Punk Cosmic Consciousness: a conversation with Bobby Gillespie

Punk Cosmic Consciousness: a conversation with Bobby Gillespie of Primal Scream

At 55 Bobby Gillespie may have put the more hedonistic elements of his lifestyle behind him, but fuelled by the attitude of punk and feral energy of rock ‘n’ roll he’s every bit the maniac of yore. Delivered in a heavy Glaswegian accent, his words come thick with the conviction that music is more than just an object of consumption, it’s something lived. A sickly intoxicating cocktail of lofty idealism and the fractured innocence of youth.

As a formative member of The Jesus and Mary Chain, Gillespie contributed percussion to the 1985 noise pop masterwork Psychocandy.

But no sooner had the Scottish outfit delivered the iconic record was Bobby exiting the group to focus upon his own project Primal Scream. After breaking away from the brothers Reid, third recording Screamadelica crossed over from indie rock to the hypnotic rhythms of rave, ambitiously seized upon the blissed-out zeitgeist of its time. Even in 2017 it continues to endure as a landmark album, documenting a full-tilt collision of Madchester rave, acid house and psychedelia.

But this was just the beginning. With each new Primal Scream album that follows comes a flash of compulsive energy.

Looking back upon the early days of the group, Bobby notes that there was no Machiavellian strategy for success. Following the “lifestyle changes” afforded by Screamadelica, Primal’s increasingly elaborate studio efforts became littered with high profile guest appearances. When questioned on the nature of these collaborations, Gillespie clarifies that any inclusion of external talent, as noteworthy as it may be, is more aligned to a traditionalist motive of making a great record rather than selling it.

Dipping into the tripped-out sounds and images which colour his work, Gillespie is at a loss for a concise definition of psychedelia. Instead, he offers a sprawling explanation; a scattered blur of youthful innocence and paranoiac disengagement transcending decade or genre. Something you’re born with, a “punk cosmic consciousness”. He then obliges an extensive setlist for the forthcoming tour, before musing on Richard Hell.

All said this man can talk. We’re just glad we managed to slip some questions in.

bobby gillespie interview happy mag vanessa nguyen
Illustration by Vanessa Nguyen

Having survived the chaotic madness of Primal Scream and the Mary Chain as well as the decadence of the ‘90s, Bobby Gillespie remains a tenacious figure and radical visionary force.

HAPPY: You’ve been active as Primal Scream for a little over three and half decades now…


HAPPY: Did you ever think the band would be something that would run this long?

BOBBY: No, because the original band was, for many years, a day to day sort of thing. You never really knew when the band was going to end. The original band was quite, what’s the word? People were always leaving. When you start out you’re not famous, you’re not making money, you’re playing a few little gigs in pubs or clubs all around the country. Some people stick with that and other guys they just want to leave y’know?

I was also a member of The Jesus and Mary Chain at the same time this thing started. The Mary Chain were doing well! They were fucking touring the world, getting records out and they were getting on TV. Really famous.

It was hard because you couldn’t really compare us to them at that point, but some of the guys in the band must have been making comparisons and thinking, “Oh this isn’t going anywhere!” It was kinda hard to keep a line-up together, we had a lot of changes. We started the band somewhere in ’84, but even in ’84 we never really had a band, it was only three of us. It was Jim Beattie, Robert Young and myself.

Then we got a couple of other musicians and put on a few gigs. The first was at Pub Something in 1984. It changed in 1991 when Screamadelica came out. [laughs] We had a few different lifestyle changes y’know!

HAPPY: From Screamadelica onward, Primal’s albums feature a dizzying array of guest appearances. Names which have cropped up in liner notes have included Jah Wobble, Kate Moss, Warren Ellis, George Clinton, Robert Plant, Sky Ferreira and the Haim sisters. In short, you’ve worked with a lot of very different artists from very different backgrounds. What’s the key to establishing a good collaborative relationship?

BOBBY: Ah, gee. Well, generally when we’re bringing people in the track’s been written and recorded right? So it’s not like you’ve sat and written a song with them. It’s a bit of a sweetener at the end, that’s generally the way it goes. But generally, I guess we know the person. We knew Warren, we were friends with Warren, so we put some cello on Hell’s Coming Down. We wanted a kind of dark country fucking Satanic feel for the track and Warren’s the guy to ask! A friend who can play rock ‘n’ roll, rather than getting some folk person to play it.

Then with the song Elimination Blues Andrew [Innes] kept saying, “I think we need another voice in the song, we need a high voice.” Then we thought Robert Plant would love playing, we’re friends with Robert. He lived like the next street to the studio or something like that. We’d see him in the street! One morning at breakfast he rang through and we said to him, “You should do something for one of the tracks.” He was like “Yeah, yeah! I’ll bring me harmonica, what would you like?” We said, “No, we want you to sing!” He was like, “…Oh.” (laughs) He said, “My girlfriend’s a good singer.” We wanted him!

HAPPY: So he was trying to get out of doing it then?

BOBBY: He was like, “Oh. Alright.” It was just that. Then with Sky Ferreira, I kind of got obsessed with a song of hers, Everything is Embarrassing, a few years back. I just felt like, “God! This girl’s voice is incredible. I’d love to write a song for her.” I started writing Where the Light Gets In six or seven months before we even met her. Eventually, we met her, finished writing the song and it was right. I think the song really suits her character and personality, it’s a kind of dark love song.

But you know back in the ‘70s or ‘60s right? People would play on other people’s records. Eric Clapton would play on a Beatles record or someone would play on one of The Rolling Stones’ albums, but nobody would know. But these days you’ve got to put everybody’s fucking name on the record. It’s great having named guests but for us, we’re just trying to make the record, we’re producing the record. It’s like if you were making a movie and you might get somebody in just to play a character in a scene for three minutes if it helps make the movie.

HAPPY: Has there ever been a collaboration you’ve really wanted, but has never quite come together?

BOBBY: You know what? I really don’t know. As I’ve said they always come down the track. It’s “Robert Plant’s a great harmonica player, let’s get him.” I don’t know anyone who can play harmonica that well, maybe Mick Jagger. Saying that, that’s a good idea. (laughs) I might ask him! That’d be quite cool. Keep that one to yourself. I saw the Stones play in Paris recently and that harmonica playing was just incredible. I mean, my god he’s good. They’re fucking good.

But nah, we’re just trying to write songs and make music. It started with Jah Wobble which was all [Screamadelica producer] Andrew Weatherall’s idea to get him in. It was a genius idea, we were all massive Jah Wobble fans.

From there George Clinton made a guest appearance, but that was way after the fact, after the album had been recorded. For the album Give Out But Don’t Give Up, we’d come up with some problems on that record, it’s a long story. When George got involved, it was way after the fact. George, we asked to remix a couple of tracks as an experiment that’s how that came about.

But later on, we did actually work in the studio with George. That was amazing, incredible! That was a fucking experience, spending a day in a studio in Chicago with George Clinton giving you funk lessons. You know what man? No one can take that away from me! That was an education and you know George ain’t giving funk lessons out to just anybody, you gotta be fucking worthy of that. I’m just gonna say we’re blessed because we’ve worked with some great heroes of ours, it’s been fun.

HAPPY: I’ve always been interested in this element of psychedelia, not just the sounds but also the imagery, which runs through both popular culture and more specifically your work as an artist. What does the term ‘psychedelic’ mean to you? Is it style, a feeling, an emotion?

BOBBY: I think ‘psychedelic’ for me means almost a kind of like a distance from things, a disengagement and that disengagement can be juke and gist. I actually think that there’s a psychedelic consciousness which you are born with or that you recognise when you’re a teenager or you’re in your early twenties and you relate to it.

I think the psychedelic consciousness is kind of a punk cosmic consciousness and it’s got an edge to it. It’s not like peace signs and flowers, it’s more like a paranoid, edgy, schizophrenic disengagement from the world. It’s fear and dread, but also with psychedelia, it’s almost like there’s this kind of sound of the innocence in those psychedelic records.

Maybe it’s coming from a fear of the adult world. That’s why the songs, psychedelic songs, like Syd Barrett’s sound so childlike. It’s almost like you don’t want to grow up in a way because you’ve perceived the corruption of the adult world from an early age and you don’t want to be corrupted.

So that’s where the innocence and the innocent sound of psychedelic music is rooted in psychologically. The edginess the paranoia, the anger and so forth comes from that adolescent realisation that it’s hard to keep your teenage punk ideals pure, incorruptible and untainted. You’re kind raging against the injustice of the world.

I think that’s what really psychedelia is. I think it’s a realisation that the purity of childhood and adolescence is… it’s like you can’t just go, “Hey! I’m going to make a psychedelic record.” I think you need to have that disengagement and cynicism in you. It’s about experience. When you’re young you don’t have much experience, but you’ve got a feel, a feel for the world and people… I think the psychedelic for me it’s an idealism y’know? That things should be pure.

You look at the world and you think how beautiful it is, how beautiful it could be, but you see the mess that people are making of it. I just think that… it’s a punk cosmic consciousness. Does that make sense?

You can talk about the drug thing too. The thing is that when you take acid or mushrooms when you’re young you absolutely love natural things, the trees or animals, you just love that shit way more than concrete or fucking people. You just tune into a cosmic energy y’know? I don’t know, I’m talkin’ shit man!

HAPPY: Tell me about the tour. What can fans expect?

BOBBY: Punk cosmic consciousness high energy rock ‘n’ roll! We’re gonna play a lot of songs, some older songs from all of our albums. The actual setlist is… let me get it out for you I’ve got it somewhere (shuffling). The set list is very broad, I think it’s pretty much a bunch of singles (more rifling).

There you go 2016, from when we played in Glasgow: Where the Light Gets In, It’s Alright, It’s OK, Jailbird, Accelerator, Kill All Hippies, Some Velvet Morning, Shoot Speed/Kill Light, Damaged, Higher Than the Sun, Trippin’ on Your Love, 100% or Nothing, Swastika Eyes, Loaded, Country Girl, Rocks and Come Together (delivered as if arriving at some profound, life-changing revelation). But we’ve changed it since then! I think it’s better.

I think we’ve made it a little more punk rock. Basically, it’s just a bunch of singles. I don’t know what it’s gonna be! When we come there we’ll fuck it up, we’ll put something else in. We basically play a couple of songs from every album from Screamadelica onwards, but I don’t know if we’re playing anything from Vanishing Point. It’s a high energy set, it’s high energy rock ‘n’ roll. A high energy rock ‘n’ roll show. It’s totally fuck you.

HAPPY: We’re running way over time! Would you like to share any final thoughts?

BOBBY: I could talk about this sort of thing for years man! Punk cosmic consciousness! But you know what I’m just going to quote something here. You know Richard Hell? I’ll tell you a Richard Hell quote, I think it was from when he was talking in an interview with Lester Bangs. He said that when you’re an adult you’re trying to hang on to your teenage idealism. The kind of interesting thing about Richard Hell is that he knew that when he was in his early 20s. He was already thinking about it.

I think he was talking about the impossibility of being a rock ‘n’ roll person. He said, “It’s important that you know how to maintain the courage of your convictions you had as an adolescent when you first get into rock ‘n’ roll”. And you know what? That’s punk cosmic consciousness right there. (laughs) I better go man, because there’s been so much shit coming out of my mouth just now I need an enema!


Primal Scream will be touring Australia in February 2018 for the first time in five years. Catch the dates below, and grab your tickets here.

Thursday 15th February – Metropolis, Perth
Friday 16th February – HQ, Adelaide
Sunday 18th February – Forum Theatre, Melbourne
Tuesday 20th February – Enmore Theatre, Sydney
Wednesday 21st February – The Tivoli, Brisbane