The Jesus and Mary Chain interview
Notorious, controversial, gutteral, seminal, The Jesus and Mary Chain’s Jim Reid takes James Wilkinson back over the chaos that was the Scottish white noise rockers’ heyday
Friction. If you wanted to sum up the chaotic history of The Jesus and Mary Chain in one word, that would be it. Friction with their audience. Friction with the media. And most of all, friction at the band’s core, between battling Scot brothers Jim and William Reid.
But friction’s not necessarily a bad thing. You can’t start a fire without it, right? And it’s certainly what sparked off the Mary Chain’s career one hot June day in 1984, as the brothers – just one year into their nascent careers – auditioned for legendary promoter Alan McGee. “Me and William were getting on each other’s nerves, as usual,” explains Jim, “and by the time we got to the sound-check we were just at boiling point, screaming at each other. Then we plugged in the guitars – and we’d only been playing guitars for a couple of months at this point – and made this blistering noise. Alan thought we were nuts, but he was really into it and started babbling about five-album deals. Then we thought he was mad. We thought we’d blown our chance, but apparently not.”
Indeed: within three months the band were playing gigs in London and New York City, but their blisteringly short 20-minute sets and difficult stage personas – in some cases playing with their backs to the crowds – caused hostility. “I did enjoy performing,” recalls Jim, “but I was nervous and the only way I could think to get over that was to drink. The whole live thing was chaos, really, pretty non-musical, but it worked because people couldn’t believe we had the nerve to go onstage. People actually said, ‘How do you get away with it?’ It was more of a spectacle than a musical event.”
The press – encouraged by McGee – heralded the Mary Chain as ‘the new Sex Pistols’. While the music press was cooing about the band’s 1985 debut album, the revolutionary Psychocandy, which dropped Beach Boys-inspired pop-rock tunes into a whirling fog of lo-fi fuzz and feedback, some of the band’s audience was becoming more interested in the chaos, with post-gig riots becoming synonymous with the Mary Chain. Jim even spent a night in jail after hitting two audience members with a mic stand in 1987. “For a time it got headlines and that was okay with us, but we started to realise they were the wrong kind of headlines. So we dropped out of sight for a while, hoping it would die down, and it did.”
Freed from expectation, the band were able to broaden their horizons out from fuzz-heavy rock to more commercially minded albums like Automatic. Unfortunately, while the audience had calmed down, tensions within the band worsened. In 1998, William finally walked offstage and – bar a few contractually obliged shows – The Jesus and Mary Chain was broken. “Oh god,” sighs Jim when we ask him what went wrong. “It was a gradual thing. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly. We would have split up a long time before we did, but because we were brothers we had to make up and keep going. The first show we did after William left was some kind of supper club. We were playing to all these people eating shrimp dinners. It was the worst gig of my life, but coming after William left… it was unreal.”
After nine years of cooling off, Jim and William reformed the band in 2007, performing sporadic, ‘best-of’ gigs and working – slowly – on new material. And Jim assures us that reports of more on-stage arguments are overblown. “There wasn’t any friction, there wasn’t. We still argue and I guess we always will, but it’s not that, bad, it’s not that bad.” Could it even be… good? “Well I wouldn’t go that far!” he laughs. “But yeah, we get on all right these days.”
Which doesn’t mean it’s all plain sailing. At the band’s gig at Austin’s SXSW festival in March, their stage was invaded by a half-naked man – no less than Lucifer, of Beijing rock band Rustic. “I can honestly say that’s the first time anything like that has happened,” says Jim. And will he reciprocate at a Rustic gig when he comes to China? “No,” he laughs. “I think anybody seeing my flabby little body would probably throw up.”
The Jesus and Mary Chain play KITEC on Wed May 23. Tickets: 2111 5333; www.cityline.com.