How we made: Jah Wobble and Keith Levene on Public Image Ltd's Metal Box

'The album was created with no talking. It's telepathy – Wobble and me just have that'

Jah Wobble, bass

If it weren't for John [Lydon] I wouldn't have started playing bass. I knocked around with him in 1976. One day, he said: "I'm going to be in a band." It was that Emerson, Lake and Palmer period – no one I knew was in a band. It was like someone saying they were going to be a brain surgeon. But I picked up a bass, and it instantly felt right.

When John came out of the Sex Pistols he was willing to take a chance and do something radical. Normally a rookie bass player would be told: "This is the chord change," but I could play what I liked. I was bored by most of the musicians around – they were conservative, almost bourgeois. John made a wise choice getting Keith [Levene, guitarist]. He was freeform, very deft.

We were done with listening to punk and reggae. I was 19 and into jazz: [Lonnie] Liston Smith, Miles Davis's Dark Magus, Can's Halleluwah. Dub was a big influence, but we were moving beyond it. When we did Metal Box there was a great intensity – though it was only in the studio that it worked. The whole band was on different drugs; I was an uppers bloke. We were on different planes that only made sense when we played together.

Virgin gave us a load of money, but made sure we gave it back by spending it in their studio! We were put in this superstar gaff in Oxfordshire, and it became a big deal to get John out of the TV room to do the lyrics.

The Suit was about a minder friend of John's. Bad Baby was my nickname for Keith. Poptones is supposed to be about a girl being raped ("standing naked in the back of a woods"). But I remember one night we were off our heads in a Japanese car in the woods, and the cassette was playing pop music, and there was the smell of rubber on burning tar – exactly the scenario depicted in the lyrics. Coincidence?

Going on Top of the Pops to play Death Disco was a right laugh. I'd always wanted to get my teeth blacked out and look into the camera – mission accomplished! PiL are expressionist, like Jackson Pollock. I always say music follows art 30-odd years later, and I think we were like those New York loft dudes in the 1950s. I only did 20 or so shows with PiL. We're in our 50s now and playing it again for fun – cup of tea, some shows, have a laugh – but fuck, it sounds good.

Keith Levene, guitar

John had been this chancer walking down the road in an I Hate Pink Floyd T-shirt, and he stepped up and did a good job in the Sex Pistols. I was in the Clash. He asked me to do this thing if the Pistols split up.

We were under pressure on the first album [First Issue, 1978]. But by the time we worked on Metal Box we'd established we were PiL, not the Sex Pistols. We could do what we wanted.

Metal Box was created with instruments and notes, but no talking between us. It's telepathy – Wobble and me just have that, even now. We don't compose; we allow the music to happen. None of it was written before we went in the studio, but everybody had loads of ideas. We just said to the engineers, "Keep the red [recording] button on." We made up Death Disco on the spot. Wobble had this bassline and I played Swan Lake over it. People thought I was classically trained, which was bollocks. I knew the E chord, and ventured into E minor.

We laid the music out on a plate for Lydon. He was very hip at the time and did really good work – his lyrics are powerful. It has to suck when your mum dies, but he handled it well considering what was going on.

There was a lot of vitriol, but it was a magic time and I wouldn't swap any of it. People said Metal Box was avant garde, but we didn't expect that in 30-odd years' time people would be talking about a seminal record. It cost us £33,000 of our advance to put it out as three 12in singles in a tin shaped like a pill! Now it's a collector's item.

• An evening with Jah Wobble (and guest Keith Levene) is at the Vortex Jazz Club, London N16 (020-7254 4097), 16 March. Then touring.


Interviews by Dave Simpson

The GuardianTramp

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