Interview by Cameron Arndt
In a world beset by tumultuous political upheaval, wars, poverty and, on a smaller scale, seemingly unending sad occurrences – not least the perceived epidemic of celebrity deaths in 2016 – the story of Wilko Johnson is a rare, heartwarming and inspirational tale.
The legendary former Dr Feelgood/Blockheads guitarist had been ticking along quite nicely in his later years, touring with his vital, high octane solo trio when, in January 2013, he was diagnosed with late stage pancreatic cancer. He opted not to receive treatment and was told he had nine or ten months to live. He said at the time that this knowledge made him feel ‘vividly alive’ and arranged a farewell tour in March of that year, followed up with a final album.
The subsequently released record, Going Back Home, absolutely crackles – thanks to a kick-ass band consisting of his regular bassist, Norman Watt-Roy and drummer, Dylan Howe, along with Mick Talbot on piano/organ and excellent blues harp from Steve Weston, a powerhouse vocal performance from The Who’s Roger Daltrey and of course Wilko’s machine gun guitar style. Across the album’s 11 tracks he simply plays out of his skin – as he told BBC News in October that year, ‘I thought that was going to be the last thing I ever did’.
At the end of 2013 however a fan – who was also a doctor – got in touch telling Wilko there was ‘something strange’ going on as he was still alive. This led to a pioneering operation to remove the tumour which resulted in Johnson being completely cured and, after a period of recovery, returning to what he’d always known… the road.
As Wilko said ‘If there’s a moral to this story, it’s that you never know what’s going to happen.’
Fast forward a few years and the man, and his career, are both in fine fettle. There’s greater interest than ever in his music, and Julian Temple’s documentary, The Ecstasy Of Wilko Johnson [DVD], which followed the guitarist through his illness and shock reprieve, is a stirring and affecting watch. Meanwhile he came to the attention of a large slew of new fans thanks to his a recurring role on HBO’s smash hit TV series, Game Of Thrones, where he played mute executioner ‘Ser Ilyn Payne’ – a role which his signature ‘glowering’ expressions made him perfect for.
Now about to turn 70, he will celebrate the 30th Anniversery of the Wilko Johnson band with a prestigious headline slot at London’s Royal Albert Hall on the 26th September.
We were delighted to get the chance to have a chat by phone with the man himself ahead of these momentous events, and found him on good form, full of typically amusing asides and seemingly still bemused by recent events…
How are you feeling these days?
I’m really feeling fine! It’s just crazy, ever since I got cancer back in… whenever it was, that whole year and the subsequent events have just been crazy and then here I am today, I’m nearly 70 and waiting to play the Albert Hall and things like that. I thought I’d be getting my bus pass and moving to Eastbourne!
Have you ever thought of retiring?
No. These days especially, the band’s going so well, it’s all going so good and I just – actually I’m happy when I’m onstage, I’m happy when I’m doing it. You know, in the real world it’s a bit more kind of… complicated. On stage you don’t have to worry about a thing.
The Going Back Home album with Roger Daltrey was critically acclaimed, and one of the biggest selling records of your career, but made under very unusual circumstances. What was it like making that record?
It was great, obviously it was a strange time for me. I’d been given ten months to live and, in fact we were already in ‘extra time’ if you like. Roger got in touch and said “Let’s do this album” and I’m sort of saying “We better do it quick!”
But we did do it quick, we had 8 days to do it, and I just thought it was going to be like a good time bash, you know, but… it just all started happening, it felt really good doing it. I didn’t even think I was going to see it released and then it started selling, turned into a best seller. I thought can things get any more ridiculous! And of course I’m thinking, “Well this is great, I’ve got this best selling record and now I’m gonna die!” But little did I know that round the corner was rescue in the form of the doctors at Adam Brooks Hospital who saved my life.
That just came out of the blue didn’t it?
Yeah, I had made the acquaintance of this guy called Charlie Chan, he’s a photographer, and we were at a festival and he told me he was also a cancer surgeon. Later that year he turned up at my house and he said “Listen, I’ve been thinking about you and there’s something strange about your case, really if you had pancreatic cancer diagnosed in January you should be dead now, or very very ill.”
So he said he wanted me to go to Adam Brooks Hospital and see his friend Emmanual Huguet, who’s the head surgeon there, and see what he thought. So I went to see this guy who sat there explaining how they can perform this huge operation on me and actually save my life! So I’d been going along for more than a year thinking my life is now at an end and I am going to die and there’s nothing that can save me and then, suddenly, they saved me!
You seemed to have a good attitude after the diagnosis in terms of just getting out there and doing as much as you could?
Yeah, I decided right at the moment they gave me the diagnosis I didn’t want to spend my time searching after miracle cures or worrying about it. I just thought “Right, you’re going to die, you still feel pretty much ok, you’ve got this great swelling in your stomach but apart from that you’re fine. You could do some gigs.” And they were great! In fact that whole year was… well it was great! And then it all turned out with this kind of soppy, happy ending!
After you got better did you just want to get back out playing again?
Well yeah. I mean it actually took a long time, I was in hospital for quite a while after the operation. Then when I went home I was still very very weak. I was so thin and weak it took me a long time before I even touched a guitar. A whole year or more went by, and then I was like, ok I’m fit again, I’m walking about again and not falling over. I wanted to do a benefit gig for Adam Brooks Hospital so we got ready and did that and there we all were. The team was all together and we just carried on.
Going back to the album with Roger, how did you pick which songs to include?
Well Roger first suggested it ages and ages ago before the cancer thing and I thought I’d like us to make a really really good album of 60s American Soul. You know, lesser known stuff, but stuff that Roger could really get into. Anyways that never came together, then when the situation was ‘Let’s make a final album before you die’ I thought “Ok, I’ll have a memorial to myself.” So I used mostly my songs on it, I just picked out of my songs. Stuff that I thought Roger could work on, you know.
Are you planning to work together again?
Yeah, obviously that’s always on the cards but Roger is a very busy, very elusive bloke! I saw him fairly recently at the Roundhouse but you turn around and he’s gone! So maybe it’ll happen, you don’t know.
How are you feeling about playing the Royal Albert Hall? Have you played there before?
I have played there a couple times, I played there a few years back with John Otway, I got up and played a couple of numbers with him, and we supported The Who there some time ago. But it’s all a bit of a blur when I think that I’m 70 and I’m playing the Albert Hall!
Have you got any special plans for it?
No, just now, as far as I’m I’m concerned it’s just another gig on that endless highway. What does happen at the time, we shall see!
You’ve played with the same band [Norman Watt-Roy on bass and Dylan Howe on drums] for many years now. Why do you three work so well together?
I dunno. They’re absolute brilliant. I mean Norman has a huge following of his own, people come just to see him play the bass – Me to! I love his bass playing – and Dylan is a brilliant drummer. And we’re all good friends and it’s just nice, it works.
You’ve got a really distinct playing style. How did you come up with it?
Well when I was a teenager I was trying to imitate Mick Green and I couldn’t do it, so I just kind of ended up with my way. It’s a very simple way and it’s, if you like, based on rhythm. Rhythm is what I dig, which is also why it’s good playing with Norman. You can get in some good stuff!
What about singing? Do you enjoy being the lead singer in the band?
Yeah, I just do my thing really. Back in the days of Dr Feelgood I used to write songs with Lee Brilleaux’s voice in mind, but now I just do what I want to do!
A quick mention of your appearances in Game Of Thrones, was that the only acting you’ve ever done?
Yes it was. I’ve never done anything like that before. I was just asked to go and audition for this thing in London, and I didn’t know anything about it. I just went and nobody else was auditioning, it was just this American with a video camera telling me I was doing this really evil so-and-so – and I was pleased to hear that he’d had his tongue cut out so there were no lines to learn! So basically he’s reading some lines and telling me to react and I’m looking and I’m thinking “You! I’ll fuckin ‘ave you!” and he said, “Right, you’ve got the job!”
So what was it like filming it, you didn’t have any idea how big it was going to be did you?
No, no idea. They told me it was for an American TV series and I just thought it was going to be some small thing, but you get there and there’s hundreds of cars parked, there’s cameras on cranes, people with their name written on the back of their chair and all sorts of stuff, you know! I had a caravan with a star and my name on it! All of that! It was such good fun. I think all the actors, everyone was having a good time doing it.
Would you do any more acting in future?
If they can find a character that’s got no tongue I’d be happy to!
What other music plans have you got for the future?
Well we just started putting together our new album, I can’t give any clue when that will be done, but as soon as I can. We’ve realised over the last couple of years that there’s a lot of stuff kind of building up, but also we’ll be on the road. We’re going to Japan after the Albert Hall, and I think we might be recording the album round about then. That’s as far as I can see!
The Wilko Johnson Band celebrate their 30th Anniversary Concert at London’s Royal Albert Hall on Tuesday 26th September. Book tickets from www.thegigcartel.com or call the 24 HR Box Office: 0844 478 0898
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