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Black Grape - Interview with Shaun Ryder

  by Richard Lewis

published: 22 / 12 / 2016

Black Grape - Interview with Shaun Ryder


‘It’s Great When You’re Straight… Yeah!’, the classic debut LP by Black Grape celebrates its 21st Anniversary with a reissue edition and a tour that sees the band play the album in full. Front man Shaun Ryder chats to Richard Lewis about the making of the LP and the group’s upcoming third album

A comeback which genuinely astonished the music industry and a fair section of the public to boot, Shaun Ryder’s re-emergence with Black Grape in 1995 was one of the biggest success stories of the year. Armed with debut LP ‘It’s Great When You’re Straight… Yeah!’, the album's ten tracks variously welded day-glo pop, hip hop, Stones-y rockers swagger and inspired off-kilter lyrics to create a triumphant return for the vocalist following the disintegration of his former group the Happy Mondays. Recruiting Paul ‘Kermit’ Leveridge from acclaimed Mancunian hip-hop group Ruthless Rap Assassins, the rapport between the vocalists was evident from the off. Taking a more hip-hop influenced direction than the Mondays, lyrics incorporated obscure drugs references ("I opened the trunk for the pineapple chunk" ie. skunk), advertising slogans, ("It’s frothy, man!" from the 1970's Cresta Lemonade advert), to sampling the notorious studio argument between members of 1960's garage band The Troggs ("You gotta put a little bit of fuckin’ fairy dust over the bastard!"). Ryder and Kermit’s scattershot verses and infectious choruses saw the wordsmith plaudits being dusted off and led late Factory Records and Haçienda co-founder Tony Wilson to pronounce "Shaun's lyrics on a good day are on a par with WB Yeats on an average day." Wrapped in a striking sleeve that featured Carlos the Jackal by way of Andy Warhol, reimaging the world’s most wanted man (at the time awaiting trial having finally been arrested the previous year) as a piece of pop-art, the album crash-landed on the album charts at number one and swiftly went platinum. Aiding the record’s stay on the hit parade, a score of infamous appearances on 'TFI Friday' to plug the album saw Shaun’s pre-watershed cursing ensure the programme was pre-recorded from then on and for a time earned the singer a place in Channel 4’s 'Compliance Manual' which explicitly stated he was never to appear live on the network again. With a reissue recently on the shelves and the tour set to take place in November, the singer is in buoyant mood. "We’ve just finished the new Black Grape album and I’ve just come out of the studio," Shaun explains on the phone. "We did it in two weeks. It’s better than the first one. Now that we’re two old farts, we’ve still got it. I love it," Shaun says of his re-ignited partnership with Kermit. Starting off with the debut album, how did you go about pulling the songs together for ‘It’s Great…?’ "The first one was weird because we handed in shedloads of tunes which we kept getting rejected and we ended up choosing Kurfirst because they were an American company," Shaun recalls. The manager for a score of legendary bands including Blondie, Talking Heads and the Ramones, late music industry veteran Gary Kurfirst also acted as executive producer of the LP. "We were trying to pull ideas out of our backsides because we’d handed in so many and Gary chose all the ones with sort-of religious elements in them." The first two tracks on the album ‘Reverend Black Grape’ and ‘In the Name of the Father’ were also the first two singles, the former aired in a memorable 'Top of the Pops' performance that featured Shaun’s not entirely successful attempt at avoiding the lyric "Go put on your Reeboks man/And play fucking tennis." Talking of the religious background to the songs, Shaun and his brother Paul, Happy Mondays’ bassist are part of an extended Irish Catholic family in Salford. Did your lapsed Catholic background play a part? "I’m not lapsed, mate. My kids still go to Catholic school. We don’t practice it to the word mind. We’ve just had their first Holy Communion as well, so you’ve got to get involved again," Shaun states. "It’s the same with Kermit as well. He grew up with the church and stuff. We had so many songs knocked back it was like (exasperated) ‘Fucking hell…’ so we were just sort of pulling ideas out of anything really. So we obviously had our childhood with that." Partially influenced by Shaun’s disillusionment with meeting people he had previously revered ("Don’t talk to me about heroes/Most of these men sink like subs"), the animated doggerel of ‘Kelly’s Heroes’ boasted one of the year’s most memorable choruses, "Jesus was a black man/No, Jesus was Batman/No, no, no, no/That was Bruce Wayne." "‘Kelly’s Heroes' was pretty much hip-hop to fit in with the rest of the album. Kurfirst wanted a commercial hit and he wanted us to go and turn it into something I would say Spinal Tap would do," Shaun explains. "Don’t get me wrong. I do enjoy playing it live now and it’s great," the singer cautions, "but back in the day when we were doing it we were a bit disappointed because he turned it into this rock tune. So all in all we got there with what we wanted to do." Some of the tracks that existed as demos or ideas were later revisited. "Some of them ended up as (1996 standalone single) 'Fat Neck and B-Sides' and I dunno what happened to the rest. I’ve probably find them one day tucked away in a box," Shaun states. "I’ve got shedloads of tapes and stuff I’ve never been through." In addition to song fragments and demo ideas, a huge unsorted film archive exists. "We’ve actually got all the footage, Tom Bruggen (nicknamed ‘Too Nice Tom’) followed me round for the whole of Black Grape and he’s got everything filmed from the day we first got it together to the day when I walked out on it all. He’s been going through all that. There’s some proper mad footage. This is all from (1995 on the road doc) ‘The Grape Tapes’ except he’s got about another three million hours’ worth of it." Will the newly unearthed footage see a release? "Will do one day, yeah," Shaun replies. "Cos it was filmed on so many different formats, so you’ve got to transfer it all to one format, so it didn’t make the reissue. There’s everything on there, valium sessions where we sat around for days just fucking monging out which is ridiculously funny." The latter is documented in ‘Tramazi Parti’, where the title spelling was skewed to avoid possible litigation over sleeping pills Temazepan, which were then attracting controversy for being used recreationally. With Mondays’ mascot and dancer Bez and Kermit in the fold, Shaun recruited Mancunian guitar slinger Paul ‘Wags’ Wagstaff formerly of Paris Angels, alongside session drummer Ged Lynch and LA based producer/multi-instrumentalist Danny Saber. How did the latter come on board? "Danny Saber came through the American management. Gary Kurfirst hooked us up," Shaun explains. "When I first heard that Danny was mates and did work with Cyprus Hill, B-Real was his pal and he was programming for them, that pricked my ears up. I had a meeting with Danny and then it went from there." Going on to carve out a highly impressive career, working with the Salfordians was the first major project for the producer. "At the time Danny hadn’t worked with the Rolling Stones and U2 then," Shaun says. "So he was also hooked up with an overseer, which was the Altered Images guy, Clare Grogan’s husband Stephen Lironi. He was like the Daddy figure." Key to the new band of course was the rapport between sparring partners Shaun and Kermit, a partnership that remains as strong as ever. "I brought him in on the last Mondays’ album ‘Yes Please!’ I got him in doing a bit on that," Shaun explains, the Mondays’ ill-fated 1993 LP initially touting a possible hip-hop direction. "Me and him had got together as smack buddies. I know he was in Ruthless Rap Assassins. We became pals because of, well, smack! When we started writing together we just bounced off each other. I’d not really written with anyone else up to that point. I definitely started that with Black Grape. Kermit was the first person I ever wrote with on lyrics. With the Mondays I’d always took care of that myself. Having someone to bounce off was great. It’s like it is now. We’ve still got that. We’ve still got what we had back then and now it’s even better because we don’t have huge fucking monkeys on our backs. We haven’t got fucking big drug habits to support now so it’s just a ball," Shaun enthuses. While the vast majority of ‘It’s Great…’ is resolutely upbeat, ‘Yeah, Yeah Brother’ hints at the darkness of Ryder lyrics heard in Mondays tracks such as ‘Brain Dead’ and ‘Judge Fudge’. "I always say onstage that I wrote this when Kermit was stabbing me in the back, but that’s just something you say for the audience, you know what I mean?" Shaun explains. "I actually think we sort of ripped it off some reggae song as well. Just built a song around it." A slowburning highlight of the LP, the atmospheric ‘A Big Day In the North’ is Shaun’s live favourite. "Basically Danny Saber’s missus is French. When we were in the studio just fucking about with riffs and keyboards, she was sat there and she inspired it really. We did a kind of celebration really. It’s the worst French ever. Fucking hell!" Shaun laughs. "It’s absolutely gaga what I’m saying as well! Some of the ones off the second album are great to do as well, the fast fucking punky-like ones." Boasting more of a soul music influence and at points a more abrasive sound, second album ‘Stupid Stupid Stupid’ which surfaced in 1997 certainly had its moments including Ronnie and Nancy sampling single ‘Get Higher’ and indulgence regretting 45 ‘Marbles’ ("Well, I saw you swap a kidney for a phone") but wasn’t quite as dazzling as its predecessor. "What we did on that, most of the parts Kermit was involved with before we’d fallen out we wrote cracked up in the cupboard in Los Angeles," Shaun recalls. "We were renting this huge great big fucking house we were recording in, brought all the studio stuff in and me and him ended up sat in a cupboard upstairs smoking crack hiding from the world and writing lyrics. I don’t know the names of them but I enjoy doing ‘em, but don’t ask me to name the tracks!" On the subject of lyrics, a follow up of sorts to the singer’s bestselling 2011 autobiography ‘Twisting My Melon’,is imminent. "I’ve got a new book coming out I’ve done again with Luke Bainbridge ('Observer' music critic and autobiography ghostwriter) and basically, with lyrics I’m there to write entertaining songs. Me and Kermit are both into cartoon-like stories. That’s what I really do and add these elements. One line might be inspired by a true event and then we build a song round it. In the new book we’ve picked out a bunch of songs and that’s about as far as I’ll go in explaining them really. It’s in the book! That’s due out real soon. They’ll have me going around promoting it at your nearest bookshop!" Talking of hitting the promo trail, in recent times Ryder’s workrate has been formidable, with the present group and Happy Mondays effectively operating in parallel. "The Mondays have gone to bed till next year," Shaun explains. "The good thing is with handing the Black Grape album they’ve just asked if they can you give us two more? McGee (Alan, band manager and former Creation Records MD) wants a Mondays album by the end of next year, so he wants us to go and start writing. But next year, apart from at the end when we start on it, it’ll just be Black Grape. I had ten years of writer’s block. I managed to do ‘Unkle Dysfunktional’ (2007 Mondays LP), so now I seem to be back at it vigorously." Winding back to 1995 the instant success of ‘It’s Great…’ was something that may have took many in the industry by surprise but behind the scenes was being prepared from when the Mondays had crumbled in 1993. "On paper it looks about two years but in reality as soon as we’d split with the Mondays I was on a plane over to the States meeting Gary Kurfirst, then you just have to keep it quiet when everyone’s like ‘Oh Shaun’s fucked up’. You’re just sort of sat there and you smile," the singer recalls. The big reveal, when it was unveiled what Shaun had been working on was especially enjoyable. "Yeah, it’s great! Heh heh!" It was pretty satisfying doing that? "Yeah, I mean c’mon it was brilliant!" the singer enthuses. "I had so many people knocking on my door, I lived in Didsbury at the time and because it’s pretty much in the centre of Manchester, not a day went by without Tony Wilson or (Factory Records and Haçienda co-founder) Alan Erasmus or everyone out of every band knocking on my door telling me how I’d fucked up and I should do this and I should do that." "I remember going round to (BBC 6Music DJ and Public Image Ltd alumnus) Don Letts’ place in London, coming straight from the studio and putting it on, sat in his house listening to it and I thought, ‘Yeah, it’s good, it’s poppy enough.’ I thought it’d do alright, but when it went to number one that was great, it was a big ‘Fuck off’ to everyone who thought me and Kermit were just a couple of smackheads who were on a losing trip." Looking ahead to the third album then due for release next year, how easy was it working on the LP? "We’ve got Youth. If you look at his body of work, fucking hell, the guy’s a hitmaker," Shaun states. A multi-instrumentalist/producer whose exemplary CV includes collaborations with the Verve, Primal Scream, Kate Bush and Depeche Mode, the man known to some as Martin Glover was integral to the new disc. "It’s just brilliant working with him, as he really ‘got’ me and Kermit," Shaun says. "He played everything on the album that you’ll hear. I mean when we take it out on the road I’ll be going out doing it tomorrow if I could. The band will have to rehearse all the album. We’ve just given it to them to listen to. I know next year when we take it out on the road it’s going to be fucking great." "I don’t think there’s one filler as far as I’m concerned," Shaun says of new LP. "Track after track is just… when he played it back to us I couldn’t believe what we’d done. We were both sat there with our fucking mouths open! He’s done loads of great pop hits, and like I say he plays everything, bass, guitar he just plays the fucking lot. With Danny, when we did ‘It’s Great…’ Danny played bits on it, then we brought other people to play certain instruments, but on this it’s just Youth." Everything is in place it seems then aside from the album title. "Titles for me…" Shaun says exasperated. "I was always the one who came up with the titles for albums. That seems now to be the hardest thing!" "It’s really like how Black Grape was. We’ve got a brilliant band together," Shaun says of the new line-up who are touring the LP. "Mike Shine who played bass in the Mondays for seven or eight years,. They all started off as session guys which is how the original band did. There was only really Wags the guitarist in the original Black Grape who wasn’t. All the rest were session guys. It’s great because they’re all level-headed musicians. They like a few beers and that, but that’s about it. We’ve got this band where we’ve got level-headed people in it which is just great. Last time we were doing it, it was more of a job. You record the album, you go out and promote it and more than ever now I enjoy it onstage now. I think you can tell that when I’m up there. It used to be a job." The enjoyment is likely to be reciprocated by the audience on tour, 'O Come All Ye Faithful' as Shaun himself once sang. The top photograph was taken by Nita Heryet. The other photographs were taken in order by Rin Albinsson and Elspeth Moore.

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Black Grape - Interview with Shaun Ryder

Black Grape - Interview with Shaun Ryder

Black Grape - Interview with Shaun Ryder

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live reviews

O2 Academy, Liverpool, 17/11/2016
Black Grape - O2 Academy, Liverpool, 17/11/2016
Richard Lewis watches Happy Mondays' front man Shun Ryder's other band Black Grape make an excellent return to form in a comeback gig at the O2 Academy in Liverpool

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