“We have never played the game; we have always done the opposite of what anyone else thinks we are going to do. Nobody knows that we were going to come up with this record after ‘Evil Heat’. They’ll could never fucking imagine… they’ll never ever suss us out, ever, because we are a mystery even to ourselves.”
Bobby Gillespie is warming up, toying with his hyperbole whilst organising his army of chest beating banter ready for his next onslaught with the world.
Primal Scream are back with their new LP – ‘Riot City Blues’ – and true to form are indeed doing the exact opposite to what they are expected. Even most die-hard fans have stopped trying to second-guess a band who’ve swivelled on every musical axis and spat back albums drenched in defiance for the last 20 years.
“There’s a lot of joy and love in this record’ admits Gillespie, (who is acting strangely sprightly for a 10am start on a Monday morning). “We had a good time making it. Some of the songs are really euphoric. I think it’s the sound of a band enjoying making music and having a ball.”
Gone is the desolate and futuristic production of Two Lone Swordsmen. Gone is the skunk stained skank of Augustus Pablo. Gone is the razor sharp guitar hooks of My Bloody Valentine’s Kevin Shields.
We were in the front line for most of the fucking Nineties. It was like war reporting!
‘Riot City Blues’ is straight up good time rock and roll recorded in Olympic Studios, London. It’s a place steeping in rock legend with many of the canonical outfits, such as the Stones and Zeppelin laying down their seminal albums in this recording cauldron.
On the second or third listen you realise that the walls must have seeped their magic into the recording pot as an almost timeless momentum and feel exudes from their recording. It was a producer called Youth, renowned from his years in Killing Joke who was chosen for his ability to specifically capture live elements. In the scheme of this band’s complicated history – the plan was fairly simple.
“It’s one thing to write a good song but it’s another to try and record it and capture it and make it exciting – what we wanted to do was capture the energy of Primal Scream live. Our gig is always exciting – high energy.”
“Normally we record big scrolls of sound or images or words. We might jam for an hour and just take 10 seconds and use that as a hook. ‘Screamadelica’, ‘Vanishing Point’, ‘Evil Heat’ and ‘Xtrmntr’ were all recorded as such a collage. With this [album] we wrote the songs and rehearsed them before recording. Everyday I was nervous cos I’m always looking towards the next thing. As Ian Curtis from Joy Division said: “Looking towards the next song”. Never rest on your laurels so to speak.”
The band’s previous album ‘Evil Heat’ was produced by Keith Tenniswood and Andrew Weatherall AKA Two Lone Swordsmen. It had their distinctive stripped back drums and bleak electronics, which matched the band’s stance on a number of political and social levels. It tempered the spite and frustration of ‘Xtrmntr’ with a more reasonable level of musicality. It even had Kate Moss singing guest vocals, which accompanied a few tabloid snaps of Gillespie stumbling from metropolitan drinking holes with the belle on his arm – an uncanny partnership which Doherty has echoed so brilliantly in recent times.
New LP ‘Riot City Blues’ still has songs whose titles suggest aggression, such as ‘When The Bomb Drops’, ‘Little Death’ and ‘Sometimes I Feel So Lonely’, but overall its atmosphere is less sinister and certainly more upbeat.
“Some of it is a little more optimistic – not all of it,” concedes the singer. “I guess you’ve got to keep changing. You can’t keep making the same record over and over again. We still have a disgust, even more disgust, at the way the world’s run and the government and multi-national corporations and the slaughter and torture and empire building by America, Russia, China, Pakistan, India. All these psychotic bullies running the world.”
“We’re always gonna be opposed to it. It’s fucking human beings. Murder, torture, rape, prisons, shat on… we wrote about it on ‘Xtrmntr’. I can’t write it any better than I did on ‘Swastika Eyes’, the way I feel. It’s not that you’re desensitised it’s just you’ve written about it and you don’t want to write the same book over and over again.”
Gone are the accusatory titles such as ‘Swastika Eyes’ and the sinister samples of children giving execution orders along with the more cynical undertones of recent work – but Gillespie is still keen to ensure that the band were not interpreted wrongly and their message is not lost in the new upbeat LP.
“Anger and cynicism are not the same thing. I don’t think a cynical band would make those records [‘Xtrmntr’ and ‘Evil Heat’). We’re not cynical; we want the world to be a better place. We’re not cynical. Cynical people don’t make music as joyous as this. We are angry but we’re not cynical.”
Due to the extent to which Primal Scream have manipulated their sound the press have always had a challenging time with the band. On several well-publicised outings, journalists have attempted to relate their distinctive recordings to divergent musical and social eras. It’s a game musical commentators feel compelled to play. Certain well-known titles commented that ‘Evil Heat’ was the band coming to terms with the mayhem and disillusionment wrought on ‘Xtrmntr’ whereas ‘Vanishing Point’ and ‘Give Out But Don’t Give Up’ purged the comedown and excesses of ‘Screamadelica’. Gillespie however sees such comparison to a musical or even social barometer as nonsense and in fact trivialises their message.
“This is shit. No I don’t think that. ‘Xtrmntr’ was pre-empting the way things were going to go, not us reflecting it. We were predicting the militaristic police state which we face now. You can now be arrested and detained indefinitely, without trail of charge and whisked away to rot, if authorities deem you a threat to society. Whether you’re Islam or just a librarian reading books they don’t want you to read, they can do it to you now. It’s martial law in effect.”
“All that stuff about the war on terror is like a pretext for the so called western democracies setting up a national police state. We were writing about that shit five or six years ago but I could see it coming with the military build up at the end of the Nineties with Nato and Serbia. But it’s not politics. You see ten guys beating a guy up over there – you’d be appalled right? You’d want it to stop. So it’s not necessarily ‘politics’.”
‘Xtrmntr’ raged and writhed against specific globally relevant situations at the turn of the century. Some would argue incoherently, others would argue as an accessible statement delivered directly to the lower generations. ‘Xtrmntr’s artwork was plastered in the all-too-familiar sight of navy technicians lashing missiles to fighter jets – but did people read the LP too simply? Was it purely about an unlicensed war?
“That and the drug culture. The drug culture being sold to you as a form of rebellion. But in reality the government doesn’t need to send the army in to neutralise working class areas. They’ve just flooded it with heroin, cocaine and crack cocaine. Everyone’s just fucked it up and no one’s doing anything to fix the situation. It’s a desolate situation. It’s almost like a void culture and that’s what ‘Xtrmntr’ was really about – the effects of drugs, on the culture and what it had done to me and my friends.”
“We were in the front line for most of the fucking Nineties. It was like war reporting! And that’s why that record is so paranoid and claustrophobic and dead in parts and it’s got no feeling because that’s how you feel when you are fucked on drugs; that lack of communication. That kind of sense of nothingness.”
“So yeah – it is political because I believe that the amount of drugs in Britain is a government-controlled thing. In the ‘60s and ‘70s they flooded American black areas with smack, heroin, cocaine. I think it was to try and put an end to the black liberation struggle that had started. A lot of smack was coming in from Vietnam, the Far East, brought back in American Airforce planes. Same in the 80s with the Nicaraguan Contras when the C.I.A. flooded LA and cities in America with crack cocaine.”
“It’s ethnic cleansing of a certain population. I used to this say in interviews and none of it would ever get printed. People will be sitting there saying that I’m paranoid but, you know, if you’ve got a population who don’t work, who are really poor, and homeless, then how can you control them? Give them smack. Nobody on smack does anything except take smack. This country is so druggy.”
All that stuff about the war on terror is like a pretext for the so called western democracies setting up a national police state. We were writing about that shit five or six years ago.
No one could deny that the majority of their previous albums have had leanings towards certain drug induced head states. ‘Screamadelica’ was the soundtrack to a loved up dance generation enjoying the sunny side of Acid House. Equally, ‘Echodek’ was a quintessential stoner album whilst their more recent albums have been so heavily tempered with underground dance culture that many of their sounds have that unmistakable lysergic edge of a band that likes to mess with their minds.
‘Riot City Blues’ however sounds slightly like the geek within the over-indulged and delinquent class of Primal Scream albums. They have vastly reduced the spectrum of noises and their love of samples seems diminished. ‘Riot City Blues’ is an album by a band who’ve drastically cut back the scale of their sound. Their live shows often abandon live percussion as the band jam over huge electronic structures and thundering techno rhythms – this album however is the polar opposite as they lay down their law using only traditional methods.
“We met a lot of producers,” sighs Gillespie. “This time, because of the way we wrote it we felt we should work with someone who would be good with a live band but you don’t sit down and say, ‘Listen let’s make a rock ‘n’ roll record’. It just happened. I guess it’s an unconscious thing. What you’re feeling at the time and what you’re expressing in sound and words. Primal Scream take chances and we are always making new music while most bands make average sounding records with dull producers.”
In many people’s eyes Screamadelica elevated the band to a superior level, a view legitimised through the relentless Channel 5 / Q magazine’s ‘most influential’ charts. As the well documented story goes… An underground producer with The Sabres of Paradise and ascendant acid house DJ – Andrew Weatherall – overhauled the Primal’s song ‘I’m Losing More Than I’ll Ever Have’ with a psychedelic and baggy injection, transforming it into ‘Loaded’ and thus initiated a musical sea-change and arguably the modern era of generic cross-over.
Since this time Primal Scream have always courted exceptional producers and much is proffered on the debate of just how influential these producers have been within the band’s career; a debate which clearly annoys Gillespie.
“People always say ‘that producer made that record’ but I think the producer doesn’t make music – the music makes the producer. The producer’s there to make the songs better but they don’t write the sounds or play the songs. Everybody plays a part. But we wouldn’t still be here fifteen years after ‘Screamadelica’ if the band couldn’t play or write songs. It’s a crap attitude.”
“One of the best records I ever heard was Joy Division produced by Martin Hannett; that’s a good example. Before Hannett they were a punk band but then suddenly they were like… something else. We want to put music before ego. Even if someone’s wiped off the track, like my vocals, I don’t care because it’s about making the best music.”
Ego is an interesting term for a band that consistently rants about their abilities. It seems that within the band there may be no ego but as a band collectively they can’t stop espousing their skills and abilities. Whether it’d be a lack of exposure to new bands or just plain indifference, Gillespie rather surprisingly wouldn’t be drawn on which bands he feels either cut it or fall short.
He reels off a list of people who he feels should have had more exposure such as Alex Chilton, Arthur Lee, The Cramps, The Ramones and Jesus And Mary Chain – but chooses to remain silent on which bands he feels are a threat to Primal Scream and which would never come close.
“Most bands make tame records. I just couldn’t do it. I think rock music is really conservative and most bands are not exciting or ferocious or aggressive or sexy. You can never pigeon hole us – ever. But we’ve never been afraid of working with other people. We are good musicians who can play with the best in the world. We are not afraid of bringing in the best like Augustus Pablo, George Clinton; they’re heavy weights. We’ve probably played with the greatest people in the world. I like the fact that every Primal Scream record sounds different from the last one.
As tastes change and musical vogues ebb and flow, Primal Scream have always found themselves making almost polarised albums from what went before. In the past some people may regard Primal Scream as jumping on an ever-changing bandwagon; a possibility stillborn in the eyes of their ever ranting singer.
“Well if you’re moving ahead of the trends how can you be jumping on the bandwagon? If you stopped doing ‘Screamadelica’ and start doing country rock, rock and roll, what bandwagon are you jumping on there? If you leave that and do cinematic, opiated moody music of ‘Vanishing Point’ that nobody else is making, what bandwagon are you jumping on? If you do a dub record called ‘Echodek’, what bandwagon are you jumping on then? Then if you did ‘Xtrmntr’, what bandwagon are you jumping on? Then ‘Evil Heat’, if you’ve done this, what bandwagon are you jumping on?”
“We were into acid house, which was the underground culture of the time, late 80’s early 90’s right? There’s nothing wrong with being influenced by what you think of as the best, most vibrant, exciting culture at the time. I don’t see a problem with that. The record we made wasn’t an acid house record. It was influenced by acid house. But we incorporated rock and roll and we made ‘Screamadelica’. We were influenced by those styles but we did something new with it. I think we have been a forward thinking, futuristic band in the way we make records and it’s going to take a while for people to catch up with that.”
… and it’s this attitude that has seen Primal Scream not only survive, but lead for 20 years through more changes and experimental periods than most other bands have had rehearsals. Yet they are still here and still fighting for every inch of respect and every member of an audience’s heart.
Whether you love or loath this innovative band you have to concede they have rarely lain down for anyone and remain today as strong as a pack of bloody minded teenagers.
But amazingly at the end of our interview Bobby admits that when he’s close to finishing every album he’s always tempted to sack it all off, break up the band for good and go and hide away from the pressures.
He never does though. He hits the road. Plays his new songs and falls in love with his band all over again.
Can you imagine Bobby Gillespie doing another job except singing in the band he has fought so hard to keep together?
He can. Quite easily. And the answer is hardly surprising at all: “What would I do if I wasn’t in this band anymore? That’s easy – I’d be an assassin! A hit man! I’d strangle the bastards.”