Johnny Rotten ruled the world — briefly — as a Sex Pistol, but John Lydon’s heart is really in Public Image Ltd.
“Public Image Ltd. is my heart and soul, always will be,” Lydon, 54, says of the band he formed after the Sex Pistols imploded in 1978 and which he re-launched in late 2009 after a 17-year break. “The Pistols is always great fun to do, (but) it’s creatively unrewarding. (PiL) is not a band, it’s something else. It’s a proper interest in human beings and emotions.
“That’s how I would best describe us — we experiment inside public emotions. We’re a laboratory. It’s a celebration of life.”
PiL’s party is going nonstop these days. Lydon — joined by PiL alumni Lu Edmonds on guitar and Bruce Smith on percussion, along with new bassist Scott Firth — kicked things off last fall in Europe and are in the midst of the group’s first North American tour in 17 years, which included a performance at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival as well as PiL’s first TV appearance in 18 years on ABC’s “Jimmy Kimmel Live.”
This year also marks the 30th anniversary of PiL’s raucous and irreverent May 1980 stop on “American Bandstand,” during which Lydon walked through the studio crowd, dragged audience members onto the set to dance and barely paid lip service to lip-syncing to recordings of the group’s songs.
“It was fantastic fun,” recalls the London native, who now resides in Los Angeles. “The whole idea of miming utterly appalled me, so I took it ... out there a little bit. Dick Clark was angry because I’d found his wig room; he had a collection of wigs on pegs on the wall, and I had great amusement in there for a short time.
“People always talk about us and include us in the best moments on that show, so that pleases me.”
During its 15-year run, PiL released eight studio albums that influenced post-punk rock sub-genres such as industrial and ambient. Its roster of 39 members during that time speaks to the group’s creative volatility, but Lydon and company occasionally collided with mainstream tastes, too; “Public Image,” “Death Disco,” “This is Not a Love Song” and “Rise” were hits in the U.K., while the song “Disappointed” topped the Billboard Modern Rock chart in 1989.
“It’s always been very much luck of the draw,” explains Lydon, who after PiL, wrote an autobiography, “Rotten — No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs,” and put together periodic Sex Pistols reunions. “It’s always about getting the right bunch of characters — not so much playing skills as the character of the people involved, and that changed as the music itself changed.
“Sometimes it can click well; it’s exceptionally rarely that it doesn’t. But still ... you can’t force yourself into a situation where you say, ‘OK lads, let’s come up with a hit album!’ Many people do it, of course, and I think it shows in their work. Like with Radiohead, I don’t feel any true emotion. The words are quite meaningless. It’s technique, and it’s irritating.
“I’m human. I want to learn something. I want to share something. I don’t want to be bombasted with style. I want to feel something.”
Some “very sad events” actually drew Lydon back to PiL, including the 2009 death of his father, which he says “tore me up,” and his brother’s subsequent battle with throat cancer.
“Death is so hard for me to cope with,” Lydon says. “I had to have a release from that. That led me into going back and listening to (1979’s) ‘Death Disco,’ a song I wrote about my mother’s death. That gave me the lust to get up there, back on stage and express these feelings.”
But, he adds, “We’re not the kind to go up there and be miserable, fashionably. It is about a celebration of life.”
If Lydon has his way, this will also be a complete rebirth of PiL. The live shows, documented on the new U.K. release “AliFe,” have been successful. Now he’s interested in making new PiL music, which he says will likely “come at the end of all this,” although it also depends on whether the North American and later European dates this year raise enough money to take the group back into the studio.
“We’ve got no backing — no record company, no sponsors, nothing like that,” explains Lydon, who’s also working to extricate PiL from any remaining record company contracts. “The only way we can make money is the touring, and then we can make a new album.
“It’s sort of like the old days of PiL, when the Pistols went kaput; I had to scrimp and scrape out of my own pocket. Not much has changed.”
The album will likely be recorded in the U.S., he says, possibly in the digital studio he’s created in the front room of his home. And Lydon doesn’t think material will be a problem.
“Yeah, I’ve got piles” of songs, says Lydon, who’s also working on another memoir. “I never stop writing. Most of my influences have never really come from a musical act. It tends to be things like the poetic beat of a newscast. There’s a rhythm to the way it’s laid out ... Movies can do that. Shakespeare and good poetry does that, and a bloody good book does that, or just a long walk.”
And, he adds, he’s anxious to give this particular PiL lineup its recorded due.
“We’re almost physically attuned to each other on stage,” Lydon says. “It’s a wonderful give and take — no nastiness, no arguing. We experiment sonically. I just love the potential. We truly love what we’re doing.”
Public Image Ltd. performs Wednesday, April 28, at the Crofoot Ballroom, 1 S. Saginaw St., Pontiac. Doors open at 8 p.m. Tickets are $30 in advance, $35 day of show. Call 248-858-9333 or visit www.thecrofoot.com.
Send your thoughts and comments to