Primetime for Primal Scream
Published April 27, 2009
Much has been said about what Glaswegian alternative rockers Primal Scream have contributed to drug culture; not enough has been said about the remarkable things they’ve done for dance music. Case in point: just as the Scottish band wrapped up their US tour weeks ago, rock veteran/sideline commentator Little Steven (of E Street fame), paid the band a backhanded compliment: “Primal Scream could be the biggest band in the world. But they can’t tour because of drug problems, or whatever. I don’t have patience for it.” As aggressive a remark as it was, he has a point: Primal Scream, like their music, are epic and larger than life; they also have a knack for keeping their fans on their toes, especially on this side of the Atlantic. The band operates on a level as erratic and combustible as their mutant pop music: this most recent tour was their first full-fledged US trek in nine years. In a world of 24/7 social media, people expect to be kept in the loop; Primal Scream are less generous. And so when they fall off the radar, people scapegoat drugs. (LEFT: BOBBY GILLESPIE. PHOTOS BY MICHAEL NIKA)
The truth behind Primal Scream aren’t the most visible band in America is probably more banal: while the Scream are bona fide indie heroes in the UK, they’ve had trouble upon import, beyond niche concern. But then, so was the rave culture they helped pioneer on their 1991 genre-defining opus, Screamadelica, a blissed-out 65 minutes that blends soul, acid house, and guitar music to dizzying effects on classic singles like “Movin’ On Up,” “Loaded,” and “Come Together.” It may be the most psychedelic album to ever win the Mercury Prize. With music far more enigmatic, colorful than anything our own charts ever reflected in the 90s, the Scream were an exciting, if unreachable, destination band—a freakshow you might catch on tour in another galaxy. In 2000, the band stunned critics and reignited interest with the industrial techno of XTRMNTR, a dystopian vision quite the opposite of Screamadelica. An abrasive warning shot fired in the direction of the Y2K America, it was later voted by Q Magazine as one of the most brutal albums ever recorded. Since then, the Scream have spent the decade vacillating between spacey techno, bar band blues, and dreamy krautrock. But on their most recent album, Beautiful Future (currently available only as an import here), they pair apocalyptic lyrics about the military industrial complex and suicidal lovers with bubblegum new wave melodies. Turns out, twenty-two years after the jangly, twee Scream track “Velocity Girl”—their standalone legacy to the C86 movement—lead singer Bobby Gillespie is still a pop geek at heart.
COLLEEN NIKA: This was your first, complete US tour in nine years. Why such a long gap?
BOBBY GILLESPIE: We’ve had problems releasing records in the USA due to non-interest from Sony and Warner, who have held the rights to our last three albums but declined releasing them or allowing any other label to release them. It’s a totally sick and frustrating situation. We really need to be on an independent who can license our albums to different labels in different territories—or just do it ourselves.
CN: Why do you think Primal Scream never achieved true commercial success in the US?
BG: We never toured the US properly. You’ve got to tour at least twice a year when you release an album! We also have had no serious record label push since we were on Sire back in the early 90s. I do wish we’d come over and played more here. We love to play America: It’s where our favorite music comes from.
CN: Now that you finally played here again, has the response been what you hoped?
BG: It’s been great! We really do have an audience in the States. There’s been a lot of love for us on this tour. We really would love to come back as soon as we can.
CN: Are your set lists different in the US? (LEFT: GARY “MANI” MOUNFELD)
BG: We arrive at a set list by learning new songs and seeing how they fit in with the old ones. We try to match the energy and intensity levels as we love to play a high-energy set. We now play for almost two hours every night. On the Screamadelica tour, in 1991 and 1992, we’d play eight songs each night. That was all. The US tour set list is the same as our last recent UK and international tours. It works well so we’ll keep it like that until we write some more new songs.
CN: What’s been the best night of this tour?
BG: I think the San Francisco Fillmore gig, when we played with Brian Jonestown Massacre was great. New York’s Webster Hall was so intense and ecstatic. In Philadelphia, we played a fantastic show, though it was not a sold out gig. We took the roof off the place! We also played South by Southwest in the alley way between two restaurants—high energy madness, a 40-minute punk rock set.
CN: What happened in New York?
BG: Ian Astbury of The Cult came to our Brooklyn gig on crutches with a broken hip. Nothing can stop him—he’s a force of nature. I love him!
CN: What is the age range of fans at your shows? Do you see young faces?
BG: Yeah, I certainly do. We get all ages, which is cool. A lot of young people, especially in the UK. And in Europe and Japan.
CN: I noticed you still play a lot of material from XTRMNTR, which I consider a classic of the last decade. Do you consider it underrated or overlooked?
BG: It’s a total classic record and it’s still out there for people to discover. CN: Where does Beautiful Future fit in amongst your other output? Is it an amalgamation of styles or a step in a new direction?
BG: It’s just different, that’s all. It’s maybe more melodic, but there’s a lot of similar themes running throughout that you might recognize if you’ve heard our other albums. Beautiful Future is maybe more pop, but we love pop music and “bubblegum”! We feel it’s a fantastic and ecstatic way of putting across our ideas and emotions.
CN: What musical direction does the band want to head in next?
BG: Head for the hills!
CN: What encourages you about the future of the music?
BG: People with integrity and something to say always inspire me.
CN: What do you do to stay consistently inspired?
BG: We play rock and roll!
CN: The Beatles or The Stones?
BG: The Stones! No contest.
CN: The 1990s or the 1980s?
BG: I hate them both! I prefer the 60s and 70s.
CN: And finally, I have to ask: What did you think of Little Steven’s comment that the Scream never succeeded stateside because of “drug problems”?
BG: I think maybe he was pissed off that we didn’t play his gig at SXSW! I’d like to meet him because he loves rock & roll. So maybe it’ll be okay if we get together. No hard feelings.