My 2008 interview with Primal Scream frontman and former Jesus and Mary Chain drummer Bobby Gillespie was a real treat. I had been given a 20-minute window to speak with the rock star about his band’s impressive album Beautiful Future, but Gillespie enjoyed our chat so much that he suggested we continue talking. We spoke for about 40 minutes or so and I was very impressed by him. This is the resulting article that ran as a feature in Reverb Magazine while I was editor. Enjoy. – Nick Milligan
Nine studio albums into their career, Primal Scream show no signs of slowing down. While their peers of the early 80s have either disappeared or stayed set in their ways, this Scottish institution, led by vocalist Bobby Gillespie, are ever-evolving – and their eyes are open to the future.
It’s appropriate then, that this new release, Beautiful Future, steer clear of sounds from the past. Out of numerous contenders, the band worked with producer Bjorn Yttling (of Swedish pop-trio Peter Bjorn and John) and collaborated with people like Josh Homme and CSS’s Lovefoxx.
“We wrote a bunch of good songs, then we felt that they leant themselves to a big, expansive-sounding, and clear production. We wanted there to be clarity and space,” says Gillespie. “We wanted the voice up front [in the mix] and the drums really loud and up the front too.”
Beautiful Future marks the continued emergence of Yttling as a sought after producer, who has also worked with artists such as Lykke Li, Montys Loco and Shout Out Louds. His love of fresh, and often stark pop music, is becoming attractive to many bands.
“I think we’re really good at what we do. We’re a f**king great rock’n’roll band.”
“We met Bjorn and we liked him as a guy. He’s got a dry sense of humour and he’s funny. His musical tastes are completely similar to ours – he’s a music lover. Bjorn’s ideas for production were really good – he wanted clarity and space. He’s very minimalist and that suited us right down to the ground,” explains Gillespie.
Primal Scream continue to be fans of new music, and although their sound isn’t influenced by a lot these days, Gillespie admits that some of the new crop of emerging artists give Primal Scream inspiration.
“I think we’re influenced by their energy, rather than the music. Last year you had CSS and the Klaxons – cool, energetic pop bands. They’re good people and brilliant at music. That’s inspiring and you get that energy back from them. I get a lot of joy from seeing these bands and hearing their records. It can also make you want to work with their producers. We nearly worked with James Ford who produces The Klaxons – and he was a cool guy – but our schedules clashed. We also worked with Paul Epworth, who has produced a lot of young bands. We liked his energy and his youthfulness. That’s why we worked with Bjorn Yttling. Enthusiasm and energy are fucking great.”
Does Gillespie think Beautiful Future will surprise some fans? “I don’t really care, to be honest with you,” says Gillespie, with his innate sense of honesty. “I don’t listen to what other people say about our music. If a band is trying to make a specific type of record for their audience, then that’s pretty f**ked. We just like to do what we do.”
Beautiful Future weaves Gillespie’s darker lyrical style with uplifting melodies – which is just the way he likes it. “I think [the record] is quite euphoric. Even if some of the lyrics aren’t exactly joyous, it’s a good mixture to have euphoric music with cutting lyrics. [The songs] are just observations and how I see things. A lot of my humour is in there, as well as sarcasm. I really love euphoric music, like the early Beatles, The Archies, or glam-rock – like Gary Glitter. It gives you such a f**kin’ rush. I think Primal Scream have always had euphoria in our music, like ‘Rocks’ and ‘Country Girl’. We write those kinds of songs. Euphoria is great – it’s joyous. It’s great to make people happy,” explains Gillespie.
One of the darker mixtures on the album is the single ‘Can’t Go Back’, which tells the story of a man who is desperately trying to avoid slipping into old habits. “That song is a psychotic story – it’s not personal. I’m sure there’s little bits of my life in there, but I try to keep a distance from my lyrics. I’m a songwriter, so I write stories,” says Gillespie. “I’ve always written that way. Parts of your life creep into the songs, but as a writer you observe other people and how they act.”
“We knew the record should start with ‘Beautiful Future’,” Gillespie continues. “It sounded like an album opener. As soon as you hear that song, you’re drawn into the world of the album. Some songs can’t follow other songs, because it might be too much of a dramatic change in mood. We try to match the mood of each song, like a DJ would. Although a DJ matches beats per minute, for us it’s a different thing – we’re trying to make the album like a journey. You’ve hopefully been taken somewhere strange, new and exciting.”
“If you sequence your album wrong,” continues Gillespie, “it can really f**k it up for the listener and people won’t want to listen to it again. Like a film, the scenes have to be in the right order for the story to be told properly.”
As Gillespie confirms, Beautiful Future was chosen as the title of the album because it is loaded with meaning and open to interpretation. It can be viewed as positive or sarcastic. “It was the perfect title for the album, really. The lyrics of the title track set the tone for the rest of the album,” says Gillespie.
So what would the singer have thought of this new album if someone had played it to him when Primal Scream where starting out? “I’m sure I would have liked it. It touches on some of the music I was listening to [when the band formed], but also some of the stuff I was listening to when I was 11 or 12 – even 9. There’s some bubblegum [pop] on this album,” admits Gillespie.
OFF THE CHAIN
While forming Primal Scream in his own time, Gillespie gained recognition as the drummer for seminal Scottish group The Jesus And Mary Chain. He left the band in 1986, not long after performing on their classic record Psychocandy. “I learned so much from being around Jim and William Reid (Jesus And Mary Chain co-founders). I can’t even begin to tell you… they continue to influence me – their aesthetic, their approach to rock’n’roll and making records, performing on stage, videos, artworks – the whole thing. Their original bassist Douglas Hart, who is one of my best friends and was the best man at my wedding, said that Jim and William were his ‘cultural revolution’. I think that’s pretty amazing. Douglas was 18, I was 21 (when we started in the band). Jim was 20 and William was about 25. William was fully formed in his ideas about how far he could take rock’n’roll. Jim and William had a vision for their sound – mixing beautiful, summery pop songs with violent, chainsaw feedback and psychotic guitars.”
The most important contribution that the Reid brothers made to Gillespie’s career, was their encouragement of him to pursue his own unique approach to lyricism. Although they allegedly told Gillespie to make a choice between Primal Scream or Jesus and Mary Chain, their feedback was always supportive. “Jim and William encouraged me to use the language I [now] use in my lyrics. William read some poems and letters to my girlfriend I had written, which were quite different to the lyrics I had been writing. The poems were more fractured, and eventually more violent and sexual. William said, ‘Bob, these are great words. You should be writing lyrics like this.’ I think I was being too traditional in my lyrics. Jim and William were also two of the first people to say, ‘Bob, you’re a fucking good songwriter.’ That meant a lot because I really looked up to them. I could spend five hours telling you how much they have influenced me,” chuckles Gillespie. “Their influence is endless and I love them.”
When asked if he is proud that he performed drums on Psychocandy, Gillespie is almost speechless. “Oh, man,” says Gillespie. “If I only ever did one thing in my life and it was that… it’s just a great album.”
A BEAUTIFUL PAST
Primal Scream have been releasing albums for over 20 years, while a lot of their peers have come and gone. Why have Primal Scream lasted? Gillespie delivers with trademark honesty. “I think we’re really good at what we do. We’re a f**king great rock’n’roll band. We love music and we’ve given ourselves completely to music. If you give yourself to music, it will give you something back. [Primal Scream] have always been about making great records and being great live. When I went on tour in the beginning with Mary Chain, I knew I wanted to do this for the rest of my life. I was born to do this,” says Gillespie.
He met fellow Primal Scream guitarist Andrew Innes when they were both in school. Their shared love of playing music made them destined to form a band. “[Andrew Innes] could play every punk song and I would be amazed. I’d think, ‘How the fuck can this school boy play the Pistols, The Clash and The Jam?’ I think I was 17 and he was 16. He was born to be in a band. But [Primal Scream] always want to get better – we want every album to better than the last,” says Gillespie. “There were lots of bands that started at the same time as us, and even then I thought, ‘We’ve got it. They ain’t got it.’ It sounds arrogant, but it’s not arrogant. I look at other bands and I know they ain’t rock stars and they ain’t good musicians. We knew we were good. Do you know what AC/DC song, ‘It’s A Long Way To The Top If You Want To Rock and Roll’? I love that song because Primal Scream went out there and played and played and played. I respect anyone who does that.”
With this Scotish lad’s enthusiasm about the future, one can only assume that at the top Primal Scream will remain.
Beautiful Future is available now through Warner.