Shaun Ryder interview: ‘I was very lucky to have lived in a rock'n'roll bubble’

Shaun Ryder is on the move - in a car en route to Heathrow for a flight to Australia where Happy Mondays, the band he fronts, are booked for a tour.

By Richard Blackledge
Tuesday, 05 March, 2019, 14:57
Shaun Ryder.

"It's a sunny day and I'm breathing," he says when asked how he's feeling, sounding chipper but with a Salford accent rough as sandpaper.

The dates Down Under don't scratch the surface of Ryder's packed diary for 2019. He is gigging with his other group, Black Grape, this year and esteemed book company Faber is about to publish a collection of his lyrics. 

Audiences in Sheffield, meanwhile, will have three chances to see him in the coming months - first with Black Grape at Plug on March 22, then with Happy Mondays at this summer's Tramlines festival and at the O2 Academy in November.

"I'm probably busier now than back in the day. But it seems a lot easier now because, you know, I'm not off my t**s," he observes, laughing unashamedly and setting the tone for a very sweary interview.

His early escapades in music were intertwined with drugs. Happy Mondays sprang from - and, in the late 1980s, massively popularised - the rave-influenced 'Madchester' scene that was propelled by copious quantities of Ecstacy.

As their singer and lyricist, Ryder's wayward vocals added surreal phrases such as 'You're twistin' my melon, man' to the group's pioneering fusion of dance and indie rock, scoring hits like Kinky Afro and Loose Fit. When the Mondays fell apart, he teamed up with rapper Kermit and resurfaced with Black Grape, whose 1995 debut album bore a title dripping with sarcasm: 'It's Great When You're Straight... Yeah'.

Sobriety, however, has its benefits, he says.

"Look, when we were kids, young men, it was brilliant. I enjoyed those years - 18, starting a band, went through my 20s and 30s rocking and rolling. 40s - I decided to stop rocking and rolling as much, knocking it on the head a bit, grow up. And now, in my 50s, I appreciate it more than ever. It's almost as enjoyable as it was when I first started doing it."

He follows a pescatarian diet - fish, but no meat - these days.

"I'm almost vegan. When I hit 40, I thought 'Wait a minute. Your kids are growing up, you're not young anymore, and yet you're still living the same life you was at 16, pretty much'. I had lots of goes before in rehab but it never worked because I didn't really want it to."

But this time he knew he needed to change.

"I got on my pushbike and cycled through those withdrawals and here I am."

The funny thing is, Ryder reflects, it hadn't previously dawned on him that he was at risk of becoming another rock fatality.

"I never thought I was in dangerland. I partied, took lots of drugs, but I was never an intravenous drug user. So, to me, if I wasn't banging away with needles, and smoking heroin, that was fine. But I was very lucky to have lived in a rock'n'roll bubble. The pals I grew up with that didn't are either doing 21 years in prison or they're dead." 

People use substances 'to relieve pressure and for a load of different reasons', he says. "But eventually when it becomes habit-forming it doesn't work, it doesn't help your songwriting or creativity."

Curiously, while the Mondays' legend looms large - thanks to their association with impresario Tony Wilson's Factory label and Michael Winterbottom's film '24 Hour Party People' which charted the Madchester movement - Black Grape actually sold more records. The band had major backing from MCA, and were managed by Gary Kurfurst who also handled The Ramones, Talking Heads and Jane's Addiction.

Kurfurst ensured there was more money to spend and put Black Grape's songs in 'untold movies', says Ryder.

"It was a big difference from Factory," he remembers.

Ryder formed Happy Mondays in 1980 with his brother Paul, Mark Day, Paul Davis and Gary Whelan. Later, dancer Mark 'Bez' Berry and backing vocalist Rowetta joined to fill out the ranks. Their first EP came out on Factory in 1985, half a decade before their landmark album 'Pills 'n' Thrills and Bellyaches'.

"We were making records way too soon," Ryder argues. "Our game was a case of, it's not what you know, it's who you know."

The band were friends with market stall owner Phil Sachs, a former DJ at Manchester's Twisted Wheel club who knew Wilson and urged him to sign the group.

Did performing on stage come naturally to Ryder?

"No. I was the lead singer and songwriter by default, I was the best in the gang. I wanted to be a drummer, but I wasn't a good one. One of the reasons for bringing on board Bez, who was my drug buddy, was to take the pressure off the frontman a bit."

He describes himself as 'shy but not shy'.

"If you get me in front of my pals I'm a big showoff. You get real artists who say 'I only come alive when I'm onstage'. When I walk onstage I f***in' shrink, I feel like I'm naked. I can't deal with that. Get me offstage and I'm like 'Where's the party?'"

The term 'Madchester' doesn't make him cringe.

"In the late 80s, before it was Gunchester, it was pretty mad. It was a circus. But it was a happy circus. A big majority of the young adults was taking Ecstacy and that's what transformed it. As a kid I couldn't go into Liverpool, and Scousers couldn't come into Manchester. You'd get your nuts cut off with a Stanley knife. But E changed the mentality."

Today the centre of the North's premier city 'looks just like Amsterdam did in 1987', he says. "People off their nuts, juggling, someone singing with a one-string guitar... Everybody's living in a sleeping bag outside the shops. Terrible."

Wilson, who died in 2007, once declared Ryder's lyrics 'on a par with W.B. Yeats' and would no doubt have been very enthused by the Faber book, called Wrote For Luck after a Mondays song. It follows similar collections of the words of Kate Bush, Jarvis Cocker and Neil Tennant and was, Ryder explains, the idea of writer Luke Bainbridge - he calls him "Luke Brainbox", but it's unclear whether this is a joke or not.

"He said 'Obviously you're going to get paid' and I said 'Right, well that makes a big difference'. Luke chose all the songs in it. I've just signed 1,000 of them that came to our house."

His own lyrics, he claims, work well on the printed page.

"You look at some really big hit songs and read them on paper and they look like a load of s***. 'I love you, you love me, let's get married, blah blah blah'. But when you listen to them with the music it's incredible. With my stuff, when you read it on paper it really works. They're interesting, they're schizophrenic. I'll find a way of putting it all together and making a story. These are lines in your head that have nothing to do with each other, but as a writer you join the dots. I always want to plant visuals in people's heads. For example, 'You're twistin' my melon, man - call the cops'."

Ryder left school by 13 and went to work on a building site. As a teenager he couldn't have envisaged authoring a book.

"I didn't learn the alphabet until I was 24 or 26. In the 1960s when I started school there was no such thing as learning difficulties. Nobody knew what dyslexia or ADHD was. It wasn't in the vocabulary. My mam was what would be the equivalent today of a teaching assistant. When I was in infants and juniors, they made sure I didn't go to the thick school, because back in the day you were guaranteed of never getting a job. You were labelled as backwards. I was taught the alphabet by a girlfriend who got me singing it. Within five minutes I'd got it."

Intriguingly, many of his lyrics feature religious imagery - Hallelujah, God's Cop, In The Name of the Father, Reverend Black Grape - and in 2013 he presented a TV series on UFOs. Does he have an obsession with otherworldy affairs?

"I was brought up a Catholic. Salford's a Catholic city, we have a cathedral. You get all that shoved down your neck. God's great, religion's a load of b******s. Sectarianism causes problems."

Take Brexit, he says, which he summarises as, 'Let's pick on the person with the foreign accent, because he's took my car park space'. 

"That's what 90 per cent of the voters did that for. The other 10 per cent was on a business ethic. Most voted for that because they couldn't stand the sound of somebody speaking different."

DARE - his 2005 collaboration with Gorillaz, Damon Albarn's cartoon hip-hop outfit - hasn’t made the cut in Wrote For Luck. Initially he turned down a writing credit on the number one smash, as it came during a period when 100 per cent of his income was being taken by receivers because of a management dispute.

"The smartest thing to do was to go bankrupt, but if you do that you never get your PRS back, your publishing. When I eventually came out of that after about 14 years, Damon gave me my writing royalties."

Ryder unwittingly provided the song's hookline - "It's coming up, it's coming up... it's dare" - in the studio while asking for the volume to be turned up in his headphones. 'Dare' was his pronunciation of 'there'.

"Damon went 'Right, we've got that. Would you like to write any more words?' And I went, 'No'."

In the past, he admits, he has behaved atrociously. In 2008 he told a woman who accused him of plagiarism: "You're f****** dead, bitch. You're getting f****** battered and f****** raped." 

One can't help but feel an incident like this would be potentially career-ending in today's #MeToo climate.

"I reacted very badly," he says. "I was taking cocktails of crack cocaine, heroin - you name it, I was taking it. I was very stupid. You take a man's money off them for a year, and see how they are. See how they behave. I'm not bitter about it now, but at the time you deal with that by going further into a drug-fuelled world."

Ryder came out of receivership when he emerged from the jungle as runner-up of I'm A Celebrity... Get Me Out Of Here! in 2010.

"It was a great business move. The music business has really turned into the entertainment game again, it's almost like Sammy, Dean and Frank are back in the house. You've got to sing, dance, tell stories - the full shaboodle. When I went into the jungle I went in kicking and screaming, the record company wanted me to do it, the management, my kids and wife - I'd been offered Big Brother years before and gave that to Bez. Then I saw what that did. At that point, he was the most famous Mancunian going. People knew who he was more than Morrissey, because he'd been on television in front of eight million viewers every night."

Happy Mondays reunited in 2012 with their original line-up - Davis has since left - while Black Grape, who split in 1998, were reactivated in 2015.

Ryder, 56, still resides in Salford, in Worsley - "The posh bit, with the footballers" - and feels like he has 'started again'. He lives with his wife Joanne, mother of his two youngest children, aged nine and 11.

"It really is as if everything I'm doing now is in slow motion," he says. "It seems less complicated."

Black Grape are at Plug on March 22. See blackgrapeofficial.com for details. Happy Mondays play Tramlines on July 21, and the O2 Academy on November 22. Wrote For Luck is published on March 7 by Faber & Faber, priced £14.99 in hardback.