Honey's not dead
Ten years ago, an interview with one of the Jesus and Mary Chain's Reid brothers, Jim and William, would have been a train wreck--especially if the interview took place at 10 a.m. At that hour, the boys would be either shaking off a hangover or starting on a new one; besides, they didn't much like talking to the media. Journalists only wanted to ask the duo about the numerous drug references in their songs, or the riots that seemed to break out at every Jesus and Mary Chain gig. Back then, the Reids preferred to let their music do the talking, but if that wasn't enough to convince people they were the best band in the world, they weren't above saying it themselves. They just didn't like having to do it.
But people stopped saying that the Jesus and Mary Chain were one of the best bands around a long time ago. People stopped saying anything about the Jesus and Mary Chain a while back. The band--pink-slipped by its longtime record label, Warner Bros., and abandoned by many of its fans--has had to start all over again, and part of that job is doing interviews, even at 10 a.m. On the phone from his Los Angeles hotel room, JAMC singer-guitarist Jim Reid doesn't seem to mind the early hour. In fact, he requested the time himself.
As Reid discusses his band's latest album--Munki, released in June on Seattle-based indie Sub Pop--and the Jesus and Mary Chain's place in today's world, his Scottish burr is reminiscent of the music that he has been making for the past 14 years: sweet, melodic at times, and nearly obscured by buzz and fuzz. But the rattle and hum in his voice can't conceal the humility that is also present, the kind of modesty that comes when you find yourself out on the curb with the rest of the refuse. When Reid speaks, it's evident from his words that this isn't the same brash young man who once boasted that if Psychocandy--the band's 1985 debut--could be played in front of a stadium-sized audience, the music world would be changed forever.
He isn't likely to be making those kinds of we're-gonna-take-over-the-world statements these days. His old bravado left when Warner Bros. did. Now, he isn't even sure that the Jesus and Mary Chain accomplished anything, uncertain that all those years of combining white pop and white noise had any purpose at all.
"I meet people in bands who seem to give us some sort of credit, but I don't know," Reid says. "I don't know how many people care or how much they care. I just hope that some people do. It'd be kind of arrogant of me to go strutting around saying, 'We've changed a lot of people's lives.' I hope that people have learned a thing or two from what we've done. I think--I hope--that we have had an effect on music and the music scene in some small way."
While it's understandable that Reid would hesitate to claim any place in history for his band after being cast aside by Warner Bros., it tends to understate the importance of the Jesus and Mary Chain. Formed in East Kilbride, Scotland, in 1984, the band was one of the most influential bands of the '80s and early '90s, writing songs that sounded at once like blasts from the past and the sound of the future. It was one of those rare bands that was born fully formed; its best moments were its first.
Psychocandy--voted "Album of the Eighties" by the British music newspaper Melody Maker--sounded like Lou Reed jamming with the Ramones on some old Beach Boys song, while Iggy Pop held a vacuum cleaner up to a microphone; timeless pop melodies hanging 10 on tidal waves of feedback and distortion. Darklands, delivered in 1987, sounded like the same album being played in the desert at midnight. The band's music was beautiful and chaotic and thrilling and everything else that great rock songs--that great songs--should be. As Creation Records boss Alan McGee said when he signed the band to his fledgling label in 1985, "I had to sign them. They were either the best or the worst band I had ever seen."
Creation Records is really where the Jesus and Mary Chain's story started. Though the band's contract with Creation produced only one single, "Upside Down," it was a single good enough to put both the band and the label on the map. Today, Creation is one of the most successful labels in England, and the home to another band led by a pair of bickering brothers, Oasis. At the time, though, the label was little more than an idea and a little bit of money. The Jesus and Mary Chain was just an idea. "Upside Down"--a glorious mess of mumbled vocals and spiraling feedback--sold 35,000 copies, an impressive number for an indie label, enough to help McGee and Creation take its first steps. So naturally, McGee was willing to help when the band found itself tasting the floor after more than a decade on Warner Bros. He signed the band to a three-record contract and helped it find a North American record label.
"Creation was pretty much advising us not to go through who the rest of their bands go through in America, saying that we'd probably be better off looking for someone else in America," Reid says. "The guy that kind of manages us at the moment, he knows people at Sub Pop. He just suggested that we try Sub Pop. We met them, and they said all the right things. It just seemed like the same kind of vibe as we got in Britain with Creation: people that are into the music. It feels good. You know, we had been kind of been watching the rise of Creation over the past couple of years, and felt that we'd like to be part of it. Of course, we couldn't. So, it's good to be back."
Reid sounds like a rookie big-leaguer recently called up from the minors, just happy to be on the team. He may not be entirely comfortable with the Jesus and Mary Chain's current position, picking up the pieces on Sub Pop and Creation after more than a decade on Warner Bros., but he's not complaining. After all, any record label is better than none at all.
"Looking back on it now, it worked out pretty much for the best," he allows. "I mean, of course, at the time...We'd been on Warner Bros. for years. It was a long, long time that the relationship had gone on, and then suddenly to just be told that they weren't interested anymore was a bit of a shock. It kind of dents your confidence a little bit."
In the end, the band was as much to blame for its dismissal from Warner Bros. as anyone at the label. The Jesus and Mary Chain's last proper album, 1994's quieter Stoned and Dethroned, was a disappointment, deservedly rejected by critics and fans alike. It was the band's attempt to get on the radio, even including a Lee Hazelwood-Nancy Sinatra duet ("Sometimes Always") between Jim and Mazzy Star's Hope Sandoval, William's on-again, off-again girlfriend. The band's trademark guitar pyrotechnics were toned down, and sometimes forsaken, for an undistinguished light-rock approach that probably had more than a few people thinking that their CD player must be broken. It was an abrupt departure from the bubble-gum-and-broken-glass sound of Honey's Dead, released only two years earlier. In relation to the band's work up until that point, Stoned and Dethroned sounded as if the Jesus and Mary Chain had lost the plot, the actors, and the stage.
It didn't help that the band followed up Stoned and Dethroned with The Jesus and Mary Chain Hate Rock 'n' Roll, its third rarities compilation, joining 1988's Barbed Wire Kisses and 1993's The Sound of Speed. Except for four new tracks (the title track also appears on Munki), the album was a wasteland of alternate takes, dance mixes, and B-side-quality B-sides. It almost seemed as though the band wanted Warner Bros. to get rid of it.
From the sound of Munki, getting dropped was the best thing that could have happened to the band. The album is almost like a Jesus and Mary Chain best-of re-written with different lyrics, a testament to the fact that while the band may have only come up with one idea in its career, it was a great one. Bracketed by "I Love Rock 'n' Roll" and "I Hate Rock 'n' Roll," Munki is sort of a concept album that examines the band's career, from early inspirations ("Stardust Remedy") to later frustrations ("Birthday"). Reid claims that was never the intention, just a side effect of years of bottled-up tension.
"An album just kind of happens almost, takes its own direction," he says. "We didn't really make any blueprint or plan for the album. We did want to sound kind of more band-like, more like a bunch of people playing music together rather than layers of guitars and stuff. That was about the only decision that we had made, to just let it go a bit."
The result is a return to the kind of pedal-pushing cacophony for which the band is known. The eerie "Commercial" sounds like a lost track from the recording sessions for Psychocandy, and songs such as "Black" and "Cracking Up" wouldn't sound out of place on Honey's Dead, as the band creates melody out of droning repetition. The best cut on the album is "Stardust Remedy," which sounds like something Phil Spector might have produced if he were around now, a wall of sound built with bricks of shimmering, shimmying guitar noise. The lyrics reach back to Jim and William's teenage years, growing up during England's punk revolution of the late '70s.
"When the whole punk thing happened, a lot of things came into focus, were clarified in our minds," Jim says. "When I heard punk rock, I knew what I was gonna do with my life, although lazily, I didn't really do anything about it for a couple of years. I just sat around thinking, 'One day I'll do this.' Then eventually, it just got to the point where it was now or never, if I don't do something about this now, I'm never gonna do it."
Munki probably won't make people who hear it immediately go out and start a band, the way that the Sex Pistols and the Clash made the Reids form the Jesus and Mary Chain, or the way that Psychocandy and Darklands inspired many to do the same, but it offers proof the band never lost its brilliance; perhaps it just forgot it somewhere along the way. Jim and William Reid may never be stars again, but they don't care about that anymore, and they probably never really did. The band's importance lies in the way that it showed young musicians everywhere a new way to do things.
"I think that there are lessons to be learned if you listen to the Mary Chain," Reid concludes. "We're not about spending 10 years learning how to play an instrument. We're about buying it, getting onstage, and seeing what noises you can make it do. Our music, I guess, in the years has changed, inasmuch as we can play better now than we could in 1984 when we started. But you know, we've still kept that kind of basic, punk-rock element in our music. No bullshit. That's what it's all about."
The Jesus and Mary Chain perform September 20 at Caravan of Dreams in Fort Worth.
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