Ripened fruit

Black Grape emerged from the ashes of the Happy Mondays 20 years ago, but drug and health problems meant it was short lived. Now they’re finally living up to the promise of their debut.

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Sat facing each other at opposite ends of a table in the outside courtyard of a country hotel in an affluent Salford suburb, Shaun Ryder and Paul ‘Kermit’ Leveridge are recalling one of the many drug-addled, near-death incidents that pepper their shared history.

“We were in Spain and he used dirty water to have a dig [of heroin],” says Ryder, of his Black Grape band mate.

“Straight out of the tap, like a knob head,” corroborates Leveridge. “Back in the day, I was filthy. I used to use needles and all that.”

“Two hours later he was green,” continues Ryder, eyes hidden behind Ray Ban shades, gin and tonic in hand. “Then on the plane he was sweating and passing out. As soon as we landed it was straight into hospital.”

“I flatlined twice. They brought the priest out to do the last rites,” elaborates Leveridge, who contracted septicaemia as a result of injecting himself with a dirty needle and spent months in hospital recovering.

Now free of the heroin addiction that nearly claimed his life and led to his relocation to Monmouth in Wales, well away from the music business, the remarkably healthy and youthful-looking 51-year-old lifts up his shift to reveal a large scar that runs down his chest as a result of a major heart operation to repair the damage he’d done to his body.

“As Muhammad Ali said: ‘Show me a man who’s the same at 40 as he is at 20 and I’ll show you a man who’s not grown.’ And I’ve grown. I was an idiot then. I’m grounded now,” says Leveridge.

“It took a bit of time. For both of us,” adds Ryder, who has also overcome well-documented problems with addiction.

“We took the long way round,” agrees Leveridge. “But fucking hell, we got some great stories out of it.”

Their company isn’t for the faint of heart or easily offended, it takes many X-rated detours

Formed in the early 1990s after the Happy Mondays fell apart in a messy haze of infighting, drug abuse and arguments over money, right from the start Black Grape stood apart from their mostly beige coloured Britpop peers. Fronted by Ryder and Leveridge, who co-wrote the songs, they were ably supported by a rag tag of session musicians and friends, including Happy Mondays’ dancer Mark ‘Bez’ Berry. The band melded rock, hip-hop, acid house, melodic pop, dub, reggae and Ryder’s stream-of-consciousness street poetry into a dazzling psychedelic whole. Debut album It’s Great When You’re Straight… Yeah topped the charts upon its release in 1995, picked up a Mercury Prize nomination and produced a string of hit singles, including Kelly’s Heroes, Reverend Black Grape and In the Name of the Father.

After several years on the road, large chunks of which Leveridge missed, the group released a disappointing second album in 1997 before calling it a day the following year, reportedly after Ryder stole a bag of cash from the tour bus and left a note saying: ‘I’ve fucked off and I’ve took the dough.’ He went on to reform Happy Mondays who have regularly toured ever since and, like his best friend Bez, became a familiar face on TV, appearing in reality shows, hosting documentaries about UFOs (he claims to have seen them flying over Salford) and making music in the Amazon.

Leveridge’s whereabouts over the past two decades are less well known, although he has continued to work in music, fronting leftfield recording projects Blind Arcade and The Footprint. His health problems prevented him from joining Ryder when Black Grape briefly reformed for a run of live shows in 2010, but when the opportunity came back around again several years ago both men jumped at the chance.

“We always had unfinished business,” says Leveridge, crediting their advanced years with making Black Grape Mark II an entirely different proposition to their mad, bad and dangerous to know first incarnation. “Our combined age is 106,” he laughs. “We’re different people now. We’re old geezers.”

Ryder says the pair didn’t speak for 20 years until he picked up the phone and asked Leveridge if he wanted to collaborate on a one-off single for the Euro 2016 football tournament. The experience proved fun so they started work on a third Black Grape album, Pop Voodoo, which came out this summer and comes surprisingly close to recapturing the madcap hallucigenic energy of their celebrated debut.

“What happened first time around, it’s sort of happening again, but we’ve got Jesus with us this time instead of the devil,” says Ryder. He lists “the Bee Gees, The Monkees, Geto Boys, some Motown, hip-hop, The Beatles, a bit of funk, some Beach Boys and Scarface” among the inspirations that fed into the new record.

“Someone said to us the other day, ‘I don’t want to offend you, but I can hear The Monkees in there.’ And me and him high fived,” recalls Leveridge proudly.

“And I said: ‘Yeah, but The Monkees would never write a line like, ‘You put your joint out on my cock,’” adds Ryder as, not for the first time in our interview, both men break into cackling laughter.

An hour in their company isn’t for the faint of heart or easily offended, and takes in many X-rated detours, at least one of which can’t be printed for legal reasons (it involves a kilo of cocaine and a Volkswagen Golf). But they are an undeniably entertaining, witty and likeable pair, whose friendship is clear
to see as they finish each other’s sentences like an old married couple.

“This is how we write. Facing each other,” says Leveridge, who was in hip-hop group Ruthless Rap Assassins before joining Black Grape. “He’s unique. Other people can’t do what he does. We bounce off each other. I get him.”

“I get you too. A lot of the stuff we write is very schizophrenic. I come from the ‘Goo goo g’joob. I am the egg man’ type school and he’s from there as well,” explains Ryder, agreeing with Leveridge’s assessment that they’ve led cartoon lives, and write “cartoon experimental songs”.

“He comes in very professionally with his notepad and I come in with these bits of paper, beermats, parking tickets and receipts with lyrics scribbled on them. We sit together with a beat and pull them together,” explains Salford-born Ryder.

“It’s like the Dewey Decimal System. It works perfectly,” adds Leveridge, indicating a surprising knowledge of library classification methods.

Next on the horizon for Ryder is November’s 30th anniversary Happy Mondays tour, but 2018 will all be about Black Grape, he promises, eyeing an extensive world tour. None of the other original members of the band will be joining them as Black Grape was always just the two of them, they say.

“Only I can’t call him Kermit now he’s 51. And I’m Shaun, not X,” jokes Ryder referring to the band’s 1990s nicknames. “We drink G&Ts, get up early in the morning and call each other Paul and Shaun.”

Bez – who’s still Bez – will be limiting his live appearances to Happy Mondays shows, explains Ryder, stressing his best friend’s entrepreneurial flair and indefatigable spirit. “Throw Bez out of an airplane at 36,000 feet and he’ll land on a comfy sofa. Drop him in Antarctica and he’ll be the guy selling the Eskimos weed. He’s not spangled. He’s just Bez.”

As for Ryder, he’s seen and done way too much to go back to his old ways and insists he’s staying on the straight and narrow from now on. “I don’t do pubs, clubs or anything really, but if I am in a club or bar environment because of work I’ll walk into the toilet and they’ll be two 21 year-old lads in there going, ‘Shaun, you like a boot, don’t you? Here, have some charlie.’ I just go, ‘Knock yourselves out lads, but I’m fucking older than your grandad.’ I’ll have a laugh with them and leave it at that.”

It’s taken them over 20 years to get there, but now Black Grape really can live up to its debut’s promise. “The first time it was complete bullshit,” says Ryder. “But this really is the It’s Great When You’re Straight album.”

Pop Voodoo is out now on UMC.


Why he prefers being in Black Grape to Happy Mondays 
Black Grape is so much easier. There’s only two of us, for starters. First time around [our manager] wanted it to be just Shaun Ryder and Paul Leveridge. He didn’t want this band thing going on. But I was still in a band mentality so we got together a bunch of great musicians, but they were mostly session guys. And this is what’s happened this time again. We’ve got the bass player from the Mondays for the past 12 odd years. Dan, who does keyboards, he’s been with us since 2000. And we’ve got a brilliant kid guitarist. He’s a rock god from Droylsden. I mean, how many rock gods come from Droylsden?

President Trump
I thought me and him [Leveridge] were uncouth, but Trump tops us. He’s a proper moron. And then all the people he’s got in [his administration] – it’s worse than the craziest fucking Black Grape band you could ever get. I should have given him Wags’ [Paul Wagstaff’s] phone number and everyone else from the Mondays and get them on his fucking firm. There wouldn’t be too much difference between the team he put together and one I could put together. And we’d probably make more sense.

Becoming a TV personality 
We’re lucky. Our music’s audience goes from teens to 70s and a big part of that is through mine and Bez’s venture into reality TV land. That’s the way you do it now. Reality television is the new way to show off your talent and the music business. It’s moving back to the entertainment business where you do the lot – it goes back to the 1950s where you had all your greats like Sinatra
and Dean Martin doing everything.

Keeping the Happy Mondays roadshow rambling on  
The thing about the Mondays is that unlike The Stone Roses, who have only just got back together, we’ve been touring since 1998. A few years ago we brought the original band back including the keyboard player, who still can’t play keyboards, to get a few bob in his pocket. We were playing at the [Manchester] Arena, I turned around and the guy’s walked off in the middle of the seventh song to go for a piss. He’s a crazy guy. All these mates that you’ve had since you’re 13 or 14 years old, when you get in your fifties you realise how fucking weird they really are.

Why Bez won’t be appearing with Black Grape on tour 
At first Bez didn’t really want to come back and do the Mondays, where a 50-year-old guy goes on stage and does his freaky dancing. He was saying: ‘It was alright when I was 19 or 20, but I’m 50 years old.’ And I’d say, ‘But Bez. The people want to see you, more than the others in the band. So give them what they want.’ And that’s what he does. He’ll come on and do his thing light heartedly – he’s not choreographed – and that’s what makes the Mondays shows special.

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