The Agit Reader

The Jesus and Mary Chain

April 4th, 2024  |  by Stephen Slaybaugh

The Jesus and Mary Chain

It’s hard to think of a band in the last 40 years that has been more incendiary than The Jesus and Mary Chain. After making their way from East Kilbride (Scotland) to London, they became infamous for gigs that often ended in riots. However, it was their music that was truly arresting. After first putting out a single on the legendary Creation label, they released their debut album, Psychocandy, in 1985. The record’s mix of sculpted feedback and dreamy melodies was an ear-shattering revelation on par with the Velvet Underground & Nico that subsequently influenced generations of shoegazers to follow. The band had seemingly channeled Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound through a filter of punk and post-punk aesthetics, creating something at once shrill, achingly beautiful, and cool as fuck.

Unfortunately, the relationship between the band’s principals, brothers William and Jim Reid, was to become as tumultuous as those early gigs, and they became notorious for rows that would make the Gallagher brothers blush. Nevertheless, they managed to follow Psychocandy with another five records, each different than the last and some nearly as brilliant as the debut, before finally imploding onstage in 1998 and disbanding.

Fortunately, a large offer from Coachella (and as detailed below, their mother) got the brothers to make amends and reunite in 2007, resulting in more live performances and eventually a new album, 2017’s Damage and Joy, that showed the band returning to form. Last month, they released Glasgow Eyes, a record that takes several lefthand turns into electronics and commemorates their implosion on its lead single, “jamcod.” I caught up with William via Zoom to talk about the new album and the band’s rocky past and smoother present.

You are in Tucson, right?

WR: Yeah, I live just outside of Tucson.

And you’ve been in America for a long time, right?

WR: Yeah, I was on a green card for like 20 years. Then Stephen Miller, a little Nazi that works for Trump, started talking about deporting people on green cards, so I became a citizen. Can’t you tell by my accent?

So you and Jim don’t live in Scotland any more, but you recorded this new record in Glasgow. Any particular reason to go to Glasgow?

WR: Jim lives in Devon, which is in the south of England, and when I’m in Europe, I stay in Dublin, as my wife has a house there. So we decided to go somewhere in the middle and decided on Glasgow because we could see old friends and family while we were there. When we started in October 2019, we had a really bad experience with a studio in Scotland, where we recorded five or six of the tracks, and the studio lost them. That was a pretty painful false start. Then lockdown happened, and we were shut out for another year or so. Then Stuart Braithwaite from Mogwai, who’s a friend, said, “Why don’t you come to our studio? We’ll give you a great deal, and it’s a great studio. And it’s in Glasgow.” So that’s what we did. It is a great studio with great vibes.

I was curious about the title of the record, Glasgow Eyes. I mean, is there such a thing as having Glasgow eyes? Is it like Bette Davis eyes?

WR: I liked calling it Glasgow Eyes because “aye” in Scotland is yes. So it’s a phonetic sort of pun. But I think Jim seems to think it means something sinister. Glasgow people are known in Scotland for being a bit rowdy and violent. I don’t know if it’s true.

I’ve been on the streets of Glasgow on the weekends.

WR: Yeah, it’s a bit crazy, isn’t it? So I think Jim thinks it’s more like that, like Glasgow eyes, which are kind of half-closed, sinister, and staring. But I see it as more like Glasgow ayes. Maybe I’m more positive than him, I don’t know.

Coming up, did you guys feel much of an affinity with what was going on in Scotland as far as music, either at the same time or before you?

WR: Yeah, when we started in ’84, there was a pretty good scene in Glasgow. There was The Pastels and Strawberry Switchblade and Primal Scream. But we were never part of it. Our first gig was in London. Bobby Gillespie had heard that demo tape and gave it to Alan McGee and he offered us a gig in London, and we kind of went from there. As much as I love Glasgow, in my twenties, London was the place to be. Everything happens in London.

I saw this documentary on the Fast Product label and the guy introducing it said something to the effect of, “You are welcome. Scotland produces more incredible music per capita than anywhere else in the world.”

WR: That’s true.

I think it’s true as well. What do you account for that?

WR: Well, people in Scotland are obsessed with music. Growing up, there were always parties at people’s houses, where people would sing a song. You’d go around and everybody would sing a song. There’s a huge love for getting in there. Who else was good.. Fire Engines, and oh my god, I forget the name of the band. They sang “Molly’s Lips.”

The Vaselines.

WR: Yeah, there you go, The Vaselines. So there was a great thing going on back in the ’80s with Scottish bands, but as I said, I guess we became a London band.

Obviously, you and your brother both ended up in a band together and your sister is also musical as well. So did you have a musical upbringing then?

WR: Not really. There weren’t any musical instruments lying around. There wasn’t a guitar, there wasn’t a piano or anything. But I was talking to somebody who asked, “When you were growing up, did you rebel against your parents’ music?” I know that’s typical, but that’s not how me and Jim were. I loved my parents’ music! They were into Patsy Cline and Jim Reeves and Johnny Cash and Dean Martin and Nat King Cole. I loved all that stuff. It’s like, you love music or you don’t. I’ve never thought of wearing music as a badge like this is how cool I am or whatever. If I were to do that, people would probably think I was incredibly uncool. When we started the band, we loved stuff like Einsturzende Neubauten, DAF, and all that noise stuff. But we also loved Dusty Springfield and Burt Bacharach. In 1977, you would see me with my short hair and my tight trousers jumping around to The Clash and the Sex Pistols, but then the next song would be like Peter Frampton or the Eagles. I find me and Jim—and I’m speaking for him because I know him—we always just thought, if you like music, you like it. Now that I’m a punk, that doesn’t mean I’m going to stop loving the Eagles or the Doobie Brothers or Lynyrd Skynyrd. All these old guys, they’re still fucking brilliant to me and just because The Clash is my new favorite band doesn’t mean I’m not going to listen to my lovely ’70s soft American rock.

I’m assuming that’s what “The Eagles and the Beatles” song is about.

WR: Yeah. And I know it doesn’t mention the Eagles in the song, but that’s because I had another verse. There were too many verses, so one had to go, and it had to be that one. And then the title didn’t make sense anymore, but I just liked the title.

You guys often write about rock & roll directly, like address it as a subject. Does it signify more to you than just music? Obviously, your identity is tied up in it to a certain degree.

WR: Well, rock & roll in 2024, is just music. But in 1984, it was more than that. It was your whole life. It was your lifestyle. It was everything. It was all-encompassing. Music was a lot more important in people’s lives. And also, things were so rare. If you knew there was a TV show that was going to play a clip of the New York Dolls, you would run home and be sitting in front of your TV waiting to see the New York Dolls. Now if you want to see the New York Dolls practicing in 1972, there’s probably something on YouTube. You know what I mean? If you want to see Brian Jones at home watching TV, there’s probably a clip on YouTube. You can get everything there. There’s no finding a 7-inch single and keeping it close to your chest and going, “I can’t believe I’ve got this.” I feel like kids have missed out, to be honest. They have too much.

Yeah, for us it was getting something from your side of the pond over here, like, “Oh my god, I’ve got the ‘Upside Down’ 7-inch!”

WR: Wouldn’t it be great to be like 18 right now and know everything that you’re going to find out about? What were we talking about?

We were talking about how you’ve addressed rock & roll directly in your songs.

WR: I don’t think we’re scared to put our influences on our sleeves or to give shout-outs to our heroes. I think we’ve always done that.

Bo Diddley is Jesus.

WR: Yeah, I mean, why not? Music gave me everything. It gave me my life. And it’s still important to me after all these years. I’d be lying if I said I was still as passionate about anything the way I was when I was 25, though.

I don’t know if this is too much information, but your music holds a special place because I lost my virginity to Psychocandy.

WR: Oh my gosh. The whole album or just one song?

I’m sure it wasn’t the whole album! As much as I’d like to say it was to “Just Like Honey,” it probably wasn’t as that’s the first song. When you made that record, did you feel like you had made something monumental when you completed it?

WR: Yes, I’ll be honest, we did. When we were making it, I felt like we were making something pretty important. I think it took people by surprise because people had criticized our B-sides. I think people thought Psychocandy was going to be a pretty patchy record. In our minds, every single song was good. There wasn’t any filler. I remember Alan McGee and Dick Green from Creation came down to the studio, and when we played them “Just Like Honey,” their jaws dropped. That was the first time I knew that it wasn’t just us and our engineer who thought we were doing a real good job.

Was the task of then following that record up kind of daunting?

WR: It should have been. It really should have been, but when you’re young and full of yourself, you don’t really know too much. But I know the record company was wanting a record like this [snaps his fingers]. They were like, “This Psychocandy thing is a hit, you should be reigning in on it.” And we’re like, “Eh, don’t know… we don’t want to do this sound again.” And yeah, we didn’t want to do that sound again.

It did take us a couple of years, which I guess in the mid-80s was a long time because bands were making albums pretty quickly. Two years was like what Prince got away with, what Bruce Springsteen got away with. The only real anxiety I had about it was from my mother. Our mother would call us up and say, “People are going to forget about you! When are you going to put out a new record?”

“We’re doing it, Ma! We’re writing songs!”

“You’ve got to put out a single or they’ll forget about you!”

And that was really the only anxiety. That and maybe a couple of notes from the record saying, “What’s happening?” But we got a lot of freedom from that record company, I’ve got to admit. It could have been a lot different, but we did get a lot more freedom than people would expect you to get from a multinational corporation. And partly that is because we were on Blanco y Negro. So we had Geoff Travis basically in the middle, and he had promised us from the beginning—and he did keep his word—that we would never be made to sound like something we didn’t like. We did a thing with Stephen Street—no, it wasn’t Stephen Street, it was some big-time producer in the mid-80s. We did a version of “Hardest Walk” with him, and oh my god, everybody loved it: the record company and everybody. They were going to release it as a single, but we didn’t like it. It didn’t matter who the fucking big-time producer was. It didn’t matter what they were telling us, we just didn’t like it. I’ll give them their due: Geoff Travis and Rob Dickins (of Warner Music) never forced us to do anything like that.

Obviously, Darklands isn’t nearly as noisy as Psychocandy, so in some ways, it’s a more palatable record. It would have been funny if they didn’t like it because they wanted more of the abrasive stuff.

WR: We gave them a hit single with “April Skies,” so they were pretty pleased with Darklands. I think they were pretty pleased when we said we were listening to Van Morrison and this and that.

Going back to the new record, it’s interesting that you made the electronic record after working with Flood on the last one. What the impetus was for going in that electronic direction?

WR: We just wanted to not be using guitars all the time. I think we’ll probably go even further on the next record because I bought a bunch of synthesizers and I’m liking it. We’ve always used keyboards and synthesizers, but it’s never really been a feature. So going forward, I would like to do that.

Are there things on the album that are guitars that people might mistake for electronics?

WR: Yeah, “Silver Strings,” that is all guitars, but a couple of people have asked me, “What’s playing that arpeggio thing? Is that a synth? What sample did you use?” But it’s me playing an acoustic guitar, miced very close, very damp.

And you did the artwork for the record?

WR: I did. It’s something that happened during lockdown when the whole world took about a year off. It was kind of boring, so I would sit at night with my iPad and smoke a joint or two. I started using these drawing and Photoshop apps and all these graphic apps, just messing around with stuff. I realized, “Hey, I like this! This is kind of cool. You can lie on your bed and smoke a joint and play around with images and come up with stuff.” Some of it’s not bad, so we decided to use it on the record.

When you first got the band back together, what was your thinking then? Did you think it was going to be just a one-off or were you anticipating it continuing?

WR: What happened was my mother was visiting me in Los Angeles for Christmas 2006. And she hated me and Jim being estranged, being unfriendly to each other. You know, these are her two boys! So we got an offer at Christmas from Coachella, and my mother said we should do it. I said, “Well, I don’t know. We’re arguing all the time.” And meanwhile, she’s phoning Jim saying, “Are you going to do this? They’re offering you an awful lot of money and you’d be stupid not to do it. What happens in 10 years time, when you’re broke and you look back? Why don’t you talk to him?” And then to me, “Why don’t you talk to him?” And I’m like, “I don’t like to talk to him. I know it’s a lot of money, Ma, but we may just make fools of ourselves in front of a lot of people.” You know, it’d been nine years that we’d been away.

Then Tom Waits backed out from Coachella—he had to do something else—so they doubled their offer to half a million dollars, and my mother just went nuts. She just said, “Yous are doing this, right?! Yous are doing it! It’s a lot of money!”

“I know it is, Ma, but you don’t understand. There’s going to be like 50,000 people there. And even if we get a lot of money, we might ruin the history of the band by just being so bad.”

It wasn’t just that me and Jim were fighting. There was also this lack of confidence because we’d been away a while, and I didn’t know if I could do it. I didn’t know if for the first gig in nine years I could stand in front of however fucking many people at the Coachella big stage. Why did it have to be so big?

So anyway, me and Jim got on the phone, and we were like, “Oh, it’s a lot of money, isn’t it? A lot of money for one gig, so why don’t we do it? But what if we’re terrible? I know, what if we’re terrible?” We started to bond over the fact that it was terrifying. So we said yes, and it was terrifying. I remember lying in bed at night thinking, “What the fuck have we done?” Really I thought we were going to be just so bad that it would be in the rock & roll history books about how this band played Coachella and everybody laughed and jeered. But it never happened that way. People thought we were pretty good. And we never fought. We had disagreements, but what I found after nine years was that there was a maturity to us. We had children for a start. Nine years ago, we never had children. We had cocaine and whiskey, and we were fighting. Nine years later, there are disagreements, but you don’t need to start screaming at somebody. You don’t need to start right away calling somebody a fucking asshole. You can say, “You know what? I don’t really think that’s right.” And we started to bond a bit more. But that show was terrifying. We did do a warm up the night before at the Glass House in Orange County. Oh my god, that was so bad. Everything went wrong. My pedals went fucked up. I forgot all my guitar parts, the sound was terrible, and the band was awful. We went to Coachella expecting to implode, and not in an emotional “I want to fight you” way, but like my pedals don’t work and I’m playing all the wrong guitar parts. But it went well. The pedals worked perfectly and we all played fucking fantastic. So there you go.

A lot has been made over the years about your and Jim’s relationship. I’m surprised your mom never stepped in earlier.

WR: Well, she did. She was always there. My mother and my sister just hated me and Jim being estranged. We had always fought, but we never stopped speaking to each other for years. That had never happened, and then it did. And it was kind of sad because we went through a lot together, staring the band. It was a shame, especially as we had young children, and they weren’t meeting each other at the beginning. But my sister and my mother were always there, always there trying to be the glue.

Was it always personality conflicts or were there creative differences as well?

WR: It was both. Do you have any brothers or siblings?

I have a younger brother and sister.

WR: Yeah, and you’re not polite because you’ve grown up together. There’s no politeness with siblings. You don’t say, “Excuse me, do you mind?” You don’t talk like that, so there’s a civility breakdown. And if you’re drinking whiskey—with me, it was Jack Daniels and weed, and with Jim, it was whiskey and cocaine—and you’re in those frames of mind, things get really, really exaggerated. You find yourself screaming in each other’s faces about whether there should be reverb on a snare drum. It was kind of pathetic. When we were all finished, during those nine years, I would look back and think, “Why did we let these things get in our way, these alcoholic stupors? Why did we not just say, ‘Look, let’s talk about this when we’re sober? Let’s not fight over a guitar part or a snare part or whatever when we’re obviously fucked up and impaired.’” But that didn’t happen when we came back in 2007. We said no drinking or drugs before the show. After the show, you do what the fuck you want. You can go into an alcoholic coma as long as you’re there for the bus the next morning. So it got a lot easier. I mean, I don’t want to fight with him. I really don’t. I want it to be smooth sailing because I love him. He’s my brother. And I respect him as a musician, just like he does me.

So how long after Coachella before you decided you were going to keep going?

WR: Probably the day after. Our manager started lining things up. I don’t remember, but we were pretty busy that year and the year after. It was quite good because I missed it. I missed traveling the world. You don’t know you’re going to miss it until you’re stuck in the same place all the time, and then you’re reading about bands, bands that are still going on, and you’re like, “God, I wish I could go on a tour of Japan.” You know, that used to be my life, and then suddenly it was again. And the second time around, there was a lot less anxiety. I wouldn’t say it was better, but there definitely was a lot less chaos.

The Munki record was recently reissued, which was your last record before you guys split. How would you have felt if that was your swan song?

WR: I loved it. I thought Munki was a really good album, even though Jim and I were hating each other. It was a terrible, terrible time when it was being made, but I still think it’s a great album. It’s one of our best, and if that was the last one, then that would have been a good way to say adios.

Obviously, it didn’t get a lot of attention or love during its day.

WR: No, the sales were ridiculously low. Maybe we would have stuck around if it was a big hit, but it wasn’t. With Jim and I fighting plus the alcohol and the drugs and all that, and then the album didn’t get great reviews and didn’t sell well, it just felt like, “Fuck it, this Jesus and Mary Chain thing has gone as far as it could go.” And then when we had that ridiculous fight at the House of Blues, It just seemed like it’d run its course. My plan was to go to America and make music. I knew a lot of musicians in Los Angeles, but once I got there, it took me a couple of years even to think about making music again. It was like PTSD.

I was having a conversation with somebody recently and they were saying how it’s an easy life that I’ve got. I was trying to tell them, you don’t know the psychological torture that goes on. Everybody who’s in a band and has a hit is thinking, “How long is this going to last?” Unless you’re selling 20 million albums, there is this feeling that you’re walking on a tightrope that somebody could just come along and push you off. There is an awful lot of psychological stress because you have an audience. When you’re making your first record, you don’t have an audience, so you don’t give a fuck. But then for your second record, you’re in this thing called “the business.” And then you get phone calls from your mother telling you, “Ooh, the world’s passing you by! Echo and the Bunnymen have a new record and you haven’t put one out!” I’ve worked in factories—I’ve done real actual physical hard work—but it’s nothing like being in a fucking band. That psychological torture can destroy a weaker person.

Do you think that the tension between you and Jim also fed into the music and perhaps fueled it in a positive way?

WR: I think so, yeah. But like I said, when we were drinking and drugging in the ’90s, little things would never be resolved. But what’s always been there when we’re not wasted is knowing what’s best for the team. There’s really no arguing if I come along and say to Jim, “That bassline should be replaced,” and he played the bassline. He’s not going to get his nose out of joint. If he’s sober and I’m sober, he’s going to listen to me. That’s what we’ve always done. The band comes first. Obviously, if you’re a musician, you have a huge ego—anybody who creates anything has a huge ego—but we’re a team, and the team comes first.

Do you see The Jesus and Mary Chain continuing to go on indefinitely?

WR: I think we’ll stop when we know it’s not good. I don’t think I want to make an album where I don’t like the songs or don’t think the songs are good enough. I don’t ever want to be in that position. If we make a record and and we don’t think it’s up to scratch, that’ll be the time when we stop.

You mentioned worrying about tainting the reputation of the band coming back to play at Coachella. Do you feel like you have a legacy that you need to live up to?

WR: I don’t think we need to live up to a legacy. It’s not one of these things you really think about. Yeah, we thought about it with Coachella, but that was different. It was nine years away, baby rearing and getting a potbelly, and then suddenly you have to be a rockstar again. It was very weird, but great.

We were talking about Darklands coming after Psychocandy and how that was a change. Then Automatic after Darklands was another shift, and obviously this new record is a shift from from your past. So it seems like you’ve always been fearless as far as challenging your fans. Do you have that expectation, like if you want to like this band, you’ve got to go where we want to go?

WR: Isn’t that the same way with every band really? I don’t think you can be led by your fans because otherwise we’d have been doing like seven Psychocandys with each one getting progressively worse. I want to be interested in the music and what that means is writing interesting songs. I think, “Would I buy this album? Would I be still into this Mary Chain band if I was a fan?” And I’m thinking, I would. I think I would enjoy this journey that these two Scottish fools are taking me on.

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