John Lydon kept his post-Sex Pistols band Public Image Ltd. on ice for nearly 17 years before resurrecting the avant-rock act in 2009 with a triumphant comeback (as anyone who has heard the group’s live performances will attest). Now the troupe-which includes veteran PiL’ers Bruce Smith and Lu Edmonds, plus newcomer Scott Firth-is back on disc with This Is PiL, the group’s first studio album in two decades. During his constant careering, Lydon has been a punk, a post-punk, an author, an actor and even host of a Discovery Channel show about insects. To music enthusiasts, he’ll always be Rotten. But Lydon sounds fairly satisfied these days, if still gleefully malcontent.
1 Was a new album inevitable after you restarted the band?
Only if we thoroughly enjoyed each other’s company, and we did. We’d done nearly two years of touring before. And so, by the time we’d earned enough money to get our own recording studio, we decided to rent a barn in sheep country in England. It was kind of a live setup, so we began thinking of ourselves as we would onstage, just playing with each other and experimenting. From that, the songs formulated.
2 Did you come in with some new ideas or songs that had been road-tested?
I had ideas beforehand for songs, but unfortunately my house in London had a fire and everything was destroyed. I remember going into the recording studio thinking, “I’m fucked.” But in life, I’ve always looked on the good side of things. I thought it must have happened for a point and a purpose, and it did. The songwriting began in the studio, and the songs just flowed naturally out of us. There are 12 songs on the album, but there were [originally] about 16. The other four just weren’t up to the standard.
3 Calling the album “This Is PiL” sounds like a brash statement. Was it?
Nah, I just couldn’t think of a title. The question was raised, “Well, what is it?” [The reply:] “‘This is PiL.'” It’s not a great intellectual work of the art elite. Everybody’s all over that. I don’t like naming things, anyway, but I’m quite happy with it. For me, it’s the content inside and not the name attached. Sometimes the name can be very relevant, but I always like single titles for songs, like “Rise” and things like that. Something simple and direct.
4 What makes this version of PiL work?
Well, I’ve known Bruce and Lu forever. They’re, indeed, the people I’ve worked with the longest. Put the three of us together, and you’ve got quite a lot of different influences. Then you add Scott, and the four of us get on like a house on fire – no threatening behaviors, no bad moods, just a deep understanding of each other. It’s taken me 30 years – 30 years! – to really understand that you don’t have to be in a band with animosity toward each other and be able to enjoy this. Every other outfit I was in was always at loggerheads, so this feels like quite an achievement.
5 This Is PiL is a completely independent affair. Did the major labels come sniffing around?
No, no. The large ones didn’t want to know, but they were intrigued. We’re viewed very negatively by the industry – they don’t mind imitating us or ripping us off, but they certainly don’t want to give us any credit. It’s been like that for 30 years. I did visit EMI with it, just to hear what they would have said. It was a great day. They were shocked and taken aback because they were expecting some nasty cliché to hit the turntable, and instead I tried to make some kind of friendly statement to them that all is forgiven. I’m not one for vendettas, even though the record companies have kept me crippled for so long.
6 When PiL went back on the road, you mentioned writing another memoir. Is that still happening?
I’ve put that way [back] on the shelf. [PiL] is much more fun. I didn’t know if PiL touring would work in terms of being able to keep ourselves so tightly bound that we would have a new album to make, but I found that is exactly what we are now. We’re a band, very eager to record and play live, so any thought of memoirs takes way, way, way second place. This is much too enjoyable to interrupt.