John Grant - Success at last for a rock'n'roll survivor

Dangerous sex, addiction and self-loathing – John Grant's turbulent life inspired one of the best albums of last year. Andy Gill meets him
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The Independent Culture

John Grant's album Queen of Denmark was one of last year's most intriguing word-of-mouth successes. Recorded with his Texan chums Midlake, it's a warm, funny, slightly bitter, sometimes petulant, but always musically appealing work in which the former Czars frontman excavates the emotional baggage of growing up gay and scared in a small Mid-western town through the 1970s and 1980s.

Garnering positive reviews upon its release in April, it accrued further acclaim steadily until the end of the year, when it was proclaimed Album of the Year by Mojo magazine – a plaudit which was beyond Grant's wildest dreams. You'd think he'd be ecstatic, walking on air. But when we meet up in a Vietnamese restaurant in London's Hoxton, he doesn't seem that happy. Quite the opposite.

"I wanted to kill myself last year more than I have in my entire life," he confides over noodles and coconut chicken. "I started to feel that, no matter how much success I had, at the end of the day I would still be this flawed person, flawed to such an extent that I would always go home alone – that I wouldn't be able to accept love from anybody else, that I wouldn't be able to give love in a healthy way that doesn't hurt the other person, or turn them into something they're not. I started to feel that I had misused sex and emotions to such an extent that now I can't have any sort of real intimacy with another human. And that made me want to blow my head off."

It's a shocking admission, one that points to underlying problems of low self-esteem that have dogged Grant seemingly for his entire adult life. Mention his former band The Czars, whose blissful dream-pop first brought Grant's saintly tenor vocals to public attention, and he'll dismiss them as "mediocre shit". When they failed to make much of an impact, he was crushed, and as band-members drifted away, he found himself alone again. He blames his alcoholism and cocaine addiction for the band break-up, another lash for his back.

"We all couldn't stand each other," he adds bluntly. "We probably reminded each other of how difficult our lives were, that it was such a struggle. Creatively, we couldn't connect: I wasn't really talking about the things I wanted to talk about. I wanted to scream!" He becomes wistful at the prospect. "If I had a good scream, like Frank Black, I'd be doing punk music, 'cos I love that," he says, with a genuine innocence. "I'm not a big punk fan, but I love a good, solid screamer. I'd probably never stop screaming."

There's clearly a lot of repressed anger seething beneath Grant's calm surface, something that dates back to his high-school years. One of the videos for Queen of Denmark, for a song called "Chicken Bones", features him clad in thrift-shop superhero garb and mask, wandering through streets full of drunks. "That was so terrifying to make," he says. "It just brought back all my memories of walking down the halls of my high school and being called a faggot: walking down St Mary's Street in Cardiff on a Saturday night, sober, dressed as a superhero – it was horrifying. But I needed to do it."

The superhero mask, too, had a symbolic importance, representing the disguise that young Midwestern gays were forced to adopt in order to survive.

"I've spent the majority of my life doing that," he confirms. "In order to not have to deal with being gay in the world, you have to control everything. You try and walk in an un-gay way, so as not to be found out. You try to control every situation, check the people around you, that you're not in the wrong place, and that can be exhausting. It goes on for decades and it becomes mental sickness.

"For me, it's important not to wear a mask now, because I get lost in that – it's too comfortable for me. But at the same time, I'm not good at it either. I can't create music if I'm wearing a mask and not being myself, and that was the problem with The Czars. I was trying to create music that I thought people expected me to make, or what I was supposed to make, because of whatever's popular. And that results in mediocre shit."

When The Czars broke up, Grant moved from Denver to New York, where he spent several years waiting tables and doing stints as a Russian medical interpreter in hospitals. He wrote just one song during this period, still unrecorded, called "You Don't Have To".

"I didn't think music was gonna happen for me, so I ought to have a back-up plan," he explains. But wasn't it strange to abandon something that was such a fundamental part of your life? "What, the music? Yeah, but when I'd think about music, it would remind me of being a failure, and it became easier to just not do it."

He was only drawn back to music through his friendship with Midlake, whose guitarist Eric Pulido asked Grant to come down to Texas and sing at his wedding. "Then while I was in New York I did a couple of shows with them, and they started bothering me to come and do my record with them."

It proved a perfect alliance of forces. Grant felt heartened by their interest, and their affinity for classic 1970s AOR sounds like Fleetwood Mac and ELO dovetailed neatly with his desire to re-create the sounds of his childhood, when he became obsessed with the MOR pop of Abba and The Carpenters.

"That's the sound I loved when I was a child, and I'm sort of stuck in that world, because that's when I was happy. Or at least, that's when I didn't know that I wasn't happy," he corrects himself. "Always Abba, always – from the time I first heard "Take a Chance on Me" and "Dancing Queen". I thought Agnetha was the most beautiful thing on the planet."

You know she wed her stalker, apparently. "Yes! I get that!" he enthuses. "I like that sort of enthusiasm! It's like, you know they really want to be with you! I've had a couple of instances like that, of people fixating on me, and I sort of give them a chance – make sure you're not missing out on something, y'know? "

Given his upbringing, it's hardly surprising that Grant didn't escape without a number of emotional scars with which he's only now coming to terms. Initially, they manifested as addictions, although he's been sober now for six-and-a-half years. "A lot of people didn't believe I had a problem with alcohol – probably because they did too. If you're not bright yellow and in the hospital, people don't believe you have a drinking problem. But I had to have it to do most things, except go to work. To do any sort of performing or socialising, going out, I needed it. But it was when I started to get into the cocaine that things really began to get out of control. I started smoking it, then I started putting myself into all kinds of dangerous situations, sexually for example. I put myself in situations where I could easily die from it, and just think, well, it doesn't matter, because there's no guaranteed future, so what else should I do?

"It's a miracle I don't have Aids. Because a lot of people haven't been spared. But that's what made me want to commit suicide last year. It was this horrible feeling of being less capable of intimacy than ever before. The older you get, all you can do is sexualise a relationship, because that's what affection means to you. And you become obsessed with age, because you become less sexually viable, less attractive to the younger ones, so you see all these 60-year-olds walking round wearing what the 20-year-olds are wearing, and it's just so sad. I have visions of that in my head – I'm, like, walking round a college campus with a hard-on at the age of 70, with a gun in my pocket, y'know, so that if I don't get laid I can blow my head off."

For the time being, though, Grant can put such drastic measures to the back of his mind. Like Nick Drake, he's managed to draw sweetness from pain, but unlike Drake, he survived the pain intact, and now finds himself in the enviable position of being able to plan the rest of his career, with the most immediate project involving electronic pop in the vein of Yello and Cabaret Voltaire, before he turns to the follow-up proper to Queen of Denmark.

"I had an amazing year," he concedes. "Being number one in Mojo, going on Jools Holland, I can't deny it was wonderful, but it's more about what's happening in here." He pauses, then brightens up a little. "Though it looks like I might be able to do music as a career, which is awesome. Recently, I've been able to reassure myself with my success. I can say, I made this, and I like it. And that's a new thing for me. It doesn't make me want to hang my head in shame. And the Brits really seem to get it. Which is funny, 'cos I'm such an American boy, through and through."

'Queen of Denmark' is out now on Bella Union. The single "Where Dreams Go to Die" is out 24 January. John Grant plays St Andrews in the Square, Glasgow, on 30 January and tours in March