TR+ Extended interview: Welcome Back – The Jesus And Mary Chain

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Exploding out of East Kilbride in 1984 with Upside Down, a feedback-drenched maelstrom of punk euthanasing noise-pop, the Jesus And Mary Chain saw their notoriety spread swiftly as early gigs erupted into riotous scenes unseen since the Sex Pistols. Upon re-signing with original manager Alan McGee, the JAMC took their 30-year-old debut album Psychocandy out on tour in 2014 to rapturous acclaim. Velvets-favouring lead vocalist Jim Reid considers the entire band simply extremely lucky to be alive.

How does it feel to return to Psychocandy?

A bit odd at first, but we’ve been playing most of the songs on and off through the decades, so it’s not that weird really.

Did you ever imagine that album would endure as a historical document, or was it recorded – as probably all great pop music is – as a temporary mirror of its time, a mere stepping stone to the future?

At the time we were recording Psychocandy we were listening to a lot of records that had been made twenty or thirty years before. When you make a record, you hope to hell that it isn’t just disposable, that it’ll be around for a while. So we were making music because of bands that existed in Texas in the mid-sixties, and thinking: “Wouldn’t it be great if in twenty or thirty years’ time there were bands from Texas making records because of what we’re doing now.” So we had our eye on the fact that it might not just be for the year that it was recorded in.

Watching the Psychocandy show, specifically the hit section that precedes the albums itself, Upside Down remains a devastating piece of work. It’s timeless, still shocking, still sounding like the final blow that killed off what was left of the punk era. Were you surprised by its commercial success?

Within the framework of indie pop at that time it was very successful, but it wasn’t in the charts or anything like that, it wasn’t on TV or radio. We were kind of quietly confident about everything we were doing then. People might have said ‘smug’, but we felt pretty good about what we were doing, so it didn’t come as a complete shock when other people seemed to get it. You have to remember what it was like back in the mid-eighties; people were starved of that kind of music. And we picked up on that. That was the kind of driving force behind us getting a band together in the first place. We were thinking: “Why is music so fucking dire now? It never used to be.” So we brought guitars and screeching feedback back into popular culture.

I used to listen to John Peel – out of habit more than anything else – and when he played Upside Down my ears pricked up because it was so unusual at the time. It threw into sharp relief how anodyne early-eighties music had become.

Yeah, it was really hard at that time. People have often asked: “What influenced you to do what you did?” And we were more influenced by the crap music out there, inasmuch as we weren’t having it. We thought: “What happened to guitar music?” So we decided to go out and do it for ourselves. There were bands that we were into, bands that were using guitar that we admired, but we wanted to take it to the extreme, using lessons learnt from the likes of the Velvet Underground. We thought: “Why don’t people make music like that any more?” So we kind of took it and ran with it.

Each of your songs seemed to encapsulate an entire Velvet Underground album. For example the Velvets’ Pale Blue Eyes in collision with I Heard Her Call My Name.

To us, the blueprint for everything that’s great about music existed within Velvets records, or Velvets albums. I remember when we heard that first ‘banana’ album, it was like a total revelation. How can one band have I’ll Be Your Mirror on the same album as Heroin? It was just astounding to us. Sonically and lyrically it was one of the most challenging records that we’d heard at that time. And I don’t think it’s really been bettered.

The Velvets were the peak of rock’n’roll creativity. There are bands that have done well – and I’d hope to include ourselves in that category – but nobody’s bettered the Velvet Underground. The Velvet Underground to me were the underground Beatles. They were utterly overlooked, but they were as important and influential as The Beatles were. It just took a long time to filter through with the Velvet Underground.

I remember discovering the Velvets in the mid-seventies when they didn’t enjoy the profile that they do now, and it was like stumbling upon a secret history of the sixties that you didn’t know existed.

Yeah, exactly. We were quite late coming to the Velvet Underground, actually. Their back catalogue was re-released in about 1980, and that was when we actually heard them. I’d heard bits and pieces before that, but you couldn’t buy Velvet’s records, you had to hunt for them; they were all discontinued, so you really had to look for them. Then they re-released the entire back catalogue in 1980 and we bought the stuff.

But they were so overlooked. They were name-checked by so many bands at the time, but that was it. Their explosion into their rightful place in popular culture happened much later. The Velvet Underground now have the kind of recognition that they deserved then, but at least they got it. We were on tour in America recently and I was wearing a White Light, White Heat T-shirt, and there was a square-looking woman doing the airport security, that was like: “Velvet Underground. Cool.” And I was like, my god, that would never have happened twenty years ago.

Would you maintain that all publicity is good publicity? Because while exaggeration of riots at your early shows heightened your profile, violence at your gigs plagued you for quite a while.

I’d definitely say that not all publicity is good publicity. We thought so, certainly at one point. And what we started to realise was that you can kind of create a monster that’s kind of hard to tame, hard to put to bed. I know at the time it looked like we kind of orchestrated a lot of that stuff, and to some degree we did, but at the same time we were utterly naive. We had never been in the music business before, never been in a band before, so we didn’t know what the rules were. We didn’t know what you were supposed to do. The Mary Chain formed and within a year we were touring America.

We were on a kind of fast track, if you know what I mean, and we did a lot of our growing up in public. We’d sit in the dressing room thinking: “I’m not in the mood to go on yet, let’s have another couple of drinks and listen to a few more tunes,” totally unaware that there was an angry mob out there that expected us to go on at nine o’clock. And there’d be incredibly nervous promoters coming downstairs going: “You’ve got to get the fuck on stage. They’re going to kill you.” We thought, yeah, yeah, yeah, don’t worry about it, it’ll be fine. It sounds ridiculous, but that is how those riot gigs happened, that’s what brought them about. To be fair, we did think of it as an amusing little episode that happened to us. But then we started to think, you know, somebody could get hurt here, and maybe that wouldn’t be so funny. So we decided to just disappear for six months, in the hope that that side of things would calm down. Which it did.

So while the outrage focused attention on the band, it was the backbone of pure pop that existed within the feedback squall that saw you endure. Did you always think of yourselves as a pop group? Were you for Top Of The Pops, or an avant-garde rock band?

We absolutely did think of ourselves as a pop band. At that time we took a lot of flak for that, because the big thing at the time was indie schmindie. People were so anal, you had to be indie or you weren’t relevant; you were part of the problem if you weren’t on a pure indie label. So we immediately signed to Warner Brothers. Our heroes were Marc Bolan and David Bowie. I mean, sure, the Sex Pistols and the punk thing as well, but we wanted to be on Top Of The Pops.

That was the point of the band. almost. We wanted to be like T. Rex, we’d no interest in playing in front of twenty-five of our mates in the sweaty little basement of a pub. That’s not what the Mary Chain were about. But, having said that, we didn’t really understand what we were buying into by signing to Warners at that point. Warners was just guys in Armani suits that thought it was cool to have a band like the Mary Chain on the label. They didn’t understand or respect the band, they merely tolerated us. There was never any sort of successful communication between us and them, and it was just a matter of time before we got booted off. It took a lot longer than I expected, but it was always on the cards.

**I asked Alan McGee if there was one question he’d like me to ask you, so this is his fault: what’s the best drug that Alan McGee has ever turned you on to? **

[Laughter] Oh, Christ. What a question. I don’t like to go on about drugs but, you know, hey, it was a part of what we did. So let me think about that. I think McGee got turned on to certain drugs because of Mary Chain, not the other way around [laughter]. I think we all discovered ecstasy together. I think it might have been McGee that turned me on to E. But I wouldn’t recommend it.

How would you define Alan’s management style? Has his enthusiasm re-energised the band?

Yeah, that is Alan’s management style. It’s a hundred per cent enthusiasm. And that is such an important part of what’s needed in music, really, because you can get so easily jaded, and enthusiasm rubs off on you. And Alan’s certainly does. He seems very unaffected by everything that’s happened to him. He still seems as enthusiastic and wide-eyed as he did back in the 1980s when I met him. There’s very few people I can say that about, but I’d say it about Alan.

Can we expect a studio album from you in the nearest future?

Yep, there is a plan to do it and we’ve been talking about doing this album for so long now [the last Jesus And Mary Chain album, Munki, was released in 1998]. Many little mini-battles have gone on between my brother and myself about it out of the public eye – just about where we record it and how we record it – but we’re finally coming around to being in agreement with each other, which is a bit odd for us. But it will happen, and it will happen pretty soon, so look out for it.

There has been talk about it for literally years, so are the songs you’d take into the studio the same ones you were talking about all that time ago, or have you written stuff recently and you’d leave older stuff by the wayside?

There’ll be some of the ones that would have been on the album back then, and there’ll be others that have knocked some of those older ones out of the water.

In 2007 you said of your relationship with your brother William: “After each tour we wanted to kill one another, and after the final tour we tried.” Do you have any fratricidal feelings to report, or have the years mellowed your position?

We are always going to be in battle, my brother and I. We’ve now come to a position where we know how to sidestep each other. In the 1990s we argued about anything, we went out of the way to annoy the shit out of each other. We still know how to do that, but know what the consequences will be. So you tend to just count to ten a little bit more now. And it seems to work.

Is that brotherly antagonism the grit in the oyster that makes the pearls? Is it intrinsic to the magic of the Mary Chain?

People have said that through the years. It may well be, but we’re too close to the situation to see how the whole thing works and to analyse it to that degree. But, yeah, it probably is.

**Well it’s clearly a man’s life in the Mary Chain. How many on-road near-death experiences have you faced down the years, whether physical or pharmaceutical? **

[Laughter] Too many to mention, mate, I can tell you that. It’s kind of amazing that we’re still here.

**From the Sex Pistols onwards, bands have mischievously prophesised the imminent death of rock’n’roll. But in this kind of X Factor era, where an artistic life on the dole is simply not an option any more, are we finally there? Is rock’n’roll finally a museum piece, where the best option is to watch bands such as yourselves, playing thirty-year-old albums? **

I think that the music industry, not just rock’n’roll, is in such a state of chaos and flux right now that the future of rock’n’roll depends on whether the music industry can sort itself out and find a new kind of business model that enables a record company to sell music to a music-buying public. At the moment that just doesn’t work any more. And if they can figure out a way to do that, I’m pretty sure there will always be rock’n’roll bands.

We bemoan the Thatcher era, but at least you could spend two years on the dole putting together a rock’n’roll band. Without a university education, today’s kids face perpetual unemployment, and that knowledge hangs over their heads

Yeah, true. But also, even if you could spend two years on the dole planning the best rock’n’roll band imaginable, there’s no way to sell that music to the public any more, that framework doesn’t exist any more.

‘Where are the new Jesus And Mary Chains?’ we have to ask ourselves?

What’s wrong with the old Jesus And Mary Chain? There will be interesting bands that will come up and come through, it’s just as I keep saying: to come through what? There has to be a kind of re-structuring of the music industry before anything can move forward.

With the passing years the Mary Chain’s reputation and influence has grown, much like that of the Velvet Underground. How does it feel to be an elder statesman? Is it better or worse than being an enfant terrible?

Well, I think the reason for that is that we were so terribly overlooked at the time. You might not think so – we were on Top Of The Pops – but we struggled to get any space back in the eighties and nineties, especially the nineties. People have obviously been digging around, as people always do. They dig around to see what’s interesting about music from the past. And I reckon the Mary Chain’s good enough to be rediscovered and up there with the best of them.

Classic Rock 213: News & Regulars