Wilko Johnson is supposed to be dead. Four years ago, when his fantastic album Going Back Home with The Who’s Roger Daltrey was released, he was on a victory lap of sorts. He’d been diagnosed with terminal cancer but, rather than retreat, he was in the midst of a whirlwind of activity. He’d been the break-out star of the Julien Temple documentary Oil City Confidential, about his proto-punk band Dr. Feelgood, and was performing shows with the same wild vitality as during that band’s legendary heydey.
“I refuse to give up and crawl away, I guess,” Johnson told me at the time.
Then, a miracle happened. A fan and amateur photographer, who also happened to be a cancer specialist, suggested that Johnson’s diagnosis and treatment were incorrect. After undergoing a life-threatening operation, and a long convalescence, Johnson was deemed cancer-free. (A follow-up doc tells the tale.)
“What did I have to lose?” he asks me, when we catch up for Rock Cellar, to discuss his new album, Blow Your Mind, made with longtime bandmates bassist Norman Watt Roy and drummer Dylan Howe, as well as Going Home producer Dave Eringa, that comes out June 15th.
The excitement and vigor of Going Home are still there, but this is also Johnson’s first album of new material in thirty years. It shows the guitarist who inspired Paul Weller, Johnny Marr and a host of other post-punk players to pick up the guitar and chop away till they dropped, in still-vital form.
“It’s the album I thought I’d never get to write,” he jokes.
“Wilko’s the real deal,” Roger Daltrey tells me of his one-time collaborator and friend. “That’s all there is to it.”
Rock Cellar: The new album is a fabulous follow-up to Going Back Home. Before I heard it I didn’t know what to expect, given all you’d been through, but it really rocks, and the songs are great. Tell me a little bit about the genesis of the songs, because it’s your first new batch in quite a long time.
Wilko Johnson: Well, after we had done the Going Back Home album, and then obviously I was in the hospital and all sorts of things, the record company came back to me, obviously, because that album had been such a success. They wanted another album out of us. Roger and I didn’t want to just do the same thing again, but they were fine with an album from me. But it’d been a long time since I’d done an album, and I was thinking, ‘Well, yeah, let’s do it.’ I wanted to do a really simple and straightforward thing, but I wanted to do my thing.
I didn’t want to just turn out another Wilko Johnson album post-Dr. Feelgood. I wanted to do something that was better.
Anyway, because the Daltrey album worked out so well, I wanted to use the same guys. And we did it fast. We did it in fifteen days, like Going Home, which we’d done in eight days. I still always think that’s the way to do it. I absolutely trust Dave Eringa, the producer, even though I only had a couple of songs written a long time ago, so we went in with the songs needing to be written. But that pressure was good, because it was also the first time in a long time — literally decades — where I was going into a studio with a big record company budget were thousands and thousands of pounds on the line. So once we got into it we were working real hard in between I was writing the songs, and that’s how they come about, under pressure, which I kinda love.
Rock Cellar: A lot has happened to you recently — there’s been a lot of ups and downs. Not just the album with Roger, but you’d been diagnosed with terminal cancer, you made two documentaries with Julien Temple, you become a star again because they was reminded everyone how much they loved you, and then, after a very risky operation, it turned out you were going to be around for a while longer. How did that affect your writing?
Wilko Johnson: Well, people said to me, ‘Are you going to write about some of the stuff that’s happened, being sentenced to death and stuff like that?’ And I just thought that’s not what I wanted to do. One of the songs, called “Marijuana,” that one came about because after my diagnosis I wrote some songs, and I never really used them.
But that song is about sitting at home waiting to die, and when we started making the album everyone was like, ‘Oh, man, that sounds real good.’ So that’s exactly how that one come about. But only that one is about the experience.
Rock Cellar: “Take It Easy” feels like a response.
Wilko Johnson: “Take It Easy” I wrote a long time ago, actually. That’s one of those things where you can hear what you want to hear, I think.
Rock Cellar: Your singing has really become much more inspired in many ways. Obviously, you’ve worked with Roger Daltrey recently, who is a fantastic singer and a true interpreter, and I hear a bit of him in your delivery, but did you think of Lee (Brilleaux, the legendary Dr. Feelgood frontman) and his delivery and his style, because he certainly had a lot of panache? Is he an inspiration for you still?
Wilko Johnson: No. I think everything to do with that was such a long time ago. Obviously that was an intense thing in the mid-70s, what we were doing, so certainly something’s got to rub off on you, but I don’t know. But making records the way you do, in a studio with headphones on, is not the same as going out and singing to a crowd, and that was a concern for me, that I could actually be feeling the thing, because I always find it kind of restricting in the studio, because there’s no live feeling.
But I think we got there. (continued below)
Rock Cellar: So what did Dave do to get you in that frame of mind?
Wilko Johnson: I just don’t know. One thing he is, though, that he’s technically brilliant. So everything is sorted out so you don’t have to do any of this ‘Did you roll it?’ or ‘Are you ready?’ and then, ‘No, can you wait a minute?’ There’s none of that. It’s just focused on the songs because everything is perfectly organized and he gets a really good sound. So when you’re putting on the vocal, you’ve got headphones on, but you’ve got a good sound through those headphones, and it felt very live. Things like that.
I don’t know how he does it, but it’s good!
Rock Cellar: A lot of players over the years have aped your style. Certainly Paul Weller, the Arctic Monkeys, Graham Coxon from Blur, Josh McClorey of The Strypes, have taken a page from the Wilko Johnson songbook. Do you listen to contemporary music or people that you’ve inspired, or do you just do your own thing at this point?
Wilko Johnson: I’m afraid I don’t. I’m no different than I was when I started. My musical taste froze in about 1972, so I find myself listening to a lot of John Lee Hooker and things I loved when I first learned to play.
Rock Cellar: Do still get inspired and find new things in those old recordings? Do you still find inspiration in John Lee Hooker and Muddy Waters?
Wilko Johnson: The thing about John Lee Hooker is there’s just so much to him, and what he does what he does, you can just get one little fragment and it will turn you on. The same phrase can do different things to you on different days. So yes, but I don’t write song like that. I can’t do it by sitting down and forcing it. In fact, usually I start from the riff.
I get a riff walking down the street, and then I’ll think, ‘What’s this riff about? What does it sound like? What does it say? Is it angry? Or is it cool? Or is it silly?’ So the kind of lyric you should be writing when you get a phrase to kick off from comes from what’s in the riff, really. And, of course, what was in the riff is not necessarily expressing anything autobiographical or anything like that. Sometimes it’s just downright silly.
Rock Cellar: Johnny Marr told me that after he wrote his book and he was making an album he felt he’d been reconnected with the things that had inspired him as a young person, but also helped him in his writing and his playing, because it reconnected him with the things he loved about music. Did you find that writing a memoir about the old days, and going back through the things that were good, or maybe not so good, when you were kind of stuck in the studio for those thirteen days with no material, kickstarted you in any way?
Wilko Johnson: Well, I don’t know. Writing my book, I worked very hard to slide it off. I mean, I had a laptop, and I’d be writing away, but normally, when you look back on things, you flash back on just moments. They’re not connected. But when you’re writing a book, you’ve got to remember things in sequence. Memory doesn’t normally do that. So I’d be going through some bad times and I’d get upset remembering when my wife died, and things like that, and I was so upset I couldn’t do it. I thought, ‘No, man. I’m done.’ But then, for instance, all that stuff with Dr. Feelgood, when I decided I wanted to walk away from it and I didn’t want to have part of it anymore, I never looked back on it.
But when I started to remember what had actually happened, and I realized what those bastards did, I realized that I was right and they were wrong. I visited the places where things happened, to jog my memory, in the dark hours, and I’d stand there looking at this doorway, or wherever, where all of this stuff had happened, remembering all that fury, and wow, it was intense. I felt like a ghost just visiting the scene of some tragedy. So yeah, that was pretty bloody intense. I guess writing my book did bring it all back to mind.
Rock Cellar: You had to be fairly angry remembering it all, understandably, but did the process help you come to terms with it, in the end?
Wilko Johnson: I mean, the thing is, it’s been so long now that I just accept that that’s what happened. To take the time to look back on it and detail was just something I’d never done before, so it was good for me, I think, to come to a conclusion that really they were wrong and I was evicted. But everything was so long ago that it doesn’t matter. That’s what happened. You know, it’s a funny old thing, life.
Rock Cellar: With all that’s happened to you, it’s been exciting to see you very busy. Over the last ten years, obviously, you had a reason to think the clock was ticking, so to speak, but your touring schedule and your studio output has been really tremendous, plus there’s been the documentaries. You’ve reminded a whole generation of fans that you’re still out there, alive and kicking, and made some new fans along the way. What do you think you might want to accomplish now, given that you’ve done so much in just the last few years?
Wilko Johnson: Well, I don’t know. It’s been really fun, because for many years I spent my time as a working musician, going around the world, working medium sized places. I never thought of making records. That’s because I don’t organize my life with a plan. But there’s been some crazy accidents in the past few years. Like the whole thing with Roger Daltrey.
When it happened, and it got such an amazing response, I remember thinking, ‘Blimey, why didn’t something like this happen when I was 25? Why did it have to wait until I was 70?’ So I think that the year I had that I believed I was going to die, with the way that it all panned out, just not knowing what was going to happen, where I just let things happen the way the wind blew me, turned out pretty okay.
So now, I think wherever the wind blows me, well, then that’s where I’ll be.