John Grant: 'This addictive personality permeates my entire being'

After fighting drug problems, John Grant declared on stage that he was HIV-positive. Nick Hasted meets a very candid indie star

The first time John Grant made a solo album, it helped save his life. Though he had dragged himself free of alcohol and drug addiction after his cult band The Czars' collapse, abandonment by the male love of his life made suicidal thoughts crowd in.

Texan band Midlake intervened then, encouraging him to resume making music by producing Mojo's 2010 album of the year, Queen of Denmark. Songs such as “JC Hates Faggots” revealed a religiously conservative Midwest upbringing which made being gay so catastrophic to self-worth, even the record's career-transforming reception couldn't raise it. “If I base my opinion of myself on the fact that right now, things are great,” Grant, 44, explains as he sits wrapped against the winter chill in an east London bar, “people could suddenly turn around and say, 'Well, you're just a diseased whore'.”

Sinéad O'Connor covers Queen of Denmark's title track on her new album and guests on Grant's follow-up, Pale Green Ghosts, produced by another of his heroes, Icelandic band Gus Gus's Biggi Veira. The pair worked so well together that Grant impulsively ripped up plans to work with Midlake again, and moved to Reykjavik. “Biggi would be sitting there in his stiletto heels and tights, and some sort of blouse,” he fondly recalls of their work's more fraught moments, “wearing his lipstick and make-up and fingernail polish, and treating me as a father would, saying, 'Look, it's going to be alright. Let's deconstruct this.'”

Grant's diagnosis as HIV-positive, announced on-stage in London in June 2012, added to the disruption and determination behind a record that partly retains Denmark's soft rock and acid wit. New orchestral and electronic textures refine his music's bleak beauty. “At the beginning, I always made Biggi go in the house,” Grant says of daring to sing its confessions for the first time, after moving into Veira's home/studio.

“The pain of what I'm singing about was raw then. Sometimes I wish I was one of those artists like David Bowie. They're not putting their private lives out there, it's about show, and entertainment. But an alter ego is very dangerous for me. Because I am the guy who will become lost in that. With this addictive personality I have, which permeates my entire being – it's not just drugs and alcohol, I can abuse the salt shaker, the sofa cushions – I am so prone to wanting to disappear and flee that I'll use anything to do that. I really want to avoid being another one of these people who gets found in a bath-tub, having not quite made it away from the drug addiction, and who did in the end succumb, unfortunately. And in order for me to avoid that I have to, even if it's not pretty, talk about the way things actually are.”

“Pale Green Ghosts” is a dark driving song, describing highway rides from Grant's teenage home town of Parker, Colorado to Denver – and he has kept moving, living in New York, London and Berlin before his current Reykjavik residence. “I don't want to leave the house, and I don't want to settle down,” he considers of his restlessness. A 10-hour journey from Reykjavik to Iceland's east side inspired Pale Green Ghosts' epic conclusion, “Glacier”. “I saw a lot of glaciers on the way,” he says. “And I thought about them as a metaphor for how pain carves a path in you, but can also result in a new landscape.”

A continued obsession with the adored, lost love called “T.C.” in his lyrics, though, shows the old landscape which triggered an almost killing depression. “Vietnam” compares this toxically cold lover to Agent Orange. “Maybe it's just something that's important anthropologically speaking,” Grant ponders, “maybe it's just a portrait of dysfunctional human love.” This torturing muse has Queen of Denmark hanging on his wall. “Or he did. Maybe he was told to take that down! The anger's what's helping me move on. How do you force love to die?” Grant's songs hammer nails in the corpse.

There's more pain deeper in his past. The father castigated on Queen of Denmark for his right-wing bigotry has also heard some of his son's music. Visiting him in Missouri, Grant's sexuality stays unspoken. “I think when he listens to the music, it hurts him to see what I've gone through,” Grant says. “Because even if he doesn't agree with the homosexual lifestyle, he still loves me, I'm still his son. I feel uncomfortable when I think about my father listening to my records, because I don't want to hurt him. It's probably just as important for me to accept him.”

Has his dad ever spoken about the music? “Well actually, he heard 'I Wanna Go to Marz'. Thought it was beautiful. I just disqualified it, like I do everything. I thought, 'Yeah, if he heard 'Jesus Hates Faggots', it'd be a different story'.”

Pale Green Ghosts' sound captures Grant's emotions as much as his acerbically witty lyrics. The electronic and orchestral arrangements are oppressive and disruptive, ending in a sort of liberation. “Do you know the solo at the end of 'Why Don't You Love Me Any More?', that sounds like a chainsaw breaking through?” Grant asks. “That is what I can't do with my voice. That's when you hear how painful this has been to me.”

Grant mentions his love of John Carpenter's electronic horror soundtracks. Is it too glib to say that his albums have a similar purpose?

“It might be a little bit glib to people who have been through genocides in countries where people have actual problems. But yes, there has been a horror movie going on in my head for a long time, that has to do with anxiety and severe depression, and feeling trapped inside this horrible labyrinth of over-thinking and fear. And I am trying to write the soundtrack to that.”

'Pale Green Ghosts' is out now on Bella Union

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Stewart Lee (Gavin Evans)

comedy

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

music
Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
News
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
people
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
Yaphett Kotto with Julius W Harris and Jane Seymour in 1973 Bond movie Live and Let Die

film
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment

film
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
    Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

    UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

    Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
    John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

    ‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

    Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
    Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

    Let the propaganda wars begin - again

    'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

    Japan's incredible long-distance runners

    Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
    Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

    Tom Drury: The quiet American

    His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
    Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

    Beige to the future

    Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

    Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

    More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
    Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

    Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

    The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own