Photo by Live Pict, via Wiki
I’ve just exasperated Bobby Gillespie with my first question, and it was barely a question. It was a naïve query asking if he understood that I was phoning in order to force him to place his favourite seven Primal Scream albums into some sort of order of preference.
In fact, the singer is worse than exasperated. He’s formally moaning at me: “Yes. I’m OFFICIALLY complaining,” he confirms with a pissed off sigh. “This is nuts. I’ve got to review my own albums? These days the rock stars have to be the fucking journalists.”
I had been looking forward to the lead singer getting a bit pissed off at the music industry and, fingers crossed, the government. He’s always been a vivid and heroic interviewee. So I was anticipating a scathing deconstruction of our modern world and him basically tearing the skin off society. But I’d never heard this Glaswegian “officially” complain.
From their caustic rock of the late ‘80’s to them perfectly inhabiting the acid house chrysalis, few bands could ever sum up a musical and societal shift more than Primal Scream did, especially with 1991’s rave melted Screamadelica. Then there were the backlash albums; the angry comedown borne from harder drugs than ecstasy. And that arc leads you only half way across the 30-year vector of a band whose flight has been powered by more than 20 members. This month, they released their eleventh tenacious outpouring of art, in the form of Chaosmosis.
This tenacity is never more apparent than when Bobby continues to maul me for ever asking him to rank his albums: “They’ll have us taking our own photographs next!" He barks. “Can you write your own article? Can you send in a selfie with your article? Can you describe your life in 300 words? Can you send that to me now? Thanks. Cheers. See you later. Bye.”
Still, after five minutes of letting him fume, we finally got into it. Here’s how it went down.
7. SHOOT SPEED - MORE DIRTY HITS (2004)
Noisey: So, you've decided to kick off with a Japanese compilation that collects together B-sides and lost tracks. To be fair, this album did give a lot of love to all the tracks that had a bit of tough childhood once Screamadelica came out and shaded all your work up to that point.
Bobby Gillespie: We always wanted to do an album like that great Rolling Stones' album More Hot Rocks (Big Hits & Fazed Cookies). And I really dug The Smiths’ one too (The World Won’t Listen), where it’s singles, plus B-sides, plus weird album tracks.
The Stone Roses did a similar, if more obvious incarnation with Turns to Stone that hammered out all of their main B-sides. As a younger fan It really helped accelerate my understanding of where they were coming from musically.
Yeah. It had their B-side “Standing Here” which I always felt should have been on the first album….
How do you feel about the concept that a piece of art is never finished? You can only release it and move on?
I think art should be a snapshot of how any given artist was feeling at that time. Then the artist should move on, forget about it, leave it. It’s gone. Otherwise it's incredibly narcissistic to keep going back and revisiting it, trying to make it better, to perfect it. Once it’s out there, it’s out there.
What do you make of Kanye West’s decision to continue changing The Life of Pablo after its supposed release?
Imagine if Bowie, in 1985, had said that he wanted to go back and change Young Americans or Station to Station? Everyone would hate it. They’d all go: "Get tae fuck!"
It’s weird going back. It means you’re insecure about what you’ve made. It’s not about perfection; it’s about expression and honing your art, your skill, your craft. So it’s cool to put things out there aren’t quite as developed or as focused as they might have been. I think that was the charm of indie music. It is the sound of people yearning and trying, and not really getting there, but the fact they are even bothering is beautiful.
Rock albums aren’t an event anymore, I’m not sure anything is an event any more. In the face of free market capitalism then everything has been rendered meaningless. We seem to have gone way past the point where music has any cultural significance. I know that people need music, they love music, millions of people go to gigs and everyone supports it and some people still buy it – but the days where people are hanging onto every word of a rock star like David Bowie are gone. The height of Bowie mania in the 1970s? That’s gone. Music can never get back to that point. Those were really innocent days and rock music was only 20 years old; it was a new phenomenon.
Rock music, or any other type of music, is no longer rebellious. There is no underground. There is no counter culture. Everyone has surrendered. Anyway, you know what I’m saying. I just sound like an old guy. Fuck me, I’m sounding cynical today.
6. LIVE IN JAPAN (2003)
This was a live album obviously and the atmosphere of the recording suggests the venue was totally going off from the moment you walked on stage…
It was so high energy! As we come out, Mani is punching the air as if he’s just scored a winning goal for Manchester United in the Champions League Final. And then we go straight into “Accelerator”; straight into that high-energy rock.
Why do you think the Japanese crowd went so hard for it?
Japanese people always loved Primal Scream and I think they’ve always been very forward thinking, very stylish, cool, and intelligent. They were always quick to get new things. You look at America and they got punk 20 years later than when it happened… So god bless the Japanese.
This album is basically your live performance CV for years after its release.
Like a curriculum vitae or resume?
Have you ever actually sent anyone a CV?
A C.V.? No. I’m just a walking miracle [laughs]. No, I’m actually more like a walking disaster… Or a living abortion.
5. SCREAMADELICA (1991)
You’ve put Screamadelica at number five. What on earth can you say about it that you haven’t already said?
You can put another one in if you like. They asked for seven albums and I just whacked them in there without thinking.
Your instincts probably hold a lot of truth.
What can I say? “Screamadelica – probably not as good as people think it is!”
How did it feel to play it back-to-back across the world on the 20th anniversary tour THAT many times? I heard you played it 49 times in a row.
Fuck knows, I wasn’t counting! It felt great; it IS great. It feels amazing to have made an album that when you walk into a record store then you see it up on the wall along with albums like Ziggy Stardust, Transformer, and Never Mind the Bollocks. As well as seeing Astral Weeks by Van Morrison, you see the first Velvets album and you see Screamadelica. And you’d probably see Led Zeppelin IV. You know what? That’s beyond my wildest dreams when we started as a band.
It’s a pure record. Its very from the heart and sincere and we are very proud we made it. It is also a great document of the times - that is exactly what it was like. We were out there in the clubs, taking ecstasy, and living the rock and roll life. We had no wives, kids or girlfriends. Just listening to music all day and every day. It was all about the life, all about the music, and all about the art. It was exactly the way it should be in your 20s.
4. MORE LIGHT (2013)
I interviewed you about this album in 2013, and it was the day that Margaret Thatcher had been buried. You drew parallels between the neoliberalism of the Tories and the Sharia law of the Islamic fundamentalists. You spoke about how the Conservative government make a theology out of their free market values. Three years later how do you feel?
I feel exactly the same: I think neoliberalism, financial capitalism, and religious extremism – whether it’s Muslim or Christian – do exactly the same thing. They are opposed to reason, opposed to enlightenment. They are opposed to human rights and they are opposed to love. If anything, it is more apparent three years on.
You said the creative period leading into writing More Light was all down to you getting clean and changing your life around. To what extent does this transformation make your feelings for the album more personal and strong?
I don’t remember too much about this time. I remember going to LA with Andrew Innes and working with David Holmes (producer), and I remember being incredibly creative, optimistic, and possessed by a beautiful energy and a lot of love. It was a fantastic time.
The other thing with this album was that I’d found a new way of expressing myself that I was very pleased with. My writing had improved a lot, and I’d found a way of using words that was creatively satisfying. For me, it was breakthrough record. I always had something to say but often I found it hard to say it in a cohesive and collected way.
3. VANISHING POINT: (1997)
Tell me about this album.
Andrew Innes from the band sees Vanishing Point, XTRMNTR, and Evil Heat as a trilogy. These albums were about UK drug culture. Vanishing Point was the start of that documentation.
Even if you look back to our previous album, Give Out But Don’t Give Up, there was a photograph in there of Eddie Hazel from the back sleeve of Funkdadelic. I put that there as a warning, because I could see the way things were going. Eddie Hazel was one of the best guitarists in the world, but through abuse and addiction he fell away and died penniless and broke. That incredible talent was just gone. So even back then I could see the beginnings of this decay. In me, and everyone else.
This album has a song called “Long Life”. It is a track that’s not called that for nothing. It was a real yearning plea. It was 10 years on after acid house and people were just... gone! They’d been neutralised... or just zombied. “Burning Wheel”, the opening track on Vanishing Point, was about self-induced drug psychosis. That’s about me. I used to get myself into some terrible states: real abject, paranoid, delusional states. So it was a document of the times. I’m still proud of it as no one else in Britain was doing that back then.
What does Vanishing Point do as an album for you that these other albums don’t?
We had fallen into this trap where every song had to have a major guitar riff, had to have a verse, it had to have a chorus, middle eight, coda. It was tyrannical, this way of working. Innes and me, working on Vanishing Point, we had to start making music that had no structural constraints. But it was a psychic thing. We just started making songs like “Kowalski” where there is no chorus. There’s no song there, just a metallic groove. We just didn’t want to keep making high energy rock songs. It was simply too creatively restrictive. Vanishing Point lifted us from the tyranny of three and half minute rock’n’roll. It was a liberating record.
2. EVIL HEAT (2002)
The final two albums, Evil Heat and XTRMNTR, have always been very strong bed fellows.
I wrote a lot of the lyrics for Evil Heat around 2000 – songs like “Skull X” and “Detroit” – and this was a very intense time for me in and out of the band. When Kevin Shields heard Evil Heat he said “I can tell you’ve all had kids!” I was like “What do you mean?” and he simply pointed us towards all the gentle softness. This album was written around the time when Andrew Innes had just had a kid, and my girlfriend was pregnant, so there is definitely a lightness to it. It’s softer than XTRMNTR, but we couldn’t make another one as hard as that – we’d taken it as far as we could stylistically.
That said, I wrote the lyrics to “Rise” from Evil Heat in 1999 and it was originally called “Bomb Pentagon” back then. The label insisted that they had to change it after September 11th.
1. XTRMNTR (2000)
I remember your live shows at this time, especially Glastonbury 2000, and there came a point where the whole live set and rhythm section just became powered by machines, with highly processed guitars over vicious techno.
It was hard live music. We were trying to marry high energy, aggressive punk to hardwired electronics. That is basically what Live in Japan is - those two albums (Evil Heat and XTRMNTR) being toured.
So what were your most vivid memories making them?
Um… The reality is that I don’t remember a lot. The time spent between making Vanishing Point in 1997 and then making XTRMNTR was a very, very powerfully creative time. Weirdly, people always say that XTRMNTR is political, but I don’t know why the fuck they say that. I think I must have been mouthing off in interviews at the time. I was probably moaning about NATO and ranting about “Swastika Eyes”, maybe I said a few things a bit strong, but it’s a rock ’n’ roll interview and I think you should say things to get attention.
But if you actually look at the work then it is really about what we were embroiled in at the time – which was UK drug culture. It was about how we’d bought into outsider drug culture as rebels, being anti-authoritarian, but really we got into it so deep we were just mutilating our lives. The same feelings from Vanishing Point had just become stronger. For instance the lyrics to "Accelerator":
“I walk sick streets full of dead meat,
See empty heads and cancelled eyes,
I got a pain, I got a hunger,
Lord my soul ain't satisfied.”
There were people, friends of mine, at the beginning of the ‘90s who had shown real creative promise – great guitarists, artists, writers, or whatever they set out to do. And by the end of the ‘90s there was nothing. They were all addicted to heroin. They were just trying to score all day. They were doing nothing. They had no work. And these guys weren’t even 30 yet. There was overdosing, psychosis, and people dying. I was continuing to document that spiral.
Wow. Thanks for chatting with us, Bobby.
Primal Scream's eleventh album, Chaosmosis, is out now.