Sound and Substance: A conversation with the Jesus and Mary Chain’s Jim Reid

William, left, and Jim Reid of the Jesus and Mary Chain (Photo by Steve Gullick)

In advance of Friday’s appearance at Substance 2022, the Jesus and Mary Chain’s Jim Reid talks about COVID, his long-running battle with stage fright, being a latecomer to jazz, getting along with his brother and what the future might hold. In the works: a book, a documentary and a new album.

If the dense yet hooky dissonance of The Jesus and Mary Chain made them pop from the pack musically when they started out some 40 years ago, it was their unconventional trajectory that made them legendary in the eras that followed. Led by Scottish brothers Jim and William Reid, the group were known for their fuzz-laden takes on Phil Spector-style pop, played in their early years under low light during short and enigmatic live shows. They swiftly won music fans over in both Europe and the U.S. Their debut album, 1985’s “Psychocandy,” remains a moody, uniquely moving classic, and their five subsequent albums thereafter have aged just as well.

■ The Jesus and Mary Chain play on Friday’s first day of Substance 2002 at the Los Angeles Theater. Single-day tickets and weekend passes are available here. Find set times here.

JAMC’s personal and professional dynamics have always been as unpredictable as their output. They broke up in 1999, reunited in 2007 (at Coachella) and took 10 years to release their most recent album, “Damage and Joy,” in 2017, the year that they played the short-lived Cloak & Dagger festival in Los Angeles. A year later, in 2018, they opened for Nine Inch Nails, ending the tour with four ferocious shows at the Hollywood Palladium. Since COVID hit in 2020, the Reid brothers have laid relatively low, with a few appearances here and there, including Glastonbury earlier this year.

Now, four years since their NIN gigs, they’re back in the U.S. this weekend for Substance, a two-day festival at downtown’s Los Angeles Theatre catering to post-punk, industrial, darkwave and goth bands — some of whom no doubt were influenced by JAMC. The Mary Chain’s effortlessly gloomy vibe still resonates, and it should fit well — although as Jim Reid tells Buzz Bands LA in an exclusive interview, getting on stage again does not come without challenges, especially his longtime bouts with stage fright. Reid also talks about what he’s listening to these days, his relationship with his brother and what JAMC fans have to look forward to in 2023.

Buzz Bands LA: When you’re on big bills like Substance, do you pay attention to the lineups and/or familiarize yourself with any of the acts, either beforehand or at the show itself?

Jim Reid: If I can, I check some out, but the trouble with me as I get quite nervous going on stage. So I can’t really be hanging around until it’s time for me to play. But, yeah, if there’s someone out there that seems like it might be on my street, I’ll make the effort to go and see them. I haven’t really looked at the lineup this time around. I will and I’m sure I will check out some of the bands.

After all these years, all the success and fans, you still get nervous?

Very, very nervous. I mean, I’m OK once I get on stage after a couple of songs, but before I go on, I find it nerve-racking and very difficult. It’s just the way it’s always been. You would think that having done it as long as I have that I would get used to it, but I never have and I’ve accepted it. Then you go out and do a song or two, and think, oh, OK, this is OK, I can deal with this.

So would you say it’s just before the show and the feeling dissipates once you start playing?

Yeah, I mean, there are those shows where you go out and it just starts to go wrong. And I think that’s what the fear is — there are some shows where shit happens and it’s out of anybody’s control and it just starts to spiral. You’re tripping over things. Or you pull your mic and the stand hits you in the face. …. There’s things that can go wrong and make you look like a bit of a twit.

So once you go out and it appears to not be one of those evenings, you settle down. But if it is one of those evenings, it tends to just be one thing after another. You just want to run away and hide. From what I can gather, nobody even notices when these little mini-disasters happen on stage. Afterwards I’m like, ‘Oh Christ. Did you see that?’ But people are like, ‘No, what are you talking about?’ So yes, it’s anxiety that probably makes no sense.

The Mary Chain are known for a dark stage atmosphere with back lighting, so in some ways isn’t that easier? I feel like you can use that to be kind of enigmatic and mysterious in how you present yourselves on stage.

The weird thing is the lights are usually quite [dark], yes. But when you’re on stage, it feels like you’re playing in a parking lot or something with floodlights pointing at you. It seems much brighter on stage than people tell me it looks from the audience.

Wow. That actually makes sense.

And a lot of the lights are pointing to the audience. So I can see very clearly the first few rows, and it feels like everybody is just, you know, observing every little speck of your appearance.

I guess sometimes as fans we don’t put ourselves in the position of the artists and their point of view. Your fan base is so passionate, I’d assume when you look out, you see people that are just adoring and into what you’re doing.

I mean, generally that’s the vibe, yeah. There are loads of Mary Chain T-shirts and usually happy faces. So yeah, it doesn’t make sense. There aren’t a lot of reasons why I should be nervous, but it’s just the way I am.

Since COVID-19 interfered with live shows and band touring, I wonder if you find yourself, even with these fears, missing the feeling and the adrenaline of performing live?

If you go through a period where you haven’t played for a long time, you do get kind of itchy to get back out there. That does happen. And the nerves, as I said to you before, are not that bad. It’s bearable. And when you haven’t played for a while, you forget about that, and you just remember the good parts, so you want to get back out there and do it again. That’s kind of like where I am right now. We played a few shows this year, but not many as we would have pre-COVID.

Speaking of COVID, as a music fan it was hard to see so many shows that we were looking forward to get canceled. At the height of things it was very scary. Artists and fans alike had to wonder if we’d ever even get to have the live music experience again?

Yeah. I’m not sure that it’’ll ever really go back to what it was like before COVID. There’s so many things you have to take into account now when you set up a tour. If you do a tour it may be 10 weeks long. You make it out there but if after say three shows, one of the band members get COVID, the tour’s over. So yeah, it’s a very nerve-racking time to be putting on rock shows.

I mean, I know that there’s lots of people that, you know, their life has been turned upside down by COVID. But we’re another one. It’s very, very difficult to plan big tours when you just don’t know what’s going to happen. We toured the end of last year in October, November or something. And we just didn’t know how it was going to go. You’ve got the band and all of the crew traveling together on a bus. You think, somebody’s got to get it and if one of us gets it, it’s just going to go through the whole bus. And then every day you’re standing in front of these people that may or may not be wearing masks, and sort of breathing in your direction. There was no way to know how that was gonna go down, but we got through it. Then at the very end of the tour, upon arrival back in the U.K., I think two of the crew tested positive. So we only just got away with it.

That was close. Had it happened while on tour you would have had to cancel right?

That’s what I’m saying — if it happens like in the middle of a tour, you know, the tour’s off, finished, that’s that. For the foreseeable future, that’s the way it is. I mean, COVID hasn’t gone away and people are acting as though it has, but it hasn’t gone away at all. I don’t know how bands do it because that’s what you hear — bands go on tour, somebody gets COVID, tour’s canceled. It makes it very difficult to plan for the future.

I’ve been noticing that friends who are musicians and in smaller bands than yours, have shared just this problem on social media. It’s really challenging because you actually lose money, right? Many bands can barely afford to put a tour together and the risk involved is just not worth it right now.

It’s difficult for any band to be honest. If we organized a tour and then had to bail halfway through because of COVID, it would cost us a lot of money, too. It’s no picnic right now, being in a band. It remains to be seen whether normality will ever return. We’ll see how it goes over the next few years.

I noticed that during lockdown and down time, you and your brother have been doing playlists on Spotify. Can you share a little bit about that? Why did you decide to do those?

Well, somebody said, ‘Do you fancy doing that?,’ and I mean, it seemed like a good idea. I used to always love making what you call mixtapes for people back in the day. Nobody does that anymore because nobody has tapes anymore. So it was kind of a good way to sort of ram your taste in music down other people’s throats. I mean, it’s always good to turn people on to different types of music, and I’m sure that there were a lot of people out there that maybe hadn’t heard of some of those songs.

Your tastes are pretty diverse.

Yeah, I mean, we like all sorts of music. All sorts. I mean anything really goes.

What would be some artists that you really love, old or new, that might surprise people?

I don’t remember what was on that Spotify playlist now, but it was probably a good cross-section of what we are into. I like to listen to Miles Davis. That may or may not be immediately apparent if you listen to our music. I wouldn’t say it comes out in our music, but I just like it. Sometimes you just want a completely different mood from what you normally listen to, like jazz or some reggae album or something like that. But yeah, jazz is something I came to quite late. I wouldn’t say I’m a massive jazz fan, but I like the greats.

That’s funny, because I’ve been having a jazz moment myself in the past couple years. I love the vibe and the mood of Miles as well as Coltrane. I also think that when you’re a rock fan, at some point, other than new stuff, you’ve kind of gone through it all already. So something like jazz feels really refreshing.

That’s the same with me. Rock music is like, I feel it’s one big cycle and there’s only so many ideas out there. If you stay tuned long enough, you’ve heard it all basically. That’s why I don’t really listen to many new bands because I know what their reference points are, and I would rather just listen to Joy Division than a bunch of young kids that have just discovered Joy Division and are kind of rehashing it.

I’m not putting anybody down, because that is essentially what rock music is. That’s what we did when we started. We took the bits and pieces from the past and reassembled them and updated them. It’s what people do, but if you stay tuned long enough, you’ve heard all the elements. Yeah, so that’s when you can think, well, what’s something that I don’t know so well, something that I’m not that familiar with, and that’s when you start to look for things more experimental.

As I was researching what you’ve been up to, I saw that you released a single through Third Man Records. You also played Glastonbury last year.

That was last year. It was just a live recording. They wanted us to do something or give them something and we’d recorded quite a few of the shows on the Nine Inch Nails tour and we thought some of them were pretty good so we put that out.

Glastonbury, we’ve only done it once before back in the 1990s. At the time that we played, we literally drove into the site, got off from a tour bus, played our show and then got back on the bus and went to I think it was Holland. Then Amsterdam the day afterwards. So we didn’t really get the full Glastonbury experience then. This time I hung around a bit, my kids were there. My daughters stayed for the whole weekend. We played on a Friday. And we stayed for Saturday and watched Paul McCartney. Then we left afterwards. It was an interesting experience. I mean, I’m probably a bit too old to rough it like that anymore. You know when I go into the toilet I really don’t enjoy it when it’s just a hole cut in a piece of plywood. I mean, I could see the appeal of it, but I think it probably makes much more sense if you’re 25 and off your tits on drugs.

Yeah, that’s how I feel about Coachella these days. When you played Coachella in 2007, I remember Scarlett Johansson came on stage and sung at that gig. You often have people come up and sing “Just Like Honey” with you at fests. Phoebe Bridgers performed it with you at Glastonbury, correct?

That’s right. Yeah. Often when we roll into town, or a festival or whatever, we have someone sing it with us. We saw that Phoebe was on the lineup and playing on the same stage, same day as us. So it seemed like, yeah, why the hell not. So we asked her. Didn’t really know her, but thought it might be quite a good idea. And she was very keen on the idea and I think that worked out really well.

Do you think you might ask someone to do it during your Substance set on Friday? If not from the lineup, maybe just someone who lives in L.A.?

Could do. I’ll give it some thought.

Can you tell us what you have planned for upcoming projects in terms of releasing, touring?

We started to record an album before COVID, but like everything else it got shelved for a while. Then we started recording it again last year. Then we went on tour, so we got interrupted again. I’ve recorded bits and pieces in a studio near where I live. But we’re looking to get back into the studio again, after this little run of shows. There’s a live record coming out from the Nine Inch Nails tour, actually from the L.A. show. That should be next year.

That L.A. Palladium show with Nine Inch Nails was so great, so I think a lot of people are going to want that one. But new Jesus and the Mary Chain material is even more exciting. How much is completed on that?

We’ve recorded a whole bunch of songs, but not completely. There’s still a lot of recording to do and we haven’t even started mixing anything yet. I just don’t know when, but there will be a new Mary Chain record out next year.

Do you have any info as far as the name of the album or song titles or even sound influences?

Nothing like that yet. The only thing I could say is sonically, it’s kind of experimental; we’re using some drum machines and synthesizers, so it will sound like the Mary Chain, but maybe not exactly.

Anything else you’re working on after these shows you have coming up?

There’s talk about a book … so we’re in the middle of doing a Mary Chain biography. There’s also the idea of doing a documentary movie. So we’ve kind of been talking to a guy that’s probably going to do that. A guy called Ben Unwin. He did some of our videos back in the 90s.

So do you and your brother William live in the same place these days?

No, I live in Devon in the southwest of England. And William lives in Tucson.

Your relationship has had its ups and down over the years, as fans know. Do you guys keep in touch beyond music making?

You know, we still bicker. We’ve gotten better when there’s a few thousand miles between us. Yeah, I mean, it’s OK. Our relationship’s probably pretty healthy at the moment. Certainly there have been times where it wasn’t. So we can count on seeing eye-to-eye at the moment.

That’s great to hear. I would assume that getting together on stage is enjoyable at this point?

It always is. And I’m looking forward to doing that again.