"A national treasure? I'll take that over being called a smackhead, crackhead loser": Shaun Ryder on Black Grape, The Happy Mondays, Gogglebox and why it's great when you're straight, yeah

Black Grape, 2023
(Image credit: Paul Husband)

"My best mate comes to my house, they bring us a shitload of booze, we watch telly and then they pay us. It was a no-brainer."

Shaun Ryder lets out a filthy cackle. 

The 61-year old Mancunian, frontman of Black Grape, The Happy Mondays and Mantra Of The Cosmos, TV personality, author and living legend, has just been asked why he and his long-time best mate/musical collaborator/partner-in-crime Bez signed up as regular guests on Channel 4's long-running and unfailingly popular TV show Gogglebox. And when he puts it like that, you can see the attraction.

It's also not hard to see why Shaun William George Ryder was a popular figure with both his fellow contestants and the viewing public when he appeared on I'm A Celebrity... Get Me Out Of Here, back in 2010, where he finished as runner-up to 'Queen Of The Jungle' Stacey Solomon. On a Zoom call from his Salford home, Ryder is excellent company - avuncular, sweary, down-to-earth and seemingly pleased, relieved and not a little surprised that he's still around to live life large, albeit in a less life-threatening manner than he did at the Mondays' famously hedonistic peak.

With Orange Head, the rather fine new Black Grape album, the first he and co-conspirator Kermit (Paul Leveridge) have released since 2017's Pop Voodoo, now out in the world, and a massive Happy Mondays tour due to start next month, Ryder is itching to get out among the great unwashed once again. That Mondays tour, incidentally, is titled 'The Been There Done That Tour', an entirely appropriate tag befitting one of British music's great survivors.

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You're a busy man these days Mr Ryder with fingers in pies everywhere, it seems. How did you find the time to make a new Black Grape album, and why now?

"Well, I was out in South Africa filming that 'all-star' I'm A Celebrity show, but I got kicked off that early, so that freed up some time, and I basically flew straight to Spain and got stuck into the record. You find that there's a lot more time to do things when you're not off your box on drugs." 

Who knew, eh? So did Orange Head all come together in the studio, or have you and Kermit been stockpiling these songs for years?

"No, me and Paul write really quickly. He's always writing stuff and I'll scribble down ideas when I get the chance, like when I was in South Africa and was voted out, I'd plenty of time to scribble away in my comfy lodge. But to be honest, the majority of that stuff won't get used, and instead me and Paul will literally sit with our foreheads touching and just try to make each other laugh with impressive lines."

I have to say, the record sounds as fresh and vibrant as the first Black Grape record  [1995's excellent It's Great When You're Straight... Yeah] did all those years ago, rather than sounding like the work of a nostalgia act.

"Yeah, well, when we did Pop Voodoo in 2017 that was the first time that me and Kermit had wrote anything together in 20 years, and that went down pretty well: we were on a major label with that and we got a Top 15 album out of it. So we were always up for doing another one. It took us... 2017 to 2023... six years, but we got there!"

Is it important to you to keep making new music? Obviously there is a circuit - and you've a fan-base - where you can go out and tour without actually writing any new songs at all.

"I mean, I love our fanbase now, it goes from like, 10-year-old kids to people in their 80s, which is mad to see. The great thing about doing all the TV stuff is that it puts you in front of a whole new audience. Kids are watching me and Bez on Gogglebox going, 'Who are these two old fuckers?' and by the time the show hits the first ad break they've downloaded our whole back catalogue. I think that out of all the indie bands who've survived as long as us, we have the broadest fan-base, and that's great. But we're musicians, so of course making new music is what we do. After the Mondays tour finished in April I'm gonna put that to bed for a few years - we've been hitting it hard for like, 12 years - and that'll give me more time to do more with Black Grape, and Mantra Of The Cosmos, and more stuff that I'm not allowed to talk about yet. The Mondays have become this iconic band, but Black Grape have sold more records, and I want Black Grape to have the chance to be as well known as the Mondays."

Is one band more fun than the other?

"No, they're both great. At the minute, the Mondays are really hot onstage, we're better than we've ever been, so it's a bit of a shame that it's going to sleep for a couple of years. But I don't spend as much time with Black Grape as I should, and we've a great band now, and with Kermit, me and him are in a good place, now that we're older and wiser and more mature."

You've been through a lot, and it seems like nothing fazes you, and you're up for anything, but is there anything in life that worries you?

"Not a lot. The first time that I went into the jungle [for I'm A Celebrity...] I was 48, and the second time I went in I was 60, with a false hip, a chip in my spine, and a shitload of thyroid problems, right? So the first time I found it a piece of piss, and didn't want to come home, because I had a fucking mega time. But last time, getting off the plane in South Africa, I was thinking, What are you doing, you've got fucked up legs, and a fucked up spine, and I started thinking, Have I done the right thing here? So, although I enjoyed it, I was in a completely different place from doing it at 48 and doing it at fucking 60. Like, I broke two of my implanted teeth, and they were sticking into the side of my mouth, so I had blisters every time I opened my fucking gob. It was a nightmare at times, but it was still fun: I got to meet Fatima Whitbread and Andy [Whyment] from Coronation Street who it turns out went to the same junior school and secondary school as me, and who lives 10 minutes away from me now."

Are you having as much fun now as you did when you were a kid starting out in this game?

"I was 18 when the Mondays started, so I've basically spent my whole life in this entertainment business. Obviously there were some fucking not so great times, but I cleaned my act up at 42 years old, and I've having a great time now. I've been pretty much sober for 20 years, and I don't miss the madness."

When you cleaned up, did you have to cut any friends out of your life because they weren't so keen on giving up some of those... leisure activities?

"Well, most of them that didn't give it up are dead! Me and Kermit stayed away from each other for years for those reasons, but we met at a Snoop Dogg concert around 2015, and we've been good since then."

You've acquired a kind of national treasure status now. Does that amuse you at all, considering that, in the '90s, you'd only make headlines for all the wrong reasons?

"I mean, I'm 61 years old now, there'd be something wrong me with me if I was still running around caning it like I was in my 20s. But national treasure? Yeah, I'll take national treasure over being called a smackhead, crackhead loser."

So, considering how busy you are, why did you start another band last year? 

"Mantra Of The Cosmos? Well, I met [drummer] Zac Starkey maybe nine years ago when Chris Evans brought TFI Friday back for the night, and then, out-of-the-blue Alan McGee rung me and said, Can I give Zac Starkey your number, he wants you in a band? So Zac rung us up and I thought, Well, why not, you know? A new rock and roll band at 60 years old, why not? And Zac's absolutely brilliant. I mean, not only is the amazing drummer and guitarist, but he's a fucking brilliant producer. Mantra [in which the pair are joined by Ride's Andy Bell, Brix Smith and Bez) is different from the Mondays and Black Grape, it's kinda mad Pink Floyd, dancey, rocky stuff, and some of the tunes are 15 minutes long. We're in the middle of doing an album, we've got 10 or 11 tunes at the moment, and its good, it's cool, but we're not rushing it."

Do you ever do you ever pinch yourself and think how the fuck am I still here, and how is life still good?

"Life is better than ever, man. I mean, if there's three people who probably shouldn't be on the planet it's me, Bez and Kermit, but here we are."

Like cockroaches, un-killable...
"Fucking right! We'll survive fucking nuclear fucking attacks man!"

Black Grape's Orange Head album is out now. The Happy Mondays tour the UK from March 14. More details here.

Paul Brannigan
Contributing Editor, Louder

A music writer since 1993, formerly Editor of Kerrang! and Planet Rock magazine (RIP), Paul Brannigan is a Contributing Editor to Louder. Having previously written books on Lemmy, Dave Grohl (the Sunday Times best-seller This Is A Call) and Metallica (Birth School Metallica Death, co-authored with Ian Winwood), his Eddie Van Halen biography (Eruption in the UK, Unchained in the US) emerged in 2021. He has written for Rolling Stone, Mojo and Q, hung out with Fugazi at Dischord House, flown on Ozzy Osbourne's private jet, played Angus Young's Gibson SG, and interviewed everyone from Aerosmith and Beastie Boys to Young Gods and ZZ Top. Born in the North of Ireland, Brannigan lives in North London and supports The Arsenal.