Primal Scream: Onward and upward

Primal Scream's recording career now spans a generation. Bobby Gillespie tells Steve Jelbert why, after 18 years of excess, the music is still what matters most
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The Independent Culture

"It would have been nicer to sell some more records, but then I'm happy so I don't really care," says Bobby Gillespie, his voice hardly brimming over with joy. In the end, it seems, all rockers become grumpy old men. It is no coincidence that the recent BBC2 series of that name included plenty of old punks mumbling about how things used to be better and counted for more.

But I have no intention of baiting the man, even if his mumble proves indistinct at times. Some 18 years since Primal Scream's first stumbling steps on record, he still manages to make great music, and let's face it, looks better in a leather jacket than Rod Liddle ever has or will. Still fighting the eternal Manichaean struggle between rock'n'roll and boredom (and he really does use the expression "I'm bored", never normally spoken by men over the age of 40, when explaining that he no longer wants to discuss politics or why the Scream's North London studio might soon relocate to a livelier neighbourhood), the release of Dirty Hits, a compilation celebrating a fruitful and imaginative career, is worth discussing.

The Scream have been around so long that an entire generation has grown up wondering what they are going to do next. The Stone Roses started off as eager camp followers (check out the melodic resemblance between the Scream's "Velocity Girl" in 1985 and Ian Brown and co's 1989 breakthrough single, "Made of Stone"), yet these days their bassist, the mercurial, benignly mad Mani, plays with Primal Scream. Kevin Shields disappeared after My Bloody Valentine signed a huge deal in the early Nineties, yet eventually re-emerged years later playing guitar on stage with the Scream. Before moving to London and founding the Heavenly label, Jeff Barrett ran a record store in Plymouth and painted the sign to read "Bobby Gillespie" in honour of an early Scream show in the city (thus confusing the man himself and local shoppers for years afterward).

Legendary before they'd even achieved anything beyond the mildest fame, no other band has so successfully invented themselves as Rock Monsters, then, incredibly, managed to live up to it. Their last record featured cameos from both Robert Plant and Kate Moss, surely a unique distinction. Did Gillespie ever imagine they would last so long?

"I never thought that far ahead really. While it was happening, I just tried to enjoy it," he says now. Wasn't it a stroke of luck that no other band had used the name before, when even Tears for Fears took their name from Arthur Janov, inventor of primal-scream therapy? "Yeah, it's amazing, isn't it," he laughs. "In 1981, I thought to myself: if I ever form a band, I'm calling it Primal Scream."

But the story as told on Dirty Hits begins with 1990's "Loaded", Andy Weatherall's hugely influential and artfully minimal remix of the ballad "I'm Losing More Than I Ever Had". "When we heard the final mix we were blown away - it was just so exciting. When they started playing it in the clubs we got reports back that people were going nuts. Alan McGee said: 'We might have a hit record,'" Gillespie recalls. (The "rock Svengali" McGee has said this way more often over the years than he has actually had hit records, however. It is both his strength and failing.)

"At that point we thought there wasn't much of a future for the band. We'd play in London and there'd be 80 people there. No one from the record company would even come and see us. Then we had a hit, we were on a wage and we bought a sampler and a studio, and that's where we started writing and recording Screamadelica.

"I think it was just meant to happen. We just passed Weatherall in the street. It was the second time he'd ever been in a studio - the first was with Paul Oakenfold on a Happy Mondays record." Were you surprised to find yourself adopted by the dance scene? "I was too smashed to notice anything," Gillespie replies. "I just remember going to clubs and people being very nice to us."

Although this journo has never met Gillespie before, I'm actually one of the anonymous dancers in the video for "Loaded", filmed in its director's flat above a takeaway in Stoke Newington, north London (honestly). As their label, Creation, hadn't actually come up with a copy of the song for us extras (in fact, the director's mates) to jig around to, we were actually swaying to that very Happy Mondays mix. That is the sort of weird coincidence that gives the Scream their lasting resonance.

They are a band of fans, too. It is almost a standing gag amongst hacks that Gillespie will invoke Sly Stone at some point during the conversation (and he does too, quite relevantly in the circumstances), while his analysis of the Stones' Sticky Fingers, describing each track's inspirations while praising its essential, er, Stonesiness, is spot on. He would have made a great critic if he had any other words than "amazing" to describe the music he loves. But then, what would we hacks have to write about if there weren't tunes like "Movin' On Up"?

"It's a perfect record," laughs Gillespie, "We recorded it in parts and Jimmy Miller [the late Stones producer] sorted it out. When we heard that I thought 'Wow! This is a real record. It's as good as the Rolling Stones or something.' Nobody knew it, so it was a great track to start Screamadelica with. An instant classic, I think."

He is right. Audiences still adore it, and it even appears on the soundtrack of Grand Theft Parsons, the entertaining comedy based on the sombre subject of Gram Parsons' immolation in the Californian desert, a Dude, Where's My Corpse? that could only have been written by a Brit. That's the Gram Parsons who, by dint of bringing his own stash, hung out with Jagger and Richards in their most debauched period. You see what I mean about coincidence.

Primal Scream have become notorious for their positively toxic habits over the years. One interview was famously interrupted when Gillespie paused to puke, though he did not lose his train of thought, while the microwave on the tour bus was used for cooking, but not food, shall we say. Though they might not get past the drug testers from Fifa, Gillespie at least is more circumspect these days.

"I get offered drugs and stuff all over the world, and I don't know what to say any more. Everybody was on drugs," he says. "Noel Gallagher was right [with his famous comment that narcotics were as commonplace as a cup of tea]. It's actually so prevalent in the culture of Britain now I don't think it's a good thing. Maybe that tells you something. Other peoples' standard of living is so much higher now, they feel they have something to offer. Here there's fuck all, so people get obliterated on drugs."

As the son of a senior trade union official, Gillespie retains a certain social conscience. The XTRMNTR album in 2001 (cue gags about the Scream dropping the Es, ho ho), if not explicitly political, proved at least more engaged than their peers. Also it was very loud and refreshingly harsh.

"I just wanted to write about the culture, and make a record which felt like living in London or any big city. The paranoia, the claustrophobia and the concrete, the threat of violence, just the grimness of living in Britain, because I think it is a grim country. There's a sense of dread there. I guess it's construed as being political," he explains. "Much the same way as Metal Box by Public Image Limited still captures the end of the Seventies. Thatcher's coming in and you know it's going to be heavy. It's damp, wet - that's what that music feels like."

Strangely, a friend subsequently comments that the last time he saw Primal Scream in the North of England, plenty of scary, shaven-headed types seemed to take the pointed "Swastika Eyes" as an excuse for celebration rather than the denunciation it is intended as.

Later and largely inaccurate reports that they had written a song, pre-September 11, called "Bomb the Pentagon" (which appeared as "Rise" on last year's Evil Heat) confused the ever-more cosy music press.

"I was explaining [to an interviewer] about cultural imperialism and this kid just said, 'But America are our allies,'" Gillespie recalls, dumbfounded. "I realised there was no point talking politics to the music press because I just don't think they understand it, or perhaps they've got sympathies in certain directions. One of the questions was 'Do you recognise the state of Israel?' They don't ask Coldplay that. I think they're trying to send me up.

"I always think of rock'n'roll as countercultural, for outsiders, kind of left wing, but that's changed, even the press and youth attitudes. I just tend to talk about music now. Somebody told me they saw a clip of Blink 128 [he means nu-punkers Blink 182, of course] playing on an aircraft carrier full of American troops going to the Gulf. As much as I hate the Grateful Dead, there's no way they would ever have done that."

This reversal of the generation gap perhaps shows what we have lost. Primal Scream have never been shy about revealing their influences. "Rocks" ("Now a proven classic. People love it.") is a lighter, knowing tribute to the Stones' seedy "Rocks Off', while even on Screamadelica, "Don't Fight It Feel It" borrowed its "rama-lama-fa-fa-fa" hook from the MC5 ("I must admit I nicked that, but then, that's what they were doing themselves.").

"When I was a kid, I'd read interviews with The Clash or Patti Smith or whoever, where bands would talk about the music they liked and you'd maybe check it out, and that got me into a lot of music I'd never heard. So when I started doing interviews I'd talk about who I liked. It's kind of cool talking about stuff you're excited by. If the Pistols had come out and said they loved the New York Dolls everybody would have realised how much they were ripping them off. We signal it. It's good," he admits, happily, "I'll always be a fan. Music excites me."

He certainly doesn't seem bored of it yet. Live, Primal Scream are in better shape than ever. "In the last three years there's been a lot of great shows, because the band are so good," says Gillespie, conceding that the presence of Mani and Shields has given them the aura of a supergroup.

The most impressive thing about Dirty Hits is just how well it hangs together, despite its almost insanely eclectic styles, from balladry to grubby electronica. Were you surprised? "Kind of, but most of those songs were in our live set. We tried to sequence it in a couple of ways, but the chronological one works best," says Gillespie. "There's no irony in what we did. Other bands distanced themselves emotionally. I guess that's why the records are still good. Because we meant it."

'Dirty Hits' is out now on Sony