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Mellower but still a madman, Black Grape’s Shaun Ryder is all about the music now

“The sex and drugs have gone, and now it’s just the rock ‘n’ roll.”

The rock ‘n’ roll landscape is littered with story after story of shining stars who embraced the good life, flew too close to the sun, and never quite made it back to earth. And somewhere in Las Vegas, an oddsmaker (or two, or three) has lost a sizeable chunk of money taking bets that Shaun Ryder, the infamous hellraising frontman for a pair of iconically diverse alt-rock bands — Happy Mondays and Black Grape — was going to join that illustrious roll call of perma-casualties.

Instead, the Manchester, England born-and-bred Ryder beat those odds quite handily by shedding his legendary overindulgent ways to refocus his energies on the most important part of this sacred rocking equation — namely, making great music.

“These days, both Black Grape and the Mondays are sounding better and playing better than ever, really,” Ryder explained to Digital Trends. “Back in the day, we were still living the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle, as mad as any young lads in a band would. All that madness was just as important to me as going onstage and playing. But now, it really is all about just the music. The sex and drugs have gone, and now it’s just the rock ‘n’ roll.”

To that end, Ryder’s chops are stronger than they’ve ever been, and the proof can be found all over Pop Voodoo, the latest offering from Black Grape, available today in various formats from UMe. Indeed, Ryder and his creative Grape cohort, rapper Paul “Kermit” Leveridge, have greatly benefited by collaborating with noted producer Youth (U2, Pink Floyd, Primal Scream, Depeche Mode) to get the best out of their own personal brand of sonic Voodoo.

“Oh man, he’s brilliant; he really is,” Ryder admitted about Youth (real name: Martin Glover). “Just look at his work, and his back catalog. All we said to him in the studio when we started working together was we wanted to take hip-hop, The Beach Boys, The Bee Gees, and a bit of Motown, and mix it all in together.” (Mixing mission duly accomplished!)

Digital Trends called Ryder across the Pond to discuss how Youth got the two Grapesmen to open up creatively, the value of signing vinyl the “right” way, and how his kids currently view his musical legacy (and how he hopes that’ll change sooner rather than later).

Top: Black Grape/Facebook, Bottom: Burak Cingi/Getty Images

Digital Trends: Do you feel working with Youth pushed you into a new creative direction?

Shaun Ryder: Yeah, absolutely — he took us right out of the comfort zone. He really got Kermit to open up and even sing some, too. We got Kermit to do things he wouldn’t usually do — and he [Youth] got me to do some things I wouldn’t have usually done as well!

Any particular track you can mention as being the best example of that?

There are things like that on Money Burns, where it’s almost like a hybrid. He also got me doing lots of backing vocals that I wouldn’t have usually done.

When you and Kermit work together in the studio, you do it face to face — or “nose to nose,” as you’ve put it before.

All that lifestyle madness was just as important to me as going onstage and playing.

(chuckles) Yeah, that’s pretty much how we work. Kermit actually gets out a pad and paper when he writes out the structure of certain songs, where I just jot down bits here and there on beer mats or ripped pieces of paper. You name it, I’ll write on it! (both laugh)

When we turn up in the studio, I’ll pull out all my bits of paper and Kermit will turn up with his pad, and we’ll sit face to face with each other, bouncing ideas off each other. We’ll then put a track up, and whatever idea comes into our heads, we’ll use it to negate my ad-libbing. And then I’ll start looking through my scraps for another part of the jigsaw puzzle. So, yeah, we bounce off each other.

Those scraps should be put in a museum somewhere. (Ryder laughs) Do you keep them when you’re done with them? Where do they go?

They go in a plastic bag, and into a drawer in my home. (chuckles)

I’d love to get into the writing process for a song like Young and Dumb, where the key lines are, “Speed up so you don’t stop / slow down so you don’t quit.” How did that song develop? Who wrote what lines there?

That was Kermit. At first, he was giving it the old, “tick-tock until you don’t stop,” but I said, “Come on, Kermit; you can’t use that one. It’s too easy.” So he dug into it a bit, and then he came out with that other line. And I said, “Oh, that’s great. We’ll use that one.”

Black Grape/Facebook
Paul “Kermit” Leveridge (left) and Shaun Ryder (right). Photo: Black Grape/Facebook

It’s a nice anthem to end the record. And I think we have to use the word “record” here, because this is a full album to me. You gotta play it from beginning to end. Is that important to you, that people listen to Pop Voodoo in its running order?

Oh yeah yeah, absolutely! I hate having to take bits of work and release one single or download now, you know? To me, it’s a body of work. I like hearing it in its entirety, altogether.

Is vinyl a format that’s still important to you?

It is. And you know what? Just the other day, I signed 2,500 copies of Pop Voodoo vinyl. The record company had them delivered here with the seal-wrap on them, and I thought, “Oh, OK, those must be for the people who don’t open them and just collect them.” I signed about 500 copies, and then I get a phone call: “Dude, you’ve got to chuck the wrapping off them before you sign!” (both laugh)

We wanted to take hip-hop, The Beach Boys, The Bee Gees, and a bit of Motown, and mix it all in together.

It’s nice to think people are actually listening to this vinyl and not just collecting it, and that kids are getting into it too. You’ve got young kids now yourself. How do they listen to their music?

Well, they’re downloading stuff onto their iPads. Or, more often, they’re watching their music on YouTube.

YouTube has basically turned into the world’s biggest radio station.

Yeah, that’s what it’s all evolved into.

It’s a more modern MTV. As far as actual listening goes, do you play vinyl records yourself?

I’ve only just started collecting vinyl again. You know those $20 suitcase player-things? I got one of those not long ago just so I could play Pop Voodoo on it. I mean, my wife threw away all my Technics decks and all my stereo equipment, right out on the tip [i.e., into the trash], and I said, “What are you doing that for?” At the time, that stuff was worth thousands of pounds, and she just put it all on the tip. This is a few years ago and it’s all long gone, so somebody’s had a proper day down at the tip!

Whenever that person reads about this, they’ll go, “Hey, I’ve got Shaun Ryder’s Technics gear!” They’ve got gold, but they just didn’t know it until now. (Ryder laughs) Since you’re listening to vinyl again, are you replacing the things that you lost? Are you getting new records to play?

Basically, I’m getting a lot of stuff sent to me from Universal. They just sent me the big [Beatles] Sgt. Pepper’s box set, and they also sent me Diana Ross and The Who’s Quadrophenia, so they’re sending me all sorts of stuff. My vinyl collection is now starting up again, yeah.

That’s not a bad way to start. Were you a Sgt. Pepper’s fan at all?

Oh yeah, absolutely! At one time, I had most of The Beatles albums, but over the years, we moved around a lot, so when I was a young lad, it all just disappeared. But at one time, I had all the vinyls.

So if Black Grape were to cover a Beatles song, which one would you do?

Which one would we do? Oh God, I don’t know, there’s so many… (slight pause) You know what? Maybe we’d start off with something more simple, like Day Tripper. I used to know the start of it.

You know, we just did Chris Evans’ radio show [i.e., The Chris Evans Breakfast Show on BBC2] and he made us do a cover version, so we did Viva Las Vegas. (chuckles) We only had a day to get it together and do it.

Those guys who played on that original Elvis stuff were just brilliant. They made it sound easy, but it’s really fast and it’s complicated, you know? In fact, you can probably watch it on YouTube now, because we filmed it.

We’re 22 years on since the first Black Grape record, 1995’s It’s Great When You’re Straight…Yeah, and it seems like people are both discovering and re-discovering it today. Do you have any sense of history about it at this point?

When I was a kid, I used to swear pop and rock music was made by 20-year-olds, and nobody over 40 could make music that good.

Yeah, well, one of the reasons me and Kermit ended up getting back together was because I had a phone call from America from Veronica Gretton, who looks after stuff for us and for Gary Kurfirst [the late founder of Radioactive Records, who released the album initially]. And she reminded me it had just had a 20-year anniversary, and I went, “Oh, OK …” When she told me that, I decided to give Kermit another call, and that’s what really got us back on the road to doing it.

When I was a kid, I used to swear that pop music and rock music was made by 20-year-olds, and nobody over the age of 40 could make music that good anymore. But now I’m almost 55, and I think I’ve just done a better album than the first Black Grape album.

It’s hard to argue with that logic. I think it’s partially because all those years of experience have been poured into Pop Voodoo, making it the best of the band’s three studio albums.

Yep yep, yeah. Absolutely. I totally agree with you! (laughs)

Are you getting a sense of a newer, younger audience connecting with Pop Voodoo, as well as with Happy Mondays?

Oh yeah, I definitely do! And the thing is, me and Bez [of Happy Mondays, and the original Black Grape lineup] do quite a lot of television over here as well. We have a series over here called I’m a Celebrity … Get Me Out of Here!, and I was runner-up on that [in 2010]. And then Bez won Celebrity Big Brother [in 2005, on Series 3]. And both shows really brought a whole other younger audience into it.

Our audiences now, whether we play with Black Grape or the Mondays, run from 13-years-old to 70! It’s really broad now, isn’t it? So I’ve been saying to myself, “Well, we must have done something right.”

Black Grape performing in the 1990s. Photo: Brian Rasic/Getty Images

Do you hear from younger bands about how you’ve influenced them?

Oh yeah — quite a bit, which is nice. But I’m terrible with names, and I can’t remember the names of young bands. Part of that is listening to music with my girls, which is all about Capital radio and Miley Cyrus — who’s great and all — but I’m waiting until they turn 13 and start getting into indie bands, and then I’ll get up and come with ’em!

Do they have a sense of what dad does? Do they know or understand what your legacy is?

Well, they know dad was a bit of a mad rocker back in the day — especially with some of the haircuts! (both chuckle) Now they’re just used to seeing me on TV and doing festivals. They know all that is part of me job! (chuckles again)