Shaun Ryder & Black Grape

Originally published in City Life magazine, issue 280, May 24 – June 8, 1995

City Life issue 280, May 1995

When Happy Mondays finally fell apart in the wake of the critically panned Yes Please! and the demise of Factory, Shaun Ryder was on the ropes, out for the count, punch drunk to the point of inchorence. The rave was off, insults were exchanged, the Mondays’ audacious rock ‘n’ roll swindle was over.

That was February 1993. Soon after, Ryder was in court for drink-driving offences (he’d crashed his girlfriend Trish McNamara’s Lada into a vicar’s car whilst under the influence. He drove off, of course). His court appearance saw him arm in arm with new girlfriend, Oriole Leith, daughter of Donovan. Trish and Ryder’s daughter Jael, it transpired, were living in a Stretford council flat. The Ryder story was looking seedier by the minute.

Weeks later, he was on The Word, almost comatose, talking garbage and dancing with George and Zippy from Rainbow. The street-wise blagging pop star had turned court jester, but no-one was laughing with him; Ryder was quickly becoming a figure of fun.

Since then, stories about his decline, about the drug taking and dealing, about him getting fat and growing a ludicrous moustache, slobbing around in his Didsbury house, have become part of Manchester folklore. When he temporarily staggered back in September ’93, for an Intastella gig during In The City, it only served to prove what everyone already thought. He looked a mess, muttered the lyrics to ‘Can You Fly Like You Mean It’ off a crumpled piece of paper, shambling on and off stage like a worn-out drug casualty.

Strange then, unbelievable even, to see 32-year-old Ryder now, on the verge of a comeback, sitting propped against a piano in Boundary Row Studios, London, joking, cursing, talking lucidly about the past and looking to the future. There is a goatee beard but no moustache, and if the rumours were true he’s obviously been dieting. He seems surprisingly together, casually smart in his Vans trainers, crisp new jeans and Timberland jacket.

The reason he’s talking to the press again is Black Grape, his new band, principally a songwriting partnership between Ryder and Paul Leveridge, better known as Kermit, previously of Hulme’s Ruthless Rap Assassins. Bez, still Ryder’s best mate, is in the band too, and a pool of Mancunian musicians – including percussionist Jed (who played with the Rap Assassins) and ex-Paris Angels guitarist Paul Wagstaff – have been helping out. But really, it is Kermit and Ryder’s band.

“As soon as the Mondays split, me and him was together straight away,” says Ryder, gesturing towards Kermit, “writing stuff in my living room, just me and him. Because we had nothing else to do… and we had no mates.”

The pair are clearly good friends. They originally met in the early ’80s, but it’s over the last three years that they’ve really got to know each other. Both have overcome heroin addictions, although Kermit recently claimed he still “dabbles” occasionally. Ryder, on the other hand, says he’s keeping well clear.

“I don’t want to mess around with smack again, man,” he says, for once sounding serious. “You don’t give a fuck about anything when you’re skagged up, you know what I mean? You don’t have any feelings or a conscience when you’re on smack.”

Like the herion, insists Ryder, the bad times, the bitterness, the back-stabbing are all things of the past. Despite still believing that the Mondays were destroyed by pressure from Factory and the band’s manager to “become the Bay City Rollers, have a hit album, do kids’ TV programmes and really push everything”, he claims he’s finished with slagging people off.

“I’ve just started to calm down now, I feel alright,” he says. “I’ve got no anger against anyone no more, no one at Factory, none of the rest of the band. I’ve done interviews and said I hate this person or whatever, I’ve done all that, got all that out of the way.”

Ryder wasn’t even speaking to his brother Paul (the Mondays’ bass player) for a while after the band split. It was that bad; ten years in a band together and that was the result. But then the rest of the band blamed Shaun and Bez for their fall from grace, beginning with an afternoon’s mouthing off to NME, when they went from Artful Dodgers to modern-day Fagins in a few homophobic quotes. They pushed it too far, let their drug-addled minds get out of control, laying into gays like a pair of pop star bullies, pockets full of money and gobs full of shite. It was the beginning of the end for the Mondays, and the rest of the band didn’t like it one bit.

“All the rock ‘n’ roll cliches that you can think of happened with the Mondays,” says Ryder, half incredulous, half laughing. “You remember in the film Stardust when the rest of the band are throwing darts at pictures of Jim Maclaine? All that tackle happened with us. Secret meetings to get rid of me and Bez: ‘How can we stop their money?’ Stuff like that. Really funny.”

It’s funny now, but back then, with Ryder graduating from smack to crack during the recording of Yes Please! in Barbados, there wasn’t much laughter in the Mondays’ camp. The drug rehab that followed saw Ryder undergoing a methadone programme, moving on to Valium and most recently Prozac, which he took for nearly a year and credits with sorting his post-Mondays head out. And whilst the drug use continued, Black Grape was slowly coming together.

Me and Kermit had been putting the deal together, finding management, doing the music. When the Mondays split, we were left with no equipment, didn’t have any samplers or fuck all, nowhere to rehearse, but we was busy. And trying to get semi-straight.”

Ryder had come out of the Factory collapse with nothing – “I got fuck all, everything got frozen. The lot. Still is. Didn’t get nish”. But when the chance of a deal with EMI was offered to the Mondays, he squandered it by not turning up for the meeting. In retrospect, for once the drugs made him do something sensible. A matter of months later, having secured the services of London-based management team Nick and Gloria Nichols, a deal with US label Radioactive was struck. Yet while all this was going on, the tales of Ryder’s decline continued. Only six months ago – when much of the new LP was being recored at Rockfield Studios, Wales – most people still had him written off as another music biz drug casualty.

“That’s what we let everyone think,” laughs Ryder. “Once there were reports out saying ‘Shaun’s 15 stone, he’s grown a moustache, he’s a fat fucker and all that’, once them sort of things were coming out I was really getting a buzz off it. Once I’d got used to them it was good. It’s good to be slagged, it gets you going. But in that two years, I was probably straighter and happier than for a long time. It was cool.”

Of course, all this would count for little if Black Grape were just an inferior version of the Mondays. But they’re not. Their album – produced by US hip hop/rock head Danny Saber (who also plays bass) and Stephen Lironi, once of Altered Images – is a crazy cacophony of smutty, seedy junk funk tunes, Ryder’s voice bouncing off Kermit’s preacher man rapping like ricocheting bullets. Mad lyrics, mad tunes, a classic album.

“It’s fresh,” says Ryder, waxing lyrical about how much he’s enjoying being in Black Grape. “We’ve only just started shagging each other, we’ve only been doing it for about two years. It’s cool.”

‘Cool’ along with ‘dude’ appears to be one of Ryder’s favourite words right now. It’s the language of the pony-tailed music biz types that he’s been dealing with of late, and rests oddly with his strong Salford accent, the flip-side of cool still being “snide”. To complete the picture of the new Shaun Ryder, he’s currently residing in the upmarket London suburb of Hampstead. And he’s loving it, getting off on Bohemia, hanging out in flashy wine bars and rubbing shoulders with respectable society. So why the move, Shaun?

“Well, I’ve not really moved,” he says with a smirk. “That’s just the impression we were giving out. Manchester’s mad, man. It’s like you’re born there and you get this fucking sticker on your head that somehow says you’ve got to stay there. I’ve still got this big elastic band round me neck that drags me back.”

Still, for now, he’s staying in Hampstead; it’s convenient for ‘work’. And while he’s away he’s developed a theory about his hometown. As you might expect, it’s an odd one.

“Manchester should be made into a big holiday camp,” he cackles, getting off on his own lunacy. “Put a big fence round it and turn it into, you know, that place that fucking Pinocchio fucked off to.”

A few cans of Guinness down his neck and spliff in his lungs, and the new ‘Straight’ Ryder sounds as mad as ever. But, as Black Grape’s LP title boldly states, It’s Great When You’re Straight…. Yeah! Right?

“That was just said as a joke and the management thought it was a great title,” sniggers Kermit.

“We was all straight and we was double bored,” adds Ryder.

What, so it’s not great when you’re straight after all?

“No, no, it is,” says Ryder, leaning forward and looking me in the eye. “It’s wicked, dude.”

Noel Gallagher interview, 1995

Originally published in City Life magazine, issue 293, Nov 22–Dec 7, 1995

It just wouldn’t happen with any other band, let alone one of the stature of Oasis. Half an hour after speaking to their record company about organising an interview, Noel Gallagher is on the phone. It is early October and the band are in the middle of a mini UK tour, rescheduled after the temporary departure of bass player Paul McGuigan (now back in the band). Having played Stoke the night before, the rest of the band are in Bournemouth, enjoying a rare day off. But Noel is back in London in his manager’s office: there’s work to be done.

“I get bored, you know what I mean?” he says, explaining why he’s opted to talk to a journalist rather than rest up for the day. “I just got back to London from Stoke last night and a phone call came through from the record company about this interview, and it was like, ‘but it’s your day off isn’t i?’ But if I’d gone home I’d just be bored anyway, I’d just sit around the house and start writing songs again and watch the telly , and probably end up going to the pub. So I might as well do some work: it’s what I’m good at.”

Noel has a reputation for being one of the hardest working musicians around, and his band – and it still is very much his band, despite the fact that brother Liam has been rather more forthcoming with the press of late – are equally hard working. No wonder McGuigan bowed out for a few months due to that music-biz catch-all, ‘nervous exhaustion’: sex and drugs and rock ‘n’ roll are all well and good, but too much fun can wear a man down.

“The reason why we never stop is because we don’t want to,” is Noel’s simple explanation for the band’s constant touring and record releases (eight four-track singles and two albums in just over a year and a half). “There’s no-one saying ‘you must do this’ or ‘you must do that’, we’re all in charge of our own destinies. But everyone’s having too good a time to be bothered going on holiday for six months, that’s boring man. Sit on a beach with your girlfriend rubbing suntan on you, how boring’s that?”

The Oasis rollercoaster is unstoppable at the moment, and no wonder; Noel and his cohort have no time for the aloofness of band like The Stone Roses or the petulant tantrums of less successful British prima donnas ‘suffering’ for their art. Oasis don’t suffer, they endure and enjoy. It’s only rock ‘n’ roll after all.

“For a long time bands have got to a certain level and taken two years off, and then think they can waltz back in again and pick up where they started,” says Noel. “But music moves so fast these days you can’t afford to even have six months off, because you come back and someone’s invented another scene, and suddenly you’re old hat. So I think while you’re on a roll you’ve gotta keep doing it, you’ll only regret it in the end if you don’t.”

Noel is surprisingly candid and matter-of-fact about the vagaries of being in a band, about the whims of fashion, about the transient nature of pop culture. It’s the voice of a fan talking, a 28-year-old who has consumed with a passion pop music’s ebbs and flows, highs and lows. Despite accusations from Liam that his brother is something of a muso bore, the truth is rather different.

I remember interviewing Noel backstage at a gig in June ’94, just before the band’s second single, ‘Shakermaker’, was due out. Oasis had sold out the 700 capacity Manchester University Students’ Union (small beer compared to the 17,000 capacity NYNEX Arena) and then, as now, Noel was eager to talk. We got on to the subject of The Beatles – it was impossible to avoid it – and I rather coyly admitted that my impression of the Fab Four was almost entirely based on listening to their famous (and recently reissued) red and blue compilation LPs, the only Beatles’ records my parents had. I expected Noel to point out what I was missing out on, but he didn’t. “That’s all you need to have heard, man,” he blurted. “That’s what I was brought up on – it’s all the best stuff all together.”

Of course since then Noel’s met Paul McCartney – played on a record with him, no less – yet despite also becoming pals with Paul Weller, jamming with Crazy Horse and being lauded by just about every hoary old rocker and music biz old-timer going, he still displays a startlingly practical attitude. It’s the kind of thing you just don’t associate with the cocaine breakfasts, champagne suppers and non-stop backslapping that is the cosseted, unreal world of a successful, touring band. And unlike guitarist Bonehead and Liam, he moved to London as soon as Oasis began to make waves.

“People have got this thing about me being anti-Manchester,” says Noel defensively. “But I don’t know where that one came from. I go back to Manchester a lot, it’s just that I don’t go to Dry Bar or the Haçienda or try to get into clubs on the guest list. I go and see my mom, stay at some hotel and then go back to London.”

Noel’s passion for Manchester City is also undiminished, putting his ambition to “play at Maine Road” on equal footing with “to write the perfect song and make the perfect LP”. He also jokes about his own designs on the struggling club. “I hope they get relegated to the third division and I can buy the club for 25 quid. I’ll install myself as a centre forward and I’ll also be the manager, so I can pick myself even though I’ll be shit. It’ll be great.”

Such ambitions aside, Noel says he’s content with being in Oasis but also well aware of the fickle nature of the pop world. “It’s good at the moment because everything we touch turns to gold. Like we put a gig on and it’s sold out before you can say ‘what time’s the box office open?’ But if there’s one reason why we carry on doing these things it’s because one day everything we touch is going to turn to dog shite, and we’re not going to be able to do these massive gigs, so we might as well enjoy it while it’s here. Look at bands like the Inspirals: they play G-Mex twice, thought that was it, and where are they now? It can all change very quickly. It can’t last forever.”

This no-messing honesty goes some way to explaining the success of Oasis. Upfront and uncomplicated, both the music and the message is an irony-free, take it or leave it celebration of ordinariness, of our everyday fumbling inadequacies. A line from the current single, ‘Wonderwall’, seems to sum up the band’s simplistic agenda: ‘There are many things I would like to say to you,’ croons Liam, ‘but I don’t know how.’

“It’s just simple music with simple words delivered simply so people can understand it,” says Noel. “I’m not saying it’s music for simple people or anything , but obviously people understand what we do.”

Of course the only possible thing to understand with Oasis is that life is pretty un-understandable. Noel describe’s Blur’s music, with fake Cockney Damon Albarn’s ironic references to Balzac, Prozac and the like, as “spotty student music”. “They don’t really speak to people or say anything. It’s all about people living in big houses in the country, which none of us do.”

Such a literal interpretation from the man who penned the line ‘Walking slowly down the hall, faster than a cannon ball’ (‘Champagne Supernova’) may seem a bit rich. But for better or worse, the gloves are still off in the Blur/Oasis prize fight, a fight which quite clearly draws a cultural and ideological line across Britain: are you on the side of the cynical voyeurs and chroniclers of British life, Blur, or the mad-for-it doers, Oasis, who philosophise on their feet?

The Oasis conclusion? That the riddle of life is a tough one to crack, so you may as well just make the best of it. “I’m still trying to find out what it is people are into us for,” says Noel. “But who wouldn’t want to do this, go play in front of 20,000 people, it’s just the best buzz in the world. And then on top of all that you do it in different countries, and on top of all that you do it with your best mates. It’s a dream come true. Well it is for me, anyway.”