In the early 1970s, deep in the “Thames Delta” in England, a young rhythm and blues band was making a sweaty, chaotic mark on the English music scene. Canvey Island based Dr Feelgood became known for energetic, punk-style sets and guitarist Wilko Johnson was the main attraction. His wild-eyed Angus-Young-in-a-suit (before Angus was in short trousers) performances captivated audiences.
Recently, Dr Feelgood was the subject of a documentary. Directed by Julian Temple, Oil City Confidential is a brilliantly, beautifully constructed film, and Wilko was the star of the show. Not shy on camera, Wilko also has a feature role in the TV show Game of Thrones — that of the King’s mute executioner Ilyn Payne.
I caught up with Wilko on the eve of his latest UK tour. Ever hilarious, he provided the most extraordinary end to any interview I have ever done.
Geeks of Doom: How are you?
Wilko Johnson: I’m, erm, how am I? Let me think. Alright, I think, yeah. Pretty good in fact. How are you?
Geeks of Doom: Very good thank you. How did the current Wilko Johnson band come together?
Wilko Johnson: How? Oh blimey, now you’re going back a long way. Well actually Norman Watt-Roy the brilliant bass player and myself first met [when] we were playing in Ian Dury and the Blockheads about 200 years ago. I don’t know, a long time ago. I had some gigs of my own at that time and I asked Norman to play the bass…we’re talking about 1985 now…and we’ve been kind of playing together ever since. My entire band is myself and Norman Watt-Roy on the bass and another ex-Blockhead Dylan Howe on the drums. And a very splendid combo it is.
Geeks of Doom: Absolutely. Do you have plans to record an album together?
Wilko Johnson: Yeah we’re trying! [laughs] We’re a little busy this year but…yes we are putting an album together. I think that we’ll see the light of day early in the New Year.
Geeks of Doom: Cool. As you said you’re busy at the moment and this week you go out on your UK tour – are you excited about that?
Wilko Johnson: Err [laughs] Yes! I’m going to give a yes to that one.
Geeks of Doom: Do you still enjoy touring?
Wilko Johnson: Absolutely. For me music’s always been a live thing, you know, a performance thing. What I really like to do is play in front of audiences, that’s what it’s all about really, provide a bit of excitement you know?
Geeks of Doom: Yeah, that’s what people need!
Wilko Johnson: It is. I think people should get more and more excited until we’re all absolutely hysterical!
Geeks of Doom: [laughs] You’ve been playing for a long time, is there any place you’re looking forward to revisiting on this tour?
Wilko Johnson: On this tour? Umm [looks down the list at the tour schedule]. I think they’re places we’ve pretty much been before. I look forward to everywhere really. We’re going to kick this tour off in Scotland [although] there’s no rhyme or reason in it.
Geeks of Doom: So you didn’t plan it so that you work your way down and down the UK slowly towards Canvey?
Wilko Johnson: [laughs] No, no. [laughs] I know nothing, right, about where we’re going or anything like that. I kind of get in the car and go, “where we going?” They just sort of take me and push me on the stage! You never know where you’re going to end up sometimes. This year we’ve been to Moscow, we’ve been to Japan, we was up in Finland 2 or 3 weeks ago. All sorts of places. It’s familiar to be going around the UK, it’s rather nice.
Geeks of Doom: Also to do with traveling, in Oil City Confidential you talk a lot about your travels and you’ve seen much of the world. Is there a particular place that you would like to play but you haven’t yet?
Wilko Johnson: That I haven’t been to? Goodness, let me think. Well, tell you the honest truth, I would really like to go to Iapetus which is a satellite of Saturn. Now, most of the moons of Saturn they’re on a plain with the rings of Saturn. What I mean is if you was on one of those moons and you looked up at this huge Saturn in the sky you would just see a line across the planet, you would not see the rings. But Iapetus which is somewhat further out is not exactly on the plain of the rings. Saturn would be tilted towards you so you’d see this great big thing in the sky with the rings around it and it must look really good. I’d like to go there although I have been told there are not a great number of gigs available there right at this moment!
Geeks of Doom: [laughs] That would be an interesting entry on your tour schedule: Edinburgh, Glasgow, Saturn!
Wilko Johnson: Absolutely! “Come on everybody, clap your hands! All five of them!” [laughs]
Yeah I’m very, very keen on astronomy, man. It’s fantastic. You know Saturn will be back up in the sky soon, it vanishes for a while every year. I advise you and indeed everybody if they can get themselves to a telescope have a look at the planet Saturn and I’ll tell you what it will knock you out. It will just knock you out. I’ve got my telescope here up on the roof and I like to go up there and look at the old cosmos, you know. Probably my favourite thing to look at is Saturn…you think that thing is like 500 million miles away and it looks brilliant. It’s fantastic, so yes I do like astronomy.
Geeks of Doom: So apart from space do you still do a lot of traveling away from music?
Wilko Johnson: Actually I think if it wasn’t for music I don’t think I would have traveled. I’m not a traveling type person although I suppose I have done quite a bit. I’ve been to Japan a couple of times just for a holiday because that’s one of my favourite places. I do like Japan. Yeah, twice I’ve been just to see the girls! [laughs] No, it’s a very good place. We should be back there in the New Year I think. We were there earlier this year a short time after the earthquake. While we were there we did experience one of these aftershocks, a tremor. We were dining magnificently in this Turkish restaurant in Tokyo and suddenly these Japanese people they all start looking at each other and we go, “what? what? what?” and then its starts. They could see it I think it and the place starts shaking and it’s like turbulence in an aeroplane. You sit there and carry on with your meal and, you know, hope the Japanese people can’t see the blind panic in your eyes! [laughs]
When we were there we were playing, I think it was two weeks later and it was fantastic. I got so many letters and people coming up to us and saying, “thank you very much for coming to Japan!” A lot of international acts had been cancelling shows in Japan for fear of the radioactivity business…oh man, they were just so glad we were there, you know? I made a little speech at the end of the gig: “just to tell you we’re feeling so much sympathy in England and we love Japan” and they go crazy. Wonderful people actually the Japanese. They needed a kind of expression of friendship from the rest of the world.
Geeks of Doom: I think its fair to say that most people know you best from your time in Dr Feelgood – are you still proud of your work with them?
Wilko Johnson: Oh absolutely…Dr Feelgood was the thing that rather unexpectedly started me off as a musician and oh yeah, I’m damn proud of it. I think we made our little mark on rock and roll and influenced things to a fair extent. That’s kind of nice to feel. But of course people who remember me in Dr Feelgood are in fact older folks because [laughs] it’s been over 30 years you see since I was in Dr Feelgood. So people who say I’ve been following you, I saw you play at Hammersmith Odeon in 1974 you know you’re not talking to a teenager! [laughs]
Geeks of Doom: Since Oil City Confidential have you noticed any change in your fans at shows?
Wilko Johnson: I have to say I think that was an absolutely brilliant film. All the credit for it goes to Julian Temple [director] you know he made such a fantastic film which was a great thing in itself. But oh yeah it’s certainly made a difference, we’re getting a lot more work, we’re seeing a lot more people and happily younger people too. I mean that film was showing something absolutely new to a lot of young people you know it was a long time ago. So yeah, good old Oil City Confidential.
Geeks of Doom: Would you ever revisit Dr Feelgood?
Wilko Johnson: The band now is just 4 guys that I don’t know and I think they’ve had about 6 guitarists since me. I don’t really dig what they do now, I don’t think they should use that name. There were one or two occasions after the bust up (that led to Wilko leaving the band in the late ’70s) when it nearly happened that we got back together again but it never quite did…there was one occasion a few years back when [Wilko Johnson band] did a gig with [Dr Feelgood] actually in Tokyo; I have to say that I was top of the bill and they were supporting me! You know, just want to make that clear! [laughs]
Geeks of Doom: Were there any of the original guys in the band at that time?
Wilko Johnson: Oh yeah, yeah. Lee Brilleaux [lead singer] was still alive and actually the people in the band at that time I did know at one-removed. The people in the band now I’m unfamiliar with.
Geeks of Doom: And of course Dr Feelgood always had a strong connection with Canvey Island, you always made it clear that’s your roots.
Wilko Johnson: …I don’t actually live on Canvey Island any more, I live up the hill. As soon as I made a bit of money I tell you I moved off of there! [laughs] But I am an Essex person, I do love the Thames Estuary. I love to look out over the Thames Estuary and I love being in Essex where it’s flat and there’s no [big] hills and you get a big sky and preferably on the horizon should be a blazing oil refinery and then I feel relaxed.
Geeks of Doom: Away from music a lot of people might have seen you, but didn’t know it was you because you had a role in the TV show Game of Thrones.
Wilko Johnson: Well yes indeed! [laughs] In fact they’re starting to make the second series. Immediately after this tour is over in October I shall be off filming again, wearing chainmail and a sword on my back and all that. It’s something I’ve never done before; acting, you see, acting! [laughs] I think I should wear a cravat and stuff like that now! I tell you what it was great. I got offered this part and it was a brilliant part because the character that I play has had his tongue cut out so I’ve got no lines to learn, right? I say, “what do you want me to do?” “Just go around giving everyone dirty looks.” I go, “I’m very good at that!” [laughs] And mate it really was most enjoyable. It was a big scale production. Hundreds of people working. They sort of say [mimics megaphone] “ok, background action” and people start walking about. They go “action!” and you sort of do your bit and then a couple of minutes later it stops. Suddenly thousands of people come rushing on [to the set]; they’re taking pictures of you, they’re checking out the continuity. This one guy, his whole gig is to make sure the candles don’t burn down in between takes! I’m certainly looking forward to another go at that.
Geeks of Doom: Would you like to do more acting, maybe a speaking part?
Wilko Johnson: Well I’ve already tried funnily enough! [laughs] I’ve even got an agent now, you see. I say to her, “what I want is parts for people who have their tongues cut out and you only work for a couple of days on a thing and then bugger off and keep doing gigs!” I don’t think I could quite star in the West End, but then of course as I go into the searing yellow, and I’m getting Shakespearean here, I’m talking about getting old, man you get less and less gigs. I would like to play Romeo…kind of too old for that. I’m a bit too young for King Lear…I would like to do more but whether I could do actual acting with speaking, you know, ‘actor with tongue’ type (I’m not sure). I’ve got loads of stuff I could do like ‘to be, or not to be, that is the question. Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take arms against a sea of troubles and by opposing end them? To die, to sleep, no more; and by a sleep to say we end the heart-ache, and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to. ‘tis a consummation devoutly to be wished. To die, to sleep; to sleep perchance to dream. Ay, there’s the rub. For in that sleep of death what dreams may come, when we have shuffled off this mortal coil, must give us pause’.
Geeks of Doom: That was amazing, I’d give you the job!
Wilko Johnson: [laughs] Well thank you very much!
Geeks of Doom: Wilko, it’s been an absolute pleasure talking to you.
Wilko Johnson: Oh thank you very much, and to you of course, and maybe we’ll see you down the road.
Wilko Johnson’s UK tour starts at the Edinburgh Caves on September 15th. Special guest is Ian Siegal. Ticket Hotline: 0871 230 1101. Book Online: www.seeticketscom. Further info: www.wilkojohnson.org.
Dates as follows:
Edinburgh Caves (Sept 15)
Glasgow O2 ABC 2 (Sept 16)
Aberdeen Lemon Tree (Sept 17)
Newcastle O2 Academy (Sept 18)
Sheffield O2 Academy (Sept 22)
Kendal Brewery Arts Centre (Sept 23)
Holmfirth Picturedrome (Sept 24)
Leicester O2 Academy (Sept 25)
Bilston Robin (Sept 29)
London Islington O2 Academy (Sept 30)
Manchester Academy (Oct 1)
Nottingham Rescue Rooms (Oct 2)
Gloucester Guildhall (Oct 6)
Falmouth Princess Pavilion (Oct 7)
Exeter Phoenix (Oct 8)
Brighton Komedia (Oct 9).