A decade after they reformed, and 20 years since they were last in the studio together, brothers Jim and William Reid are back making music together. Laurence Thompson caught up with Jim to find out how the pair coped with the tensions of making their new LP.
The tumultuous relationship that exists between brothers Jim and William Reid is at the core of a songwriting partnership that helped to redefine alternative music in the 1980s. Growing up in the new town of East Kilbride, eight miles outside Glasgow, the brothers turned their love for 60s girl group harmonies and white noise into a refreshing new take on guitar music, reaching the ears of a hacked-off British fanbase who’d become restless after years of post-industrial decline. The high point of their career, 1985’s Psychocandy, was a cathartic release of emotion, always teetering on the brink of collapse but ultimately held together by pure emotion.
After laying down the guitar-assault-meets-wall-of-sound blueprint for shoegaze alongside fellow alternative Titans My Bloody Valentine, the Mary Chain went on to release five more albums that built on this aesthetic. Tension – both healthy and negative – was never far away from the group, with Jim and William frequently falling out while releasing great music; but the fierce sibling rivalry was too much for fellow band members who came and went in their dozens. Even manager Alan McGee, who steered them to major label awareness, eventually had to part company with the band. Perhaps inevitably, the Reid brothers’ relationship reached breaking point in disastrous fashion, at a now infamous show in LA in 1998 which ended after 15 minutes when the pair started fighting with each other.
With plenty of water having passed under the bridge since then, Jim and William are back in the saddle, having released their first album in 20 years – Damage And Joy – earlier in 2017. The live show is where we can expect that music to come to life – but what can we expect when they arrive in Liverpool in September? Laurence Thompson finds out…
You guys reunited in 2007 – why was 2017 the year to release an album?
I suppose what you’re asking is why didn’t we release one earlier. The real reason is we’re [William and I] a pair of lazy bastards. We’d been doing gigs for a few years and enjoying that, so we just decided after a while it was about time we brought something out, but we hadn’t been in the studio since Munki , and with William living in LA it wasn’t so easy to get together. So, laziness and geography really.
With William living in LA, was there a cultural divide on top of the usual tensions?
[Laughs] I wouldn’t say that, no – mainly because William is the most un-LA person I’ve ever met. Seriously, the man’s been living there for 16 years and it hasn’t changed him in the least. If anything, it’s the reverse, his Scottish accent has actually gotten stronger.
So, it’s more like William’s changed LA than LA has changed William?
That’s it – LA is becoming more like East Kilbride than ever and it’s all his fault. But I suppose there is some American influence in the songs he wrote – in a few of them you’ll hear references to American life and so on. But there weren’t really any tensions on this album – originally, we got Youth [producer and musician Martin Glover] in as a producer to act as a peace-keeper more than anything else, but in the end that wasn’t necessary. We got on well together.
What made you want to work with Youth specifically? Were you just fans of Killing Joke, or…?
It was really Alan [McGee, the band’s manager] who set that up. We were keen to have someone in, and Alan was quietly in agreement. But it worked really well – Youth’s great, very good to work with. Like I say, originally we just wanted someone to hold it all together, but in the end he was only needed to produce and play bass.
How did you end up working with Sky Ferreira on the album?
That just sort of came together, partially through Alan too. We knew she was a Mary Chain fan because she came to see us in America a few years ago. Eventually her people and our people started talking, and we ended up in the studio together. As it turns out we really liked her voice and what she could bring, and with Isobel Campbell’s work as well the album turned out to be very good vocally.
Isobel Campbell’s work is really strong on Song For A Secret and The Two Of Us. Were you a fan of hers before?
Oh yeh, I’ve always liked her voice. I hadn’t met her before, though, and it was a case of making a phone call or two to see if she’d do it, and when she said she would, that was great. We’ve been able to work with some brilliant female vocalists really.
Linda [Fox, Jim and William’s sister, who performs under the name Sister Vanilla] too of course.
Linda yeh, and Bernadette [Denning] who isn’t a professional singer – she’s actually William’s girlfriend, but we thought we’d give her a crack at it. It all came together.
Mary Chain are one of the most influential bands still around. Have there been any recent bands that influenced you in turn?
Not really, to be honest. I really hate it when older guys try to make out like they’re really into new stuff, like ‘Oh, I love So-and-So!’ I mean, we’re not fucking Coldplay, you know what I mean? I do listen to the radio and there might be one or two things I like, but it’s mainly background music to me. The bands that influence me now are almost the same bands that influenced me when we started out, whether it’s blues or early rock or whatever.
So much of your music, especially the early albums, felt charged with dissatisfaction – with the establishment, or with music generally. Is that anger still there?
It’s still there but it’s more managed now. You get older, you see all kinds of things that make you angry and it does seep into the music, but there’s also a sense of ‘I can’t just stay pissed off forever,’ I mean, I’d never get anything done.
Back in the 80s, Mary Chain gigs were known for being chaotic and even violent. What was it like, being at the centre of that maelstrom?
It was a bit mental, you know – people were coming to our gigs and getting beaten up, and others were bringing baseball bats and smashing the fuck out of each other.
That went on for a while, but when you’re performing regularly it can get a bit much. We didn’t want to be the band people just go to see to have a kick-off like a fucking football firm or something. A bit like I was saying earlier with the anger, you just want to find other channels for it.
So things don’t get quite as rowdy live?
No, they haven’t for a while. That kind of stopped in the 90s and I was glad. I mean, how much of that do you really want? People still come and jump about and knock into each other but that’s more to do with the music than just, y’know, ‘Let’s have a fight’.
Do you still enjoy gigging?
Oh aye, probably more than I did then. Really one of the reasons I wanted to get in the studio was to record songs that were going over so well live that I didn’t want to just fade into obscurity, but that in itself comes from playing in front of an audience.
The Jesus And Mary Chain play O2 Academy on 21st September, supported by Sugarmen. Damage And Joy is out now via Artificial Plastic Records.