An Audience With… Bobby Gillespie
Primal Scream are touring the UK next week, beginning their trip at Manchester’s Apollo (December 10) – a fitting time, then, to revisit this piece from Uncut’s June 2006 issue (Take 109), in which frontman Bobby Gillespie answers questions from fans and famous admirers, discusses E, regrets, rock’n’roll and The Jesus And Mary Chain. Interview: Nick Hasted
Primal Scream’s Bobby Gillespie is pacing the room, picking up speed. He’s had a row with his manager minutes before, and some mildly cheeky questions from Uncut’s readers are enough to send him careening towards total meltdown, threatening indiscriminate carnage and National Service on his interrogators as he goes. Against this, as his volcanic mood gradually subsides, Gillespie channels his frustration into eloquent reams of rock’n’roll ranting and idealism, before coming to a stop an hour later, a picture of beatific calm.
It’s the sort of riveting, chaotic performance that has characterised Gillespie throughout a career that began as The Jesus And Mary Chain’s barely competent drummer in 1984, then continued with Primal Scream on early indie hit “Velocity Girl”, and ’91’s decade-defining rock/dance/E landmark, Screamadelica. They’ve regularly pushed their own sonic boundaries through five further albums, embracing Memphis soul, P-Funk and Krautrock, right up to the new, stripped-back rock of new LP Riot City Blues. If they move, Bobby, shoot ’em…
Do you remember your first E?
Sarah Jezzard, Gosport
I went to see the Happy Mondays at the Zap Club in Brighton. Alan McGee got me it, but I remember it never worked! [laughs] I think he bought it from the band, or their entourage. I remember waiting for it to work, and it never worked. The Mondays were amazing. I’d seen them in Jeff Barrett’s club before that, totally straight, the night of the great storm in ’87. There probably was a time when it really worked the first time. But I’m not in the mood for it today.
Back in 1993, you gave me a Flying Burrito Brothers record, and it changed my life. Respect – and my wife Michelle has always wanted me and you to do a cover version of “Hot Burrito #1”. Would you be up for that?
Yeah! Get “Sneaky” Pete Kleinow out to play on it, because he lives out in LA, doesn’t he? Alright, see you in LA. Where Gram Parsons died, the Joshua Tree… we’ll make it up at Joshua Tree. Yeah, great idea, Tim, I’d love to do that.
Are you aware Screamadelica was the soundtrack to a crucial part of many people’s lives, including mine? How does that make you feel?
Jack Godrick, Blackpool
It’s nice. I’m glad. It’s a good thing. A lot of people come up and say they love that record. It’s a nice feeling, y’know. A lot of other people’s music means so much to me, so it’s nice to get that back. It’s lovely. Thanks.
When we’ve been out and we’ve got really drunk, I can never understand a fucking word you’re saying. One word is “Bannockburn”, and the other is “Sassenach”. How do the two words relate, and what would be the rest of the conversation?
I don’t know if I’ve ever said that to him. I remember Bernard saying something to me about Culloden and the Duke of Cumberland because he’d seen Braveheart or some Jocksploitation movie. Bannockburn was the last time that Scotland beat England in a military battle. Robert the Bruce was the Scottish king, but he was actually a French Knights Templar. So the biggest Scottish hero was French. No wonder we’ve got an identity crisis. Yeah, King Edward II’s army was defeated at Bannockburn – “sent ’em homewards to think again” as the song goes. It’s a Jocksploitation question.
Given your behaviour after Screamadelica, should you be dead now?
Nick James, Swansea
As a band, yeah. Certain band members – yeah. Me – maybe. Some people we know – yes. They are dead. And some people never came back, mentally and emotionally. But we had a good time, so…regrets? Nah, nah, nah, nah.
Do you regret Give Out But Don’t Give Up [the much rockier ’94 follow-up to Screamadelica]?
Wes Newman, London
I don’t regret it. We never really had a choice. That’s the songs the band were writing. And the band was in a bit of a mess. It’s just hard to keep something like Screamadelica going. Heroin and cocaine came in, in a big way, and fucked up the creativity. Heroin was coming in anyway, in 1991. It just got worse. I was never into that. When we went to Memphis and made the Dixie Narco EP in November ’91, that was the last time it was good. After that, it was pretty dark. Everybody got too fucked up and the band dissipated, just fell apart, really. Yeah, the creativity was destroyed. It was pretty good for a few minutes. Then I thought, oh, the band’s fucked, everybody’s in a mess, we haven’t written any songs. People were only turning up to rehearsals in Brighton to score heroin – and speed, and coke. Because you could get them really cheap there. They’d come in, score drugs, split back on the train to London. It was a pretty depressing time.
But a couple of the best things we’ve done are on that, like “Sad And Blue”. I listen to that and I’m really proud to be in Primal Scream. We played with the Muscle Shoals rhythm section, and we were as good as them. No British band can play country-soul as good as we can. A lot of people have tried [Bobby points to a picture of Elvis Costello] – they can’t do it. We’ve actually got the fucking groove to do it. It’s hard to play that slow and soft and gentle. Whatever people say, we did try to do something different. It was a million miles away from Screamadelica. We lost a whole audience. But, hey, that’s good.
If the tabloids had been following you and Kate Moss around in the ’90s, would you have been Public Enemy No 1 in the same way Pete Doherty is now?
Stephen Farrer, Glasgow
Nah. Pete’s different than me. I’m not into that tabloid thing. I just wanna be a musician. But it’s none of my business what other people get up to. I don’t really care.
Why did you want to be a rock star, and what did you think a rock star was?
Lucy Sandford, London
I went to see Thin Lizzy in 1976, when I was 14. Seeing Phil Lynott onstage dressed in black leather, playing a Fender bass with a huge big mirror on it, rocking like fuck and singing “The Boys Are Back In Town”, with thousands of screaming girls who want to fuck him. Lights everywhere, smoke bombs. I saw Phil Lynott running down the street outside the Glasgow Apollo that afternoon, hundreds of girls chasing him, and he was laughing. I always wanted to be a rock’n’roll star.
XTRMNTR is probably the dirtiest-sounding record I’ve ever heard. How did you get that sound?
Serge Pizzorno, Kasabian
I guess, Serge, that we were trying to get, on a tape, all the sounds and the feelings that we had inside our heads. We were trying to describe, accurately, the culture, and how it felt to us. And I guess at the time we felt claustrophobic, paranoid, concrete. A bit cold. Not numb. Because we were feeling – there’s a hell of a lot of feeling in that record. It’s just a bit diseased, y’know?
Was there a point when you stopped impersonating a rock star and became one?
Joe James, Gloucester
Is he a female impersonator, himself? Get a life. Next question. You know what I hate about interviews? People like that are like cops, they just want to find out more stuff about you. The problem is that people have no respect. When you walk onstage and you’re playing rock’n’roll and there’s thousands of people there, you’re a rock’n’roll star. When you’re in the audience, you’re a spectator. I never wanted to be a spectator. I needed to take part in the society of the spectacle that Guy Debord and the Situationists were writing about – everything that’s happening now, like people believing the war in Iraq’s curing anything, these people are suckers for the spectacle. I’ve never been a spectator. I’m an activist. I’m a militant and I’ve always been fucking creative and I always will be. I don’t look to other people – I’ve always followed my own instincts and my own soul. So that’s the fucking answer. It’s just too much for me, all this attention. I don’t want to be anything other than a singer in a band. I’m pissed off at everything today.
Was it tough to leave The Jesus And Mary Chain when you’d just made Psychocandy?
Alan Smith, Inverness
It was heartbreaking. They asked me to leave Primal Scream and be their drummer. And I couldn’t do it. Because I knew that I’d have a limited lifespan being a drummer, because I wasn’t one. So I stuck with Primal Scream. I had more fun being in the Mary Chain at that point. They were a better band, better people, better fun. I’d go round the world with them, playing Psychocandy. Our band was still starting out. Shitty rehearsal rooms, shitty gigs, shitty little record on Creation. I was playing drums in a classic rock’n’roll band. I was in ecstasy. In retrospect it looks brave to leave. But I had no choice. I’d maybe have had one more year in Mary Chain – the best year of my life. After that, they’d have wanted a real drummer. They replaced me with a drum machine, which was good.
Did you sober up at all after the ’90s?
Brian Earl, London
The ’90s? [disbelieving] No – och, I don’t know. What a stupid question. It’s nobody’s business what somebody fucking does. I just hate it, man, some weird puritan obsessed with other people’s lives. I mean, maybe that guy meant it in a nice way. But I don’t feel like answering that question. But, y’know, it’s a strange business, rock’n’roll. When I’m with my family and stuff, I feel sane. And then I come into rock’n’roll, and I feel insane. Today, I feel like I’m going insane, and this is the first interview. We’ve made a line of brilliant records, consistently. You can’t do that if you’re too fucked up. I just don’t want to defend myself. Every time I do interviews, it’s like going to court. I gave all that shit up when I was a teenager… I wish you could just put a record out and not speak to anybody. Because everything that’s going on is in the music, that’ll tell you about where we are. I’m not sitting here smoking crack and shooting up heroin in front of you. Are the other questions obnoxious? [Mildly] I just think people should go and fucking die, y’know? I don’t care if most people fucking die. [Bobby gets up and stalks around a little] I ain’t a fucking hippie, man, y’know? Just destroy the c***s. Wipe ’em out. Send ’em to Iraq. Put ’em in the front line. I’m only joking. I’m a peace-lover!
What are your memories of the ICA Rock Week in 1986?
Bob Stanley, Saint Etienne
I was far too young and it was a long time ago. The one time I really remember playing there was with The Jesus And Mary Chain, in about 1984, and when I walked onstage a whisky bottle went flying past my head. In 1986, I would’ve had a bowl haircut. It was in the summer. There were six of us in the band, and we were wearing crombies, a Dexys thing. We were all lined up across the stage, really proud. It wasn’t a disaster – because some of the gigs we played then were fucking hit and miss. Sometimes we’d walk off after two songs because all the instruments had been tuned by different people. I remember it as being a good gig. And it was a summer’s night, and it felt like anything could happen.
Do you regret singing “Bomb The Pentagon”? And do you regret changing it?
Jim Unsworth, Newcastle
I don’t regret anything. Next question. I regret having to do loads of interviews and having to explain myself. I don’t give a fuck. What’s the guy’s name? Do you regret your unfortunate name? Next question. [Returning to the subject after a bit] But y’know what? The whole 9/11 thing was the ultimate spectacle. To pull the wool over people’s eyes and get the green light for America to go to war with the world. As a musician, you can’t go against it very far. Because no musician’s ever toppled a government. But I still have my point of view. And I’m just giving it. I’m with William Burroughs. I believe in total resistance for all souls everywhere, fighting against any tyranny or oppression. This new record’s got a joy and ecstasy in it – not the drug. It’s funny, too. It hopefully can make people smile and dance and just feel good when they hear it, like I did listening to “American Girl” by Tom Petty on the way here. It’s just pure joy. If we can do that for somebody else then I’m a very happy guy. And I guess that’s one way you can fight against the system, the powers – the vampires, high on blood sacrifice. Putin, Bush, Blair – I’m not going to topple them. At the end of the day, I’m just a singer in a rock’n’roll band. But there’s different ways of having resistance, and my way of fighting the greyness and sterility of modern society and conventions is to play rock’n’roll with Primal Scream. That’s as far as it goes. I don’t think I’m trying to bring down the government. I never was. I don’t wanna protest too much.
I’ve heard you’re going back to basics with the new album. Have you had enough of being pioneers?
Jenny Johnson, Canterbury
We just wanted to make some good, exciting rock’n’roll music that was ecstatic. I love the early Beatles singles, the joy in that is incredible. It’s the rarest drug in the world. It’s like being in love. Without even knowing it, I think that’s what we were looking for. I think we’re one of the most exciting rock’n’roll bands in the world live, and I wanted to capture that on record.
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