Rock: Farewell pills, thrills and bellyaches
Interview: Shaun Ryder
Friday 14 November 1997
Slimmer than you've seen him and shorter than you'd think, Shaun Ryder strides purposefully through the upmarket bustle of a Park Lane hotel.
The one-time pie-eyed piper of the rave generation declines politely. No, not even a glass of water, thank you.
It's five years since the Happy Mondays went up in a puff of crack smoke, years in which Ryder has returned from the dead - commercially and critically with the enormously successful Black Grape and quite literally in coming to terms with his long-term heroin addiction. But the wan, haggard face that launched the lurid covers of a thousand music papers gives the lie to this evening's uncharacteristic temperance. Ryder's Mr Punch nose shelters eyes that have seen it all.
On four albums from 1986 to 1992, The Happy Mondays hitched the funky undercarriage and druggy euphoria of the burgeoning dance scene to brash guitars to great effect. With 1988's Bummed and, in particular, Pills 'n' Thrills and Bellyaches two years later, this groovy chemical formula produced irresistible results, but Ryder seems content to treasure these years as one long night-out with the boys: "Between 18 and 30, my life was spent in pursuit of pleasure and being in a band, travelling all over the world with a group of lads was the best way ever you could do that."
Ryder's nonsense lyrics peddled a surreal vision of low-rent glamour. Expulsion from school at 15, a pubescent baptism in the world of drugs and crime - Ryder would dig up anything from his past to supply the music press with vicarious thrills, if only, as he says now, "to save me having to talk about B minors and D sharps, which I didn't have a clue about".
Now closer to 40 years of age than 30 and with a longstanding partner, a couple of kids and a new album to provide for, doesn't the family man bridle that he seems stuck in our minds as a junkie Manc waster? "The laddy, working class, baggy druggy? I really can't complain about it but, yeah, it does get on your tits. The Mondays made it look easy, as if we were just `working class lads' getting together. If I was really as daft mad as all that, I wouldn't be here now, would I?"
Whatever method Shaun sees in his Madchester years, 1997 finds him in an enviable position. With the ongoing contribution of rapper Kermit and producer Danny Saber, Black Grape's latest album Stupid, Stupid, Stupid reprises the scabrous funk and hip hop cheekiness of its predecessor. Continuous touring has sold 600,000 copies of 1995's It's Great When You're Straight... Yeah in the UK alone, but even though Ryder is the only member of Black Grape signed to Radioactive, he reapportions all credit to his affiliates, talking repeatedly of the band as a joint effort: "I'm not a musician but I've got a good ear. Black Grape is more of a team anyway, and I've always been good at picking a team."
With Black Grape's instant success came Ryder's inevitable "rediscovery" by the Loaded generation, the footy 'n' lager magazines seizing on Ryder as the son that Keith Richards never had. He also appears to inspire that protective instinct the British peculiarly reserve for the rock 'n' roll walking wounded. Ryder's having none of it, though. "Well, I'm a great guy!" he retorts sarcastically. "Let's do some more coke and talk about how great I am!"
In fact, if anything tempers Black Grape's party manifesto it's Ryder's fine-tuned ear for this sort of double-talk. Real bitterness though - the remarkable vitriol heard on "Yeah, yeah... brother" and at various points through Stupid, Stupid, Stupid - Ryder reserves for personal treacheries and broken promises.
"Yeh, I do get angry."
But why still so sensitive after 18 years in the music world?
"For a start, people who get successful in this business are in a privileged position and some people play that up. Even going back to The Mondays, they were rude to people when they didn't need to be, but I've never seen any need for rudeness or ignorance, really. It bugs me."
When it all gets too much, however, the 35-year-old Ryder has a bolthole these days - a Georgian farmhouse in County Cork that both he, his partner of seven years Oriole, and their children Coco and Sebastian call home. So has responsibility revealed the joys of familial bliss to the semi- reformed Ryder? "Well, I really do love it you know ... er ... it might sound, you know..."
Here's something to tell the grandchildren: Shaun Ryder struggling to come to terms with his caring, domesticated alter ego. "Maybe I'll start getting wacky again when I'm 40, but at the moment I like spending my time-off with my family in Ireland where I live. I'm in trouble at the moment with Oriole because I'm on tour again and she really doesn't want me touring so much."
Promoting Stupid, Stupid, Stupid is not Ryder's only sin, however. The prospect of two years touring the new album comes just as Ryder has finished filming his parts in the upcoming film Avengers with Ralph Fiennes and Eddie Izzard. Ryder tells me that, understandably, Oriole's upped sticks for a spiritual trip to the East: "They're right out in India somewhere with the Dali Lamee [sic] and her guru guru Muck [sic]," he grins, revealing a glimpse of the old Manc scallywag.
"Oriole's into meditating and that, and she rang me up and said [adopts cod posh voice], `I'm going to India.' `Why?' I said. `Because it's time.' That's alright then, cos I'll ring her up and say, `I'm out on the piss with the lads, doing loads of drugs and lager - cos it's time!' "
Some grapes refuse to be stepped on.
`Stupid, Stupid, Stupid' is out now. Black Grape are touring nationally from 19 Nov.
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