Eternal scream

Primal Scream's Bobby Gillespie tells Richard Smirke the band is an altogether more professional outfit than in the hedonistic past

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This November it will be 40 years since The Sex Pistols released their debut single Anarchy In The UK, and helped kickstart the punk explosion. To mark the anniversary, a series of commemorative events is planned for the year – but not everyone welcomes the nostalgic celebration of a once underground anti-establishment youth movement.

“I think it’s a lot of fucking garbage,” spits out Primal Scream frontman Bobby Gillespie, who was 15 when the Pistols emerged and has long cited punk as a defining influence on his 30-year music career. “I owe everything to Johnny Rotten, The Sex Pistols and punk, but I don’t think you should look back,” explains the still remarkably lean and youthful looking 53-year-old singer.

“If you were lucky enough to be around for that cultural explosion – and I was one of the people deeply touched by it – then great, but I do also think just let it go. I don’t really see the point of getting hung up in the past. What I took from punk was that it was against nostalgia. It was about living in the moment. It was about reinvention and becoming your own hero.”

The same independent, forward-looking ethos has been the beating heart of Primal Scream since Gillespie formed the group alongside original guitarist Jim Beattie in Glasgow in 1982. For their first few years, Gillespie divided his time between Primal Scream and drumming for fellow Scots The Jesus And Mary Chain, before putting down the drumsticks to pursue his own musical ambitions. Although their first two records were poorly received, his belief in the band was rewarded when their third album, 1991’s acid house-inspired Screamadelica, went on to sell over three million copies. The LP is routinely voted one of the best albums of the 1990s.

In the two decades since Screamadelica, the band’s capacity for reinvention has led them to embrace everything from Stones-esque trad rock (1994’s Give Out But Don’t Give Up) to neon psychedelic dub (1997’s Vanishing Point) to abrasive electro political punk (2000’s XTRMNTR). Not everything they’ve tried has been a success (2002’s Evil Heat and 2008’s Beautiful Future are less than spectacular), but you could never accuse the famously hedonistic group of resting on their laurels.

“This band is an ongoing art project,” says Gillespie, his thick Glaswegian accent unaffected by years spent living in London. “Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t, but that’s the challenge that you take. As artists, what we’re trying to do is work inside the framework of a traditional pop song and try and make it raw and poetic and cool, but also emotional and honest.”

Primal Scream have made more left turns than a driving instructor

Much like Primal Scream’s eclectic, genre-swapping back catalogue, interviews with their outspoken frontman can be highly unpredictable. Get Gillespie on a good day and he’s a gracious and erudite man to talk to, happy to tap into his vast knowledge of political and music history and with a blackly comic sense of humour. Get him on a bad day – or ask something to which he takes extreme offence – and gnawing an elephant’s toe quickly becomes a more appealing alternative. Thankfully, today his mood matches the sunny, upbeat nature of Primal Scream’s latest album, Chaosmosis, which was released earlier this year and is their most poppy, radio-friendly record to date.

“Our manager had remarked to us: ‘Why don’t you guys try and write some singles?’ So we did,” says a chuckling Gillespie. “We went in with the idea that we’d better write big choruses with lots of melody.”

True to their aim, Chaosmosis is a shiny, sprightly affair, packed full of catchy hooks and pulsing synth pop. Reviews were mixed, but none failed to notice that after 2013’s bleakly dark 68-minute jazz-rock opus More Light it represented another creative left turn from a band that has made more left turns than a driving instructor.

“I’ve lived a long time. I’ve got a lot of experience of life and I think they are really good songs. They are honest and true and people can relate to them,” says Gillespie. “We’re trying to write universal pop songs, but we also need to do records like More Light. We need to do the experimental songs that are nine minutes long and about dark subject matter, and get that kind of stuff out of our system.”

Since the turn of the century each Primal Scream record has begun with Gillespie and bandmate Andrew Innes – the group’s only other long-term member, following the death of Robert “Throb” Young in 2014 – sequestered in their London studio working on new ideas. Last year, the Guardian quoted the singer as saying that he approaches making music as a job – a suggestion he angrily refutes today. “I never said that. Somebody else said that,” he snaps. “We go to the studio five days a week, Innes and myself, and we make work. Eventually out of that work comes an album. We don’t approach it coldly like a job. It’s not a job. It’s a fucking vocation.”

However, he does concede that it’s this industrious work ethic that has kept the band relevant. “Had we been the kind of people who just did nothing for months I don’t think we would still be here. We constantly apply ourselves until suddenly we have a breakthrough,” he calmly reflects, noting that, as a result, the process of making music is no longer the tortuous endeavour it was once was.

“Making a Primal Scream record in the mid-1990s was hell. We had a different band set-up then and it used to be a very painful process. There were too many people to please. There were problems in the band with substance abuse, so a lot of the time members wouldn’t turn up. When you were trying to change the sound of the band people couldn’t fit into the new style, which created problems. But if you’re going to be an artist who challenges themselves and constantly wants to evolve then these problems are going to arise.”

The Primal Scream of today is an entirely different, more unified and professional beast, notes Gillespie, who has been sober since 2008 and is the father of two young sons. The band’s ambition and fiery punk spirit still burn bright though and, says their singer, that’s something that will never die.

“People know that we mean it when we play. We hit the stage and we fucking kick out the jams, to quote MC5. We don’t mess about. Whereas before you could catch us on a bad night and we’d be awful. We’d be too wasted. We’re now consistently good. We’ve gone from being a band that would occasionally win the cup to one that can win the league.”

Bobby Gillespie on…

Building a new political system
We are opposed to the Conservative government and their policies and we’re opposed to neoliberal financial capitalism. Andrew Innes and myself, our politics are on the left and we’re inspired by developments in the world and the UK. I don’t think humans can be liberated under financial capitalism. It just enslaves them. People are abused, exploited and enslaved under this system. I would like to see a different, fairer system. The system that we live under is too punitive and harsh towards the working poor. It benefits the one percent and at the moment there is no light.

Why music can only do so much to change the system 
You can’t censor your own work to fit political dogma, because then it’s not truly art. I don’t think punk or acid house changed a thing. Acid house did not get rid of Margaret Thatcher. Punk did not get rid of James Callaghan. Punk and acid house worked on the level of inspiring young people. They worked on the level of a personal epiphany. They inspired individuals to realise that they could be powerful if they recognised their own creativity and power, which they might not have known had they not had that epiphany. But they never changed the country or the system. It’s not called the establishment, for nothing [laughs]. It’s an ancien régime. It will take a lot more than a rock and roll band to change this country.

Primal Scream headline Beat-Herder festival, in Sawley, 15-17 July and Down To The Woods, Sedgefield, 13-14 August 

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