PRIMAL Scream’s new album may embrace the three minute pop song, but Chaosmosis, like lead singer Bobby Gillespie, still bristles with attitude, finds Malcolm Jack
Had I been chatting to Bobby Gillespie ten years ago, occasion of him suddenly cutting me off mid-sentence to go to the bathroom would have likely concerned something more than a full bladder. But since getting clean and sober circa 2008, the frontman of hitherto notorious hedonists Primal Scream is a changed man in many ways. “I’ve been drinking f***ing coffee all morning, really strong,” he apologises after returning a couple of minutes later. His fuel these days for a morning of interviews? “Yeah, it’s like legal speed,” he laughs. “It’s not as good though.”
Likewise, ten years ago I’d have probably found this 53-year-old Mount Florida son of a trade unionist, who started out his music career in the mid-1980s as drummer with The Jesus and Mary Chain, much less likeable (the last time we spoke in 2007 he stroppily deemed my line of questioning “boring” and hung up the phone).
Funny, wise and mellow but still with an edge, he’s on fierce form as in his louche Glaswegian drawl – still strong despite years spent living in London – he discusses Primal Scream’s excellent new album Chaosmosis. That and subjects as wide ranging as how his drumming is these days (“Not as good as it was in 1985… I was better looking too”), band reformations and the cult of nostalgia in contemporary music (“what is the f***ing point?”), his takes on Jeremy Corbyn (“a good man”), David Cameron (“an elitist snob”) and Donald Trump (“people who vote for Trump are like unsophisticated babies”), the global shift towards identitarian politics and the infantilisation of mass culture. Never a dull moment, in short.
Recorded largely in Stockholm with Swedish producer Björn Yttling of the band Peter, Björn and John, Chaosmosis continues Primal Scream’s long and proud tradition of reinventing themselves with each new record. Since forming in 1982 they’ve been everything from indie-pop janglers to acid-house heroes, Rolling Stones-worshipping rock’n’rollers and dub-electro warriors. After the longform psychedelic free rock of 2013’s More Light, there was a contrasting urge this time to experiment “within the confines of a three minute commercial pop song,” something the Scream prove unsurprisingly very adept at, in their own subversive way.
Gillespie quite by accident conditioned himself for the task by waking up with ABBA every morning. “We stayed in this really nice hotel in Stockholm which is actually owned by Benny from ABBA,” he explains. “There was a huge photo of ABBA above the bed. Just there to remind you. It was quite nice waking up to ABBA every day actually. I didn’t mind that.” He’s a fan then? “Yeah. You can’t discount that run of great singles, they were fantastic. Melancholy pop. Knowing Me Knowing You, really beautiful.”
While Chaosmosis isn’t exactly ABBA-esque, it does possess a certain sonic freshness and lightness with its bright palette of day-glo synthesiser sounds, electronic drum loops and vocals placed unusually high and bright in the mix, plus a coterie of youthful female guest vocalists including Haim, Sky Ferreira and Rachel Zeffira.
With its ravey piano sample, opener Trippin’ on Your Love harks back to Primal Scream’s most famous album, 1991’s psychedelic post-acid-house classic Screamadelica, while at the same time hinting at how besides coffee Gillespie gets his legal highs these days (he married stylist Katy England in 2006 and they have two sons Wolf and Lux). Over a rinky-dinky beat and wiggly keyboard lines, I Can Change very frankly addresses the depths of addictions that threatened to break up his family: “All the pain that I caused/all the time that we lost/drink and drugs, self destruct”.
That’s a powerful and very positive statement of acceptance from a man who, by his own admission, was on a mission to “obliterate” himself (Primal Scream’s long-term guitarist Robert ‘Throb’ Young, who quit the band in 2006, died in 2014 after failing to conquer his addictions). I venture that there is perhaps even an atypical sense of optimism inherent in Chaosmosis relative to the darkness, paranoia and nihilism of 1997’s dub-inflected Vanishing Point through the punishing electro-rock of 2000’s XTRMNTR and 2002’s Evil Heat. But Gillespie is disinclined to take such a rosy view.
“I describe this album as ecstatic depressive realism,” he counters. Referring to I Can Change, he adds: “The chorus lyric is ‘I can change but I can’t change without you’. It’s basically saying ‘I need help here’. It’s like throwing your hands up and saying ‘I’m f***ed, I’m in a mess, can you please help me?’ It’s an admission of vulnerability and weakness. That’s a strength. That really is a strength, believe me.”
Like most of Primal Scream’s albums, Chaosmosis was made almost entirely in the studio by Gillespie and guitarist Andrew Innes. It’s now over to the live ensemble also featuring former Felt keyboardist Martin Duffy, drummer Darrin Mooney and guitarist Barrie Cadogan (bassist Gary ‘Mani’ Mounfield left to rejoin the Stone Roses in 2011, being replaced by Simone Butler) to get it ready for tour and festival appearances. “Live we’re still a kick ass f***ing high energy rock and roll band,” Gillespie boasts.
Next year will mark 30 years since Primal Scream made their debut with 1987’s Sonic Flower Groove. But Gillespie isn’t getting nostalgic. “I think if you’re a relevant artist you need to make contemporary work,” he says. “Two days ago I heard a band on the radio that have reformed recently from the 90s, I’m not going to say who it was, but they played their new single and it sounded exactly the same as they would have sounded back in 1994 and I just thought: what is the f***ing point? You can’t stand in the same river twice.”
That said, Primal Scream weren’t above touring Screamadelica in full in 2011 in its 20th anniversary year. Does Gillespie rule out similar celebrations of Vanishing Point in 2017 and XTRMNTR in 2020? “We don’t have any plans as yet, but I wouldn’t discount it,” he responds. “Right now I’m just happy that we’ve made another album that we love and that we’re really proud of. In a few weeks time we’re on tour, so I’ve got get my f***ing s**t together.”
He laughs, caught by a sudden sense of urgency. “I don’t want to really think about the future.” Maybe so, but more than ever, it feels like Gillespie and Primal Scream really do have a future.
• Chaosmosis is released on 18 March; the band play the Beach Ballroom Aberdeen on 29 March and ABC Glasgow on 30 March, www.primalscream.net