Bobby Gillespie: Movin' on up

Twenty years after he founded Primal Scream, Bobby Gillespie is still hungry for success. He tells James McNair why the world is not enough
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"There's no competing with that," says Bobby Gillespie. The pale-faced singer is gesturing at a risqué Girls Aloud spread in one of the tabloids, his expression an odd mix of titillation and envy at their column inches. Gillespie is not coy about Primal Scream's continued thirst for shifting units. "Those big No 1 albums of the Seventies?" he says between mouthfuls of vegetarian chilli. "We grew up on that stuff. We've always wanted to be rock stars, and we always want hit singles."

These are times of mixed blessings for Primal Scream. Mysteriously, their guitarist of the past 20 years, Robert "Throb" Young, is currently out of action (more on which later), but the band soldiers on with his able replacement, Barry Cadogan. The current single, "Country Girl", is a return to the kind of rollicking and rootsy sound the Scream last embraced fully on 1994's Give Out But Don't Give Up. Despite Gillespie's concern about competition from pop's most nubile, it looks set to become a hit.

The song's promo video was shot in LA with the director Jonas Akerlund, who has worked with The Prodigy and Madonna. The uncut version has shots of a buxom cowgirl snorting lines of white powder and swigging from the obligatory bottle of Jack Daniel's, but Gillespie restricts himself to camping it up in a string bow tie that once belonged to the noted heroin casualty Johnny Thunders. These days, Gillespie has two young sons named Wolf and Lux by the fashion stylist Katy England, and, reportedly, the couple are soon to be married. Has the singer of such brazen drug anthems as "Higher Than the Sun" finally cleaned up his act?

"All I can say is that I try to look after myself, both for my own sake and for my family's sake," he says with skilful ambiguity. "I suppose the sentiment of 'Country Girl' is a bit like 'The Wild Rover' or 'Lost Highway'. It's about someone leading a dissolute lifestyle, but hopefully there's some kind of moral there, too."

Gillespie has largely made a success of leading his hedonistic band-as-gang. At 41, he's stayed thin and he's made the most of his somewhat limited vocal technique. More than that, he and his band-mates wrote 1991's Screamadelica, the pioneering rock and acid house-infused album that perfectly mirrored the clubbing culture that inspired it.

With other tracks such as "Movin' On Up" and "I'm Comin' Down" mapping a raver's trajectory in some style, Screamadelica was a worthy winner of the inaugural Mercury Music Prize. But Gillespie walked out of the awards ceremony. "I couldn't be bothered," he says today. "I went to visit a junkie friend of mine and got completely wasted.

"Don't get me wrong," he continues. "I'm happy that people still talk about Screamadelica. Not so long ago I stayed up all night with Liam Gallagher, and he was telling me how much he liked that record. He said: 'XTRMNTR and Evil Heat are all hate, Bob, but Screamadelica - there's a lot of love on that record.' I thought about it and I realised he was right. There's a lot of love on our new record, too, and Liam definitely influenced that."

Riot City Blues is Primal Scream's ninth album. Gillespie says it was born out of "a genuine need to go into the studio every day and make music together", and it plays to the strengths of a Scream team that gels and then some. "Darren Mooney [drums] and Mani [Gary Mountfield, bassist] have become a phenomenal rhythm-section," notes Gillespie, accurately.

Together with the guitarist Andrew Innes and keyboardist Martin Duffy, the aforementioned "Throbert" Young also played on the new album. Quizzed about Throb's absence, Gillespie treads carefully. "Let's just say that he's got some problems that he's got to sort out for himself. It's a hard thing to talk about, because it's private and it's his life, and I don't think I have the right to judge him." But he'd like to see his buddy from the earliest days of Primal Scream back on board? "I'd like Throbert to be alive. I'd like him to be well. I'd like him to be happy. Further than that I can't really say. I just hope he wants to get better."

At this point, Gillespie's mobile phone rings. It is the DJ/producer Andrew Weatherall, calling Gillespie to discuss a new remix, but the banter they trade also offers some insight into the rock'n'roll circus that is life chez Scream. So far as one can tell, they are discussing the attractive new girlfriend of someone acquainted with the band. There is talk of the woman in question being something of a contortionist. "He says it's like living in a Fassbinder movie," says Gillespie, laughing unguardedly. "When they saw her, people were just standing there saluting the guy."

Gillespie was born in Springburn, Glasgow in 1964. His father Robert was a leading trade unionist, and his mother Wilma owns a pub in Glasgow. The singer says the "coffins in the sky" (the high-rise flats that superseded Glasgow's tenements) destroyed the community he grew up in. It was when his family moved to Mount Florida, Cathcart in 1973 that he met Throb and Alan McGee, the latter later signing Primal Scream to his hugely influential record label, Creation.

Like The Jesus & Mary Chain, a band for whom Gillespie once played drums, Primal Scream's excesses quickly became as talked about as their music. When one NME journalist interviewed them in New York in the late Eighties, he overheard the group debating whether to have "Vietnamese, Chinese or Indian". Imagine his surprise when he learnt it was heroin, not food, they were discussing.

"It used to be such a cult thing, a kind of underground thing to take drugs," says Gillespie. "We were never that open about it, but now you can buy cocaine in any pub. Footballers take it. All the girl groups take it. All the tabloid journalists that are writing the stories about Kate Moss take it, and the newscasters are having some as well.

"Someone like Pete Doherty is manipulating the tabloids, but it's a dangerous game. The other day there was a picture where it looked like he was shooting a girl up with heroin, but I heard he was drawing blood out of her arm so that he could paint a picture with it. The point is that the shot was obviously set up to feed his notoriety, and I think Pete gets off on that. He's Britain's most famous junkie, but good luck to him. His hair always looks great and I'm not judging him."

For all his close monitoring of the inkies and hopes of another Top 10 single, Primal Scream's singer maintains that he doesn't want the kind of attention your typical A-lister has to contend with. "I saw what it was like for Noel Gallagher at the height of Oasis-mania," he says. "Insane, but Noel kind of likes that.

"I was out cycling before I came here today," Gillespie continues. "Some kids were loading music gear into a van and they recognised me. The drummer asked me what it was like to play with Jaki Liebezeit out of Can, and that level of recognition I'm fine with, 'cause it's just nice. These were beautiful young guys with good hearts. They gave me their CD. If I like it, we'll give them some gigs."

As the interview winds down, I ask Gillespie about his unfulfilled ambitions, He says he'd like to write a classic love song; something as good as Dan Penn and Chips Moman's "Dark End of the Street". "A heartbreaking, cheatin' thing," he says. "Something with some guilt in it." And a little bit of redemption perhaps? "Maybe. But I don't know if there's any real redemption once you're guilty."

'Riot City Blues' is out now on Sony BMG

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