Usually, when Bobby Gillespie emerges with new music it’s as the frontman of his band Primal Scream, with whom the Scottish vocalist had released 11 studio albums since their 1987 debut LP Sonic Flower Groove and whose most recent album of new material, Chaosmosis, arrived back in 2016.
This time, though, Gillespie has teamed up with Savages frontwoman Jehnny Beth for a new duets album written and recorded over the last few years between Gillespie’s home in London and Beth’s studio in Paris. Titled Utopian Ashes, the album also features Primal Scream guitarist Andrew Innes and Beth’s partner in the duo John and Jenn, Johnny Hostile, its nine songs tracing the story of a dissolving relationship.
With the new album freshly on the shelves in our stores and some UK tour dates scheduled for later this year, we sat down with Bobby to talk about how the new album came together, his new memoir Tenement Kid, which is set to arrive in October, and why it might be a while before there’s any new Primal Scream material to look forward to…
The album has been out for a few days now, how have you found the reaction to it so far?
“The reaction has been amazing. Best reviews we’ve had in 20 years, since XTRMNTR. Across the board, people are really digging the record, and that feels good. Not even from, like, an ego thing, it was more that we knew when we were recording it that it was good work, and when we were mixing it felt like we’d made a good record. And it feels good to get that appreciation.”
“[Scottish choreographer] Michael Clark said this once to me about Mark E. Smith. I said, “Why is Mark E. Smith so angry?” And Michael said “You know, I think people just need to be appreciated. Because if they don’t, they get bitter and angry.” And I thought: “F*ck, I know what he means, he’s right.” The Fall always stayed about the same size, and I think Mark knew he was kind of ahead of the game, but he just wasn’t really getting the rewards for it. And then of course when he died, everybody was saying how great he was. But I guess what I’m saying is that it’s nice to be appreciated for all your hard work.”
We read that you and Jehnny first met while you were performing with Suicide at the Barbican a few years ago, is that right?
“I’d met her a couple of times before that, I met her at the BBC’s Radio 6, in a corridor. Savages were there doing a Lauren Laverne session and I was going in to be interviewed, so we chatted while the band set up their amps and stuff. And then I think I met her at a fashion show in Paris, and again it was kind of a one-minute conversation, but then we hung out and chatted more at the Suicide gig.”
How did the creative relationship start to develop from there?
“We did a gig opening for Massive Attack, and Savages did as well, it was at the Downs Festival in Bristol in 2016 I think, and Jehnny came and sang ‘Some Velvet Morning’ with us, the Lee Hazelwood song. We’d originally recorded that with Kate Moss, and Andrew (Innes, Primal Scream’s guitarist) suggested we make a track with Jehnny. We didn’t know what for, just to make some music.”
“So, in January 2017 Andrew and I went to Paris, we had like a five-day kind of jam session with Jehnny and Nico [aka Johnny Hostile], her partner. Six weeks later we went back to Paris and had another five-day jam session. It wasn’t any songs, just kind of sketches, heavy beats and electronic soundscapes, bits of vocals. I never really had any lyrics at that point, but Jehnny had these little notepads full of lyrics and writings, so sometimes I would pick up one of her notebooks and start singing a song, making up melodies as I go. I find melody comes very easily to me.”
That sounds quite different to what the album has ended up sounding like though…
“Well, I began working at home with an acoustic guitar and I began writing lyrics, shaping chords, and the first song that I completed was ‘Remember We Were Lovers’, because whilst in Paris Jehnny had written this really beautiful chorus: ‘Do you stand like this / ‘Cause you too have been placed at the edge of a cliff / You saw the risk that you should take but never did’.”
“I thought that was really interesting, so I wrote verses around that chorus and while I was doing that I imagined it being recorded with a live drummer, piano, bass, acoustic guitars. Very much like a John Lennon solo track, like ‘Jealous Guy’. And there were some other ideas that we’d worked up, Jehnny had this line ‘I wanna fly away from this town tonight, so high, so high’. It had this really cool melody, but it was over this electronic backing track, very gothic, kind of like Suicide meets Jesus and Mary Chain. And the music was cool, but it wasn’t really what I wanted to do, so I just took that one line and wrote the song ‘English Town’ around it, Andrew and I wrote some chords for it and put it into a 6/8 waltz time.”
Right, that’s a very different direction, isn’t it?
“Yeah, well, that’s how it sort of happened, Andrew and myself began demo-ing these tracks as rock songs. And there were a couple of other songs, ‘You Don’t Know What Love Is’, which I wrote on my own, and ‘Living a Lie’ which Andrew had the harp riffs for, so I wrote the song over the harp riffs. Those tracks were recorded separately here in London. Even the last song ‘Sunken Reverie’ was from a lyric I already had, but we wrote it in Paris at Jehnny’s studio, Innes came up with the guitar chords.”
“I wrote ‘Chase it Down’ here in my living room, and when I did a demo it was kind of like this Neil Young dirge with me droning and moaning away, and Jehnny was passing through town and came into the studio and heard the song. I think she started crying, actually. And she just immediately wrote this chorus, which was wonderful. So when we’d demoed all these songs out in London we sent them to Jehnny and Johnny, and said we wanted to record them with a live band, like the old days, and they acquiesced to that idea.”
At what point did you realise you had enough material for a whole album and start recording it in its final form?
“So, in summer 2018 we recorded the album over a 10-day session, five days for the backing tracks and vocals, and five days for the strings, the harp player, the horns, and some guitar and keyboard overdubs. That was it, and then we mixed it in December 2018.”
“I knew we had nine songs – we actually had 10 songs but we discarded one of them because it didn’t fit – but I knew at the end of 2017 going into 2018 that we had enough, Andrew and myself had demoed most of the album. And I wrote ‘You Don’t Know What Love Is’ just a couple of weeks before we recorded the album.
Were there any particular musical reference points for what you wanted to do?
“No, not really. I mean, in the press release I put down Gram Parsons, Emmylou Harris, George Jones and Tammy Wynette, but that was just to give journalists a frame of reference and a tradition in which to place the album. It’s a singer-songwriter album, I wanted it to be like a Kate and Anna McGarrigle record, or from that tradition of the singer-songwriter. Torch songs, essentially. I don’t know if they are torch songs, that’s quite a broad description. But I wanted it so it was presented not as a Primal Scream record, because people would then think ‘oh, it’s going to be this high-energy, political, f*cked up thing’.”
“That’s why we’ve got the abstract painting on the cover, the title is kind of poetic and abstract, and we’ve put the photograph of the two of us on the back. We’ve art directed the album so that it would feel like it’s not a Primal Scream record, it’s something else.”
What was it like working with Jehnny compared to the way you’d usually work with Primal Scream?
“When we sang together in Paris I thought there was a bit of magic there. You know, I sing behind the beat, I’ve got bluesy inflections, I’m kind of Americanised, but she sings right on the beat, very white European, my influences are black, country and rock and roll. So the difference between the two approaches and the tension that brings was really healthy for the project, in terms of the energy of the album and the songs.”
“When I was sitting at home, I was trying to work out how we were going to make this record. Like, is it a Primals record featuring Jehnny Beth, or what is it? So I thought, why don’t we make it a duets record? Our voices go well together, and I think if you present it as a duets record it kind of enlarges the narrative, because you’ve got a male and female perspective and the tension between them, and I thought that was an interesting way to make the record and also an interesting way for people to approach it in terms of how they listen to it. And I’ve always loved the male-female dynamic, it’s like there’s this third thing that happens, this kind of energy that appears.”
You’re both lyricists, how did you go about sharing the writing duties?
“We never really sat in a room and wrote the lyrics together, Jehnny’s lyrics mostly came out of notebooks she already had, and I began writing in 2017 and then started constructing a narrative around the songs I’d written. What I thought was interesting was that I would write a lyric for something like ‘Chase it Down’, which is quite descriptive in a plain-spoken way, and then Jehnny would write this chorus which was abstract in relation to what I was saying in the verses.”
“I love that tension, between the male narrator and her response. It does relate to what I’m singing but it’s in the way she delivers it. It’s so icy and European and forthright, I’m singing really lazily behind the beat and she comes in like a banshee. I think her vocal on that track is f*cking astounding, I love it.”
Is this a one-off project or do you think you’ll work together again?
“Well, I don’t know. They say that lightning doesn’t strike in the same place twice, they also say you can never step in the same river twice, you know? I’m not sure, I think that this happened quite naturally. I think it’s beautiful as it is, and maybe only one of these records should ever exist.”
Is there any new Primal Scream material in the pipeline?
“Well, to be honest with you, I’ve said enough on this record in the meantime, and I don’t really have anything else to say at the moment. I wrote a memoir last year which comes out on October 14th, it’s called Tenement Kid, on White Rabbit Books. And again, I wrote that last year and right now I’m kind of all written out! Let’s just see what happens in the future.”
What has it been like putting the memoir together?
“It’s a different experience but I’ve really enjoyed it. I kind of surprised myself some days.”
Are you writing it with someone?
“No, no I’m doing it all myself. It had to be written in my voice. I mean, someone else edited it, and I was really happy with the edit. I gave my editor 240,000 words, but he edited it down to, I think, about 130,000. Although it’s gone back up again now because I’ve just written another 8,000 words in the last couple of months. So we’ve been editing and re-editing, we’re in the last stages now and I’m currently working on the photographic content of the book.
“Some days it’s exhilarating, and then on other days it’s mentally, spiritually and emotionally taxing. I had to go really deep into my memories, and a lot of the time it’s an emotional memory that you’re accessing. So a lot of strong emotions can arise, but that was good, I’m used to writing from emotion. It’s really what I do best I think. And I like what I’ve done, I hope other people enjoy reading it. It’s quite a joyous book, you know? It’s joyous.”