As I traipsed along the leafy streets of London's Primrose Hill, eye-spying an endless stream of high-end restaurants and million-pound houses, I began thinking I'd been given the wrong address. Could this really be the locale where the legendary Primal Scream boys had been hanging out for the last 20 years, shaking the streets with cranked-to-11 all-night jams and cutting crazed, raucous rock 'n' roll records like XTRMNTR and Evil Heat? When guitar man and engineer extroadinaire Andrew Innes opened an unassuming door and ushered me inside, I realised I couldn't have been more wrong. I was now entering The Bunker, Primal Scream's vibrant studio. Spending a few hours chatting to Andrew and front-man Bobby Gillespie couldn't have been more of a pleasure, and I even scored a privileged listen to a couple of killer mixes from the band's upcoming long player, More Light. Sadly, it looks like it'll be the final album ever recorded there.
It's always so gutting to hear that yet another historic studio is biting the dust. What's happening to The Bunker?
Andrew: We think this whole complex of little businesses is going to be reduced to a block of flats, which seems to be the way of the whole world. Every space in London seems to be turning into two bed flats, and it's really depressing. We noticed they had some guys out measuring stuff with theodolites. We thought, "Oh, there's something going on." A couple of months later the people who own the property said we'd be getting thrown out in about a year's time...
Bobby: Yeah, it's fucking awful. I can't get my head 'round it to be honest. I was getting really sentimental last week because all the music's in the walls. There are so many great memories and I'm really sad about it. I keep telling myself that we're not going to have to move and the guy hasn't got planning permission yet. It's such an incredible place; loads of other musicians have recorded with us and played in here too. Bernard Sumner [New Order], Kevin Shields [My Bloody Vanentine], Will Sergeant [Echo & the Bunnymen], Mark Stewart [The Pop Group], Paul Weller, and Linda Thompson have all been through. We've had half The Clash here [Mick Jones and Paul Simonon]. Robert Plant's recorded here with us a couple of times.
A: And Joey Ramone came 'round...
B: Oh, that was the best. Joey Ramone came down one night when we were mixing a track called "When The Kingdom Comes." He really dug it and he complimented us on the track. I think he said something like, "It's really great to hear people playing real rock'n'roll!" Or in my mind, that's what he said! We were fucking humbled because he's a real fucking hero for us guys.
Andrew, I understand that you got interested in recording almost as soon as you first started playing music...
A: Yeah, when I was a kid I got an old Grundig tape recorder from the jumble sale for £1.50 with a "magic eye" and a microphone, and I started to record on that. Then I got a 2-track Tensai cassette recorder. You recorded onto the left-hand side of the cassette, then the right-hand side, and then you could mix — it also has a built-in drum machine. I've still got it here. I got that in about 1980. Then I graduated from there to reel-to-reels with sound on sound and, again, I've still got them. I'm a collector of junk. I never throw anything out!
Do you still use them?
A: [The Tensai two-track] is on Vanishing Point. It's on the track "Star," which has got that sort of Sly Stone thing going on. That's why it's good keeping everything, because you never know. We've used it on this new record for something too. It's great with the beats because it's all the old-fashioned cha chas and mambos. It's got its own sound, really.
So when did you start recording Primal Scream material yourselves?
A: Well, I used to do my own music, as well as later Primal Scream demos. I was experimenting. After the sound on sound reel-to-reel, I went to 4-track TEAC, or Tascam, and then we got an 8-track Tascam in the mid- '80s. That was still in my bedroom, in a block of flats on the Isle of Dogs. I was annoying the neighbours with drum kits and horn sections in the bedroom.
Was that where you made the demos for Screamadelica?
B: No. Then we got a studio space in Hackney on Tudor Road. It was in this tiny set of industrial units, and it sat beside this big council estate...
A: Nobody bothered you there! Nobody came to visit you because it was in such a bad place.
B: That was Hackney, before Hackney became trendy — if you can call it trendy — but it was a single room, which we soundproofed. It had a tiny vocal booth. But at first it was just for writing, wasn't it?
A: But then we got to the sampler stage, which was great. To me, everything changed musically when we got an Akai [S1000] sampler in about 1990, because I could do the drums and I could take tablas from an Indian record. Suddenly, instead of being in black and white, music was colour. That's why I love the digital medium, because it allowed us to express ourselves.
So it completely changed your approach to songwriting?
A: Yes! Suddenly we wouldn't just write with an acoustic guitar. We'd get a mad sample off a record and start looping it, singing over it, or making up stuff; that changed our songwriting.
B: When Andrew got his first computer, with Cubase and the Akai sampler, we started being able to start records. They weren't just demos anymore.
A: Most of those sounds on the [Screamadelica] demos ended up on the record. We could use our demos to build our record.
B: Up until acid house, we were always writing with melody in mind; but after acid house it was more rhythmic. I think that's what separated us from most rock 'n' roll bands. It's always a rhythmic thing with Primal Scream. When we started working with people like [Andrew] Weatherall, it opened our minds up to the possibilities of making rock 'n' roll music a bit freer, and also a bit more modern. Early on we got into the idea of hip-hop and rap, like what The Bomb Squad were doing. Andrew picked up on all that pretty quickly — he really listened hard to those records and started trying to apply some of that to our music.
You guys have worked with loads of great engineers, producers and remixers over the years.
A: We've been spoilt over the years. We've made records with George Clinton, Jimmy Miller — who did the Stones — and Tom Dowd, who did many Atlantic Records sessions. If you're sitting in a room with people who are that good and you fail to learn anything, then you're an idiot! If you're working with someone like Jimmy Miller, you should ask him, "How do you do that? How do you make that sound?" And, generally, people are quite happy to tell you.
What kind of things did you learn?
A: Well, Tom Dowd put the guitar amplifiers on their backs, off the floor. He was trained as a nuclear physicist; he said that cancelled out the waves hitting the ground and coming back up into the mic. I don't do that because I'm too lazy half the time, but technically that's how to get better sounds! I'll tell you what him and Jimmy Miller were both great at; getting us to leave space on our records. Guitar players will play from bar one to bar 150 but those guys were like, "Shut up while there's singing! Always answer the singing, whether it's with a guitar line or a horn line or whatever. But don't go on top!" Jimmy was also great with percussion and how to mix. If you're in the presence of greatness, you should learn something. Andrew Weatherall, who wasn't a trained engineer or anything, has this great gift for arranging music — dropping tracks out and bringing tracks in so there's space. It's hard to get 24-tracks all sounding good at the same time. Yeah, we've been spoilt by the people we've worked with.
Was 1997's Vanishing Point the first album you recorded here?
A: We actually moved to this complex of little businesses in '94 or '95, and we had a different room down at the bottom. We didn't have two separate rooms, like we do here with a control room. We had one room with a mixing desk in it; we recorded most of Vanishing Point down there. We moved in here in '98. The other place had been a dance studio when we moved in.
B: It had mirrors everywhere.
A: Mirrors all the way 'round. It was probably terrible for sound with all those mirrors, but we just got on with it.
What made you decide to cut that album yourselves, in your own space?
A: It was our friend Brendan Lynch, who's mixed a lot for us. He said, "You can do this yourself. Just get a mixing desk, a couple of mics and do it yourselves! You don't need to go to a studio." Obviously we were a bit nervous about it all, but he was right. So we got a really old, terrible 16 into 4 Studiomaster mixing desk, which cost about £300, but I liked the sound of it. We got a few old mics, which Brendan told us to get: an AKG D25 mic for the bass drum, which is still the bass drum mic to this day, a Neumann U-87 for the vocals, and a couple of [Shure SM]57s... and then off we went!
And was that on tape?
A: No, that's when we started recording digital. We had two Tascam DA-88s — I thought they sounded great. We basically made Vanishing Point on 16-track. We made two LPs on those until the computers got better. I'm not a Luddite when it comes to tape — I'm more about capturing a good performance. To me, getting a good performance is better than having it perfectly recorded. I find computers are really good for that. You can get up in the morning, get in here, open the door and press record without having to set up a tape machine and go through all that.
B: But in those days, when we did Vanishing Point, bands didn't really record themselves as such. Now, because technology's so advanced, everybody can record themselves. Back then bands were still paying a lot of money to go into the big studios with huge consoles. We had the luxury of Andrew engineering. It was great that he took it upon himself to do that, and learn about it from other people like Brendan. That place was garagey; but that album was recorded down there. We had people like Augustus Pablo, The Memphis Horns, and Michael Karoli and Jaki Liebezeit from Can coming down.
What was it like recording The Memphis Horns?
A: Our studio was a total mess: broken things, dodgy equipment, and rubbish everywhere. I was thinking, "Oh, they might not like this." But they came in and they started laughing. They went, "This looks like Stax used to! Hey man, this is brilliant!" I was nervous and I said, "Look, I've never really recorded a session with proper horns before." But they said, "Look, son... just put the fucking microphone in front of us. If it's on the floor, it's on the tape!" Which meant, "If we're doing something good, it'll sound good. Don't worry about it." And I've always believed that since. If you're recording Keith Richards playing "...Satisfaction," it ain't really gonna matter whether he's got a [Vox] AC30 or a Marshall, or you've got a [SM]58 or a U-47 in front of the amp — it's gonna be a great fucking riff! If you can capture that bit where the musicians are playing good, then you've done your job! And The Memphis Horns weren't bothered about how primitive things were...
B: But Stax was fucking primitive. Stax had a drum kit nailed onto the floor. The space was in an old cinema, so it sloped. You had to nail the drumkit onto the floor so it didn't move. You know, that's garage!
So the first album you cut in this space was XTRMNTR ...
B: Yeah, XTRMNTR...
There are so many extreme-sounding effects and tones on that album. How did you nail that dirty bass sound, for instance?
A: We had a set of blown Ampeg speakers that we used for XTRMNTR; they sounded so fuzzy and nasty. They had just blown and I thought, "That sounds fucking great! I'll put a mic in front of it!"
B: It sounded good...
A: Yeah, so that's the sound we went with because it was sort of an angry record, and it was a real nasty, angry bass sound. It wasn't really bassy. It was quite like hornets!
And what other creative effects did you use on both XTRMNTR and its follow- up Evil Heat ?
B: One thing we've used a lot is this old synthesizer [Roland SH-2], which I've had for a long time. There was this guy, Colin Dobbins, who we knew when we were kids. He was a bit older than us and he was always into the next thing, so he had all the cool punk records in picture sleeves. In '78 he went out and bought a WEM amp, which we still use for guitars, and this synthesizer. He was the first guy that any of us knew that had a synthesizer. I think he must've been getting into Kraftwerk or something. Somehow, [his synth] fell into our hands. I don't know how that happened.
A: The beauty of that synthesizer is it's got an audio input so you can put signals through it. If you stick a guitar through that, and then through an amplifier, you can get some pretty crazy noises.
B: That's incredible, that Roland ...
A: And if you run the drums through that, it really fucks them up nicely.
So how do you discover things like that? Trial and error?
A: If you get something that says "guitar processor" on it, then try it on everything else first. Always try what you're not meant to do, because that's how you usually end up getting something that sounds a bit different. There's an Electro-Harmonix Bass Micro Synthesizer that I was really into; we put everything through that. It was incredible on horns. It took the attack off the horns and made them morph. I'd just gotten it, so everything went through it on XTRMNTR — the vocals, the brass, the drums. Everything, apart from what you were meant to put through it.
B: Drums through wah wah...
You've recorded drums through a wah wah pedal?
A: Yeah. Adrian Sherwood showed us that. It's incredible.
B: That was on "MBV Arkestra."
A: Because Adrian plays a mixing desk live. He was sitting here and his foot was going up and down. I said, "What in the fuck are you doing?' And he said, "Oh, I've got the drums running live through a wah wah pedal." He played it as an instrument.
B: I think he did three or four passes, and then he would edit the best bits together. I used to say it was like action painting, but sound-wise. It was like he was throwing paint all over the canvas, and the sound was paint. We'd never seen anything like it; but he was scientific as well because he was counting out the bars, wasn't he? And he worked out all the times for the delays, but it was very spontaneous. Every time he did a pass, he'd never really repeat the same thing twice. He's really a pure artist and it's beautiful to watch. We did a whole album with him called Echo Dek, which is a dub version of Vanishing Point. That was a great experience.
A: We've also got the original EMS Vocoder 2000 — nothing sounds as good as that one. Drums through the Vocoder are insane. That's another thing you shouldn't do that we did.
Did you lay down any of the new Primal Scream record here in The Bunker?
A: We've done some of it here, and we've done some of it in L.A. at a great studio run by this fantastic engineer, Woody [Jackson, Vox Recording Studios]. He's an incredible musician too.
B: We went back and forth, didn't we? We started off in Belfast at David Holmes' little studio because he's producing it; but that was more about writing the basics and trying to see if we could feel a song, or an idea, or an atmosphere. If we were inspired by something, we would bring that music back here and work on it, or take it to L.A.
A: That's the beauty about modern recording as well, because you've got this flexbility where you can put your album on a pen drive, hop on a plane, and go work somewhere else.
B: On this new record, we developed a style of working with David Holmes that made us write in a different way. He was provoking us by playing us music that we had to react to; and the reactions were pretty good, weren't they? It made us think about music in a different way.
A: And he's not scared to tell us if he doesn't think it's any good. Sometimes you can be in with people who are maybe intimidated by you; but he'll give us an honest opinion, which is great.
B: It's good because sometimes we'll be working for weeks and weeks on tracks and we'll think, "Oh, they're fucking great!" But maybe we think they're great because we've been in here working on them. It was good to get Holmes' opinion. We trust his tastes, and he's been great on this record. He also hooked us up with some great people, like Woody in L.A. Those trips to Woody's studio, with all his beautiful guitars and beautiful keyboards, were really inspiring. It was dedicated to creativity, wasn't it?
A: He's got one of these Moogs that fills a side of the frigging room — you can sit there forever turning knobs!
When you get finally kicked out of The Bunker, are you going to move into a new recording space in London?
A: Yeah, we're gonna try because you need somewhere to work. You know, idle hands make the devil's work, especially with musicians. I think you've got to get up in the morning and make music. We write here, we rehearse here, and we make some of our records here. It's nice to have your own place, because when the creative thing happens, you capture it.
B: It's like an artist's studio. This place, to me, is like an artist's living art space. Other bands, especially in the past, would write the songs, rehearse them, and then they would book studio time with a producer or an engineer and try and capture a live performance of the track. With us, we've always been more about working on one idea, then putting it to the side and working on something else. It's like an artist having a studio. We're not constrained by time or financial limitations. We can come in here five days a week and make music. We've been working this way for a long time.