June 13 2012 08:16 AM

Iconic noise-pop outfit faces the ups and downs of rock

Jim (left) and William Reid, pictured in the old days
Photo by Andy Catlin/Warner Bros. Records

Few bands in the past 30 years have embodied the spirit of rock ‘n’ roll—loud, rebellious and volatile—as well as The Jesus and Mary Chain. And in 1998, the band celebrated all of rock’s messy, excessive glory through a triumphant anthem, written by Jim Reid, called “I Love Rock ’n’ Roll.”

The leadoff track on their final album, Munki, “I Love Rock ’n’ Roll” is the story of the band in a nutshell: A messed-up kid finds an electric guitar and rises to glory through the promise of three chords and a good time. Yet by this point, the band had grown exhausted and frustrated with the music industry. And to close out Munki, Jim’s brother and songwriting partner, William Reid, wrote “I Hate Rock ’n’ Roll”—a pointed barb at MTV, the BBC and “all these people with nothing to show.”

The duality of these songs speaks to the turbulent and sometimes contradictory nature of the band and its two key personalities. The Jesus and Mary Chain’s early tracks, like “Never Understand” and “The Living End,” are piercing explosions of melodic noise that sound both unusually hostile and accessibly tuneful. The Reid brothers frequently got into heated fights offstage (and sometimes on). Alcoholic enhancement exacerbated the tension of their notoriously intense, short performances.

The band broke up in 1998 but reunited in 2007. In the years since, the chaos that reigned during those earlier days has tapered. Jim Reid, now 50, has mellowed considerably. He argues a lot less with his brother, he says, though their sibling rivalry flares up occasionally.

“We do fight, and there’s no getting around it,” Reid tells CityBeat, speaking by phone from his home in Scotland. “But we’re a wee bit more adult about it, and we don’t annoy the shit out of each other.”

While the Reids kept to their separate projects postbreakup—William fronting Lazycame and Jim heading up Freeheat—their infectious, feedback-driven noise-rock influenced a new generation. The Phil Spector-meets-Velvet Underground pop of 1985s Psychocandy, the mechanized crunch of 1989’s Automatic, even their fashion sense of dark sunglasses and leather jackets—it all began to show up in the music of bands like The Raveonettes and Black Rebel Motorcycle Club. In the 2003 film Lost in Translation, Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson say a tearful goodbye to each other over the group’s classic single, “Just Like Honey.”

These days, even more bands owe a debt to The Jesus and Mary Chain, from noise-mongers A Place to Bury Strangers to Brooklyn twee-pop outfit Vivian Girls to local post-punks Crocodiles.

“It’s obviously flattering,” Reid humbly offers. “But in 1985, I couldn’t imagine that, in 2012, there would be bands making music because of what we did then.”

The league of newer bands displaying a clear Jesus and Mary Chain influence is, fittingly, a continuation of the band’s practice of paying homage to their own heroes. The mark of artists like The Velvet Underground and The Stooges is apparent in much of their work. And “Just Like Honey” incorporates the now-famous opening beat from The Ronettes’ 1963 girl-group classic “Be My Baby.” That particular similarity is somewhat coincidental, contends Reid, though he argues that borrowing is a major part of popular music.

“You probably wouldn’t believe me, but I don’t think we were thinking about ‘Be My Baby,’” he says. “But even if we were, rock music, pop music, it’s all just recycled bits of music we’ve all heard before. There’s nothing that’s new. Rolling Stones? Chuck Berry! Everybody takes bits they’ve heard from the past.

“If you just copy, and it’s just pure pastiche, then there’s nothing interesting about that,” he continues. “But if you borrow bits of other songs and reconstruct them with new elements, there’s nothing wrong with that.

“I think it’s kind of on a cycle,” he adds. “You stay around long enough and you find you’re back where you started.”

In retrospect, it probably signaled trouble for The Jesus and Mary Chain that “I Hate Rock ’n’ Roll” was the last song they released. William and Jim were living on different continents at the time, the band was drinking heavily and a disappointing tour reached an anti-climax at a tepid dinner-theater show. That’s what sealed it: Despite Jim’s praise of rock ’n’ roll’s promise, the fun had finally been sucked out of rock music.

When the band re-launched five years ago for a performance at Coachella, Reid admitted to being nervous about jumping back into it, particularly after having stopped drinking (“It was my crutch,” he says). Five years into the reunion, though, Reid says he feels more at ease than he did during the band’s heyday.

“It feels more natural than it did in the ’80s and ’90s—it’s much more relaxed,” he says. “In the very beginning of the band—I can’t speak for everyone, but we were all very nervous. So that’s why I had to drink so much before I played. I’m such a shy person, and to be a frontman in a rock ’n’ roll band was quite daunting, and I drank and I drank.”

Now, he says, “we don’t need to do this. We just do it because we want to.”

Despite their recent live activity, the Reid brothers have released only one new song since reuniting: “All Things Must Pass,” a classic fuzz-rocker in the vein of their 1992era, Honey’s Dead-style tunes, which appeared on the soundtrack to NBC drama Heroes in 2008. Yet Reid confirms that he and William have been writing new music.

“We do have the songs; it’s just a question of how to record them,” he says. “I didn’t want to spend tons of money on some Hollywood recording studio. You can record on a computer just as well as anyone else nowadays. I know we could do it and it would be a good record, but we’re not The Rolling Stones or U2.”

Looking back upon his and William’s love / hate relationship with rock music, Reid maintains a fondness for both his musical love letter and his brother’s list of grievances, yet he emphasizes the importance of telling the glamorous and frustrating sides of the story. When asked if he still loves rock ’n’ roll, Reid is quick with an answer.

“Rock ’n’ roll gave me my life,” he says. “I was on the dole, living in the middle of fucking nowhere. And suddenly I was traveling the world. It gave me an identity and a future.

“Rock and roll is everything to me.”

The Jesus and Mary Chain play with Cold Cave, DJ Mario Orduno and Phantom Radio at House of Blues on Sunday, June 17. thejesusandmarychain.co.uk

Write to editor@sdcitybeat.com