WHEN Shaun Ryder – erstwhile actor, author, newspaper columnist, Salfordian crooner, lyrical genius and a man who was banned from Channel Four for saying the fuck-word at tea time – sits you down in his living room and says that he wants to tell you a story, you listen.
“I was walking down Deansgate the other day,” he begins, with a sly look playing across those famously unrefined features. “And a naked man with a big wand touched me on the shoulder and turned me into a frog. And I could see meself in the shop windows. I was a frog!”
Ryder, TV remote in one hand, bottle of lager in the other, pauses for effect. Maybe coming to the Peak District to interview him in his natural element wasn’t such a good idea after all.
“I turned around the corner and turned back into meself and an alien spacecraft picked me up and took me off on a journey, right?”
What are you on about?
“Every time I go to court, they quote all this stuff I’m supposed to have said in the papers as fact – even stuff from the Sport, which has had ‘We find B52 bomber on the moon’ as its front page headline,” Ryder finally explains. “So I’m telling you that little story there. I can pull that out in court now.”
Nothing is ever as simple as it seems with Shaun Ryder.
For the past six year, Ryder has been mired in a tangled web of litigation with his former management company, his former record label and his former record labels’ former parent company. As a result, he wasn’t even allowed to release music under his own name until a couple of months ago.
The income from the back catalogues of the Happy Mondays and Black Grape remains frozen and this causes Ryder no small amount of anguish. It’s a subject he returns to time and again.
Ryder leaves long pauses between sentences and just when I decide to ask another question, he begins talking again, ploughing on regardless until he finishes what he wants to say. And where most people gather their wits, conversationally, with ums and ahs, Ryder collects his thoughts under the cover of a long, drawn out fuuuuucking .. or a series of terse, y’knows.
The only reason he’s talking to me at all is because he’s promoting an album put out by his cousin’s label in Australia, Amateur Night In The Big Top. The album was recorded during an extended visit to Perth, where Ryder was recuperating after revisiting his old hell-raising habits on the ill-starred, strictly-for-the-money Happy Mondays reunion tour.
After two years on the road, an exhausted Ryder spent a couple of months chilling out at the home of Pete Carroll, his cousin and one of the creatives from Central Station, who designed the excellent covers for Happy Mondays and Black Grape.
Carroll was working on music with local producer Shane Norton and Stephen Mallinder of Sheffield seminal electro-punk experimentalists Cabaret Voltaire, who also emigrated to Perth some years ago. Making music, however, was the last thing on Ryder’s mind.
He was, he remembers, “fucking fed up of music. And as a music lover, to get fed up of music, it’s not right”.
But having one of the English language’s most inventive contemporary lyricists sat in the living room while you’re making moody hip hop-influenced instrumentals in the garage wouldn’t be right either and Carroll gently persuaded Ryder to “tell a few stories” over the top of a few tunes.
“It was straight off the top of me head,” says Ryder. “If I’m in a good mood, I can walk into the studio, hear some good music and bang! That’s it. It was Pete and Shane’s project and I just got involved. Simple.”
Would you have done it for anyone else but Pete?
“No, I wouldn’t. It was the right place at the right time. There was no money involved, no contracts,” he adds, a little irritably.
The combination of Norton and Carroll’s eerie soundscapes and Ryder’s nightmarish free association makes Amateur Night At The Big Top one of the darkest, edgiest projects the singer has ever been involved with.
“Well, yeah, I’m glad about that. I mean the Happy Mondays was different. I came back with Black Grape and that was different. This is different again. You can slag it off if you don’t like it, fair enough, but at least I’ve tried to do something different. And the next album I do, when we’ve finally tied up all the legal stuff, will be different again.”
He has, he says, had enough of the ego problems you find in bands. He will be a solo artist from now on. End of story. He always just wanted to make music, right from the outset. Many of his former bandmates just wanted to be famous.
“I suppose I’m sort of famous,” he finally admits. “But put me on the scale of famous and I’m out the back door and at the bottom of the garden. I’m glad about that. I hate these people who are like, ooh, I just want to be famous. Well, what for? Are you gonna make a good movie? Are you going to write a good book? Do you want to do something good for the country? No, I just want to be famous.”
Do you see much of your former colleagues then?
“The only person out of the Mondays and Black Grape I have contact with is a pal of mine who I live next door to and that’s Bez. We’ve been mates over 20-odd years.”
Ryder goes on to detail exactly how and why his former bandmates both lost the plot and his trust over the years and he remains bitterly indignant about what he calls “the disloyalty” of those he once shared stages with across the world.
“I’ve got this reputation for being an arsehole but I give people pure chances,” he complains, “and it’s always gone to their heads. They’re not thinking about the music. They’re just thinking that they want to be famous.”
He’s obviously irritated by an innocuous question about the present pace of his life – Glastonbury is on this weekend and I wonder how it feels not to be in the thick of it – and gets successively more animated until he’s stabbing the coffee table in front of him with a thick, nicotine-stained forefinger.
“That’s a strange one, in the thick of it all. I’ve been there and done that. The only thing I ever really liked doing was making music. I never liked being on the front cover of magazines. I never liked all that shit. And fucking television. You get asked if you want to do Never Mind The Buzzcocks. No I don’t, thank you, I don’t want to do it. It drives me insane. I just make music.
“Shaun Ryder’s 40-years-old now,” he spits. “He’s not fucking 25. People still expect me to be dancing around like some daft cunt. 1987 was .. how many years ago? People change.”
“I had a great time in my youth and now being 40 brings a different side of things,” he adds, beginning to calm down a little. “I’d rather go to a fucking restaurant for a night out. I’ll go where I feel comfortable.”
“I get vans going past with a load of fucking builders in the back, and they’re all like, Shaun Ryder! Got any drugs? Come with us to the pub! I’m like, no thanks lads, do you know what I mean? I just think it’s funny.”
One final question: Did you recognise what was Madchester from Michael Winterbottom’s Twenty-Four Hour Party People? Didn’t it have about as much to do with Madchester as Carry On Don’t Lose Your Head had to do with the French revolution?
“Twenty-Four Hour Party People, it was a load of bollocks, right? It was entertainment, it wasn’t a true story – which I’m glad about. The script that I first saw, when I said I didn’t want anything to do with it, was gangsters, guns and drugs, right?
“When me and Bez wouldn’t get involved with it, they decided to concentrate on Tony Wilson and it became a vehicle for that fucking comedian to do a bit of acting. I watched it and yeah, to me, it was entertaining, but it wasn’t real.
“It’s too soon for the real story to come out,” he adds darkly.
For some people Shaun Ryder will always be a cartoon character, tooting and toking his way through life like some punk-funk Peter Pan. The man himself, however, would beg to differ.
“I’ve been in two damn good bands, the Mondays and Black Grape. I wrote some good songs. And played some good gigs. A lot of people forget that.”
Ryder exits his modest end-of-terrace two-up, two-down to have his picture taken in the verdant meadow, alive with daisies, dandelions and buttercups, next door.
Somewhere along the line, at some point in the future, Shaun Ryder will be ready to tell his stories once more. Best listen to him.
[This interview is a slightly longer version of a piece first published by the Big Issue in the North in July 2003]
See also: 2005 Shaun Ryder interview