Perfect Sound Forever

Keith Levene

Interview by Jason Gross, Part 4 of 4
(September 2001)

And so all good things must come to an end... As we've seen in the first three parts of our interview (see Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 if you've missed the fun), our favorite Public Image Limited guitarist has held very little back about his thoughts and feelings concerning his illustrious musical history and we're the richer for it. Now, in the final part of our interview, Keith talks about leaving Public Image, his solo career, his whereabouts during the late '80's and '90's and his new Missing Channel project and the possible/potential future.

PSF: With the fourth PiL record, how did you start on that?

John got offered this movie, Order of Death (aka Copkiller). They went out to Italy to film this fucking movie. Virgin actually pulled our advance- they said 'you have to deliver the record.' We said 'how the fuck are we going to make the record without the advance.' So the only way we could get any money was by finishing the record. I was the only one there! I was the only one left in the band! (laughs) So we had to resurrect the band. I told this guy Bob Tulepan who was working with us 'Find Martin Atkins!' He said 'Don't you hate him?' I told him that I did but to just find him and tell him that he can play drums (for us). I didn't care if he liked me or hated me, it was cool. (laughs) Three days later, he was around.

With this studio, it wasn't like we were in a lock-out situation. We were always in there in down time. I'd phone everyone else and tell them that we had the studio for two days. That was later on though. It took about a year to record Commercial Zone or what was known as This is What You Want, This Is What You Get.

The record we made was totally different than the record that came out because that was when I left the band. Richard (Branson) accepted what we came up with, with open arms. He came to New York, saw what we were doing, saw what was going on, that I was living in this fucking studio and doing everything- I was producing it, I got the engineer and the tape-op in there on these cash salaries. We were working from one in the morning until eight. Branson turned up with his little crew and he's listening to the music. He just thought the music was really cool.

What really was missing was John (Lydon). He'd been back from making his movie, which Jeanette had opted to go off and join him on this glamorous trip. So John came back and Jeanette was officially not in the band anymore. We made this tune "Where Are You" and it was totally about Jeanette. So you go the version that I put out in the white sleeve which was the original tape that I gave to Richard and left the band on. That's when we had "This Is Not a Love Song" which we actually got a number one with (in the UK). John said 'Fuck it, I hate this record.' Richard went along with it and what they did was re-record the record. They sort of copied the record. I think they made a much worse record but that was the one they put out.

It was supposed to be Commercial Zone. In retrospect, it's perfect. When I listen to it and when I listen to the tapes of the gigs we were doing, we'd done it- we'd matured as a band. I always said 'by the fourth record, we'll really be it.' And we were it. But the reason we weren't it was because I left the band.

PSF: Why did you quit PiL then?

I did it on purpose to really fuck them up because we had this tour in Japan worked out which I put together. I left two weeks before that. Actually now, I wish I went. But I left to spite them. I left to make it so that they really couldn't go or if they did go, the only option they had were to get this awful session guys from New Jersey. Which they did! I couldn't believe that John did it. I didn't do it to have him beg me to come back into the band. I did want him to say 'I don't want you to leave.' That would have been enough. But we made our peace. I did a remix of "This Is Not A Love Song" 'cause they did this really awful mix. Martin was just pacing the studio all night until he could call John in L.A.. John just said (to me) 'Get out of my studio!' I said 'YOUR studio? Fuck off and die.'

When these Japanese guys came that morning to pick up the tapes, I said to Martin 'Fuck it- I'll give them both mixes and I'll let them decide. I don't care 'cause I ain't gonna be doing anything else with you. I won't be there in Japan, listening to it with you.' He said 'What do you mean?' I said 'There's going to be someone else on guitar 'cause I fucking hate you and I can't fucking take John anymore. I hate my life, I hate this situation. Fuck the lot of you, I'm leaving.' And like a big prima donna, I left. I had my reasons. I still feel the same way about it. I just wish I would have went to Japan. I should have taken the chance and then left. It would have fucked them even more.

PSF: So what actually drove you to that point? Was it because you were the only one doing anything for the band?

That was one of the reasons. I'd really been blood-sucked and a number of things had really come to light that really had upset me. I felt very used and abused. I was totally exhausted. I was so tired of John and everybody's using the only weak point I had, which was that I was into heroin. Everybody else took drugs. John took drugs, Martin took drugs. But just because they took cocaine and speed and this other stuff and they were always drunk, that didn't matter. But because Keith took smack- it was this big fucking thing that they could always use to keep me under control and working hard. I just said 'fuck the lot of you.' By then, I wasn't doing it so I didn't care. By then, I had a wife and a kid. My whole situation had changed. That's why all this stuff came to light- because I took my head of my work and I looked around. I realized what was going on. I knew that I couldn't be in that situation. That's what it was. I thought whatever happens next will bear out... the situation will explain itself. I mean, tell me which are your favorite PiL records?

PSF: The first three. Everyone will tell you that.

So, that's it. I didn't know I was going to have so much trouble with the industry over being signed to Virgin and then not picking up my contract but not letting me off it. That fucked me up for about four or five years. That's why I started getting into computer software and graphics.

PSF: What happened with the two releases of that fourth record?

What exactly happened was, I went to London. Richard said 'Keith, we're happy with the tapes but John said he doesn't like it and he wants to re-record it.' I said 'I'm just here to deliver the masters and pick up my check.' He also gave me some extra money and said it was a further advance for publishing. I said 'What I'm more interested in is whether you're going to pick up my contract as a solo artist.' He said 'As far as we're concerned, you're signed to Virgin as a solo artist.' I told him that I wanted to rest for a little while and then I wanted to start doing some work.

Then they just locked me out. I told them that they weren't letting me work so I was going to go elsewhere. I did an independent deal and they pressed up about 30,000 copies of this record (Commercial Zone). Then, Richard just sent these guys a writ, telling them to put a stop to it. Then I went back to Richard, got some more money to sign off of PiL. I thought I was also signing myself off of Virgin. But what happened was he said 'Unofficially, you do have the rights to this record in America. But I'm going to tell everybody that you don't. The only way they can find out different is by taking me to court.' I said 'I'm going to put the record out like a pre-release, in a white cover with the mix that you and I liked. When I get sick of selling it, I'm going to do something else.' I asked him why I couldn't start making a record. And he just wouldn't answer me!

So I went back to New York with more money. The way things panned out was that I was locked out of the recording industry for at least the next five years. Then suddenly, it was because record company personnel had changed, PiL flopped with their future effort and it didn't matter anymore. I sort of had the all-clear but I had to start from the ground-up again. Everything had been such a hassle. I just put out a few records that I made with some guys in L.A. with the Chili Peppers. The Violent Opposition record with Rykodisc, they totally ripped me off. Which put me off much more, it just stunk!

The whole fucking industry stunk as far as I was concerned. My experience with major labels was a total fucking drag. I couldn't see why they wouldn't let me put out another record and just promote me as Keith Levene. Then I had all these experiences with these independent guys that were supposed to be so into it for the music. They totally fucking ripped me off! They got the records made, they got the deals for the least I could do it for and live. They said 'We're so fucking broke that we can't give you advances you're used to but we'd REALLY love to have you.' I just bought it all like an idiot. I made Violent Opposition with great difficulty because I didn't have a budget for the studio. PiL had kept all of my equipment. I had a lot of stuff and they just STOLE it from me.

I haven't got sour grapes about it but it's very annoying. It completely put a fucking spoke in my life. It just made it SO FUCKING difficult to make records. So, I just stopped. Later, I did Violent Opposition and the Back to Black EP. I just put a few records out, trying to do something. I also did some movie soundtracks for Penelope Sheeris, like Hollywood Vice. I was really getting heavily into computer graphics and software. I just said 'Fuck it' and left it.

It's only just recently, the last three years that I've gotten back into it. Really, I want to be doing movie directing and advertising. But I've got my own recording studio so I'll never, ever have that problem again! (laughs) I've got my own company, Missing Channel. And here we are at the present.

PSF: What were doing in the '90's?

In the late '80's, I came back to England and that was when Violent Opposition came out. Then, I started to not getting paid. I was expecting money from it and the record did sell enough for me to make a living. But they just never paid. I spent about three years chasing hundreds of thousands of pounds that Virgin had ripped me off for. I was pissed off. I knew everyone else had gone through it but I basically wanted to get as much of my piece of the action as I could get because money had become a big issue in my life suddenly. I'd never had a problem with it (before). When I was a kid, we just made our lives happen- we put our bands together and it all worked out. Then suddenly, I'm having to think about every second of studio time. Tracks were coming out wrong 'cause I had to finish a session. I would need more sessions and I couldn't afford them and all this kind of CRAP...

We thought it was going to take about seven years to chase down this money they owed me. Actually, I got a very, very quick result in about three years. After that, I had a few personal things. My mother died and I had some problems with my wife. That really preoccupied me. It's only recently that it's all resolved itself. My mom's death really hurt me actually. My wife and I are OK now and better so that's all fine. That's why I've started to re-emerge again. I've got no obligations to anyone. EMI might want to work with me- they actually have first refusal on my work. That's how I'm living at the moment and here I am! (laughs)

PSF: I heard that you were working with Glen Matlock (ex-Pistols) in a band called the Mavericks in the early '90's.

Yeah, I did that. Glen wanted to do a band and I tried it. The band was so one-dimensional and done. It was a good band and I loved the kid that was the singer but I said 'Before this gets too hot, I'm leaving. I don't want you guys to make plans, including having me in them and then I turn around and leave. I just don't want to do the band.' I put about a year into that and just decided no. I didn't want to cover that ground again. It sounded good but it was not interesting enough for me. There was no way I was going to go around and do sweaty gigs with that or anything like that.

PSF: So what's changed about how you work now?

I'm much clearer about what I want to do with music and how I want to present it live than I was then. I'm very clear about what I'm doing musically right now. Actually, it's working out. I was working with this kid who's a bass player but really all the stuff I'm doing is on my own. The room I'm in right now has my multi-track, three computers, two keyboards, two bass guitars, an electric guitar, two acoustic guitars. I'm basically working on my own right now. There are some people I'm interested in working with in the music industry but I'm not going to mention who they are. If it comes about, that's great. If it doesn't, then it doesn't. I just want to tie up some loose ends and make a very, very definite statement that I feel like I didn't quite make with PiL and see how it goes. I don't know what's going to happen, which is another element of excitement. But I'm really gearing up to make movies. That's what I want to do.

PSF: What kind of films?

Just straight-forward films. I do have ideas but it's not really worth talking about right now. They're just ideas.

PSF: I heard from one of the people at Taang! Records that when you were working with them in the '80's, you were inquiring about getting digital rights for your work. Back then, no one imagined that something like the Internet was going to come around. What tipped you off to this kind of thing?

I saw what we've got (now). I saw what's happened. It's like what's there for the taking now on the Internet. I was trying to secure that before it became a frontier. It's like... (laughs) when they first settled America from the 1600's onwards. It's happening now electronically. There's some bad people out there and they're just gonna take your shit. I was trying to make it that this couldn't happen to me. But I didn't succeed.

But at the same time, I felt personally very, very ripped off by all my close friends and every company I ever dealt with, and that includes Taang! Records. Curtis there told me that the record didn't make more than $8000- I think they sold more than that. Fuck him! And you can quote me on that. (laughs)

PSF: I will.

I look forward to seeing him.

PSF: I'll bet. You know about the Damage Manual, a band that Atkins and Wobble have put together?

I've just recently heard about it. I haven't heard it though. Is it that Wobble's at the front of the band?

PSF: They're working with a few other people and I know that they at least did a gig here in New York. So I'm guessing that you haven't been in contact with either of them about this, right?

Yeah, that's right. I was in contact with Wobble and we were really good buddies when I was doing this thing of getting all this money back. Because I was getting it back, I said to him 'If I'm going to get this money, it's gotta be there for you too.' So I got him on the case.

PSF: When was this?

This was around '87-'91 when I was doing the Mavericks with Glen. Part of that time I was broke and part of that time, some money came through and made it to me. I had a car, cell phone and money in my pocket suddenly. That was the first result I got. So I went to Wobble and said 'I've gotten a result here. I think I found your money too.' We were buddy-buddy and seeing each other and talking for months. We even did some gigs together, at the Town and Country and a similar one in Brighton. Actually, he really enjoyed it and I did too.

Then this really weird thing happened. Just as we nailed the money and got it put into this account (we had to put it there for a year for some reason), he'd been in this studio all night and phoned up. He issued this REALLY heavy threat and he was just so horrible. I just said fuck it and hung up on him. I have not spoken to him since. Dare I say it... obviously he had been speeding off his head all night and he had gone completely off of his head. He was saying that he'd put an ax in my head because I found his money for him. How fucking crazy can you get?

PSF: So needless to say, you don't have much interest to work with Wobble again.

I have NO interest in working with Jah Wobble whatsoever. I worked with Wobble, I was the first fucking guy to work with Jah Wobble. I've done my work with him and now you have Jah Wobble, there he is.

PSF: What about Mr. Lydon? Any chance that you'd ever consider trying to reconcile with him or work with him?

No. I'd consider anything. But I would think it's probably the most highly unlikely thing, just by witnessing and seeing some of the stuff on the Internet that I've heard and hearing him talk. I just cringe. I can't even imagine being in the same room with him.

After I'd left the band and they'd gotten back from Japan and things had cooled down and we were both in L.A., I made three all-out attempts to contact him. He welched on every meeting. They weren't like meetings in offices, it was like 'I'll see you there and we'll have coffee.' He just didn't come through and after that, I've never spoken to him or heard from him since.

Like I said, I would CONSIDER anything but I can't imagine any reason to work together again.

PSF: You were saying before that you've found that the work he did after you left to be pretty disappointing, right?

Yeah, to say the least.

PSF: If you can look back at PiL now, what were your greatest triumphs or disappointments there?

I wouldn't get as dramatic to say 'triumphs.' When I started out, all I knew is that I wanted to be in a band- that was my Clash phase. When I left the Clash, I was more focused as to what I thought about bands and what have you. I think we nearly achieved that, and we set it up for a lot of other people, the actual transition of we're-not-a-band-we're-a-company and being able to work that way. We laid out an interesting template for that possibility.

There's certain tunes that I just can't stand. "The Suit"- I hate it. But there's this other tune on Metal Box called "No Birds Do Sing" which I think is fantastic. What I know I achieved musically and some of things that I didn't copy, that I didn't hear about and just did myself (and then found out that George Martin had been doing that with the Beatles), that was a big buzz for me. I felt the same as certain people who became heroes of mine or people I think a lot of.

What did I achieve? I have not got a clue. I don't think that way. So it's a very difficult question to answer.

One of the things that I think I haven't done... one of the things I think I came up short on, and that's what I'm dealing with now... That thing I said earlier that I felt that there was an overall statement that I wanted to make with PiL, just through music. What that's about really was this whole thing about bands having a focal point, there's always a front guy. John was the singer and it's always the bloody singer, isn't it that they focus on? I think I actually got my fair share of attention with PiL, especially in retrospect as more people got to know about PiL and what they say about the band.

The way that I think I've short-changed myself and the people is that I never quite followed through with the stuff that I started down, just with guitar alone and on an overall level musically. But I feel like I'm just about to set the record straight with that. That's what I meant about loose ends that I want to tie up musically. You're not going to find me working on too many adverts or you're not going to find me doing a lot more than storyboarding and writing scripts until I've achieved this goal.

The only way that I can do that is by making music now with all my experience and with the gap I've had. I really needed a gap from the whole overall experience of being PiL, it being a very successful situation, being sort of very famous and then it all going pear-shaped and horrible and then just finding out about the whole horrible dark side of the music business and the entertainment industry. Then there were the personal betrayals and the corporate hell you can get involved with. It changes your whole values, what's important to you, and starts making you consider what you're doing as a person.

I was always interested in... what motivates people. When friends were putting bands together or asking me to help them, I'd always say 'Why do you want to do this?' I'd talk about what their motivation was, what they were trying to do, why they were trying to do it. Do you just want to be famous? So therefore, I was always asking myself these questions. I was trying not to ever be in a situation where I was disillusioned because I didn't ever want to have illusions in the first place.

The only thing I can emphasis again is that one of the big things that's motivating me is that I feel like there's a lot of stuff that's residing inside me that I never got a chance to get out. It doesn't matter what the reasons were now, whether it was my fault or not. What matters is that I still got the motivation to want to do it and I'm in the process of doing it. What I'm looking for is... I'm looking to be able to say 'I fucking did that.' I don't feel like I did do it yet with what I've done so far with PiL. A lot of people have said 'What you've done in your life, if I'd done a tenth of that, I'd be happy.' Well, I'm not totally happy. I feel like I've got a very big, gaping unfinished job going on out there. I feel like I've got to finish this job.

PSF: So that's what Missing Channel is about?

That's where Missing Channel comes in. Missing Channel will put the icing on the cake to anyone that really digs me and I hope will fill a gap for other people who might have been interested in PiL but had to blow it off for whatever reasons. Or it might get people interested in PiL. I just hope it fills a gap that I feel is there anyway right now. I'm not the only person that can fill it- there's enough room for a lot of people to do that. But it's nice when there's a very definitive hole to start filling in.

We automatically knew what we were doing in our punk rock days, just with naive enthusiasm. Now, I'm a much more experienced, older person. I'm much more likely to do something for (a) good reason as opposed to do it for the hell of it. In fact, I won't do ANYTHING for the hell of it now 'cause time, as you become older, becomes too valuable. You really think about what you do, don't you?

The fact that I'm fucking bothering (laughs) to make records answers that question. I'm dealing with that question myself.

PSF: What would we expect to hear from Missing Channel?

You're going to hear a lot of multi-layered music. A lot of image-evoking music. If you're somebody that knows stuff that I've done and you like me and you know about Flowers of Romance or Metal Box, you're going to get a lot more of that but with a much more experienced hand behind it. Not only that but you're going to get me singing, which is definitely a new thing. I've always been a musician, not a guy that could sit there with an acoustic guitar and sing the songs. You can always get two versions of something though. You can get this heavy, done-in-the-studio version, which could be re-created live, which could have me singing or not or singing with other singers. Then you can have a version of me just doing it on acoustic guitar, which would obviously sound totally different.

PSF: That sounds like quite a change of pace for you.

Well, yes and no. You're going to get similar intensities to what you were getting with PiL and heavy music but it's what I'm doing now. But you're also going to get a much more intimate relationship with me, as opposed to a band name or a product name. What you'll be getting with Missing Channel, the Keith Levene project there, you'll be getting Keith. I'll probably just call it 'Keith.' You'll get tracks with me just playing acoustic guitar and singing, one mike, one take. Then, further along the CD, you might get the heavy version of that.

When it comes to the live situation, I've got ideas for live stuff. But I don't really want to talk about them too much. But I've got very definite ideas about gigs and what I think I think about them and how they should be done, again with the Internet and how that fits into things.

PSF: So you're saying that you're going to pick up from where you left off in the '80's and finally explore these ideas?

It is a lot like that but it's also a lot more updated than that. Actually, the ideas are done and dusted and explored. A lot of them have been rejected. It's not like the work hasn't been going on. It's just that I haven't been releasing it and you haven't been hearing it. I've actually been doing it.

What's going on now is that I'm prepared to actually put it out as it's happening. It's interesting enough now (that) it's worth releasing. Plus, my living situation makes it that I'm in a position to put stuff out again and if I want to, I can go out and deal with promoting it and getting it across.

PSF: And touring?

I never said I was going to tour. I'm very into live performances. I've always been against touring. You should know that from the PiL days really. We tried the best we could do not to tour. I don't (think) touring is a very good idea. I also think now, it's a very staid old-fashioned '60's/'70's thing that's been done.

PSF: What do you envision instead?

The most I'm prepared to say about gigs is that I'll try and keep them as intimate as possible. It doesn't mean a tour list or a set list. It means less people per gig. It's not doing gigs to promote a record. It's almost like playing to the converted or playing at least to the fucking interested. I can't see any point in playing to 10,000 people. It doesn't mean I wouldn't if there was a situation going on where there was 10 or 100,000 people there. I'm not saying I wouldn't do it but I don't particularly want to do it- I'm not looking for that situation. I'm not looking to do Lollapalooza and the circuit. I'm not interested in the circuit as it is. I am interested in live performance to put the music across. I'm not that interested in experimental stuff anymore either, like the Ritz thing. It was great then but I can't be bothered to do that kind of thing. So if I was doing live stuff, I'd just say 'Let's have these kind of lights, these kind of curtains' and that's what we do for that set of gigs. I'm making this up as I'm going along here! (laughs)

PSF: Understood. What kind of music have you been listening to recently?

What I'm doing right now is I've got myself into this perfect situation of... There's a record I've been listening to since February (I'm not going to say what it is) that is the only record I listen to. I'm so familiar with it that it doesn't influence me at all. I'm going out of my way not to listen to anything at the moment.

PSF: Why is that?

Because the production process at the moment, it's really important for me to just not be thrown by anything. It's not like I'm blocking stuff out though I am totally doing that! I'm doing that for the time being because right now, for the last few months, I've been in a production situation. I just want to stay in my universe of creation, just for now. I'm into loads of music and I listen to all sorts of music but at the moment, I'm going out of my way to not listen to anything.

See some of Keith's favorite music

Also see our overview of Public Image Limited and our insider look at the infamous 'Ritz Riot' show

Check out the rest of PERFECT SOUND FOREVER