Home music Mary Chain’s Ben Lurie looks back: ‘It was mind-blowing!’

Mary Chain’s Ben Lurie looks back: ‘It was mind-blowing!’


SYDNEY | For nearly a decade Ben Lurie was the rhythm guitarist of The Jesus and Mary Chain. He was an integral part of the toughest period of the band. By some, Ben and Jim were considered to be Siamese twins, joined at the hip. ‘I once hit William and we got in a fist fight’. After the breakup he was the driving force behind Jim’s band Freeheat. What also makes Ben stand out is that he actually contributed a couple of tracks to the repertoire of the Reids: ‘I got my songs in by being a little bit pushy.’

Hester Aalberts | Photographs by Ben Lurie, Stéphane Burlot, Ted Grudowski, Romi Mori & Creation Records

How have you been holding up in these crazy Corona times?

I live in Sydney with my wife and my nine year old daughter. We are currently in lock-down and we’ve got home schooling going on. Even though I get out most days for a few hours to go to work, we are getting stir-crazy at home. I have learnt (from my daughter; thanks Ari) that I am no fun at all at the moment. I am taking lots of boring phone calls while I could be doing much more interesting stuff. Like building Lego.

You are a London-born Australian. Sounds fascinating…

My mother is from England and my dad was Australian. I was born in London in 1968 and moved back to Melbourne when I was about five. As a teenager I already wanted to be in a band. I was heavily influenced by the Smiths and felt London was the place to be. I had a British passport and some relatives over there, so I moved back with my girlfriend. We split up soon after (of course we did, being so young), but we gave each other the support to get ourselves out of Australia and halfway across the world to what definitely felt like a more exciting place.

Niagara Falls: Ben hanging out by the tour bus on his first US tour.

How did you end up with The Jesus and Mary Chain?

I worked as a receptionist at Rough Trade, the label of The Smiths and was friendly with Jeannette Lee. She was the PA to Geoff Travis, founder of Rough Trade and Blanco y Negro, the Mary Chain’s label. Jeannette knew I wanted to be in a band and told me The Mary Chain were auditioning. Years earlier my girlfriend had shoplifted the cassette of Darklands and I liked that record, but wasn’t a real fan. Anyway, I went over there with my long hair and my very inappropriate guitar. I had no idea what to expect and didn’t know it was just Phil King and me auditioning. James Endeacott from Loop bailed at the last minute. I think he got overly nervous.

[James: ‘I knew McGee and all the Creation lot (we’d toured with Primal Scream for example). I got a call of Jim Reid asking me to audition for an upcoming tour. I turned it down because I only knew 3 chords on the guitar. Jim didn’t believe me and we had altercation one night backstage at a gig…McGee broke up the argument and eventually Jim realised that I really couldn’t play. I looked perfect but was just lazy.’]

How did the audition go?

We played April Skies a few times and I thought I did really badly. I was competent but I didn’t know how to make it special. After the first run through, either Jim or William suggested I ditch my Strat and use their Gretsch semi-acoustic. Because I am from Australia, they asked if I liked Nick Cave and I said I thought Nick Cave was funny (come on, Nick Cave was funny with all his bombast. Doesn’t mean he wasn’t also good but I don’t think I conveyed that). I also told them my favourite bands were The Police and The Smiths, which probably didn’t go down so well either. Anyway, I got picked …

First ever gig in Las Vegas was at a small club called Calamity Jaynes. February 1990.

The Automatic tour was about to kick off. How did you learn the songs in time?

In the beginning I was leaning heavily on Douglas. He was their bass player and, as the rhythm guitarist, I literally kept a close eye on what he was doing. I’d watch his hands to see where we were going. We did three weeks of rehearsal for that tour. In the first week everything was rather mixed-up, in the second I knew all the songs and in the last I was perfecting them.

What made the Automatic tour so exhausting?

Jim and William may not have been too comfortable with what they were doing, mainly because they had this insecurity about performing. But that tour was my first America experience and I found it mind-blowing: nine weeks of touring throughout the USA at the age of twenty-one!

The touring wasn’t that hard, to be honest. We didn’t have to think for ourselves, because we had a tour manager telling us at what time to get up, to get in the bus, to go to the next place … The hard part may have been the boredom and the psychological aspect of it.

NY 1998: Sub Pop photoshoot with press officer Cece Stelljes.

You were at Lollapalooza. That wasn’t cut out for The Mary Chain, was it?

We were told it would be a big traveling festival where everybody was equal. It didn’t matter at what time you would go on, we would be all in it together. But when we got there it was Red Hot Chilli Peppers … plus support. Jim and William weren’t too happy with that and neither were the rest of us. There was a lot of hierarchy going on (use of lights, use of PA, even use of dressing rooms) and we were ill-suited to playing in broad daylight. It also didn’t help that the majority of venues were seated, at least in the front section. The Chilli Peppers’ fans had bought the rows near the front but hadn’t arrived by the time we were on stage.

The Jesus and Mary Chain – Head On Lollapalooza 1992

So we performed to what felt like an empty house. Add to that Pearl Jam played before us – when the tour was booked they were a promising little grunge outfit, but by the time Lollapalooza happened they had gone through the roof. Eddie Vedder was a great frontman, clambering way up into the rigging during the show and basically making that band everything we weren’t on stage. I think Jim was right when he said we sold the most hotdogs on that tour: after Pearl Jam played everyone filtered off to get something to eat.

What JAMC track did you love to play the most?

That is a tricky question, because there were many songs that I loved playing. Snakedriver when we kicked off the set, Reverence for the ad-lib racket we made at the end … I used to love Nine Million Rainy Days too, sitting back, watching the band and the crowd before coming in after the first verse.

Nine Million Rainy Days

So you weren’t a fan of The Mary Chain?

No, but I gradually became one. And I still listen to their music sometimes. Two weeks ago I had to go on a long drive and listened to Munki and Stoned and Dethroned. It brought back memories of the recording process: not much was happening in Elephant and Castle, the part of town where their Drugstore studio was situated. We were actually very disciplined back then. On Fridays our big blow out would be to go to the Pizza Hut further up on the road, hit the salad bar and get a couple of beers. Not very rock ‘n’roll, is it?

You were artistically involved in the making of Stoned & Dethroned and Munki!

After Honey’s Dead, we had a meeting in Burger King on Tottenham Court Road. Jim and William asked me to become an actual part of the band, instead of ‘just’ a touring musician. Of course I said yes. Then nothing happened for a couple of months until the recording of Stoned and Dethroned. I got this call: ‘You can play harmonica, right?’, which I sort of could. So I went over to the studio and played harmonica on Dirty Water. I ended up staying for the recording of the whole album.

Sub Pop photoshoot, Hollywood 1998: ‘There was an optimistic mood in the band at this time’.

Did you actually write songs for The Mary Chain?

Yes, I got two B-sides. They were in need for some extra content. I got my songs Taking It Away and Rocket in by being a little bit pushy.

At the time of the recording of Stoned and Dethroned and Munki the attitude in the studio was like: ‘If you’ve got an idea, just try it.’ There was no hierarchy at the time. If something sounded good, it was in.

Stéphane Burlot – Paris 1998.

Jim told me the memory of recording Munki stopped him from making another record for years

It did start out very positive, though. We were a really good live band, a tough rock and roll band, and went into the studio to capture that. And I think we did. Nick [Sanderson] was a powerhouse of a drummer! However, after we recorded about ten tracks and played them to Geoff at Blanco y Negro he suggested we start all over. The phrase, as I recall it, was ‘throw the baby out with the bathwater’. That wasn’t something we wanted to do (or even knew how to do), but it led to Blanco/Warner Brothers not renewing the contract. So we were label-less with an album that it seemed nobody wanted. By then we also had no management. We were a little bit lost.

Munki – I Love Rock ‘n’Roll | William Reid, Jim Reid, Ben Lurie, Nick Sanderson

Towards the end of 1996 – we were just carrying on recording tracks for Munki – things became quite fractured between Jim, William and me. We started off in the studio together, but somehow it ended up either Jim and I in there or William on his own (Dick Meaney, our engineer was a constant). It wasn’t a planned thing, it just somehow panned out that way. By the summer of 1997 the record was pretty much recorded, but there was no label and we didn’t know if the band was going to continue. Jim and I went in to the Drugstore, for a month or so, to work on some non-Mary Chain tracks. This ended up being the basis of Freeheat (you can hear the tracks on the album Back On The Water). Jim ended up reworking a couple of those tunes on Damage and Joy.

Freeheat – The Two of Us | Jim Reid, Ben Lurie, Nick Sanderson, Romi Mori

Jim might correct me on this, but I think towards the end of 1997 he ended up talking to Alan McGee about the album, and Alan suggested he put it out. Creation was cresting a wave at that time with Primal Scream and Oasis and that “going back home” thing felt perfect. In America we hooked up with the label SubPop that also felt like it would be a good fit for the band.

Jim and you were said to be like Siamese twins, joined at the hip

I wouldn’t say joined at the hip. I am assuming you’re alluding to the Munki sessions when we were mainly recording together. And then once the record was out and William didn’t want to do any press (be conspicuous by our absence was William’s theory, which I didn’t think would work, we would just be absent). In hindsight I should have been more conscious of the relationship between Jim and William. In my defence: we were all relatively young, going through uncharted waters. At the time I agreed more with the way Jim felt about things. Possibly William felt we were ganging up on him. Which wasn’t an intentional thing. Actually, it wasn’t a thing.

Happy When It Rains, Roskilde 1998

What do you remember of that final gig in LA, the night of the breakup?

We played in San Diego, before the final House of Blues gig in LA. The San Diego gig was a mess for various reasons. In the van on the way back to LA, about a three or four hour drive, … well … I do not normally hit people. It was a bad period. My marriage had just collapsed. Anyway, I hit William. We got in some kind of fist fight (Jim describes it as Handbags at 10 Paces, pretty accurate I think). It was pretty pathetic really. Our tour manager, who was driving, had to pull over and scream: ‘Stop it!’ The next morning Jim and I went to the spa at the top of the hotel and spent the day drinking champagne, thinking the band was finished. But then the tour manager turned up and said: ‘You’ve got to go to the gig.’ So we went and … yeah …

What happened after William left?

The rest of the tour was very ill fated. The first gig without William was at the San Juan Capistrano Ballroom which turned out to be a seated venue …, but not just seated! It appeared to be a dinner venue. So were were playing in front of a seated audience tucking into juicy steaks. We hadn’t had time to figure out how we were going to make it work without William yet. So we cut a bunch of songs from the set and did our best. We came off stage after 45 minutes to find our tour manager telling us we had to play for a full hour, otherwise we wouldn’t get paid. We went back on (no doubt further irritating the steak-eating crowd) and gave it our best shot, only to discover when we cooly sauntered off stage that second time we were still five minutes short. Back on one more time for Reverence I think it was.

Reverence – still including William | Live somewhere else in 1998 (skip the first minute)

Amazingly, things managed to get worse after that …

Nick cracked a rib or two on a day off in Fort Wayne, Indiana. He couldn’t drum so we begged Jeff from Mercury Rev (who were supporting us on that tour) to fill in for the night. He didn’t know the tunes, but I counted him in and out and we pulled it off much to the joy of the crowd that were line-dancing in the front row.

That last tour was a mess.

Jim said Freeheat was merely an excuse to go drinking than it was a rock‘n’roll band

Freeheat sure had some great moments. We probably had the most enjoyable tours that any of us had ever done. They were like the reverse of The Mary Chain. We were driving ourselves around in a van at that stage. I was the only one with a driving license. Nick was the navigator and that was it. We had some very enjoyable and satisfying ten day tours in America. There was only one problem: nobody came to see us.

Freeheat: Ben, Nick, Romi, Jim | Freeheat: Ben with Romi.

You were said to be the driving force of Freeheat

I think I might have been. But I didn’t realise until afterwards. There came a point when I thought: ‘I am not going to do anything. Let’s see if someone else books a gig’, and no one did. So that’s how it ended. We never made an announcement. The band just kind of fizzled out. By sheer coincidence our first and last gigs were at the same place, in The Monarch in Camden.

After Freeheat Jim and Phil King continued together, later joined by Mark Crozer and Loz Colbert. Where were you?

I was already in Australia. However, I would have liked to have been involved. Also, later on, when The Mary Chain regrouped in 2007. I spoke to Jim and he said: ‘I hope you don’t mind, but you are in Australia’. Of course I understood it was not going to happen.

Were you involved in the recording of Sister Vanilla’s album Little Pop Rock?

Yes. Quite a bit actually. That album came together in bits and pieces. Jim and I recorded a few parts at The Drugstore and William recorded some bits in his home in LA. There’s one song on that record, Slacker, written by William, that I am quite proud of. This was during a period, post-Mary Chain, when William and I weren’t really speaking. He sent Linda [ergo: Sister Vanilla, the sister of Jim and William], a demo of this song maybe on a Dictaphone tape or something, it was just him singing it playing acoustic guitar. I ended up recording the track in my bedroom on a little 16-track machine. I heard, indirectly at the time, that William liked it and in a strange way that was a little bridge between us (or am I just getting sentimental as I get older). I borrowed a bit of Cinnamon Girl for that track too where I added in a little middle 8 section.

Sister Vanilla – Slacker

Linda also recorded a song of mine called Down, using backing tracks Jim and I recorded when we were experimenting with demos in 1997. There’s a version of Down on the Freeheat album. I also did the artwork for Little Pop Rock.

Jim stopped drinking and doing drugs around 2005. Were you able to let go of these habits as well? Was that hard?

I sort of took myself out of the environment by moving halfway across the world. That helped. But I probably still drink too much. Going on tour is a really bad place if you are not disciplined. Before and after each gig you walk into a dressing room full of chilled beers…

Apart from the Reids, you were the only one there throughout the most hectic period of the JAMC. Fights, booze, drugs, breakups, exhausting tours, …

I guess it was hectic in hindsight. At the time it was what it was. It never felt easy, though. It always felt like a fragile thing that could end at any time – a feeling which I’m sure contributed to the experience being fairly stressful.

How has all of this affected you / shaped you?

The whole thing of joining the band at that age … I had nothing to compare it to. I felt lucky! I was lucky – while touring, we had our own rooms in decent hotels, we didn’t play more than four gigs in a row, we were well fed … That aspect of touring was very easy. We certainly weren’t in the back of a van staying in a Motel 6 every night (which, as I mentioned earlier, turned out to be some of the best touring experiences I had with Freeheat).

It was quite an insular experience, being in the group. Somehow there was a bit of an ‘us-against-them’ feeling in regards to other bands, in regards to the press, in regards to all sorts of interactions we had with others. A large part of that I suspect was due to a lack of guidance from the management we had at the time, as well as our own insecurities. With a bit more guidance I feel now we could have been more successful commercially without having to change the music. But of course it’s easy to be wise in hindsight.

How did it shape me?

It gave me a chance to see a lot of places that I never would have been to (albeit in a pretty skewed, odd way). It gave me a living wage for years, so I didn’t have to turn up to a 9 to 5 job. I could concentrate on making music, although I never managed to get a career of my own off the ground. So perhaps the safety net of the band also stunted that aspect of growth for me. Having said that, I have no regrets about my time in the band apart from the way it ended so acrimoniously. I’m glad that William and I have patched things up since then.

After Freeheat you went back to Australia …

I got married and we wanted a change of environment. I was also pretty sick of the English climate and my wife, who was basically a So-Cal native, wanted to go somewhere a little less dreary than London. In the years I was touring with The Mary Chain I didn’t really notice how overwhelmingly gloomy London weather could be, year in, year out, as I was often overseas. But the last five years after the band split, I was stuck there the whole time. It became a real grind. So we moved to Sydney. I knew there was a lot of work in advertising. I was a self taught graphic designer and went back to school for a bit to polish up those skills. So I thought: ‘I can wing it here, just as I winged it all these years ago in The Mary Chain.’ And I did. Those early design jobs led me to working in print which, on a good day, still gives me some creative challenges.

Stéphane Burlot – Paris 1998.

Jim and William are about to release their biography!

I didn’t know that. I’d love to read it! Jim is a smart guy and he won’t hesitate to speak his mind. But I’ve got nothing to be worried about. I will contact Jim and I’d be happy to deliver some comments for the back cover, like ‘I couldn’t put it down!’, ‘The read of the century’, that sort of thing.

Are you still in touch with any of the past/present band members?

I caught up with Jim and William a couple of years ago when they played here at the Sydney Opera House. We had lunch together and it didn’t take long to fall into a comfortable place. When you have a lot of shared experience it isn’t difficult to relate to one another, even if you only do it every three or four years.

William will send me the odd text every once in a while. I’ll send him one back and then … nothing. Jim’s not a great communicator, but I know next time we get together we will have a bunch of stuff to talk about.

You once said: ‘They are always songs going on in my head.’ Is that still the case?

Yes. And I still make music. I record music at home and put tunes I like up on Soundcloud. It’s an exercise to keep myself sane, an intellectual activity if you wish, building and crafting a song and enjoying the experience. Nobody listens to it. I say I don’t really care about that, but of course I’d love it if I suddenly had 1000’s of listens or someone covered one of my tunes and sent it zooming up the charts!

Many thanks to Ben Lurie, Phil King, Simon Smith, Romi Mori,  Stéphane Burlot and Neetzy of Creation Records | © HesterProtester 2021