John Grant

IN CONVERSATION – JOHN GRANT – “there’s pure love and beauty embodied in the sounds”

Surely one of the greats of the 21st century, John Grant releases his excellent new album, The Art Of The Lie this Friday, so what better reason for a chat? John is, rather humbly, highly apologetic about missing the first Zoom call we scheduled. I tell him that it’s not a problem, and that, as the clock was ticking away, I was deciding which questions to get rid of, in order to still have time for the interview if/when he turned up. So, I inform him, “What’s your favourite dinosaur?” has been binned…

JOHN GRANT: I DO have a favourite dinosaur actually! I fell in love wth this book called The Enormous Egg when I was a child, by Oliver Butterworth, and it was about this kid who was trying to raise a triceratops from a giant egg that this chicked laid. So I guess the triceratops was the one for me!

Good choice! But anyway, moving on to The Art Of The Lie, Ivor Guest was very much involved with the album, whom I thought was quite a leftfield choice as producer, but he’s done a spectacular job. So, what was it about Ivor that appealed to you?

JOHN: Well, the fact that he’s made incredible albums that are some of my favourites. And also, the fact that we just got on like a house on fire. We bonded, and we particularly bonded over our love of Yello, especially because I don’t feel like they get enough credit in terms of what they’ve done in pioneering sound design. I think a lot of people are put off by the silliness factor that comes into their music, but there’s a lot more there than that.

Yeah, it doesn’t make sense that, does it? Because bands like Devo are highly regarded…

JOHN: It’s true. I think that big hit they had, ‘Oh Yeah‘ didn’t do them any favours. I mean, it was probably great for them at the time, but then I think in the long run, it probably put people off because they thought “This is what Yello is.”

So many bands have their biggest hit with their worst song, don’t they? Still, going back to The Art Of The Lie, did Ivor have methods that you hadn’t previously considered? Did he have a few tricks up his sleeve?

JOHN: Nothing that springs immediately to mind, but I think a producer can sometimes be a kind of “cat corolla”, you know, they can gently help you go in the direction that you want to. I mean, I think the talent of a great producer is to figure out what they’re dealing with.

And what was Ivor dealing with?

JOHN: Somebody who appears to think that he has no idea, but actually has a very specific vision.

Fantastic. Now, I interviewed Richard Hatch a while back – I don’t know if you know who he is, but he won the very first season of Survivor back in 2000. As a gay man himself, he was telling me that things had started to improve in terms of homophobia, until Trump became president, at which point it got much worse for him. I don’t know if it was the same for you, but I thought it kind of tied in with some of the stuff on your new album, specifically ‘Meek AF‘, so, for someone who’s been very vocal about your sexuality in your music, how do you view the current climate in that respect?

JOHN: Oh I think it’s horrible. It’s definitely re-opened a lot of wounds, for me, and I think you can hear that on ‘Boy From Michigan‘, and on this record. It brought a lot of that back to the surface. It’s never really a good feeling to think that you were ever just...’tolerated‘ until you dared to move above your station. It’s ugly. You know, there are billions of people in the world that believe homosexuals are “lesser than.” ‘Meek AF‘ is like an exasperated piss-take of all of this stuff – thinking about how you were brought up. In Michigan, for example, when I was growing up in this Methodist community, that was a loving community that was supportive of each other. People were taking part in community and people were kind-hearted and compassionate. They could depend on friends. The overarching memory I have from that experience is that there was a lot of kindness involved. But then cut to the Southern Baptist church, and the big city, in terms of Denver at the time, and you know, that was a whole different ball of wax. And then when people start to realise that you are – this is going to sound harsh – not just someone who just seems like a faggot but that you actually are one, and that you might actually be embracing that, well…. (pause for thought) it was like “Well, we have to love you, and we do, but you can’t embrace this or be ok with it. You must be healed!“, you know? You’re basically told “There is no future for you, not in this life, and not in the next one” otherwise. I don’t really get it that much now because I live in Iceland, but I definitely see it all the time, you know, like when Trump’s brownshirts were trolling the streets, fucking with drag queens and immigrants and gays, and anyone that they deem “unworthy.”

It’s an amazing concept – on ‘Meek AF‘ – and it’s not actually hard to believe that these MAGA folk might eventually…or possibly soon…embrace the idea that Trump is the Second Coming and that he’ll end up being put into the New Testament as a book of the bible…

JOHN: Many of those people already do think that he is! I’ve seen clips from crazy Christian fundamentalist sites where they’ll be like (adopts amusing redneck accent) “I mean, you can even tell – you know, like, the Trumpets Of Gabriel? So like, Trumpet….Trump…ok like, you’ve got the word ‘Trump’ inside of ‘Trumpet’…I mean that’s like, totally….it’s obvious, you know?

(Pause for laughter, as this really tickled me. Caught me right off guard, that!)

John Grant on Trump supporters…

Moving on, ‘Father‘ I think is an astonishing track, in which you embody both the youthful John and the adult John. So what advice would the adult John give to that teenage John, in terms of what was to come?

JOHN: I believe that it wouldn’t matter what I said, because he was unable to hear. As the young John, I would have just said “This is the devil, trying to influence me to go the wrong way.” You know, like accepting yourself is pure evil, you know what I’m saying? So it wouldn’t matter what I said to that kid because he wouldn’t take it on board, he’d just see me as the enemy. But I think I would try to say something like “Go out there and live your life” and “Pay attention, and don’t believe that there is no place for you. Take part in community, take part in life, and do well, because there IS a place for you, and you’re going to be sabotaging yourself by taking on this role of Oskar Matzerath in Günter Grass’s The Tin Drum and saying “I’m disgusted by this world of adults and I’m not going to take part in it” because it only comes to bite you in the ass later because you haven’t learned to live. And you didn’t pay attention in school because you thought “This is completely useless“, and yes, some people go out there and nail it without any qualifications, but that’s more of an exception a lot of the time, so I would say “Pay attention and do the work because there IS going to be a place for you later, and you ARE going to be able to flourish and thrive, and you’re going to want all these things then, that you’re disavowing right now because you think there is no place for you, so why play their reindeer games, or why try to learn anything?

That’s an amazing answer.

JOHN: I think so too actually (pats himself on the shoulder) – You brought it for once, JG!!

So, for The Art Of The Lie, I’m guessing you’ve been listening to a lot of seventies funk?

JOHN: We were definitely listening to a lot of Prince, and Cameo, and Whodini, you know, ‘Freaks Come Out At Night‘. A lot of those absolute gems from those amazing bands. And Grandmaster Flash

I could tell you were listening to him, because of that “Ha ha ha” bit…

JOHN: Absolutely, and it felt good to do that! It feels like a big release for me to do that. From the time I heard that track when it came out – my neighbour had it – I just think that’s one of the greatest things ever created in the history of music.

Oh I agree! And also, The Art Of The Lie seems very cinematic. I know you referenced Vangelis and his Blade Runner soundtrack in the press release, but I’ve made a load of notes here myself – I’ve written down “hauntingly beautiful yet Dystopian, uncertain but defiant, unsettling yet tender” and I think one of the most beguiling moments is on ‘Mother And Son‘ when Rachel Sermanni’s voice comes in, spectral, almost. At that moment my jaw hit the flaw. So that was my take, but what are you hoping that people will get from it?

JOHN: I think you’ve just described what I want people to get from it. I mean, I sound like a broken record sometimes, but these songs and the putting of songs together just seems like “the every day” to me, in the life of a human. Not me projecting my experience on to other people but knowing that everyone else in the world experiences these things. There are experiences that you have every day, so you might be walking by a cab, out of which Grandmaster Flash’s ‘The Message‘ is blaring, while you’re thinking about, you know, “What am I supposed to get at the grocery store?” and also, simultaneously thinking about your relationship to your father, because you saw a tree that reminds you something on his property. So all of these things are constantly taking place simultaneously, so these are snapshots of moments and I sort of see them as little films. Like you said, it IS very cinematic, because my love of film, and my love of film scoring…that can’t be overstated.

Sure, and I know I said the word “Dystopian”, but I wouldn’t say the album was in any way bleak, because it still has that typical John Grant humour to it. I think that’s probably quite important to you to get across

JOHN: Well yeah, but I think what is important to get across is that sometimes people might be able to feel the piece instinctually but not necessarily….I mean if you see the content of a song like ‘Father‘, there’s pure love and beauty embodied in the sounds. So the beauty of the world and the ability to recognise incredible moments when they’re happening. Taking advantage of every day and loving the fact that you’re alive – that is embodied in the humour, the sounds and sometimes the silliness that comes in. And I think that is inextricable from the everyday experience, because it’s part of it, you know?

I must admit, I laughed out loud at the line “I’m feeling an itch in my medulla oblongata“, so do you work hard to get the balance right between the humour and the pathos, or does it just come naturally to you?

JOHN: (laughs) I wouldn’t say I have to work hard, but I have to be vigilant, because it is a delicate balance and it does very much become that thing that Depeche Mode talked about – getting the balance right. Because that’s my defence mechanism against the world – humour. That’s how I make myself palatable so that I won’t be attacked. But yeah I do have to work hard at not letting it overtake the other bits.

In a similar way, I think all of your albums sound very different to each other but are still unmistakably John Grant albums. Do you ever think “Hmmm….maybe this is a bit too far ‘out there‘”, or do you just let it go?

JOHN: Yeah, yeah, you know I have learned, and I’ve heard people that I admire talk about this a little bit, like the great Kristin Hersh, talking about the importance of editing. I mean, I was so naive when I was starting out and didn’t know anything, and I thought that if you were good at songwriting, then you would just be able to sit down at any time, and write something that’s perfect from start to finish. But no, there’s lots of editing involved – you have to get rid of things and realise when you’ve gone too far, or when you’re striking the wrong tone. It’s hard sometimes, because you’ve fallen in love with certain little bits, and, you know, people are always talking about “killing your darlings” and that does have to happen.

The hairs on the back of my neck stood up on ‘The Child Catcher‘, on the guitar outro. Wow, where did that come from?

JOHN: Well, that came from the amazing Leo Abrahams. We were working with him in his beautiful studio over in Leyton. He just did that. It’s just what he felt, and what he did, and the rest of us were just sitting there looking at each other, like… (rubs hands together). You know, people do comment on the length of that song, I mean even Ivor was like, “Don’t you think that’s a bit long?” and I said “No, it’s not like they don’t have it coming!

(more laughter)

JOHN: I just said no, I thought people really should be exposed to this very long and beautiful expression of rage and chaos.

There’s a lot of talk about parents on the record. Did you have a happy upbringing, or was it tough?

JOHN: There was a lot of happiness in as much as being in a small community and just playing outside all the time, but there was this dark cloud in the back, growing. This omen of things to come…like messing about with the neighbour boy in his bedroom, and hearing what people said about “those people who do things like that.” I knew, at a very young age, that that’s what I wanted, and that I was “in trouble”, because that wasn’t something that anybody could know. So there was this constant fear of being found out, and I remember people telling me “I know what you did with him, and I’ll tell everybody if you don’t do what I say.” So yeah, I started to understand very young that this was going to be a huge problem, and then when we moved away from Michigan, I was hoping it would just go away, and that I’d have a chance at a new life, but that didn’t work out, because people were just constantly telling me what I was anyway, which I have a lot of rage about because of the arrogance and the cruelty involved in that.

I did feel like the album sounded somewhat cathartic…

JOHN: Yeah, a little bit, but you know, when it comes to this deep-rooted trauma, and PTSD from an upbringing where you have to be hyper-vigilant 24/7 to assess the situation, whether you’re in danger, basically what you end up needing is simple tools for everyday living, like doing the next thing that’s on the list, or making the choice to go outside and take part in things, which I still find very difficult to do. I mean, I’m out of my comfort zone 24/7, especially in this business. But I do it in spite of myself, and it is very cathartic when it’s taking place, because it feels like you’re able to say all the things that you weren’t able to say, or didn’t have the balls to say at the time. Although it was quite correct that you didn’t say those things at the time, because you could have ended up paralysed from the neck down.

Ouch. So, other than the album, what else are you looking forward to this year?

JOHN: I’m looking forward to working with Eddie Stevens, who MD’s for Roisin Murphy and will be helping me get this album on to the stage and figuring out a set list that works and is compelling and exciting for people. You know, it’s funny, because it is sort of exhausting doing all these interviews, but I enjoy talking to smart intelligent people like yourself, who have really good, engaging questions and let me talk about this thing that I’ve done.

Well, I’ll certainly take that compliment! Let me return it – The Art Of The Lie is a magnificent album and deserves to be John Grant’s biggest success to date. We talked about many other things during the course of this interview too, such as working with CMAT (“she’s fun and irrepressible, bursting at the seams with joy and excitement about music“) and Kylie Minogue (“it was a little overwhelming but she really puts you at ease because she’s such a pro and a sweetheart“) and the scary rise in popularity, in American right groups, of Vladimir Putin (“It really breaks my medulla oblongata“) but I left those bits out to focus almost entirely on the fabulous record, for which your hard earned cash will be money well spent.

God is in the TV is an online music and culture fanzine founded in Cardiff by the editor Bill Cummings in 2003. GIITTV Bill has developed the site with the aid of a team of sub-editors and writers from across Britain, covering a wide range of music from unsigned and independent artists to major releases.