As part of The 1975’s takeover of The Face, we’re releasing a series of podcasts featuring frontman Matty Healy in conversation with his musical heroes.
Bobby Gillespie is the frontman of Primal Scream and the former drummer with The Jesus and Mary Chain.
After growing tired of being a straight-up indie band – and, frankly, with nothing left to lose – in 1989 the Scotsman enlisted the help of DJ/producer Andrew Weatherall.
The result was the groundbreaking blend of psychedelia, dub, funk and acid house that is the Scream’s classic 1991 album Screamadelica.
In the years since, Gillespie’s restless rock’n’roll spirit has continued to explore multiple genres – and, like Healy after him, he’s pushed the boundaries of how a bunch of guys in a band can sound.
In this podcast, Gillespie and Healy debate the current state of rock music, authenticity in music and art, and the legacy and legend of the mighty Weatherall.
Want to hear more of these? We also have podcasts featuring Matty talking to Stevie Nicks, Conor Oberst, Steve Reich, Mike Kinsella, Kim Gordon and Brian Eno.
Welcome back everybody, thank you very much for listening, this is a new installment of conversations with me, Matty, with some of my heroes, really. My guest today is a singer and a songwriter, a multi-instrumentalist, member of some of the most informative bands ever… A model, I would describe him as, as well. So, yeah, Mr. Bobby Gillespie. How are you, you alright?
I’m very good, thank you. How are you?
Yeah, I’m good.
Where are you, out in the countryside?
I am in the countryside, I’m in Oxfordshire, nearly Northamptonshire. Been in this studio for a while now, just before it all kicked off I came here.
Are you making new music?
I wasn’t going to be, because I just was about to tour, but now I’m not. So, I feel like I’ve got a new word to adapt to, do you know what I mean? So I’m kind of just, like, working towards that.
Well, what else are you gonna do if you’re a writer and a musician? You gotta write songs, you know?
I do feel, because everyone’s involved in this – I feel so lucky and quite privileged to even make music. I’m sure you feel the same. The fact that I can do it now, feels like if I didn’t I almost wouldn’t be doing my part, taking it for granted. Do you know what I mean? People get a lot of pleasure from music.
It’s thrilling. To me, that’s why I love being an artist – you never know what tomorrow brings, even at the most despairing, depressed times, work is a sanctuary. It’s a place to escape to, and also it’s a place to go into the future. And it’s a fantastic way to live.
I completely agree with everything you said – that feeling when you’re making something or that feeling when you’re just about to get it right, that’s such a potent feeling. I feel like I’ve almost chased that. I’ve looked for that feeling in like, religion, sex, drugs, do you know what I mean? I do see that you have the obvious clicheés of rock’n’roll and the lifestyle, so it’s understandable where substances would come from literally, but I think that it’s not a coincidence that a lot of creative people lose themselves in places like sex or drugs or religion – because they’re almost searching for that same feeling or closeness to divinity or something that they get from creating.
Well I don’t think it’s just creative people that lose themselves, everybody’s trying to escape from something, I guess. Reality is too hard for a lot of people, because we’re fortunate that we can earn a living as artists and be well paid for it, but the majority of humanity are either working in terrible low paid jobs or even worse, real poverty. I think that we’re in the fucking super privileged position. Some people get there through talent, some people get there through luck, some people get there through combination of both, but that’s not to say that’s a bad thing, it’s just where they happen to find themselves. I do think that it’s a natural thing for human beings to do, because human beings, way back at the start they had to make things in order to stay alive. They had to make fires, they had to make places to live. And eventually they started making paintings on the cave walls to say, “We exist.” I guess that’s what art is, it’s a way of saying, “I exist.” I always thought that writing a great song, to me, is an act of love towards the rest of humanity.
Like the way Christians would write hymns in order to celebrate God and celebrate the fact that God gave them life. That hymn was a song of love to the creator. You know? I think that it’s the human spirit – I think music, to me, is when you write a great song and everyone in the band is playing it, it’s a communistic thing. It’s communitarian – it’s a bunch of people playing and working together for the common good. And ultimately the best rock’n’roll is egoless, like the Stooges, like the MC5. There’s a sincerity there, you know? As George Clinton once said, “You can’t fake the funk.” You know when people don’t mean it and you know when they mean it, you just pick up on that even before you become a “musician”. You respond to truth in art. You know who’s faking it and you know who means it. And I think people do react to music in a big way, en masse, because there is a religious aspect to it.
There’s so much to unpack in what you just said. I completely agree, coming from punk or hardcore, those kind of scenes, the idea that you wanna change the fucking world? Change your world. Change our world. Let’s change the moral code or the structures of our world, like that sense of hyper-individualism. And then it’s really interesting because for me, like you’ve just said the best artists, regardless of whether they came from soulful music like Sam Cooke or any of those people, people in the punk movement – it’s always been about conviction and truth. It’s always been about signposting towards a utopia. I’m not a politician, I’m not gonna tell you what to do. I’m just gonna ask the right questions, I’m just gonna point, hopefully, in the right direction, because I feel like I’ve seen world leaders and politicians but I’ve been moved and taught how to live by artists. I struggle to talk about those kinds of things, because I never want to come across as wanky, but there is this kind of feeling that once you’ve written a song, especially once people know it and it becomes celebratory and becomes part of this ritual that you do with hundreds of people. It feels like you don’t really own that song anymore, do you know what I mean? It has its own kind of life, it has its own meaning in different subjective places. There is a real – I don’t know what the word is – crusade or something, it feels a bit higher. People who were knocking around when you’d just started The Jesus and Mary Chain, people like Genesis P‑Orridge and Throbbing Gristle – his whole psychic bible was all about, we create because it kind of brings us closer to God. That’s the closest to feeling divine that we can get. And like you said, we’re incredibly fortunate to be in that place.
Well, you know, I’m a fan of Peter Tosh. Peter Tosh illustrates a lot of what I was talking about before in terms, I guess, hardcore radical lyrics and songs and sincerity. There’s no irony there with Peter Tosh. It’s just, boom! But then, you know, I think that pop music, rock music… It’s a democratic art form. It comes from below. It’s not a high art, it’s not coming from the Royal Academy, or you know, fucking MoMA, or any of the fucking high end art institutions. When you look at the art world, and I know a lot of successful artists, the art has been made to be sold to 0.2 or 0.3 of the 1% of wealthiest people in the world. It’s a service industry for the super rich, and I know that some of the artist guys, that’s how they earn a living and fair enough, but I know they love the fact, and they’re a bit jealous, that guys in bands like us – it’s a more democratic art form because anybody can afford to buy it and buy into it, and feel part of it. Maybe they’re making this art and it goes straight from the gallery, they have a show and then super wealthy people, they employ people to buy them good taste ’cos it’s seen as an investment. There’s no love of art there, it’s just rich people acquiring. It’s like acquiring a gold mine in South Africa or a diamond mine in Angola. Whereas pop music, rock music, rap, drill, grime, whatever – it’s way more democratic.
There’s two things I wanna talk about. I wanna talk about Andrew Weatherall, if you would. Straight up, without beating around the bush, Screamadelica – your work at that time, over that period of Primal Scream, basically reinvented what was the alternative sound of alternative rock music, do you know what I mean? You took everything that was happening in acid house and house music, and you made this thing. What was the impetus for that? Why do you think that happened? What was going on?
Well, it was a convergence of the times. We were like a rock’n’roll band but we had quite diverse taste for a rock band at that time. We liked free jazz, we liked funk, we liked soul, we liked country, we liked blues. We liked electronic music, we liked post-punk, we liked ambient music, you know, we liked a lot, all sorts of fucking weird shit. And then the house thing happened and we were going to clubs. We weren’t going to gigs because we never liked any of the rock bands, ‘88/’89, it was just… rock music was fucking dead. I don’t care what anybody says. It was dead. That’s why in the ‘80s, ‘84/’83, we started listening to psychedelic music from the ‘60s. Rock music in the ‘80s, it was dead. It didn’t exist. It existed but it wasn’t rock’n’roll, it was not challenging anymore. The last rock band was maybe Joy Division.
You know you had punk, which died out between 1977 and ‘78, punk rock was not… It was going away from the blues and it was very white-sounding punk rock. They weren’t really playing bluesy lyrics like the Stones, or even the Stooges are quite bluesy. There were no black influences in it. So you see rock music go further away from the roots of black music and it becomes something else. Then when post-punk comes in, it becomes even more white, even though they start adopting funk rhythm, it’s still not that funky. It’s kind of bloodless.
It’s sexless, right? Funk is sexy music.
If you’re playing funk and it’s not sexy, like the Gang of Four or the Au Pairs, which I think they’re both great bands, it becomes something else, so completely the opposite of funk. But it made for some really good interesting music. And also the bands were of an age where maybe some of them had been to uni. I think universities in the Seventies in America and Britain were like a hotbed of leftwing ideas, and maybe some of the tutors might have been Marxists. Some of these bands were coming out of uni with feminist ideas and situationist Marxist, post-Marxist kind of ideas about consumer society. So a lot of these bands, like Gang of Four and Au Pairs, the songs were critiques of the western consumer society and capitalism. And so that added a new thing to the mix, so that post-punk had a lot of politics in it. Those were my formative years. So a lot of those ideas are entrenched in Primal Scream, and maybe the last great rock bands were Siouxsie and the Banshees, the Buzzcocks and Joy Division. And those three bands were the best post-punk bands for me. The ideas in the music and the lyrics for those three bands completely influenced Primal Scream. We just wanted to play. The thing was to play gigs and just be in a rock’n’roll band and have fun. And somehow trying to learn, for me, how to express myself as a lyricist. By the time of Screamadelica, our taste had widened. We were so disillusioned by modern rock that we gave up on it, you know. By the time we met Weatherall, we’d really got into the house scene and we weren’t going to rock gigs. We just had no interest in them, they were not sexy, they were not seditious, they were just full of fucking students drinking pints of lager. Whereas when you went to the clubs it was full of beautiful girls, everybody on ecstasy, everybody friendly. The rock gigs were full of hostile fucking dicks! You know? It was a real elitism, whereas the acid house thing was more communitarian and more… it just felt a bit more, everybody was welcome. It was more inclusive, right? And the music was modern, it was sexy, it was experimental. They were like, eight, nine minute mixes of these tracks and remixes. We loved dub-reggae, we were big, big fans of reggae, ‘70s reggae and dub. These 12” sounded like dub records, you know? We were just like, this music’s amazing. So we met Weatherall and he was a fan of the band. So we struck up a friendship and when we asked him to mix Loaded, he mixed a song called I’m Losing More Than I’ll Ever Have, which was a ballad on our second album. And he really loved it, and he took a bit of persuading to mix it. He loved the song, and he was going, “I don’t wanna destroy the song, it’s beautiful, it’s great as it is.” We persuaded him and eventually he made the mix of Loaded. That’s another story but we really bonded over Thin Lizzy, dub-reggae, Mott The Hoople, disco music, funk. We bonded. We were similar ages, we’d been through the same scenes. He was a mad fan of Throbbing Gristle and Psychic TV as well. I was never a big fan of those bands myself. I liked Genesis P‑Orridge more than his music but Weatherall was really into it. So we were big fans of 23 Skidoo and A Certain Ratio. We liked industrial, experimental funk, quite depressive funk from England. Because we were kind of depressed teenagers, hanging out in graveyards and stuff, we were outsiders. We loved the fact that he was a DJ, right, who’d never been in a studio before. I think he’d been in the studio with Paul Oakenfold, when Oakenfold did a Happy Mondays remix. I don’t know how much influence Weatherall had on that mix, but he was there and his name’s on the label. I think Loaded was the first time he was doing it on his own. We just loved the fact that the more we worked with him – he was just a genius. It was just this natural talent to make this music and structure and arrange music in a way that we’d never heard before. So he could take our songwriting and our instrumental – instrumentals in Primal Scream were fantastic. And the melodies and the gospel singers and the strings and the slate guitars, we played a lot of synthesisers as well. We got a lot of good synthesiser sounds, and he was really great at taking all this stuff and rearranging it and making it into this fantastic music. Acid house gave him this opportunity to work with a band like us, and acid house gave us, this rock’n’roll band, an opportunity to find this raw talent like Weatherall, and together we made Screamadelica. To me, I thought, this is total punk. The guy’s never worked in a studio, he’s never recorded a band, he wouldn’t know where to put a fucking microphone if his life depended on it. But he was a genius arranger and a visionary – a sonic visionary. He was also a student of Malcolm McLaren and Johnny Rotten like we were. It was destiny for us to meet him.
It’s the same with me and my band, we’ve been together – I’m only 31, but we’ve been together, I think it’s coming up to our 18th year as the same lineup.
Oh, really? So how old were you when you started then?
13, we started as that lineup, as the same lineup that we are now.
Did you meet at school?
Yeah, we went to high school together, and the thing is, what I’ve always thought, people have always asked how it’s worked or why it’s worked or why it’s been harmonious. And one of the reasons is that when we were 13, we were literally making music for the same reason that we were playing video games. Because it was fun – you’re in a Spiderman t‑shirt being like, that’s cool, leather jackets, the Mary Chain, all these ideas, we didn’t even know anything about them. We were just making music for the pure fun of it, playing whatever, Ghostbusters, do you know what I mean? And all of the cultural information that we’ve got as individuals, we’ve kind of got together. All the bands we’ve been into, all the people we’ve obsessed over, all those things, all those formative teenager experiences, we had as a band. So you start a band even when you’re like 18, and you’ve got an ego and a leather jacket and you want to shag birds. That’s got its own – you can imagine that rubbing up against… But because we’ve always been, pretty much every time we’ve been working, trying to just recapture that purity, do you know what I mean?
My sons are into that. I’d have to ask them right now who they currently listen to, but two years ago it was Young Thug.
Who I think is like the Morrissey of that.. I’m the biggest Young Thug fan in the world.
My sons are into all that stuff. The eldest son, who’s 18 now, he loves the lyrics. He also loves the lifestyle obviously, the elade outlaws. These guys are beyond anything, you know. And murder raps, all sort of stuff, dying at 21, these debauched fucking decadent lives they lead, the money they make, but also the look. He loves the look, he loves the multi-coloured hair, wearing dresses, he loves the whole thing. These guys are the rock’n’roll stars of now.
Exactly. It’s very much like all the rules have gone. Culture seems like it’s always been cycling. The ‘80s was the ‘50s and the ‘90ss was the ‘60s, and the 2000’s was kind of the ‘80s and we stayed in the ‘80s until now, it would seem. It’s so fast now, cultural references… I run a label and I have young artists on my label that are like, “I wanna get Good Charlotte to feature on a record.” Now when I was that age, Good Charlotte wasn’t a cool thing to do, but this kid was five when that happened. Culture is so fast now and it doesn’t matter.
It’s just changed. There’s way less snobbery, there’s way less tribalism. This idea of being a vessel to kind of express loads of cultural ideas…
So maybe in the 21st century these tribal divisions have kind of broken down, you know? Maybe. I think you might be right.
I can only speak for my experience, and to be honest with you, it’s really interesting. By the time that I was old enough to do what we do, again – not just like rock music, heavy music, as an alternative, had been done to death. You start a band and you make loads of noise, you wanna be the loudest. You do that, so you’re innately heavy at the beginning anyway. We were like that and then we were like you, into punk and hardcore, eighties kind of hardcore and then you’ve gotta remember that over the nineties, loads of waves of heavy music happened. We had bands like Refuse and stuff like that. By the time that we wanted to make a difference or do something original, being heavy was just like off the table. It’s not that we didn’t want to be, but I was just as into Donny Hathaway as I was into Peter Gabriel as I was into Steve Reich and Penderecki and all these kinds of things. It was a bit like, what is not punk for me? What I have not learned…
You’ve gotta draw the line in our band, you draw the line at Peter Gabriel. That’s just not allowed. It’s not allowed. We’re all reminded, but we also are like a punk rock taliban, you know? We’re kind of like…
Well Bobby, I hate to disappoint you. I think there’s probably overt references to Phil Collins on my records, because literally, I’ve just completely let all of the rules go. Because for me, I feel like this: there are so many bands that do it really well at the moment, there’s this band called Fontaines D.C. who are a punk band. I think they’re fucking brilliant. There are so many bands that have a traditional form, right, that are great. I see a lot of bands and they’ll dress up in the punk clothes and they’ll make the punk music and they’ll do the thing, but you might as well dress up as characters from Back To The Future and reenact a scene, it’s not real, do you know what I mean?
I’ll be honest, I’m fine for people to do their thing and use the form, the traditional rock form or indie form. I have no real interest in modern rock music, but I’m cool with people playing it. It’s a democratic art form, but I just don’t wanna listen to it. I heard it when I was a fucking teenager and it’s not attractive to me anymore, you know? But when people start making bands and they’re having fun with their mates and forming a band, I think it’s the greatest thing in the world, you know? You kind of grow out of it in a way, and I hate to say that, it sounds terrible. I wanna hear music, songs by people that I can relate to at my age, and I hear the words and I think, ok. Stuff that I might have heard when I was like 20, let’s say Warren Zevon or even some Merle Haggard stuff. I heard that when I was in my late twenties, early thirties. I thought, I like it but now that I’m older, I go, oh my God I love it. And so I’ve now lived long enough and experienced stuff that I kinda go, fuck! These guys are the best. They’re writing real, heavy, hardcore existential poetry, whereas the younger stuff, it’s for younger people. It’s not for me, it’s for people who are younger looking through the same emotions and experiences as these younger guys in the bands.
Is there any contemporary artist that you are bang into at the moment?
That’s a good question. I’ll tell you who I’m a big fan of, Kurt Vile.
Oh yeah, me too.
I love Kurt Vile and I love seeing him play live, and I love his guitar playing. I bought the album recently by – what’s his name? The kid with the red hair, King Krule. I bought King Krule’s latest album, I thought the first track was great. It’s an album of curiosities, the songs are like miniatures. If it was an artwork, a 3D artwork…
I know exactly what you mean.
It’s an odd record, and it’s kind of a modern psychedelic record, but it’s kind of solipsistic. I find a lot of work by a lot of younger artists quite solipsistic. But I think that goes with their age.
Bobby Gillespie, thank you so much for talking to me, you’re a charming man.
Thanks, man. That was enjoyable, that was really enjoyable.
I really enjoyed talking to you, I hope as soon as we get out of this…
Let’s meet up, let’s meet up. Take care.
Take care of yourself man.