POP MUSIC : Jesus and Mary Chain’s Expanding Horizon : 10 QUESTIONS, 13 ANSWERS
The first music in three years from what is arguably the most influential British band of the ‘80s was greeted here with understandable enthusiasm.
“A scorching return to form (by) what has to be the most important band working in Britain today,” declared the New Musical Express about “Reverence,” the group’s first single from its “Honey’s Dead” album. “The very pulse of modern rock is beating within these sturdy grooves.”
Most American rock fans would probably assume that such lavish praise would be reserved for one of the British bands that are massive in the States--say Def Leppard, whose latest album entered the U.S. charts at No. 1, or the Cure, which will be playing stadiums again this summer in the United States.
The raves, appropriately, are for the Jesus and Mary Chain.
With an independence inherited from the Sex Pistols and a fearless instinct for emotional extremes reminiscent of the Velvet Underground, brothers Jim Reid and William Reid--the founders of the London-based band--made three of the most absorbing rock albums of the ‘80s.
Still, the Jesus and Mary Chain has yet to crack the U.S. Top 100. One reason is the music’s radical sensibilities. Its dark, obsessive themes and relentless guitar feedback seem every bit as extreme at times as the Sex Pistols, who also never reached the Top 100 in the United States.
The Jesus and Mary Chain was banned from Britain’s “Top of the Pops” TV show recently because its “Reverence” single was considered inappropriate for young viewers:
I wanna die just like Jesus Christ
I wanna die on a bed of spikes
I wanna die and go see Paradise.
I wanna die just like JFK
I wanna die on a sunny day
I wanna die just like JFK
I wanna die in the U.S.A.
While easy to dismiss as shock tactics, the lyrics--in the context of the Jesus and Mary Chain’s work--suggest how some people are so desperate for recognition or identity that they might be willing, if all else fails, to settle for a death that will go down in history. The song has caught on at U.S. college and alternative radio, but it has shown little evidence of mainstream airplay.
Yet there are signs that this may finally be the breakthrough year for the band. It’ll be on the “Lollapalooza” tour this summer across America, and the MTV crowd heard a lot in recent months of the Reids’ sound thanks to the Pixies’ hit remake of their “Head On” single.
On the eve of the album release (see review, Page 70), the brothers sat in their recording studio reflecting on the “Top of the Pops” ban and all the talk about how this might finally be their year.
Question: What was your thinking with “Reverence”? You must have realized a lot of people were going to be freaked out by it. Wasn’t there some other image you could find?
Jim: That question seems to assume that the lyrics are some cheap, sensational stunt or something, and that’s not what the words ever were to us. To me, any subject is OK to talk about. I’m ready to listen to anybody’s point of view about anything because that’s how you learn things. Nothing upsets me unless you are going to get a knife and point it in my eye or something.
Q: Have either of you ever written anything that makes you wince and think, “I’d better not release that song”?
William: We edit ourselves, but we don’t censor ourselves--if you can see the difference. If we wrote a lyric that we thought was the greatest we’d ever written, I’d like to think we’d put it on the record even if someone told us that it was going to get the record banned in every country and destroy our career. Music is important to us. It has been our life for as long as I can remember. People are always using words like obsession to describe our music, which is probably right because music is an obsession with us.
Besides, if we really wanted to shock people, I don’t think we would have used these lyrics. I think these lyrics are too well cut, too well engineered. If we would have wanted to shock, we only need to put in the songs all the silly little words that seem to press buttons in people . . . all the sexual words that you can’t print in papers or use on the air.
Jim: What we are really saying is that after years and years and years of trying to do our best, we don’t give a damn what some people think is acceptable or not acceptable to them.
That’s not the same as a shock thing. We liked the punk movement, but we never set out to be the Sex Pistols and just shock people with what we said and what we do. In fact, we’ve even gone out of our way over the years to steer clear of that type of approach because anything you do of that nature can come across as a bit false, and I don’t think there is anything false about our music.
Q: Are you optimistic that things might be opening up for you now in America--the Pixies’ success with “Head On,” the U.S. success of a lot of other young British bands?
Jim: I wonder if a lot really has changed. I certainly don’t identify with a lot of the newer British bands, like Jesus Jones, that are getting attention over there. I guess the most interesting thing that has happened is obviously Nirvana because that is, to me, probably the least likely group to be on top of the American charts.
Q: Do you feel any kinship between your band and Nirvana’s music or attitude?
Jim: I wouldn’t say they sat down and listened to our records, but there’s a like-mindedness about what they do and what we do.
William: What I love about Nirvana’s success is that nobody expected it. In this business 99% of people are ruthlessly ambitious, but Nirvana looks like a band that just wanted to maybe make a couple of albums and play in front of a few people. The way they are acting in front of cameras and the media makes me think they are the same people they were before they sold all those records. Some people, say Jesus Jones, do all the “right” things--go to the record business parties and shake hands--whereas Nirvana looks like they don’t know the rules or care about them, which is great.
Q: Why did it take three years for you to make the latest album?
Jim: One reason is it took a long time to find this studio and get it in shape. We were tired of working in other people’s studios. When you make a record in someone else’s studio, people walk in and out all the time--or it’s not available when you need it. That makes it hard to get an atmosphere going. This lets you be totally in charge. You can come in any time of the day or night and be left alone. But, also, it always takes us a long time because you are so drained after you finish an album and a tour. You can’t imagine ever making another album. We always feel like it’s time to quit . . . that we’ll never be able to come up with anything worth saying again.
Q: Because so many of your songs are about extreme emotions and feelings, they are often interpreted as about drugs. Do you think that’s too narrow an interpretation?
Jim: Songs can be about anything anybody wants it to be. I hate it when musicians I like explain their songs, because you may have a favorite song and have this idea what it means to you and then the guy who wrote it says, “No . . . it’s about something else . . . it’s about going down to the market for some sugar” or something. Well, who cares what he thinks? He should just make the record and let it speak for itself.
Q: But doesn’t the idea of you guys always writing about drugs do a disservice to the full power of the songs?
Jim: Yes, I agree with that. There probably has been too much made out of the drug stuff. The truth is I like it best when the songs can be seen in a lot of ways. They aren’t about any one subject.
Q: The real link between the songs is the extremes of emotions, whether it be sex, drugs, love, dreams. Is that what interests you as writers?
Jim: Absolutely. I don’t see any point writing about anything that is ordinary or mundane. If you are going to talk about anything, you ought to talk about extraordinary things--feelings or events--or why make it?
Q: What about the development of your style? What were some of the records that first made you want to be in a band?
Jim: The first time it really occurred to me that I could be in a band was during the British punk scene . . . No particular band, but the whole do-it-yourself attitude. It showed me that you didn’t have to learn to play guitar for 12 years before you could play music. But it wasn’t until much later that I finally took the step. That was when I heard (the Velvet Underground’s) “Waiting for the Man” on the radio. I went right out and bought the album and it was fantastic. I think it still is. There’s a timeless quality to it. It could have been made in the ‘70s or ‘80s or last week.
William: I think one thing that impressed us was how they were so much their own voice. They were making records in the ‘60s in a time when everything in pop seemed to be bright, cheerful and optimistic. They wrote about unhappy times--and they paid for it. They were one of the greatest bands in the world and they sold crap.
Q: How does your own sales record affect you? Is it discouraging that you don’t sell more, or does it just make you want to work harder?
Jim: It used to bother us a lot, but I can almost understand some of the reasons. There is a lot more show biz required in the music business than what we are prepared to give. When we go on stage, for instance, we are just there to play the music. We don’t have an act. We are shy and we may look glum. That’s not (a strategy). It’s the way we are and we feel foolish trying to be something or someone else. We enjoy being on stage, but we don’t feel right trying to put on an “act” to show people we are having a good time. I feel very intimidated on stage. All I hope to do is share the music . . . hope that it comes across the way we want it to.
If you believe in your music, I guess in the back of your mind you tell yourself that someday it will get the recognition you think it deserves. When I’m really feeling good about things, I can picture a time when people might discover the albums and say, “My God, why weren’t these guys playing in Shea Stadium?” But who knows? That’s why you have to take satisfaction from the music itself.