Jenny Beth and Bobby Gillespie
Photo: Sarah Piantadosi

Bobby Gillespie and Jehnny Beth Chat Rockstar Mythology, Drugs and Drama

The collaborative record from Primal Scream frontman and former Savages vocalist oozes sophistication, and a whole load of pain.

“I wanna put the pain back into rock music,” declares Bobby Gillespie, calling from his home in London. He says this twice during our lengthy Zoom conversation, elongating the word “pain” each time to emphasise his point. His new album, with French singer Jehnny Beth, has a sophisticated exterior, but beneath the veneer is unvarnished emotion and, yes, pain.

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This July, the Primal Scream frontman and erstwhile Savages vocalist have come together to sift through the burning embers of a broken relationship, on new record Utopian Ashes. Here are soulful musical affairs, featuring frantic swooping strings ("Chase It Down") and rich country blues ("Your Heart Will Always Be Broken"). Yet, at one point, the protagonist ruminates upon quietly drinking himself to death in a beer garden (“English Town”).

While Gillespie argues that the meaning is left open depending upon the interpretation of the listener, Utopian Ashes is clearly a record that draws upon hard-won experience. Gillespie, by his own admission, bought into the mythology of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll wholesale, and sees it as an important part of rock music’s lineage – on our call he goes into extensive detail about the speed consumption of the artists on the Sun Records roster and the uppers and downers the Beatles took for each album – though he realised it was time to stop himself when he began raising a young family (his sons Wolf and Lux, are 20 and 18, respectively). He has since been clean for more than a decade, thanks to recovery programmes and good people around him. 

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Jehnny Beth’s experience is very different. She has never really taken drugs, though alcohol became a way to cope with nerves when she was on stage. Relentless touring with Savages meant drinking became habitual, something she recognised around 2014 and addressed, and she’s been straight edge ever since.

VICE caught up with Bobby and Jehnny to talk about Utopian Ashes and to examine some of the underlying themes of the record, although it transpires that both artists came with different motivations and didn’t always agree on their shared objectives. Rather like a battle-worn married couple.

VICE: This record reminds me of kitchen sink dramas from the 1960s, with these characters locked into a depressing domestic situation. Was that something you had in mind?  
Jehnny Beth:
Maybe it's my French background but thinking in terms of class is quite an English way of thinking. In France, in terms of art, I think we're probably more romantic [laughs]. I noticed from living 13 years in England that it's much more in the foreground of the culture in the UK. It's interesting that you thought of it in that way, but I didn't think: we're doing a proletarian record or a middle class record.

Bobby Gillespie: Every record I make has got the point of view of a working class person. 

Beth: I think the issues for me are independent of class. 

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Gillespie: I don't think you're ever independent of class.

Beth: No I agree, I'm just thinking about my perspective when I was writing the songs. I didn't want it to be about class, it was more the relationship between a male and a female. I'm not saying I'm right, I'm just saying to answer this question is quite tricky for me because I never thought about it in that way. 

Gillespie: Jehnny's right, the subject matter is classless. It's about two people who are struggling to keep a marriage together, and maybe there are children involved. That's a universal thing. The most class-based tune on the album is “English Town”, which is a very angry song. It's got a lot of empathy, but it's got a lot of anger as well. 

Lyrically you obviously had to draw upon quite a lot of experience from recovery. There’s a monologue at the beginning of “You Can Trust Me Now” and when I first heard it it reminded me of the poetry of the old timers and raconteurs in the rooms of AA...
Gillespie:
That part is very hardcore and direct, and honest and brutal. The song part is a bit more open. It's really about wayward behaviour which could be addictive; it could be sexual, it could be about drugs or gambling, it's open to interpretation. 

Beth: We never really discussed what the characters were going through. What matters is the idea of change. And this is something Bobby had previously written about in Primal Scream with “I Can Change”, which is one of the records I love. I was really happy that he was willing to write more about that because that's a subject that touches me more than any discourse about sobriety or addiction. Someone who says “You Can Trust Me Now” is someone who's been through shit and has evolved. There's nothing more beautiful than someone who says: ‘I've made mistakes but I'm not going to repeat them.’

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Gillespie: That's Johnny [Hostile]'s line [who plays bass on the album], right? And I wrote the verses. And for a long time I had a problem with that line because it was an absolute, and I don't believe in absolutes. If you have been an addict, you know for a fact that anything can happen.

Beth: Ah, but again, that's really touching. It's that vulnerability! 

Gillespie: I played it to a friend of mine who is a very famous junkie [laughs]. He's been clean now for ten years, and he said he was really touched by it. I said I wasn’t sure about the chorus line of “You Can Trust Me Now”? And he looked at me with a little cheeky grin and said, “Well I quite like it, because normally when someone says you can trust me, you know that you can't. I think you should leave it in, it makes the song ambivalent.” [Laughs]

Jehnny, you wrote a blog about giving up alcohol in 2016, didn’t you? 
Beth
: It's interesting because I've never really experienced drugs. The alcohol was the only thing I had to quit seven years ago, and I haven't touched any since. I used to drink to go on stage to give me courage. I wondered how I’d be able to do it, but I ended up crying with joy because I could hear the audience. It was incredible how touched I was. I realised the alcohol was not only numbing my fear, it was numbing my joy as well. 

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Regarding rock ‘n’ roll mythology, did giving everything up ever feel like some kind of betrayal?  
Gillespie:
I had to stop drinking and taking drugs because I had a young family, and it was either lose my family or continue with the way I was behaving. There was no question as to what I had to do. I value my family. It was just unmanageable, and I don't think drinking and drugging is compatible with family life and young children in any way. I've no problem with that mythology, I just think that for me personally it went on for a bit too long and I had to grow up and be sober in order to be a good dad and husband. It's that simple. 

So in a way, this record could be like an alternative reality where you hadn’t sorted your shit out?
Gillespie:
That's a very good point. That's very true. I've seen it so many times where someone’s reality becomes so out of control, and so secretive, and so insane. Psychotic episodes. Life with the addict is impossible, unless the partner is an addict and they're both collapsing together. Nobody wants to be with a drug addict. It's incompatible with rational living. 

Beth: It's funny, Bobby, one day I asked you if we would have been friends and worked together if you'd still been using drugs, and you said: “I probably wouldn't have even seen you…”

Gillespie: Well, the addiction comes in stages. When you start you're young and you take a bit of speed, you take everything in, but 20 years down the line you become more muddled in your thinking. 

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Beth: It slows you down?

Gillespie: I just think you're not on the planet. The mixture of drugs is such that your reality becomes... It's not really a shared reality with other people. 

Beth: Drugs are death to me.

Gillespie: I was deranged. You must have heard this in the rooms: “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results”. It’s madness. I was heading that way. I'm just lucky I have a very strong wife.

@jeres