On the surface, it looked like the most rotten thing rock's most famous punk has ever done to sell out his image -- worse even than the Sex Pistols' bluntly named Filthy Lucre Tour.

"I buy Country Life because I think it tastes the best," the artist formerly known as Johnny Rotten sneered on screen in butter commercials smeared all over U.K. television in recent years. That's right: The guy who infamously declared himself the Antichrist had suddenly gone pro-butter.

As with the Pistols' publicity-driven firestorm of the 1970s, though, John Lydon says there's a deeper story behind those ads. They bought him the freedom to become more punk than he's ever been in his 35-year recording career.

"Shilling for butter is a lot less harmful and denigrating than dealing with a record company," Lydon said in a surprisingly gracious and light-humored phone interview.

Headed to Mill City Nights for his first Twin Cities performance since 1989, the British music legend is back on the road with his post-Pistols dance-rock band Public Image Limited. The group's first new album in 20 years, "This Is PiL," dropped over the summer.

Lydon says PiL could not have returned without those Country Life ads, or the equally surprising TV stints he did in the '00s (i.e., hosting nature specials on the Discovery Channel and appearing on the U.K. reality show "I'm a Celebrity ... Get Me Out of Here!").

"For 20 years there, I was under these stifling obligations by major record labels that made it impossible for me to function," Lydon explained. "They kept me in debt to the point where there was no money for me to record new material. One way or another, they pushed me out of the very thing that I love the most, which is songwriting and performing live."

With his wicked, iconic laugh, he added, "Thank God for British butter! The correct use of a sponsor for the first time ever in the history of music. And here we are today: We formed our own label, paid for our own recording, hired our own facilitators and crew. We're completely independent of the [expletive] record-label system, and we're raring to go."

"This Is PiL" is a solid representation of the New Wavey, electronically addled, rhythmically jagged sound that Public Image trademarked in the late '70s to mid '90s with a series of critically welcomed records, especially its 1979 collection "Metal Box." Originally packaged in a film canister, it went on to make Rolling Stone's list of the 500 greatest records.

Commercial success, however, was fleeting for PiL outside of the semi-poppy mid-'80s singles "Rise" and "This Is Not a Love Song," which actually mocked its own accessible tone.

"You must understand that my record label commitments were set from the Pistols onward, so I had really no way of breaking free from that," Lydon explained. "The record companies had kind of a childish resentment to anything new that I brought them. It continued through 'Metal Box' and 'Flowers of Romance'; they just would not grasp [those albums], but they would sign bands that imitated our music two or three years later."

Not feeling cheated

Even as he went off on rants against the record industry -- "Their lies have made many of my friends and peers alcoholics and junkies and manic-depressives over the years," he snarled at one point -- Lydon tempered the conversation with sweet talk of his life at home in Los Angeles and his return to the road. "I'm definitely not a bitter old man," he insisted.

On the personal front, he has been married to German publishing heiress Nora Foster for more than 30 years, which is how long he's lived in California. "I really do love L.A.," he said with no hint of sarcasm (aside from a mention of "all the lovely police harassment").

He has found similar harmony with the current lineup of PiL, featuring '80s members Lu Edmonds (guitar) and Bruce Smith (drums). Said Lydon, "I played with those guys longer than anyone else in PiL, so for me they were automatic choices. We're also finely tuned as friends, so it bodes very well on stage."

With a wry laugh, he said that being a musician "gets better when you get older, because you realize not every band you're in has to involve hating each other. Frankly, my first band gave me that impression."

Ah, the Sex Pistols. Lydon seems lighter-hearted when talking about his revolutionary group ("We're all getting on as friends"), but he remains committed to leaving it in the past. Though they reunited for two tours, they skipped their Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction in 2006.

"I've gone out of my way not to be involved in the shenanigans of media manipulation, and to maintain that integrity and honesty and quality that has been missing from certain chunks in my past," he said. "It became a media circus there those first initial years. It was very uncomfortable for all of us. Just reading lies in newspapers, it really wears you down."

Asked if he would ever tour as John Lydon and perform both PiL and Pistols songs, he swiftly replied, "There's no need anymore. The Pistols to me are dead, finished. It's very nice that Universal has re-released the 'Bollocks' album, but I'm not going to be performing it anymore.

"I had a very nice conversation with [Pistols drummer] Paul Cook just before I left for this tour, and he feels the same way. It just wouldn't be right to do anything else."

With his heartiest laugh yet, he added, "And might I say, PiL is one band that Paul Cook actually likes."

In Lydon's eyes, the Pistols' work will forever feel contaminated. PiL, however, is "completely uncontaminated now," he boasted, sounding anything but rotten. "My heart and soul is truly in this."

Chris Riemenschneider • 612-673-4658 Twitter: @ChrisRstrib