As a box set of the Jesus and Mary Chain's music becomes available, Jim Reid talks about life in the band.
Box set celebrates a beloved 1980s band, the Jesus and Mary Chain
Exploding out of Scotland in a headline-grabbing riot of wild noise and wilder hair, the Jesus and Mary Chain became one of the most confrontational and controversial British rock bands of the 1980s. Fuelled by the volatile chemistry between the Reid brothers, the singer Jim and the guitarist William, these black-clad post-punk icons produced six terrific albums before bitter feuding finally tore them apart in the late 1990s.
"Really, our career was like a bunch of halfwits stumbling through a minefield," recalls Jim Reid with a dry laugh. "There were triumphs, there were disasters, and there were loads of missed opportunities. We really were not very well equipped to be in the music business, with the exception of being able to make quite good music."
Happily, the Reids are on slightly better terms today following a short reunion tour in 2007. They have just compiled deluxe box-set editions of their back catalogue and have even discussed making a new album together. All the same, it may be significant that the brothers now live thousands of miles apart. Jim, 49, has settled in a sleepy seaside town in south-west England with his wife and two children. Meanwhile, William, 52, who gave up doing press interviews years ago, calls Los Angeles home.
The brothers grew up in East Kilbride, a new town south of Glasgow.
"Lots of trees, lots of grass, lots of concrete as well," Reid recalls. "Most people would think East Kilbride is a pleasant place to grow up. It only becomes a problem in your teenage years, when you start becoming interested in things happening in other places. That's when you realise it's a cultural backwater."
The musician-turned-filmmaker Douglas Hart, a childhood friend of the Reids, played bass guitar on their first two classic albums, Psychocandy and Darklands. He recalls feeling like terrified small-town misfits in East Kilbride at a time when punk rock was the dominant youth movement.
"We weren't really punks; we looked like beatniks," Hart laughs. "Everyone hated us. We were total outsiders within East Kilbride, and you don't get much more of an outsider than that."
Honed for years in their shared teenage bedroom, the brothers initially made a fiercely beautiful feedback-choked noise that sounded like the Shangri Las, Bo Diddley, the Velvet Underground, the Beach Boys, Suicide and the Ramones all being forced through an industrial shredder. Their primary motivation was punk-fuelled disgust, Reid explains, not reverential homage.
"We hated what everybody else was doing - that was the main drive," he recalls. "We'd sit up all night, me and William, talking about the perfect band. And then we thought: why don't we do it? We'll make the perfect band!"
Jim and William always argued constantly. Growing up in a shared bedroom, Hart says, they learnt how to push each other's buttons. But he also recalls the making of Psychocandy as a "really conscientious, harmonious" period.
"We were so happy to have the opportunity to make this record," Hart nods. "We knew we had the insane energy and noise live, but we also knew we had the secret weapon of Jim and William's beautifully crafted pop songs."
Shunned by their native Glasgow rock scene, the Reids found a useful patron in Bobby Gillespie, who put his own nascent band Primal Scream on hold to spend a year drumming for the Jesus and Mary Chain. Gillespie also introduced the brothers to the Creation Records founder Alan McGee, who would later achieve global fame for signing Oasis, who went on to become similarly fractured. McGee invited the band down to London and became their first manager, turning them into left-field pop stars.
And the rest, of course, is hysteria. Early Jesus and Mary Chain shows were notoriously rowdy affairs, with the band arriving late and often playing for just 20 minutes. Crowd violence became commonplace. Reid blames a mix of youthful naivety and crippling stage fright.
"We didn't manipulate any of that," the singer says, "but I think afterwards McGee saw the potential in stirring things up. The riot gigs happened simply because we'd never been in a band before. We were just selfish little jerks who wanted to go onstage when we felt in the mood."
Onstage and off, the band also developed a reputation for bratty rock-star arrogance. In reality, Reid claims, they were socially inept and terrible at music-business politics.
"The arrogance was actually not true," he says. "We were incredibly shy and awkward in front of people, so we hid behind booze and pretend arrogance. But we weren't assistant bank managers, we were in a rock'n'roll band! You're supposed to get messed up and occasionally puke on people's Armani suits!"
Reid describes ongoing tensions with his brother as "both trying to squeeze into the same suit of clothes", a constant tug of war that finally hit breaking point in the late 1990s. They even ended up recording separately when they made their last album to date, Munki, in 1998.
Years of estrangement and solo projects followed, but the Jesus and Mary Chain eventually reunited and toured again in 2007. The highlight was headlining the Coachella festival in California, where the Hollywood star Scarlett Johansson duetted with Jim on Just Like Honey, in homage to the song's inclusion in Sofia Coppola's cult movie Lost in Translation.
Reid was struck by the contrast of Johansson's fame with his idea of himself as "just this little scuzzball from East Kilbride".
"But this level of fame is perfect, really," he adds. "Nobody knows who I am, but if I decide to go off and do a gig or a festival somewhere, I can be Jim of the Mary Chain for an afternoon."
Since the reunion, the Reids have discussed making another album together. Jim firmly believes the Jesus and Mary Chain will rise again - just as long as they don't kill each other first.
"Things aren't as bad between us as they once were," Reid sighs, "but we will always have a stormy relationship. At the very beginning of the band we argued, but it was always over making music. When the band broke up in the 1990s, we argued about anything. And now we are somewhere in between."
- The six Jesus and Mary Chain box-set albums began release on Rhino on September 26, starting with Psychocandy and Darklands.
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