- 02 Jul 21
As he gets ready to release 'Utopian Ashes', his stellar new collaboration with Savages’ Jehnny Beth, Bobby Gillespie discusses classic country records, punk transgression, NWA, Palestine and class politics. Oh, and Scotland’s hotly anticipated Euro showdown with England.
Bobby Gillespie has long been the personification of indie cool, but remarkably, his consummate hipness has somehow manifested itself even in his quarantine surroundings. Ahead of a French promotional stint, trust Gillespie to spend the obligatory detainment period in one of the trendiest hotels in Paris.
When I get through to him on a Zoom call, he appears to be in an MC Escher print, with black and white illustrations on the walls and ceiling. After joking that he’s in The Maze in Long Kesh, the singer proceeds to give me a tour of the suite. Having explained that the premises were formerly a brothel, Gillespie gestures towards the wall.
“Look at this,” he says, pointing at a drawing of a penis. “It’s a fucking Freudian nightmare!”
Mercifully, the décor of Gillespie’s room isn’t to be the main topic of discussion. Rather, we’re here to talk about Utopian Ashes, the wonderful new album he has created in conjunction with Jehnny Beth. Despite what you might expect of a collaboration between the respective singers of Primal Scream and Savages, the LP isn’t an exercise in taut disco-punk.
Rather, it’s a collection of soulful and melancholic ballads, notably informed by Gillespie’s love of classic country duets. The duo’s origin story is perhaps more on-brand, with Gillespie and Beth first making each other’s acquaintance at a 2015 Barbican gig by electro-punk legends Suicide.
“The next year, we played a gig with Massive Attack at the Downs festival,” recalls Gillespie, in his familiar Glasgow burr. “Savages were on the bill, so we asked Jehnny if she’d get up and sing with us. Afterwards, our guitarist Andrew Innes said, ‘That was really good – there was a definite spark between the two of you.’ Why don’t we ask if she wants to make some music together?
“So we asked Jehnny and her partner, Johnny Hostile, and they were bang up for it. In February 2017, we went to their studio in Paris for five days and jammed on stuff. There were a couple of good ideas – we had the beginnings of ‘Remember We Were Lovers’ and ‘Your Heart Will Always Be Broken’. But they weren’t really formed and the backing tracks were kind of electronic. One of them sounded kind of like Kraftwerk and another was electro-pop.”
Which is a long way from where they ended up…
“Yeah,” nods Bobby. “But when we back to London, I started writing lyrics. I was playing the songs on acoustic guitar and it just felt natural, the lyrics were strong. When I finished the words to ‘Remember We Were Lovers’, it became apparent that the songs needed to be recorded in a traditional way, with guitar, bass, drums and piano, maybe strings and horns. Like a John Lennon solo song.
“I remember speaking to Andrew Innes and he was like, ‘No, no, that’s predictable. I really like what we did in Paris.’ And I said, ‘Yeah, it’s nice, but it’s too cold. I wanna hear you guys playing a song the way I know you can play it – with real emotion, fragility and musical intelligence.’”
Although this is the first time Gillespie has struck out on his own – at least partially, with three-fifths of Primal Scream appearing on the record along with Beth – he has had some celebrated collaborations. Perhaps the best was ‘Soul Auctioneer’, a memorable slice of nightmarish electro from Death In Vegas’ cult classic The Contino Sessions, on which the singer performed something of a vocal tribute to The Fall’s Mark E. Smith.
I wonder if the aforementioned Massive Attack ever approached Gillespie about a collaboration?
“They asked us to remix ‘Teardrop’ back in the late ’90s,” he reflects. “The deal was if we remixed one of their songs, they’d do one of ours – they did ‘Exterminator’. Their mix is brilliant and I know 3D very well, he’s a good friend of mine. In terms of singing on a Massive Attack song… he never asked us, the bastard! (laughs uproariously).”
Why has Gillespie chosen this moment to do something away from Primal Scream?
“Well, because Jehnny had co-written some of the songs, it felt that this is the best way of presenting it to the world,” he suggests. “We would get some attention from it. If we released it as a new Primal Scream record, I don’t know how it would be received. We’ve made so many records. I’m like that with bands who’ve been around a long time – you’re a bit dismissive if they make a new record. You’re like, ‘I’ve heard them before.’”
The earlier mention of Suicide leads me to ask: why is there such a glaring absence of punk transgression in rock these days?
“I’ll tell you why,” answers Bobby. “Martin Rev and Alan Vega are working class, they both come from radical backgrounds. Rev’s family were really left wing, they’re Jewish New Yorkers. And Vega came out of a beatnik art background, which meant he was left as well – he was counter-culture. Rev came out of free jazz, but he had radical politics in his background. So there was a struggle there, and I a lot of white rock music today is very middle to upper middle class.
“Their music, lyrics and attitudes reflect that. Over the last 15 years or so, that demographic – in Britain at least – has come to the fore in rock music. If you want to hear a working class voice, you 100 percent have to go to black music.”
When Primal Scream’s disco-punk classic Screamadelica landed in 1991, rock undoubtedly had more of a radical edge, with the year famously yielding a slew of classics, including Nirvana’s Nevermind.
“Kurt Cobain had a working class anger,” says Bobby. “He had an anger that bands like Pavement don’t. Among a lot of those American alternative bands, he was maybe alone in being a working class guy. That rage, you can also hear it in Iggy Pop and The Stooges – they were working class, same with The MC5. The same with The Sex Pistols; to me that’s punk rock.
“Punk rock’s a working class thing, just like the blues and country are. That sense of struggle and embittered poetry can only come from people who are under-privileged, or who’ve been oppressed in some way. Anything else can be great, it can be art-rock, it can be beautiful and we can love it, but I don’t think it’s going to have the same grit and fucking determination.”
Over the past year, I’ve listened to less music than at any point since I was 13, with the pandemic putting paid to my daily commute and days in the office. But one record on which I finally did a deep dive was NWA’s 1987 masterpiece Straight Outta Compton. Groundbreaking, nihilistic, hilarious and totally anti-establishment, it made every record I listened to in the aftermath seem hopelessly lame – and it had an urgent vitality missing in a lot of today’s culture.
“I was at a house party in Glasgow one night,” remembers Bobby. “Three of my best mates shared a flat, and we were having a party around this Primals gig. My mate Louise put on Straight Outta Compton. I said, ‘Get that off.’ She said, ‘That’s fucking punk rock.’ And she was fucking right! At that point, I was just listening to southern soul from the ’60s.
“My youngest kid Lux was 12 or 13, and he and his mate were listening to ‘Fuck Tha Police’. They were like, ‘Wow!’ Like the Pistols, that music has endured for kids of a certain age getting into music. They’ve got that rebellious edge and teenage anger. But again, it’s working class music, you know?
“The thing is, the fucking music media in Britain – especially the newspaper side of it – it’s all Oxbridge, and they love anything that’s by their class, for their class. I won’t name the names of the artists, but the tastes are very class orientated. The gatekeepers are middle to upper middle class, Oxbridge educated people. They don’t have a fucking rock and roll bone in their bodies.”
Of course, were Straight Outta Compton to crash-land amidst today’s hyper-sensitive culture, we would no doubt have to endure a wave of handwringing and pearl-clutching over its supposed violence, misogyny etc etc. Recently, Gillespie’s friend and sometime collaborator, Trainspotting author Irvine Welsh, presented the excellent Sky documentary Offended, in which one of the themes was the role social class plays in sanitising culture.
“What’s interesting about this subject we’re talking about,” says Bobby, “is that the right have been able to take this whole idea of ‘art is being silenced’, and blame it on the left, identity politics and so on. Whereas we know, 90 percent of the UK press is owned by right wing billionaires who don’t even live in the country, or pay tax to the UK government. Their point of view is what’s represented in the newspapers that they own – and that political point of view extends even to the music writers.
“This whole idea of a free press, it’s a fucking illusion, a lie. How can it be free if you’ve got to be a billionaire to own a newspaper? We’re being inundated with middle to upper middle class tastes. They’re the ones we’re being governed by, they’re telling us this is good, this is bad. They love irony, disengagement, distance. They’re scared of emotional, direct, brutal fucking poetry – and that’s what that rap music is that you’ve just described.”
Primal Scream have a history of political engagement, and recently tweeted extensively about Israel’s renewed assault on Gaza in May, which resulted in the deaths of 256 Palestinians, including 66 children. I mention to Gillespie that the oppression of Palestine strikes a particularly emotional chord with a lot of Irish people.
“The Irish and Palestinians have got a shared history of being occupied by settler-colonialists,” he says. “And when you’ve got a shared history, you’ve got solidarity with oppressed people.”
Is it a Scottish thing as well?
“It’s a socialist thing, it’s the left,” says Bobby. “My dad’s a trade unionist and radical leftist, so I grew up with that – he went to Nicaragua, he raised money for the Sandinistas. Because they had this blockade on them by the United States, they couldn’t get school books, pencils and jotters. My dad was working in the print industry and he managed to convince some of the employers, the guys who owned the factories, to give him huge quantities of school books, jotters, rubbers, pencils and pens.
“He was a trade union leader, and they raised money and sent supplies over, via ship and airplane, to the Sandinistas. He also went over there and visited them. My background is you grow up and have empathy and solidarity with oppressed peoples all over the world, whether it’s in Nicaragua, Palestine or – I’m going to say it – Ireland.
“We support the Palestinian struggle. We did a gig with Nick Cave, Spiritualized and Steve Mason in Brixton Academy around 2005, and we raised a lot of money for the Hoping charity. Bella Freud, the great-grand daughter of Sigmund, it’s her charity along with a Palestinian lady called Karma Nabulsi, an academic at Oxford. By the way, 3D of Massive Attack is a big supporter of the Palestinian cause.”
Having earlier discussed the shared affection between Ireland and Scotland, I thought Gillespie was about to say 3D is a big supporter of Celtic!
“He’s either Bristol City or Rovers,” Bobby clarifies. “Plus Napoli! (laughs). I think he’s got a foot in both camps.”
Certainly, the gritty punk aesthetic as exemplified by Welsh and Primal Scream resonates hugely with Irish audiences. And there will be further cultural crossover at the imminent Euros, when many Irish fans will be desperately hoping Scotland turn over England, in their first game at a major finals in 23 years.
“Listen,” announces Gillespie, barely able to contain his excitement. “Me and my sons are just fuckin’… My eldest, Wolf, he’s like, ‘Dad, this is the first time in my life that Scotland’s in the Euros, and we’re playing England.’ He’s just really feeling it, he’s like, ‘We’ve fucking got to do it.’”
Well, we did provide a template at Euro ’88, when Ray Houghton famously stuck the ball in the English net. As I’m saying this, Gillespie is intently pacing up and down the room, the sense of anticipation building. He stops and rolls up his sleeve.
“Look at that,” he says, pointing at his arm. “Big Jack and the boys – as you’re saying it, I’m getting goosebumps!“
Listen to 'Utopian Ashes' below.