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Wilko Johnson interview

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Wilko Johnson celebrates his 70th birthday this year as well as 30 years of the Wilko Johnson band.  I spoke to him about the show and about his diagnosis a few years ago with terminal inoperable cancer – and his subsequent recovery.

Where did the name wilko come from?

It’s a long and not particularly complicated story but that’s what I’ve been since the age of 25.  It’s not only me – I know of probably ten or eleven people around the world called Wilko.  I know there’s a Finnish Wilko, there’s a Wilko Gonzales in Spain and there are a couple of Wilkos in New Zealand, so the whole idea is catching on slowly.

You turn 70 in July – an age that a few years ago nobody expected you to reach.

Well exactly so. The last four or so years of my life have been very strange.  I was diagnosed with an inoperable and terminal cancer in 2013 and given 10 months to live, and they said they couldn’t do anything, so I thought about it and decided I was going to make the most of the ten months.  I decided not to go searching for any miracle cures or anything like that.  I thought “Right, I’m going to die” and set out and managed a farewell tour in the UK, I did gigs in Japan, saying goodbye to my friends, and they were some of the best gigs I’ve ever done.  The feeling of being on stage and everybody knowing you’re going to die, it’s very hard to go wrong.  I don’t know, the feeling of being on stage when you’ve got no future, no past there’s just a blank, so everything you are is concentrated on that moment on stage, it can be very very good.

I suppose being in that situation makes you focus on enjoying the present.

Exactly that was the only thing I could do.  The thing is you think “well I’m going to die”, and it’s very hard to keep your mind off that idea but you think “you’re not dying now, you’ve got this last amount of time left” and just make the most of it. You look at the moment you’re in, it’s great – the sun shining or whatever, but be in that moment, don’t think about yesterday or the fact there’s no tomorrow, just do it. Doing that on stage is very very good.

I imagine it must have been quite emotional on those shows with the audience reactions.

Oh yeah, I was kind of experiencing a personal feeling for me I’d never really known.  I knew people liked a little bit of rock and roll, they liked my music, but over in Japan doing gigs and you’ve got these huge places with a sea of Japanese faces all in tears and holding up posters and things like that.  Talking to people, and I got this big bag of letters that Japanese people had sent me.  The kind of personal affection that they expressed is really very moving.  A lot of these letters were in broken English which made it all the more touching.  Stuff like that, yes it was a great year.

I imagine then getting the news that yes they can operate and save your life – that must have turned your world upside down again.

It was a crazy thing.  As I say I’d decided to approach things by accepting that yes I was going to die and there was no helping it, and then by a series of coincidencs, I ended up at Addenbrooks hospital talking with Emmanuel Huguet the surgeon and by this time the tumour was huge, it was the size of a melon in my stomach and I’d been going for this whole time thinking at any moment this thing could burst and then I’m gone.  Then there I am with him describing to me this massive operation that he felt was feasible.  He and his team had looked at all the scans and felt they could do it but it was going to be a big operation and in fact such an operation had never been carried out before.  I’m sitting there thinking “This guys telling me he can save my life” after all the things that had happened.   My whole life’s been shaken up since then.

You released “Going back home” in 2014 which was seen as a farewell album.

Well it was. It was strange and great and fantastic to do that album. We had 7 days to do it in.  I didn’t really know Roger Daltrey very well but we got on really well.  I was thinking, well my time is now up – we were in the eleventh month, and I’m never going to see this record released.  But then yes I did see it being released and then I get this last minute rescue, it’s crazy.
It was a great experience and I think we made a pretty good record, it’s probably the best record I’ve ever been involved in – certainly the best selling.

Have you thought about making a new album?

We are ourselves now.  We’ve just started gathering material to make a new album.  I don’t know exactly when – as soon as we can, but my brains starting to wake up and we’ve got some pretty good ideas for material that sounds good to us, so we’ll be doing that.

To celebrate your 70th birthday and 30 years of the Wilko Johnson band, you’ve got a headline show at the Royal Albert Hall in September.

I know, I’m supposed to be just collecting my bus pass and leading a quiet life and all this is happening which I’m rather glad about really.

In the early days with Dr Feelgood, could you ever imagine headlining the Royal Albert Hall?

Absolutely not.  That’s why it’s so crazy, something I could never do in my time.  I never thought I’d do that, but something I’ve learnt in these last four or five years is that you just never know.  You never ever know.

And of course it’s not just music that keeps you busy.  You released an autobiography last year, and you’ve appeared in Game of Thrones as Ser Ilyn Payne.

Yeah, all these things happening to me.  I am an Actor, a writer, when really I’m mainly a skiffler.

As youre not an actor by trade, how did you find appearing in Game of Thrones ?

I just got this request out of nowhere to go to an audition in London for what was described as a part in an American TV series.  I had no idea what it was.  I got to this audition and there was only me auditioning and there was just a guy in a room with a video camera and he was saying “you’ll be playng this character and he’s pretty evil”, and then he said he’d had his tongue cut out so I don’t have to learn any lines.  He points the video camera at me and starts reading this script and he’s asking me to react to it, and I’m looking at him thinking “you so and so, I’m going to have you” and just glared at him.  He said “Right, you’ve got the job”.  Doing it was just so fun, great fun.  Everybody, all the actors, it was like being a kid.  You’re dressed up in armour with a sword on your back and stuff like that. I loved it.

And you got to execute Sean Bean didn’t you?

Yes indeed.  When I got there on the first day I went onto the set and Sean Bean came up and introduced himself and shook my hand.  What a gent, what a good bloke.

Are you likely to appear in any more episodes do you know?

I really don’t know.  They did send me best wishes and flowers and stuff when I was in hospital and I know they haven’t actually killed my character off, so there’s always a possibility.  I’d certainly love it if they let me do a bit more – it was good fun.

As well as the Royal Albert Hall show you’ve got a few other shows this year including a Blues festival in the US.

I never know- when the car comes I’m always asking where we’re going.  I do know we’re doing festivals in the summer, we’re doing the Albert Hall and I know we’re going to Japan.  There are probably things I don’t know though.  No point telling me as I’ll have forgotten the next day.

You’ve never moved far from your roots have you – born in Canvey Island and still live in Southend?

I was born and raised on Canvey island and I’ve always got to live within a short distance of the Thames Eastuary because I tell you what, I think the Thames estuary is one of the most beautiful landscapes in the world.  I’ve seen the Himalayas, I’ve seen Louisiana, I’ve seen a lot of beautiful places, but if you stand there and look across the Thames the sky is changing all the time and there are ships going by – there’s something about it I just love and I’ve got to live near it.

I think a lot of people only see the Thames in places like London where it’s built up and don’t realise how beautiful other parts of it can be.

It’s great, I love it.  Also I’m from Essex – Essex is where I stay.

You’ve travelled a lot over the years.  Are there places you haven’t been yet that you’d love to visit and do a show?

We’ve been getting all sorts of stuff in recently.  We were almost going to go and do some shows in South America which is a place I’ve never been.  I have to say, after my cancer diagnosis where did I want to go?  I wanted to go to Japan because I love Japan, I’ve been there many times and I’ve got many friends there, and I ended up during that year going to Japan abot four or five times.  I just kept going back to Japan – I love it there.  Japan and Spain are two places I really love – apart from the Thames estuary of course.

Which parts of Japan did you visit?

Generally I like to go to Kyoto because it’s just so beautiful, all the temples and buildings there.  I just like walking down the street there, I love it.

I love the fact that even in a big noisy city like Tokyo you can enter the temple grounds and you’re in a lovely quiet calm place.

Exactly, it’s fantastic the way you can stroll about anywhere and you don’t feel any of that big city stuff yet it’s one of the most glaring cities with all the neon and the noise, pachinko parlours rattling and everything, I love it.  I shall be there again in November or whenever it is, I look forward to that.

Thank you very much for your time.

Wilko Johnson Band play their 30th Anniversary concert at the Royal Albert Hall on Tuesday 26 September 2017.
Book tickets from 24 HR Box Office – 0844 478 0898 or www.thegigcartel.com
Wilko celebrates his 70th birthday on Wednesday 12th July 2017

Ant May
I spend half my life at gigs or festivals and the other half writing the reviews and editing photos, and somehow find time for a full time job too. Who needs sleep - I've got coffee.