Of all the accomplishments over a 34-year existence, Primal Scream frontman Bobby Gillespie would likely admit he’s most proud of the fact that his band has never repeated itself once. Across 11 albums, the Scots have refused to stay inside a box, flirting with countless genres (C86, techno, soul, electro, dub, gospel, pop, acid house, punk) to present the ultimate hybrid rock band. Along the way, they unexpectedly defined a generation (acid house) with an album (Screamadelica) that came to them by chance (an Andrew Weatherall remix), and set them on course to continually reinvent their sound and surprise their fans with each subsequent album.
On their eleventh album, Chaosmosis, Primal Scream have kept the streak alive by taking yet another impulsive left turn. Although he doesn’t admit to knowing what rules the pop charts, Gillespie and his crew have assembled their own idea of a 21st Century pop record. With contributions from Haim, Sky Ferreira and producer Björn Yttling (Robyn, Lykke Li), Chaosmosis presents a new chapter in Primal Scream’s four-decade saga.
While eating his bacon sandwich, Gillespie talked to us about putting their own spin on contemporary pop music, the untapped soulfulness of the Haim sisters, unknowingly becoming a mentor to Sky Ferreira, and how his sons would rather listen to Jack Ü than Primal Scream.
Noisey: When you begin writing an album, how much do you reflect on the previous album?
Bobby Gillespie: None, never. It’s a subconscious thing maybe between Andrew Innes and myself that we don’t ever repeat what we’ve done before. Andrew, especially, is always looking for new instruments or new pieces of technology or plug-ins, just something new that will spark his imagination. There is always some kind of reaction to the record that we did before, but we never sit down and think about it. We can experiment for a couple months until we get a few ideas and there is a new sound, an attitude or atmosphere taking shape that excites us. I don’t want to say it’s organic, but it is natural and quite instinctive.
What does the album’s title, Chaosmosis, mean to you?
A couple of different things. Initially I took it to mean a very way of describing the creative process. As an artist you take this information overload of images, sounds and opinions from culture, and absorb it in your consciousness, and no matter how ugly or upsetting it is you can turn it into some beautiful artwork. That was the original way of deciphering it really. So really that is my best way of describing it. But also it’s the state of the fucking world at the moment. It’s a good word because it works politically as a reflection of the world, and it works aesthetically as a reflection of the creative process and the music on the record, and it works as a really cool rock and roll title. So it works on three levels for me.
I recognized the photo of you on the album cover from 25 years ago. What made you choose that specific shot for the cover?
Because basically the artist asked for a shot, and the last time we had shots taken was three years ago. So he said, “Any shot that you like.” And I always like the way I looked in that picture and I liked the attitude, with the hat and everything. I thought it was a really cool image that we had never used. So I gave it to him and he thought it was perfect for what he wanted to do, and I just left it up to him.
Do you still have that Davy Crockett hat?
My friend has now got the hat.
It’s funny because the first song on “Trippin’ On Your Love” sounds like it was from the same era as that photo, circa Screamadelica. Was that an intentional throwback?
I guess it is. That is well spotted. I never thought about that until you mentioned it. It wasn’t a throwback. Our manager had said, “Why don’t you try and write some singles?” So the first songs we wrote were “Where the Light Gets In,” “Trippin’ on Your Love” and “100% or Nothing,” which are the three singles on the album. And it was kind of cool because our last album was 70 minutes long, and the first track “2013” was over nine minutes long. It was kind of free rock, experimental and psychedelic in some parts. And we just wanted to make something that was under 40 minutes long, more single-oriented and direct. That was the kind of mission statement, which was good. It made us more disciplined when it came to writing. And I was really conscious about writing choruses, which is kind of what we did during the Screamadelica time. Back then the ethos and aesthetic was to write a hit. So “Movin’ On Up” was written as a hit. “Come Together” was written as a hit. “Don’t Fight It, Feel It” was written as a single, but it wasn’t a hit. Later on “Rocks” was just trying to write a commercial rock and roll song like Alice Cooper, Slade, or T-Rex. So we do think like that. We have good pop writing instincts, but we like to mix it up with the experimental and a bit of a twist.
There is that throwback, but also some moments on this album—“(Feeling Like A) Demon Again,” “Carnival of Fools” and of course, “Where the Light Gets In”—that I feel really fit in with what’s going on in contemporary pop music. How in touch are you with the current state of pop music?
I mean I hear Top 40 radio in the morning because my kids love Skrillex and Justin Bieber. But they didn’t really like Bieber until he started working with Skrillex. One just turned 14 and the other is 11. So I hear some of that stuff, but my real pop influences come from way back in the 70s and maybe a little of the 80s. We did work with a really contemporary Swedish producer and mixer, so maybe that’s why they sound contemporary. Do you mind if I eat a bacon sandwich and drink a Coke while I talk to you?
No, of course not. Speaking of your Swedish producer/mixer, Björn Yttling previously produced some tracks for Beautiful Future. What made you bring him back to work on this album with you?
Well… [chews] Sorry, I’ve got a mouthful of bacon. Björn came to see us play in Stockholm three years ago, and mentioned that he’d love to work with us again. And I guess Andrew and myself felt that when we worked with him the first time, we hadn’t quite gotten it right, but also we really liked him and now was a better time to work with him and do some experimenting. He is so positive about working with him, and it just felt right. I always go with my instincts, and they told me that this was going to be good. And in the first two days we wrote most of “(Feeling Like A) Demon Again,” “Autumn In Paradise,” and a very early version of “Carnival Of Fools.” It was fun. He’s got a great attitude, he’s very easy and he’s a very talented guy with one of the most fantastic studios in Stockholm.
Haim are on “100 Or Nothing.” How did that collaboration come about?
We had the songs written and we needed some back-up vocals for the chorus so we asked the Haim girls. We knew they could really sing. They’re very soulful, very funky, they sound like black girls and have a distinctive sound. I was really flattered that they said yes when we asked them. We worked with them a few years ago when we played Glastonbury. They’re outstanding singers, these very funky white girls from California.
Haim don’t really get credit for having these powerful voices, but you can really hear them on “100 Or Nothing.”
I know, I think it’s just how they’re being produced. I love them and think they write amazing singles, but when we asked them to sing with us at Glastonbury they were quite gospel-y. They sang “Movin’ On Up,” “Come Together” and “Loaded,” and they can just do it. They’re funky and soulful, man. When you hear them sing up close and personal they are very fucking powerful. So we remembered that for these songs and gave them a call asking when they’d be in London next and if they would sing on them. And they said, “Yep, we’re there!” And on a day off in the summer of 2014 they came in for an hour and a half and just laid them two great fucking vocal tracks. They’re total fucking pros. It was an amazing session.
Sky Ferreira appears on “Where The Light Gets In.” I couldn’t have imagined a better voice for that song. What was it about Sky that made you want to work with her?
Well, I was obsessed with “Everything Is Embarrassing.” When I first heard that track I just kept playing it again and again and again. And I just had the idea that we should maybe work with this girl because she’s got something really special. There’s something about her vibe and the energy she gives in videos, interviews, photographs and on her record, where I thought we could work together and it’d be good. And in the summer of 2014 we were having lunch with our agent and he asked if we wanted to work with anyone on the record and I mentioned Sky Ferreira. And then he said, “Oh my God. Her manager was in my office last week and she said she’s a big fan of you guys. Do you want me to give him a call?” And of course we said yes. So he made the call and then five minutes later said, “She’s coming to London tonight, and she’ll come to your studio tomorrow.” So she came by and we immediately started writing songs for her next album. And out of that collaboration we became friends and then asked her to sing on “Where The Light Gets In.”
She has described you as a mentor. What did you guys talk about?
It might have been that she was touring with Miley Cyrus a lot and the schedule she had to promote her first album was insane. She would be in Brazil one night and the next night she’d be in Paris, and then go to fucking San Francisco, then come back to Berlin. It was a crazy schedule. So throughout that tour she was in touch with me and I was just encouraging her. I just kind of gave her some advice and encouragement to keep going and hang in there, and that the more you do it the better you get. I think some times it was a bit much for her.
Do you like that role as a mentor?
I don’t know. I’m not gonna say I’m Sky Ferreira’s mentor. I think during that period I was being supportive, and that might be why she said that. That’s what I’m assuming.
You mentioned your two sons. What do they think of the album?
I think they quite like it. I think they don’t mind me. They like coming to the shows. The youngest guy now plays drums and guitar. He only started playing the guitar in September and he’s already way better than I could be [laughs]. The oldest guy likes pop and EDM. He’s not really bothered about the old rock music. Well, he likes the Stones and the Pistols. He just loves loads of remixes and EDM. He keeps it to himself. But the youngest guy loves Kurt Cobain and Nirvana, which is pretty good, isn’t it? He’s more rock and roll.
That’s interesting because if you combine their tastes, you get Primal Scream. There is the pop and electronic side, and then there is the rock and roll side to your music. They’re lucky kids to have Bobby Gillespie as a dad.
Well that’s nice, thanks! Maybe I should get you on speakerphone and call them up. They just take it for granted that Dad is in a band. It’s no big deal to them.
Cam Lindsay is a writer based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter.