Sobriety has done nothing to calm Primal Scream frontman Bobby Gillespie’s revolutionary fire. Eddy Lawrence tries to keep up
As anyone who’s seen Primal Scream, or read one of their interviews, will know, Bobby Gillespie is naturally a man of extremes. We’re sitting in The Engineer – a gastropub round the corner from Primal Scream’s Primrose Hill studio – to talk about More Light, the first new Primal Scream album in five years, and without doubt one of their best. He begins the interview a little weary after a late night at PR face Fran Cutler’s 50th birthday party at which, judging by the pictures, he was almost certainly the only sober person in the room. But his character pendulum swings high in both directions.
In person, the 50-year-old musician is laconic and garrulous, slouched and animated, deadly serious and drily hilarious. Even his eyes are in on it, expanding from inscrutable arrowslits to coal-black orbs like the girl from
the Japanese version of The Ring.
Most of More Light was written while the band were rehearsing and performing the revival tour of their 1991 masterpiece, Screamadelica. The albums share some ground – they’re both absolutely of their time, mind-expandingly psychedelic and have a downbeat core masked by their seductively propulsive grooves. But in tone and sound the albums couldn’t be more different; More Light is a tour de force of contained, political fury.
Gillespie’s words pop shots not just at society’s supervillains (bankers and politicians), but also at the apathy of voters and consumers who let them do their self-serving thing. More Light boasts a fittingly eclectic cast of collaborators, most of whom became involved entirely by the kind of accident that would only happen to Primal Scream – from bumping into Robert Plant in a café to recruiting flamboyantly attired jazz legends The Sun Ra Arkestra when they were stranded in London by the Icelandic volcano eruption.
“Aye,” agrees Gillespie, “but I think you make your own luck. If Chris Martin had been in that coffee shop, Robert Plant wouldn’t be doing a Coldplay record.” If you only own one Primal Scream album – which we’re assuming is Screamadelica – this will be your second...
It was quite a surprise to see Primal Scream join the wave of retro album tours with Screamadelica. Did you have to be convinced?
That stuff did go through my mind – “Is this an admission that you’re finished, that you’re giving up and creatively bankrupt?” But the offer of the Screamadelica shows was like a sideways step. It allowed us to keep working in music and earn a living – we didn’t have a record company. So it was like we had two projects on the go, and one was earning a living. But it was fun. The other project was an art thing, and provided a way into the future.
You were touring a legendarily hedonistic record as a sober and drug-free man for the first time – did that make you approach it in a different way?
I’ll tell you what it did do, it made me feel the emotion in it. Because it was a big record, and when we made it, it was a really pure thing. When we released Screamadelica, we thought we’d made a really cool independent rock record that was always going to be cool, and I was happy with that. And then people went really mad for it and it became this other thing. But you move forward, keep making more records, move through life and things happen. I never really listen back to our old records. So when we listened to the master tapes of Screamadelica, we were like, “Whoa.” They were great performances, and it’s a really sincere, heartfelt, emotional record. Our drummer Darrin wasn’t around for Screamadelica. He said to me, “There’s a lot of sadness to this record,” and I was like, “Yeah, I think you’re right.” I hadn’t noticed that before – we just made it and thought, “Yeah, it’s a hedonistic record.”
That’s something it shares with More Light – there’s definitely a fragility to the new album…
Really? Do you think so? That’s nice. There’s a lot of feeling in it, isn’t there? Like River Of Pain and Tenement Kid. Right in there [taps his heart]. Painful.
It sounds like someone who has been genuinely affected by something heavy.
Oh yeah. I’m almost five years clean, and I can feel that stuff now that I couldn’t feel before, because I didn’t want to feel it. And it’s all come out. So, I think I’m a braver artist now than I was before, taking all that other stuff. You’re pushed behind the wall, and any fears you have are kept behind that wall as well. You don’t need to confront them. And now, I think I’m pretty f*cking fearless. I genuinely do. And I‘ll pat myself on the back.
So is this sensitivity a new thing, or a result of years of backed-up emotions?
I don’t know. It’s always been there. There has to be reasons why you’re always angry. I’m still trying to work it out. You just carry stuff within you for years and years. It’s like somebody’s walking with a limp, and they don’t know they’re walking with one. Everybody else can see it, they can never see it. And that causes a lot of problems.
It’s lucky that you have an outlet to explore all those feelings, though.
That’s it – you can explore it in your work. Try to discuss it and get it out there, and then other people can listen to it and maybe relate to it. That’s what More Light is: it’s about shedding light on all this stuff that’s hidden away – shame, guilt, fear, paranoia, anger – all that bad stuff that’s in there. The More Light title is kind of saying “Get it all out in the open and discuss it. And you can beat it.” You have to confront what is hurting you, I guess. Whether you want to call it a demon or... actually, don’t use that word. It sounds like one of the Spice Girls in a self-help group. But I think it’s important.
So was learning to stop taking yourself so seriously a bit of a breakthrough?
Aye – realising how f*cking stupid you’ve been. You can learn and work out why you react emotionally a certain way, to certain people or certain situations. I get it. I went out last night and had a couple of weird reactions. I had a slight attitude as well – very defensive and aggressive. Not verbally, but kind of [mimes shutters going down over his face] ‘F*ck you’. And this morning I went swimming, and I was thinking, “Why are you behaving like that? There’s nobody in the room that’s hostile. You’re the hostile one. What have you got to fear? You’ve got nothing to fear. You’re projecting all these signs on to people who never did anything mean to you – perfectly nice, decent, normal people. And you’re sitting there like [mimes being offish] F*ck off!” It’s so bad. It’s funny. If you had two Es you’d be like [leaps up from table and mimes affectionate hugs] “Wahey! Yeah! I love that guy! He’s f*cking brilliant! Eh, c’mere!”
At the best of times, it’s difficult to talk to Primal Scream without touching on politics. With More Light having such explicitly political lyrics, it’s impossible. Talking to most pop stars about politics is usually about as rewarding as talking to a politician about pop – they’ll have a stab, but it’s obvious their opinions have been carefully curated to enhance their public image. Just look at Gordon Brown’s infamous feigned appreciation of Arctic Monkeys, for example.
Gillespie’s opinions – as rancourous as they are – are clearly informed, heartfelt, and considered. He speaks with the authority of someone who’s done his homework, and paid attention in class to start with.
One of Gillespie’s chief socio-political bugbears is the lack of dissent, particularly in the arts. A committed autodidact half-raised by a home library – amassed by a father who worked as a labourer at a Glaswegian printworks – and later his record collection, Gillespie is big on the transformative potential of anti-conformist music. This isn’t the griping of a man moaning about how the sunsets were redder back in his day. As with every point Gillespie makes during the interview, he’s able to back it up with a direct example.
When did you first become interested in the political impact of music?
I didn’t have an art background, but I was drawn to things that chimed with the truth of my reality. When I was 16 I got a job in a factory, and it was a brutal world. I was young for my age and wasn’t really ready to leave school. Then I got this new-wave album with Patti Smith’s P*ss Factory on it, and I thought, “This is my f*cking world.” “Sixteen and time to pay off/I get this job in a p*ss factory/Forty hours 36 dollars a week/But it’s a pay cheque, Jack.” I used to play it again and again and again. The Clash were singing about “Hate and war, the only things we got today”. You walked around the streets of Glasgow and there were guys trying to stab you, or kick your f*cking head in, at least. It was like, “This is my reality – it’s violent, it’s brutal, it’s dark, it’s claustrophobic, it’s angry.” It sounds like a Primal Scream record.
This album features a couple of mentions of Margaret Thatcher. How did you feel about the campaign to get Ding Dong... to No1 following her death?
It was kind of impotent. It’s like when people were going to have death parties. What was the f*cking point? Who cares? My mates were texting me, and I was saying, “Yeah great, but she ceased to be a threat a long time ago.” Thatcherism basically just means free-market neo-liberal economic policies. She was the first European globalist, I think. She was a real proselytiser for the Chicago school of free-market economics. Her idol was Milton Friedman, she was friends with Pinochet. When they had the coup in ’73 in Chile, that’s where they tested that economic model, and then they did it in Argentina. But they were both tested under the point of a bayonet and a gun, torture and disappearances.
So how do you think her legacy lives on?
She amped up the f*cking class war, the war against the trade-union movement, which began to restructure British society. So she won. Then there was John Major. Tony Blair, he didn’t reverse the policies, he said they were going to build on them. And then you’ve got the new government. So it’s kind of dynastic. We’ve been ruled by the same kind of mindset. I mean, Labour did some good stuff as well, building schools and hospitals and stuff. Look, I’m not going to get into a political rant here, but Labour were for the City Of London. They were for the banks, they were for the war in Iraq, they were pro-torture, they sanctioned it, they’re f*cking war criminals. So I didn’t think it was a big deal when Margaret Thatcher died. ‘Thatcher’s children make their millions’, – that generation of politicians are corporate people or bankers who share the same globalistic view of the world – uber capitalism. What I’m trying to say is that’s who’s running the f*cking show.
You quote Thatcher’s famous zinger about there being ‘no such thing as society’ directly on new track Culturecide. Was there a specific reason behind that?
I had a psychiatrist – it was a drugs counsellor, actually. I went to see her for a couple of years when I first got clean. And she was a working-class Glaswegian [who had been counselling] for 25 years. She used to work in former pit towns and told me about the people she was dealing with. She said it’s worse than 25 years ago – kids are more out of control, growing up with no guidance, drug-addicted mothers, no father, then the mother gets a new 17-year-old boyfriend who’s a drug addict – there’s all kinds of weird sh*t going on. She said at the lowest levels, it’s breaking down, and that comes with poverty. So that’s why I used that quote, because it’s kind of prophetic. Basically, she set the rules and the policies [that started] the overturn of any kind of socialistic egalitarian ideas. All the changes in society since the Industrial Revolution that poorer people fought for and achieved, Thatcher helped the establishment claw back.
Do you think that was a deliberate strategy on her part?
That miners’ strike, I remember it at the time. My dad was a trade unionist, and he obviously discussed it a lot with me. He basically said to me, “What’s happening here is that she’s declared war on the trade-union movement, and she’ll take the miners out – this never happened by chance.” They had French coal ready to be shipped in, you know the scab lorry drivers? They’re MI6 – it’s basically a military operation – and this didn’t happen by chance. They planned it for years. And they ran it like a war.
Then the communities were further dismantled by heroin addiction…
I know, and you have to ask yourself how all that heroin suddenly got on the streets. If you look at the history of the US – at Operation County Crow – the black ghettos in the Sixties were suddenly flooded with heroin by the CIA and the Mafia, to suppress black militancy. Why are we in Afghanistan? They’re producing more heroin now than ever. Remember Tony Blair saying we’ve got to stop heroin getting on to the streets and destroying our teenagers?
You’re obviously not very happy with the current government either.
Thatcher might be gone, but she’s not dead. Osborne was crying at her funeral, and I see him today saying, “Oh we can’t have legislation to try to curb the City because it’s going to affect Britain’s recovery.” It’s a science-fiction situation, because there is a right-wing revolution happening, and the country’s going to get worse and poorer – and more violent. It’s going to be a darker f*cking place to live in within the next five, 10 years. And nobody’s saying anything. If you look at the f*cking sh*t they’re putting through now – Thatcher would have loved to do what these c*nts are doing. She would love to be doing all this extreme economic liberalism and selling off the NHS and all this stuff, but she couldn’t, because there was too much of an army against her – the unions were too strong and powerful. But with these policies, they know exactly who they’re hurting, and how they’re going to hurt them. It’s a war. I don’t think it’s too extreme to say that. It’s an economic war. They’re not sending in bayonets, but I always say you don’t need to send the army in, just flood the streets with cheap heroin.
Speaking of confrontational political statements – there’s a line on another new track Hit Void that says “Explode yourself in protest in the House Of Lords”. Are you ready for a potential backlash against that lyric?
Well, when you think about it, if you’re going to explode yourself in protest, why would you do it in the House Of Lords? It’d be the House Of Commons. But House Of Lords rhymes with Guy Debord. Also, the reality of that line is, the guy‘s at a demonstration and everybody’s rioting for peace, then they all go home and watch the Champions League Final. It’s saying if you’re going to be political, get something behind it. Like a strategy. So I’m definitely not asking anybody to explode themselves in the House Of Lords. Because it wouldn’t make any difference [laughs].
More Light is released on 13 May
(Photography: Nadav Kander)