The Scottish city of East Kilbride was designated as the nation’s first post-war ‘New Town’ in 1947. The redevelopment plan was designated to provide ‘elements of culture, sport and heritage for residents so as to create a sense of belonging and place’. It is unlikely that the authors of this manifesto could have predicted the rise of the Reid brothers.
Escaping to London with a handful of demos and intent, the group they formed; ‘The Jesus and Mary Chain’ exploded into the national consciousness on the back of an abrasive and confronting run of live shows and a generous helping of laudatory press that landed them a deal with the nascent Creation records. From there their debut single ‘Upside Down’ bled into the breakthrough ‘Psycho Candy’ LP and the birth of a genuine phenomenon.
A notoriously prickly relationship between founding brothers Jim and William Reid led to an unpredictable equilibrium throughout the bands entire six album run, culminating in an acrimonious disintegration at the tail end of the nineties.
However, a 2007 invitation to appear at Coachella reinvigorated the brothers, who had since amassed a new generation of followers and an alluring cult mystique. Ten years of intermittent touring followed before the band finally reconfigured in the studio to gift us with 2017’s ‘Damage and Joy’. Now in 2019 they’re hitting Antipodean shores, culminating in a stint at the fabled sails of the Sydney Opera House.
Jim’s laconic brogue echoed down the line as we rolled back the years.
The Sydney Opera is a pretty auspicious venue for a couple of lads from East Kilbride, do you find it odd the clash of cultures that comes from invading such a seemingly velvet roped bastion of culture?
Yeah, yeah. I mean it certainly took me by surprise. I didn’t think we’d be at such a grand venue, I didn’t think they’d even let us in the front door. I look forward to it.
Having grown up in Scotland but then moving to London before your sound really evolved, do you hear more of Scotland or London in your sound and attitude?
I don’t really think it’s either. I mean I think that the Mary Chain could have come from anywhere but it probably has more to do with East Kilbride. Not the sound itself just that knowing Kilbride was nowhere near where the action was, if you know what I mean. There’s kind of an isolated loneliness that seeps in through everything we do. Even when we left East Kilbride and were living in the big city, London, it’s still real, it’s still with you. That feeling of where you come from, it stays with you for the rest of your life. I think that will always be with us, writing songs in the bedroom, getting on my mum and dad’s nerves. Those are the years that shaped us.
The early days of the band sound incredibly anarchic with an almost nihilistic disregard for conventions or audience expectation. Once you achieved a certain measure of success, especially initially with upside down and psycho candy did it become harder to maintain that? What was driving you?
There was a lot going on there. A lot of it had to do with the fact that we exploded out of that situation where we’re craving action but we’re stuck in the middle of nowhere and there’s nobody’d ever heard of us or ever wants to. Suddenly we’re taking this thing to London and everybody wants to know. So we kind of exploded out of that situation and we were just incredibly happy to be doing something. But we were also really aware that we’d invented the band. We had kind of a healthy fuck you attitude, and we kind of just didn’t, at all costs, we didn’t want to be just another band.
We wanted anybody who for whatever reason, stumbled into a Mary Chain show by accident, we wanted to make sure they were onboard, they either loved it or hated it so much they’d tell their friends. We didn’t want to be halfway merchants. We just wanted to come across like no other band had ever come across.
There are a few apocrpyphal stories I’ve read about you guys such as your first Tascam recording machine being bought by your dad out of his redundancy pay and that the two of you flipped a coin to see who would be the frontman? Is there any truth to all that?
That’s true actually. It (the coin toss) decided who wouldn’t be the frontman, cos neither of us wanted to do it. The idea of being a singer in the band was terrifying to us, to both of us. You do it! You do it! You do it! And I’m like “No fucking way. You do it.” So we tossed a coin and I lost, and that’s how I ended up being a singer. It kind of worked out for the best because he (William) was probably a couple of months ahead on the guitar than I was and he somehow made the better guitar player.
You know, but once being stuck with it, he started to see that the singer got a lot more attention from girls so it became “No, no, no, I want to do it now” and I’m like “Too bad. You lost the toss.” (laughs)
And the Tascam Portastudio?
Yeah. Yeah. My Dad got made redundant and gave us 300 quid to do what we wanted with. I think he thought that we were going out to get driving lessons and buying a car or something like that, which we could do for 300 quid back then. And when we bought this porta-studio he was pretty appalled, because it was hard for him to take. We’d just taken his 300 quid and burned through it, bought this machine that did something he couldn’t get his head around, so in fact he wasn’t very happy about our choice. But you know, that porta-studio started it all. We started making early demos and then sending them out seemed like a good idea. Although most people sent them back some people didn’t and they kind of started the ball rolling.
Did you ever pay him back?
No, no, no it was a gift. I mean, yeah, we sent my Mum and Dad off on holiday once we made a bit of money on our own but. No, my Dad just gave us the money. They took the bulk of the redundancy payment and went on a big fancy holiday.
You guys pre-dated the rise of the shoegaze movement but you kind of got lumped in there by journalists….who did you see as your contemporaries and who were you inspired by?
Well we were listening to a lot of older music at the time. We felt a bit that pop music had lost its way. Things like- I remember having a conversation with William – we heard ‘Satisfaction’ by the Rolling Stones on the radio one day and we were wondering ‘what happened’? Why don’t people make music like that anymore? It felt like all popular music had taken a wrong turn somewhere at that time when we were getting the band off the ground. We were pretty much in to a lot of sixties garage music and stuff like that. Obviously there was the underground stuff, but we liked Dusty Springfield, and the Shangri -La’s. As far as the music of the day we were into Echo and the Bunnymen, The Cramps and that kind of stuff.
You returned to playing live just over a decade ago but it took ten years to re-enter the studio. Given your later albums were notoriously torturous experiences to record, what was the motivating factor in getting together to make Damage & Joy?
With Damage and Joy I had worried about what the recording process was gonna be like. I mean that’s the reason why it took as long as it did to record, to get around to recording. We reformed in 2007 and the idea immediately came up about doing maybe doing an album to record and release. I just kept thinking about how hard it was to record (1998’s) Munki and I thought well… it kinda feels that if we go into the studio this might just be the end of the band again.
So I suppose I put that off. But then so much time passed and people kept asking about if new records were going to be being released and I just got to a point where I thought you know “Do make a record and tell people I’m not gonna make a record?”. And that seemed acceptable so I thought “fuck it then, I should do it”. Get in the studio and see what happens. What’s the worst that can happen?
Well the worst that could happen is we could kill each other. But we didn’t, we actually bonded in a weird way during the recording of that album and we got along much better than we had for many, many years. So I think that album, the recording of it, repaired a lot of an abandoned relationship.
As far as the content of the album surely some of it must have been an effort to remain contemporary and not be seen as a nostalgia band, but what was it that you were trying to articulate with it and express about your life in the current moment?
Well I mean really it’s just to tell people we’re still here and we still write songs, and we still wanted make music. That’s it’s not just about the eighties and nineties. That’s all we were trying to do. We just wanted to get back to what the Mary Chain used to do. The Mary Chain used to make records.
When we reformed that got put on hold. But we still had all these songs coming out of us and we’ve got new songs now. And when you know you’re sitting on songs that you think are worth having a lifespan of their own I think it’s a waste if you don’t actually record them. It seems a shame.
How has the reaction to the tour and the album been? I imagine you’re getting quite a cross section of characters in your audience now from the wizened old dads to the kids that are now just discovering the back catalogue…
Yeah yeah. There’s a whole sort of like, you expect some kind of Bee Gees crowd but there’s really young kids that were probably not even born when the band broke up in the nineties. So it’s great. I know the internet has its problems but that’s kind of the good side. It brings younger crowds, it allows people to check out what a band is all about now. If you’re looking at some young band who name-checks some ageing group you’re only a couple of clicks away from finding out who that old band are and what that bunch of old fuckers are all about. So you can go check them out.
So now there’s a healthy amount of young faces out there as well. As well as the grey haired beardy types.
Speaking of the young bands today you guys obviously really benefited from the indie scene of the eighties where labels like Creation and Rough Trade were open minded enough and had decent enough distribution to help bands like you to find an audience, how do you compare that to the scene confronting emerging bands today?
I don’t really understand how it all works today. I can’t get my head around how a new band gets a following now, you know, because it’s all to do with streaming and stuff like that. I don’t know how anybody would- if you start a band and you can make your own records on Pro-tools on your computer which is great but I don’t know how you then get people to find out about your bands existence. It’s all a bit confusing.
So you said you’ve got some new songs percolating. What’s next for you guys after the tour is done?
We are looking at taking some-time this summer to do another record which hopefully will be out in sometime in 2020.
Here’s to a shorter time between drinks this go around.
The Jesus and Mary Chain Tour Dates