‘People really did think that my career was over, and it was great to keep our mouths shut and come back with a number one album‘ – Dave Donnelly chats with renowned Salford raconteur and bon vivant, Shaun Ryder
You may remember Shaun Ryder as the leader of one of the Madchester movement’s iconic bands, the Happy Mondays; as the inspiration behind 24 Hour Party People, a semi-fictionalised account of his rise in music; or maybe for his stint on I’m A Celebrity… Get Me Out Of Here a few years back.
Either way, you remember him. He’s not easily forgotten. What does tend to be forgotten, however, amid the gregarious character, the thick Salford accent and the well-known drug excess is just how talented a musician and a songwriter the 52-year-old is and was.
After the Mondays split in acrimonius circumstances, many expected Ryder’s escalating drug problem to finish him as a musician, but instead, along with Manchester rapper Paul “Kermit” Leveridge, he set quietly to work on what would become his first number one record, It’s Great to be Straight… Yeah.
While the duo couldn’t sustain either that success or level of quality in the years that followed – and both fell into their own drug-addled mires – It’s Great to be Straight, complete with its pop art rendering of an image of Carlos the Jackal, is an overlooked classic, fusing the relaxed, airy funk of the Mondays with a more urgent hip hop style.
In celebration of the album’s 20th anniversary, a happy and healthy Black Grape have reformed with a new cast of backing musicians for a short tour that takes in three Irish dates, beginning in Dublin’s Academy on Friday night and ending at Sea Sessions in Bundoran on Sunday.
Dave Donnelly sat down for a chat with Ryder in the lead-up to the shows.
So how did the reunion come about?
The girl who does my publishing reminded me that it was the 20th anniversary of It’s Great When You’re Straight. Really, Black Grape is just me and Kermit – the rest of the guys were just session musicians. Me and Kermit did all the writing and all the producing with Danny Saber, who played most of the instruments on the album, and when we took it on tour we just got session guys in.
Kermit has been getting better and better each time I’ve seen him, and he’s in a really good place, better than I’ve ever seen him for years. 17 years ago he had to have a priest out for the last rites in the hospital because he was dying. He’s 50 and he looks about 29! We got a band together and it’s brilliant – better than it ever was.
So it’s just the two of you now with different session musicians?
That’s it. We just got a bunch of different session guys – younger and better.
Bez’s political run was tied into it too?
Bez didn’t do anything with Black Grape. He was with us for the first gigs and then he went, so he was barely there for Black Grape’s short life. When we got back together he had his show for the homeless, and we did it for Bez’s Reality Party.
Is that finished now?
Ah no, Bez thinks he’s going to be Prime Minister some day, he really does. And I’ll be there for him. I mean, I didn’t vote for Bez’s Reality Party – I’ll be 53 in August and the election we just had was the first time I ever voted in my life, so I thought if I’m going to do something as important as this I better not waste my vote. Where I’m from in Manchester, it’s Labour, and if I’d voted for Bez he just wouldn’t have got in. He got 700 votes in Salford.
When the Happy Mondays broke up, and you were at a loose end for a couple of years, how did you end up forming Black Grape?
It wasn’t even a couple of years. We broke up in ’92 – actually it was two years before the end of the Mondays – and pretty much straight away when the Happy Mondays ended I started doing a bit of music with Kermit and I went over to the States to put a deal together. By ’95 we had the album out and it went straight to number one. We were pretty much working on that right from the end of the Mondays.
Did the success of the Mondays kind of feed into Black Grape or was it a new kind of thing?
It’s weird because we sold more records as Black Grape, and we did better in America and some other countries than we did with the Mondays, but the thing is the Mondays have become this iconic band.
There were a lot of people that liked Black Grape that didn’t like the Happy Mondays. We got a lot of the hip hop group. Because of mine and Bez’s reality television, the Mondays and Black Grape, our fanbase goes from about eleven years old to 88.
Did you already know Kermit before that?
I brought him in for the last Mondays album anyway. After I got back from Barbados, I got him on a couple of tracks on the last Mondays album. We knew each other from the Manchester drug scene. There were a lot of nods and winks about the two junkies getting together. People really did think that my career was over, and it was great to keep our mouths shut and come back with a number one album.
Was there an element of us against the world, nobody rates us, etc?
It was a good fuck off to everybody else. I was living in Manchester at the time and I’d get knocks on my door off various people, I even got told by Tony Wilson I’d blown it, and that I should be really grateful to go do this, or I should go and do that and be lucky to be doing it. I had quite a few Manchester music scene mad men knocking on my door, telling me this, so I decided not to say anything. I just smiled because I was already getting on with an album. When that came out and went straight to the top, that was great.
When the album did go straight to number one, was it a surprise to you?
We knew we had something really good. At that time, the Britpop thing was just happening. I remember coming back from Driffield – where we recorded the album, in Wales – and somebody playing me the Oasis album that hadn’t come out yet, and it was about to drop, and the whole Britpop thing took off. We weren’t really part of that, but it was a great year, ’95, for music.
I’m probably a bit unusual in that my first exposure to your music wasn’t the Happy Mondays, but Black Grape’s ‘England’s Irie’ shortly before Euro ’96 in England.
I don’t really know how that came about, I really don’t. It wasn’t the official song or anything. We were working with Keith Allen at the time, and Keith came in and said we’re going to do this song for the Euros. I know fuck all about football.
I was born at the back of Old Trafford and I’m a red by birth, but I don’t do football. It means absolutely nothing to me. Keith Allen came in and said ‘we’re going to do this’ and he was like ‘sing this,’ and I was like ‘you sing it,’ so he did. ‘If you listen to the song he’s singing a lot of it and he’s taking the piss out of the Mancunian accent.
Was it a good thing to be involved in though?
Well I’m not really bothered about football, but other people thought it was great! I’m not interested in football though. I get a lot of pleasure out of saying ‘I’m not a football head.’ I still think the Manchester United team has Georgie Best, Bobby Charlton, Denis Law and Eric Cantona in it. That’s my knowledge of football.
Ok, so Black Grape broke up in the late Nineties and you all went off in your own directions, and you released a couple of albums…
I went to Australia to kind of chill out and try and get myself off a really, really large drug habit. It was really about keeping busy. This is what ‘Mumbo Jumbo‘ (Ryder’s new song) tackles. People say things like ‘it’s a weird age’ and compare it to the Sleaford Mods, but it was just an experiment. I’ve just dropped some new stuff and I’ve got a solo album coming out next year. We released two tracks on limited edition 12-inch, and two tracks on iTunes.
We did it a bit under the radar so we can drop the album next year. I did it with the guy who did the 2007 Happy Mondays album, Sunny Levine. He produced it. His dad is a great music producer who’s worked with Simply Red, Dr John and BB King, and his grandad is Quincy Jones, so the kid’s been in the studio since he was about five years old. We got on really well when we did the Mondays album and when I decided to do my own album again, I decided I’d do it with Sunny.
Did you keep in touch with Kermit through the years?
No, not really. I did meet him a couple of years ago at a Snoop Dogg concert, and I saw him a couple of times after and he got better and better and better. It’s great to see him so happy – he’s in a great place. When we did it 20 years ago we were still on that treadmill, that hamster’s wheel of albums, tours, press, having just come out of the Mondays. I’m older and wiser now, and it’s better than ever. It’s enjoyable now. I didn’t realise what a great album It’s Great When You’re Straight was, and there’s some good stuff on the second album.
Are you enjoying getting back to that and playing music you haven’t played in whoever man years?
Yeah! Last year I took Bummed out with the Mondays and I hadn’t listened to it since I came out of the studio in 1988. We took it on tour for its 25th anniversary, and it’s a great album. When you’re writing stuff and doing it, you just do it, not even thinking, and you don’t appreciate it because you’re on the treadmill. When we took that out the year before last for its 25 years, and it waslike ‘wow, this is great.’ I’ve also got the 25 years of Pills and Thrills in the break from Black Grape.
Speaking of the Happy Mondays, I heard you’re going into the jungle too to make music?
We’ve just done it! Watch Channel, which is owned by the BBC and Sony Television, brought us out to the jungle between Panama and Peru. We went to live with a tribe and we hunted with them. They were a tribe of percussionists and drummers, and we made music with them. When the show goes out in September, you get to download the track that we made and the money, and what we collect from the PRS, from that will go to the tribe and allow them to carry on living the life they’ve been living for thousands of years.
For a band like yourselves who are heavily into the electronic side of things, the jungle probably isn’t the ideal place to be writing music.
No, it’s not. I can write anything anywhere. I got there and I expected everybody to at least have either a television or the internet or something, but there was nothing. We had to take our own generator. Those guys know what time it is from the monkeys, what noises the monkeys make. That’s the way they tell the time. We had to ride by canoe, not rent a car. That’s stuff you can write about.
Speaking about being in South America, last night I was watching your documentary, Sean Ryder on UFOs. How did that come about?
How I got into the UFO thing is when I was a 15-year-old, I was working as a messenger boy for the post office in Manchester. It was getting to seven o’clock in the morning and it was me and a few people at the bus stop and this thing in the sky just appeared and zoomed off to the left at thousands of miles an hour, stopped, zoomed back to the right at thousands of miles an hour, then shot off into the sky. It was triangle-shaped, it zigged zagged and then just shot off. The people at the bus stop were all watching that – that was 1978, and we still don’t have anything that can move that fast. That really got me into it.
Did you come to any conclusions from it?
There’s this one episode where we’re just all standing around talking and this thing is flying behind us and we don’t even notice. The air force and the military over there in South America – unlike in the UK and America where they won’t share anything with you – were able to talk about all sorts of stuff. Off-camera, their pilots and their top-brass people would say ‘they are definitely not from our world.’ They wouldn’t say it on camera, but when the camera was off… you know?
Do you reckon we hear about it so much over there because it’s not hidden as much… does it happen here and it’s concealed?
It probably is, yeah. At the end of the day, we are not the only thing in the universe, whether you believe we’ve been visited or not. If you look at Darwin now – does anything that Darwin said really stack up in 2015? Not at all.
Ok, so to wrap up, is Black Grape now just a one-off thing or are you looking at keeping it going?
Like I say, with the Mondays there’s five people, so even though we get on great it’s difficult to get together and then say, let’s go and do an album. One day we will do that – the last one we did without all the original members was 2007, and we will do one with all the original members. But with Black Grape, it’s just me and Kermit. We do the writing, get the tunes, the lot. We’ve been doing rehearsals and we’ve been jamming about, and we’ve still got the chemistry, me and Paul – I shouldn’t really call him Kermit now that he’s 50! Me and Kermit have just got it – we’ve got it on stage and we’ve got a good bond when it comes to writing, so we’re definitely going to do something.
Black Grape play The Academy, Dublin on Friday 19th June, The Limelight in Belfast on Saturday 20th and the Sea Sessions in Bundoran on Sunday 21st.