Bobby Gillespie and Jehnny Beth Rise Together from Utopian Ashes

Music Features Bobby Gillespie and Jehnny Beth
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Bobby Gillespie and Jehnny Beth Rise Together from <i>Utopian Ashes</i>

When Savages anchor and film actress Jehnny Beth first sang onstage with Primal Scream frontman Bobby Gillespie at London’s Barbican Theatre six years ago, it was, to say the least, a tough crowd. In fact, as the pair harmonized, the mob turned quite angry, began shouting in protest and later rushed the stage, en masse. Neither singer held it against the other, and they have actually re-teamed for Utopian Ashes, a full-length album of sleek original duets, reminiscent of the smoky, seductive work of previous winning vocal duos like Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood, or Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin. And besides, adds Gillespie, you can’t blame him for the Barbican fiasco—fans were there to see A Punk Mass, the reportedly penultimate farewell performance from legendary New York iconoclasts Suicide, featuring a then-77-year-old vocalist Alan Vega, who—having suffered a stroke—was using a cane in concert. At the request of the band’s manager, Paul Smith, both Gillespie and Beth had agreed to join the group on its set-closing classic “Dream Baby Dream.” Easy enough assignment, right?

Wrong, sighs the Glasgow-bred Gillespie, who met French chanteuse Beth, 36, for the first time backstage at the Barbican that fateful night, July 9, 2015. They were given no specific time to appear in the Suicide set, like Henry Rollins had gotten for his “Ghost Rider” cameo; they had to listen for sonic “Dream Baby Dream” opening cues, which didn’t come until the end of the evening. “But when we walked out onstage, Alan Vega wasn’t even there—it was just [musical collaborator] Martin Rev,” Gillespie remembers. “So then Jehnny Beth and I start singing, and the audience didn’t know what the fuck was happening! They’d been watching Suicide, and then we walk out, and it was like, ‘Who in the fuck are these two?’ But I thought, ‘Fuck the audience,’ you know? I didn’t give a shit about the audience!” But suddenly a cheer rose up from the fans—Vega walked out into the spotlight again, so Gillespie handed him the microphone. “But he just stood there looking at me, and then he gave me the mic back—he never even sang ‘Dream Baby Dream’!” he adds. “It was mad, I tell you!”

Perhaps it was just the shared surreal experience, but an aesthetic bond was formed that Punk Mass night, which finally flowered into into the smoky guy/girl collaboration of Ashes, often with Gillespie murmuring the verses and Beth handling the choruses. With a top-notch backing band (Beth’s significant other and occasional bandmate Johnny Hostile on bass, and Primal Scream members like guitarist Andrew Innes, pianist Martin Duffy and drummer Darrin Mooney rounding out the combo), the pair connect quite nicely on the spooky stroll “English Town,” a Billy Preston-funky “Stones of Silence,” the dreamy Neo-psychedelic shambler “Living a Lie,” and the loping country-folk duet “You Can Trust Me Now.” With both parties contributing lyrics, the album feels like a conversation between two lovers watching their once-sturdy relationship founder on the indifferent societal rocks. Their voices blend remarkably well, a la the Sinatra/Hazlewood standard “Some Velvet Morning,” which Beth first crooned with the Primals onstage back in 2016.

But before each star shoots off on their next trajectory (Gillespie is publishing his memoir, Tenement Kid, this summer, and the Cesar-winning Beth just wrapped a role in Serge Bozon’s forthcoming drama Don Juan, about a jilted groom who goes uninhibitedly wild in response), they sat down to discuss this mutually fulfilling collaboration.

Paste: Some things have proven workable and caught on during the pandemic, like Zoom and similar innovations, where you learn new ways to do things, right?

Bobby Gillespie: Oh yeah. I think the record companies will be cutting staff. They’ll be having people work from home instead of coming into the office, so they can save money on the office space. And they will be cutting people’s hours, and they’ll be asking people to work the same amount of hours, but for 20% less money. Also, they will take advantage of these working practices that we’ve had to endure during the pandemic—I think certain companies will take advantage of things like Zoom. Like, “What is the point of us taking an artist to France or Germany to do promo and paying for a press guy to take ‘em there, just to introduce ‘em to the German press guy or the French press person?” Right? People can just sit in the fucking hotel and do Zoom. So all the press guys are gonna get the sack.

Paste: But there were great innovations, too, like Tim Burgess’ Tim’s Twitter Listening Party, which became popular pretty fast at the beginning of lockdown. You guys just used it, and it’s still working.

Jehnny Beth: Yes. And I think it’s good if it brings people together around music, around an album. I mean, nothing can compete with real-life experience, nothing can compare. You know, we talked about VR and how it’s going to stop cinema, or it’s gonna start the craze that we will wanna see films in 3D. But every time there’s a new technology that comes in, and we think that something else is gonna die, well, actually, we’re not gonna stay home and watch films on VR—we’re gonna go to the cinema still. I believe that.

Gillespie: I’m not sure about that. People are sitting at home, just streaming films. My wife loves just sitting at home and streaming films, you know? Me, I would prefer to go to the cinema—for me, it’s the difference between listening to a track on your phone on Spotify and, obviously, seeing a live band in a room full of lots of people, and volume and lights and noise and sound. But, especially for people that are busy, people like something that’s just that easy.

Beth: But the point is, would you watch a gig on your computer?

Gillespie: Never. Never—I am not interested. And that’s what I’m saying—not interested. But film? You can watch a film on your computer. But I would much prefer to be in a cinema, always.

Paste: Well, you should come to America then. Where everyone scrambled out of their houses last week to see F9 on the big screen. “I will risk death to see Vin Diesel.” No, not for me, thanks. And we have learned nothing.

Gillespie: F9? What is that? A fighter plane with a missile?

Beth: It’s a series of very commercial movies. Fast and Furious.

Gillespie: I’m sorry! I have absolutely no idea what F9 is! It’s just that I’m really bad with that kinda stuff—TV and whatever else is streaming. I’m completely out of the loop.But I wanna see that film that the guy from The Roots made, though. What’s it called? Summer of Soul, about the black Woodstock. I’m dying to see that—that’s what I really wanna watch. And I watched something about Ghislaine Maxwell, though, and that was a bit weird.

Beth: The thing that got me through the first confinement was The Last Dance series about the Chicago Bulls, with Michael Jordan. That was an amazing [ESPN/Netflix] series about the guys, and it was just so good. And it was the best thing to watch during confinement, because it’s about people who failed one season, and then really had to try again for the next season. The mental strain involved felt really relevant.

Paste: Jehnny, what did the band Suicide mean to you? And your impressions of the Barbican gig, which wound up being their swan song?

Beth: Oh, Suicide was a huge influence! I had been singing “Dream Baby Dream” for a long time with Savages—we released it on vinyl, too, so since my early 20s I was listening to a lot of Suicide, because I was playing organ in my band John and Jehn, so I was really into The Doors, Suicide—anything that had an organ. I had a Farfisa and a Hammond, so I was really into that vibe. But [singing there] was a last-minute ask for me, and I knew the song, but it was so weird. And even when I sang it myself, I changed the lyrics at the end, because I think it’s one of those songs where you can play this sort of blues, where you can turn the words around and add a line if you want. It feels that way, because whenever you hear a different version of “Dream Baby Dream” live by Suicide, it never seems to be the same thing.

Paste: Did you pick up on some symbiotic vocal vibe while you were singing together?

Beth and Gillespie: [in unison] Not that night!

Gillespie: Afterwards, I was a bit shocked, like, “What the fuck just happened there?” And my mates came backstage and were just looking at me, like, “What the fuck was that?” And to be honest, I was thinking that maybe I made a mistake in accepting that invitation—nothing against Jehnny, of course. Just for the whole thing, I thought, “What the fuck is happening?” I mean, for example, Henry Rollins ran offstage halfway through “Ghost Rider”—he just lit out through the back door. So anyway, we did it, and I’m glad we did it, to be honest with you, because it was pretty fucking cool. And that became the last-ever Suicide gig—they never played another one.

Paste: So then how did Jehnny end up joining the Primals for a duet on “Some Velvet Morning”?

Beth: I don’t remember—I think he just asked me.

Gillespie: I think it was our guitarist Andrew Innes’ idea—he always has these really good ideas. It was his idea to ask Kevin Shields to come and play guitar with Primal Scream, and he asked Jehnny to sing with us, and he also had the idea of, “Why don’t we make a record with Jehnny? Or at least make a song with her?” So I think it was that simple. And when she came and sang with us in Bristol in 2016, there was a certain frisson onstage between us—I think we looked good together, and it felt really good, too. So Andrew, after the gig, said, “Why don’t we ask her to make a track?” So we asked her, and she said yes. It was quite easy, actually. As it should be, you know?

Beth: And we started writing in Paris—Andrew and Bobby came, and it was easy, basically, because at the time you could take the Eurostar, stay for five days, and then go back to London. Right now we can’t do that, of course, and it’s maddening. It’s like we live in a different time—it’s crazy.

Paste: What’s happening on the album cover? It looks like a bonfire, or Guy Fawkes day.

Gillespie: Yeah, it definitely does. Like pyromania. Or pyromaniac’s blues, you know?

Paste: Def Leppard warned us about this.

Gillespie: I actually met the singer from Def Leppard, Joe Elliott, at an Ian Hunter gig two or three years ago. And you know what? He’s a really lovely bloke. He’s such a nice guy—gentle, humble. These guys are from a Sheffield council estate, and it was weird because they were like these teenagers from Sheffield, and they were as much into The Sex Pistols as they were Led Zeppelin. And this is before grunge, you know? Back in the day, Jehnny, a lot of kids that I went to school with, they liked heavy metal and hard rock, and they did not like punk. And punks did not like hard rock. But I like both, I must admit. But Def Leppard, they said they wanted to play hard rock, but with a punk attitude. And that was before Nirvana. But British punk was different from American punk. Over here, it had to have some kind of social content in the lyrics, some kind of comment on society. So the idea was to get away from the cliches of hard rock, and fairy tales and goblins and castles and The Lord of the Rings, because Led Zeppelin had lyrics where they quote Lord of the Rings, you know? So British punk was supposed to be street, and it was supposed to be urban , and about the harsh realities of street life in Great Britain and politics. That’s why in Britain people didn’t want to listen to their heavy rock records anymore—music had to make this move into social commentary, and I don’t know if you had that in America. Even in New York City, because the New York punk bands didn’t have that social-commentary thing going on. Not like bands like The Clash or The Jam, you know?

Paste: So Jehnny, what did Primal Scream mean to you? Screamadelica was definitive for you, I’m sure.

Beth: Yeah! So I was always really impressed with them, and with Bobby as a singer, as well. For me, I always pay attention to a lead singer when there’s a good one, and I really like when a band has one. So for me, there was this attraction to that, to that ease and that sexiness. But it was also quite feminine—I thought Bobby was quite feminine, and I really liked that, just in the way his hips moved. But I was too young when that album came out, so I didn’t know about it. And I wasn’t there—I don’t know how old I was, but I was deep in the deepest of France when Primal Scream became big, so I didn’t catch the moment. It was only in retrospect that I came to really appreciate their music. Which is a different approach, but you can still be hit by something that way.

Paste: Well, how did you go about dividing up the songs, vocally? It seems like you fell into a nice pace of Bobby singing the verse, and then Jehnny doing the choruses, sometimes in harmony with him.

Gillespie: It just happened quite naturally. Our voices sounded really good together—we discovered that in Paris when we did our first songwriting sessions, and even before. So the first set of lyrics on the record were written by Jehnny, and they were for the chorus of “Remember We Were Lovers.” And I came back to London, and I worked on the verses and more lyrics. So that worked out really well. And then for some other songs, like “Chase it Down,” I had written the song here at home on acoustic guitar, and it sounded like a Neil Young dirge—it didn’t have that funky Muscle Shoals rhythm that it has on the album, didn’t have the Wurlitzer electric piano or anything. Just me and my guitar. But I did a demo of it, and Jehnny heard it, and she almost started crying. She reacted to my words, and she reacted almost immediately, and she wrote her chorus and melody on the spot. And with “English Town,” Jehnny had a great chorus, a melody and a line—“I wanna fly away from this town tonight”—and it was a very French, European, chanson kind of melody, so here at home, I worked hard on the verses, chords and lyrics, and I wrote the rest of the song. So it was kind of bits and pieces with that. Other songs Jehnny had the melody and the words for, like “Stones of Silence”—she had them in her notebook, and then I wrote a chorus separately, put a Bossa nova rhythm to it, and presto! We had a psychedelic folk-rock song, you know?

Paste: Jehnny, what’s your take? Is there a theme happening, like the birth, life and death of an actual relationship, maybe?

Beth: Ha! The murdering, death, then burying of one! Well, like Bobby said, I wrote the first lyrics for the album, with the silhouette standing on a cliff, and I was just imagining Bobby’s silhouette, and how from the outside you can create empathy and imagine what this person is going through. I mean, the thing is, when you’re in a duet, it’s hard to create, because if you’re male/female, you enter quite easily into this sort of dialogue that sounds like a relationship, you know? Which is good, because it creates boundaries and you’re working within them. So I think the theme emerged, but it wasn’t like, “Are we gonna write about a couple?” It just emerged, because the only thing I said to myself when I heard the first bits of “Remember” and “Chase it Down” was, “Oh—Bobby has something that he wants to say.” It felt like there was a real concrete reality of something that he needed to say, and it really was a necessity. And in writing, I think that’s always the right thing—I just never questioned it. Because he was saying things in the songs that were more intimate and vulnerable than in any conversation he could have. The conversations we would have would be jokes, we would be laughing, we’d talk about loads of things. But never once did we fall that deep into subject matter so intimate. So I thought that was another layer in a way of communicating, in a way. And I respected that, and I never asked if it was true—that’s why I think I responded quickly when I heard the lyrics, because it was nowhere else, this sort of deep conversation. So it felt really fresh for me to answer to it. Like, in “Chase it Down,” the depressed guy in the verses is really down, really sad. And in life, I would respond to that the way I did in the song, saying, “No, no, no, no” and trying to lift the person and trying to say, “Maybe there’s something there that can still be saved!” And what I like about this project is, I just had to react naturally to things. And it’s very rare when you have that possibility in anything, when you can just be yourself. And you don’t really think about how it sounds, what style it’s in—you didn’t care. It was just reacting on an emotional level, and it felt so good to do that.

Paste: The crucial takeaway line, I think, is in “You Don’t Know what Love Is”—“Sometimes I think that love is a disease like addiction.”

Gillespie: That’s my line. And … how can I put it? I used to go to Alcoholics Anonymous a few years back, and they would say, “Addiction is a disease,” right? And I’m not sure that’s right, and I’m not sure it isn’t, you know? And I went sober several years ago, and if I stay sober until July 31, it’ll have been 13 years. But honestly, I got to thinking that maybe falling in love with people, this need for connection with other human beings, is a fucking addiction for people. And they go from one boyfriend or girlfriend to another, and they get married, then divorced, then re-married. And this whole need to be validated by another person’s love or attention, this deep human need for connection with other people, whether it be sexual or platonic? It just got me thinking that if this is an addiction—and you can kick heroin addiction, cocaine, gambling, alcohol—I don’t think anyone can kick falling in love and that deep need for human contact. And I know it sounds pretentious, but I thought that was a good line to open a song because it would grab people’s attention. That’s why I said “Sometimes,” because even if it’s someone that you’re in love with that has been cruel to you, you still go back for more. But why do you keep going back for more? Is it masochism? If you’re a deeply romantic person like myself, you’re in trouble, you know? You’re in for a lifetime of trouble. So it’s a song about a person who’s undergoing an existential crisis. And there’s self-awareness in there, as well. There’s a lot of self-awareness in the songs, as well as self-pity. But I’m really proud of that song, you know?

Paste: Well, congrats on the sobriety.

Gillespie: Yeah—thanks. But you know, one of the things I learned when I was in AA, when I was watching people share—and I never shred, right? When Jehnny said she never had deep discussions with me, I’m not that kind of guy. I don’t go around talking about stuff to other people, so maybe it comes out in my work. But I think you have to deal with that as a writer, or a songwriter—you’ve got to put it all in the work. So I just sit back and observe situations and people and actions, and I guess after all that and therapy, hopefully I’ve become a bit more self-aware. But what I did notice about the meetings is that most of the people when they shared were using found language. And what I mean by found language is, the sentences they used to describe the situation or things that had happened to them, a lot of the times they would use terms that everybody else used. And I got the feeling that people—apart from being verbally inarticulate—were also, being alcoholics or cocaine addicts or whatever, emotionally inarticulate. And it really got me thinking about how in relationships even people that are extremely intelligent are having to struggle in an emotional situation in a relationship with somebody they love and care about. They can’t express themselves, because they’re angry and emotional, and they feel humiliated, and something triggers this humiliation and anger, and they’ve got these great rivers of emotion flowing out of them. And it got me thinking about how it’s no wonder that we can’t just get on with each other as humans, you know? And the whole disconnection—even being up onstage and singing or playing guitar in front of thousands of people, it’s a way of saying, “Hey! Look at me!” You’re trying to communicate, connect with people. Even if offstage, you don’t speak to anybody and you’re shy, the very act of going onstage is an attempt at communication. And that got me thinking about human relationships and the inability to communicate. And we all have it, you know? Even the most erudite, garrulous, loquacious people can have real problems in their relationships because of these various things!

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