INTERVIEW: Johnny Rotten on Sunderland, Split, his contract wrangle and those butter adverts...

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WHEN a conversation begins with the line “Ooh, hang on, I’ll just put my underwear on”, you know this is going to be no ordinary interview.

But then Johnny Rotten is no ordinary man.

Gloriously eccentric, Johnny, real name John Lydon, has managed to reach icon status in his lifetime after becoming one of the leading lights of the British punk movement with band The Sex Pistols.

It isn’t just the anarchic music that maketh the man though, John, 56, has become just as famous, or infamous, for his outspoken views on the establishment and politics.

I wasn’t sure what to expect from our phone interview (for the record I was spared the sight of him slipping into his briefs) but he was open, honest and unabashed.

Though the London-born singer songwriter and TV presenter now resides amidst the sunshine and palm trees of LA, the release of new material from his band Public Image Limited (PiL) has seen him play on home turf.

On September 22, the post-punk four-piece will take to the stage in Sunderland in a billing that has been hailed as a huge coup for the city’s Split Festival.

“Sunderland is a perfectly fine, valid part of the British Isles so when the offer came in we thought why not?” said Johnny. “They are very receptive audiences up there, that part of the world has always been very friendly to PiL.

“Expect to see a finely dressed, very thin young man with sweet dulcet tones singing songs of love and joy,” he quipped.

Though I’m sure the set will be anything but sweet, it promises to be a lively mixture of the band’s catalogue including new double A-side single Reggie Song/Out Of The Woods which will be released on October 1.

Taken from This Is PiL, their first album in 20 years, the single will also contain various live tracks taken from the band’s monumental performance at New York City’s Terminal 5 in 2010.

“We’ve mostly been in Europe this year,” said John. “We’ve had problems with our promoter so it hasn’t been the long hard slog it usually is, but I like it to be hard.

“We’re performing on Jools Holland the day after, but Split will be our last British gig for a while. I don’t know much about the festival, the last one we played ended up being like a church fete, but I loved it, it was so English.

“If I’m silly enough to get there early, I might catch some of the other acts but before a gig I get so nervous with my own stuff.

“I still get stage fright and it really attacks your nervous system.

“It’s good because it really gets your adrenaline going but before a gig I can’t eat, I can’t relax, I don’t enjoy it until I’m on stage, but that’s the career I chose, or it chose me, whichever way you look at it.”

He added: “We’re a close, tight band and many of our fans are fanatical. There’s one group which I call the Lollypop Mob, hilarious people who come to dance and party.

“We are so many things to different people but we have no aggression, no hatred, just a love of life. We’re like a rave band, we want people to get out there and have a good time. Don’t let anyone tell you you can’t dance, people have been telling me that for years but I don’t care.”

Widely regarded as one of the most innovative and influential bands of all time, PiL’s music and vision earned them five UK Top 20 singles and five UK Top 20 albums.

With a shifting line-up and unique sound, John guided the band from their debut album First Issue in 1978 through to 1992’s That What Is Not, before a 17-year hiatus.

In 2009, John resurrected PiL.

“We came back because I finally made enough money to pay off debts which a record company had crippled me with. It stopped me doing what I love in life which is making music” he said.

“It took me two decades to buy out of that contract. Thank God for British butter, a lethal combination of British butter and Johnny Rotten brought PiL back.”

John has become a familiar sight on British TV screens for Country Life ads in which he is seen prancing around the English countryside, promoting butter.

Though the £5m deal has earned him some stick, he says the ads have helped him do what he loves most.

“I do get stick for those adverts but I shouldn’t do. You know, the butter people are the only ones in my career who have treated me with any respect, I never got any from the record labels.

“They still stick the knife in, but so many people are jealous. You’re not Johnny Rotten, I’m Johnny Rotten, and there’s only room for one.”

He added: “The only thing I’ve ever been good at is songs and performance.

“Everything else has been not quite there for me. I’ve had to have patience and to fight the system. But patience is endurance, I’m happy to be alive!”

John is no stranger to the North East, having performed here many times over the years, but he didn’t always get the warm welcome Wearside is expected to give him next weekend.

He recalls: “People talk about the popularity of the Sex Pistols but it was hard work.

“We used to trek up North as these four cheeky chappies and were met by so much anger, they wanted to kill us. The crowds would say “f**k off cockneys”. I’ve earnt my wings, I’ve ran the gauntlet.”

Twitter: @sunechokaty