Interview: Shaun Ryder, Black Grape

Shaun Ryder is a man who needs little introduction, but we’ll give him one anyway.

British indie’s most notorious hellraiser has fronted not one but two iconic bands – the Happy Mondays and Black Grape.

As well as being responsible for some of the best music of the late-80s, early-90s, the Happy Mondays were never out of the headlines for their outrageous behaviour. Having become Madchester’s poster-boys with their tremendous third album, 1990’s Pills ‘N’ Thrills And Bellyaches, the Mondays then drove iconic indie label Factory Records to bankruptcy during the making of their infamous fourth album, Yes Please.

At the time of the recording, stories of the band’s spiralling drug use (Ryder himself was said to have had a 30-rock-a-day crack habit) were starting to surface in the tabloids, and on hearing the rumours Factory boss Tony Wilson flew out to Barbados where the Mondays were supposedly recording at reggae star Eddie Grant’s studio. Wilson later claimed in interviews that as his plane was coming in to land, he saw Ryder and Bez wheeling one of Grant’s sofas down the road to trade for drugs.

After the disintegration of the Happy Mondays, due to Ryder’s multiple drug addictions and disagreements over money, the Salford-born singer formed Black Grape with Bez after recruiting rappers Paul “Kermit” Leveridge and Carl “Psycho” McCarthy, drummer Ged Lynch, guitarist Wags and Oli “Dirtycash” Dillon on ocarina.

Black Grape signed to BMG label imprint Radioactive Records – a step in the right direction for Ryder, who once famously walked out of a meeting with industry giants EMI, just as the Mondays were about to sign a £1.7million contract, telling executives he was “going for a KFC” (the band’s code for heroin) and would be back soon. He never returned and the deal fell through.

In 1995, Ryder’s new band released debut album It’s Great When You’re Straight…Yeah.  The record shot straight to No.1 in the UK charts, and spawned three Top 20 singles – Reverend Black Grape, In The Name Of The Father and Kelly’s Heroes. Follow-up album Stupid Stupid Stupid was released in 1998, but was far less commercially successful. The band split when Ryder sacked all his bandmates while touring the record.

Tomorrow night (Thursday, 24 November), Black Grape return to Edinburgh’s Liquid Room to mark the 21st anniversary of It’s Great When You’re Straight… Yeah. AAA caught up with Ryder ahead of the gig, and the legendary singer insisted there won’t be quite the same pills, thrills and bellyaches of old now the original line-up have reunited – and not only for the tour, but to record a new album which will be released next year.

How are you enjoying being back on the road, Shaun?

I am loving Black Grape and really enjoying it this time round, more than ever.

So the sex and drugs have gone now, right?

Yeah, but we’re still f***ing rock ‘n’ roll, man.

What went wrong with Mondays? Why did the band split?

Listen, we were just kids. Me and Bez became really well known faces and that affected the others.

So you formed Black Grape…

Exactly. I got Kermit involved. He was part of the smack scene in Manchester – we were heroin buddies. People warned me off him. I had people like Tony [Wilson] and Hooky [Peter Hook] knocking on the door saying, ‘Don’t work with that bloke, mate, you’re gonna blow it’. But we knew we had a record deal in the States right away, so we let them say what they wanted. Kept our gobs shut. When the album came out it went straight to No.1 – that was a bigger f*** you than anything.

You’ve been off drugs for years now… do you enjoy being in the band more now you’re clean?

“Oh God, yeah. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed being a young man and being in a band – but yeah, I now enjoy playing live more than ever and I enjoy being in the studio more than ever.

All those years in the Mondays, we had proper habits – and you’ve got to feed those habits. I had writer’s block for ten years when I quit the drugs, but now it’s back. I can write stuff without drugs. It was great as a young man writing on drugs, and it was great living on drugs, but I’m not a young man anymore.”

Playing the first record again after all these years, how’s that been?

It’s really enjoyable, and I’m loving it.  It’s so much better than first time around, really. We’re older and wiser, and we haven’t got big drug habits to feed now. That’s the main thing. I wish I’d known how easy it could be 20-odd years ago.

Apart from the tour, what else have you got planned for Black Grape?

Just last week we finished the new Black Grape album, and it’s sounding great. It’s actually even better than the first one. We’re really happy with it – it’s very 2016.

Me and Kermit, we might be two 50-odd-year-old farts now, but we’re still going and it was really good fun recording it – a lot better than last time, really, when we had habits to support.

So will you be playing any new songs in Edinburgh?

We won’t be playing anything off the new record in Edinburgh, but it’ll still be a great f***ing gig. It’s always great coming to Scotland. We had fans there with the Mondays before we even had fans in Manchester.

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