Black Grape, bills, and other unfinished business

It’s a bit discourteous to claim any amazement at the feat of seeing Shaun Ryder and Paul 'Kermit' Leveridge side-by-side on stage again in 2017, yet, despite the crippling drug addictions and heart surgery that threatened to ruin them, for the two main protagonists of Black Grape to ever continue making music together, they had to overcome not only their personal acrimony that had rankled since the late-’90s, but in the case of Shaun, a lengthy and bitter court battle that jeopardized his entire career.

With that in mind, it’s genuinely thrilling to see the pair reunited and vocally sparring centre stage in London’s 100 Club (where they’re launching the Fred Perry Subculture Live events being hosted as part of the partnership between the iconic clothing brand and the legendary venue), effing and blinding through a set of old favourites and new tracks that go down a storm with the teeming faithful who’ve come, all joyful and triumphant, to bear witness to the third coming of these particularly unlikely saviours.

Black Grape formed in 1993 when Kermit joined Ryder and Happy Mondays colleague Bez in a venture following that band’s dissolution that would enhance their signature “baggy” dance sound with distinct hip-hop influences, all the while retaining an effusive air of the gleefully shambolic.

Their debut album, ‘It’s Great When You’re Straight…Yeah’, arrived at the height of Britpop, topping the UK charts in August 1995 and providing abiding party anthems in singles ‘In The Name Of The Father’, ‘Reverend Black Grape’ and ‘Kelly’s Heroes’. Two years later, its follow-up, ‘Stupid Stupid Stupid’, fared less well, and the group would eventually split in 1998.

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After a couple of failed attempts to reignite the project, Black Grape was officially made an ongoing concern after the recruitment of Creation Records and Oasis guru Alan McGee as their manager in 2015. Shaun, as he’ll tell Clash, had recently emerged from a hellish and protracted period of legal and financial troubles, while Kermit’s most immediate health problems had been fixed with the aid of a pig’s valve in his heart, and so, spurred on by the 20th anniversary of their magnificent debut, they sought to finally advance the insolent legacy they’d left behind.

‘Pop Voodoo’, the group’s long-awaited third album, is due for release on July 7th. Produced by Youth, it picks up exactly where they left off while simultaneously sounding resolutely au courant - ruthless beats give way to funk breakdowns as hilariously astute social commentary (including an expletive-laden tirade against Trump) further elevates Shaun as a street poet for our times.

Inviting Clash into the 100 Club’s dressing room ahead of the gig, Ryder is genuinely enthused at the prospect of the Grape’s comeback. Despite the shit he’s been through, his professional life has certainly diversified since last the group recorded, becoming an author and reality TV star among other previously inconceivable achievements, and is now a dedicated family man that’s proudly drug-free. We find him impeccably lucid and arresting in his excitement for this next chapter, which all suggests that, actually, things are great when you’re straight… yeah.

Shaun, I can tell you’re happier than anyone else that Black Grape are back. How’s it been?

I’m not slagging the Mondays, because it’s better than ever, it really is - we’re getting on better than ever - but there’s six of us, and everybody gets their fuckin’ ten-pence-worth. With Black Grape, it’s just me and Kermit. We’ve not got anyone else to check in with, so it was as simple as, ‘Shall we do an album?’ ‘Yeah.’ ‘Who are we going to get to produce it?’ ‘Youth.’ Went in, did it, fuckin’ wrote, recorded and mixed in four weeks. So yeah, it’s great. I’m not just saying it; it’s a pleasure.

That method recording sounds like a throwback to the early-’60s when bands would go in and make a record in a day or two…

No, that’s how I work! I HATE having to spend too long… I mean, when you start to live with the fuckin’ stuff you’ve just done, and if you’ve got it there too long, you start fuckin’ around with it and re-writing or messing around with the music. So, usually with me, the first instincts are usually right. Usually. And, fuck me, the game’s changed now. Nobody, unless you’re U2 or Ed Sheeran, I don’t know, spends fuckin’ months and months in a recording studio anymore. There’s just no need for it.

I know relations between yourself and Kermit had earlier been fraught. What brought you both back together?

What happened was, Veronica Gretton, who used to run Radioactive Records - she’s an English woman and ran the label of Gary Kurfurst, who was the Black Grape manager and we were on his label - she sent me an email saying it’s 20 years since ‘It’s Great When You’re Straight…Yeah’. I’d been in touch with Kermit about a year before and he still wasn’t right [health-wise], so I’d gone out and done one Black Grape show and brought a couple of different people in, and then it got left. So, a year later, I got back in touch with Kermit. He’d had his new heart fitted - he has a pig’s valve in his heart - and he was in really good shape. So we had a meeting and it just went from there. Before we knew it, we was back out on the road, and then got an album done.

Did it feel like old times?

Better than old times, really. I think the new album is better than the first album we did. Basically, all we had to this time was bother about music and writing music. We didn’t have any habits to support, we didn’t have any fuckin’ mad adventures to go on…

And no expectations either, right?

Well, personally I did, because I didn’t want it to be shit.

Yeah, but I meant it like you hadn’t just recently released an album that you had to live up to, or have fans eagerly awaiting it, since it was still a secret. You had a blank canvas.

Oh yeah, no. I mean, it’s like the people at Universal - and Alan McGee: they thought, ‘Yeah, they’ll do an alright album. I’m sure it will be alright,’ and then when they started hearing it, it was like, ‘Fuckin’ hell!’ They were blown away. Because, you know, me and [Kermit], we’re daft old blokes now, so the days of all the madness and all the drugs is pretty much - well, it’s not “pretty much”, it’s fuckin’ gone - so, all we had to concentrate on was writing.

Did it feel like unfinished business?

Sort of. I mean, the thing about me and him is we was always good together at writing. We bounced off each other, and then, yeah, it went pear-shaped, so yeah, it was unfinished business. The second album, I wasn’t happy with, and it all finished too early for all the mad reasons that it did, so yeah, there was a certain amount of unfinished business there.

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Aside from the personnel issues with the Mondays, in terms of the music, did you have something in mind artistically or stylistically that made you feel it was more suited to Black Grape than the Mondays?

Well, only for the fact that it’s so easy with Black Grape. It’s just me and him, and as quick as you can say it, we can be working on it. With the Mondays, it’s not that simple, and it’s four people getting a say on what’s going on, or you’ve got to wait for someone to come from LA or Canada as well. It’s just me and him, so it was a piece of piss. The only idea that we had when we went in to make the album, we wanted Beach Boys, Bee Gees, hip-hop and a few other things thrown in there. Know what I mean? That was our references to sort of start ripping around.

How do you two work together? The press release states that you write “eyeball to eyeball”. Is it all spontaneous?

Oh absolutely, yeah. Again, get the beats going, get the tune up, and then just work at it. Like we did in the past, really, it’s ideas from anything; watching the news, watching the telly, something that one of us has said… I’ve always wanted to get ‘young, dumb and full of cum’ in a song, that old saying. We got that one because Youth had never heard of the Geto Boys or Bushwick Bill, so we were like, ‘Listen to this. We wanna do something to pay homage to that.’

You’d worked with Youth before, right? On the football song?

On the football song, yeah.

What did you like about him?

Really, I mean, fuckin’ hell, he makes hits! And he’s Alan’s mate. It was all Alan’s idea to work with Youth. I had to say to Kermit, ‘This is the stuff he’s done’ - you know, Edwyn Collins and The Verve and this and that - because he didn’t really know anything that he’d done! He knew the songs, but… He’s a hitmaker, he really is. I mean, ‘Weather With You’ with Crowded House… It’s like, when Alan said to me that we should hook up, I just went and looked at what he’d done and just said, ‘Yeah, fuckin’ great. I’m having some.’

Youth played a big part in putting together the music on the album. Is that going to prove a challenge for a band to recreate?

No, no. We’ve done it! When we went out doing the Richard Ashcroft stuff - we did the arena things with Richard just the other week - what we did, it was basically to try out the album, so we stuck four or five of the new tunes in it. Cos the guys that we’ve got working with us as well…

I mean, the Musical Director is Dan Broad, who’s in the Mondays as well - he’s been with us doing the keyboards and programming since 2002 - and Mikey the bass player, he took over doing bass in the Mondays in 2002, so until we brought the original members back, which was about two years ago, Mikey was the bass player in that. He does my solo stuff with me, so we brought him into Black Grape. They’re all brilliant musicians, and they’re at the right age where they’ve mostly left the partying behind, and they’re all dedicated and love to play.

And they’re keen to learn the songs, no doubt.

Oh yeah, absolutely. We were doing a show and I gave them the album to listen to when we’d just got out the studio with it, and about three days later all of them knew it.

I’d read that you’d had to make some musical compromises on the first Black Grape album…

On what?

Changes on your debut album - things like ‘Kelly’s Heroes’ being made more rocky…

Oh, yeah, yeah. ‘Kelly’s Heroes’, really, was sort of a hip-hop song, more in the vein of the other tracks, and… The other thing about that album is, when we were doing the new album we were like, ‘Fuck, stay away from God,’ because it just looked like most of the songs [were about God]. Kurfurst picked those, so a lot of stuff that we’d have put on, Gary put on, and five of the tracks happened to have religious fuckin’ themes. But when you’ve done about 25 songs…

I mean, the thing is, when you’re writing really quickly as well, you’ve got to be careful that you’re not going over the same things. We really kept our eye on it [with this album]. And the first time around, obviously Kurfurst picked the tracks that he wanted on it, and again, ‘Kelly’s Heroes’ was a lot more hip-hoppy, but, especially because of the climate at the time in the States where there really wasn’t any black guy/white guy doing hip-hop - I mean, you had the Beastie Boys and a couple of other things, but in the mainstream it wasn’t there.

And what Kurfurst wanted, he wanted a hit, but he wanted to push it to the right market. He was looking for the rock fans as well, so he made us pretty much redo a couple of tunes so that for singles he had more rockified things to push at the mainstream programme.

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Did you feel like that was a compromise? Would you have rather had the original version?

Well, yeah, obviously, but we also wanted a fuckin’ hit! We had to let Kurfurst take the lead. We got pretty much how we wanted it, but we could understand as well what he was doing. He’d had Big Audio Dynamite, and in a way they were a mixed band - with Don Letts in it - so we thought he knew what he was doing so we went with it. Don was here earlier - I haven’t seen him since 1997, so 20 years.

Talking of which, and going back to what you said earlier, what went through your mind when someone pointed out that the first Black Grape album was 20 years old?

As you get older, time goes really quick. When you’re a kid and you think about five years, from the age of 11 to 16 at secondary school, that’s a fuckin’ million years. That five years at secondary school really goes like 20 years does now. To me, when someone says 2005, that’s 10 minutes ago to me, but it’s 12 years ago. No one prepares you for how time speeds up as you get older, but it does, yeah. So really, thinking back to the album, in a way it’s gone like [clicks fingers] that.

Not to mention you still play those songs, so they probably still feel fresh and new and haven’t aged…

We were lucky with that. Both them and the Mondays have lasted really well. It’s like when we did ‘Bummed’. I hadn’t listened to ‘Bummed’ since we came out the studio in the beginning of 1988. I didn’t listen to it until we was taking that album on tour, and that was a couple of years ago. Because I move on straight away. As soon as I’ve done something, I want to do something better. I listen to it in the studio, listen to the end product when it’s all mixed and done, and that’s it. I put it to bed because I want to do something better and move on.

And then I listened to it fuckin’ 30 years later or whatever it was, and I thought, ‘Fuck me, this is alright.’ Know what I mean? It’s a good album! Because I do always give meself a hard time over it and think I could have done it better, but all the years later I listened to it and I thought it’s great.

I read that you’d admitted to having writers block for a while…

I did. Well, basically, in ’97 I went into receivership because of the management that Gary Kurfurst put in place for me. They were two tour managers who Kurfurst started fronting as management, because he had me on his record label - I know I got licensed through MCA, but Radioactive was Kurfurst’s label through MCA. So he had that, he had me publishing, he had me management. So, what he did so that it didn’t look like a conflict of interest, he got two tour managers and got them to front as my management.

And then, as soon as that happened, these two fuckers started thinking they was Charlie Big Potatoes and were going against Kurfurst. After I got rid of them, they never worked in the music business again. I lost the court case, and because of where I was at the time, I really didn’t think they should be getting the £130,000 that they was awarded.

I really should have just paid them, because what it led to then was from 1997 to 2010 was 13 years of receivership. And you can’t go bankrupt, because if you go bankrupt, you lose all your writing; you lose everything and you never get it back. So, it took me fuckin’ 13 years to get out of it. I mean, once receivers get hold of you, it’s a business. They take 100% of your income off you. You’re still working - you’re still doing stuff, you’re still going on tours…

But it’s all going to them?

Everything. All your royalties, the lot. Everything goes. They take the full shebang, and then when you’re getting out of it, you find out that you owe the tax for it! They take 100% off you, and then when you come out of it, you’re supposed to pay the fuckin’ tax! So that cost a shitload of more dough getting tax lawyers…

So this all just preoccupied your mind that whole time?

Oh dude, I dealt with it by just getting further and further off me tits. I just didn’t give a fuck. I could handle it. I know people that have not been able to earn money for six months and have got families and kids, and I know strong blokes who were seriously thinking about fuckin’ killing themselves. I had that for 13 years and I just dealt with it by just blocking it all out with more and more drugs. I had to go underground…

You gotta be careful what you say; I’m not gonna tell the story about how it really is, because I know that people in the tax office read these things and they come back at you like before. And they’re fuckin’ nasty cunts.

So, all of that had to be completely out of the way before you could clear your mind and think about music?

Oh yeah. It took 13 years. I had kids as well, and when they took all that off me, they didn’t take into consideration that I had four fuckin’ children who needed school fees paying. You get the receivers saying, ‘Well, how are you paying the electric bill?’ Because they really wanted you living in a fuckin’ box under the subway.

So yeah, it totally took up all of me time, and I eventually got out of it with the help of a guy called Bryan Fugler. Now, Fugler is a well-known solicitor - he sorted Georgie Best out and he had fuckin’ [Alan] Sugar over, whacked him for a load of dough - and he’s a clever bloke. He got me out of it eventually, and the deal was done on the golf course! So yeah, 13 years of that. When I got out, the first thing I did was go in the jungle. But the £120,000 that I got from the jungle, I had to pay that to the fuckin’ lawyers.

You mentioned your kids earlier - I bet your youngest ones have fairly changed your listening habits of late?

Oh, yeah. My other kids are all grown up, and I was never at home - I was working and building a career and fuckin’ everything else - so I’ve got to do it again. I’ve got an eight- and a nine-year-old, and they have; I mean, I haven’t got a clue what’s going on in music. Music, for me at the moment, is Ariana Grande - who I think is great, talented - Miley Cyrus - fuckin’ great, talented, brilliant - and all the other sort of stuff that goes with that age. It’s the radio and Disney and all those shows - cos Grande’s in that Sam And Cat, or was.

And it’s amazing how they know music. They’ll know The Beach Boys cos it’s out of some fuckin’ Disney movie. I’m waiting til they get to about 15 when they’ll be coming out with dad going to watch indie bands, and then I might have a fuckin’ clue what’s going on.

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For more information on the Fred Perry Subculture Live events, check out their website. Full dates are available on the 100 Club page.

The album ‘Pop Voodoo’ will be out on 7th July on UMC and is available to pre-order now.

For tickets to the latest Black Grape shows click HERE.

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