Shaun Ryder & Kermit
Image © Paul Husband

Black Grape’s Shaun Ryder and Kermit return with new album 

Shaun Ryder made the ultimate comeback in the mid-90s with Black Grape.  Now 30 years on from their formation,  Shaun and bandmate Kermit return with a new album – Orange Head – that’s as fiery and vital as anything from their first phase…
Words Steve O’Brien

It’s 1993 and Shaun Ryder, formerly of the Happy Mondays, is lost. Without a band for the first time in 13 years, he hooks up with his old Mondays comrade Bez and with Paul ‘Kermit’ Leveridge – once of Manchester’s Ruthless Rap Assassins – for a fresh musical project that few see going anywhere.

Yet Black Grape would make Shaun William Ryder Britpop’s comeback kid, with the group’s genre-warping debut album, It’s Great When You’re Straight…Yeah, hitting No.1 in the UK and its first two 45s – Reverend Black Grape and In The Name Of The Father – going Top 10. “You know, Black Grape sold more records than the Mondays and we had bigger success than the Mondays,” Ryder tells Classic Pop from his home in Manchester. “I would spend more time doing Black Grape, but the Mondays takes up a lot of my life.”

Orange Head cover

Grape Expectations

Whereas in ’93, Black Grape replaced the Happy Mondays as Shaun Ryder’s centre of attention, these days he juggles both, as well as a third gig with indie supergroup Mantra Of The Cosmos (with Bez again, plus Ride’s Andy Bell and Ringo Starr’s sticksman son Zak Starkey). Now in his sixties, Shaun’s busier than he ever was in his thirties and forties (“you get a lot more done when you’re not full of fucking drugs,” he laughs).

It seems, though, as if Black Grape is the one that he’s most proud of. After all, since the Mondays regrouped in 2012, they’ve not put out any new material. Black Grape, on the other hand, have released two long-players since their 2015 reunion, including the upcoming Orange Head, which sees Shaun and Kermit team up with producers including Martin ‘Youth’ Glover for a record that’s as dizzily eclectic as anything from their 90s prime.

“I think the album’s a real grower,” Shaun says, excitedly. “I’ve sent it out to me cousins and the first day they had it, they were like, ‘This is my favourite!’, and then over a period of a month, it had totally turned around and they had different favourites.”

Great To Be Straight

Ryder’s memory is, understandably after decades of chemically-assisted hedonism, not great, and he can barely remember which tracks are on Orange Head. It’s been 12 months since he and Kermit finished the album and, he says, “All the songs have disappeared off me phone and iPad!”

He’s also the world’s worst Black Grape – and indeed Shaun Ryder – expert, at various points asking Classic Pop if It’s Great When You’re Straight…Yeah was the first Black Grape album (it is), what Mondays LP Step On is off  (Pills ‘n’ Thrills And Bellyaches) and what the latest album’s first single was (that’s Milk).

Yet his enthusiasm for Black Grape is irresistible and that’s partly to do with how much healthier his relationship is with bandmate Kermit now, compared to how it was in the group’s drug-addled heyday.

“Well, we don’t punch or throw bottles at each other anymore,” he laughs, “‘cos we’re not out of our minds on crack and heroin!”

It’s Great When You’re Straight...Yeah cover art

Tetley’s and Pringles

Black Grape Mk.1 imploded in 1998 shortly after the release of their second LP, Stupid Stupid Stupid. Seventeen years later, both now clean, Shaun and Kermit reunited for the 20th anniversary of It’s Great When You’re Straight…Yeah, and released a comeback single, We Are England, for UEFA Euro 2016. That in turn led to a third album in 2017, the No.15-charting Pop Voodoo.

Today, Kermit lives in Liverpool, just half an hour’s train ride from Manchester. Though the two of them could write over Zoom or FaceTime, both prefer to do it in person, like in the old days, even if the vodka and black rock’s been replaced by Tetley’s and Pringles.

“We’re both changed people now we’re not out of our minds and haven’t got habits anymore,” Shaun explains, having beaten his addiction in the mid-00s. “When it comes to lyrics we’ll sit facing each other like Alas Smith And Jones. Me and him will do a lot of freestyling and then we’ll write it down. We just bounce off each other. When we got back together, that was still there but without the violence.”

Room To Breathe

That’s not to say it’s all rainbows and buttercups in Black Grape world. They may be free of the crack and the smack, but Shaun and Kermit can still butt heads, if not literally this time round.

“It can get heated,” Ryder admits, “like when Youth’s in the middle of something and Kermit’ll be trying to get him to do something and I just want him to leave Youth alone. So it can still get intense, but nothing like it used to be.”

“We fell out in a really bad way,” Kermit tells Classic Pop, when we speak to him a few days later. “We didn’t see each other for about 15 years, ’cos we were both a couple of crackheads all through Black Grape – we were totally spangled the whole time. So we’re careful now with our boundaries towards each other. That’s not to say I don’t have a lot of room for him, ’cos I do, and I know he’s got a lot of room for me.”

“We’re a bit more, what’s the word – aware now,” he says. “So we do bits ourselves and then come together. Shaun works like a rapper and I’m used to that. The first time I did some stuff with the Mondays [Kermit sang guest vocals on the Yes Please! track Cut ’Em Loose Bruce] I was like, wow, okay, this could work. I don’t know what it is, when we come together to do stuff, we have our own palette, so to speak, which he wouldn’t have on his own and I wouldn’t have on my own.”

Mantra Of The Cosmos

Any thoughts that sobriety may have softened the sonics of Black Grape, or dulled the edges of Ryder’s lyrical brilliance need to know that Orange Head is as fizzing with ideas, and as musically unruly, as anything from their 90s catalogue. And some of those songs are, as we speak in October 2023, about to get a live workout as Shaun and Kermit head off for a run of UK  gigs. But before that there’s a series of Happy Mondays dates, and after they’re done and dusted, Ryder’s got to finish off Mantra Of The Cosmos’ first album. Busy busy busy.

“I’ve been doing Black Grape interviews, Mondays interviews and Mantra interviews all at the same time,” he laughs, “so I get quite mixed up.”

Ryder says, however, that the Mondays will be taking a couple of years off after April. “That means I just carry on with Black Grape and Mantra,” he says, almost sounding relieved at the prospect. So, we presume, there’s no new Mondays album in the offing? Having split after 1992’s Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth-produced Yes Please!, the band (sans several of its original members) released just one LP, 2007’s Uncle Dysfunktional. But since the classic line-up reformed in 2012, there’s been… well, zilch.

Manic Mondays

“[Head of Creation Management] Alan McGee’s been trying to get a Mondays album organised,” Shaun says about the possibility of new material from the band that invented Madchester, “but I don’t know if I wanna do that.” He pauses. “Now our kid’s not here [Shaun’s brother Paul, who played bass in the band, died suddenly in July 2022] it’ll be a lot easier to do a Mondays album.

“The trouble I had with our Paul is that he was still stuck in the 80s and 90s when it came to recording and doing things, like, ‘Let’s go to Real World and spend months down there.’ I work really quick in Black Grape. I mean now, we could go and do a Mondays album, get Youth to produce it, and you could do that in three weeks. I’ve just gotta write the fucking thing!”

So what would the Mondays sound like in 2024? Anyone expecting Bummed II, it seems, had better think again.

“What we always did with the Mondays, is that every album was different to the last,” Ryder says. “Bummed was nothing like Squirrel And G-Man and that was nothing like Pills ‘n’ Thrills And Bellyaches. And the last album that we split up over [Yes Please!], that was different again.

“Sunny Levine produced Uncle Dysfunktionaland again it moved on. It wasn’t lyrically my best record. In the mid-noughties I was still coming out of the madness and had writer’s block. But it’s still a good, entertaining album.”

Pop Voodoo cover art

On The Write Track

So when Shaun’s writing now, does he ever think, hmm, this could be a Mondays track?

“There’s plenty of times I’ll write some stuff down, and it’s a load of shit,” he laughs. “But if I come up with something like ‘Call the cops’ or ‘You’re twisting my melon, man’ [both from Step On] or ‘We’re 24-hour party people’, that could fit in Mantra, Black Grape or the Mondays.”

Today, though, Shaun Ryder is in full and focused Black Grape mode. “You know,” Shaun  tells us, “I would probably fly over to Youth’s studio in Spain every fortnight to make a Black Grape album!”

At the age of 61, the 90s’ ultimate indie bad boy is quite possibly the 2020s’ hardest-working musician. Proof, if it was ever needed, that it really is great to be straight (yeah).

Listen to Black Grape here

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