It’s always a unique event talking to Wilko Johnson. His accent and way with words is distinctly British and profoundly eccentric. The last time we spoke (you can read the interview HERE) the ex-Dr. Feelgood guitarist was about to start touring the UK with his solo band, had recently finished shooting Game of Thrones season one, and was secretly beavering away on his autobiography.
Said autobiography, entitled Looking Back At Me, is out now and it is absolutely, expectedly brilliant. I caught up with the British bluesman to discuss his book, reading sagas in Old Icelandic, and what the future holds for his Game of Thrones character, Ser Ilyn Payne.
Geeks of Doom: The first thing I want to ask you about is your autobiography. Are you happy with how that came out?
Wilko Johnson: Well yes and although you call it my book, my autobiography, in fact Zoe Howe put this thing together. Although I am the subject of it, as you say, so a lot of it is me blathering on about various topics, but yes I’m very, very happy with what Zoe did with this material.
Geeks of Doom: It’s not a conventional autobiography, is it?
Wilko Johnson: No, it’s not. In fact, first of all we just wanted a book for a piece of merchandise, something to sell along with CDs and t-shirts that would just obviously be rock and roll pictures and a bit of text. Anyway, we got Zoe to put this together and as it was being put together it started kind of expanding from that. They were finding photographs of my past and childhood and things and talking about that and so it’s becoming a biographical thing. Also while she was kind of hunting out this stuff she was interviewing me, although that was just switching her iPhone on and recording me blathering away, you see…so it’s kind of bits and pieces of reminiscences or whatever and she’s arranged this like a kind of fragmented thing which I think makes it all the better.
Geeks of Doom: Were you every apprehensive about re-living your life?
Wilko Johnson: Well no because as I say I didn’t actually realize I was doing it! [laughs] When the thing was first conceived I knew that it was going on but I wasn’t really involved at all. As I was getting more involved I didn’t see it like that because now and then Zoe would be talking to me and I would be talking about whatever crossed our mind at that moment. Also, over the last couple of years there’s been, first of all, Julien Temple’s film Oil City Confidential and that really was the first time that I had looked back on Dr. Feelgood. Being interviewed and finding material for that film made me look back on those days which was something I’d never done and then this last year [I have] been preparing this Dr. Feelgood box set. This involved digging up tapes and things, listening to things I hadn’t heard for like 35 years or something and suddenly finding myself whisked back then thinking, “˜Wow, listen to this!’ It was things like demos we were making before we went in to do our fourth album which was the album where we had a big argument and broke up. But listening to these demos from before we went in to do that album and I can remember I was really pleased with the way things were going and remembering that kind of, “˜Oh it’s going to be great, we’re going to do this album, it’s all going to be really good!’ Looking back on it now I can say, “˜Man, but you were already doomed!’ You were sitting there all cheerful and that and you didn’t know that you were going to get blown out in about in about two weeks’ time! [laughs] Quite complicated memories really.
Geeks of Doom: There’s photos and scans of all kinds of memorabilia, things like your bus conductor pass. Was there anything that you didn’t even realize existed?
Wilko Johnson: I don’t know. Like I say generally Zoe and co. would come round my place and I’d go, “˜Look in that drawer, there’s a load of pictures and whatnot.’ Say with that bus conductor badge I had been telling the story of how I had got my first Telecaster [guitar] and that involved getting a job as a bus conductor and I said “˜I tell you what, I’ve still got that badge!’…so sometimes the things were like that. They found some things that I didn’t know I had, in fact Zoe was talking to me earlier and saying there’s a reproduction of a poem the kids wrote when I was a school teacher addressed to me and I didn’t know that. My wife must have saved it, you see. I didn’t know about that one.
Geeks of Doom: One thing that really struck me in the book was your relationship with your dad and it was because of him that you changed your name [Wilko Johnson was actually born John Wilkinson]. Was that a strain for you to talk about him again?
Wilko Johnson: No, no. I mean I’m not unaccustomed to talking about him. The Feelgoods was something that I didn’t dwell on or want to talk about. But him, if the conversation drifted that way I would talk about him and yeah [laughing] I didn’t like him! Looking that far back I was sixteen when he died and I think my childhood was blighted [laughs] in a way, but it’s not painful to me now. That’s way back then. I think you are what you are; I am a miserable so-and-so and I just always have been! Now I look back on my life, it’s crazy: the way I look at some times in my life when I’ve had absolute paradise, everything you could want, and yet I’ve contrived to be miserable, you see. Now, I think a certain amount of this misery is due to what happened to me in my childhood but I don’t want to blame anyone or anything. This is the way you are, you grow up to be like you are and then you just have to make what you can of it. So remembering him, I know I didn’t like him.
Geeks of Doom: Would you say things that happened back then drove you on? Obviously back then you weren’t sure that you wanted to be a musician…
Wilko Johnson: Well becoming a musician was never an ambition, it was something that happened. I mean when Dr. Feelgood started going seriously I was I think already 24 years old so it wasn’t like something that was on the cards for me, it just happened. If it hadn’t happened I don’t know what I would have been, sometimes I wonder! [laughs] But I chose to do that, I didn’t learn to be a painter, I never really wrote anything. I didn’t become a writer, I become a twanger! [laughs] A twanger of twelve bars!
Geeks of Doom: In the book my favorite quote and favorite page is when you talk about your dear Irene. You said, “˜She had this smile, man…’ That to me said a lot about you, your relationship, her…
Wilko Johnson: Well she did have this smile, man. I remember when she got sick … she was, well, don’t start me talking. She was an extraordinary person and obviously one that’s so wrapped up with my life. I mean we were together from the age of sixteen and I still haven’t got over her. Yeah, life is different now without her.
Geeks of Doom: Ok, we’ll move on. Something that really made me laugh out loud was a moment at the end where you were travelling and writing in your notebook. You left a space so you could go back and say what you would be like twenty years later. What would you say to yourself now in twenty years?
Wilko Johnson: Well, my reply in the book is “˜you’re both twats’! But also I should have added “˜I don’t expect to receive a further reply’ because that will be in another fifteen years and I don’t expect to still be around. So I got the final word there; they’re both twats!
Geeks of Doom: [laughs] Fair enough! I want to ask you about your acting. Obviously you’re in Game of Thrones; have you been back to the States for more filming?
Wilko Johnson: Well I’ve done the second series. I think I’m at the end of the second series, it’s kind of a shorter piece this time. But this Game of Thrones, I mean [it was] the first time I have ever, ever acted. I was offered this part, I don’t know I was somehow recommended or something…and when I went to the audition – audition’s the wrong word actually because my character has no tongue so I’ve no lines to learn so there’s nothing to audit – but they told me, “It’s an American TV series” and looking at the bit of script I thought it was going to be something like Xena the Princess Warrior or something, you know, I thought, “˜That’ll be good!’ You know, get a leather jacket out of it or something and anyway they were quite pleased with what they saw. Then I went over to Belfast actually to film the first couple of days and suddenly, [I thought] “˜bloody hell, man, it’s a big one!’ I mean it was a full-scale HBO production and there were hundreds and hundreds of people there was, it was fantastic! … I wear this chainmail, right, which was a bit of a problem this chainmail it’s like from your neck down to your knees with long sleeves. Real metal and it weighs a lot. Got this bloody chainmail on and a sword on your back and all that and then they put a big leather coat over me so you couldn’t see most of the chainmail and I think why didn’t they just make some sleeves! [laughs] But it was great you’ve got your caravan then this sort of minibus comes up [that is] gonna drive up to the location and we all get in this minibus and it’s great. It’s like workmen turning up at a site in the minibus and they’re all knights in armor all climbing out of the minibus! [laughs] As I say there were just so many people and man they worked so hard. And they’re just so coordinated in between takes; there’s people whizzing about checking on the continuity and working really hard, getting up really early in the morning. I mean it’s just so different from the music business, I really enjoyed it.
Geeks of Doom: And your character Ser Ilyn Payne is responsible for killing one of the major characters. Have you had any negative feedback from the fans?
Wilko Johnson: [laughs] No… Although I did receive last week a fan letter it was forwarded to me from somebody in Brazil in Rio de Janeiro saying that they really dug my portrayal of Ser Ilyn Payne and it was exactly how they had always imagined him!
Geeks of Doom: But no nutcases threatening to get you?
Wilko Johnson: No, no. That’s the only communication that I’m aware of…I don’t look on websites and things! [laughs]
Geeks of Doom: Are you going to be in it more often from season three?
Wilko Johnson: Well it’s a very vicious thing, you see, everybody gets killed. I’ve survived so far as I know. I do know people that are rather addicted to this book that know all about what’s going to happen. They’ve told me a couple of things things are in store for me, but of course I don’t know if the film will follow the book or what. So as I say I really enjoy it because it’s like it just involves a couple of day’s work here and there which can fit in obviously with working as a musician and also I don’t have any lines to learn. I just have to walk around glaring at people really! [laughs] Pretty good, pretty good.
Geeks of Doom: Has anyone recognized you just for that role?
Wilko Johnson: Actually just after I got the part, before they even started filming, I think it had been on the film’s website, we’d just done a gig and we were leaving the gig and the people were shouting out, “˜Ilyn Payne!’ Now and then people come up at gigs and that and a couple of people have got me to sign the book for instance. I don’t want it to go to my head! [laughs]
Geeks of Doom: I know you said earlier that you never really became a writer but you’re a great lover of stories and you read a lot.
Wilko Johnson: Oh, yeah, yeah. Reading is my main, er, thingy. I mean I studied English at University.
Geeks of Doom: Well you also studied Old Icelandic!
Wilko Johnson: Yes I did and in fact I was the only one! [laughs]…it was a subsidiary course just on the third year and you could choose things like American literature or modern literature, stuff you had read anyway. I thought never in my life will I learn Old Icelandic and so I chose to do it and it was just me and Mr. Frankis every week; I’d go in and we sit there reading sagas together! [laughs] I think it was more fun than modern literature.
Geeks of Doom: But there’s no Wilko-penned sagas sitting in the drawer somewhere?
Wilko Johnson: No, no. Well actually every now and then I come across my folders from university days and sometimes I think “˜bloody hell, I can’t remember doing all that work!’ [laughs] I mean like big, thick folders, lots of writing which includes like essays and things. I’ve got several translations of Icelandic and Anglo-Saxon poetry but whether they’re worthy of any scrutiny I don’t know! [laughs] …I think I wrote some poems.
Geeks of Doom: Didn’t you feel like you could include them in the book?
Wilko Johnson: Well actually now I come to think of it there are a few pieces of writing I’ve done that aren’t in the book. Talking with Zoe earlier we were talking about the way the book rambles about, you know it just follows its own logic, and I was saying actually there’s probably thousands of branches that we could’ve taken that just didn’t happen. So you think, “˜wow, maybe it’s worth a volume two!’ [laughs]
Geeks of Doom: It could be like Game of Thrones and just keep going?
Wilko Johnson: Oh yeah, just extend and extend it! [laughs] But we’ll have to see. The thing might be a big flop!
Geeks of Doom: I guarantee it won’t be, it’s a brilliant book. Thanks again for your time, Wilko.
Wilko Johnson: You’re welcome.
Wilko Johnson’s autobiography Looking Back At Me is published by Cadiz and is available now. For further info visit – www.wilkojohnson.org