Meet: If Einsturzende Neubauten was the backing band for The Shangri-Las – we have a chat with Jim Reid from The Jesus and Mary Chain about the music, sobriety and offending Scarlett Johansson.

The Jesus and Mary Chain are about to embark on a tour of Australia as part of their 40th anniversary celebrations, and I caught up via Zoom with singer Jim Reid.

The question I have always pondered was how the iconic album ‘Psycho Candy’ came into existence with its bizarre marriage of sonic chaos and sweet doo-wop melodies: was it a mixing desk accident they decided to run with or a deliberate plan to shock. Jim says it wasn’t designed to deliberately shock but that they were aware of how out of step the album was with everything else around at the time.

We were listening both kinds of music – we were listening to a lot of 60s girl bands at the time like The Shangri-Las but we would also be listening at the time to The Stooges and The Birthday Party and Einsturzende Neubauten and we thought wouldn’t be amazing if Neubauten was the backing band for the Shangri-Las (laughs) and we thought, why don’t we do that. And that was the seed that ended up being ‘Psycho Candy’.

Jim recounted how The Jesus and Mary Chain came into fruition: he and his brother William wrote songs separately for seperate bands – they never envisaged they could ever be in a band together.

It was a situation that was absurd – it was clearly the same band doing the same things and at some point we said this was mad, this was idiotic, let’s be in band together. I promise not to kill you if you promise not to kill me. Which we almost succeeded in doing (laughs).

Jim goes on to mention how prolific William is with his song writing – it’s much more natural with William – he can write five songs when I’m struggling to write one.

The brothers came to the conclusion that their seperate bands were identical and they might as well play together, and thus history was made. I asked how did they decide to become rock stars instead of pursuing a normal life. Jim recounts how the brothers both worked in factories in Glasgow but always harboured a desire for something more.

I just knew that wasn’t the life for me, and William too. We though Christ, we have to get out of this. We always thought one day there would be a band. So we gave up our apprenticeships and we were on the dole for ages with the idea of getting a band together. But we were incredibly lazy and so it took years and years and years for us to get that together. It got to a point where we kept talking about a band and we kept planning a band and then we realised we had been talking about this for five years and that we’ve got to do something – we felt we were getting too old – William was 25 and I was 22. If we leave this any later we will be ancient so we sort pulled it all together. We met Douglas (Hart) and Bobbie (Gillespie) and it just seemed to happen – once the ball started rolling, it was unstoppable.

I pondered whether Glasgow at that time punched above its weight with some incredibly innovative bands but Jim was not having any of this:

We had to leave Glasgow to get anywhere – we tried to put on gigs and put out singles and nobody was interested. We got our first gig in London in 1984 – it’s a long well documented story about Bobby nobbling Alan McGee and we got this gig in Alan’s club in London and once things started to happen, Glasgow started to claim us as local boys made good. We were like ‘no fucking way – you didn’t want to know us in the first place’. We immediately moved to London (laughs)

On further discussion he admitted his admiration for bands like Simple Minds, Orange Juice, Josef K (who might be from Edinburgh) and Fire Engine but mentioned what he called the plethora of soulless soul music that on the whole that gained popularity at the time, like Hipsway and Hue & Cry – mainstream dross. It was the opposite of what we were interested in. At this point in discussing overblown bands, it seemed apt to mention the famous Lou Reed quote that anything more than three chords was just jazz. I asked Jim how many chords he knew on the guitar.

(Laughs) I can play three and half now. I’m hopeless at the guitar – I was then and am still now. The chords that I learned in 1983 when I first picked the guitar up – I’m the same now and it drives William mental. He’ll say play an F# and I’ll be saying which one is that again? He’ll say ‘for Christ’s sake you’ve been doing this for forty years’ (laughs) He’ll point to the part of the guitar to make a shape on but I still don’t know what chords are what – I just put my fingers on the frets and if it sounds good, it is good! That’s my philosophy.

We discuss other guitarists with a similar approach – Blixa Bargeld and Kid Congo Powers both of whom I recently interviewed and are self-taught. Jim, slightly tongue in cheek, pours scorn on guitarist who get lessons

Lesson are all wrong. I always say anyone who gets guitar lessons is seriously barking up the wrong tree. You’ve got to feel it, you’ve got to just put your fingers on that fretboard. It’s a tool – you shouldn’t worship the guitar – just play the bloody thing, get what you want out of it. You’re not going to find out by going to some weird guy who is going to show what he thinks you need to know (laughs) We could barely play a note when we played our first gig and it never did us any harm whatsoever.

We talked at length about the well documented encounters the Reid Brothers had with drugs and excess and I wondered if this fueled creativity or retarded it. Jim laughs and notes that there are probably two very different points of view in the band when it comes to this. William likes to get stoned and he believes it helps him write songs whereas Jim is adamant that they wrote just as good, if not better, songs before they touched anything – people use that as an excuse. Jim is very open about his alcoholism and its genesis in his performance anxiety:

I liked to write songs when I drink but I try not to drink because I’m an alcoholic, but maybe I do write better songs when I’m drunk but it’s not necessary. WIth us, the drink and drugs was more to do with live work. I was usually lacking in confidence when we used to go on and do those early shows. I was extremely shy and the idea of going on stage as a singer in a rock band was terrifying to me. I wanted it so much but I came to realise I was very ill equipped to do it. So the only way I could get around that idea in my head about what a punk rock star should be like was that I would get totally fucked up. Which is what I did and is the reason why I have a drink problem to this very day.

I played from 1984 until 1998 when the band split up for a time – and I was always wasted when I was on stage. I never did one sobre gig. There were varying degrees of inebriation – sometimes I couldn’t stand, other times I had just enough to get me through the gig.

Jim recounts that their comeback performance in Coachella in 2007 was his first ever sobre gig. In my nerdish fashion I pointed out that they did a pre-Coachella gig in Pomona (having attended both gigs) and he accepts the correction with a laugh, joking that it sounded more dramatic to say Coachella.

I was absolutely shitting myself – terrified. I reached down to pick up a bottle of water on stage and you could see my hand was visibly shaking. I wanted to run away – I’m in front of all these people and I can’t do it without a drink. What I did was I just shut my eyes and pretended there was no-one there for the first couple of songs because once you’re up and running, it’s ok. And I got through that gig and I thought I could do this sobre when I’m on tour.

We discussed the Coachella a little more. I noted that JAMC reformed not that long after the film ‘Lost In Translation’ was released with its iconic use of the track ‘Just Like Honey’ in the last scene. I wondered if the success of this film, played any part in the band getting back together or what else caused the rapprochement of the Reid brothers after such a long time. Jim says the success of the film didn’t have a bearing on their decision to reform – there had been talk about them getting back together for a several years with pressure for them to do a ‘Psycho Candy’ tour a good few years before Coachella.

At that time, we couldn’t see the point in that, and we weren’t sure we wanted to get back together. The band broke up in 1998 and I couldn’t imagine me and William ever being in a band together after that. At the time people used to say to me ‘you’ll get back together’ and I’d say absolutely not. But the fact of the matter is that time does heal all wounds. Five years after the break up I combed over that break up year many times in my head and I started to realise that it was all based on nothing. It was stupid bickering that got out of control. Had someone – management or someone close to the band – been paying attention to what was happening they should have made sure William and I didn’t see each other for a year. What they actually did was to put us on a fucking tour bus in America for a six week tour. That tour lasted a day and a half I think before we started punching each other (laughs). A few years later, the prospect of being in a band together again wasn’t as hideous.

Coachella had been asking us to reform for a number of years and we just automatically kept saying no and then talking to William it became apparent that he thought that I wouldn’t want to do it and I thought he wouldn’t want to do it. We were saying no because we thought that was what the other wanted.

Jim recounts that they decided to book a rehearsal space to see if they could even still play the songs and whether it felt right.

We did it. There were massive rows in that room but we plugged in anyway and it was weird because it was like we never went away. So we thought let’s give it a try.

I wondered if Coachella was seen as a one off or if there was an intention to take it further – and why there was such a long time before an album was recorded.

The Coachella gig was a dip your toe in the water gig. It went so well we thought about other projects – about touring and eventually recording. The reason it took so long for us to record again after that was my fault. I kept thinking about the recording of Munki and how terrible it felt while all that was going on. Munki is a great record but I don’t know why it’s a great record because we were hating each other at the time. It was such a claustrophobic environment being in the studio and I though why ruin it when we’ll end up in the studio screaming at each other, so quite frankly I kept making excuses about why I couldn’t make it to the studio, and I strung it along for about five or six years. Eventually I thought, well, I’m in a band and bands make records so let’s just do it.

We then had a diverting discussion about how Scarlett Johansson – star of ‘Lost In Translation’ – came to sing the backing vocals for ‘Just Like Honey’ at Coachella. Apparently she was making a record with the band’s American label and contact was made because the band thought it would be cool with the film connection.

We didn’t expect she would say yes but we thought you don’t get if you don’t ask…and she said yes. She came along and she was very nice and friendly. However in typical Mary Chain fashion we seemed to end up offending her without even trying (laughs). We got on very well with her but something happened on the last day at the hotel – we did an interview in the hotel lobby and she was standing there and there was an awkward bit and we thanked her and everything but I think she expected to be interviewed with us and we hadn’t realised this – we didn’t mean any offence. She stormed off. After the show, she had said anytime we wanted her to sing she would do it, but then after this event – nothing. (laughs)

I noted that it is always a feature of JAMC gigs to have a special singer invited to do the backing vocals for ‘Just Like Honey’ and wondered who was Jim’s favourite. He ruefully admitted it was Scarlett Johansson – she was so lovely doing it. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if she could read this and accept the band’s remorse at upsetting her. For the Australian tour, no-one is lined up yet – it’s always spontaneous. Australian guitar player in the lineup, Scott Von Ryper, has been delegated with the job of sourcing suitable singers.

I jokingly ask Jim and William, as poster boys for sparring siblings that have forgiven each other, if he has any advice for the Gallagher brothers. He laughs and proffers the sage advice that you should never say things that you cannot take back, and, sadly, the Gallagher brothers seem to have crossed that line a while ago.

With a special edition biography coming out later this year and a recurring theme in ‘Glasgow Eyes’ looking back at the history of the band, I ask whether there is a sense of poignancy and self reflection now the brothers are in their sixties.

You get to a certain age and looking forward doesn’t seem so enticing. When you’re in your twenties everything is all about the future and when you get to your sixties, you don’t want to look to the future because it’s not something you want to dwell on. So what you tend to do is…well I wouldn’t say it’s anything to do with nostalgia – I would disagree with anyone who says that – but you tend to look back at how you ended up at this point and you tend to think about how you could have done things differently. Like looking at how the band broke up in 1998. When you get to this age, you do tend to rake through the past and think about how it could have been done differently. And it’s not always pleasant – that’s why it’s got nothing to do with nostalgia.

I wrap things up by asking if Jim can give us any exclusives from the forthcoming biography. He laughs and point blankly says no – that’s not how it works – you will have to buy the book. People will say they’ve heard the good bits and don’t need to buy it.

Seriously, off the top of my head, I can’t think of anything. It’s all full of stupid anecdotes about when we were kids. It’s warts and all. I swear we are not trying to be the cool rock stars. We just jabbered on – it’s not an autobiography, it’s just us talking to a guy called Ben Thompson for hours and hours and hours separately. We tell it exactly how we remembered it.

‘Never Understood – The Story of The Jesus and Mary Chain’ is out on 4 October and you can get copies here (including a special run of 2,000 signed copies).

The Jesus and Mary Chain commence their tour of Australia next week – details and tickets below. Watch out for our review and gallery.

This will be one tour not to be missed. Presented by SBM, the dates are:

Tue 30 July: Powerstation, Auckland
Thu 1 Aug: Enmore Theatre, Sydney
Sat 3 Aug: The Tivoli, Brisbane
Sun 4 Aug: Forum, Melbourne
Tue 6 Aug: Hindley Street Music Hall, Adelaide
Thu 8 Aug: Astor Theatre, Perth

Tickets and details here

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