Like Bubblegum Wrapped Around Razor Blades: Jim Reid Reflects on Psychocandy’s 30th anniversary

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As the Jesus and Mary Chain wraps up a year full of shows celebrating the 30th anniversary of Psychocandy, I bring you an interview with Jim Reid conducted earlier this year.

The record was the band’s debut release– and most continue to say– their definitive recording. Jesus and Mary chain was founded by brothers Jim and William Reid and Psychocandy combined their love for 60’s girl groups, the Velvet Underground and the up-and-coming generation of noise bands to create a unique juxtaposition that would not only define the band’s sound, but become a sonic blueprint for the next several generation of psych bands to come.

When the album was released in 1985, no one had heard anything like it. Like bubblegum wrapped around razor blades, Psychocandy had an inherent pop sentimentality that shined through even the darkest, most turbulent moments. With 14 songs clocking in at just under 39 minutes, the album began with the devastating and now iconic “Just Like Honey,” only to be followed by an onslaught of distortion– heavy at the time, and still seething today. Bouncing back and forth between a reverbed quietude and the angry hiss and haze of lo-fi fuzz pedals, the record sputters, slices and shimmers into a controlled chaos and impending sense of danger with an intriguing nonchalance.

While this bond and band of brothers eventually led to constant feuds and the band’s ultimate demise, the Jesus and Mary Chain are back and touring the world to celebrate their seminal record in its entirety. We were fortunate to catch up with founder and lead singer Jim Reid to talk about the making of Psychocandy and the legendary highs and lows of the Jesus and Mary Chain.

Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Jim Reid…

Hello, is Jim Reid there?

Yes, speaking.

Where are located nowadays?

I live in the southwest of England in Devon.

Besides your solo project, what have you been up to from the end of the Jesus and Mary Chain until the revision?

What have I done between the end of the Jesus and Mary Chain and the getting back together? I had children. I made two human beings. So that’s something. To be honest with you I didn’t do a whole lot. When the band ended in 1997, I just didn’t want to do anything with music for a while. Then after 2 or 3 years I started another band with some of my friends, but it was more of a drinking club than an actual band. It was three alcoholics in the band and we would go anywhere where people supplied free drinks. That band was called Freeheat. And that was it. It’s funny, I toyed with the idea of getting a solo career off the ground, but I’m just the laziest man on earth. I had one gig every two or three years and expected great things. That’s not really the way it works.

How hard was it to get the band back together? Was it something you even wanted to do or was touring again a necessary evil?

Well in 1997, I couldn’t have even believed that would ever be imaginable. When we walked away in 1997, it was forever. I really, really could not have envisioned a time when the Mary Chain would tread the boats again. You know, time heals as they say. Ten years went by and everybody kept trying to get us back together. It had been going on for several years and I think Coachella was the most persistent. They just kept coming by and making one offer after another. By this time, me and William were talking again. There was a period that lasted a few years where we wouldn’t speak to each other. That time had passed. I wouldn’t say that we were best buddies. When we weren’t talking I thought he wouldn’t want to do it, and he thought I wouldn’t want to do it. And we discovered we were each into it. So we thought, “Christ, let’s do it. It should be a bit of a laugh.” So we got back together.

Did you enjoy touring early in your career? And do you enjoy it more or less nowadays?

Well, it’s different now. I enjoy it in different ways. In the very beginning I was very nervous on stage and lacking in confidence. I never felt good enough. I always felt like someone was going to jump on stage and say, “Look at this. He can’t even sing.” I felt like I was going to be exposed at any second. My way of dealing with that was that I would get very fucked up on stage. It was a bit of a rollercoaster ride back then. But I did enjoy the traveling and seeing various places. Now, I am a bit more comfortable being on the stage, but the traveling around can be a bit tedious. Driving around anywhere when you’re 53 years old can be a drag to say the very least.

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When you went into making Psychocandy, did you know it would be well accepted? You went from not being able to get shows to having a record that people liked? Did you know it would have staying power or that it would even be successful when it came out?

We felt quite quietly confident. We were listening to a lot of bands from the 60’s when we made the record. We kind of hoped that we would have that kind of appeal to generations down the line. We thought it was going to be around for a while, but 30 years? It’s kind of hard to imagine those kinds of things when you’re 23 years old, which I was at the time. It just seemed unthinkable that in 30 years people will still be listening to your record.

When you wrote “Just Like Honey” did you know you had a hit. It seems to stick out from the rest of the record, and it even begins the record. Was it as big then as it’s come to be? It’s become iconic over time.

Well, my brother actually wrote that, but yeah you don’t know anything at the time. I remember recording it and feeling good about it at the time, but you don’t really how it’s going to affect people until it gets out there. Then you can test people’s reactions, you know. It hit pretty quick, that song. This was during a time where there would be riots at Jesus and Mary Chain shows. There would be people knocking seven kinds of shit out of each other and then we’d start playing “Just Like Honey” and people would stop for a couple of minutes and it would be like “ah, isn’t that nice.” And then we’d start playing “The Living End” and it would be back to the baseball bats again.

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So those shows were as violent as the legend tells?

It was getting that way. Not all of them. Towards the end of ‘85, it became the thing to do—go to a Mary Chain show with a metal bat up your sleeve. It was getting silly. We didn’t want that. It’s not something we had planned and we were worried someone was going to get seriously hurt. So we went away for a while and hoped that people would forget about the riot shows. And it worked. We came back in ’86 and it seemed like a different thing.

Is it interesting now to play to more mellow, older, mature audiences 30 years later?

Yeah, but it’s been that way for a while. On non-Psychocandy tours, we’d gotten used to the fact that it wasn’t just a bunch of little lunatics running around. That’s long since gone.

What did you use to create that distorted sound that made this album so different and distinctive? Did you have an arsenal of guitar pedals?

There was one particular fuzz pedal that we had at that time. There was this guy who lived up the road from us and he sold us a fuzz pedal for a fiver and he thought he was ripping us off. It seemed like it was broken and then when we plugged it in it was like 15 jumbo jets. He was kind of running away with his five quid thinking “oh I sold these idiots a broken fuzz pedal.” But we were like, “fucking hell.” You plug this thing in and it would start to play by itself, you know what I mean? So we immediately went out to try and get as many of these pedals as we could. I think it was called Shin-ei. It was some kind of Japanese pedal. We snapped them up and that became the Jesus and Mary Chain sound for years.

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With all the new technology out there, do you play it differently now?

It’s more or less the same. All of the old ones more or less bit the dust. But then we bought some more of those Shin-ei pedals online and we’re using them now.

Did you guys really flip a coin early on to see who would be the singer? Is that a true story?

[Laughs] Yes, that is actually true. I didn’t want to do it and he didn’t want to do it. We are both really quite shy people. People always had these assumptions that we were pretty outgoing and things like that, but we were quite timid and shy. So I didn’t want to do it; he didn’t want to do it. So we flipped a coin and I lost. So I became the singer. Then when I started to get a lot of attention, shall we say, he became very jealous of that and we had another fight over the singing thing again. Of course now he wanted to do it. I was like, “no I’m the singer now so bugger off.” And that was that.

Lots of people say you paved the way for distortion and the waves of bands to follow. Who did you get your initial inspiration from?

The obvious thing to say is the Velvet Underground. We were listening to the Velvets quite a lot at that time. But the big influence on us at the time is we were listing to 60’s garage music. We’ve said it before, but we were listening to Einsturzende Neubauten and the noise bands, but we were also listening to 60’s girl bands like the Shangri-Las. I remember having a conversation with William and saying, “wouldn’t it be great if Neubauten had songs like the Shangri-Las. We thought, “Whoa let’s do it.” And that became the blueprint for the band.

Does it give you a sense or pride to hear that bands are influenced by you? Or do you feel like you have been ripped off?

I haven’t heard anyone that is an out and out pastiche. That would be pointless and I would find that rather irritating. I hear bands sometimes that have picked up some of our influence, but that’s fine. That’s what it’s all about. We got ours from the Velvets and the Stooges. It’s all there for the taking. You have to be careful that it’s not an outright emulation. You have to put your own personality in there as well.

Tell me about what John Peel meant to the band and his role in your initial success.

At the time there was nowhere to go with music. There was nowhere to take it. With the way record labels were, it was hard to get exposure anywhere. Here you have John Peel on national radio that would get a band like the Mary Chain a session. He would bring you in, you’d play four tracks and he would play them for several nights in a row. It was just amazing to us. We had no record deal. We played a string of shows, but basically nobody knew us. And this guy gives you an opportunity like this. John Peel… there was no one like him and there’s been no one like him since. He was incredibly important to the British music scene at that time.

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Do you remember the point where the band went from being a hobby to a career?

It kind of happened over night for us. From the get go, Mary Chain gigs were not the kind of shows you went to and forgot about the next day. There was an extreme reaction. The old love or hate thing. Very few people went, “That was okay.” People either thought we were the best band in the world or they’d be waiting on the side of the stage to beat the living shit out of you. There was no in between it seemed. With that in mind we thought we had kind of hit on something here. I remember there was one gig we played in London. The usual chaos and confusion occurred and we buggered off to do this Creation Records tour of Germany. When we got back, that gig had been reviewed in both the NME and The Sound. The Sound said we were the worst band they’d ever seen…ever. And NME said we were the best band since the Sex Pistols and a mix of the Sex Pistols and Joy Division. That was it. We knew there and then that there would be guys in Armani suits coming with checkbooks. Sure as hell, there were.

When I look at the old interviews you guys did for TV, you had a very disenchanted demeanor. Was that an act? Was it youth?

It wasn’t staged. It had to do with being young and being awkward. It was lacking confidence and trying to look incredibly confident. That’s what it was really. We didn’t know how to present ourselves. We just compensated for that. When I look back at those old videos now, I cringe quite a bit. It’s part of growing up.

Early on, with the volume and noise, did you have a negative reaction from venues? And did that change when you became accepted into the mainstream?

There was no kind of period where we were playing and then we were successful. On the Psychocandy tour, I remember there were a lot of PA companies that wouldn’t rent us any equipment because there had been some incidents.

ww-1When you look back at the songs now? Are you still excited about them? Are there ones you don’t like play? Are you nervous that you will you get tired of playing these songs every night?

It may, and if it does we’ll stop doing it. But I imagine there’s a ways to go before we get to that point. I remember for a while we used to do “April Skies” at every show. We did it because we thought people expected us to. After awhile, I couldn’t stand the fucking song. So one day I said, “Let’s not do ‘April Skies’” and everyone agreed. Now I quite enjoy doing it again. If it gets to that point we’ll move on and do something else instead.

What’s your favorite Jesus and Mary Chain record?

I don’t know. I don’t have one. Although I don’t have a favorite record, I feel like I still want to bring Munki to people’s attention. It’s the one that got overlooked. It came out at a time when the Mary Chain were falling apart. It came out at a time when we were considered to be uncool. We were considered to be yesterday’s news… at least in the UK. But that one got overlooked and I think it’s at least as good as the other records. I would just love it if it picked up some momentum.

Right after Psychocandy and pioneering that distortion, you immediately went with a quieter sound. Did that have any backlash? When you considered following up Psychocandy was that always how you imagined you’d do it?

At the time we just didn’t know what to do. There’s a two year gap between Psychocandy and Darklands and we just thought what next. There was a vibe in Britain at the time where people thought we shouldn’t ruin it and we should split up and just leave it at that. I thought, “Fuck that.” We want to make more records. But we were generally confused as to what direction to go it. We just knew we didn’t want to make Psychocandy 2 if you know what I mean. So we did something totally different, something that absolutely, unmistakably is NOT Psychocandy. So that was that one. Plus people were always talking about the guitar sound and not the songs, so we thought we should push the songs. That was the thinking really. It was also the bold thing to do. The easy thing to do would be to do another Psychocandy. And we did take a lot of flak for that at the time.

How were the songs written? Did you have your songs and he had his? Did you collaborate?

Well we never really wrote together. We would write together on the b-sides at the studio. He had his songs. And he was always more prolific than me. By the time we got to Darklands, he was in the driver’s seat and I was happy about that. For a long time, I thought as long as a good Mary Chain record is coming out, I don’t care who writes them.

You guys released one song called “All Things Must Pass” back in 2008 with the tease of a potential forthcoming Mary Chain record. Is there one in the works?

We are closer now to making a new Mary Chain record than we ever were. When we got back together we just didn’t know where and how to record a new record. At that time my kids were quite young and I didn’t want to disappear for months on end to make a new album. Then there was also how to record it. William wanted to do it in a studio and I thought we should just make it ourselves with ProTools. Now my kids are a little older and its not as nightmarish as it once seemed. It’s looking good.

What do your children think of you music?

They’re still quite young. They are 8 and 12. They’ve gone from being quite embarrassed to—I wouldn’t say proud—but kind of getting that way. They don’t really get it. They came with me to a festival in Spain and they were astounded that anyone would ask for my autograph.

The Band Who Helped Define Punk and Refused to Live Within Its Confines: 40 Years of the Stranglers

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While punk rock veterans and astute audiophiles are no strangers to the Stanglers’ punk pedigree, the band feels as though they’ve never received their due respect in America—to the point they even started ignoring us.

Their new record, “Giants”, was released in the US this May, but has already been out in Europe for a year. And their North American tour, which starts next week, will be their first in 17 years.

If the Sex Pistols gave a snarling face and attitude to the genre while the Clash and Ramones would go on to define its boundaries of sound, the Stranglers’ legacy lies in their longevity and diversity. They preceded the previously mentioned bands, and their music never stopped— it only progressed.

With a career spanning 17 records and closing in on 40 years, perhaps the term “punk” is just too simplistic and vague to describe the band’s vast catalogue. Their sound has always been far more complex and diverse than the three-chord, two-minute anthems of their contemporaries. With classics as disparate as the bass-heavy rumble and crass spoken-word, “Peaches”, to their sinister harpsichord waltz, “Golden Brown”, the Stranglers’ never subscribed to a specific attitude or formulaic sound.

I was lucky enough to catch up with founder/songwriter/bassist JJ Burnel over the phone to preview his recent North American tour. Cynical and smart, his attitude provided the perfect and appropriate repartee for a seminal punk pioneer still hacking away at socio-political boundaries. For the privvy, the punks and the poseurs alike, I give you JJ Burnel.

So the new record comes out next week in America. Is it already out in Europe?

Yes, it’s been out in Europe for a year.

Wow! Why was there a delay for it getting to America?

We didn’t consider releasing it in the States until people asked us if they could release it in the States and North America. We’ve accepted and we’ve accepted to come and play in North America as well. I’m not sure which came first. And for once we’ve accepted.

Why is America still the last frontier for you guys? Why has America been off the grid?

Well we’ve just been doing other things you know. It’s been quite a few years since we’ve toured the States and we’ve been offered a few tours, but we didn’t feel ready for it or didn’t feel like it. And now we do. The band is very strong at the moment and we’ve been breaking records all over the UK and we’ve just been asked to do the BBC London Proms, which I don’t know if you know about…

I was just reading about that actually.

Yes, it’s quite a big deal over here actually. We feel in a good way and accepted to come over to America. It’s not the be-all end-all, you know. Also we’ve never really busted our balls in America. It’s wonderful and we’re very excited to come over to the other side of the pond. 

Do you remember the last time you played America?

I think it was 17 years ago.

Wow, do you remember any specific times from Boston or New York?

No, I remember I have played in America since then. I played with my friend Pat DiNizio, a member of the Smithereens, an American band. And he invited me to do a tour with him. It was a good education for me and I must say I learned a lot from that bloke, but no its exciting and so long ago, it’s almost like I’m a virgin.

[UNINTENTIONAL] Is it harder? Is it a bigger commitment to go on tour you’re your drummer being over 70 and your ages?

Well, you are being very diplomatic, the drummer Jet doesn’t travel with us any more. He plays with us occasionally, when his health can stand up to it. But for instance these past two UK tours, which were quite extensive, he was only able to come in for a few songs. The fans and the band are very happy to see him but he’s not really part of the touring party. To be diplomatic as well, he… well… he lived the rock n roll lifestyle a bit too much. The rest of us, we’re fine.

Did the Stanglers ever officially break up or was there just a periodic break?

We have NEVER ever split up. We have continuously been busy, but we have had 6-12 months sabbatical because we had other things to do. There is life outside of the Stranglers fortunately, and that’s what gives us our freshness and zest to continue. You don’t live in a musical vacuum. I think you’d have nothing to say. Plus, we been learning and absorbing different influences past and present along the way. I’d hate to think we were on an assembly line, you know?

Right. You guys are continually grouped into the category of punk. Where do you think you fit into the punk rock lexicon, and is that too simple of a word to describe the band?

Well, the term is interesting because it has meant more for us over the years. The first time it was used it was a bit of a broad church, I think the first time I heard it used was 1975-76. I’m not sure if that was the reason we were the first band asked to play with Patti Smith in Europe or the first band ever to the play with the Ramones in Europe, but the term quickly got ambushed by fundamentalism, and it started to describe a much narrower field than I was able to accept. Joe Strummer of the Clash used to come see us regularly when he was in a rhythm and blues band and certainly the Pistols were coming to see us before they started their bands. I’m not sure if we really subscribed to their philosophies, but certainly we were slightly ahead of the game, and of that whole generation of bands we were definitely the first. I hate to interject, but we’ve actually outsold the Pistols in the 70’s. But we didn’t do the big American thing. We didn’t want to do 9 months in America. That wasn’t our agenda.

What does “Freedom is Insane” [the title of a track on your new record] mean to you?

“Freedom is Insane” is… have you heard it?

I have, yes.

Generally speaking it’s about the West and how it supposes its vision called democracy, and it imposes it on the whole world, when it actually isn’t appropriate. We’ve taken 2000 years to get to something we call “approaching democracy” and however, people in other countries have no concept of it and it breeds a kind of mischief that we are sort of inheriting now. I mean attacking in Iraq and Afghanistan, did it really make the world a safer place? I don’t think so. We impose this Western vision on the world by force of arms and we harvest the results. I don’t think it’s well thought out. So, freedom is insane. I’ve put myself in the position of an Iraqi veteran who is on a desert island and who does not want to be liberated. We thought they were going in as liberators and they were thought of as conquerors or invaders. There are heavy losses of life as well. I think the invasion of Iraq was more revenge of the Twin Towers more than anything, and of course American public opinion was in favor of it and the Allies were in favor of it, but they didn’t really think it through. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think that is how it is. It’s like Robinson Crusoe, but the opposite—he doesn’t want to be liberated.

Would you say this is one of your more political albums?

No, it might be for you, but no. I’m not trying to ram it down people’s throats. The Stranglers have always written about the world that we live in. I think that it’s our right and prerogative. If the world was just a bedroom where I was fucking, or a blingy thingy, it would be appropriate that way. But we have a “world view” like anyone. Even a cab driver has a “world view”, and no one’s “world view” is less valuable than the next man’s. Maybe some are less informed, but we try to stay informed and have an opinion. We try to approach it in terms that people will listen to it. I wouldn’t say we are more political than usual on this one though.

Is it strange being defined by charts and singles? Has it changed in Europe like it’s changed in America– for the worst?

In the past it was, but now the charts mean ‘fuck all’ right now. I don’t know who they serve and they have less value than ever right now. We managed to sell out more than anyone else in the UK last year and this year without getting really any huge chart action or even being played a lot. Maybe there’s some sort of resurgence in underground, or maybe it’s a reflection of the fact that people can find out and access music in different ways now. They’re not spoonfed anymore. So if we don’t get much radio play and people still know about us, it must reflect something else. Also, people don’t necessarily want to be spoonfed. Some people do, but more inquiring minds want to find out from themselves.

How did the US release come to be? Is this a different record label?

I believe it is. And yes, I believe they did. This last album for some strange reason had the best reviews ever in the history of the Stranglers from Day 1. So, I think a few people must have sat up and taken notes outside of the places it was released. We had a very successful European tour and also doing 15 different countries, so someone may have noticed.

What do you feel about the rebirth or re-education of a song based on movies like Snatch? I know much of my generation found out about you through “Golden Brown” when it played such a key part in a movie role. What do you think about the cultural impact of something like that on your past career?

I think in a roundabout way you’ve sort of answered your own question. Don’t you think?

Yeah, but is it something that you’ve noticed too?

Yeah, I mean it’s great from my point of view, but a song, which has been hugely successful all over the world, gets recycled. I mean lots of songs get recycled. If you have a song that’s obscure, it has less of a shelf life. But if a record that’s slightly successful or highly successful then it gets played. I mean the dictatorship of the airwaves and the commercial imperative kind of obscures the fact that there’s a lot of talent out there that doesn’t get played. There are a lot of artists out there struggling to make a living and maybe even to be heard. And it’s not even a reflection on the quality of their output, it’s on the powers that be that dictate what gets played and what gets get exposed. Of course I’m pleased that a song like “Golden Brown” got played in a movie like Snatch. I wasn’t even aware that the movie had been released in America… it’s great.

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What does the cover of the new “Giants” record signify to you?

Well, you have seen the artwork?! Well if I tell you I will have to kill you [laughs]. Is that an option? You don’t really want me to spoonfeed you anything? You wanted a shortcut.

What do you think the Stranglers legacy is and will be?

Well that’s what the French call nominalism…”bellybuttonism”. It’s something that I really don’t spend any time thinking about. But it is perhaps something that journalists and commentators will mire over if we’re lucky and talk about. But we’re still alive and kicking, so the legacy can wait a bit longer.

What do you do when you’re not focused on music and the Stranglers?

I teach in London. I am the chief instructor in the UK of Shotokan Karate. I also love to ride my motorcycle around the UK and Europe, because I can. But the Stranglers are quite busy. Last year we played God knows how many countries– maybe 20 countries. The fact that it’s taken all this time for the US to seduce us back is more a reflection on you guys than with us to be honest.

Did you headline the last time you were in the US?

Yeah, we headlined, but I think it’s a bit pretentious for some of the small places we played. Some are a bit bigger than others, but it’s such a vast country, the U S of A—some places you are virtually unknown and some places you are hailed as a star. Especially when you haven’t really worked it so much, every state is almost like a different country isn’t it.

Thanks I look forward to the show. Thanks for taking the time.

Oh thank you very much. Hey, do you know where we’re playing in Boston? What’s the venue like in Boston? Do you know remember or heard of the Rat? Or is it still going? Because that is very first place we ever played the first time we played America. Look it’s been a pleasure speaking to you.

Well I look forward to seeing you.

Well we’ll be there. So if you’re not there I reckon you’ll be somewhere else.