1985: Wham! and Whitney Houston topped the U.S. charts, and an orgy of charitable pop stars united for “We Are the World.” Meanwhile, in London, brothers Jim and William Reid were on a planet of their own: The Reids had the bright idea to combine the nihilistic noise of the Velvet Underground with the poppiness of ’50s girl groups, producing their own unique brand of feedback-drenched U.K. psychobilly. Their debut album, Psychocandy, was short (14 songs in 38 minutes) and their volatile live shows even shorter (20 minutes), but their potent mix of music, methamphetamines and attitude caught on, with one journalist declaring them “the best and worst band in the world.” They imploded a few albums later due to constant onstage and offstage fighting. But 30 years on, that album has become one of the most celebrated debuts of all time, and its sound has since influenced every band that plugs into an amp. The group, which first reunited for Coachella in 2007 and has gigged sporadically since, comes to town to play its debut in full. We talked to singer Jim Reid about the Mary Chain then and now.
You’ve said that at the time of Psychocandy you guys “could barely play your instruments.” Is it weird touring behind the album again now that you can? We still can’t play our instruments! We’ve never been fussed about technical ability. You can learn all you need to know to make interesting music in a few weeks rather than years I think.
Which probably inspires bands even more. Your career is like a 13-year version of that Sex Pistols gig that started a million bands. That was kinda the point of it. It was never meant to be disposable entertainment for the time. Had Psychocandy just entertained people in 1985, it would’ve been a failure. We had the idea it might be important to kids in the future, but 30 years would have been quite incredible to imagine back then.
Apart from the obvious ones, what bands most influenced you most when you were starting? So many, really. Bands from Scotland like the Fire Engines and Orange Juice or punk bands like Subway Sect, whom we covered. There’s a French band called Dr. Mix & the Remix whose album Wall of Noise we were playing a lot around the time of Psychocandy that don’t get mentioned very often because no one knows who they are.
What bands do you think you most influenced? I don’t listen to many new bands these days. I think that if you get to my age you kinda go though the “rock music cycle” where you start to hear all the same elements you’ve heard before and then it’s just time to play your old Joy Division records. I’d always rather listen to Joy Division than a band that sounds like Joy Division. So, the bands that namecheck the Mary Chain…I’m just glad they’re there, but I really couldn’t tell you who they are.
Too many bands seem content just slavishly re-creating a certain “vibe.” Like, if they into the ‘60s flower-power sound, they just produce songs that sound like they could’ve actually come out at that time. There was this big psychedelic revival going on in London in ‘84 or ‘85. It was all guys in crushed velvet flare trousers making records that sounded like they were actually released in 1967, but was all a bit depressing, because it was exactly as you say. We loved bands like the 13th Floor Elevators but to simply take that and redo it 20 years later is just absolutely pointless really.
It’s kinda like Hollywood reboots now. Well, Hollywood is the most extreme version of that. Nobody ever takes any chances in the movie industry because it’s all about how to make the most bucks in the shortest space of time.
Speaking of…. Lost in Translation helped introduce your music to a whole new generation 20 years later with “Just Like Honey” soundtracking the film’s emotional climax. How did that come about? Was it My Bloody Valentine’s Kevin Shields? I’m actually not 100 percent sure how that came about. It could have had something to do with Kevin. But I love the film and the way they used the song was just superb, and it certainly didn’t do the band any harm. It’s win-win really.
You’re playing some Psychocandy songs live for the first time on this tour. How does that feel? The weird thing is there are quite a lot of songs that we didn’t play from that time, and I can’t even remember why…. Honestly I really don’t know why.
I do. It was because you hated rehearsing, so once you had your set list, you stuck with it. Actually, yeah, that’s true. I can’t stand rehearsing. I just can’t imagine why anyone would enjoy that! Shitty little rehearsal rooms—the sound is never good, and you’re never in the mood for it, blah blah blah. So yeah, it was probably that.
You’ve said that you were surprised no one had ever thought of combining those two musical styles like you did before that. As revolutionary as that sound became, did you start to feel hemmed in by it when people said to “never follow that record up?” Well we kinda tried to say we invented that, but in essence, that was the Velvet Underground. They were a pop band and an experimental noise band rolled into one. We found it incredible that they even existed and just kinda ran with that idea as well. The reaction was so great when Psychocandy came out, but it did limit us because people talked so much about the sound of the record rather than the songs. So we, maybe a bit self-consciously, went and recorded Darklands which sounded absolutely nothing like it, but is actually just as extreme in its own way.
Which was the same thing critics did to Nirvana not long after, until they did Unplugged and people finally heard all these beautiful melodies and realized they were actual songs behind all the noise. Absolutely. They were all about songs. I recognized that as soon as I heard them.
Weren’t you gonna do an entire acoustic record just so people would shut the hell up about “the noise?” Well, Stoned & Dethroned was supposed to be our “long-awaited acoustic album” but after we got in the studio, the songs suggested something a little different, so we went with that.
What’s your favorite Mary Chain record? I really don’t have one but when people ask, I always go back to "Munki." Sadly, it got really overlooked because by the time it came out, the bottom had fallen out of the bag. Plus it was at the height of Britpop and we were yesterday’s news, but it’s as good as any of our records. And also because the band was falling apart from within.
What was it like being on Creation Records at that time? Everybody thinks of Creation as what it became, but at that time it was really just Alan McGee and Dick Green. It wasn’t anybody’s career yet so they were doing things on a shoestring. But it was great because everybody was totally into the music they were releasing. It was basically all run on enthusiasm. To this day, Alan is one of the most enthusiastic people I’ve ever met. Usually, when you get to that point in life, you lose that enthusiasm for new stuff, but he seems to have kept up with the sheer wonder of it all really.
What’s the single most ridiculous fight you and William have ever had? We’ve come to blows over whether there was any sugar in a cup of tea or not. We’ll argue about anything. Anything. I mean, we just argue. We always have and we always will. It’s just the way we’re made. At the moment though, I’m not drinking, so it’s a bit more civilized. Not drinking has made this tour more pleasant in some ways and much, much worse in others. But now we just know there’s a line and if you cross it, things will get ugly and brutal. So we don’t. If we’ve learned anything, that’s what we’ve learned.
That’s a great takeaway from 30 years in a band with family. Okay, now let’s play a little game called “Truth or JAMC Legend.” Okay, First round: You and your brother flipped a coin to decide who’d be the singer in the band. Yeah, that is true. But it was because neither of us wanted it. I lost, so that’s why I’m the singer.
That’s amazing! I love the idea of the losing prize of a coin is, like “Great, now I’m the lead singer in a band. Shit!” At the time when we started the band, we could hardly play so it could have gone either way at that time. Had I been the guitarist, it wouldn’t have made much difference. Obviously William’s better at the guitar than I am now but then, either one of us could have been the singer or the guitar player, so it did come down to that coin toss.
No 2: Alan McGee recently reconnected with his long-lost son, who turned out to be Ed Sheeran. Oh, God…. it’s gonna have to be a no on that one.
Last one: The BBC banned “Some Candy Talking” because it thought the song was about drugs, which funnily enough is your only song not about drugs. Well, they were gonna ban it, but instead they just didn’t play it. We were really hoping they did because then it woulda sold shitloads of copies. Ironically, the original was recorded as a Peel Session, so you could even say that the BBC commissioned it in the first place.
And now the million-dollar question: Are you guys working on a new album? We are! We’re doing an album now. We actually just started recording. It’s early days, but I would say it’s a more mature sound for the Mary Chain. But let’s just wait and see.
The Jesus and Mary Chain plays at Terminal 5 on Sept 24 and 25.