Q&A: Primal Scream Frontman Bobby Gillespie On His Band’s Excellent New Album, The Legacy Of Screamadelica, And The Sad State Of Music In 2013
Of all the UK bands to make it big throughout the ’80s and early ’90s, Primal Scream may very well be remembered as one of the weirdest — and the most doggedly persistent. It’s easy to forget that the band had been together for the better part of a decade before 1991’s acid rock masterpiece Screamadelica made them legit rock stars, or that frontman Bobby Gillespie did double duty as the drummer in the Jesus and Mary Chain until Primal Scream gained enough steam to become his full-time pursuit. In the years since Screamadelica, Primal Scream has released seven albums in a variety of styles and with varying degrees of success. They masterfully aped the Rolling Stones (1994’s Give Out But Don’t Give Up), explored techno-fied krautrock while making soundtracks for old movies (1997’s Vanishing Point), and drew a then-retired Kevin Shields out of the shadows to add some heat to their blistering anti-establishment missives (2000’s XTRMNTR). While the band have proven themselves incredibly dexterous at taking unexpected left turns and hybridizing electronic music with their more classic rock tendencies (2002’s Evil Heat, being a good example), they tend to shine brightest when brush off all the Stonesy rawk clichés (the drecky Rock City Blues) and embrace their weirder side. To that end, the band’s new album, More Light, is a welcome return to form. Produced by David Holmes, the record ranks among the most diverse — and sprawling — of the band’s career. Opening with a nine-minute long indictment of popular culture (“2013″), the album is a diffuse step forward, filled with horns, strings, subdued electronics and — thankfully — more than a few overdriven guitars. Perhaps more than anything else they’ve ever released, More Light shows Primal Scream playing up to all of their various strengths at one time.
STEREOGUM: I love the fact that More Light is such an epic, sprawling record. It kind of shows off every side of what you guys have done over the past few years. I was curious; did the experience of revisiting Screamadelica and touring it last year have any affect on your thinking when it came to this new record?
GILLESPIE: I don’t think it did consciously, no. I think the Screamadelica tour gave us a lot of confidence ’cause we were playing to sold-out audiences everywhere and we were really high-up on the bill of festivals again. It was really popular and a big deal to do it. And so that was obviously very encouraging, but as far as the music goes, I don’t think that stylistically had an influence. Maybe some of the arrangements did — you know, Screamadelica’s stuff is very open and there’s a lot of space in them and some of the songs are very long–like 10, 20 minutes long — so when we were playing “Higher Than The Sun” it was like, 16 minutes long and it was in three parts. “Coming Together” was like, 14-15 minutes long and it was also in three parts. So that maybe subconsciously influenced the way that More Light was arranged.
STEREOGUM: Obviously, I’m sure you were aware of the fondness that people have for that record, but were you surprised by the experience? I mean, people really went crazy for it.
GILLESPIE: Yeah, we were really surprised. I knew people loved that record, but I didn’t know they loved it that much. It was quite touching actually. It was humbling.
STEREOGUM: How does songwriting in the band typically work now? How did these new songs come together?
GILLESPIE: Well, for this one we worked with David Holmes. We had gone to Belfast a couple of years ago and we spent five days at David’s studio, and David would get us in the mood by playing us obscure French funk records or obscure Spanish and French records. He had some cool drum loops and stuff that he’d made up, and he’d just sort of get into playing the records and then start throwing different loops at us to see how Andrew and me reacted to them. He’s got a house in the studio full of rare keyboards and six-string basses and you know, original ’60s, early ’70s computers and drum machines and all sorts of stuff. And for us guys to pick up a new instrument or drum machine, you instantly start writing a song because you experiment with it — you don’t know the territory, you don’t know the terrain, so you’re just exploring and you start writing a song. So that’s what we did, and me and Andrew wrote what began as some of the songs in this album back then, and we went back a few months later and did another five day session and we’d get loads more material. And then, I don’t know the exact timeline, but at some point we went over to L.A. and did the same thing, except there were more live musicians there for playing bass, and there was a drummer there as well. David brought in some horn players and we got a bunch more stuff done there — probably around 2010. And then we would take the stuff from Belfast and take it to our studio in London and work on it. We would put it down and start working on the Screamadelica stuff for that tour. So we had two different projects going on at the same time, but we would just take our time with it. We were not in a rush because we knew we had the beginnings of something really good. They weren’t completely arranged songs at that point, they were just kind of sketches, but there was something there that was interesting and it was a new direction for us. It felt exciting so we just ran with it, really.
STEREOGUM: David brings an interesting sensibility to the music. I love that there are so many horns and that the songs kind of stretch out in weird directions. Were you intent on the idea of not making a straightforward rock record?
GILLESPIE: Yeah, a hundred percent. A hundred percent. We did two records like that and we turned that off. It was kinda like — I mean, I guess around the time of Vanishing Point we’d found a new way of working that was not … how can I put it? We just didn’t want to do that whole five guys in the room rock thing anymore. You know, where you write the song and then you teach it to the band and you rehearse with the band and you rehearse it with a producer around and you record it in a studio live. We just don’t want to do that. We want to do something more collage-y, more stretched, more free, more psychedelic. We wanted to mess with time signatures and we didn’t want it to have to be verse/chorus/verse/chorus standard rock song/pop song arrangements. Even before we did a single song, Andrew and me both instinctively felt that we wanted to do something a bit more out there.
STEREOGUM: I love that the record begins with a 9-minute song called “2013.” It’s a pretty ballsy opening statement for a record. This song is a pretty strong indictment of popular culture right now. Does the song also encapsulate your feelings regarding what’s happening in music right now?
GILLESPIE: Oh yeah, all across the board, actually. I just think that we’re livin’ in pretty extreme times and I don’t hear any extreme art, you know? I wanna hear or see some extreme art that reflects the times we live in. It seems we’re getting a little conservative and nobody’s got anything to say. I don’t mean that in that more people are right-wing or anything, but it seems that everything’s a bit too safe and there’s no confrontational performance out there at the moment. I’ve been listening a lot to Kurt Cobain lately, especially Nirvana’s Unplugged and In Utero. We certainly miss that guy. He was a god, I love him so much. I really really love him.
STEREOGUM: In Utero is definitely my favorite Nirvana record. Speaking of ballsy moves, it was great to hear a band that popular follow up their breakthrough album with something so abrasive.
GILLESPIE: It’s amazing — it’s the best one. I think In Utero is the one for me, where it’s like THAT’s the statement. That’s the real art record.
STEREOGUM: Where do you think this artistic conservatism comes from? Does it have something to do with the fact that everyone in the music industry is terrified about not making any money?
GILLESPIE: I don’t think that, I think it’s a general lack of political consciousness. I think it just seems to be — not just in music — but it seems to be generally amongst the mass of people amongst general populations in the UK and the US, it seems that people have been de-politicized on a mass-scale and people have been schooled to think that politics have got nothing to do with their lives. They’ve been kind of doped into thinking that by the media, and I guess by school. The world is becoming more and more extreme. It’s swinging more and more to the right. So I mean, it just seems strange that there’s all this turbulent stuff happening, but you wouldn’t know it if you listen to music.
GILLESPIE: it seems like, you know, like everybody is now the Eagles or something. You know what I mean? There’s no pain. Like, if you compared the Eagles to the Flying Burrito Brothers — Gram Parsons had the pain. With the Eagles, it’s great pop music, but there’s no pain there. It’s just pretty. The kind of music we’re hearing at the moment, there’s no pain. Kurt Cobain had pain and soul and it was so raw. He was such a great artist. So really, that’s what the song’s getting at. I’m not criticizing the band or anything — it’s the kind of critique or observation of the fact that there’s no dissent anywhere in culture. Punk was an extension really of the ’60s, you know? It was protest and dissent. It was outsider and anti-conformist anti-authoritarian. I don’t think anybody’s outside anymore, I think everyone wants to be part of the fuckin’ system. I don’t know, do you think I’m talkin’ shit?
STEREOGUM: No no no. These are important things to think about.
GILLESPIE: Yeah, I think about it a lot.
STEREOGUM: I wonder about my siblings, or my young cousins. When they think back about their teen years, what will be records that changed their life? What will the art be that really influenced or radicalized their thinking?
GILLESPIE: I don’t think it’ll be music that will really influence them.
STEREOGUM: Yeah, I don’t know.
GILLESPIE: I honestly think that as long as I love music and rock and roll, then that is the form that I work in. I work in that form, in that field, and I think that maybe it was a 20th century art form. Actually, maybe I shouldn’t say that because we just made a great record — I still think it’s a viable art form, obviously. But if I were a young person in my teens and was creative and had something to say, would I be doing it with music? I’m not sure it still carries the same kind of cultural weight now as it did with people of my generation.
STEREOGUM: I’ve been going back through all my Primal Scream records while thinking about talking with you. It’s weird. I really came of age with these records. Screamadelica seems like not that long ago … but it was 20 years ago. Insane.
GILLESPIE: Fuck, I know, that happens all the time. My wife, when she says something was 20 years ago I assume she really means it happened about 10 years ago … but no, she actually means 20 years ago!
STEREOGUM: And it feels like five years ago.
GILLESPIE: And I’m like, “Fucking hell!”
STEREOGUM: Are you ever surprised that you’re still doing this?
GILLESPIE: Well, I’m not surprised, I think we always wanted it to be a long-term thing — like a career — but I mean, I’m happy that we’re still doing it. Not because I’m living in it but because I think we’re making good art. I always wanted to be one of those people who could keep doing it and still be relevant and vital and still have something to say. And I feel that we do. But if you asked me 20 years if I thought I’d still be doing Primal Scream in 2013, I probably would’ve said, “Are you fucking crazy?” I didn’t really see much hope at that point. As much as I would’ve wanted it to be true, I probably felt like the band was, you know, falling apart. Which it kind of was.
STEREOGUM: What is it, ultimately, that has kept it together?
GILLESPIE: I guess just a sheer drive to make music and a drive to be artists. A drive to express ourselves and become better songwriters. Just a curiosity, and the curiosity led to: “Where is this gonna take us?” You know, it’s been an adventure, an experiment. It’s always been — three or four years ago, whenever we started working with David Holmes, it was a step into the unknown. I mean, we knew each other but it was still: “How is this gonna work?” And if it hadn’t worked, I don’t know. Thank god it worked. We made a great record and we got another life. We could hold our heads up and feel good in the moment. I’m still working as an artist and doing good work and people seem to like the record, so it feels good. We put the work in, though. We worked hard to get here. We didn’t just wake up and it was given to us; we really worked hard.
STEREOGUM: It’s also really interesting to think about the people who were your peers when you first started. How many of those bands still exist? Not a lot. It’s not an easy thing to manage.
GILLESPIE: Nah — we were always in it for the long haul, you know? Lifers.
STEREOGUM: Will you be touring a lot this year?
GILLESPIE: I hope so! We’ve got gigs all over the summer, festivals here in Britain and some in Europe and then hopefully we can go do a British-European-American tour. We’re dying to come back to the States. We fuckin’ love coming to America. My favorite music is American music. I mean, rock and roll is an American art form, and so are soul and country and jazz. We grew up on American music, so it’s a big deal for us to come to America and play our music to Americans. I really mean that. It’s a real dream for us to do that.
STEREOGUM: Do you feel like you’ve generally been well received here over the years?
GILLESPIE: Well I don’t think we’ve toured enough, but that’s for a couple of different reasons; you know at times we never had record labels, we never had tour support, we had eight or nine people in the band plus we had a big crew — it was a financial thing. We would’ve lost too much money coming over at certain points, and I think that had we done more work in the States we would have a bigger audience there. There are a lot of reasons why we didn’t, but believe me, I love it every time we’ve been.
STEREOGUM: Yeah, touring here for a bit for U.K. bands can be such a weird thing; I’ve seen it go so badly for people.
GILLESPIE: It’s hard for people. They go from playing for 10,000 people — from being a big band in Britain — to starting all over again playing the States. I don’t think a lot of people can take it. You know, suddenly, they’re back and they’ve really got to put the work in.
STEREOGUM: Yeah, I remember in the mid-’90s at the height of Britpop-mania seeing Blur play in Texas for a few hundred people at a club that wasn’t sold out.
GILLESPIE: Oh! I bet they were pissed off.
GILLESPIE: That’s the thing. We’ve done the same thing, you know: pay to a couple hundred people in fuckin’ St. Louis or something, playing Screamadelica. (laughs) It was a mess — you’ve got junkies in the band that just want to go home! We don’t have junkies in the band anymore, but I mean — oh, to be 25 again! When we came out with Screamadelica in ’92 we toured the States and people were seeing it like, “Is this a rock record? Is it a dance record? What kind of record is it?” And I was like, “It’s just more a psychedelic record. Go with it!” They couldn’t put a handle on us ’cause it wasn’t rock and roll, and nobody knew what ‘acid house’ was in the States. So we were kind of like, way ahead of the fucking game, so we were unclassifiable. At that time you had rock radio, country radio, AOR, you had college radio, and we never fit into any of them. So we were like, a freak band. But at the end of the ’90s there were Chemical Brothers and a lot of stuff was kickin’ off, and we missed it. It was the Vanishing Point era and it was kind of like, a comedown record. It wasn’t rave, it was post-rave. Post-rave psychosis!
STEREOGUM: I thought your recent tour for Screamadelica was great. Not only did it let people have a moment of nostalgia for that period of time, but I think it also made people revisit that album and view it in a different context. I think for a lot of people they just associate that record with a crazy druggy period in their lives — which it was, at least for me — but now with the benefit of hindsight we can see what a truly forward-thinking album that was. It paved the way for a lot of stuff.
GILLESPIE: It’s kind of like Pet Sounds, I think. It’s got a lot of heavy stuff buried in there — it’s quite sad. Our drummer, he joined in 1998, and so he missed out on the Screamadelica stuff and he’s a lot younger than us, so when we were learning the songs to play live in 2010-2011, we spent most of 2010 arranging and rehearsing for the Screamadelica shows. He said to me: “It’s quite a sad record, there’s a lot of sadness in there.” And obviously, he is right. He picked up on it. I don’t know if you pick up on it enough, but there’s a lot of feeling and I don’t know — I think it’s a bit Pet Sounds-y in a weird way, but it’s a bit sad to listen.
STEREOGUM: It’s fascinating, because I think people tend to just think about “Loaded” and remember it as this euphoric kind of party record. There’s this beautiful, naïve quality to it too.
GILLESPIE: Yeah! It’s beautiful, that’s what I mean about a Pet Sounds reference or similarity. There’s a kind of naiveté to it — an innocence — but it’s beautiful because it’s really sincere. You know like, “Shine Like Stars” or “Inner Flight,” there’s like a real purity there, there’s something beautiful about it, I can see that, you know, it’s like when we were playing those songs live, we had a choir, we were singing like a ’60s choir were doing the vocals on “Inner Flight” and it was incredible. It’s just so beautiful, even if I say so myself.