Bobby Gillespie - The RFB Interview

25 Apr 2013

"It's a class war." The Primal Scream man nails his colours to the mast.


Bobby Gillespie

Photos: Josh Hall

The First International was one of the largest revolutionary organisations in history. Formed in London in 1864, following the defeat of the European uprisings two decades previously, the group was one of the first concerted attempts at forging a united revolutionary front.

The First International is also the name of Primal Scream's new label. And no, it isn't a coincidence. More Light, the group's tenth studio album, is their most explicitly political to date - and their de facto leader is in splenetic mood.

Bobby Gillespie represents a perfect encapsulation of each of the periods through which he has lived. He is the Glaswegian tenement kid made good; the bootstrapped self-maker; the apotheosis of the '90s hedonist. And yet he has always existed somehow in opposition to the tropes he seems to embody. Primal Scream have been resolvedly political even when it has been unfashionable - and their politics are not those of their peers, not those of the Thatcherite individualist, but those of the insurrectionary. Now, faced with the worst social crisis in living memory, those politics are at their most necessary.

The government is, Gillespie says, waging a "class war". The cuts are "ideologically driven. I think it's almost like a theological belief in the power and the righteousness of a free market economy. They're liars." In this wide-ranging interview it becomes clear that the most vocal musical opposition is coming not from sparky, poverty-stricken young things with guitars, but from a wealthy, middle aged father of two.

How have you been spending your time since you finished recording?

Working non-stop. Interviews, radio sessions, and TV shows. I'm loving it. We're really proud of the record and just happy that people want to talk to us about it. It's a nice feeling.

Have you always felt that way about this side of making a record?

Yeah. Especially with the records that we knew were real good ones, like Vanishing Point or XTRMNTR, or Evil Heat. I guess it first started with Screamadelica. That's when we first started to get a lot of attention. Actually it was the singles before Screamadelica, 'Come Together' and 'Loaded' - those were big hit records at the time, and suddenly we're in all of the music papers every week. I kind of enjoyed it, because I grew up buying the music press, and reading interviews with bands. I just couldn't wait, and I kind of loved getting that attention, I've got to admit. Doing photoshoots, dressing up, it's what I'd wanted to do all my life.

But really I only wanted to do that with the fact that we'd made some great music that meant something. We wanted to make music that was relevant to its time, and that meant something to the culture, that meant something to people, that was special, that had a real charge to it. Kind of like how much punk rock meant to me, and even the post-punk bands as well. We always wanted to make records as good as the records our heroes had made. Like Love's Forever Changes, or Never Mind The Bollocks by the Sex Pistols. We just wanted to make our mark, and we wanted to make a difference. And all this, doing interviews, doing photoshoots and all that, it all goes with it. Sometimes you see bands complaining about it, and I just think, it's part of your art. Part of the art is looking good in a photograph, what you say in the interview. It's kind of a platform for putting your ideas across. Or the record sleeves. You only have to look at our album sleeves - there's a complete obsessional attention to detail. We always wanted the artwork to look great. You know you get people who say, "Oh we just want to do the music, man." I just think it's so worthy and boring and unglamorous. I think you want to see somebody wearing a silver shirt. You want them to look glamorous, and untouchable, and kind of otherworldly.

Recently it's become much more about the man on the street. I think people like the idea that you can go to a venue, and the guy beside you at the bar can have a sip of beer, walk up, get onstage, put his guitar on and start playing.

I think there's a complete lack of mystery now. Not just in music. People give too much away about themselves. Basically, I think mystery is power. I think mystique never did anyone any harm, whether it's old Hollywood stars or bands like Led Zeppelin. When we first started getting into psychedelic music in the early to mid '80s, there was no Mojo magazine, or Wikipedia. There was no story - it was just the records. Your imagination just did the rest. The only thing we knew about Love was that the whole band lived in a castle, and refused to tour because they were getting so loaded. And you just thought, 'God, there must have just been acid, a load of girls, fucking psychedelic orgies, Arthur Lee like a dark prince ruling his kingdom.' The '60s was happening out there, it was the summer of love, and for these guys it was just complete negation. Writing songs about 'sitting on the hillside /  Watching all the people - die / I feel much better on the other side / Look in my eyes' [sic]. You're just like - woah. It's much more powerful, and you project your fantasies, you read into stuff. I remember a friend of mine went to see The Cramps play in Strathclyde Union in Glasgow on their second album, touring [Psychedelic] Jungle, and he said a friend of his had managed to get into a corridor backstage, and they'd opened a door and The Cramps were sat round a table, not speaking, just like a seance. He said, 'They're having a fucking seance!' You don't want someone coming back and saying, 'I just had a pint with Poison Ivy. He collects beermats. He likes English beermats, doesn't like German or French or Dutch.'

It's also the way you put yourself into the work. Say you've got a lot of pain in your life, and you put your pain into your art. But you've got to try and do it in poetic terms. You can say everything you want to say, but there's a way of doing that that doesn't leave you exposed and vulnerable.

It's like my wife is still a mystery to me. We've been together 13 years, and I find that so attractive. There's still parts of her that are remote, and that's good. You still want to explore. You don't want to know everything about somebody. That's another modern ailment. I don't want to know everything about everybody. I never ask people stuff, but they tell me. I have one of those faces. People trust me.


Bobby Gillespie

How much has this informed the art you're making now?

It's completely informed what we're doing. Even, say, pre-September 11 and post-September 11, the difference in media. News has always been reported in a censored way - that's just the way it is. It's always going to represent some vested interest, whether it's the publisher of the newspaper or the government in power at the time, or the guy who owns the TV channel. But I think post-September 11…just around that time I was reading a lot of Situationist stuff. Society Of The Spectacle by Guy Debord. So when that stuff hit I was really primed for it. There was a TV channel on cable TV, at least one or two channels, that showed nothing except the Twin Towers being hit, and falling in slow motion, with no voiceover and no words. It was like one of those Warhol films of the Empire State Building, where nothing happens, or 24-hour movies. It was pornographic almost. It's like pornography - you might go, 'It's fucking horrible', but if it's on in the room you're kind of drawn to it. You're drawn to atrocity. There's something in you. But it was kind of beautiful as well. And obviously it was loaded with symbolism, and a lot of emotion.

And the way that the Labour Party in power at the time set up the Iraq war in the media, with the whole, 'Saddam's got weapons of mass destruction; he can hit London in 40 minutes. [sic]' People believe that stuff. I know a really sophisticated woman, she must have been 42, 43 then - a businesswoman, a good friend of me and my wife, really smart woman. I remember her calling up the house and she was saying, 'I'm really scared - I'm scared for me and my daughter.' And I said, 'Why are you scared?' And she goes, 'Because of these weapons of mass destruction, they can hit London in 40 minutes,' and I was like, 'That's just a load of rubbish - it's just a lie, complete propaganda.' I tried to explain this stuff to her. Guy Debord understood this, and William Burroughs, and JG Ballard, understood the power of an image, and how an image can be used to seduce, persuade, or distract people. Not just individually but en masse. I've always been interested in that stuff, but post-September 11 even the trashy papers had less actual news in them. Like The Mirror and The Sun. It was all football players having affairs, or football managers having affairs. And these newspapers sell millions.

Then obviously there was this huge swing to the right in the last few years. Racist language wasn't cool, but now your Daily Express and Daily Mail have carte blanche to be nakedly racist. All of this right-wing stuff started coming out in the open. You've got Tory politicians like Boris Johnson…Cameron obviously has the same beliefs but he holds back, but Boris Johnson can't help himself. He will say really offensive stuff that maybe in the '90s they wouldn't have said publicly. Everything's politically swung more to the right, but proudly to the right. I really noticed a huge change. I was interested in that stuff in the '90s as well, but it changed after that. When you get ready to go to war, the whole system gets behind the power structure. They collude to make something happen, and persuade people. So while these wars were going on there was no news about Fallujah, or the massacres that were happening. It was just some footballer shagging a fucking prostitute. That's the news. Whereas in the '60s in America, the Vietnam war was on the news every night. That's what lost them the war. I think people were watching it, and thinking this is wrong. And then more and more American soldiers were dying. I think you learn from that how to report.

That stuff has had an effect and an influence. Obviously you're a creature of your times and your culture, and if you're a sensitive person you're gonna react to that kind of stuff. I'm interested in how news is presented and reported. Don't think that these people don't read Sigmund Freud and people like that. Whether it's advertisers, or people in the press office of the government, or a newspaper proprietor, or the editor of a newspaper - they study that kind of stuff. How you touch people, base desires, and fears, and how to manipulate them. They're all interested in that suff, and they use it really well.

So you consider this to be a politically charged record?

It's a funny word, 'political'. I think there's a lot of pain in the record. This morning I was driving my kid to school, and our album was in the disc player, and he played a couple of tracks he liked. Then I had Kurt Vile's album, and I put that on when I was driving back. And immediately his album was sunny, and soft, and gentle. I thought, 'Fucking hell.' We've both made records at the same time, and our record is darker, there's more pain on it. But I'm not competing! It was a nice sunny morning.

I just think if you're a sensitive person you're going to be affected by everything. Not just stuff that's going on in your family, or when you were young, or your relationship, or your relationship with your friends, but out there in the street. You get a tube in the morning, and you can feel the depression. No one's fucking happy man. If you ever do get on public transport you can feel something.

And people resort to pure escapism because of it. I was on the tube this morning and there was this guy with a massive iPad screen, and he was playing a video game, then he was watching telly, then flicking through his photos. He was on a 20 minute journey.

It's total science fiction. He's going to work, but between leaving the house and getting to work, between getting up, shaving, having a cup of tea or coffee and a cigarette and some breakfast, getting his clothes on, he then goes to work on the tube or the bus and he's in virtual reality. That's really what it is, because he's not present with everybody else on the journey. You notice that more and more. If you get off a plane, as soon as the plane lands, everybody gets up and they switch on their phones.

There's an addictive quality to that. I don't think it's gonna kill you like heroin, but…the reason you get into drugs or whatever, or gambling, they're basically trying to escape themselves. Sometimes you're just trying to take yourself out of a situation. It doesn't have to be dark or sinister, or corrupt, but you're just trying to take yourself out of the place that you're in.

I used to have to take stuff to get out of the door. I needed to take some speed or something. But what are you scared of?

Do you think that general sense of depression is more acute than it was? There are obvious comparisons between now and early '90s Thatcherite Britain.

Well me and my friends were pretty happy! And mid-'80s I was in the Jesus And Mary Chain. 1984, not doing so great. '84 I joined the Mary Chain. '85, fantastic. Then after that not so good because I wasn't in the Mary Chain anymore, then the Scream started happening, and that was good. But my life as a young guy was in rock 'n' roll bands, so when the bands were happening…well, I was going to say it was really good, but also at times it wasn't so good. We've only got ourselves to blame for that. But I guess the problem with this is that you connect the way you feel personally to the rest of the world. It's easy to do that. I generally think that life is going to get harder for a lot of people. The cuts that the government are putting through are ideologically driven. I don't think they need to do this. They're liars. I think the government know who they're hurting. It's pretty clear. I think it's a class war. I think it's almost like a theological belief in the power and the righteousness of a free market economy. I think they're trying to create a precariat. I think it's a deliberate long-term plan. The whole deregulation, which basically means taking away workers' rights - they've got a long-term plan.

I think the country's going to get harder, darker, more violent. People are going to be more desperate, there's going to be more crime, more violence, more drug and alcohol addiction. I think they're actually creating that. They're putting a lot of fucking bad energy out there. It stands to reason, if you're a more egalitarian country, if you're more inclusive, less elitist, if you're creating jobs or work, if you're building things for the common good, then the energy of that will go back into society and the culture, because everybody feels that they've got a stake. And if you feel that you've got a stake in something you're less likely to fuck it up. There's a sense of community. It's simple stuff.

I think their policies are divisive. I don't think they're about building; I think they're about destruction. I don't like the Labour Party either. Margaret Thatcher went into her grave smiling, because after she was 13 years in power there was John Major, then there was fucking Tony Blair, who never reversed any of her policies. He said we're gonna build on them. He kept it going. And now you've got the coalition government. So successive governments ran on her ideas and policies. I disagree with their ideas. I don't think they're out for the common good; I think they're out to enrich the privileged few.

That was what was so depressing about Thatcher's funeral. The sense wasn't of burying an era - it was that we're all Thatcherites now.

I heard that [David Cameron] said that. There's focus groups telling him to say that.

Like when Nick Clegg focus grouped his apology for the tuition fee rise.

That's the other thing. We were in Chile on the Screamadelica tour, and I think the government there had brought in this thing where unless you had a lot of money you couldn't get through further education. So the students went on strike, and they had sit-ins and barricades. It was wild, man. The day we arrived we had to go past one of the big universities in Santiago, a huge one. And there were all these socialistic, communistic, anarchistic, left-wing radical banners all over the uni, and riot vans and barricades and tear gas, and they'd been doing it for six months. I think they got the government to agree to some of their demands.

There was a 23 year old girl called Camila Vallejo. She was a Marxist, and she'd been voted head of the student union. She was getting death threats, all sorts. But it was really inspiring, because these were privileged students, who were basically fighting to get everybody else included in the education system. They were saying it should not just be for us, it should be for everybody. I thought, 'Good, very nice.' Basically it's just that fucking everybody needs a fucking break. Why do you want to treat people like shit? Why do you want to treat other human beings like shit? And that's what they're doing. It's that simple. Whether your a free market libertarian or a Marxist, it's like, why would you want to hurt other human beings? And they're hurting other human beings with their policies. It's a war. It's a class war, whatever way you want to fucking look at it.

You don't want to see people living in fucking slums. Why would you want to cause people to be trapped for generations in poverty? That's what they're doing, and they know they're doing that. Their consciously hurting people. That's a war.

Where does your record sit in this?

I think it's a dissenting voice in some of the songs. As I say, there's pain on the record, but we're trying to write about subjects that move us, and that affect us, and that are personal, and write about it in poetic terms. Whether we succeed or fail I don't know, but we're trying. We're artists, we have a recording studio that we go to five days a week, and we write and we make music. Some days it works, and some days it doesn't, but this is what we do with our lives. We're kind of privileged that we can do this - be artists and earn a living. It's a really beautiful, beautiful thing. I just hope that it means something to other people, and they can get off on it, and it makes them happy. I just want to make people feel good, because there's so much shit out there that makes people feel bad.

I think as well, one of the great things about art….this happened to me when I was a kid with punk. The lyrics to some of those punk songs just really chimed with the reality of my life. There was this record by Patti Smith called 'Piss Factory'. I had a job when I left school at 15, a job in a factory, and it was pretty brutal. I was quite a gentle kid. I kind of left school because I didn't really know what else to do, and my dad got me a job in a factory, and it was hard for me. Nobody was bad to me or anything like that, but it was quite a big jump to go from being a schoolboy to being in this factory. And I wasn't like a lad, or one of those kind of guys. I think really art school would have been a better place for me! But that song, 'Piss Factory', it really spoke to me, because I thought the same things happened to Patti Smith. I didn't even know who Patti Smith was. I just bought this Sire compilation, and that's how I discovered that record. It blew my mind that somebody could write a song that was about my life. She had the same pain. I don't know if it was cathartic, but it released something in me, and I related to it at a time when there wasn't a lot of people I could relate to - adults, parents, or the people in the factory. I never had a girlfriend. I had like one friend who was into punk rock. It sounds crazy now, but the guys who I used to hang out with and play football, when I got into punk they never took it too well. They kind of changed. They suddenly got more aggressive, and snide about me. It wasn't like I suddenly had spiky hair - I still had long hair and probably dressed like a '70s kid, but the fact that I had got into punk rock they found threatening. These guys were into Status Quo and I don't know what else, Rush or something like that, but they found it threatening. And suddenly, when you're that age, and people who were friends with you are being weird to you because you bought some records…they're scared of it. Basically you just start to not conform, and it upsets people. And that Patti record, I think it's the best record she made. It's fucking beat poetry, but put to music, and it had this jazzy piano. There was reality in her art. That's my life, that's my story, that's me. And I hope, if we could do that for other people…I'm not conscious that we're trying to do that; I'm just trying to write something that means something to me, but if somebody can hear a song like 'Tenement Kid' or 'River Of Pain' and see themselves in it, then that's good. Then we've made a connection. It sounds pretentious, but if you can feel my pain then we're together.

Empathy is the most basic human emotion, isn't it?

You've got it in a nutshell. It's empathy. I've got empathy for other people, and that's why I believe in the things that I believe in, that's why I don't like the current administration, because I don't think they've got empathy. I think they've got disdain and contempt for people.

I think we're an outsider band. Loads of people feel like us. I don't think we're didactic, nothing like that. When people say you're political it's almost like you're saying, 'Vote for…' But we're just rock 'n' rollers.

I guess it's about capturing a feeling, whether that's with your head up or your head down.

Do you mean whether you're proud or you're fucked? There's been a lot of head down! [A label employee] has put our single sleeves up on the band's webpage, and there's one, 'Cry Myself Blind', and I'm just sitting on the floor, cross-legged, with my head down at a soundcheck. I just look defeated.

And how do you feel now?

I feel empowered. I feel strong. I feel clear. I feel sharp. I feel like I'm confident, and I feel like we're doing the right thing. I think that my band is a sincere band. It's a rock 'n' roll band, and we play with every part of our heart. It's real, and it's what we do. I feel pretty good. I feel better than I did a few years ago. Head up more than arse up. More light. And there's been times in my life when the shutters were shut in every way, and I've been too scared to go out, too scared of the light. But everything's good, and positive. I just hope our record makes people feel good. You want something that's going to inspire people.

Is there any fear that your music won't get to young people?

No, I think we will be able to reach young people, because I think there's an energy in Primal Scream that young people relate to. I think there's an energy and an attitude that young people get. And also, I think we're one of the only rock 'n' roll bands left in the world. You get something from us you don't get in many places.

The best thing about Primal Scream is that it doesn't feel like a heritage act.

What a horrible word. It's like the National Trust. I think it's because we're interested in stuff. We're interested in what's going on now - in culture, in young bands, and old bands. I've always had that interest, whether it's books or music or films, you've got to live in your time, and be relevant to the time.

How do you feel about dance music now? Do you listen to much?

I must admit I don't. I don't go to clubs. Since I started having kids I stopped going to night clubs and hanging out. To do that is a commitment. I'm still friends with DJs, like Andy Weatherall, and David Holmes, and James Lavelle, and Jagz Kooner. I know a lot of people who are still in that world, and they're great friends of mine, but I don't really go the clubs. I don't really know what's happening.

It feels powerful again. When this government first came into power there were lots of people saying that we'll get a load of new protest singers, but it's not coming from there. If you're on the dole you might have enough money for some weed and a Ribena and you can illegally download software, so it's coming from dance music.

I can understand that. That's how we started. We had a cassette recorder and you could record two tracks on it, and it had a drum machine that could do bossa nova, and a samba, and there were five or six little buttons, and you could press these buttons and mix up the drum beat. So then the guy that I started the band with got a bass, then he got an echo unit, then he plugged the bass into the echo unit, and into the [cassette recorder]. So we'd put a track down on bass, through the echo unit, with the drum beat, then we'd record that together, and he'd get a mic, and we'd record that through the echo unit, and guitar, and that's how we started Primal Scream. That's all we had. Then we took it into a Scout hall - his mum was the caretaker of a Scout hall. I didn't have a drum kit, but there were bins behind the Scout hall, so I took the bin lids, and got my drum sticks, and we used them like drums. There was a ventilator shaft, and I'd [hit it], and just start screaming. And that was Primal Scream. It was a literal description of what we were doing. He's still got tapes of it, I'm sure. It's primitive, but it's good. Not a lot's changed. You've just got a laptop to do it on.

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