With the instantly recognizable pounding of the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby” and one of the most brittlely distorted guitar lines ever put to tape, alt-rockers the Jesus and Mary Chain laid the groundwork for one of the most copied rock & roll sounds of the past three decades. The group’s marriage of chaos and calm on “Just Like Honey” and the rest of the album the song kicks off – the band’s 1985 masterpiece Psychocandy – has reverberated through the works of My Bloody Valentine, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club and A Place to Bury Strangers, among other indie-minded malcontents. It’s a jarring sound – is there even rhythm guitar on singles “Never Understand” and “You Trip Me Up,” or just feedback? – that the Jesus and Mary Chain would never fully replicate on their subsequent LPs.
Now, the reunited band – led by hell-raising brothers Jim and William Reid – are celebrating the record’s legacy with a U.S. tour, on which they’ll play it in its entirety. Last year, they brought Psychocandy and all of its attendant screechy, buzz-saw guitar parts to a few shows in Europe and were pleased with how it went.
“We were pretty sure that we weren’t really interested in recreating our Psychocandy period,” Jim says in his thick Glasgow brogue. “Mary Chain’s show then was all about being totally fucked up onstage. When we realized, it’s about the album – it’s not about all the shit that went on around the album – and the fact that there’s a fair chunk of the album that’s never been played live, it seemed like a good idea.”
Rolling Stone caught up with Jim, whose humor is eternally droll, so he could explain how the group turned the U.K. – and subsequently the world – on its ear with just a couple of out-of-control guitar pedals.
Why is now the right time to revisit Psychocandy?
If we don’t do it for the 30th anniversary, that’s it. Thirty-five’s gonna be gettin’ down the road a bit. It’s a now-or-never-type thing, so we’re going for it.
How did it feel to revisit the album in Europe last year?
It’s a bit like looking through an old photo album. You don’t really remember what was going on when you were writing them.
What are your most vivid memories of making the record?
I remember we had quite a professional attitude towards the recording process. People probably imagine that we just fell into the studio off our tits and made a record, but there was no drink and drugs at that time in the studio. We went in there and just set about making a record as well as we could. In later years, recording would be a very, uh, fucked-up affair, but at that time, we had quite a professional work ethic.
What were you listening to around the time you wrote the album?
The punk thing was a massive influence on the Mary Chain. After that, we got seriously into the Velvets and the Stooges. We weren’t very into what was going on in music in the Eighties. The bands that didn’t make us want to puke back then were the likes of the Birthday Party or Echo and the Bunnymen. Actually, it was the crap coming out of the radio that made us want to be in a band more than anything else, because it was like, “Why is everything we hear so fucking awful?” That was the main driving force: how bad things were.
What crap, specifically, pissed you off?
The NME had been like a bible to us through the whole punk scene, and I remember buying an issue and Kid Creole and the Coconuts were on the cover [laughs]. I remember just thinking, “This is fucking… This is wrong! What is going on?” And it would be all sorts of New Romantics and all sorts of drivel like that. We just thought, “Somehow things had taken a wrong turn and it’s up to us to reverse this.”
That’s a big cross to bear.
Well, I think we made a difference.
“We wanted a fucked-up, distorted sound.”
Is it true that Einstürzende Neubauten were an influence, too?
Yeah. It was amazing that they could make records by using stuff like road drills and chainsaws on old washing machines. In some ways, our attitude towards playing guitar was a bit like that. When we started the band, we could barely play and in some ways you use the guitar in a more interesting way because when you don’t know how to play it, you make noise rather than music.
Psychocandy has a nasty guitar sound. How much of that was invented in the studio?
That was just chaos. It just suggested itself. We wanted the guitars to be as out there as possible. We wanted a fucked-up, distorted sound, and we had these pedals that we used. They did most of the work themselves. You just plugged them in, and they started screeching like you wouldn’t believe. That was the sound.
But the echoey reverb surrounding the guitar is such an important part of that sound, too.
Reverb is one of those things that, when you’re not used to making records, seems like the thing you use when you’ve not got loads of studio experience. I suppose we were into Sixties bands – like Sixties girl bands, and all that – and that’s kinda where all that came from.
Is that girl-group influence the reason why you put the “Be My Baby” beat in “Just Like Honey” and “Sowing Seeds”?
Well, the weird thing is that that wasn’t actually a conscious decision. It never occurred to us until after we made that record and people pointed it out. It just seemed like the beat that set the song at the time so…
It was subconscious?
I guess it must’ve been somehow. There was no point where someone said, “Hey, why don’t we use that drumbeat from ‘Be My Baby’?” It just didn’t happen that way.
The lyrics to “Just Like Honey” revolve around a beehive, and there’s a lyric on “Cut Dead” about chasing honeybees. What was with all the bees at the time?
Oh, Christ. I don’t know [laughs]. That’s just such a long time ago to remember why those lyrics came about.
You’ve never played “Cut Dead” or “My Little Underground” live before the Psychocandy shows. How weird were those to revisit?
The only weird thing was, none of us could remember why we’d never played those songs at the time [laughs]. We’ve got this album that loads of people seem to consider rather seminal, and we’ve got this big chunk of it that we didn’t bother to play to people at the time. I just don’t know why we didn’t play them.
“We wanted to make videos like the Monkees.”
The “Just Like Honey” clip seemed like an anti-video. What you remember about making it?
I don’t remember much. All of our videos at that time – It seems a bit odd to say it – but we wanted to make videos like the Monkees. There’d be an episode of The Monkees, and then there’d be one of their songs and it would be a little film clip. That was a blueprint for all of the Mary Chain’s early videos.
I remember the video director for “You Trip Me Up” asking how we wanted it to be, and we told him exactly that: We wanted it to be like The Monkees. We said, “Let’s do it on a beach somewhere with guaranteed sunshine.” So we buggered off to Portugal for a few days during Easter, and it was pissing with rain nonstop. We got about 10 minutes worth of sunshine, and that’s how we shot that video.
Why did you dial back the feedback and focus mostly on straightforward rock & roll on Psychocandy’s follow-up, 1987’s Darklands?
It seemed to us as if we were being forced to make Psychocandy, Mark 2. That’s not what Mary Chain were about. We didn’t want to do the same thing all over again, so we decided at that point that each album was a different statement. And that continued throughout our career. They’re all stand-alone items. It’s almost like with each album, it was like a new band.
You guys reunited almost a decade ago. Are you working on a record?
We’ve been talking about doing an album for quite a long time now, but we disagree about a lot of things to do with it, like how to record it, where to record it. Now we’re starting to come around to agreeing with each other, which is kind of strange territory for me and William. But we’re getting close. So look out for a new Mary Chain record sometime soon.
How many songs have you written for it?
We’ve got fuck-loads of songs. That’s not a problem. The problem is how to record them.
Well, what’s holding you up?
It’s just boring, really: At one point, he wanted to record in L.A. in a fancy recording studio. I wanted to record on a more basic setup, like ProTools. Also, when we first got back together, my kids were quite young, and I didn’t really want to disappear for months on end. Now my kids are a bit older, and he’s kind of come ’round to the idea of recording on a computer…. Yeah. Told you it was boring.