A band active across three decades – their roots were laid in Glasgow in 1982, and they began to flourish properly four years later – Primal Scream are rightly regarded as one of the UK’s most successful rock bands. They’ve critical and commercial acclaim to spare, awards poking out from top pockets (they won the Mercury Music Prize in 1992 for their third album Screamadelica), and legions of live followers around the world. Always chameleonic, never resting upon their laurels, the band has shifted in style from long-player to long-player, each new record at least a noticeable sidestep from what preceded it.
This month sees the band release their ninth studio album proper, Beautiful Future. Produced in part by Paul Epworth (Bloc Party, The Futureheads), the record retains the immediate accessibility of 2006’s Riot City Blues, but is not, in the words of one of its makers, “Primal Scream goes pop”. The album draws upon influences from the past – nods to Krautrock are evident – while still sounding like no other band but Primal Scream. They might change their spots from time to time, members coming and going, but the overall attitude and desire for progression remains the same.
At present Primal Scream is frontman Bobby Gillespie, bassist* Gary Mounfield* (aka Mani, formerly of The Stone Roses), drummer* Darrin Mooney, guitarist Andrew Innes* and keyboard player* Martin Duffy*, who has also played in both Felt and The Charlatans. It’s Duffy who I chat to one June morning, for a good time longer than our allotted slot. Subjects for discussion: if Primal Scream are to blame for Agyness Deyn having a crack at pop, how they aided Kevin Shields’ musical recovery, and how successful they’d be if they were a new band today.
This is your ninth album as a band – does the build-up to a release get less exciting, the more you do it?
No, not really. I mean, we’ve been doing this a while now, but it is still just as exciting as it’s always been. You slightly know the story, you know how things play out, but it’s good to stay fresh. I do think this album is a bit different to what we’ve done before, which I think has always been the case with us.
I agree – Primal Scream are, perhaps, the most… ‘morphous’, I suppose, pop band this country’s had in recent memory.
Yeah, certainly. Although it’ll be good to get the couple of gigs we’ve got coming up out of the way, to give the new songs a proper live airing. I’ve always thought our music is better played live.
I’ve seen some pretty fiery shows from you guys in the past…
Well, I think we’ve calmed down a bit, but the longer you go the more music you’ve got to choose from.
I suppose nowadays you’ve got to pick the hits from the catalogue, alongside the newer material, to give punters their value for money.
Exactly. The new album has a much bigger pop element to it than some of our records, but I wouldn’t say it’s ‘Primal Scream goes pop’. I mean, Screamadelica was pop, in a sense. Or it became pop, over the years.
You’ve been pop in a ‘popular’ sense ever since that record.
I think we’re lucky that we’ve never been part of any scene as such, so we can just take these various tangents whenever we want.
This latest tangent, Beautiful Future, seems fairly expressive of title: it, and the single ‘Can’t Go Back’, seem to play on the fact that you’re a band that rarely repeats itself.
You’ve got to move on, haven’t you? Live, you wanna hear a band’s hits, but you don’t want your favourite band to ever make the same record twice. I’m way more excited about music now than I was a few years ago. I listen to more music now, more than I ever have before. There’s just so much stuff around.
There is, but it doesn’t always mean these people should be making music… there’s plenty of crap out there.
I think people are getting desperate to find something that they like, although I agree that there is the risk that there’s too much music around. But I do think that it’s great that anyone can do it now – you can make a song in your bedroom and essentially release it from there, on the internet. You bypass the system that we’re a part of.
Video: ‘Can’t Go Back’ (released July 14)
And if you were just coming out now, as a new band… do you think you’d be given the opportunity to experiment quite so much as you have?
We probably couldn’t be so experimental with what we’ve done – I don’t think many new bands are given the opportunity to do that nowadays. They get an album out, if they’re lucky, and then if it doesn’t do well they’re not given a second look. Radiohead a while ago is an example – if Pablo Honey had come out today, I’m not sure they’d have been kept on the label. You can do whatever you like if you’re content to play to a leftfield audience, but you’re unlikely to get daytime radio play. I like listening to shows like Freak Zone, and other shows on 6Music. Some people on that station are great at promoting new music. But it must be difficult for new bands to find a big audience. I can’t imagine how we’d do it now, and thinking back… I could never have imagined I’d be making music for nearly 20 years! You don’t think that far ahead.
You, personally, became a full-time member for Screamadelica, right?
I did, I came in then, but I actually played on the first album, Sonic Flower Groove, too. The very first one. And that wasn’t the best-received record! I played keyboards on that. It’s a surprise to still be here doing this, really. But nobody knows what’s round the corner. People want music, and I know it’s sold a number of different ways, more than ever now, more than they’ve ever wanted it before. It’s a part of youth culture that’s changed, and people find it a necessity.
Do you not think that the way music is consumed and experienced is changing? It’s become a background hum to some people, and others simply download songs, give them ten seconds and never touch them again.
Oh, I suffer from that. I’ll take my iPod sometimes and just pop it on shuffle. But I’m not one to just play something for ten seconds and then make up my mind! That’s something that kids can seem to do today. That is the way it is for a lot of people. It’s good for us to still be doing it, all things considered, and to be deemed relevant. We’re one of the few bands from our period, the mid ‘90s, that’s still going and that hasn’t at some point broken up. And we’re still trying to push ourselves.
One record in your catalogue that really stands out for me is 1997’s Vanishing Point, as it marked the most dramatic shift in musical style, from 1994’s retro-rocking Give Out But Don’t Give Up to this weird, dub-heavy ‘soundtrack’ album.
That was a real change, yeah. I suppose_ Screamadelica_ came out in 1991, and then we went against that with the next album which wasn’t completely successful – you can get a bit over-excited when you’re on the road for a long time, and you can get a bit damaged. But Screamdelica, actually, didn’t sell that many at the time. It’s always been seen as quite an important album, but it wasn’t a commercial hit at the time as people were into bands like U2. It wasn’t until a bit later that it seemed to take off. The next album was something of a comedown from all that, and then with _Vanishing Point _we managed to do most of it ourselves. It was the first time we’d spent so much time producing ourselves.
You’ve always seemed to attract good producers – Epworth this time, Andrew Weatherall for Screamadelica, Youth for Riot City Blues…
We do, but I think we can do a lot ourselves. The problem is you can get so close to a song that you need that outside presence to get some perspective, so it helps to have another person involved. And they can make a tiny suggestion that turns a song. Andrew Innes does a lot of engineering work, and in a way it must get on top of him sometimes – I get the impression he wants to sometimes just play the guitar and let other people get on with the other stuff.
** But it’s nice to keep control of the reins?**
Oh yes, definitely. We’ll get a producer but we’re involved in the whole process – if we don’t like something they’ve done, it won’t be on the record. It’s all about having that additional perspective really.
** Josh Homme and Lovefoxxx guest on the new album, but I want to talk about a previous guest vocalist, Kate Moss. Do you think working with her opened the floodgates for fashion world figures to begin toying with pop careers in earnest? I’m thinking about what’s-her-face who’s done that song with Five O’Clock Heroes…**
That girl who looks like a boy? Agyness…?
Agyness Deyn, that’s it. She’s on a track, and of course Kate Moss contributed some vocals to Babyshambles.
Doesn’t Agyness Deyn just do backing vocals? Anyway, Kate Moss we’d known for years, long before she was this tabloid figure. We thought having her on board might get a couple of people interested in the band who weren’t before, but the song, Lee Hazelwood’s ‘Some Velvet Morning’, didn’t really do anything. Listening back though, we did it okay – we didn’t do it note for note, and gave it our spin. Fashion and music has always been interlinked – you look at Marianne Faithful and the Stones, and all their model girlfriends. And then there’s the ‘80s with bands like Duran Duran… I mean it’s garbage, but fashion’s always been there. But now you get a fashion parade, or a show or whatever, and a band member will walk down the catwalk, or a band will provide the soundtrack. Everyone’s looking for a new format, aren’t they? Someone can get into a band via a song used to sell a skirt. I mean…
Another guest you’ve welcomed to the Primal Scream fold in the past is Kevin Shields. What do you make of the My Bloody Valentine comeback?
I think it’s great! When he played with us, touring XTRMNTR, he’d be on the left… (Duffy uses his hands to show how he and Shields would line up) he’d be on that side of the stage and I’d be on the other… but hell, he’d make a lot of noise. I saw him with Patti Smith, and that was great, down at the Royal Festival Hall. I suppose him mixing stuff of ours got him back into the swing of things, and ultimately he did loads of gigs with us, so maybe we helped him want to play live again. They’re writing new material I hear, My Bloody Valentine, and he’s done a few soundtracks. Hopefully he’ll focus on new material, and continue to come out of his shell. (Looks at his watch) He doesn’t really exist at this time of day, he’s rather nocturnal. It’s difficult to get him to do stuff.
And how’d you get him to play live with you?
We just asked him. It really was that simple. But I think he’s been working on this comeback for ages, and now he’s doing the remasters of the old albums.
Video: ‘Movin’ On Up’, from Screamadelica
You were both on the same label, Creation. What’s your take on the tale about Loveless nearly bringing the label down, financially?
I’ve heard the stories about it, but I don’t think it cost that much more than Screamadelica. But (Creation boss) Alan McGee likes a story. I dunno, maybe it nearly broke the Creation bank. But I think I spoke to Kevin about it, and he’d said by that time, the time the stories were about, the label had signed Oasis and they had money. I remember Creation in those days – everything was on an expense account. They had all this money, it was crazy. So to complain about_ Loveless_ nearly breaking the bank, I’m not so sure about that.
It must be comforting for you, financially, to know you’re in an established band whose fanbase isn’t going anywhere.
That’s good, but to get established now… it’s hard, much harder than it was I think. I remember doing Later… with Jools Holland a few years ago, and there were these students there, and it turned out to be Coldplay! It was their first time on the show. I don’t like them much, but they’re one of the few recent examples of a new band establishing itself properly. But then he, Chris Martin, married an actress didn’t he… but regardless, the level of their success is crazy. They’re big, aren’t they…
They’re pretty massive, and can now play the most massive shows imaginable. That’s where the money seems to be today, in the live market.
We went through a club boom, and maybe… maybe it was The Libertines that brought back the demand for live shows, like proper live band shows. I mean, I don’t want to sit in a techno club – I want to go and see a good live band. We’ve seen both sides of it, really, in Primal Scream, and we’ve been lucky in that way. And look at festivals – the live thing has almost gone overboard. How many festivals are there in the UK every weekend? Glastonbury can’t sell out, it’s crazy.
*Glastonbury’s a festival you’ve headlined more than once – I recall seeing you in 1998. *
Oh God, when it rained and rained and was miserable?
*Yep, but there was the Super Furry Animals tank, which made everything better. *
Ha ha, yeah… but festivals these days, there’s something for everyone. And I don’t know if that’s a good thing. I saw a bit of the Isle of Wight Festival on the television last night, and it’s just so… bland. I suppose festivals used to be a ‘right of passage’ for young people – you make it through to the other side – but everything’s so commercial, business-orientated and homogenised now.
There are exceptions, of course – I remember Bobby getting on stage with Grinderman at ATP last year…
There will always be alternative festivals, and good festivals. There is a good choice, and that’s how a lot of bands make their living. We’re only doing two festivals in the UK this year, so there’s plenty of money in it for bands.
Someone from our boards asked if you’d just play XTRMNTR at a festival this summer, from start to finish.
Really? Well, we won’t, but the gigs we played around the time that album came out, they were brilliant.
Video: ‘Kill All Hippies’, from XTRMNTR
You don’t fancy doing a show – or a series of shows – where you just play one album in its entirety?
Like Sparks have done? Y’know, I think after so many years of doing this that would be something a little different. I suppose a few years down the line it could happen. Most of the albums have the slow elements to them, so I’ll be able to keep up with them.
You feel age catching up with you?
Oh, it catches up with everyone doesn’t it? The question is: do you act your age or not? I think it’s changing – you’ve Nick Cave and Mark E. Smith hitting 50 and being more ferocious than ever. We’ve all had families quite late, and done the rock and roll thing first, and just having kids has slowed us down a bit. There are other responsibilities to think about nowadays. We’ve played with The Rolling Stones, and they were great, but that’s a strange band to follow in the footsteps of. There will be a lot of bands soon who have been going for a long time, and who can get away with it. But then you’ve someone like Madonna, who at her age maybe _shouldn’t _be doing quite what she does. She should act her age, or at least dress her age. The Stones are different – they’ve never known anything else. People go to see them to see the cartoon. It’s all quite interesting really – there’ll be an audience of older people soon, who don’t want to see 50 year olds acting like 20 year olds.
Finally, when Primal Scream do give out and give up, how would you like the band to be remembered?
I’ve never thought about it really. I suppose we’ve just had a go, and always tried different things. I’d like to think we’d be remembered as a band who were never afraid to try something different, and who didn’t stick to a path. Not that people don’t want the same song eight times, sometimes! I dunno… it’s like writing your own obituary! We’re one of the last bands from our era who’ve not reformed; we’re a constant. You do have the likes of Portishead and Massive Attack, but we’re more… we’re more ‘regular’, we haven’t had any big breaks between records. There aren’t that many of us. We’re a constant force, spanning three decades. Three decades? Cor, we have, too.
Primal Scream’s new album, Beautiful Future, is released via B-Unique on July 21; the single ‘Can’t Go Back’ is released on Monday, July 14.
Find the band on MySpace here, and catch them at one of the following festivals:
11 Serbia Exit Festival
13 Scotland T in the Park
18+19 Spain Summercase
26 Japan Fuji Rock
1 Portugal Paredes de Coura