Rise From The Ashes: Bobby Gillespie Interviewed

Rise From The Ashes: Bobby Gillespie Interviewed

"I wanted to put pain back into music..."

Bobby Gillespie is one of British music’s outsider spirits, someone who has never made the same record twice. His latest project, though, could be his most introspective – it’s daringly honest, and shockingly direct.

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When Bobby Gillespie was just a kid his life was touched by rock ‘n’ roll, and it’s never been the same since. Leading Primal Scream to tabloid infamy and critical acclaim, the group have been through more reinventions and overhauls than most; a series of daring about-turns that has taken them from indie darlings to rave crossover heroes, from Southern boogie specialists to explicit political terrorism. Perhaps that’s how they’ve managed to survive a landscape that has devoured their peers, with their battle-hardened line up moving into yet another decade unscathed.

New album ‘Utopian Ashes’, though, promises something different. The first to be released under Bobby’s name, it’s a series of whiskey-soaked laments, a cycle of duets that pivots between his nicotine-stained sighs and Jehnny Beth’s caring patience. It’s a record pieced together over five blissful days in Paris, a journey that seeks – in Bobby’s own words – “to put the pain back into music”.

The two go back a long way. Bobby and Jehnny would see each other at festivals, and performed together at a special Suicide tribute show. When the Primal Scream frontman broke his back in 2016, Jehnny was one of the first to visit him at home. Drawn into each other’s orbit side-stage at a Massive Attack show, Bobby waited until a break into the trip hop legends’ set before making a suggestion– maybe they should make some music together.

Reflecting on this over Zoom, Jehnny giggles at the audacity of it. “I felt it was a good excuse to spend some time together,” she says. “And I think that vibe never left us.”  

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There’s certainly a carefree element to the album. Bobby Gillespie and Scream co-conspirator Andrew Innes travelled to Paris for a week-long burst of recording, with Jehnny Beth and Johnny Hostile acting as soundboards. Ideas were gathered, songs were sketched out, before Bobby returned home with the tapes, and his acoustic guitar.

“We went a bit back into the past for the songwriting,” he reveals. The results not only reference Primal Scream’s own work, but also the music Bobby Gillespie grew up with. As he reflects in new memoir Tenement Kid, his Glasgow house resonated with political debate – his father was a trade union activist – and with gusty American music, with the sounds of country, blues, R&B, and soul.

“I didn’t know it, but from a young age the simplicity and directness of the lyrics and the songwriting really did something to my consciousness. And I didn’t understand that until years later. I love the direct, brutal simplicity and honesty of the songwriting. It’s a very working class way of expressing yourself. It’s just something that I’ve always aspired to – to be able to write songs in that style.”

“If you go back through our back catalogue, you’ll find high energy rock ‘n’ roll and psychedelic stuff, but there was always these cracked ballads. These more naked, soul-baring, existential blues songs,” he points out. Indeed, there’s a shadow catalogue to Primal Scream’s festival-slaying anthems – think ‘Damaged’ or the Memphis tapes that foreshadowed ‘Give Out But Don’t Give Up’.

“I think I’ve been heading towards writing like this for quite a while,” he reflects. “I’ve become more confident in my lyrical abilities, and being able to express my feelings and write about life situations in a way that, hopefully, anybody can understand.”

“I’m not really looking backwards,” he nods. “It’s refining the form.”

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‘Utopian Ashes’ is a distilled triumph, a think, tar-like elixir rooted in life’s shattered experiences. There’s a quiet, pensive, contemplative feel; bourbon-soaked songs of experience about exits that have blocked off, and roads not taken. Each song is a story, for sure, but the characters are older, their lives framed by mistakes and regrets. There’s the poignancy of ‘English Town’, or the carpe diem urge that propels ‘Chase It Down’ – these are simple truths, but that’s why it works so well.

“I’m in a strong marriage, and I feel that I’ve got a strong home life with my children and my wife,” he insists. “But I don’t believe in certitude. I believe that life isn’t permanent. Love is mostly impermanent. There’s this feeling that you can’t take anything for granted.”

These reflections seem to unlock something wistful, poetic in Bobby Gillespie. Looking back on his lyrics, he pins his colours to the mast: “Make the most of your life. Make the most of your day. Seize the time and be vigilant. But also enjoy it for what it is. Life is beautiful but it’s not going to last long. Happiness is transient, it’s fleeting… and so is love. Everything is.”  

A record born out of friendship and sculpted solo, in his front room, clutching an acoustic guitar, it’s a remarkably assured, blissfully unified experience. It’s something Bobby Gillespie wanted from the outset – to recover something lost. “I wanted a record, written and recorded in the old school style, played by a great bunch of musicians, live in the studio, and recorded well. The songs played and sang with feeling.”

For her part, the intimacy of the project thrilled Jehnny Beth. “I’d just spent five years in Savages and that was a different dynamic,” she explains. “It was suddenly music for music’s sake. I felt Bobby was saying things that were very personal. And I like that. There’s an intimacy… it’s a very raw record, in terms of what it says. And I felt like I needed that…”

“I couldn’t sing something if I didn’t believe it. You can hear it if it sounds fake. Even if the characters in the story are going through something I’m not going through, my feelings are still there.”

She adds: “With this record Bobby really pushed me to sing in a way I had never really sung on a record before.”

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Much of the vocals are first or second takes, just two people singing from the gut. There’s an urge to communicate that connects the two to their influences, to those formative experiences sat beside the record player, soaking up Gram Parsons, Tammy Wynette, Charley Pride, or Otis Redding. “People loved these songs because they related to them,” Bobby says. “People would go to these bars, go to the jukebox, and play these songs. The songs reflected their lives.”

“I wanted to put pain back into music. I felt that a lot of stuff I heard had no pain in it. I didn’t know why people were writing the songs, or what they were singing about.”

That sense of emotional honesty runs through every aspect of Primal Scream’s work. In a way, this material is as intense as ‘XTRMNTR’ but in a vastly different context; it’s every bit as lived in as ‘Screamadelica’ yet framed by rusted flecks of Americana.

“I can only speak for ourselves, but we’ve always wanted to make good work. Good art. And express ourselves in the best possible way. And be honest,” he insists. “We always change. But we never really thought too much about the changes, it just felt natural to make the music that we made at any given point in our career. The changes were always completely fucking natural.”

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Jehnny clearly agrees. Amid lockdown and the dislocation the followed, those heady hours in Paris with her friends are ringed with a halo. “In a way, this is the sound we need, because it reminds me of that warmth of being together, and being a group of human beings playing together. You can hear hands on the neck of a guitar… you can hear all these things that are human and fragile. It gives me chills when I hear it now.”

“You know, the French and the Scots… we go back a long way,” Bobby says with a Cheshire cat grin. “We have this Auld Alliance. And of course the French revolutionaries met in the Jacobean clubs.”

Laughing, he raises a bottle of water in mock praise to the camera. “Here’s to Robespierre! My hero!”

Bobby, it seems, doesn’t have a filter. The music he makes reflects his emotions at that time, and it extends to his interviews, too. Every inch the punk kid, he calls it like he sees it, and if that means leaving a whirlwind of headlines in his wake then all the better. “I think I’ve got an opinion. I’ve got strong political opinions, I’ve got artistic opinions… the only reason I may stick out in British music is that not a lot of people do! And I’ve always been opinionated.”

There’s always a limit, though. A mention of Bobby’s appearance on Newsnight – and the Madonna-baiting comments that flew towards the screen – is the one time the frontman becomes even remotely bashful. Amid a nervous laugh, he says: “I’ve got nothing against Madonna. I was a huge fan of her in the 80s and 90s, I bought all of her singles, I had her poster on my wall at the time of ‘Screamadelica’. I’m a fan. I think she’s a pop icon and I’m sorry if I caused any upset.”

“But… I’ve got opinions!” he says in a Zoom explosion. “And they’re well thought out political opinions - I think - and I wish more people would speak out.”

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From the dawn of punk to the white heat of rave, from one century to the next, Bobby Gillespie has remained – for better or worse – resolutely at the frontline, when his peers have shrank into the distance. He’s obsessed with new ideas – indeed, it was Bobby Gillespie who handed Stormzy his trophy at the Q Awards in 2019, waxing lyrical onstage about the vitality of grime, and its innate powers of anti-authoritarian self-preservation.

“People – my generation, through the years – would say, oh I wish we had another punk rock, I wish something like the Pistols would happen again! And I’d be like: that was 1977, it’s gone! You need to have… if you live in the past you’re condemned to rotting there. You’ve got to be open to the present and live in the moment.”

That sense of relishing each moment, perpetually grappling with the future, bubbles over throughout our conversation. Making this record, it seems, cut straight to the heart of the matter. “Oh it was fucking wonderful,” he says. “I was on a high the whole time. The night I left I was like: this is what being a musician is all about. The reward is the joy I get from recording these songs with these wonderful musicians. And the camaraderie we had making it.”

“It was a wonderful time,” he says. “This is why I’m in a band, for those moments.”

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‘Utopian Ashes’ will be released on July 2nd. Tenement Kid will be published through White Rabbit on October 28th.

Words: Robin Murray
Photography: Josie Hall
Fashion: Lydia Simpson
Creative Direction: Rob Meyers

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