Primal Scream’s singular frontman Bobby Gillespie is one of the world’s coolest men: he’s sharp, sartorially splendid, unabashedly socialist (his Dad was a union organiser, so it’s in his DNA), charismatic, and has spent the last 35 years fronting one of the greatest rock’n’roll outfits in musical history.
While the band’s changed its lineup during that time, and has genre hopped all about the place – touching on everything from garage rock through to acid house, Krautrock and electronica – Primal Scream have never swayed dyed-in-the-wool fans. They’ve also remained surprisingly on point. Take Primal Scream’s breakthrough album, Screamadelica, for instance, which merged the club-kid fascination with E and house with dirty rock’n’roll, producing tunes that are still gold standards, like ‘Loaded’ and ‘Come Together’.
Now take their 2016 album, Chaosmosis: while it’s a sexy, dark, danceable and trippy-throw back to Screamadelica, it also features an electro-pop gem of a duet pairing Gillespie with singer/model/actress – and now David Lynch muse – Sky Ferreira on ‘Where The Light Gets In’. It’s proof the band doesn’t just surf the wave: they have an uncanny knack of predicting the zeitgeist.
“Two weeks ago, on a Saturday morning, one of the DJs played a song called ‘Velocity Girl’ from a BBC John Peel session from 1986 or something,” Gillespie says. “It’s funny, because the original song had one verse and one chorus and then it ended. It was very short, like a one-minute 20 seconds sort of thing, and when I heard this version, I thought it was going to end, but it never ended: there was a second verse. I hadn’t even remembered that we’d ever done that, because we played it live.”
Over the years, Gillespie has spoken about the band being one big, long art experiment, naturally, with sometimes mixed results. “We’ve done a lot of stuff over the years that I’m very proud of, and did some other stuff that maybe we never quite hit the mark with, for one reason or another,” Gillespie explains. “So that’s what I mean by experiment: it’s exploratory. We’re trying to work within the structures of a pop or rock song and do something good with it, and sometimes it’s worked and sometimes it hasn’t.
“A lot of the time, the music is a document of time. Like at various points, the keyboard player may have been absent for an hour, or the guitar player was absent for three hours, so we had to do other things. So maybe the compositional approach was different, and, therefore, the recording that came out was something other than what it could have been. I dunno, I’m just supposin’. At the time, you’re just making stuff and trying to get a new sound or a new direction, and trying not to repeat yourself.”
Gillespie has also described Primal Scream’s music as being both a shield and a sword. When the statement’s put to him, Gillespie erupts with laughter. “Oh man, I say some fucking weird shit. Alright. Yeah. I think I basically meant that it gives us some dignity and self-confidence. I guess, it gave us power and a form of attack. Basically being able to express yourself and make art and having your voice heard is a powerful thing. I think that’s what I meant. Sorry.
“Also, when you’re on stage and you’ve got a band, especially with someone like Robert Young, the guitar player who died a couple of years ago, when he was on stage he wielded his guitar like a fuckin’ weapon. I guess it came from that. He once said to me that, ‘When we go onstage man, it’s a war between us and the audience’.”
I don’t know what else to say, but Warren Ellis said to say hello to everybody in Australia.
After years of storied excess, Gillespie’s successfully wound it in and is now around nine years clean and sober. That said, he doesn’t shy away from a tune that taps back into that vein. “I don’t feel uncomfortable at all,” he confirms. “Yesterday we were working on a piece of music. We had this really great introduction – kind of a dark sound: acoustic guitar, bass drums, heavy rhythm and a really great lead line. It had a sexy kind of vibe.
“Then we added a second slide guitar piece and suddenly it was so fucking sexy – but also really druggy. It sounded really smacked out. It was like, ‘Whoa, this sounds amazing.’ It was just missing that component part. It sounded sexy, and then it sounded druggy and sexy. I have no problem with that. I have no problem talking about drugs or anything like that.”
As we talk, Gillespie mentions a book sitting in front of him, open to a picture of Thin Lizzy playing at, of all places, the Sydney Opera House. “The picture is taken from behind the stage, so you get the band and the crowd, then the Opera House,” he explains. “So, hopefully we can be as high energy as Thin Lizzy – but that’s tough fuckin’ call. They were the first band that I’d ever seen. It was fucken’ amazing. It set the standard. The first things you do set the standard in your life. That’s what I think: those experiences established for me, ‘Okay, that’s what a rock show is. It should be that good’. Thank God it was Thin Lizzie.”
Anything to add?
“I don’t know what else to say, but Warren Ellis said to say hello to everybody in Australia. He was texting me two days ago.”
Primal Scream play the Enmore Theatre on Tuesday February 20.