“Like a portrait of someone in a bad situation”: An interview with Primal Scream’s Bobby Gillespie
Bobby Gillespie, the durable alt-rock frontman of Primal Scream, is no stranger to controversy, regularly incorporating his political views into his music in an argument for dissent. Our Editor-in-Chief Max Dax spoke to Gillespie in our new Fall 2013 issue of Electronic Beats Magazine. Photo by Luci Lux.
Primal Scream always exploited their liminal status as a band by cultivating an identity too musically and politically rebellious for the mainstream, but too rock and roll for obscurity. Since 1991’s classic Screamadelica, singer Bobby Gillespie and his changing cast of British post-punk, Madchester and shoegaze royalty—including My Bloody Valentine’s Kevin Shields and The Stone Roses’ Mani—have made guitar driven dance music that doesn’t sound like a forced marriage. After decades of chemically fueled rage and increasingly overdriven guitars, a clean Gillespie and co. return to the groove with More Light, determined to get high only on their idiosyncratic supply of musical pastiche.
Bobby, I was pleasantly surprised to hear more than one Jeffrey Lee Pierce reference on Primal Scream’s most recent album More Light, including your cover version of “Goodbye Johnny” and titling another song “Walking with the Beast”. What inspired you to explore his work?
Funny enough, I only bought The Gun Club’s The Las Vegas Story featuring the original “Walking with the Beast“ about two months ago. Of course, I own the first two records, Fire of Love and Miami. Years ago, we even learned to cover “Fire of Love”, and if my memory serves me well, I think we actually learned it from a Jody Reynolds version on an album of songs that The Cramps covered. Clearly we’re fans. I saw The Gun Club play with Kid Congo Powers on guitar, and it was just great. I guess you might call using the title “Walking with the Beast” an act of the unconscious in the Freudian sense.
Your version of “Walking with the Beast“ strikes me as very personal—a song about the anger of a desperate man.
Yes. We had some music for it and I began writing the lyrics in the studio very quickly about somebody I know. As I said, I didn’t know the Gun Club song, but somewhere throughout the years I must have picked up its title and it was stored there as a good phrase. “Goodbye Johnny” on the other hand was sent to us by a guy called Kris Needs. Jeffrey Lee is the godfather of his son, but I don’t think any of these guys were looking after children. The child’s mother died and so the child grew up with his grandmother, so it’s a pretty sad story. Anyway, this guy sent us the song and it was a demo of Jeffrey Lee and he asked us to cover it. We did our version of it, but all I did was keep the lyrics. We changed the melody and the arrangement. The version that we were sent was a very early idea for a song with just an acoustic guitar and vocals. I know sometimes people have an idea for a song so they just pick up a guitar, press play and record and then that’s it. That’s what it sounded like—more like a sketch for a song. So we just took the lyrics like you would take someone’s poem and we made new music, a new melody and a new arrangement. Jeffery Lee was a really great lyricist. He says a lot with a little.
When I was listening to the album I was thinking that I would really love to see your collective mind map of it—how you developed the concept and incorporated the various points of reference. Production-wise, it reminded me of Teo Macero’s production methods cutting and pasting Miles Davis’ records in the seventies.
We’ve been working like that for years, from Vanishing Point onwards. Only the past two albums we did more conventionally, like a sort of live recording of a rock band. But soon we got tired of that again and went back to the process where we record a lot of music and then edit it.
Who does the editing?
Our guitar player Andrew Innes and me. David Holmes helped as well. Andrew and I would edit it up to a point and then we would get David to come in and listen. Sometimes he would say it was fine but other times he would have a better idea and then mess around with the arrangement. The whole thing was kind of a sprawl; a long, loose jam which we would tighten up through the edit, with David then tightening it up even further. We got better at it as we went along. It’s funny that you mention Miles Davis because someone else said recently that they could hear an influence on the record as well. It’s definitely there, but it’s sometimes hard explain to people, especially to British music journalists. They don’t seem to be interested in the processes and thoughts behind the music. They only want gossip about drugs—you know, stuff you’d expect in tabloids but not in music press.
Macero’s production style was anti-authentic to the point of absolute re-editing, like with Miles’ Dark Magus or Live-Evil.
Totally. It’s interesting, because when they issued those box sets of Miles albums from the seventies—from On the Corner to The Cellar Door Sessions—they made all the loose jams accessible. But to tell you the truth, I didn’t like them at all. I think the art lies in how Macero chopped and edited the jams. My friend Warren Ellis who plays in the Bad Seeds says the same thing. It’s interesting to listen to these hours of recordings once, but then that’s kind of it. It seems that the loose jams are the material and then the edit is the collage or the art.
When did this become a working method for you? The vast majority of rock bands either believe in or want to sell the idea of authenticity, instead of, say, properly entering experimental territory. More Light seems to be the band’s most situationist musical gesture since Vanishing Point, which is now over 15 years ago.
As I said, the last two albums we didn’t chop, cut and re-edit because we wanted to try doing it “normally” again. That approach has a different discipline, but it’s good to try because when you’re able to utilize the straight, conventional songwriting discipline, you learn something that you can use when you go back to doing it the other way. But you can marry both approaches I think; you can do the cut-up with the song craft and combine it. We’ve just gotten better at everything, at arranging the songs without really trying.
At what point did the Sun Ra Arkestra come into the picture? I read something that they were forced to stay in London during the volcano eruption in Iceland . . .
The story is that the Arkestra played three nights in a row at Cafe Oto in Dalston, which is only ten minutes from me in London, so I went for two nights. They were great gigs with maybe 300 people. The third night, though, I went to see Lou Reed perform Metal Machine Music at Royal Festival Hall, after which I met an American guy called Glenn Max who was the promoter there. He’s a really cool guy and has put on some incredible bills. He did a gig once with the Sun Ra Arkestra and MC5 together and made some seemingly impossible things happen. He mentioned to me that because of the volcano in Iceland no one could fly for two weeks and that the Arkestra guys were trapped in London and running out of money. They were spending what they’d made on their London gigs on hotels and food and missing work back in the US. Glenn was asking people to donate money to hire a venue so that they could play a gig.
So, how much did you donate?
I didn’t. Actually I thought we should hire them to play on our record, which is much more creative! So I called Glenn and floated the idea to him and he then made a couple of phone calls. Later that day Marshall Allen and a few of the other guys from the Arkestra came up and we had them play on two songs. We had the track “River of Pain” but there were no lyrics yet. We had the Eastern, psychedelic groove, the drums, the folky guitar and most of the structure of the song, so the atmosphere was already there; dark with a rolling drumbeat—a kind of desert groove. Then we made a loop that they could play over and told them to keep playing until they hit something that’s right.
Did you guys get a chance to talk to them at length?
Yeah. My friend Douglas Hart from The Jesus and Mary Chain filmed the whole thing, which is really cool because it’s the first time we’ve ever done that. We’ve had all these great people in the studio before, like Augustus Pablo or Michael Karoli and Jaki Liebezeit from Can and never filmed it because I’m a bit superstitious about that sort of thing, but I thought that this time we had to capture it. Again, we didn’t have a theme for the song. I had a few ideas but I hadn’t discussed them with Andrew. So while they wrote their part, they spoke amongst each other and they have this harmonic sensibility that is just so different to ours. It’s obviously something that they’ve worked on and that has been part of their thing for years. Anyhow, we kept the best parts of it and edited it down to make some sense of it and then we had our drummer Darrin Mooney come in and do all the free jazz percussion. We had another track, “Sideman”, which is kind of punky and in a really strange time signature which they played on as well. What they do there is almost like soul or funk, with horn stabs and this really African-American style.
To me the whole album seems very cohesive lyrically. Twenty-first century protest music, would you agree?
Yeah, but not just in terms of external political protest, but also internal protest within the family. Some songs, like “Walking with the Beast”, are more like a portrait of someone in a bad situation.
His pain is his disease / Hurts him every time he breathes / Hates himself and everyone / He’s sucking on a loaded gun?
Exactly. It’s more about empathy, not judgment. The song “Culturecide” again has both elements, protest and also empathy for people that are trapped. It’s like taking a photograph of something. You’re trying to describe some version of reality, kind of like reporting something back.
Bob Dylan also took a similar approach in terms of displaying empathy with his subjects, and he also didn’t really like to be described as writing protest songs. Of course, there are artists who attempt to make overtly political albums, like The Knife’s recent Shaking the Habitual. I think More Light can be listened to either simply as rock ‘n’ roll or as an updated form of protest.
I knew from the beginning what I wanted to write the lyrics about, but I didn’t have them fully realized. After making them more concise and better, I think I was able to tell a story I’ve always wanted to tell.
“2013” seems to voice an anger against a new generation of politically apathetic artists?
There seems to be no dissent anywhere anymore, it’s like a science fiction scenario, a right-wing revolution worldwide. There seems to be no resistance to it other than the Occupy movement, which stood up and said “No, this is wrong, and we’re going to expose it for what it is”. People seem to be tranquilized. I kept waiting to see if there was any dissent, protest, anger or dissatisfaction from art against the new right that comes disguised as a hipster culture, and there was nothing. Apart from the Pussy Riot girls in Russia I hardly see anybody raise his or her voice. Pussy Riot made a really brave gesture, but they got absolutely squashed by the Russian state. No one in the UK—maybe with the exception of Mark Stewart—would dare to do something like that. I don’t know if those girls come from academic families, but they’re definitely intellectual and very conscious politically and culturally. That kind of person doesn’t seem to exist in Britain. The British have a serf-like attitude. It is especially irritating as we have a very strong trade union history in Britain. I mean, Marx moved to London after having written the Communist Manifesto and he thought the British proletariat was very well organized. But today there’s no protest or dissent anymore. That’s why I wrote the song. I was exasperated and was thinking, “What has happened?”
What kind of protest music has inspired you?
Although I grew up as a punk a lot of the music I listen to is black sixties and seventies soul and a lot of that is protest music and really descriptive of scenes on the street. Hip hop is like that as well, but rock music doesn’t seem to be there, apart from punk.
What political events—real or media created—specifically fueled More Light?
In the UK when 9/11 happened, TV stations were playing footage of the planes crashing into the Twin Towers on repeat twenty-four hours a day. I remember that day perfectly. I thought I was watching an Andy Warhol channel or something. At the time I had just read the book The Society of the Spectacle by the French situationist Guy Debord, and watching TV all day I saw all this fear that was all around and it really affected me. The media went into overdrive and assumed this proper propaganda role like in wartime. Then they went into over-overdrive convincing people that Britain had to go to war with Iraq. In the run up to that the newspapers and the government were telling lies about weapons of mass destruction. The London Evening Standard, which is given away for free on the Underground was proclaiming “Saddam can hurt us” and “Saddam could hit London in under forty minutes”. People were creating a climate of fear. Since then I’ve noticed that tabloid newspapers have less and less real news in them, and more and more articles about TV stars or football players having affairs. There is less reporting about real events and more celebrity distraction and general rubbish. The truth seems to disappear. News articles are put together in a certain way to persuade you to think in a certain way and they often distort the facts. It just seemed that everything in the media was more extreme than it was before and to me it was like a science fiction story.
It’s interesting that you mention Guy Debord. I believe you rhyme his name on the new album with “Explode yourself in protest the House of Lords,” right?
Yeah. There’s this quote from Guy Debord that “The world is image”, and the whole way that the government or advertisers or those who work in TV understand the power of an image to seduce, distract or dissuade is really disturbing. It was like that before September 11th but after that I really saw it go into over-drive because it suddenly was a pre-war situation. It seems that people are less politicized and they seem to embrace the idea to think that politics hasn’t got anything to do with their lives. They’ve been trained to think that the politicians are over there and they’re all corrupt but we just get on with our lives and what they do doesn’t affect us. But what they do does fucking affect you! So-called “youth culture”, which can be anyone from seventeen-year-olds to people in their fucking fifties, just seemed so cozy and complacent and there were no confrontational artists. I don’t even mean politically confrontational, but even somebody like Kurt Cobain with raw emotion, a real outsider. I never heard any pain and I didn’t see any art that was truthful to the reality I was seeing. I was thinking, “Where’s all the pain gone?” You know, there’s a lot of pain out there and there’s a lot of pain in here but there’s no pain at all in any of the art. So I wanted to make something that had some pain in it and some truth. Truth is a dangerous word, but you get the point. I’m kind of having a go at rock music because it seems so much a part of the fucking system.
You’re obviously conscious of using Nazi terminology in lyrics like, “You need a will to power, a triumph of the will” and “The final solution to the teenage revolution”. What’s the idea?
I think that politicians use archetypes and know how to touch people at their core. Politicians and advertisers have studied Sigmund Freud, and I think they under- stand psychology, needs, and fears in a kind of occult way. I threw these Nazi things in because I think that the media and the politicians use them in the same way as the Nazis. And “The final solution to the teenage revolution” just sounds like a good rhyme to me, but I was also saying that there’s no fire or danger in rock ‘n’ roll anymore. The music has just become part of the power structure. It’s been “inducted, corrupted, deluded, excluded, shackled and hooded,” as I sing in “2013”. All I’m saying is that we’re in the twenty-first century, but people still have a serf mentality. When I was a teenager, I wasn’t too hopeful but I thought that by this point people would be freer, more liberated, more enlightened, more rational and more progressive. But it feels like we’re going backwards and nobody can really see that we’re going backwards. In the arts people are dining out, having nice meals and doing quite well, but I don’t think the arts are reflective of reality. I am not a fascist but I think politicians are black magicians. They transform reality. Like Tony Blair—he used the same language as American Republican politicians, along the lines that “There are people who make history and there are spectators. We’re making history.” They’re transforming reality in a kind of magical process. These people are super conscious of what they are doing and they have a lot of power. They could be using that power in a good way to make everybody’s lives better, but they’re using it in a bad way. They’re not people like us, they’re a different breed. ~
Primal Scream’s More Light is out now via Sony; read Alec Empire’s recommendation of it here. This text first appeared first in Electronic Beats Magazine N° 35 (3, 2013). Read the full issue on issuu.com or in the embed below.
Published October 21, 2013. Words by Max Dax.