Shaun Ryder at the The Worsley Park Marriott Hotel in Manchester. Image: Alicia Canter/Guardian/eyevine
Shaun Ryder has made it to the age of 59 in spite of an appetite for narcotics that ranks among the most extraordinary in rock and roll history. And today he is as productive as he has ever been: successfully juggling parallel careers with Happy Mondays and Black Grape while finding time to release a solo album.
It’s called Visits From Future Technology and is filled with sundrenched bangers, many of them laced with the euphoric grooves that Ryder has been synonymous with since the Nineties. The album is also rich with the surreal lyricism and psychedelic poetry you’d expect from Ryder. Lead single Mumbo Jumbo ranks among one of his greatest ever efforts, combining references to Top Of The Pops, electric socks, calling the cops and a protagonist who “likes her music in the key of death”.
In 2021 Ryder is as popular with the British public as he has ever been. Those of us in our 40s still love him for his Madchester exploits when we were just little ‘uns in baggy jeans and floppy hats; but our children – and our parents – are just as likely to know him from his show-stealing turns on Celebrity Gogglebox with his old compadre, Bez.
Contrary to his maverick, drug-addled reputation, Ryder is in fact a shrewd, insightful and eloquent commentator on everything from the music industry to wider social and political issues. After all, he has seen a lot in his 59 years: from the roughest streets in Salford to the exotic climes of celebrity London and everything in between. But, Britain being what it is, many people are unable to see the intelligence and wit that lie behind the Mancunian swagger and machine-gun profanities. Truth is, Shaun Ryder is a national treasure these days and his words, like his songs, demand serious attention.
The Big Issue: The new record is very upbeat for something recorded in lockdown, isn’t it?
Shaun Ryder: Most of the songs were recorded in LA back in 2010. But before we could finish the record I went into the jungle [for I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here!] and eventually it got forgotten about. I started doing TV stuff, then Black Grape and Happy Mondays stuff. But in lockdown I was doing loads of work out of my home studio on other people’s records like Noel [Gallagher] and Robbie Williams. And then someone said, why don’t you go back and finish your solo record? So me and Sunny [Levine, who produced the record] finished it all off remotely – down the line between his studio in Venice Beach and me here in England.
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For someone with such a rock and roll reputation, you’re very productive these days.
I always have been.
But in the past there were stories of mayhem surrounding Happy Monday recording sessions.
Well that wasn’t really true. We’d been struggling artists for years and then suddenly we released [1990 album] Pills ’N’ Thrills And Bellyaches and became regulars on Top Of The Pops. Paul Oakenfold and Steve Osborne had produced it and given us that sound that took us into the top 20. So suddenly everyone wants to work with them to get the same sound. Which meant that when we wanted to record a follow-up, they were too busy to work with us. So [Factory Records boss] Tony Wilson hired Chris [Frantz] and Tina [Weymouth] to produce Yes Please! with us in Barbados. They were great producers but I knew they weren’t right for the Mondays. Suddenly we had the drummer trying to record one beat in a studio for 10 hours. It was musical masturbation.
So was that why you went off the rails?
I liked the way we recorded Pills ’N’ Thrills – Oakenfold brought some beats into the studio, I would write very quickly to the beats and then the bassist would play something to fit alongside it all. But Yes Please! was more complicated and pretentious than that. If something ain’t broke, don’t fuck about with it. We should have waited for Oakenfold to be available. But it’s like anything in the Mondays, as soon as I says, or Bez says, “We like that,” then the rest of them went, “Well we don’t.”
Is that what split the band up the first time?
It was because me and Bez did all the press, got all the front covers – when we walked into Top of the Pops the door would be held open for me and Bez and then let go of when the others walked through because no-one knew who they were. When that started happening it really starting annoying people.
Were they jealous of Bez?
I brought Bez into the band and I knew how important he was. I even offered him big slices of my songwriting like I did with the rest of the band. But they just didn’t want Bez there in the band, they didn’t get it. And really the band started falling out because Bez was becoming more famous than the rest of them, was more of a star than the rest of them and was earning more money than the rest of them by doing other things. So their jealousy split that band up. It was nothing to do with drugs. Everyone was off it on drugs. But [the split] had nothing to do with that, never has done.
People say the recording of Yes Please! destroyed Factory Records.
That’s bollocks. It cost us 20 fucking grand to record that album in Barbados. It’s fucking nothing now and it was nothing then either.
You must prefer working solo without all the politics of working with a band?
The Mondays split up in about ’92 or ’93. It was only a couple of years later that I had the first Black Grape album out. As soon as the Mondays was over I was straight over to LA to start something new. In 1995 the first Black Grape album [It’s Great When You’re Straight…Yeah!] went to number one. I was signed as a solo artist but I was too insecure to go out alone so insisted on teaming up with Kermit and recording as a band. We didn’t have a name and so at the last minute they said we needed a name for the contract. Kermit turned up in the studio drinking from a can that said Black Grape on it so we just said we’d use that. The rest of the band were just session musicians, which made the whole recording process much easier. Once I started working with professional musicians I never looked back.
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Have Happy Mondays been happier since they reformed?
It’s 10 years since we got the original Happy Mondays band back together and we’ve been touring since then. Every time we tour people say, “The Mondays are back!” We’ve been touring together for years but telling everyone we’re on a comeback tour is a better story for the press. Everyone was grateful to be back in the band in 2012 but sooner or later those old problems started coming back up. I mean me and our kid [brother and fellow Happy Mondays member Paul Ryder] still don’t like each other. But we are playing better than ever. We are older and wiser and the bullshit is gone. We don’t travel together as a band – I travel separately and Bez does too. But we go on stage and do a professional job because the sex and drugs have gone out the window. It’s just pure rock and roll.
Tell me about Mumbo Jumbo. Even by your standards the lyrics are mad – what is going on?
When I’m writing I’m putting in a lot of metaphors for things. Only thing is by the time the record comes out and people ask me what the metaphors mean I’ve forgot! But on that one what it’s really going on about is a load of bollocks coming through on your phone and a load of bollocks that’s going on in the music industry.
Did you have long Covid?
After I had Covid-19 I could have a couple of days a week where I couldn’t get out of bed and had no energy. That went on for months but they are becoming more rare now. But for a good few months I struggled.
What do you think of lockdown ending?
What else can we do? We’re all getting vaccines. I do know people who have been vaccinated and still got Covid but it’s not been as bad as it would have been. We’ve got to see how it goes. I mean, look, places like Brazil and Korea have done fuck-all about it and they haven’t been wiped out. I mean it’s not good but it hasn’t wiped everyone out yet.
What do you think of Boris Johnson and Matt Hancock and the chaos inside the government throughout all this?
What’s new? It gets me, this, when people act shocked and say, “Is it one rule for them and a different rule for us?” I’m like, fucking too right it is! It’s always been like that. Take you back to fucking 1549 and it was fucking one rule for one and another rule for the fucking other. When I saw him [Hancock] with his fucking secretary on the camera I thought, OK, that’s just what I expect. It’s always gone on. He just got caught. And now they want to do a big inquiry about how the footage got out. “Oooh, it’s dangerous! We have to look into it because leaks are dangerous!” Fuck’s sake. It’s all bollocks. It will all get covered up. It will always be one rule for them and another rule for us. It would take a million years to change it.
What did you think of the violence and chaos at the Euro 2020 final at Wembley?
That was about getting in to watch a football game that was making history. The last time a game like that happened involving England was 50 odd fucking years ago so people wanted to get in and see it. I know some of the people who actually started that. It was a blag to get everyone going there so the people who was really doing the sneaking could get in. I know the people who done it, they’ve been doing it for years and Wembley is piss easy to get into. It was just people who were very keen to be a part of history.
But what about the aggro?
What you can blame the aggro on now is the amount of very good cocaine that gets into this country.
What’s your message to young people who are now into coke rather than ecstasy?
The price of coke is really cheap. The clampdown on ecstasy started to work when they started giving out seven-year sentences for possession of a few pills. And now young people like coke because its cheap and it’s better quality. When you look at crimes where there has been violence or young people stabbing each other at the weekend there is no way cocaine wasn’t involved in that. It’s everywhere.
Would it have been better if the ecstasy revolution you were part of had survived?
Absolutely. But we know that a lot of pressure on the E was not on the drug itself but on the normal boozers and nightclubs missing out on business. Because people stopped going to those places and at raves no-one was drinking alcohol. So it was costing those businesses money. People were setting up their own parties because the pubs shut at 10.30pm and the clubs shut at 1am. The E affected a lot of other businesses and that’s why it was clamped down upon. Everyone knew the drug wasn’t dangerous. I knew a police chief’s daughter who was a regular in the Hacienda taking ecstasy. That was well known in Manchester. The authorities were just under pressure from breweries and hospitality industries. There was the odd isolated incident of people dying but I’ve always said how many deaths are associated with alcohol every year?
Visits From Future Technology by Shaun Ryder is out now on SWRX Recordings. Black Grape are touring the UK this month
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