Black Grape - Interview
It is often said that ‘with the highs there must come the lows’ and in 1993, having ridden the crest of one of the highest waves in contemporary British music, Shaun Ryder bottomed as Happy Mondays disintegrated amid stories of in-fighting, drug addiction and business conflicts. However Ryder didn’t need much time to get back in the groove, quickly forming Black Grape with pal Bez and Ruthless Rap Assassin, Kermit.
Black Grape embodied a break from the past and an emboldened confidence for the future - releasing seminal debut album ‘It’s Great When You’re Straight…Yeah’ – an album that confirmed Ryder’s willingness to explore and experiment with his sound. Now, over twenty years since its release ‘It’s Great When You’re Straight…Yeah’ has just been re-issued and sounds just as vital as it once did.
Black Grape have now reformed and are in the studio working on a new album. We spoke to modern day Renaissance man, Shaun Ryder about the early years of the band, their plans for the future, watching 137 episodes of ‘Malcolm in the Middle’ and the legacy of Tony Wilson.
Q. It's just over 20 years now that 'It’s Great When You’re Straight... Yeah' came out andit's just now been reissued. What are your thoughts when you reflect on the legacy of this album and everything it meant to you after Happy Mondays finished.
21 years has gone by really quickly! The album sounds just as good as it did back in the day. Me and Kermit have still got it! We’ve just literally come out of the studio having recorded the new Black Grape album which will be out May next year and we’ll be taking that out on tour. In my opinion it’s a better album than the first album. But in terms of the reissue of ‘It’s Great When You’re Straight…Yeah’ I’ve gotta say it’s great hearing it. The album has stood up to the test of time but I’ve gotta say – the new album is a lot better. Wait and see.
Q. There was an evolution from Happy Mondays last album to the work you created in Black Grape - which incorporated a lot of hip hop influences. What was it about hip hop that you felt drawn to in evolving your sound?
Hip hop had been around for a while but the only problem back then was that there wasn’t any white guys that did hip hop. Hip hop came on back in the early 8os but white guys didn’t do that, white guys couldn’t do that. I mean you had your exceptions like Beastie Boys and stuff like that but when we released the first Black Grape album, people like Eminem were years down the line.
One of the things was that when I first started singing I really did want to rap or ‘not sing’ d’ya know what I mean - but you couldn’t do that then. My way of singing was a bit more Bob Dylan-esque, a way of making some sort of noise and that was what we were into. By the time Black Grape came about white guys rapping was a bit more acceptable. Saying that, even with Black Grape I wasn’t quite rapping but we were definitely exploring hip hop music. I mean Tupac didn’t really rap he was a singer d’ya know what I mean. He was doing hip hop music. But we never did something that wasn’t us.
Q. There have been a few high profile bands reforming from the 90s - most recently The Stone Roses. Can you tell us a bit about your motivations for coming back after all this time?
Well, a couple of years ago it was coming up to the 20th anniversary of Black Grape and I wanted to do something. At the time Kermit wasn’t in the right place at the right time so I got a band together and tested the waters. We did a show in in London and I brought a guy called Tom Piper in who’s from the drum ‘n bass scene but the management we had didn’t wanna take that no further. So I went on social media to put the feelers out there and the feedback was all ‘you’ve gotta do something’. So I approached Kermit and he was in the right place. We got back together and it turned out to be better than it was before – mostly because we didn’t have any fucking drug addicts to carry around anymore! It was all about the music and a bit of unfinished business.
Q. You have always looked to evolve your sound and create music that is progressive and exciting. We hear that you're working on new material and a new album with Black Grape - can you talk to us about your ambitions for this project and what we can look forward to hearing?
The new stuff is fucking great! We wrote and recorded the new album in two weeks. We did what we wanted to do and just bounced off each other. I mean we’re both in our 50s now but we just bounced off each other like two daft kids – but without the habit! We knew we still had it. We had a practise with the song ‘We Are England’ and then took it from there and carried on writing after that. We’ve managed to do everything we wanted to do but we haven’t tried to do what we did back in the day – just done what’s naturally turned us on.
Q. You have credited the use of drugs as having an important role to play in your creative process. You are off drugs now and a happy family man but how has this changed (if at all) they way you write?
It was a piece of piss. Back then everything was influenced by drugs – going to the fucking toilet was influenced by drugs! I loved all that back in the day but I am where I am and it’s just as exciting and somehow (because where we are mentally) it’s like we’re dropping trips anyway. I mean I don’t know whether I could of always done that but I’m appreciating where I am right now.
Q. You shared many great times with Tony Wilson – How big a loss was Tony and what do you think he’d be up to now if things had been different?
When Tony died he was at that mad stage of his life where he was involved in loads of different stuff but my prediction would be that he would have moved to London by now, made shit loads of money and would be on ITV1 doing a big show. People might say ‘that’s a load of bollocks’ but he’d ‘been there and done that’ with Manchester. People go on like ‘Tony wasn’t business’ but Tony was business, he was also an innovator and a lot of other things as well.
Q. How is Bez these days and what are his thoughts on the re-formed Black Grape?
Back in the day when we got Black Grape together we brought Bez in because he looked fucking great in the videos. When that ended I was wondering ‘what’s Bez gonna do now’ - because he’s my pal - and then Bez carved out a career doing all sorts of stuff. Now, Bez will be the first to admit that he wouldn’t be happy just doing what he did in the Mondays with Black Grape as it is. We worked together for years and now do all sorts of television and stuff like that. We’re both still at it.
Q. You've been involved in a lot of TV work - notably I'm a Celebrity but also the brilliant UFO series and documentary. In regards to working on the UFO series - can you tell us the weirdest/strangest story you heard?
The thing is that when you’re talking about our military they never say anything about any weird shit but if you really wanna know something interesting then go to South America and speak to the military there!
Q. You have been a busy man and done lots of different things. What has been your most enjoyable job/project outside of music and why?
My enjoyable job now is really, being a father. When I was a dad the first time around I was a kid having kids and I was away a lot of the time building a career. Eight years ago I had another little girl – I’ve got a seven and eight year old and that’s what I am now; Dad. I do the school run, I take them to their clubs. I’ll go off from time to time, do a little bit of work, fly out somewhere but come back as quickly as possible and just carry on being dad and I love that.
Q. You're about to embark on a new tour. How excited are you to be playing live again with Bez and Kermit and what is it that you enjoy most about touring and playing live?
You know what, it’s only over the last few years that I’ve enjoyed playing live which was a result of me getting to grips with myself and getting to know who I am. Back in the day playing live was something you did so you could carry on playing music – something to promote an album but, now it’s totally different and I love playing live shows. I mean, for 20-odd years I never spoke or said hello to the fucking audience so I’m sort of enjoying playing live now more than ever; I’ve become showbiz Shaun!
In terms of our audience now – factoring in mine and Bez’s work on TV – our audience’s ages goes from 14-70 odd. If you’re trying to get a new audience it’s the thing to do. I mean we’re not gonna be played on Radio 1 so you’ve gotta think ‘how do you get to new fans’ and that basically comes down to doing a bit of television and we’ve got a hell of a lot of new fans through that.
Q. You have been cited as influencing so many bands. Can you tell us what music you’ve been listening to lately?
Haha, this is terrible right but, because my girls and how old they are the music that I’m hearing at the moment is stuff like Ariana Grande, Katy Perry and Taylor Swift and to be fair they’re all really talented kids. I mean…ok right, this is where I am with this – over the summer holidays I’ve just watched 137 episodes of ‘Malcolm in-the-fucking Middle’ with the kids! I’ve gotta say I enjoyed it but I also watched 70 fucking episodes of Sam & Cat – absolutely fucking terrible – mouthy as hell. I’m almost thinking I can’t let my girls watch it but fucking hell!
I’m waiting for when my girls get to around 14 and they’re like ‘come on dad, let’s go and watch an indie band’. In terms of myself, the last thing I downloaded was Dean Martin’s greatest hits and when I put music on it’s absolute 60s and 70s, so that’s where I am with music apart from my own.
Q. Finally, you mentioned in an interview that you were working with Alan McGee on getting a new Happy Mondays record together. How's your relationship with Alan after all this time?
I mean Alan takes care of everything for us music-wise – Black Grape and the Mondays and all that. The other thing is that McGee got me involved in a film which I’ve recently just finished called ‘Rise of the Footsoldier 3’. He was like ‘go on, Shaun do a bit of acting’ and I was like ‘I can’t fucking act, I’ve never acted in my life’ but you know what, I absolutely fucking loved it. I was working with Craig Fairbrass who I’d seen in films and I always thought he was a cunt because he played the badass so well! He was great to work with. I’m not sure what the future holds with the acting and I know I don’t wanna be a ‘leading man’ but I’ve just been stabbed 27 times in the neck, got thrown over a balcony in prison and had a bit of dialogue and I like that!