bobby Gillespie picks up his phone and scours it for messages he sent last night. Of his new song ‘You Can Trust Me Now’, and its spoken-word introduction, on which he confesses to “black dog years of degradation, humiliation, incapacitation,” he’d tweeted: “The confessions of a werewolf, asking for readmittance back into the human race. Of the “guilt, shame and remorse” he suffered as a result, he’d simply written: “the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth”.
The Primal Scream frontman was partaking in a Tim’s Twitter Listening Party – online listenalongs coordinated by The Charlatans’ Tim Burgess – for ‘Utopian Ashes’, his new marital drama album with Jehnny Beth, solo provocateur also known as the lead singer of post-punk four-piece Savages.
“One of my good pals, quite a famous musician, messaged me last week,” Bobby tells NME. “He said, ‘That spoken-word, man – you’ve nailed it.’ Coming from him, it was quite a compliment. He could have died many times. That felt good. I just wanted to write a song for everybody that’s battled with addiction.”
‘Utopian Ashes’ is the sound of two art-rock comets colliding, then melting gently into one another. Gillespie and Beth first met at an Yves St Laurent catwalk show. “I think he was surprised to see me dressed in all leather,” Jehnny says in a separate Zoom call from France. “In Savages we dressed really minimally… because we wanted journalists to talk about our music.” They first performed together at New York experimentalists Suicide’s last-ever gig at London’s Barbican Theatre in 2015, when Jehnny was invited to join Bobby onstage for his guest performance.
“It was mad,” she recalls. “I don’t even know what happened. People were screaming and standing up on seats. Alan [Vega, Suicide singer] wasn’t there and then he was there and then he wasn’t singing and then his son started to sing and I was like, ‘Who’s singing?’ It was so bad. But Bobby was like the archetypal rock star, dead on in two seconds. It was like Mother Wolf saying, ‘This is how it’s done’.”
At the suggestion of Scream guitarist Andrew Innes, Jehnny then joined the band to sing Lee Hazelwood and Nancy Sinatra’s ‘Some Velvet Morning’ at The Downs, a 2016 Massive Attack-headlined festival in Bristol, and a bond formed between these two confrontational rock lifers. “There was,” Bobby adds, “a good energy dynamic between Jehnny and I onstage.” And so plans were laid for further sonic fusion.
Five days of initial sessions with Gillespie, Beth, Innes and Jehnny’s partner Johnny Hostile in Paris produced what Bobby calls “fragments, ideas” over electronic backing but, back home with the tapes, Gillespie began shaping them into elegant rock and retro pop forms. “I began envisioning the song being recorded in the traditional style of the 1960s and ‘70s with live bands. Like a kinda John Lennon ‘Jealous Guy’ solo ballad, quite anthemic, start quiet and build and build and build.” What could have been an abrasive clash of art-rock titans evolved into a plush, orchestrated, country-flecked union of dark arts, fitting the Hazelwood/Sinatra and Gainsbourg/Birkin lineage, or Nick Cave and Polly Harvey’s ‘Henry Lee’.
Bobby also conceived a narrative for the record: “two people living together but alone and apart”; a couple, their relationship blighted by years of addiction, infidelity, indifference and evaporating affection, watch their marriage collapse in a storm of mutual disdain. It’s undeniably a fiction (both Bobby and Jehnny are in solid long-term relationships) but Bobby’s “black dog years” section – particularly coming at a time when he’s completing his first memoir – certainly emanates from the more drug-corroded corners of the heart. So just how much of ‘Utopian Ashes’ is based on “the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth”?
“Autobiography is mixed up with fiction,” he says. “You can start from reality and fictionalise it and romanticise it, make it fantastical. I’m a middle-aged guy; I’ve lived a lot and observed a lot and I’ve seen a lot of my friends go through a lot of changes in their life. I wanted to make a record that people would listen to and identify with – they could identify with the story and feel they’d maybe felt the same pain as the narrator. I wanted to make music that would make them feel less alone… Like the old country songs about adultery, abortion, murder, alcoholism, divorce – you know, real-life problems. That’s what the point of the record was: emotional inarticulacy.”
“It could be alcohol,” he argues, “the male could be kind of a drunk [and] he’s in a fucking mess.” But, beyond the fiction, how do you look back on your own “black dog years”? Were they something you had to go through?
Bobby muses carefully. “We, the Primal Scream, were very much taken by the romanticism of rock’n’roll – dissolution, dissolute behaviour. Poisoning yourself as a way of becoming a better artist, like Rimbaud with the whole derangement of the senses; that whole ethos. I for one was seduced by that idea and I really did think that if I took LSD it may give me some poetic insight that would make me a better songwriter.
“I’d read about people like Jim Morrison, Arthur Lee and Syd Barrett. People who are venerated, and all of us in Primal Scream venerated. When you’re living in Glasgow in a council flat and you read about these poetic heroes, no matter how doomed they were or became… I romanticised them and felt: ‘Well, maybe you do have to break on through to the other side like Jim Morrison said.’ And how do you escape the surroundings of working-class Glasgow? Maybe LSD is a way of accessing another part of the universe, the cosmos or, indeed, a way of accessing your own inner space. So, psychedelics were definitely an attempt at a gateway to another way of viewing existence and oneself that we undertook. I guess that was a creative experiment.
“In my book I write about the feeling of standing between [Primal Screamers] Robert Young [who sadly died in 2014] and Andrew Innes, a twin Les Paul attack blasting through 200-watt Marshall stacks or whatever in a small club somewhere like Derby or Leeds or Sheffield with a head full speed, feeling like a complete and utter god. Not everybody’s going to experience that feeling, so we did glorify it, and we had to do it, because we were young and we wanted to experience everything.”
Says Jehnny: “He was quite reserved sometimes in our relationship, but the lyrics that were coming out of Bobby were so out there in terms of being very open. I appreciate that because he feels comfortable and feels he has the space; he feels he can open up and express himself. I think it was probably also a timing thing; he’d come to a place where he feels there’s an urgency, a necessity to say those things. My role in that was to support that and try to bring some softness – which is not something that I’m often known for – a contrast with his rawness and the difficult things he was trying to say.”
Not that Jehnny wasn’t also baring a little soul on ‘Utopian Ashes’. She can certainly relate to “this never-ending dance of the relationship where you’re trying to fix things – if you’re not trying to fix them, you lose the battle, you lose the relationship – that fight – and that determination for longevity, for pain.”
“France is not perfect but it’s definitely not as fascist as England” – Jehnny Beth
She continues: “I think women are very used to pain. Being a woman, you know what pain is and you know that you can’t get anything without pain, without struggling to get it. Nothing is really handed to you. Pain is something that I can really talk about – if you need to get to a place of truth of a relationship you need to suffer a little bit from it and you need to go to places where it’s not comfortable, but it’s the only way you can change and change your relationship and get to another plateau where things are better.”
Jehnny can even shudder knowingly at the ruined urban hellscape of “bombed-out pubs” and “feral kids on zombie drugs” depicted on ‘English Town’, which Bobby describes as “comment on the state of the country, the state we’re in, the division, the inequality, the anger, the humiliation, the poverty, the hopelessness. A fractured, divided country.”
Is there any kind of hope for places like that?
Bobby nods. “Yeah. I felt if Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell had won in 2017 or 2019, that they would have enacted changes in society that would eventually lead to the country being less unequal… I think the fact that [Corbyn] got very close to achieving real power – in 2017 he was within 2,000 votes of beating Theresa May – and I believe that the British establishment, the newspapers, media commentators threw the full power of the British state against him, smeared him. It really scared them.
“Unfortunately, the Conservatives won. So we are where we are. But I do believe that, when you look at the voting demographics for Brexit and for the last two general elections, younger people are more progressively minded and the older people are more reactionary minded. So hopefully the future belongs to the youth, and the youth are progressive. That’s where my hope lies, in young people… It’s an ongoing struggle. Try to be progressive parents, progressive adults and spread progressive ideas. Be kind to people, and let’s hope the younger generations eventually take power and change the country and make it a more progressive, liberal, outward-looking modern state. At the moment it’s awful.”
You’ve made an album about a self-destructive British guy breaking up with a European woman who’s had enough of his shit for years. Is this one big Brexit metaphor?
“No,” says Jehnny, “but why not? I wouldn’t have made this record with Bobby if Brexit had happened when I was 20 and I moved to London with my ID card. I was able to just take my suitcase, settle in London and start playing gigs, without having to pay anything. I was broke, so how could I have?
“It shouldn’t be only a rich kid’s game. I think it’s harder and harder for kids who don’t have money to be heard and have a platform. To be able to play or to travel and to gig and even for British musicians to come to Europe, it’s a nightmare now. Not if you’re a pop star; if you’re very big and you’re playing arenas, they’re just gonna have to pay and that’s it. But if you don’t have the money to pay? That’s the problem with this system. It’s kind of a fascist system where if you pay it’s OK. It shouldn’t be like that; there shouldn’t be fast lanes. Treat people the same whether they can pay or not.
“Be kind to people, and let’s hope the younger generations eventually take power” – Bobby Gillespie
“France is not perfect but it’s definitely not as fascist as England and I’m quite glad I live in France now. We have to watch because the fascists are banging on the door.”
Savages went on indefinite hiatus in 2017. “I’ve always said that if I wanted to do an angry punk rock record, then I’d reform Savages,” Beth notes, “and there’s a lot of things in the world that make you want to do a really angry punk rock record”. She’s since released a solo album – last year’s acclaimed ‘To Love Is To Live’ – and fallen into a “weird, unplanned adventure” in acting. She was nominated for a Cesar award for her role as Chantal in 2018’s An Impossible Love, her appearance in Jacques Audiard’s forthcoming Paris, 13th District premieres this week at Cannes and today she’s fresh from location for her latest acting role as a cam girl in a new French comedy. “It was funny because I’ve got quite a lot of friends on OnlyFans,” she grins, “so I know a bit of that world.”
Yet she revels in collaboration. “They always teach you something new and take you somewhere you didn’t plan and didn’t expect,” she enthuses. Her solo album featured appearances by Joe Talbot of IDLES, Romy Croft from The xx and Nine Inch Nails’ Atticus Ross. Although she’s keeping any guest spots on next year’s second solo album close to her chest for now, her current fantasy musical hook-ups include Billy Nomates, Black Country, New Road, LIFE, Slowthai and Kendrick Lamar.
“It’s a shame Bowie died – not that he would have ever worked with me,” she smiles. “[Music] can be a very un-empathetic business sometimes, especially if you’re a young musician. There’s this sort of competition, what I call the ‘rock’n’roll capitalism’ that turns artist against artist, that pushes them to see the number of streams or listeners before friendship and art or even themselves. I think collaborations are a way to keep you grounded – like it’s a family instead of a business. There’s always an infiltration of the other in you, and that’s good. Musicians to musicians, musician to painter, musician to writer, poet, musician to sculptor. There’s this need for getting into each other’s process and see how that changes you. Otherwise you’re on a loop.”
Bobby found new depths to his lyrical honesty and incisiveness, Jehnny a fresh melodic urge, and both celebrate the tension in the juxtaposition of their voices and characters on the album: laid-back and world-weary versus pure, on-beat and uptight. “We come from different schools,” says Bobby. “I’m not really protecting myself – she still writes in a way where she’s protecting who she is. There’s a distance between her and what she’s writing [but] I’m not creating a character; I’m me.”
It all, ultimately, made for a divorce made in Heaven. “I definitely didn’t expect to make a record like this,” says Jehnny, “but the way it was so easy to make, I don’t think we could have done otherwise. It was just out there; we had to do it.”
– ‘Utopian Ashes’ is out now