Indie Music

‘National treasure? It’s better than crackhead’: Shaun Ryder and Kermit on the return of Black Grape

In 1993, after the release of Happy Mondays’ fourth album, Yes Please!, a commercial car crash that helped bankrupt Manchester’s Factory Records, the band disintegrated. Their drug-fuelled antics during the recording in Barbados were the final straw.

However, lead singer Shaun Ryder wasted no time in spawning his next musical project, Black Grape, that same year, along with Mondays maracas man Bez and Paul Leveridge, AKA Kermit, of Ruthless Rap Assassins.

An inspired mix of dance-rock, acid house and rap, Black Grape’s 1995 debut LP It’s Great When You’re Straight … Yeah went to No 1 in the UK and attained platinum status. As with the Mondays, Black Grape have seen various hiatuses and reunions in the years since. Now just made up of Ryder and Leveridge, the band are back with their fourth studio album, Orange Head, recorded in the Spanish mountains of Granada with producer Youth. We caught up with Ryder and Kermit, in Salford and Liverpool respectively, in between some of their live shows, to discuss drugs, death and Nigel Farage …

Hi Shaun, how’s it going?
Shaun Ryder
Let me turn Emmerdale down. Hello!
[Kermit joins our video call wearing a dressing gown … ]
SR Have you got your dressing gown on?
K I’m in my bed man, I’m freezing.
SR It’s five past two! Are you poorly?

Can you remember what you did to celebrate your debut album becoming No 1 in 1995?
It probably had something to do with heroin.
K A lot of heroin and a lot of crack, allegedly.
SR We were smoking it in a wardrobe in this huge house in Los Angeles with 10 bedrooms.
K We can laugh about it now. How will we be celebrating its 30th anniversary? A slice of cake.
SR Maybe some salad and a non-alcoholic drink. We’re vegetarian and very PC people now [laughs].

What is the story behind the name? Why Black Grape and not, say, green grape?
The simple reason is, we had the album done, wrote all the tunes and we didn’t have a name. Gary Kurfirst [from their record label Radioactive] wouldn’t release any money until we signed on the dotted line and gave him a name. Paul [Kermit] walked into the studio carrying a can of black grape juice. We just wanted the money, but now it would be carrot juice wouldn’t it [laughs].

Speaking of names, the new album is called Orange Head – where did that title come from?
Basically, we got the new artwork from our Matt [Carroll], who did the Mondays artwork and the original Black Grape LP [along with his brother Pat]. As usual, I left the artwork to Matthew and that’s what he came up with. It just looked like a big orange head. I could say that it was named after my two teenage daughters, because they have orange heads with all the makeup, but I can’t say that as they’d kill me [laughs].

You recorded it in Spain …
In Granada in the mountains. A beautiful space.
SR We met some fantastic new friends there: some wild dogs who lived outside the studio. Youth just lets them wander around the house.

You weren’t tempted to go back to Barbados [scene of the notorious sessions for the Mondays’ Yes Please]?
God no. My kids keep wanting to go to Barbados on holiday. I smoked that much crack over there, it makes me feel sick.

Kermit, Is it true that you were given the last rites in the late 90s after contracting septicaemia through some dirty drinking water?
Yeah, I died twice. I could write a book about it, man. After we’re finished here [on Earth], I know there’s something else. Everything just changes its form, it doesn’t dissipate. It was quite a spiritual experience. I could have been dead, I should have been dead, so it was a real turning point. If I had died then, my daughter wouldn’t be here. She’s one of my greatest joys.

Perhaps the most striking song on the album is In the Ground. The subject matter is pretty heavy …
We’ve both just had deaths. Paul’s dad had died, my brother [Paul Ryder] had died. There’s Paul’s look at it and then there’s my take on it. Mine was written tongue in cheek, even though it sounds pretty serious.
K It was very cathartic to get rid of all of the grief that we were feeling. My dad had died that October [2022] and we flew out to Spain five days later.
SR With grief, because of my ADHD condition [Ryder was diagnosed with ADHD in 2020], I always wondered why things didn’t affect me. If a person died in our family, I didn’t react to it; it was just as if nothing happened, and then [I only reacted] maybe a year or two years later. My dad’s death didn’t hit me for three years. My relationship with my brother was terrible. There’s his story and there’s my story. Our Paul was an absolute conman. He made it look like I’m the bad bastard, but he’s good at that, right. My brother hated my guts. I did nothing except give him work and do my job. He had a problem with jealousy. It absolutely riddled him.
K Family love is miserly love.

You’ve been called a national treasure, Shaun. How do you feel about that?
I got that after the jungle [he finished runner-up on the 2010 series of I’m a Celebrity]. Yeah, national treasure, I’ll take it. Better than being called a crackhead or a smackhead, innit?

What do you think of Nigel Farage going on I’m a Celebrity?
At the end of the day, editing can make you look good or a bad cunt. It’s all down to how you are going to be made in that edit. I’m not into Farage’s politics, not in a billion fuckin’ years.
K He’s odious.

Speaking of TV, what’s your memory of Black Grape performing Pretty Vacant on TFI Friday in 1996 ? Has Chris Evans ever forgiven you for swearing loads?
Chris was brilliant. He got fined so many times because of me. I got banned from Channel 4 for a long time, although I do a lot of work for them now. I never did any of that on purpose. I have ADHD. If back then they knew that someone had a learning difficulty and they banned them it would be out of order now, wouldn’t it?

How does life in the band compare to what used to be like in the mid 90s?
We’re not with each other as much, and when we do see each other, it’s quality time.
SR We spent a lot of time in really mad situations, putting your life on the line trying to score in different countries. Everywhere we went we had to score. We were heroin addicts. We either had to travel with it up our rectums or get off a plane and go and score. We were in the middle of a gun battle in fucking Jamaica, [while] getting crack. We were in a lot of stressful situations like that so we did a lot of arguing and falling out.
K Don’t do drugs, kids!

Black Grape’s new album Orange Head is out on 19 January.

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