John Grant plays Vicar Street this Sunday with Midlake. Siobhán Kane spoke to him about singing, British humour and gaining a little perspective.
The band Grant was in for ten years, The Czars, always seemed in flux, an untidy, dreamy confused mess of sometimes brilliant, always interesting sounds. Actively encouraged after their first record The La Brea Tar Pits of Routine (1996) by Simon Raymonde, (formerly bassist with The Cocteau Twins, presently co-founder of Bella Union) they set to work on their great second record Before….But Longer. Raymonde was a huge help around this period, producing their records for free, passionately supporting the potential he knew existed. This potential was realised eventually on their 2003 record Goodbye, and though they had released other records in the interim, this was a fitting swansong, as within a year, five of the bandmembers at different stages left the band, leaving Grant alone, and after a while of touring under the name, he also abandoned it, which perhaps set him off on a different, much more satisfying path which would culminate in his solo record, released this year – Queen of Denmark.
He has talked about the latter years of The Czars as a time when intimacy was replaced by alcohol and substance abuse and a wilful attempt to not really ‘connect’ with the emotional world, though of course Grant is one of the most deeply emotional and authentic people, and with that often comes a great sensitivity but also self-destructive impulse. His disarming honesty, and big heart often draws nurturing people to him; Simon Raymonde was one such person, but later Midlake would become guardians of sorts of Grant’s talent. He had met them around 2003, which was the last time The Czars played SXSW. Things were going awry, as he said himself, the band was “pretty much over with and that was when I was bottomed out with the substance abuse”, yet they recognised something in him. It took a while for them to persuade him back to music, since by this stage he was living in New York and had a semblance of stability, but they eventually drew him down to their hometown of Denton, Texas and were able to elicit more of his burning talent, which was (and possibly always will be) bound up in a battle with, or fighting against both love and pain.
In between work on their own (and third) record The Courage of Others, they encouraged him, exposing him to records like London Bridge by Bread, which Grant essentially wanted his own work to sound like.This, filtered with his old loves of Supertramp’s Breakfast in America, The Carpenters, ABBA, and various other elements – the safe space to work in, and the friendship with the band, reconnected Grant back to innocence, when he was a child listening to those records for the first time, which is probably the most special time you can have. Grant struggled with the contradiction of those memories and the fresh memories of the last painful few years that he was battling, as he recalls the “nights of absolute horror” of drug addiction, where he eventually spiralled to the point of not wanting to live, but that is what makes Queen of Denmark so special, it sounds like the musical version of a heart torn from its warm homeplace of the body, passionately thrashing around, trying to survive on the cold surface of what passes for society these days. Grant follows through on E.M. Forster’s ethos ‘only connect’, which becomes a base note throughout Queen of Denmark, allowing him to convey the most fraught but necessary emotions.
Backed by Midlake, the record soars into a shimmering, twilight place, where you are genuinely transported, as he runs the gamut of near-death experiences, since deep, devastating heartbreak can be regarded as such, in some lives. It is an elegy of sorts, and his erudite take on his experiences mingle something approaching David Lynch as Dorothy Parker, yet it is really the piercing ballads ‘Queen of Denmark’ (‘I wanted to change the world/but I could not even change my underwear‘) and ‘Caramel’ (‘when he envelops me,/ I give myself to him and my soul takes flight’) that lay down upon your chest like heavy, heavy heartache. His record has a vastness of contemplation that reaches far beyond the ‘usual’ boundaries, and his candid nature, and inability to pose sets him apart. This kind of courage will hopefully set him towards the kind of rare and complete personal happiness that most people do not inhabit, but that he absolutely deserves. Siobhán Kane meets him.
Your vocal is so beautiful and all-encompassing, and while the arrangements on some songs are sometimes complex, the vocal seems central.
I never liked the vocals in The Czars, I wanted those records to be more vocal centred as I thought I had a strong voice, or people said I did, but then it was buried in the mix and they thought it was really loud, but it didn’t sound like that to me. With making music I really like being on my own, I think I am someone who should be on my own. I don’t play well with others, it doesn’t mix well. On a social level I mix very well as I am very gregarious, but when it comes to music I don’t like to take a back seat to other people’s ideas, it is just not possible, you just make yourself sick and you make them sick too, because you are just going to be an asshole to them as you are going to be unhappy.
When did you realise that you wanted to sing?
I was in the church choir, but I was just the mediocre, okay one, then after I had been in Germany for a long time, it was probably the year before I left Germany, I started playing in a band there, I can’t even remember what we were called, but we played one or two shows and I was super-drunk for both of them, and just ad-libbed lyrics as I was afraid to write lyrics, which continued on into The Czars as well, because I wasn’t really sure what I had to say yet. You know exactly what I am talking about, people say it all the time, it’s called ‘finding your voice’ and people in Germany said ‘hey, you have a pretty good voice’ so I started singing a little bit. I had always felt I could sing better than I was led to believe I could, you know I think I just never had the confidence. Then in order to get the confidence I had to drink a lot to go out on stage, so that is how it started – as a rocky, weird, non-start. When I got back to the States I had already been encouraged, so when I got back to Denver I met some people and formed a band with them. I approached people, like the bass player Chris [Pearson], I had known him before I went to Germany, and when I saw him I said I wanted to start a band together, and we had known each other from before, but he was one of the ‘cool’ kids back then, and I wasn’t. I was on the fringe of the New-Wave scene, and really struggling with my sexuality and just horrified of everything. With the New-Wave scene I could sort of be myself – wear eyeliner, have my hair sticking up, wear black, listen to Visage and Ministry and Bauhaus, Siouxsie, The Cocteau Twins, and Dead Can Dance.
The Cocteau Twins come to mind instantly with Queen of Denmark, and it was poetic that Simon [Raymonde] was such an early supporter of your work.
Oh they were huge for me. I think my song ‘TC and Honeybear’ is very ‘Four Calendar Cafe’, don’t you? ‘Know Who You Are at Every Age’ is probably my favourite Cocteau song.
The entire lyrics of that song could describe Queen of Denmark, something like, ‘cry, cry, cry, until you know why‘.The record is full of incredible pain, but it seems necessary, yet it must be the most emotional, exhausting thing.
If things were hard for me before, for the first twenty or thirty years of my life, they have gotten considerably more difficult since I have finished the record. I’ve been sober for six years, but what is difficult about that is that I long to be drunk to shut my head off, to be transported. When you go to AA meetings, and I don’t go that often, as I never really got into it that much, you can go and say ‘it’s bullshit, I hate all of you’ but it will help you continue on.
Does being on the move at the moment with touring help at all?
I love it in some ways, but it is also avoiding having a ‘real life’ which means having my own place. I have so many friends that have houses, are married, have children or whatever, but I am still very in debt and I always have that hanging over my head.The relationship that went in the toilet that I wrote about on this record, well… I have had a really really hard time dealing with that. I beat up on myself a lot, and the things that relationship unearthed. I want to be an adult and realise that when you truly love someone and when they say ‘I love you, but I can’t do this right now’ you have to be able to say ‘okay’. I can’t constantly be beating up on myself, and saying to myself ‘why couldn’t you do the right thing for the person that you really cared about when that person finally came along that absolutely blew your mind, why couldn’t you pull yourself together and let go of all the hurt from the past, why?’ I am sure I will get another ten songs out of it, but that’s the thing, I have to be able to try and deal, so that I can sleep, and perform. I am 42 and I know I am lucky, I am getting to travel the world – I don’t want to be walking around thinking about that the whole time, but it’s hard.
What is so amazing about the record, is that even amidst the agonising pain, there is a huge generosity not only towards that person, but also to the listener, it is a real gift.
It’s strange because you mentioned The Cocteau Twins earlier, and I think they have that too. The thing is, Robin expresses that very non cynical side of himself in his music, also. We are very similar in many ways, as we are both very macabre, black-humoured and dark people also, as well as all the other stuff.
Your humour is hugely important to the record, but also obviously to your survival.
It is a lifeboat for me.
Sometimes your take on life reminds me of that very unique strain of British humour, that dry sardonic wit, reminiscent of something like Nighty Night.
Are you kidding me right now? It’s all I have been thinking about, Julia Davis is great. I just saw the pilot for Lizzie and Sarah, have you seen that? It’s also Julia Davis and the girl from Spaced [Jessica Hynes], she is just as amazing as Julia, you have to watch that, you can’t live without it, it’s so brutal, it makes Nighty Night look soft.
Midlake provided you with a safe, encouraging space within which to work and record Queen of Denmark, that must have been quite overwhelming.
It was. They reached out to me in a very loving way, they really took to my personality, I expected them to find me….well, I didn’t know what they would think of me, they are very manly men, these guys from Texas, I didn’t know how they were going to deal with me being gay, this dark, sarcastic homo, but they fell in love with me. It was like all of a sudden their faces transformed, they became part of my life, and you can’t remember what they first looked like because of that. It was kind of proof to me that there must be a soul, to be able to sense that transformation. It is like you are experiencing the being, it sounds ridiculous but we both know that it’s true, that you are then connecting to the soul with somebody else, that’s how it felt.
All you really seem to want to do is ultimately express and live truth, in every aspect of your life. It is an angry yet hopeful record, and is romantic in the hopefulness about how things could be, though you also acknowledge how painful things are right now.
This record is a huge lead up to truth, and getting a little bit of perspective, which I sorely need right now. I am lucky I am on the road as otherwise it would be difficult, I would retreat. If I wasn’t feeling this way, I suppose from a creative standpoint it would be my death, but sometimes I long to be detached like so many others are, and just shut off and walk the other way. There is that distance that you can get for a moment, for example when you wake up in the morning before you reboot for the day. When things were really bad I just woke up crying, that’s when I knew when things were really bad, it was like being in the novel 1984 and having a dream about Julia or that green grass.
I am reading this book right now called Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl and he came up with the theory of logotherapy, and it’s about spiritual and emotional constipation as a result of not knowing what the purpose of your life is, which makes a lot of sense to me. He talked a lot about that horror of a world he was living in, it doesn’t get worse than that, treated as a creature, living in conditions so beyond comprehension, and having dreams of food or warmth, but waking up in Auschwitz and to that reality. Usually there are those few moments in the morning when you have contentment, it is fleeting, and before you properly wake to the horror.
Kate Bush seems like a beacon for your record somehow, there seems to be an appreciation of her work contained within, is she a huge influence for you?
She is a hero. ‘Deeper Understanding’ must be one of the most beautiful pieces of music ever made in the history of anything, and then ‘Night of the Swallow’ on The Dreaming? ‘And So is Love’? She writes the truth of the heart as well as of everyday life, it is what I wanted my record to be like, I am sure I got it all from Kate. I mean ‘Hello Earth’? ‘Lover Stands For Comfort’? She is amazing. For years I wanted to write a song about doing the dishes, the fact that it had to be done at these moments when you couldn’t imagine going on living, you are thinking ‘I am having an existential crisis here, but if I don’t go and do that it is going to stink, everything will be worse’. You have to wash your clothes, you have to brush your fucking teeth. I wanted to do a song about that too, because every day I am like ‘I can’t believe I have to fucking do this again, I just did it yesterday’, but yet those things have to be done, I have always had a hard time making peace with that. At the end of the day people that walk around with their crazy clothes and their looks, rich, goth, hipster, all that shit – the common denominator is that you have to wash your clothes and brush your teeth. You can avoid it for as long as you want and pretend that you are a special human being like Sting who doesn’t shit, but only for so long.
Karin [Fever Ray] does this as well, the magical and the everyday, and what Kate is doing, when she is talking about laundry too as well as something like space, it is the extraordinary and everyday life. I think the three people I would most like to collaborate with are Kate, Neko Case and Elizabeth Fraser.
I can see why Neko Case appeals, she is just so raw, a song like ‘Hold On, Hold On’ is in such similar territory to yours, and that lyric, ‘I leave the party at 3am, alone, thank God,/ with a valium from the bride, it’s the devil I love‘.
I know, seriously! I got to see her once at SXSW, she played after Sharon Jones and The Dap Kings, and may I just say that Sharon Jones is one of the greatest performers I have ever seen.
You have previously expressed a love for Sinéad O’Connor also.
I think she is an amazing woman, and I think she is misunderstood, she got a bad rep for that thing she did with the Pope’s picture in the States. She was doing what she needed to do, but that ruined her career in America, really, but she probably got lucky because she is not the kind of girl meant for hyper-fame anyway, she doesn’t want it, and could never want it.
Your work travels that space between sentimentality and melancholy, in such a similar way to David Lynch’s approach in Twin Peaks, and a song like ‘Marz’ uncovers, through nostalgia, those innocent feelings of being a child, but retaining a kind of eeriness, also.
That is so funny, because with my song ‘Marz’ – there is a baritone guitar in that song because of the Twin Peaks song, that is exactly where that comes from [laughs].
Like Twin Peaks, Queen of Denmark has such an old fashioned sensibility, as if this record was somehow unearthed from decades back, are many of your influences from other periods?
Definitely, and you know I just watched Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf again recently, it is one of the greatest movies ever made. I can’t believe that script came from back then, that is the kind of thing I hoped my record would be and in my humble opinion I think it is quite like that script. What does that say about me? [Laughs]
– Siobhán Kane
John Grant plays with Midlake on Sunday 7th November in Vicar Street. We’ve a pair of tickets to give away for the gig – just email email@example.com with JOHNGRANTMIDLAKETICKETS as the subject & including your real name & your thumped.com user name by midday on Friday 5th November.
Queen of Denmark is available on Bella Union.