The Jesus and Mary Chain are Back, Basking in Damage and Joys Alike

Music Features The Jesus and Mary Chain
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The Jesus and Mary Chain are Back, Basking in Damage and Joys Alike

Note: This piece appears in Paste Quarterly #1, which you can purchase here, along with its accompanying vinyl Paste sampler.

When The Jesus and Mary Chain took the stage at Houston’s Day for Night Festival in mid-December 2016, they had never sounded bigger. Vocalist Jim Reid—clad in a rock-star uniform of stripes and leather—swaggered through a career-spanning set, including one of the blackened pop group’s most famous songs, a barreling take on “Head On” from their 1989 album Automatic. His brother, William Reid, stood nearby, ensconced in front of a tower of Marshall stacks and coaxing unholy noises from his guitar. Their collective distortion rattled through the festival grounds, piercing the thick night air and every eardrum within a several-mile radius. It was tough to believe they’d ever left.

Dreamed up by the Reid brothers back in 1983 in their shared bedroom in East Kilbride, Scotland, the Jesus and Mary Chain has always been anchored by the pair’s complementary talents for harnessing throttling noise into sticky-sweet pop nougat. Yet it’s the two of them who have catalyzed the band’s undoing, too. The brothers’ tensions, which ranged from arguments to full-on physical altercations, were never too far removed from their early lightning-rod performances. Sibling spats aren’t unheard of, especially in the music industry (ahem, Oasis’s Liam and Noel Gallagher).

Yet many of those disagreements also stemmed from the Reids’ tendency to be hands-on with everything involving the band, from producing to writing, which can become a kind of pressure cooker when you’re on the road, in tight spots and always within each other’s peripheral vision. “When you make a record and it’s down to me and William, sometimes the pressure of that can be a lot to do with why we, you know, go in for each other,” Jim tells Paste. The brawl/begrudging forgiveness cycle went on from the Psychocandy era well through the late 1990s, until they called it quits for good shortly after the release of their album Munki. “After every tour we wanted to kill each other, and after the last one we nearly succeeded,” Jim has said in the past.

That was in 1998. Following the breakup, William Reid began performing his own music (and occasionally some Psychocandy cuts) solo, and Jim embarked on his own, starting the band Freeheat with The Gun Club’s Nick Sanderson and Romi Mori, and Ben Lurie. By then, Jim had started a family, too. Despite the Atlantic Ocean and a gulf of misunderstandings between them, the two brothers started talking again in 2007, when they put together an album with their sister, Linda, called Little Pop Rock.

That same year, Jim’s band received an enticing offer from Coachella; first for his solo band to perform at the mammoth festival, which then snowballed into a full-on idea to get the Mary Chain back together. With time between them, the two went for it, and performed at the festival—the same performance that featured the actress Scarlett Johansson, whose film Lost in Translation featured the band’s sweet number “Just Like Honey,” assisting on vocals for the shimmering duet with Jim. Mary Chain touring continued after that, in various fits and starts. Then, in 2014 and 2015, the band took their landmark debut album Psychocandy on the road in an extensive international tour to mark its 30th anniversary.

Experiencing rarely performed Psychocandy cuts is a rush—yet nostalgia can only scratch a particular kind of itch. Now the Jesus and Mary Chain is back, truly, with a new album entitled Damage and Joy. It’s their seventh studio album, and it’s being released nearly 20 years after their last. It seemed impossible, but coming back together was an inevitability. As author and Mary Chain biographer Zoe Howe notes in her book, Barbed Wire Kisses: “The Reid brothers might have been more inclined to brooding silences and dark moods, but what is also clear is the fierce loyalty they have to each other.”

Sometimes that loyalty takes years to fully take hold again, though. When talk of recording a new album started back in 2007, Jim says “the usual kind of bickerings that plagued the band earlier in the ’90s seemed to boil back to the surface.” The arguments ranged from where the album would be recorded (William was pushing for a “big Hollywood studio,” says Jim) and how exactly that would happen (Jim has said he was keen on using ProTools instead). The question of the album’s sound was also a contested subject, with William wanting to experiment more and Jim insisting on more of a continuation of where we last saw the band 19 years ago. “It started to become, like, ‘Do I really want to do this?’” Jim says. “It got kind of shoved on the back burner for years, really, because any time the subject came up it was back to the pistols-at-dawn routine.”

On top of that, Jim was hesitant to spend months away from his family (he lives in Devon, England, while William lives in Los Angeles). “At the time we got back together … my kids were very young and I didn’t really want to disappear for months on end. William wanted to do it in L.A., and I just didn’t want to go; it wasn’t something I was interested in doing. My kids are a bit older now, you know, I’m separated from my wife. The blissful family life I had back in 2007 is no longer there,” he says, laughing. “My kids are a bit older, I’m not really married anymore, so I thought, ‘Fuck it. Why the hell not? I can go anywhere and make a record now.’ And spending months in some big Hollywood studio was no longer what [William] was thinking of. So it seemed like a good time to make a record.” Eventually, the brothers both retreated from their standoff and set about making what would become Damage and Joy.

It also helps that for the first time in their recording history, the band—famously hands-on with every aspect of the recording, not to mention insular—enlisted a producer to lend an ear in the studio. That person was Youth (Killing Joke’s Martin Glover), who also played bass on Damage and Joy. “We thought rather than a producer he would be more like a referee, and that’s kind of the way that it worked out,” Jim says. “And also Youth is a great bass player … and he was coming up with ideas that we might not have thought of. It was good to just have another person’s input.” Damage and Joy was recorded at a somewhat leisurely pace, too, mostly at Youth’s place in Granada, Spain, as well as Dublin and London, in between tour dates for the Psychocandy reunion tour. “We’d zip off, play some shows and come back to the studio, more or less,” he says.

The resulting work is well-sheened pop retrospective, tracing the Mary Chain’s trajectory since we last left them. There are doomy swells that could fool you as Munki b-sides, more rollicking numbers that sound like they were penned during the Automatic era, and a good dose of brassy experimentation in the likes of “Simian Split.” “Some of the [songs] have been knocking around in one shape or another for quite a while now,” Jim says. “But yeah, some of them are pretty much brand new. A collection of different periods, really, of our lives since the Mary Chain broke up. It’s about the brothers, it’s about us, and it’s about what makes us tick.” Part of that tick is the Reids’ distinctive gallows humor, which has led them to write songs about being “cut dead” and likening themselves to being “as dead as a Christmas tree” in the past. To wit: In the press release for Damage and Joy, Jim says, “We started to—can you believe?—listen to each other a bit more. In the last couple of years, we’ve buried the hatchet to some degree, and thankfully not into each other.”

The album’s title, Damage and Joy, is rooted in the same kind of sick humor. It’s inspired by the English translation of the German schadenfreude, a catch-all term describing the kind of perverse joy some people experience from seeing other’s misfortunes. “You can read too much into it, but we just liked how it sounded: Damage and Joy,” Jim says. “And the schadenfreude thing was also—yeah. It kind of tickles our funny bone, what can I say?” Look no further than a song like “Song For A Secret”—which features Jim ruminating on being “too old to crucify, but too young for suicide” while a sound reminiscent of church bells chimes nearby—to get a sense of how the Reids get their kicks, as well as the kinds of dualities they’ve always explored: Of psycho and candy, heaven and hell, and now damage and joy.

There’s also a sense of forgiveness here on numbers like “All Things Must Pass” (an older number, but revamped this time around), which finds Jim singing over William’s taut guitar lines: “Hey, get out of the way/All things must pass/But not too fast.” But even more surprising is the presence of a hardened and revelatory tenderness to Damage and Joy, too. It’s in tunes such as “Presedici (Et Chapaquiditch),” which sounds almost uplifting (a Mary Chain first) as Jim sings “if you don’t know yourself/it’s bad for your health.” Yet the pain is laid out bare, as well. In the album’s first single, “Amputation,” Jim speaks plainly about feeling like he’d been cut dead once again, this time by the world. “At the time that that song was written, it felt like we were in exile: The band had split up, and it felt like no one was interested in anything that we had to say or any music we had to make,” he says. “And that’s what I felt like: a rock ’n’ roll amputation, that I’d been chopped off from the main body of the music business—forced exile.”

In a way, the Mary Chain always operated with one foot firmly outside the capital-P pop machine. Sure, they made their fair share of magazine covers and appeared on Top of the Pops. But in the mid-1980s, part of their impetus for creating such a memorable racket of a debut album, Psychocandy, stemmed from the fact that there was nothing on the radio that spurred them. It was a call to arms. “We’ve never really liked the kind of pop status quo, if you like,” Jim says. “We’ve always felt that nobody makes records like this. ‘Why don’t we do this?’ I guess it’s the same now.” The only differences are the fraught state of the music industry itself (“It’s revolting, but in a completely different way now,” he says) and time. “It’s different [now] to what it was back in the day,” he says. “It seemed like life or death back when you were younger. If this thing doesn’t fly, I might have to jump off a fucking bridge or something like that, you know?”

While Damage and Joy’s occasionally combative lyrics suggest otherwise (“I hate my brother and he hates me/That’s the way it’s supposed to be,” Jim sings at one point), Damage and Joy ultimately finds The Jesus and Mary Chain compromising on what were differences in the past. Case in point: The story about how the album’s cover, depicting the words Damage and Joy in alphabet soup letters, came about. “As usual, we couldn’t agree on a cover, and we had several covers we were bickering about,” Jim says. “It was getting close to a deadline, and eventually out of pure desperation I took a photo of a plate of alphabetti spaghetti and that was it. I was like, ‘Fuck it, what about this?’ Everybody just kind of looked at it and at first laughed. And then they went, ‘Huh. Actually that’s not bad.’”

It marks a new kind of working rhythm for the brothers, too. Jim says that having Youth in the studio was a positive turn for the band, and that he wouldn’t rule out having someone in the studio again in the future. It was also proof that the ties that bind the brothers are stronger than the forces that break them. “As it turns out, we kind of could have done without that supervision,” Jim says. “I mean, Youth was good. I’m not taking anything away from what he did. But I think we were probably overly nervous—when we actually got in the studio, we were getting on much better than we ever have or have done for a long time, so I reckon we can make more records without killing each other.”

What won’t kill the Reids, either, is if the reception to Damage and Joy is less than glowing (though Jim is quick to say that it’s a “damn good record”). “Obviously, I want people to like it. I want it to do well. But if it doesn’t, I can live with that,” he says. “I can deal with this record not succeeding. But if a few damaged people out there get some joy from it, that’s good enough for me.”