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Irvine Welsh: “I wouldn’t be a writer if it hadn’t been for acid house”

The legendary writer has just released the latest instalment of the Trainspotting series

  • Interview: Seb Wheeler | Portrait Photography: Sherelle Thomas
  • 30 April 2018

Talking to Irvine Welsh makes you feel like you’re having one of those 5am conversations that spans the breadth of human existence. In an hour we touch on capitalism, masculinity, counter culture, creativity, spirituality, drugs, acid house and, of course, his latest addition to the Trainspotting series, Dead Men’s Trousers.

The novel brings the boys – Renton, Begbie, Sick Boy and Spud – back together again with predictably swashbuckling results. It might be a little OTT for the casual observer but dedicated Spotters will enjoy the ride and, as per, each man’s respective hustle and personal failings reveals Welsh’s opinion of them and the society around them.

By sheer coincidence, DMT lands during the 30th anniversary of the summer of love, a cultural revolution that led Welsh to write the original Trainspotting in the first place. And as we find out, his interest in outsider lifestyles is still inspiring his work three decades on...

What’s your relationship with DMT?

I’ve had one or two flirtations over the years but it’s not a hedonistic drug, it’s not a party drug. It’s an experimental drug – unlike acid, it’s not about the distortion of where you actually are. It’s not about the distortion of light and images. You actually do go into a different world basically, even though your conscious of the fact that you’re still sitting on a chair. So, for the book, purely for the purposes of research, I had another blitz on the DMT a couple of years ago.

Again, mind-blowing stuff and very interesting as well and I think the consumption of DMT is going to exponentially increase because we’re all moving into this world where we don’t produce physical goods. And we’re trying to understand everything through mindfulness and meditation and this exploration of inner space. If you look at all the philosophies now that are gaining traction, they tend to be mindful, spiritual philosophies, but based on quantum physics. That fusion between science and religion. That’s the frontier, the new battleground.

Did your DMT experiences change you for the better or worse? Did you act differently after them?

The great thing about DMT is that there's no fear when you take it. Your pulse doesn't rise, you don't sweat, which is really counterintuitive for any drug that delivers that incredible experience. That indicates that you’ve done it before, the place it takes you is somewhere you've been before: little gnomes take you around and escort you and you fly through space and you fly through time. Some people fall down the side of a mountain. Some people go up the side of a mountain. Some people have last supper imagery.

There's no real fear or anxiety about it. The other thing is that there's no hangover to it as well, apart from 15 minutes of traces in your eyes, which clears up. You can go to the gym straight after you've finished a DMT session.

As you get more mature, how does your relationship to drugs change?

I'm not interested in drugs as a hedonistic thing now. To me, it's purely experimental. If something came on to the market tomorrow that was just a fantastic, mind-blowing new high, like ecstasy was in '86, I would be right in there. I would be trying it and giving it a shot but I feel that when you get older, your relationship to intoxication in general changes. I think because you've been intoxicated so many times, you know what's going to happen and as soon as you know what's going to happen, you don't get the same buzz out of it. You know what's going to happen again the next day with the hangover. So, intoxication becomes less and the hangover becomes more. It's the crossover point where it becomes counterproductive to do drugs.

Why did you decide to write Dead Men’s Trousers?

I'd been working with the Trainspotting gang again, with Trainspotting 2 and I got all interested in these characters again. I thought, what would they be doing, how would they be living? Trainspotting is about friendship and betrayal. Porno was about rivalry and revenge. So, this one had to be about some kind of twisted redemption, that's closing off the journey that they’ve been on. I thought, let’s get back into these characters again and see where they are, see what's going on with them.

Your characters have these anti-capitalist points of view, but they’re entangled in the vices of capitalism. Why do you keep playing on this dichotomy?

People like me, who always hated capitalism, we're the ones who are really nostalgic for it and want to preserve it now because we've created this loyal civilisation. This kind of horrible, warts-and-all type of thing. But it’s going now, it's crumbling. There's no basis for it anymore, but we haven't yet worked out what to replace it with. We're not really evolved enough, to be mature enough, to handle more egalitarian systems and that's the main concern, really. As these old structures start to fade away, people will adapt and people have been adaptable throughout human history but this feels like something different. This feels like we're in for quite a bumpy ride. People are still invested in what's here. They think, God, we're looking into the abyss. So, let's just hold on to what's here and enjoy it why it's still around and fetishise it and rejoice in it.

Even though your characters could work toward change, they go back to the comfort of capitalism.

If you look at old people, they're just kind of bequeathing a lot of fucking shit to everybody, you know what I mean? "Let's just send as much shit to the younger people as we can." You've got people who are 95 who can vote, that's fucking ridiculous. You've got people who are 14, that can't. I mean, that's just fucking nonsense, like.

Basically, the whole thing now, the money in capitalism, it's not in the industrial-military complex anymore. It's in the health industry and in education, particularly the health industry and that's why [some people] want an American system in Britain. They want the NHS finished; the idea is to keep people alive for as long as possible but keep them sick for as long as possible, so all these crap products that we alway ship through the air and all the food that poisons us and all these crap phones that we put to our ears that fry our brains, for all that stuff that's killing us, we have these pills to take. So we live to 100 basically, but the last 50 years of our lives, we live in pain and discomfort. And we just listen to fucking idiots like Trump and all these Brexit cunts just mouthing off slogans to tell us everything can be turned back to this mythical age, when we were healthier and younger. That's existentially what people want, they want that reassurance that they're going to get better and they're not, they're just going to get worse.

I kind of despise each Trainspotting character for different reasons, but I want to keep reading and know their fates. Is that the point?

I think that's the thing. You don't have to like a character in the book, you just have to be interested in them and I don't particularly like characters that I write, I just kind of want to know what happens to them in the next page.

Are you using them to show how toxic masculinity can be?

Yes, I think we're all invested in various things and again, the patriarchy is this product of capitalism, it's this product of the division of labour. It's not benefitted men – it's men who shoot and kill each other in fucking combat fields and they die from asbestos on building sites and from being stuffed down mines. The patriarchy has been very, very exploitative to men but it has given this identity, this industrial identity, which is in decline.

I think it's very, very testing times for humanity because of that. Men have to let go of the patriarchy but women do too. A lot of women are invested in the patriarchy. 52 per cent of white women voted for Donald Trump after his pussy comments. Women have to actively embrace feminism and that's a big thing for a woman to do. It's a challenge for humanity to get over that thing.


Should more men make a conscious effort to be feminist?

Yes, I think they should in a sense. I think that without being preachy, kind of mansplaining, taking over the whole show, the best way that men can be feminists is to just stand the fuck aside and let women get on with sorting the world out because we’ve fucked it up, big time.

Begbie’s transformed into an artist. Where did you get that idea from?

I just thought this guy is dead as a character. He's either going to be physically dead or be in jail forever. I just couldn't have him in another book getting out of jail for 10 minutes, causing havoc and then going back in, like some kind of violent comic interlude. So this character leads a whole new dramatic life and I thought, what can redeem him? The only thing that can change someone when they get into their 40s and they get reflective is art and love. So I just surrounded with art and love to see what would happen. Then I thought, this is fine but it’s a bit boring having a nice Begbie, what if he was actually still a bastard and he's just using this as a camouflage. That seemed to me to be a way that he could continue to create mayhem without ending up in jail.

Renton’s banging sleeping pills to ease his coke comedowns. What do you make of the explosion of things like Xanax as a recreational drug?

It's inevitable isn't it? Again, it's about the transition that we're in, the long-form transition in society. If you look at when we had the transition from feudalism to capitalism, that was a long, long transition. In a way, you always have a plague when you have a transition. The plague then was the Black Death because of hygiene and being in close proximity to each other and unsanitary towns. Now, we're moving from capitalism into conceptualism and because everything's psychic, everything's about the creation of knowledge rather than physical goods, what we have now is a psychoactive plague in the form of drugs. We have mind-altering substances, we have mood-altering substances, that's the real kind of plague that we have now. People can take drugs because they're running away or because they're celebrating life but this is the compelling narrative of our times. It's a psychoactive narrative and obviously drugs are going to be a part of that.

Renton’s managing DJs in the book and the way you portray that is pretty spot on. Is that all colour that you’ve got from your DJing experience?

Yeah, basically. Through the DJs I know and the DJ managers I know, that I've hung out with and travelled with. And my own direct experiences as well. It's such a fucking shit job. I mean, you have to have a few of them to make it pay and the more successful they become, the more demanding they become. It's just the nature of any artist; I'm not just criticising DJs, I'm criticising writers and rock musicians and painters. The more fêted you are, the more isolating that is and the more that whole thing needs to be managed and organised and that becomes infantilising. It doesn't bring out the best in anybody. And Renton’s got to be that babysitter. He's like the dad who throws everyone into the car and drives away on holiday but he has to do that every single fucking day of his life.

Renton’s experience of dance music is very cynical. It’s all about making money. Is this something people are a bit blind to in regards to dance music these days, how commercial it’s become?

Yeah, it’s massively commercial now. I think the artists and DJs involved in dance music are still as passionate about what they do as ever. But, I think it's one of these things that becomes very, very successful and it's a very difficult thing to maintain that kind of focus.

The entertainment industry is one of the few places that people can really make big money now. The Electronic Dance Music within the entertainment industry was one of the few growth areas that’s still got these pockets of oxygen, where people can actually break into something. If they're good, they can make something out of it.

The technology has made it so accessible. The barriers to entry are so low now. But what makes a good DJ is basically the ability to sift through the masses of songs and spending time getting to know songs and understanding them. How they break down, where you can cut in and mix in different stuff. That's the real art and skill in DJing: that ability to know music and take people on a musical journey.

Why is DMT set so heavily in the world of dance music?

Well, I just thought that this is where Renton would be. It's primarily about him trying to work out what's going on with everything and he's doing it from somewhere that he loves, but that's become an industry, as we've said. It's become something that's entombed him. Organising a club, promoting a club night and having fun, getting people in and having a great laugh has now become this fucking treadmill for him basically.

Do you have tips for survival for the more mature raver?

If you want to try and pull an all nighter with chemicals assistance, make sure you've got nothing to do the next day. And make sure you have a nice warm bath so you don’t go to sleep with sore legs. Other than that, be a bit more strategic. Say “I'm going to do a solid hour of dancing here and that’s going to be me.” The other thing is, sit and mix and chill and talk and hang out with people until the last hour. Then make that last hour the one where you fucking go for it, because everybody suddenly thinks, fuck, that old cunt’s got a bit of juice in the tank! You've only hit the floor for an hour and they've been at it for 10 hours.

The book lands during the 30th anniversary of the summer of love. What was your experience of acid house?

Transformative. To me, I wouldn't have been a writer if it hadn't been for acid house. When I started to write, I wanted to try and capture the excitement of being in a club, on E, dancing to a 4/4 beat. I wanted to capture that on the page. That's why I went from writing in a standard English to writing Trainspotting in a kind of performative language – but language is meant to be spoken rather than written. A performative language actually has beats, so that kind of Celtic oral lowland Scots, that was my 4/4 beat basically and my typographical experiments on the page, like in Marabou Stork Nightmares, with texts weaving in and out and different kinds of texts and different fonts and words falling off the page. These were my FX on top of the beat basically. I wanted the pages to turn, I wanted peopled to go "fuck" when they saw this thing coming out at them. It very much set the template tor my sensibilities as a writer.

Did you realise that while on ecstasy on a night out?

Yeah, I mean just basically being immersed in it. I was thinking, this has changed everything, people need to be excited by things now. They don't just need to be sitting, casually stroking their imaginary beards, they don't need to be contemplating, they need to be immersed in a way that's quite exciting, that's emotional, switched on.

Where were you when acid house kicked off?

I remember going up to Shoom and being the only cunt there that wasn't on ecstasy and not getting it at all. About a year later I was at Pure in Edinburgh and I thought, I might as well take one of these pills, because I was very anti-drugs back then, because I'd been a heroin user and I thought, I'm not getting into that fucking shit again. But I really liked it. I realised it was a very different experience, it was a very different drug, but I was a bit gun-shy about it before. Then, of course, as soon as I took that first pill, you know, I basically had invented acid house in my head.

You were about 30 at the time. Was it weird to be a bit older and having this ecstacy honeymoon?

After punk I had like five or six years of just being a really straight, career-orientated, boring 9-5 bastard really. I always wanted to do something creative and it gave me that surge. I thought, this is it, this was the blast of energy and I'm going to make it work for me.

I was a failed musician and I wanted to be something creative. It gave me that emphasis and I had tried it and it failed and I thought, this is the second wave, this is my second chance. Don't make the same mistake again, be successful this time.

Could the summer of love happen again?

No, not in current circumstances, because we don't have culture, we have media. Things need to be able to incubate in the underground. We don't have an underground now. Once something is discovered, it's right out in all media, all over the place, because of the power of the internet.

Punk rock or acid house?

Acid house because I think that punk rock was absolutely important and acid house wouldn't have happened without punk rock but I think acid house realised a lot of the things that punk rock tried to realise. Because punk rock was about the political and acid house wasn't but in a way acid house was more political than punk rock. Punk rock never hit Blackburn, for example. Acid house was more about people who were just in direct opposition to the state just by having fun. Punk rock was provocative and all that, but once the establishment worked out that it was all talk, it was all mouth and no trousers in a lot of ways, they didn't really give that much of a fuck about it. Whereas acid house was more about people occupying factories and occupying fields and mobilising mass amounts of people going to different places. They were outwitting the police, outwitting the authorities, to put on raves and all that sort of stuff. In a way, acid house realised, particularly in the early days, what punk rock was supposed to be about.

Dead Men’s Trousers is out now via Penguin. Irvine Welsh will appear alongside Edith Bowman as well as play a classic disco set at Festival No 6 in September

Seb Wheeler is Mixmag’s Head Of Digital. Follow him on Twitter

Sherelle Thomas is Mixmag's Digital Intern, follow her on Twitter

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