In the mid-eighties a number of bands were exploring how distortion could be used to augment rock music. Among these, The Jesus & Mary Chain hit upon the unique approach of marrying waves of harsh electric noise to bubblegum pop melodies in order to craft songs that crackle and fizz with amphetamine energy. In doing so, they helped popularise the creative use of distortion by guitar bands and opened up new sonic space that hundreds of others have rushed to fill over the following three decades. They also recorded some of the most addictively catchy music of the 1980s and 1990s.
The band’s original run came to a screeching halt in 1998 when the famously fractious relationship between the sibling core members, Jim and William Reid, came to a head following the recording of the Munki album. The Reid’s patched things up sufficiently to start touring as The Jesus & Mary Chain again in 2007, but fans have had to wait nearly twenty years for a new Jesus & Mary Chain record.
I caught up with lead singer, Jim Reid, over the phone as he was preparing to launch their keenly awaited new Damage & Joy album. The first thing I put to him is that the new record sounds a bit more upbeat than their 1980s and 1990s work, an assertion that he met with a chuckle.
Jim said, “Upbeat is a word that I don’t really think of to describe myself, or William for that matter, but yeah, we’re probably a bit more laidback about making music. We’ve been doing it for so long that we kind of know what we’re doing now and there’s less to prove. Back in the old days, it could all be over in an instant and you felt as if you were having to prove your worth on a daily basis.”
The unfairly overlooked Little Pop Rock album that Jim and William recorded in 2005 under the name Sister Vanilla with their younger sister, Linda, also had a more cheerful feel. Jim attributes this to his sister’s influence. He explained, “Linda in the equation always lightens things between me and William as well.”
Linda reappears on Can’t Stop The Rock on the new album, a re-recorded version of one of the Sister Vanilla songs. The Two Of Us is another reworked Sister Vanilla track, although this time the vocals are handled by Isobel Campbell of Belle & Sebastian.
There were reports that the brothers avoided going into the studio together during the making of the Sister Vanilla album. I asked Jim if he and William ever actually recorded together in the same room during its production. “Eventually, but not at the beginning of it,” he replied. “It was started at the bad period of me and William, basically. We kind of worked separately for a while, but then it just seemed absurd that we were working on this record together, but separately. So I ended up going over to LA and we recorded some of it in his house in LA. All three of us.”
The return to the studio together was followed in fairly short order by the brothers accepting an offer from Coachella Festival to reform the Jesus & Mary Chain. Jim said that it took several attempts before they agreed to reform the band.
“It was largely due to the fact that both of us thought that the other wouldn’t be interested,” he explained. “Then we eventually spoke to each other on the phone and I said, “well I’ll do it” and he said “me too”.”
The obvious question following on from this is why it’s taken a decade to go from reforming the band to recording a new album.
Jim said, “I have to say that we weren’t exactly seeing eye to eye at that point. Doing live shows was OK – do your show, breeze into town, bugger off back home – but the thought of going into the studio for months on end, I wasn’t sure about.”
“The making of the album Munki was pretty hideous, really. It didn’t just break the band, it almost broke the people in the band, you know?
“The thought of going back into the studio, even if it was a bit like that, was something that I just couldn’t deal with at that time. I was still pretty fragile about the whole thing. I had given up drink then. I was on the wagon and I was terrified that the recording of an album would put me back on the bottle.
“I just didn’t want to do it. Although I did want an album, I was just too scared to go through with it. I just kept putting it off. William was very keen, and I just kept making excuses. Then one day after I don’t know how many people during interviews asked me… “So, what about this album of yours?” I just thought, “Oft, fucking hell, it’s getting ridiculous. We have to either come clean and say that there isn’t an album, or we’re going to have to actually make one.””
The resulting record is a more laidback affair than the band’s early efforts. The album is still recognisably a product of The Jesus & Mary Chain, but the detached, headlong rush of their extraordinary debut, Psychocandy, is replaced here with a more emotional sound.
The album’s debut single, Amputation, originally written back in the noughties, deals with Jim’s sense that the band had been frozen out by music critics in the late ‘90s. He explained, “It’s about feeling as if we no longer had a place in the scheme of things. The music business. To me at that time, it felt as if people tended to give more space and more time to bands that sounded like the Mary Chain than the actual Mary Chain.
“It felt like, what the fuck is going on? Don’t we count? Don’t all those records we made count for anything? People say, “you’re feeling a bit sorry for yourself”. I don’t know. Maybe… but that was the song that came out of it. It was about that. It felt as if me and William were a couple of guys that had shot our load and there was no space for us. We’d been living in exile. We were rock ‘n’ roll amputations.”
The band’s well received 30th anniversary tour of the Psychocandy album in 2015 should have gone some way to alleviate feelings that the Mary Chain were surplus to requirements. Jim is particularly pleased by the fact that their music has found a younger audience.
“Generally, wherever we go I look out there and see lots of kids who were probably not even born when the band broke up in the ‘90s. I think, as you say, that’s got a lot to do with the internet, Youtube and stuff like that. If you hear about a band now you can just immediately see every performance that’s ever been committed to celluloid is at your fingertips.
“It is great to see young kids out there. It does make a difference. It makes you feel that the music is relevant, not just for reasons of nostalgia. It’s relevant just for what it is, you know?”
The Jesus & Mary Chain play O2 Shepherd’s Bush Empire on 5th April
Damage & Joy is out now on Warner