Over their 30-plus-year career, Scottish rock’n’roll wild bunch Primal Scream have covered more ground than entire scenes’ worth of bands. They’ve dipped into hippie, acid-house utopianism (1991’s Screamadelica) and near-apocalyptic post-punk nihilism (2000’s XTRMNTR); they’ve done ’70s retro rock (1994’s Give Out But Don’t Give Up) and 2040s future rock (2002’s Evil Heat); they’ve made an imagined soundtrack to a ’70s roadster film (1997’s Vanishing Point) and a prospective theme song for soccer’s European Championship (1996’s one-off “The Big Man and the Scream Team Meet the Barmy Army Uptown”). Though the band’s sonic volatility has largely resulted from their lineup’s rotating cast — a gob-smacking 23 members, past and present, are listed on the band’s Wikipedia page — one man has remained constant: frontman and founder Bobby Gillespie, who left his gig as the Jesus and Mary Chain‘s original drummer to focus full-time on the Scream in the mid-’80s.
On the verge of the band’s typically eclectic 11th album — Chaosmosis, out March 18 on First International/Ignition — SPIN talked to Gillespie over the phone about ten of the most fascinating aberrations from Primal Scream’s three decades of work: failed singles, deep album cuts, B-sides, and other miscellanea you’d never hear played at a Primals festival gig. Read the conversation, which has been condensed and edited for clarity, below.
“All Fall Down” (Single, 1985)
I remember writing it in [guitarist] Jim Beattie’s bedroom, in the summer of 1984. It was one of the first songs we wrote together. We wrote on a 12-string acoustic guitar and a little drum machine. We used a cassette recorder, it was a two-track. You could record two songs on it, and then re-record a bounce under that. And it had a little drum machine with, like, bossa nova, rock beat, waltz… It had five or six settings. And you could put two or three down at the same time and make an amalgamation of the beats. We wrote that before we even had a band.
Was there ever any thought to you playing the drums on the single?
No, there wasn’t, actually. I don’t know why that was. I’d just f**kin’ done it. At that point I was trying to put a band together so it would be like a gang. We liked the way that Arthur Lee had that band Love, and they were kind of like a gang. And the guy we had on drums was kind of a thug. I liked the idea of having a thug on drums. But he wasn’t a very good drummer. I was gonna sing and play guitar. I didn’t want to worry about the drums. That’s why I never played drums.
What was it about this single that gave you the confidence to say, “This is gonna be my band, and I can leave the Jesus and Mary Chain?
Well, I was in the Mary Chain for Psychocandy and all those singles. So September ‘84 to early ‘86, I was a Mary Chain member. And during that time, Primal Scream had only recorded two singles, “All Fall Down” and “Crystal Crescent”/“Velocity Girl.” And then I was asked by Jim, “You gotta choose between being the Mary Chain drummer and [being in] the Scream,” and I chose the Scream.
But it was a very, very hard choice, because at that point I enjoyed being in the Mary Chain more than the Scream. I liked the people in the Mary Chain more. The Mary Chain were a much better band. They had better songs. And they were huge, we were traveling all over the world. They were a f**king happening band. The Scream at that point were not a happening band. We still had a lot of work to do.
But the Mary Chain had been writing songs for a long time before I met them. William Reid is three or four years older than me. So he had amassed a stockpile of songs. And they had thought about what they were gonna do — they had the whole image, attitude, everything worked out when I met them. Primal Scream at that point was still developing.
So if Jesus and Mary Chain had the better songs, and the cooler image, then what made you decide to go with Primal Scream instead?
Well, basically, I’m very limited as a drummer. The way I played in the Mary Chain, that’s as much as I can play. So I kind of felt there wasn’t really a future for me as a drummer. I just thought I had more of a future as a songwriter. I knew I had it in me to write good songs, make good music in the future. I just had to work harder at it. I thought the Mary Chain would get bored with my limited drum abilities and want to replace me at some point. [Leaving JAMC] was a hard, hard thing to do, but it’s worked out fine, so there you go.
“Inner Flight” (Screamadelica, 1991)
When you guys came up with this song, were you thinking that you needed a slower instrumental to space out all the dance epics on Screamadelica?
Yeah. I remember over the summer of 1990, when we were writing Screamadelica, we were listening a lot to stuff like the Midnight Cowboy movie soundtrack, and the Curits Mayfield Superfly album. And I loved the way that Superfly had that instrumental in it called “Think.” That gave me the idea that maybe we could have a track that’s instrumental. When we were writing the song, I remember [guitarist] “Throb,” Robert Young, coming up with some really beautiful melodies, and having [bassist] Henry Olsen doing the harmonies.
Were you listening to the Beach Boys at the time? Those harmonies…
A lot of Beach Boys, yeah, of course. Smile. We’re Smile freaks.
And do you remember where you got the inspiration for the Brian Eno sample that leads the song in?
I don’t wanna talk about that. You gotta keep some secrets, right?
“Screamadelica” (Dixie-Narco EP, 1992)
It was kind of about all the kids who were coming to the shows, they were on ecstasy, and the kids going to the raves and stuff. We’d done a lot of touring around a single called “Don’t Fight It, Feel It,” and we played a lot of the songs from Screamadelica before Screamadelica was released. We had sold-out shows that we were playing in the U.K. And we would have [“Loaded” producer] Andy Weatherall, and Alex Paterson from the Orb DJ’ing. We would hire the club until 2 a.m., so when the kids came into the club, Alex Paterson would be playing dub/reggae and ambient stuff. He filled it up, and then the Scream came on and played a high-energy rock’n’roll set. We did Screamadelica s**t. We would walk off stage, and then Weatherall would start playing his set. And then we would all drop ecstasy, and come out the backstage, and go into the audience and dance with the kids. Everybody was just on E.
So there was never any thought to putting this song on the Screamadelica album?
It was recorded after the album.
Does that confuse people? Do people ever ask you “What is this song, ‘Screamadelica,’ and why isn’t on the album?”
I can’t remember. It doesn’t really bother me. We were just making music and putting it out there. But I have seen that, people releasing albums, and then the title track’s not on the album. The Mary Chain did it — they had that Psychocandy album, and then they released that song “Psycho Candy” [as a B-side]. I think it’s all right. I just thought [“Screamadelica”] was too good of a title to not have a single.
“Give Out But Don’t Give Up” (Give Out But Don’t Give Up, 1994)
This always struck me as a much darker song. The rest of Give Out is full of these crowd-pleasing rave-ups, but the title track has this very sinister edge to it.
When we were writing the songs for that album, they were actually quite dark, and very lo-fi. And then we kind of wrote and recorded, and were a touring band, and then when we went to Memphis, we worked with the bass player and drummer from the Muscle Shoals rhythm section, David Hood and Roger Hawkins. So everything became a little more professional-sounding, and maybe quite clean.
Recently, I found a live version of that song that was eight or nine minutes long, it was f**king incredible. If you can go online, there’s bootleg versions of it that are amazing, from the ‘94 tour. Where it’s just hard funk, and it’s really f**king dark.
How did you guys get hooked up with George Clinton?
I think there was a guy at Creation, Chris Abbott, who hooked us up. We were Parliament-Funkadelic fans, Maggot Brain, all that s**t. Somebody hooked us up with George, and it was just the best thing ever. We did three nights at Brixton Academy, and then one of the nights we had until 6 a.m., and we had George Clinton and Parliament-Funkadelic come play with us. It was incredible.
That day at the soundcheck, we got the news that Kurt Cobain had killed himself. We didn’t have Internet back then, so nobody knew. So from the stage, I said, “Kurt Cobain’s killed himself.” Nobody knew in Britain. I was, like, the first person to tell anybody.
Were you guys fans of Nirvana?
Yeah, I liked Nirvana. I liked the In Utero album. I wasn’t really into Nevermind, I thought it sounded like the Police. You know, their production’s like the Police, and it’s quiet-bit, loud-bit song arrangements. But In Utero is more my kind of music.
“Trainspotting” (Trainspotting OST, 1996)
Basically, what happened was, we’d done a track with Andy Weatherall independently of everybody. And then Irvine Welsh came and interviewed us for i-D magazine, for Give Out But Don’t Give Up. We obviously really thought he was amazing, we related to him. Working-class guy, drug addict, Scottish. He was punk. Lot of similarities. We had a couple nights out with him, and [we were like], “What a f**king great guy.”
We heard they had made a movie of Trainspotting, but they had, like, Blur, Elastica, and Pulp [for the soundtrack]. We were like, “Wait a minute, man, we’re the junkie f**king band! And we’re working class!” So we managed to get in touch [with Welsh], and we said, “We should be in the f**king movie!” And so we gave him the track, and he managed to get the track in the movie at the last minute. They found the scene and they added the track in.
Whose idea was it to actually call the song “Trainspotting”?
Well, the song didn’t have a title. It was just something we’d done with Andy Weatherall, pre-Vanishing Point. So we just said, “Why don’t we call it ‘Trainspotting?’” Tie in with the movie, good idea, right?
“96 Tears” (“Kowalski” B-side, 1997)
Oh yeah, that’s cool. We were making Vanishing Point, and we were just mucking about in the studio, writing songs, and I think I just started singing [? and the Mysterians’] “96 Tears” over some beats, and it sounded so good that we just kept it. And then we mixed it, and put it out as a B-side.
So someone hit “Record,” and you just went for it?
Yeah, when we record, sometimes when we’re writing our own songs, we cover other people’s songs. We did “Motörhead” the same way, off Vanishing Point. It was just about fun, which I think is important. The Beatles and the Stones always put covers on their albums. I really liked that. Instead of just serious singer/songwriter s**t.
Was it a conscious choice to record the cover in a Suicide-like manner?
Well, I think I was doing it like Suicide for fun. And then we added the gabba beats, and the dub sounds when we mixed it with Brendan Lynch. It was a B-side. B-sides are supposed to be fun.
Do you have a favorite of the covers you’ve done?
Yeah, I really like our version of “To Live Is to Fly” by Townes Van Zandt. I think it ended up on the CD of [2006 single] “Country Girl.” It was recorded during the Riot City Blues session, and I actually wanted it to be on the album. I don’t really think Andrew [Innes, guitarist] was into it, but I loved it, I think it’s a great version. It’s one of the last things that Throb played on, he plays great slide guitar on it.
“Pills” (XTRMNTR, 2000)
Oh, that’s a good one. I wrote the lyrics for that after being on ice in Japan… It’s almost like freebasing crystal meth. I think we were doing that for a few days in Japan, and when I was coming off of it, I felt so bad. I wrote some lyrics, and those lyrics became “Pills.” Just, like, fractured images. It’s a song of self-disgust.
We had Dan the Automator mix it because we loved his work with Dr. Octagon. We were massive Dr. Octagon fans, and I think he did a really great job there.
Did you actually come to a decision to rap on it, or did you not even feel like that was what you were doing?
Well what happened was, I wrote the lyrics… [Recites three-verse poem.] The way I’d written it, it was a rap. That was the poem I wrote. And then when we heard this breakbeat and s**t, I just started rapping over the top of it, because it felt like a good thing to do. And then, Dan the Automator took out the “Gonna tell you the truth, the truth about you…,” and he made that the main thing. The actual verses, I don’t really know if you can hear the words in the mix. A shame, because the words are really good. Some of my best words.
There’s a whole live album from 2002 [Live in Japan], which was mixed by Kevin Shields. And there’s a live version of “Pills,” and you can actually hear the way it should’ve been.
Did you guys care at all about the rap-rock stuff that was going on at the time? Linkin Park and Limp Bizkit, stuff like that?
No, I wasn’t aware of that s**t. I was more into Pharcyde and Dr. Octagon. But you know, we liked the black s**t. We didn’t want the white s**t.
“The Lord Is My Shotgun” (Evil Heat, 2003)
I got that title from a Vietnam jacket, which was given to me by Ian Astbury of the Cult. And on the back it says, “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil, for lord is my shotgun…” I used to wear it on the XTRMNTR tour every night, that was my tour jacket.
How did Robert Plant end up playing harmonica on the song?
We had a studio up in North London, and Robert played lived pretty close to that studio. So sometimes I’d bump into him on the street. One night after the session, we went to the pub, and he was in there, and I was quite high. So I went up, “Hey Robert, would you like to play harmonica on a blues song that sounds like a cross between Howlin’ Wolf and Throbbing Gristle?” He went “Sure, what key is it in?” [Laughs.]
Do you feel like Evil Heat got a raw deal from press and from fans?
Well, it never really did get any respect, but I know that a lot of musicians like it. American musicians, like Josh Homme. I remember meeting Josh years ago, and Brodie Dalle, his wife, and they were both massive Evil Heat fans. And Greg Dulli from Afghan Whigs, and Mark Lanegan, when they had the Gutter Twins, they covered “Deep Hit of Morning Sun” live. We just never toured those records properly. It was a shame.
“The Glory of Love” (Beautiful Future, 2008)
I think that track is almost good. It’s good, but it could’ve been better.
What would you have done differently?
I don’t know. I know in one of the versions, the chorus comes too late. The version with Lovefoxxx [from CSS], the chorus in that… [Sings refrain.] That should’ve been the chorus, but we have it as the f**king coda, the outro. So we arranged the song wrong! Me and Andrew listened to it a couple years back, and we were like “F**k…”
I think one of the two versions of “Glory” that appear on Beautiful Future has a subtitle that says “Single Version.” But the song was never actually released as a single, right?
Never. Because the record company [B-Unique] were cocksuckers. And nothing against cocksuckers, right? But we were signed to this record label for one album, and they were a nightmare. They released one single, but because it wasn’t a big hit, they wouldn’t release another single. They were obsessed by singles. Every week they would say, “Well, this song’s a single, no, that song’s a single…” They didn’t know what they wanted to do. And we’re an albums band. They just wanted singles, and they just didn’t really get Primal Scream.
“I Can Change” (Chaosmosis, 2016)
Is that you singing on the song?
Oh yeah, that’s me, babe! I can sing falsetto! If you listen to the XTRMNTR album, you hear “You got the money, I got the soul!” on “Kill All Hippies,” that’s me, too.
How are you feeling about Chaosmosis in general?
I feel really good. I love it, I’m really proud of it. I think it’s pretty unique within our catalog. And it came together quite quickly. Andrew and I, we were on a roll, we had a very good creative period in early 2014.
Looking back on your whole career, is there one song where you think, “Oh man, I wish that song had gotten more attention?”
There’s a really cool song called “How Does it Feel to Belong?” which was on a four-track, 12-inch EP for [Vanishing Point single] “Star.” And there’s another song on that called “Jesus,” which is really cool. They’re kind of downtempo ballads that came out slightly depressed, kinda smack-y. Quite f**ked-up, strung-out tracks. That’s a side of Primal Scream that people don’t really know.