With a singles collection on the way, the 56-year-old frontman is in a philosophical mood. We meet him to discuss addiction, austerity and why he’s fed up with white men.
As he gears up to release a new album made up of his band’s commercial hits, the 56-year-old frontman is in a philosophical mood. We meet him to discuss addiction, austerity and why he’s fed up with white men.
There’s a sharpness to Bobby Gillespie – wiry frame, high cheekbones, eyebrows thick and angled – that feels at odds with the cosy padded room he’s camped out in at Sony Music UK.
Though the Primal Scream frontman has certainly softened in recent years (sober for the past 10), he still retains the quiet intensity of someone who dedicates his utmost focus to any task or exchange – however menial. “Want some?” he asks, picking his way through a fruit salad with a surgeon’s diligence. “It’s good.”
Bobby’s here to discuss Maximum Rock ’N’ Roll: The Singles, a new collection made up of his band’s commercial hits; starting in 1986 with ‘Velocity Girl’ and concluding with ‘100% Or Nothing’, taken from 2016’s Chaosmosis. At 31 tracks, it’s a carnival of sound, traversing rock, rave, acid house and industrial funk: less a greatest hits record, more a whirlwind journey through modern musical history.
For the 56-year-old, an unapologetic romantic, there’s still something brave and beautiful about the idea of the single. Though he still believes in the album as an art form (and there’s a new Primal Scream one “ready to go”), you can’t help but feel he’d be just as happy releasing standalone tracks for the rest of his days. “Singles are immediate, punchy, high-energy,” he says, with genuine warmth. “They’re a statement.”
You’ve said that great singles make you feel “less alone” – what did you mean by that?
Easy. When I was younger, I would buy a single, take it home and just play it over and over and over again. It would transport me into a different world. Suddenly I wasn’t sitting in a cold council flat in Glasgow, I was somewhere else. It turned on my imagination. Nobody had ever encouraged me to use my imagination. I went to an awful school. This music – punk, post-punk – made me think. It made me dream.
In what sense?
I could visualise possibilities that were not apparent in my life up until that point. I was a lithographic printer, so my life was working in a factory ’til you were 65. It was a well-paid job – a unionised job – so it wasn’t a bad career. But I didn’t realise I could be a creative person. Those records I bought as a teenager – Siouxie and the Banshees, Sex Pistols, Jam, Clash, Public Enemy, Joy Division – they showed me another way of life was possible. I never knew about it up until then.
Do you remember the first time music did that to you?
The first time I was shocked by a record, and this is the truth – everybody says it, but I don’t fucking believe them – was ‘God Save The Queen’ by the Sex Pistols. Me and my brother sat for days playing that record. And when I first saw The Clash it was the same thing, but even more so.
When I first saw The Clash it was beyond music. It’s a cliche when people say, ‘I was struck by lightning’, but I carried something away that night. I went into college the next day and was trying to talk about it because I had to talk to somebody. I’d had a traumatic experience, but it was positively traumatic. It was like I wanted to convert people.
How did that go down?
I was on my own a lot. I was a loner. I didn’t want to be a loner, though. I was desperate for connection. I had a point when I was 16 when I couldn’t hang out with the guys that I’d hung out with up until then. I’d got into punk and it didn’t go down too well with them. They were threatened by it.
It was like I’d come out with an evil crime. I was tainted, you know? But it was part of me forming my own personality. I could either hang out with these guys and be treated like a freak, or I could just be on my own and [eventually] find like-minded people.
Where would you be now if you’d knocked punk on the head and stayed hanging out with them?
Erm… I guess, overweight, depressed, unemployed, unhappy, probably an alcoholic. Mainstream west Scotland male in their mid-50s. Possibly I’d have led an unsatisfying life. But basically, it was me realising I was me.
To jump forward. When you look at the periods the new album encompasses – 1986 to 2016 – what sticks out to you as the peak?
There was heavy activity from Screamadelica to XTRMNTR. It was forward momentum and an intensification of our mission purpose. It was four albums, and I think those four records are the strongest records. The ’90s was a very fertile period of creativity for us. We lived very intensively, and we put out a lot of good work.
Was there ever a point, when you were living at your most hedonistic, where you thought you wouldn’t make it?
Totally. We just did what we did and never really thought about the consequences. I think when you’re young you feel immortal. As I got older, and I was still using drugs, and I began to have children, I had to… [trails off]
I mean, I was putting myself through hell. I wasn’t having a good time. When I was younger, I just thought that’s the price you pay for being high. At first, it’s kind of glamorous and exciting – ‘Look! I’m Lou Reed, I’m Iggy!’ – but as you get older, it’s not a dignified thing to be involved in. You can’t get out of bed for two days, you hate yourself, you did embarrassing things, said embarrassing things. It’s like you’re haunted. Drug addiction is a possession.
The longer it goes on, the more extreme the behaviour and the self-loathing. Whether you’re an aristocrat or if you’re from a fucking council estate, it’s the same fucking narrative in the end. You’ve got to go through a lot of pain to get clean. You either live and try to redeem yourself, or you continue, end up losing your dignity – maybe your wife, kids, job, house – end up in jail or a hospital, then death. That’s the arc. It’s a war for your soul. You have to say, ‘I’m going to fucking win this one.’
You’ve built a reputation for never mincing your words. Do you think there’s enough of that nowadays – artists saying what they really think?
I think, maybe, a lot of artists just don’t have anything to say.
Well if they did, they’d say it. I grew up reading interviews with rockstars and they weren’t just there to promote their new record. It was an interview with an artist, about what they felt about the world. I find it hard to read interviews with bands [nowadays]. The vast percentage haven’t got anything to say, they’re just dull people. I think there’s a real lack – especially in white music – of any charismatic performers.
So where do you see that charisma?
I keep saying this, but my kids like drill, grime, rap. There’s a story there, a communication going on. Intelligent communication. It’s the old tradition of storytelling, but it’s modern and contemporary.
Most rock music – and you can put us in this – it could have been made ’71, ’72. It hasn’t moved on. It feels like a dead language. It’s not about the outside world or current culture, and maybe that’s because it’s a white middle-class takeover. With grime, drill, rap, it’s black working-class; there’s a sense of struggle, desperation, anger. Class has got a lot to do with that.
I think the only way rock music can move forward – maybe not even move forward, but bring itself into the 21st century – is with the female artists coming through. Maybe we’ll hear the women’s story in a way that we haven’t heard before. Because we’ve heard the white male guy, we know his story, that’s the dominant culture. And it’s boring.
You’re clearly pretty passionate about this.
Rock is still a viable language – it’s one that I speak and that our band speaks – but it is 20th-century music. How can it be relevant? It’s irrelevant. I honestly think white music is generally fucking irrelevant. It’s too comfortable. I don’t think it’s interesting. It hasn’t been interesting for a while. Young white working class kids, who want to make their version of grime and drill, won’t be forming fucking rock bands. It just feels old, doesn’t it?
I think it’s difficult for anyone from a working-class background to sustain themselves as an artist.
Our manager has been managing bands since 1980. He said to me, five years ago, ‘Working class band? You can’t do it anymore.’ You need to be state subsidised. Otherwise, you can’t do it.
Which just isn’t feasible in Britain currently.
Yeah. And all that stuff has hindered the advancement of people. It’s totally political. It’s a systematic plan of action to obstruct people from the lower classes into positions of power.
You speak eloquently about politics. Your dad was a trade union leader – were you ever tempted to follow him into that world?
Oh, no. My dad was a trade union leader on the radical side of the Labour Party; a Marxist. I saw how he gave his life to the Labour movement– not the party, the movement – and in some respects, maybe his family suffered. But it obviously gave my dad a sense of self-worth. I always felt he was like a hero for it. He meant it and he still means it. But it’s a lifelong commitment, not a job. It’s a cause to make the world a better place for everybody.
I was never attracted to it. Change is very gradual. If anything, the last 40 years, all the freedoms that were won in the ’50s, ’60s, all the stuff that happened in society – gay rights, racial equality, gender equality, worker’s rights, environmental protections – it’s all been clawed back. Neoliberalism. As we know, the huge cuts in education, welfare, it’s basically a class war being waged by the One Per Cent. In basic Marxist terms: they wage a class war, and they are winning.
But my thing was always rock and roll. Okay, I guess I’ve got some kind of social conscience. But I couldn’t really live with working that world. I’m an artist, not a political organiser.
Can you be both?
I don’t have what they have. It’s a different thing. Battles aren’t won overnight, they’re won over generations. You’re just part of the movement. It’s an eternal struggle, as far as I can see. But I saw how hard my da worked. But then I work hard hard, you know. Music is my contribution. Back then, it looked like a lot more fun. [laughs]
Maximum Rock ’N’ Roll: The Singles is out May 24 on Sony.
Niall is Huck’s Associate Editor. Follow him on Twitter.