The Jesus and Mary Chain’s rock ‘n’ roll legacy

The Jesus and Mary Chain interview

Jim Reid has a cold. His band, The Jesus and Mary Chain, is midway through a European tour in support of their eighth album, Glasgow Eyes—released earlier this year via Fuzz Club—and the long days, tight-packed travel conditions, and brisk spring nights have made the Scottish alt-rock greats the perfect target for seasonal viruses. 

“Bunch of guys all on a bus together—germs everywhere,” Reid tells me over the phone. 

It may not be the glamor of rock ‘n’ roll, but it’s certainly the reality. “The glamor is a myth, unless you’re the Rolling Stones,” Reid confirms. “This has probably been the most intensive touring schedule we’ve taken on for quite a long time. So, it’s hard going, but at the same time, the good bits are still good, so it’s still worth doing.”

Thankfully, for The Jesus and Mary Chain, 2024 has been overwhelmingly stacked with good bits so far. First and foremost, the shoegaze and noise-pop pioneers are celebrating their 40th anniversary—a major milestone for any band, let alone for one that famously combusted on stage at LA’s House of Blues in 1998 before splitting up for nearly a decade. They’ve had some other career highs too. Glasgow Eyes, their second full-length since they reunited in 2007 (it follows 2017’s Damage and Joy), debuted at number 7 on the UK charts—making it their first album to crack the Top 10 since their 1988 compilation, Barbed Wire Kisses. Soon after Europe, they’ll head to Pasadena, California as a top-billed act on the new wave, goth, and postpunk heavy Cruel World festival, before packing their bags once again for a string of summer dates in Asia, Australia, and New Zealand.

Before all that, though, the Jesus and Mary Chain will travel to Tilburg, Netherlands, where they’ll headline the final night of the 2024 Roadburn Festival, a tastemaking event in the heavy music world that draws a few thousand devotees from across the planet for every edition. The band’s name stands out on the eclectic bill for several reasons. 

For one, they’ve had one of the longest and most commercially successful careers of any act in the festival’s history. The band, which Reid formed in 1983 with his brother, guitarist Jim Reid, exploded into the alt-rock era with the release of their 1985 debut Psychocandy, which merged unbridled punk spirit with crystalline pop melody and stadium-sized guitar fuzz. For the next decade plus, they maintained a heavy presence on college and alternative radio, MTV, and other platforms (they’re quite possibly the only Roadburn band to ever have been namechecked on an episode of The Simpsons) without compromising their artistic integrity. When their music changed directions, whether adopting drum machines or delving into Americana, it was because they followed their own instincts rather than chasing trends or succumbing to outside pressures.

The Mary Chain’s appeal remains strong. In fact, their music (specifically “Head On,” from 1989’s Automatic) was playing over the soundsystem of the self-consciously hip corporate cafe chain where I grabbed an iced coffee shortly before writing this sentence. Much less anecdotally, they’ve cast such an influence on generations of shoegazers, indie rockers, psychedelic punks, and other musical oddballs that four decades into their career, they’re hailed as elder rock statesmen rather than relics. Reid points to the internet as a gateway for new crops of listeners.

“If you get a young band that says they’re into the Mary Chain, that band’s fans will just make a couple of clicks and they’ll be listening to Psychocandy or watching our videos from 1986. It earns you loads of new listeners, new Mary Chain fans, or even people that are just curious,” he says. 

The result has been reflected in their audiences on recent tours. “I think there’s a whole, good, healthy cross section of different types of people and ages [at our concerts]. It’s just very diverse across the board,” Reid says. “And that’s what any band ought to hope for.” 

But even bands regarded as unquestionably cool in broader rock culture can verge on unknown among much of Roadburn’s core audience, and vice versa; The most buzzed about acts in any given edition might include bedroom black metal artists making their live debut, reunions of long-lost cult favorites (their 2024 announcements made waves for including the first performance of avant-metal greats Khanate in nearly two decades), and noncommercial music of varying shapes and volumes. 

Some of the disconnect could be chalked up to Roadburn’s foundations in metal and stoner rock—genres whose subcultures were, for decades, quite separate from punk and alternative, despite shared musical roots and anti-establishment ethos. Not that the Mary Chain were ever too concerned with following the norms. “To me, music should be about individuality,” Reid says. “It shouldn’t be about cliques and people that all band together; It should be about experimentation and trying out different ideas and things. That’s what we’ve always tried to do.”

While some music fans will forever stick to their comfort zones, the way people experience and consume music has evolved since the ’80s and ’90s, and especially since the dawn of the social media and streaming era. Likewise, so has the shape of Roadburn. In an attempt to challenge audiences and platform new talent, their lineups have grown increasingly diverse, veering outside the psych and metal realm to include styles like hardcore, goth rock, noise, industrial hip-hop, and avant-garde jazz. 

That all adds up to make the Jesus and Mary Chain’s Roadburn booking feel like a stroke of curatorial brilliance and a total wildcard. But with Glasgow Eyes, the band seem as poised ever to win over curious listeners. The album, which was recorded at Mogwai’s Castle of Doom studio in Glasgow, leans into their experimental predilections, with a pronounced heavy synth edge coursing through tracks like the propulsive opener “Venal Joy.” 

“We were always into bands like D.A.F. and stuff like that,” Reid says. “When we were recording Psychocandy, that was a massive influence to us. It might not have been that obvious, but it was there. And we’ve always loved Kraftwerk, and electronic music and industrial music; Cabaret Voltaire was on the turntable back in the early eighties.” 

On Glasgow Eyes, the band merge those influences with a characteristic bedrock of melody, fuzz, and rock ‘n’ roll swagger. “Girl 71” is a bouncy ode to living for the moment while “Chemical Animal” is breathy, psych-pop rumination on self-medicating to hide the pain. “It’s the same guys making the records, so lthere’s going to be a thread that runs through, but we’ve always tried to reinvent the band with every album.” Reid says. “If you’re going to make the same album over and over again, there’s kind of no point.” 

One thing that’s indisputably changed is the Reids’ outlook on life; these days the brothers are able to examine past turbulence with near 20/20 vision. “When you’re younger, the future is exciting—everything is forward facing,” Reid says. “You get to your sixties and the future’s kind of depressing. It’s bleak. The next step is the fucking graveyard. You don’t want to look that way. So what you tend to do is reflect a lot about what you’ve done, and perhaps the things that you did wrong and what you could have done differently.”

“We don’t tailor our music to anybody else’s expectations. We sink or swim based on what feels good to us.”

Jim Reid

That introspective streak peaks out from beneath the deceptively sunny veneer of “Second of June” as well as on acerbic single, “Jamcod,” which immortalizes the night of the fight that broke up the band. “I can laugh now about that night, but I couldn’t for a long, long time,” Reid says. “If people brought up that subject, I would just tense up and change the subject. I didn’t want to talk about that. Then years pass and you start to think, ‘Well, fuck.’ You know what I mean? Nobody died. We fell out for years, but we’re talking now, and the band exists again. So was it really that bad?”

Seventeen years into the Jesus and Mary Chain’s second era, those bad times are far away in the rear view mirror. As they begin their Roadburn set with a one-two punch of “Jamcod” and their 1987 classic “Happy When it Rains,” it’s clear that 40 years into their career, they can still put on a helluva show. But it’s also clear they weren’t entirely in their element. The spacious room never completely filled up, and while hundreds of alt rockers, shoegazers, and bearded heshers in battle vests clamored toward the front of the stage, further back, several of the band’s classic cuts failed to elicit the knowing sort of reaction you’d expect at a Jesus and Mary Chain performance on a more rock- or punk-oriented festival. Still, (perhaps unsurprisingly given the environment), if much of the crowd seemed unmoved by the calmer, sweeter-sounding side of the Mary Chain, their bigger, and noisier songs kicked nearly everyone into gear. 

As the band closed out amid outsized walls of droning psych, ecclesial guitar squall, and the snarling, nihilistic refrain (“I want to die like Jesus Christ”) of “Reverence,” it was tempting to imagine what sort of reaction they might have gotten had they curated a one-off set of their heaviest and most psychedelic material for the occasion, as bands such as grind icons Napalm Death have done in the past. But as Reid had told me days before, that’s not their style.

“We don’t tailor our music to anybody else’s expectations,” he said. “It’s not really the way this band works. And if that doesn’t work out for us, we’ll live with that. We sink or swim based on what feels good to us.”

Whether they sank or swam at Roadburn might depend on who you ask, but by their own terms, they certainly swam. Following their set, midwest trio Cloakroom closed down the main stage with a sludgy, spacey mix of doom and shoegaze. Watching the crowd grow increasingly entranced by the band’s dreamiest and most pop-forward moments underlined the sense that when it comes to heavy music, the Jesus and Mary Chain’s influence might overshadow their name recognition. It might not be a conventional rock ‘n’ roll legacy, but then again, nothing about the Jesus and Mary Chain is conventional. And bittersweet or not, it’s still exciting to think about how their music could continue to inspire generations of noisy and heavy bands to come.

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