“There's something great about setting fire to equipment — it just makes you feel good,” says Andrew Innes, Primal Scream's rhythm guitarist, studio tweaker and resident arsonist. Innes rarely does interviews, but certainly not because he's shy. He'd just rather be in the studio — blowing things up. “You think that technology has got the better of you,” he says, “and then you realize you can still go bonkers and set fire to it.” Innes is not the only nut in the band.
In the mid-'80s, Scotland native Bobby Gillespie had a noisy duo called Primal Scream and played drums for rock darlings the Jesus and Mary Chain. Eventually, the core lineup of Primal Scream came together with singer Gillespie, rhythm guitarist Andrew Innes, guitarist Robert Young and keyboardist Martin Duffy.
Rock 'n' roll was Primal's first instinct, but it didn't take long for the band to fall into the arms of dance music. After “The Scream,” as they affectionately call themselves, released two unsuccessful rock albums, dance culture took root. Friend and founder of Creation Records Alan McGee began frequenting Paul Oakenfold's Future club in Brighton, England. With McGee's encouragement, Primal Scream dived head-on into the club scene, too. The band then recorded the seminal 1991 album Screamadelica (Sire/Warner Bros.). The record's house-y anthem “Don't Fight It, Feel It,” with its unforgettable chirping hook, and the psychedelic comedown trip “Higher Than the Sun” (produced by The Orb) still sound relevant today.
When Screamadelica dropped, The Scream got huge — so did their drug habits. Ecstasy and coke soon lead to heroin. That, coupled with a love for the Rolling Stones and time spent in Memphis led to their very rock 'n' roll 1994 album, Give Out But Don't Give Up (Warner Bros.). “All these years of abuse and hedonism kind of open you up to different styles of music that you never would have heard before,” says Primal Scream's bassist Gary “Mani” Mounfield (who joined via the Stone Roses after the release of Give Out). “But I think the Give Out But Don't Give Up album maybe suffered because the guys all had smack problems.”
The hedonism continued after Give Out, but Primal Scream dipped back into electronic music, first with the title song from the Trainspotting (Capitol) soundtrack in 1995. The Scream's next two studio albums, Vanishing Point (Reprise, 1997) and Xtrmntr (Astralwerks, 2000), crept into a darker, funkier and more subversive electronic music. Whereas Vanishing Point is somewhat of an undercover spy record, Xtrmntr is dirty, hard and fast techno with song titles to match, including “Kill All Hippies” and “Blood Money.” The political “Swastika Eyes,” with its driving rhythms, screaming synths and antifascist lyrics, is nothing short of infectious.
Primal Scream's latest release, Evil Heat (Epic, 2002) — which features vocals by supermodel Kate Moss and the Jesus and Mary Chain's Jim Reid, as well as a harmonica solo by the one and only Robert Plant — stays a similar path. To call it “rocktronica” would be an oversimplification, but Primal Scream loves electronic and rock music in equal measures. And Evil Heat hedges gray areas of both, such as the electronic rocker “Miss Lucifer,” seemingly reincarnated from “Swastika Eyes.” Then, there's “City” — originally written for illbient artist and film scorer David Holmes — which is straight up rock 'n' roll. Meanwhile, “Deep Hit of the Morning Sun” comprises dirty bloops and bleeps. “It's all great dance music, and rock 'n' roll should be great dance music,” says Primal Scream's very vocal vocalist, Gillespie.
Certain Evil Heat sounds could be pinpointed as both hipster garage (in the vein of The Strokes or The Hives) and electro (as in one of Gillespie's favorites, Miss Kittin and the Hacker). But Primal Scream has toyed with garage and electro music long before the recent revivals of both. Nevertheless, Gillespie is down with the electro scene. “It's kind of like pop music; it's fun to dance to,” he says. “It's much more exciting than what currently passes as rock music these days. I just think that rock bands today are fucking lame, every fucking one of them. Those bands are just part of the establishment. They're not sexy, and they're not rock 'n' roll. They're conformists. Great rock 'n' roll should be made by misfits for misfits.”
THE ANTIFORMULAIC FORMULA
Primal Scream has adopted more than just the drum machines, samplers and synths associated with dance music. The band's songwriting process is also inspired by house- and techno-style arrangements. “We used to have a set way of writing songs a few years ago,” says Gillespie. “We'd work within the verse-chorus-verse-chorus-solo-chorus framework. And then, we started improvising using rhythms rather than melody. We started to use repetition. Most of the songs are written on one chord, like how James Brown's songs are written on one chord. It really freed us from traditional songwriting.”
By using a plethora of different instruments and sounds, the band makes those one-chord songs palatable. “We don't always use the traditional bass-drums-guitar format,” Gillespie says. “We're always using different synthesizers or different sounds. It's like if you were making a movie, you shoot a lot of different scenes and hack them together to create the best movie that you can. You can have a kind of fractured story line or just a set of fractured images. We record a lot of different ideas for each song, and then we only use the best ones.”
But each “scene” is never labored over. “Since 1997, I've done every vocal in one take,” says Gillespie. “Before that, I used to take too much time over it and get too self-conscious. I was always trying to make sure I had the right notes. But that makes it quite a long time, and in the end, I'd lose the song's feeling, whereas with the first take, generally, you get the best feeling. Sometimes, there are two takes, and you take the better of two takes together to make one. But it's never really more than that. It's the same with the guitars and synths and everything else — we go for feel.”
Although Gillespie and crew are okay with repetition in songs, the band isn't so keen on song-structure formulas. It wouldn't be out of the question to say that formulaic rock bands, such as Matchbox Twenty, don't rate high with Primal Scream. “I think that if we were to be in a band that dealt with that kind of repetition, we'd be bored shitless; we'd rather go get jobs in banks,” says Mani. “We love to see how far we can push ourselves and try out new things. It keeps our dimentia from creeping in.”
Although each member has a given role onstage, it's a different story in the band's London studio, Bonker. “I have so much more freedom with this band,” Mani says, “because with [the Stone Roses], I had to look to another three guys and see if they liked what I was doing. With this band, I'm really given free rein. We trust each other so much that we know what we're up to on a quality-control level. It's the most democratic group in the world. Anyone is free to play keyboards or drums or whatever they want to do.”
For Mani, his inspiration often begins with a part that Innes has concocted. “I'll hear a weird noise Andrew Innes has made up,” Mani says, “and I'll think, ‘Well, if I do this with a big fuzzy bass over it,’ and Bob will go, ‘That reminds me of these kinds of lyrics.’ On the writing side, things evolve, and sometimes our songs will go through five or six different metamorphoses before we go, ‘Yeah, that's it.’”
But as ideas evolve, Innes finds constant temptation to light his gear on fire. “I have this really temperamental Mac computer that I have a hate/hate relationship with,” Innes says. “I just hate it. It's got dents in it where I've kicked it, and it just goes mental. It just does all sorts of strange things when we're in the middle of recording. I've been threatening to bomb that for about two years. I've got a G4 now. But I got the album half-started on the old one, so I thought I'd get it finished and then get a new computer. The old one is a 9600, and it won't be one much longer; I'm going to bomb that. We bombed a couple synths once because we hated them.”
OOPS, IT DID IT AGAIN
Primal Scream songs are often formed by the bizarre glitches in Innes' now-doomed 9600. “Most of the good stuff comes from mistakes, unfortunately,” he says. “Stuff goes wrong, and it clashes, but it suddenly fills up something. It's weird, but in the same sense, brilliant.” That was the case with the grungy synth loop in “Miss Lucifer” on Evil Heat. “Andrew was writing a riff in a certain way, and then the computer fucked up and rewrote the riff,” Gillespie says. “That's the best, most amazing riff.” A similar computer implosion happened on “Deep Heat of the Morning Sun.” “That was a mistake, as well,” Innes says. “It just started going, ‘Nyea, nyea, nyea, nyea,’ and it just recorded it. I don't know what went wrong, but something went mad. I made a loop of that thing going wrong and made a song around it. There's always something going horribly wrong but in a good way.”
Innes' 9600 isn't too impressive when it comes to memory and power. “You can time-stretch something, and you can go and make a cup of tea,” he says. “With the G4, if I time-stretch something, it just does it.” Due to the 9600's handicaps, Innes only uses it for sequencing and editing parts in Emagic Logic Audio. Hooked up to the 9600 are two Alesis ADATs for recording. “If you wanted to do some editing, you take it off the ADAT and put it on the computer,” says Innes. He also has a DAT machine ready for when the computer crashes. “When it does go wrong, instead of trying to stop it, you record it,” Innes says. “You'll never get the computer to crash the same way twice, so always record it. If you don't get these things to crash onto a DAT or something, when you start the computer, you'll never get it back again.”
CAUSE AND EFFECTS
The 9600's frequent crashing is not the only handicap that works to Innes' advantage. The ailing machine can't handle running many plug-ins alongside Logic, so Innes resorts to stompboxes as a breeding ground for ideas. “Whenever a new crazy pedal comes out, we always end up writing a new song because of the sound that we get from the pedal through a synthesizer or a guitar or a fucking tambourine,” Gillespie says.
Although Gillespie and Mani allude to a mountain of pedals and gear housed within Bonker, Innes claims to not remember what any of it's called. But whether it's coy secretiveness or early signs of Alzheimer's, Innes lets a few cats out of the bag. His favorite box is the Electro-Harmonix Micro Synthesizer. “It's funny,” Innes says. “It's made for guitar, but it's brilliant on everything apart from guitars. It makes guitars sound crap, and it makes vocals, drums and anything else sound good. You just have to experiment and use your pedals for what they're not meant to do. You're not meant to play a guitar through a synthesizer, so you should do it.”
Innes also picked up a couple of analog boxes, a shruti box and a tabla box, in an Indian music shop years ago. The shruti box emulates the tambura drone instrument and has four tape-drone sounds with knobs to change the tempo and key. The tabla box, meanwhile, has eight tape samples of tabla rhythms. “You know that song ‘Get Ur Freak On’ by Missy Elliott? I think they used a tabla box on that,” Gillespie speculates. “It sounds like the same one we've got.”
METHODS AND MADNESS
Some of the sounds that Innes creates on Evil Heat get dangerously close to messy, but when they jibe, they're incredible. “Andrew is the guy in the studio every day, and he's taking chances,” Mani says. “We'll go right from the bass through the Minimoog, and we'll put the drums through a fuzz box and a wah and try absolutely loads of mad shit. Sometimes, it doesn't work, but when it does work and you find something new and kind of unique, it's a really good feeling.” Just how Innes creates these sounds is somewhat beyond the other band members. “The guy's brain works in a very mysterious way,” Mani says. “I don't fully understand him, and I've known him nearly all my life!”
Although experimentation is a major part of the Primal Scream sound, Innes and the band gain much from other producers' methods. Part-time Scream member Kevin Shields (from the '90s shoegazer band My Bloody Valentine) mixed some of the songs on Evil Heat. “Kevin understands completely how we want the record to sound,” says Gillespie. “While he's mixing, we'll say, ‘No, it's got to be more extreme.’” Shields did just that on “Deep Heat of the Morning Sun.” “We made it quite gentle, and he made it intense,” Innes says.
Innes has worked with many producers, from David Holmes and Chemical Brothers to reggae producer Adrian Sherwood (“He gets incredible bass on records,” Innes says) and Evil Heat collaborators Andrew Weatherall and Jagz Kooner. “I take things from everybody,” Innes says. “It's just good working with all these different people, because you learn. It would be silly to be sitting in the studio with them and not learn something.”
TAKE A BAD BEAT AND MAKE IT BETTER
To make beats, Innes digs into his library of sounds from his Akai S1000 or chops up beats from his Korg Electribe into Propellerhead ReCycle. But with a few songs, he gets more creative with help from producer Andrew Weatherall and drum programmer Keith Tenniswood. “On ‘Autobahn 66,’ we had an old '70s organ that we used to have in the house,” Innes says. “It has beats like bossa nova, samba, waltz and march. We took one of those and cut it up in ReCycle, messed it up and put pieces backwards. Then, Andrew and Keith changed it a bit and put some heavier drums on it, but you can still hear our beat underneath.”
A SAMPLING OF BONKER STUDIO GEAR
Akai S1000 sampler
Alesis ADAT recorders (2)
Apple Power Mac 9600
Electro-Harmonix Micro Synthesizer effects pedal
Electro-Harmonix Super Space Drum effects pedal
Emagic Logic Audio
Korg ER-1 Electribe drum machine
Line 6 Bass Pod bass amp modeler/multi-effects unit
Moog Minimoog synth
Roland RE-201 Space Echo tape-echo machine
Roland SH-101 synth
Roland SH-2 synth
Boss Digital Dimension, Shruti box (electronic tambura)