cunt to me after that. There wasn't a thing I could do that wasn't wrong. I was working one Saturday afternoon and he goes 'WHY WEREN'T YOU AT REHEARSAL!' For a start, no official rehearsal had been planned and I was working! What's all this then? It carried on and carried on. And she (Vivianne) would come over and torture him and get into awful arguments at the squat. And I left the Clash through that but I was still living at the squat. I was hanging out with my friends at Mill Hill and doing these other things. My home base was basically this place in Sheppard's Bush where we all lived.
After that, I bought a place because I did PiL. (laughs) It just all changed. By then, she was living in this place in Chelsea. So much shit just happened. It's no wonder that she doesn't talk about it that much.
PSF: Well, she did mention that she had played guitar with you.
Well, how sweet of her. That's a first. I never even heard her mention my fucking name, that I exist.
PSF: Picking up with what you were talking about before... You were talking about the beginning of PiL. Dub was very important to you then.
Yeah, dub was the big thing then. It happened to me individually and it just turned out that... what I felt were the creme-de-la-creme of the punk scene were into it. There were some A&R guys that were so into dub reggae more than anything. We knew the Jamaican bands as heads. We helped them get ripped off by Virgin, introducing them to (Richard) Branson. Why do you think Dennis Bovell produced the Slits?
PSF: What was it about PiL that you saw was going to be different from what you did in the Clash and what John had done in the Pistols?
I thought we were going to go slower. In the Clash, everything was really fast, we're going to go really far. But in a new vocabulary. The Damned were going really fast but with a known vocabulary. I had a completely different idea in mind.
The PiL manifesto was... no managers, no producers, lawyers when we need them, we're not a band we're a company, think up your own ideas, total control. I guess we thought we were a bit important and a bit all that.
PSF: What was it about John that made you want to work with him?
John's got this way of blinding people. He's got amazing charisma. At the time, he was really on. He was on in the Pistols and it pissed him off that it fell apart. As much as you slag John off for various sorts of excessive ways of entertaining himself, he's got this basic togetherness.
But he's such an annoying git because he doesn't do anything to help. He knows what the picture should be and he's got an idea what it is. When it doesn't work out, he just blames people. He likes to pretend that other people are weak and it's never him. The reason that things don't work out the way that John wants them to is because he doesn't do his bit. But at the time, he was REALLY doing his bit. I had a different outlook to what I felt I was prepared to have over my music vocally. What I thought we were doing and what we actually were doing... we came really close to it in Commercial Zone. Really, the thing that was missing was John and the music carried it. Commercial Zone is a COMPLETELY different album from This Is What You Want, This is What You Get.
PSF: You were also talking about when Jah Wobble came into the picture. What do you think he added?
Spontaneity. I didn't show him a thing on bass like we used to with Paul Simonon. By doing that, he (Paul) got to learn how to play bass proficiently. After a while, he could make up his own thing. Really, it was Mick that showed him what to play. I used to show him things to entice him to play and what a gas the bass is to play. Mick would be like 'This sound goes like this- PLAY IT!'
For Wobble, he couldn't play and he made up his own bass lines pretty much from scratch. He wouldn't mind me editing them like me saying 'Don't play those two notes.' 'See that bit you're doing- do it three times. Then on the third time, ignore the fact that I play something completely different over it.' But he'd always make up his own bass line. But he didn't do the bass line in "Radio 4." I played it as if it was Wobble playing.
PSF: With First Edition, did you see it as sort of an anti-rock record?
No, we just thought it was our first record. We made "Public Image" the single and that came off OK. We were getting away with being very audacious and getting with with 'we can do whatever the fuck we want. We're PIL, fuck you.' People never knew if we were serious or playing a joke on them. But we were serious.
In "Fodderstomp," where Wobble says 'we are now trying to finish the album with a minimum amount of effort which we are now doing very suc-cess-ful-ly.' It's what we were doing. We had this thing were we only gave the record company exactly the 30 minutes perscribed in the contract because those bastards ripped us off. Those guys played fucking hard ball.
PSF: Are you happy with the first album though?
Yeah, totally. It's just a good first record for a band. It's not like we were the Beatles. Look at "Theme"- it's fucking bad. I'm talking about me but I can't play like Hendrix and I might not know the chords to "Hey Joe" and can't do his leads. Guitarists do that and play like him, like Hillal in the (Red Hot) Chilli Peppers. But you listen to "Theme" and imagine listening to Hendrix, and thinking 'I can play "Theme" the same time all the time." All those bits I made up as I went along I know and I can play them on one guitar. I'm obviously very proud of it. I can listen to that and say 'God, I'd love to play guitar like that' and I DID!
I think "Fodderstomp" could have been better. I'm going to do something about it in a future record. We did what we did and it was a fine first record. The thing that fucking went wrong with that record was the game logistics. Virgin imported it to America so Warners didn't release it. So we never had an official American release. It really fucked up our momentum. It sucked.
PSF: How did the songs come about for that first album?
For "Religion," we were at some rehearsal where we're trying to make up tunes. John walks over and hands me this thing. I read it and I recognize it as this tune "Religion." I remember that he had this tune in the Pistols. I said 'Right, we'll do it now.' We did it. (laughs) On the first go, bang! Just like that. I'm looking at Jim (Walker, drummer) and we're talking to each other with our eyes and Wobble did that bass line. When I changed, Wobble just followed me. We just KNEW what we all were going to do and that was it. Putting "Religion" on the album with just vocals, I just did that as a producer. I thought that this had to be done so I said 'Run it off, John' and I just recorded it. That was a cool idea.
"Theme" came together because Wobble had this bass line and there was Jim playing and me doing that. And I fucking got it off on the first go. By the time we recorded it, which was probably the third time we played it, that was where it was at. It went down well in gigs and we loved the tune. John made the lyrics up as he went along. Or he had them stashed secretly.
PSF: How did you come up with that amazing guitar line for "Public Image"?
Yeah, isn't that incredible? We were at rehearsal and it was really awful. Probably our first or second one. We just got Jim in the band so we had a group then. We're playing away and nothing's happening. It's going really bad. Somehow we all managed to get onto something. Wobble was going da-da-da-da-da-da, da-da-da-da-da-da-da (the bass line for the song) and Jim was playing along. All I did was play the B chord all the way through. I went 'STOP! Right, check this out. Wobble, do that bass line.' So he did and I played that solo over it. I told John that he'd come in after we did it four times. Then I did the A and B (chords). As soon as I heard that guitar line, I had it. We never quite had it together. Even when we recorded it, we didn't have it exactly the way we wanted until we edited about 2 inches out of a 24 track. It was a bold edit and it worked. Then that was it. I didn't have to it again- I just took a bit out of the tape and that was the way it went.
As soon as he knew where to sing, we could do the song. That's the way it went. We'd be making stuff up music. I'd look at John and I'd give him a nod like 'You could sing here if want to.' Or I'd give him a nod at another place. I pretty much let him do anything. I'd either be giving him nods or I'd let him do anything. If he did something and I could explain it really, really simply like 'Do exactly what you're doing but come in there' or 'Do what you're doing again over that bit,' he wouldn't question whether it would fit or not. He would just do it. Sometimes he'd think he was doing it but he'd miss what I said. It just depended on how much I pushed the point. But it all worked. When I think about it really, I did arrange the music and had to hear it from what the hell was going on and then say 'this is how it goes.'
PSF: So the music came before the vocals mostly?
Yeah, a lot of times. John would do a lot of waiting around. When you're recording, you do the music first anyway. With "Religion," we made up this tune and told him to sing the lyrics over it. He did it good- it was so great. He had the words but he didn't know how the tune was going to go. Steve (Jones, Pistols) tried it once and it was so awful. The one I did he loved to death. And I did it on the first go! Wobble started playing this bass line and bang! Whatever you hear on that record is what I fucking did. I did those chords and brought it in with that lead bit. Then that was it. The only thing was that it might have been twice as long the first time we did it. I said 'this is the way it goes' and that was it.
PSF: Did you think John's lyrics worked well with the music you were coming up with?
Not necessarily. We wanted to use John's voice instrumentally, which we thought was a very far out idea. It wasn't illegal to regard his voice as an instrument- it didn't have to be the main thing right out front. I do find his voice to be very, very out front and not as instrumental as I remember thinking it was.
A lot of times I'd take his lyrics, and even though we didn't have samplers then, I would put them on different places that they weren't, by putting them into a 2-track and flying them in. Or if he hadn't made up enough verses, I'd just repeat a verse. But I'm making it sound like he didn't come up with anything half the time. He came up with a lot of stuff just perfectly. Like what he did with "Theme," he did it the first time and it was perfect. We definitely produced the end product (together).
PSF: What was PiL doing between the release of the first record and the recording of Metal Box?
PSF: So there weren't many gigs?
No. What we did was when we formed, as soon as we had enough tunes to do a gig, which seem to be bloody quick, we played Christmas at the Rainbow (Theatre) and had all the seats taken out. We were testing out sound systems. It was a wonderful time. We booked a place in Brixton which was just an empty hall just to test this three-bass sound system. That was a turbo rig that I wanted to use at the Rainbow. Because we were in sound system situations, we were making up new tunes. That's when "Death Disco" was emerging.
Our first tour was because Warners put out Metal Box as Second Edition. They said 'hey guys, you gotta promote this.' The next thing we know, we got a tour manager and a fucking tour. What we did was, and they really didn't like this... (laughs) We'd end up in New York and do the gig at the Palladium. Then we'd arrange another gig and another gig and that really pissed them off! After the Palladium, we did Gildersleeves, this Hell's Angels joint on the Bowery. It was bad, killer gig. Of course, I didn't see a penny for the Warner gigs but the ones we were getting together were good. We were touring with Van Halen, of all people. David Roth is a friend of mine now but then, it was just so weird.
I didn't know who Eddie Van Halen was. I didn't know that he was supposed to be God on guitar. The first time I met him, we nearly had a fight. That doesn't happen with me. They were running this tour in synch with Van Halen and with us. If we playing in Pittsburgh, they'd be playing in the area too. It was just funny. When we played some gig in L.A. that we arranged, we went there the night before and these punks took over the Continental Hotel and we got kicked out. We really had fun with the tour.
PSF: It seemed that the sound of the band changed a lot between the first two albums.
It didn't really change. I think we put out the first record as quickly as possible and we were saying 'This is our goodbye-to-the-Pistols record. This is showing that we can do rock but we don't really want to.' Or 'listen to clever, monotone this-is-not-a-rock-song.' Metal Box was really more what we wanted to do. That's when we were getting more freedom in the studio and I did my first solo piece totally on my own with synthetic strings. That was a big new experience to me. We just thought 'we should put this all of the second album' and we did.
Things were working out. Flowers of Romance was very good but I personally think I was very, very tired. I found it a very high pressure album to make. I'm as annoyed with it as I'm pleased with it. I love Flowers and I love a lot of things on it. But there's a finesse that I'd love to have been there. I think we could have gotten more a result with it. At the same time, for what PiL was doing, Flowers can only be the way it is and that's it.
What would have been the icing on the cake would have been if Commercial Zone would have come out with maybe more a contribution from John, which never happened. If that came out, that would have been the fourth record and made all the other records make sense. It would have shown everyone that all those things were fucking serious. As much as you're thinking you're getting caught out by them, they fucking mean it. And the fucking band fell apart.
PSF: One thing about Metal Box that's very distinctive is that the bass really stands out.
We went out of our way to make the bass as loud and as deep as possible.
PSF: You were using a lot more keyboards then too.
Now too! In my room now, I've got a keyboard, a sampler, two disk drives and a big ghetto blaster to master it through and a CD burner and a sequencer along with two guitars. I can load anything onto that keyboard, like strings or drum kits or pianos or mellotrons.
PSF: The packaging for Metal Box was pretty unique also.
It was a bit Sex Pistoly. (laughs) We wanted to put out something that would fuck up the other album covers if you put it into your collection. Then we were thinking 'how can we put the record in a can and make it hard to open it?' It never occurred to me how much like a film canister it looked but we came up with the Metal Box with 3 45-RPM 12 inches. That was supposed to be a double album in essence. It ran at 45 so you could get the best response on your sound system. We thought 45's were cool. They were like almost pre-releases.
We all came up with the concept of the Metal Box. The way it came together was that we got it made at this factory called the Metal Box. It was just the logistics between the idea and how we could get it made up, which made it look the way it did and made us put three pieces of vinyl in it. It cost us 30,000 of our advance back to get the 'offical limited edition' out. I know that they put out loads more than the original sixty.
Second Edition was the Warners release. They said 'forget any Metal Box, don't even go there.' (laughs) That was it, fuck it! 'Who do you think you are? You're lucky you're getting a cardboard box.' We did that cover and then that became the Virgin cover.
PSF: What did you think of the way they redid it as Second Edition?
We did the new cover and we wanted it to be a double album. We told them that's how we wanted it done. It was our idea to be reflective in those things and move them. Then they put me on the front (cover), which was nice. It's this reflection. We were taking a picture of a reflection. You move it some position and it's like being at the fairground, with your face stretched. So the cover is just a composite of my face. All the pictures there are like that. It's fucking cool art work.
When I did the Commercial Zone thing, I put it out in a white cover. Then I put out there custom covers- I did one with grip tape and all these computer programs pinned to it. I did one that had a pair of boots on it, a three-dimensional cover. I was selling them to the record shops, cash on delivery. I was so fucked off because I'd left PiL by then. I decided that I wasn't going to be ripped off again every in any way. So I distributed it myself. If anyone wanted to buy it in bulk, they couldn't buy a thousand and then pay me on the next thousand. They were selling the custom covers for a lot more than I charged them, which is what they did with Metal Box.
After I sold 10,000 Commercial Zones, the reason I stopped was I thought 'I've got to do something else. I can't just keep selling these records. I've got to do something more.' I didn't know I was going to have such troubles with record deals afterwards. If I did know, what I would have done was kept on plugging Commercial Zone and selling it. I just thought 'I've got it out and I've made my point and that's enough.' So I just got my emulator and shuttled off to L.A.
PSF: You had said before that the essence of PiL was you and John and you saw that was changing after the first record.
Yeah, that's about it. That's pretty much the gist of it, how I felt at the time. When PiL started, we had a guy who couldn't play bass and me who knew a lot about music and could play. I really knew what I didn't want to do. I REALLY knew that. I knew that were there were people around who would play that down and wouldn't play as well as they could because it was hip to be useless with your instrument.
I thought we were all in on this in the band but I think now it was just more what was in my mind and what I was going through. What we were working off was more a friction between the differences of where we were. The juxtaposition of the fact that Wobble couldn't play bass but had enough of whatever it takes to make up a bass line. At some point, I could turn around and tell him what I wanted to hear.
He (Wobble) was cool- he didn't mind playing less notes. On odd occasions, like the bassline for "Poptones," he played that for me and all I did was set up the drums in this billiard room at the (Virgin) manor. I think we did it there because they didn't have a drum then so we used this fucking snooker room. So he's playing me this quite complex bass line and I thought 'where'd you get that from?' We were recording this and we didn't have a drummer with us.
PSF: Why not?
Jim wasn't in the band anymore because on a personal level, Wobble would torture him and he had no idea of what the Cockney, East End sense of humor was. He couldn't take it anymore and he just left. I asked him not to leave but he was very crazy. Jim came from Canada to audition for us like it was a dream. We had all these drummers in a hallway and we tried one and another. We sat Jim down and he was so fucking perfect. He played for 45 seconds and I said 'Stop! Everyone go home- this is the guy.' Nobody questioned me. So we had this perfect guy and I just stayed out of the way when Wobble was torturing him. I really loved Jim. I met him about 10 years later and he had such high regard for me that he asked me to make soundtracks for these movies he was making. I told him 'sure.' It turned out that he wanted me to act in these movies. With the process of the first record, some of that leaked over just because he was there. It had already set a certain kind of open-ness and heaviness to the way that PiL would naturally sound.
So anyway, Wobble had this great bassline and I sat down at the drums to play with it, which was the first time I'd ever really done it. We didn't know who was actually going to play though we eventually wound up with Richard Dudanski, who played on most of Metal Box. He was really weird about it too. I got him from the 101'ers since I knew him from Joe Strummer. I always had this thing about him. He was a bit nervous- he couldn't believe that we wanted him in. I think then though we weren't under any pressure where we had to get a record out in a certain amount of time. We just booked two weeks at the Manor. Loads of people have recorded there- it's a big mansion in Oxford that Branson bought.
So we set up the drums to get some killer sounds for the miking. It was like using the drums as drum machines. I think "Poptones" was one of the first things we recorded. One tune we definitely had was "Death Disco" 'cause we worked that with Jim but we didn't record him.
PSF: That was the song that became "Swan Lake."
Right. I used "Swan Lake" for the melody. The reason it was called "Death Disco" was because it was about John's mom. The person he was singing about, 'seeing in your eyes,' was his mother dying. She was going through the glorious process of dying from cancer and it was all a bit heavy I suppose for everyone. That's what John was singing about very passionately, I might add. From my point of view, I was just trying to do something with the music. I didn't know what he was singing about at the time- he was just 'It's "Death Disco" Keith, that's what it is!'
We didn't have the artwork in place but we knew what we were trying to do. We were making this 3-record 45 RPM and we were looking for this weird packaging, which didn't end up so weird but it was still pretty cool.
When I think about it though, I never really spoke to Wobble much about the music or the process or anything. That's what caused the next rift in the band indirectly. What would happen would be, you'd have the process of recording and then playing back. You could look at it two ways: that sounds great or fuck it. The first album was like 'OK, we got the tune, let's record it, here we go.' With Metal Box, we became experimental very quickly. We didn't have a predisposition for it. John never said 'We're going to spend hours fucking around with it on the mixing desk.' The way I saw it, the desk became an instrument. It was such a major part of the process. For the whole thing, the whole studio was becoming a big synthesizer. I was having to play a lot of other instruments. The whole scope for me was really opening up. I had a lot of outlook and ideas. I was having to put them and try these things because there was no one else there to do it.
PSF: You started talking about the music for "Death Disco."
It was so simple. Wobble just stands there and does his bass line and looks at me like 'I'm serious.' So the first thing I did was to figure out how to play around it. I hit a string and I've got this way of playing in a drone where it sounds like I'm playing in two guitars. E always worked the best for me on the guitar 'cause it's the lowest note and the highest. I could get the drone 'cause I could play between the two E's and get automatic sympathy to what I was playing.
So it happened that his bass line was in E. Jim was there I think. We had done it once before. I thought 'I'm not sure what I'm doing with this tune.' Just that harmonic thing down the strings. I would play the E chord and it would be like breaking glass in slow motion and then played E again really manically. I've got no problem with music being really simple. The whole thing was in E. That opened it up 'cause it was all literally in one note. I realized that this tune that I was bastardizing by mistake was "Swan Lake." So I started playing it on purpose but I was doing it from memory. You can hear that I'm not playing it exactly right. It just worked. So I was playing all around Wobble. For John, what I'd do was when he went to put the vocal in, I'd keep doing it. When he'd stop, I'd play "Swan Lake." When he'd sing again, I'd go back to the harmonic thing and build it up. It just worked so simply in a couple of rehearsals.
Once we had Richard for this, I keep the drums in the same room so we could all play together. I didn't want us on some weird video hook ups. It gave us a situation where Wobble would play the "Poptones" bassline and I would pick up all this room sound in the drum mikes because it was so boomy in there and I really wanted a deep, low sound. This is how we got to play "Albatross."
PSF: How did "Albatross" come about then?
By then, we had a comfortable situation set up. We could all play and look at it each other and be together in the same room. We had a band! Remember, we'd just learned the recording process from the first album. So we're on this second album and we're in this really plush studio. We'd been through a few permutations and we'd found some comfortable way of working where we could plug in and have the engineer record. I told him to record EVERYTHING because we didn't know what the records are. So we didn't know when we were playing a tune or not. Sometimes we might have played something and it sounded like we were fucking around and it turns out to be something very serious.
For some engineers, all of this was very difficult. To get a deep bass sound, it seemed to break every rule in the book. We had such a hard time with this. So when we had the mikes set up for the drums and everything, I just told them to record everything. They didn't understand that though.
After arguing with an engineer about this once, I ran back into the studio from the engineer (booth), my guitar was feeding back like mad. I grabbed it and everything and everyone stopped cold briefly but it seemed like it was forever. Then Wobble started again and he's playing a new bass line- dum-dum-dum-dum, dum-dum-dum (from "Albatross"). I looked at Richard like 'just start playing.' He knew it was OK to do anything 'cause we had this talk. I said 'if you do something and you think it's out of time and I'm nodding, just keep doing it.' That's how we worked things out. He was nervous but he was up for it.
So Wobble's doing his thing and Richard started at the right time. We got it off in one take. It happened as you hear it. As soon as Richard started playing, I just started making the noises I made and John just started singing 'slow motion.' That was it. I didn't know John had those words, I made up that tune as I went along, Wobble made up what he did as he went along. We knew it sounded a bit weird but it was alright with everyone. By the end of it, you could tell we had enough of it, with the funny noises and John yelling in terminal boredom 'only the lonely.' We had a serious playback and we all looked at each other and I said 'we've got this, haven't we? Sounds like the Doors, doesn't it? Let's keep it.' So we kept it on its own reel to give it space. The engineer was giving us nonsense about using a new one but we got it down to a fine art by the time we recorded Flowers.
PSF: What about "Memories"?
There's this normal Spanish guitar thing that goes dun-da-da-dun da-da-dun (quickly, imitating matador music). That's what I'm playing. It's one of the first things I learned to play on guitar- very simple. I was very fond of that. I totally knew what the fuck John was singing about. It was very odd, Wobble doing that bass line that he does on it. The song came about in the studio, starting with Wobble (imitating his bass). I thought it was a fucking joke- it sounded like an advert for a woman with a vacuum cleaner. I looked at Richard like I wasn't going to do anything but he thought that he meant he should play, so he did. I thought 'I know what I'll do' so I played that tune.
More often than not with PiL, especially in the beginning, I always endeavored to try and do everything with one guitar. Obviously, because I was in the studio, I didn't mind doubling it up. I tried not to (though). If I played lead, I always tried to put it in a different context than most traditional guitarist would do things. It should just be able to be done. Because the band consists of one guitar, it should do that. It wasn't a rule, it was a mode.
So I played the background and found my way around it. John started singing this very definite thing. I had a very sort of magical telepathy with John because we never worked things out, it worked out better than way. We thought we were doing something quite radical by making the songs up literally as they went along. It was quite daring.
At the same time, we were trying to be genuine with it. If we did something and made a mistake, I'd say 'I'm not going to go in and fix it that because it's only a mistake if you underline it- otherwise, it's just something else.' So unless it was something awful, that was ruining it, I would leave it (otherwise). I used that a lot with my guitar process and playing. That's how I taught myself to play guitar more and more. With the first album, I was breaking my mold as a guitarist. I had my own way of play always but what I was trying to do was break through it. I found it very inadequate. The thing that kept me going was (that) I was pleased enough with the way I was playing that it kept it interesting enough for me. I can't stand guitarists and musicians, they really annoy me. At the same time, when a band is great, it doesn't bother me. I got that sort of dichotomy going. I find bands and musicians as tired and uninteresting as when I was in PiL but at the same time, I love everything from Stone Temple Pilots to whatever's the opposite of it.
PSF: Back to "Memories," the keyboard line on that sounded almost Arabic.
It was a guitar actually. When I played in E, I could get this modal type of drone thing. When people do this, they usually use different tunings and that's quite hip because you get an effect. But what happens is unless you're really subtractive or dubby with your own playing, you've got to be able to put your foot on the gas and take it right off again. If you don't do that, you're playing through some kind of trick. I figured the only way around that was the disintegration of playing the guitar as a drone instrument. That was sort of innately out of tune with itself except for the fact that you could cover that because you had a low E and a high E. So it was just a question of how you handled that as to how it would work.
If you play "Memories," you play (it) in E. If you take the same thing and play it one fret higher but leave the other strings along, then that's the Spanish tune I was talking about. All I'm doing when I'm playing those notes over the top, I just had the guitar going through an Electric Mistress, which was the only effect I used when I played live.
It's almost like I had all these strict rules but my biggest rule was to break the rules. But sometimes I'd set up my own rules to kick 'em down. I had a situation where I was really into process in the studio and things you could get as using the desk as an instrument. That was meant for perfecting. What I used it for is to rip the stuff apart. You could draw an analogy with Brian Eno. He would just treat sounds in Roxy Music- he was treating (Phil) Manzanera and setting a sound off and letting it come back to the tape machines and building up on it. He was one of the first 'soundicians.' It wasn't so much that I was copying him but I was very much into it. If I was in situation where I was using something totally alien to me and I was getting results from it, I could just go with that. It was like having my own set of Oblique Strategy cards. If it worked, use it. If it wasn't, question it. Maybe you needed to think of it in another way.
With the guitar, I was trying to show 'this is a guitar and this is what's done with it.' I didn't shore it up with six guitars to make it sound really heavy then do a perfect little lead line. I just did it raw, taking stuff that I didn't expect to come off the sound.
On "No Birds," one of my favorite tunes on Metal Box, there's a lot of going on with the guitar but I only played one guitar on that tune. I really love that tune- I made it up as we went along and did it. Same thing (happened)- Wobble made up this bassline, I was playing it, then he changed in the middle then I didn't change. It fucking worked great and we had it. When it was playing back, I was hearing all these harmonics and I started treated them with a harmonizer- I call it 'insect stick guitar.' I've heard this sound a lot now. It's a stock sound. It sounds like grasshoppers treated. The guitar is playing its tune and as the song is building up, what's going on in the background is all this sympathy stuff is buidling up with it. It's actually getting really noisy. It comes down to a lot of what was going on in Metal Box. You had the surface thing that sounded like an interesting rock band but actually, if you kept listening you might not like it but found it interesting. If you kept listening, you might find you like it enough and then you start hearing these other things. Once we had the tune, the process became really important with all these things I would put inside it. I'm talking about production but not just good sound but also drawing on things and putting a lot of noise in there that made sense at the time within whatever the tune was. In "No Birds," it made a lot of sense to do what I did with John's voice and the voice.
The same in "Death Disco"- it started off as a one guitar thing. It turned out that John wanted more. There's a few versions of that. The one on Metal Box is version two, which is very different from the simpler, original version. The other versions were more tuned into the fact of what John was singing about and therefore I could pick up on what was going on. I did use keyboards there and stuff like that.
PSF: You also had keyboards on "Careering" that sounded really eerie.
Yeah, absolutely. Funnily enough, we changed studios there. When we did "Careering," we were in London. When you went to the toilet, you went downstairs and there was this noise from a machine like nrrrrrrrrr, like you hear on the song. It was really interesting down there and we'd hang out there. It was just a comfortable place. That noise was always there. I had to see if I could make the noise on the synth- I pretty much go it off. I dropped something on the key to keep it going. I went off somewhere and when I came back into the studio, they took the noise off the key quickly and that was the snare sound. That was going along with the noise sound. That what happens when you're in the studio.
PSF: For the keyboards, you did it really subtlely on "The Suit."
I was really flipped out about that. I was thinking 'how much can you underplay something?' It was never one of my favorite pieces because of what it was really about. I didn't like the tune. That's why I underplayed on it but at the same time, I was experimenting with music. A lot of people really like "The Suit."
There was this guy that was an old mate of John's who lived in his apartment. At some point, John decided he hated his guts. He just wrote this really nasty finger-pointing over-exaggerated ripping parody of what the guy was. "Society boy." He was just fucked off because we were wearing good clothes and living down safety pins- we had enough of that shit by miles. We wanted to look great. This guy, Kenny McDonald, made his suit and all of ours and it made him look good to have the guys from PiL wearing his stuff. We'd wear it wrong and it looked even better. We didn't want the black leather jacket look like these punk bands. So John just decided to hate this guy- that's what happens and there's nothing you can do. He wouldn't be his lapdog and John thought he was a star and wanted that. John named him on our first album on "Low Life."
PSF: What about "Bad Baby"? How did that come about?
I'm Bad Baby. That's one of my nicknames. 'You're a bad baby!' It was the same thing really- very underplayed on the keyboards. I was into doing the tune. A lot of times, we'd get a friction where we were learning to work not as a band but individually (before we started splitting up). We managed to have this thing where we could work individually and just let the ideas pull together. So there was a sort of cohesive disintegration within the band. I thought the only way to make this work was to not take offense at anything. So I wasn't offended that somebody did something while I wasn't around and I tried to promote that within the band. I was thinking we could get a whole lot more band out of the band with this.
The other thing I was really interested in was that I always had to deal with bass players who couldn't play. I was promoting that too. I was buying a lot of instruments like violins and John would screw around with them. I bought this little plastic Wasp synthesizer. It was so cheap that I bought them for John and Wobble. I was trying to get them to make sounds.
PSF: What about "Graveyard"?
That was made up on the spot. I was in a very Clint Eastwood mood. I didn't know what I was going to play. Wobble's playing the bassline and drums are playing so I had to do something. The way it worked was, there wasn't a vocal on it at first. The version on Metal Box doesn't have vocals but there's a version of it that does and called something else.
PSF: What about "Radio Four"? That didn't seem to fit in with anything else on Metal Box.
That's a weird story. We ended up in another studio (Advision) and I recorded this track with Ken Lockie from Cowboys International. Originally, it had me on drums. Ken laid down the dun-dun-dun on piano. He could play these great chords with his big hands where I used synths to put something across. We didn't like the studio and John didn't like Ken so that was his brief appearance as a possible PiL candidate. Ken did this one session with just me there.
So I was at another studio and we put this on. I had a Yamaha String Ensemble where you could make it sound like so many things but it wasn't huge. I was using this thing and I start building it up. All I'm doing is taking different sounds from this thing and layering it. When I heard it, I pulled the drums out. I got on the idea of trying to make it sound orchestrated with the long chords played shorter. To get round the other stuff, I just used what was at hand. I played bass like I imagined Wobble would play bass to it. I wanted a Wobble feel to it but basically, it's all me. That's when I realized 'I can completely do everything.' You just hear the drums at the end.
PSF: Why did the album end with that?
I think it was just that we had the tune. I didn't make an issue out of it. No one was rejecting it, saying it didn't fit. If anything, they wanted it so we could have more time on the album, more music. It comes in after "Chant" like bwaaaeeeeehhh! It just worked.
I called it "Radio Four" because in England, you got Radio One, Two, Three. Radio One played pop tunes. Before that, the BBC was so boring. It took until about 1985 before we had FM radio. That's why I lived in America- we only had three TV channels for ages. For me, living in America was like living in the future. It was so much more interesting and faster than it is here (England). I like the pace of it here but I wanted more stimulation then. That's the story of me going to New York for two weeks and getting more done then than we did in two years. I just transferred our operations to America.
PSF: What was "Poptones" supposed to be about?
I remember when we went into Virgin after we did the song. Simon Draper said to John 'did that really happen to you?' I don't know what John said. A lot of people wondered about that. I just think it was a thing we made up. Basically, for me, the track goes on too fucking long. I wish I caught that. If I did it, I'd wrap it up a lot quicker and clean it up a bit. That's our second attempt at that. It was a hard line for me to keep playing. I kept doing it again and overdubbing it and then I just decided that I couldn't keep doing it. I still didn't quite have it. I knew what I wanted... I can play it now beautiful. When I actually hear it on Metal Box, it's not what I was doing. That's OK because that's what PiL was about. If I re-recorded it now, I would make it much more refined. In the future, I'll probably make my own song and redo it.
See Part 3 of the Levene interview:
The accidental birth of Flowers of Romance, the Ritz riot and PiL falls apart
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