Madchester legend Shaun Ryder is in a great mood, despite being part-way through a rash of interviews as rave culture icons Happy Mondays gear up for their latest anniversary tour.
If you’re expecting the unpredictable character that left interviewers like The Wordpresenter Terry Christian sweating on camera in the early ‘90s, you couldn’t be more wrong.
Maybe it’s an ‘upper’ hangover from his more indulgent days, or perhaps it’s just … erm, a happy man day. For it appears that the old carousing Mondays and Black Grape star has long since left the building, as he reminds me on the phone from his Salford base.
You see, in more recent years Shaun got something of a chance to start again, and is loving life with his partner and youngest children, while eager to get out there on the road again with the band that took him into the public spotlight.
The occasion is the 25th anniversary of Happy Mondays’ best-selling third LP,Pills’n’Thrills and Bellyaches, which sold more than 350,000 copies, spent 31 weeks in the UK albums chart, and included top-five hits Step On and Kinky Afro.
Dad of six Shaun, fellow celebrity TV star and the band’s hedonistic dancer Bez, and the rest of the gang – Shaun’s younger brother Paul Ryder on bass, Gaz Whelan on drums, Mark Day on guitar, Paul Davis on keyboards, and backing singer Rowetta – are celebrating that landmark with 21 UK dates.
First though, I point out that despite my postcode, I’m not actually from Preston, so he doesn’t have to break into the original version of Country Song, from second album,Bummed.
“That’s okay. I like Preston! It’s great.”
My main excuse for speaking to Shaun is to preview the band’s dates at Manchester Academy, having recently added Thursday, November 19 to a sell-out the following night.
While we’re talking silver anniversaries, it’s worth noting that next month also marks the 25th birthday of this University of Manchester venue. Were there any memorable shows there for Shaun over the years, as a performer or a punter?
“Erm … I really don’t know! It was weird with the Mondays, because we did the universities and 300 and 500 capacity venues, but then missed the middle ground places like the Apollo and all those and jumped up to 10,000 capacity gigs like the GMex.”
As a Salford lad, those Manchester gigs are probably as good as you get to a hometown gig.
“Of course, unless we were to play The Dog and Partridge.”
Beautiful South and Housemartins main-man Paul Heaton has a pub venue around the corner from Shaun, The King’s Arms. Is he a regular there?
“That’s about two minutes from where I live. But I don’t do the pubs, mate! Not anymore.”
Is all that behind Shaun Ryder, family man, now?
“Oh God, yeah. Absolutely. I’m not saying I don’t go out for a pint when I’m working, but I don’t hit the pubs or the clubs.”
All these years on, there’s still a huge clamour for the band he broke through with, judging by that first sell-out in Manchester. They must still be doing something right.
“Absolutely, and we’re really lucky, because we’re one of the only bands that go right across the board. Our fan-base goes from seven to 70-odd years old.
“We’ve got our original NME fan-base, but because of mine and Bez’s stint on reality television, you can look out on one of our shows and see all ages.”
Ah yes … reality TV, and those that might not recall Happy Mondays and Shaun and Bez’s next hit band, Black Grape, may have got to know the front-man through his second-place finish on the 2010 series of ITV’s I’m a Celebrity … Get Me Out Of Here, or his sidekick – most recently in the news for anti-fracking campaigning in the North West – and his Channel 4 Celebrity Big Brother victory in 2005.
What’s more, the pair remain in the public eye, Happy Mondays about to feature on a new satellite TV channel charity venture, Singing in the Rainforest, as I’ll get on to shortly.
But first, what were the preferred North West venues when the Mondays were breaking through?
“We played places like The Boardwalk, a great little venue, originally for around 300 people, then Corbieres, where we had a mad little show for around 100 people.
“To tell you the truth, small venues make for great rock’n’roll shows but terrified me. I can play 10,000 to 20,000 capacity venues and it doesn’t bother me – it’s showbusiness! But when you do the small venues …
“Places like Corbieres, that’s where you got your stripes. There was no stage – you were eye-to-eye with the punters.
“And you’re at your most vulnerable when you’re wiggling your snake hips and someone’s staring right at you, 20 inches away.”
I was talking to a friend who put on gigs at Aldershot Buzz Club from 1985 to 1993, and she reminded me of a night in the summer of ’87 when Happy Mondays played to around 15 people, just after their first Factory Records LP, Squirrel and G Man … came out. Remember that?
“No, but I do remember gigs with 15 people in, and places where we started out when there was no one in except the person writing the review!
“When we first started, we would have more people watching us in London and Glasgow than in Manchester.”
A week before the Mondays’ Manchester return, they play Liverpool O2 Academy (Friday, November 13). Did Shaun ever cross over to Merseyside to see bands in his formative days?
“When I was a kid, going to Liverpool was really dangerous. If Scousers came to Manchester or Salford or Mancs went to Liverpool in the ‘70s, you might have people coming at your nuts with Stanley knives! You had to be very careful.”
Is it odd to see how your old surroundings have changed in recent years, with Media City going up, the BBC relocation, and so on?
“It’s great to see how things have changed. And by the time the ’90s came you could go to Liverpool, the same as people over there could come to the Hacienda.
“You’d even have Arsenal fans running around the Hacienda, chanting the team’s name … and it was all to do with Ecstasy.
“Things started to change when people were taking E. All that old terrace bullshit went out of the window, in favour of love and peace again.
“There was an article the other day on the BBC website about how gigs in the ‘70s were male-dominated, dangerous places, especially if you were a skinhead, a casual, a punk, a mod or a rocker. If you saw someone who didn’t fit into your tribe, there’d be fights.
“That’s gone now. Gigs now are not male-dominated – it’s family, it’s women, it’s girlfriends. It’s completely changed.”
You mentioned football there, Shaun. Are you into your football?
“Me? No! I get great pleasure in saying (he announces each word slow, loud and proud), ‘I f****** hate football!’
“Put it this way – I like the fact that footballers now don’t have to retire to run a pub and can get decent, fantastic ultra-money. But talking about football is for thick, brainless motherf****** who haven’t got nothing else to talk about!
“I’m a Red, because I’m from Salford and we might just have two people in the whole of Salford who are City fans. And going back, it was predominantly a Catholic and Protestant thing as well, and down to family. But I’m not into all that.
“If someone asks me know who plays for United, I’d say Giggs, Schmeichel, Nicky Butt, Georgie Best, Alex Stepney in goal. I haven’t a f****** clue!
“But I’m quite proud of that, because at one time, blokes had to pretend they were into football. So I get a real buzz, me, of saying, ‘I am not into f****** football’, and certainly not talking about it.”
Fair enough. That said, Shaun just spent 90 seconds of our interview ranting on that very subject. But I don’t dwell on that, and we move on.
I mentioned the Academy silver anniversary, and this is all part of a November and December tour marking 25 years since Pills’n’Thrills And Bellyaches. Has that time flown?
“That 25 years seems to have just turned into five minutes. It feels like I’ve had an eight-hour kip and suddenly I’m 53 years old. It’s all gone, and so quick.”
You joke about this time having a chance to savour it all, as opposed to being ‘off your face’ the first time you toured this album.
“Here’s the thing, right. When we were doing it first time round, I was too busy building my career and too busy being on the hamster wheel.
“You’re promoting it then playing it, and don’t really get the chance to enjoy it. The day I came out of the studio with Bummed and Pills’n’Thrills was the last time I listened to those albums, until 20-odd years later.
“But I was listening to this album when we were rehearsing it and thought there was some really good stuff there, patting myself on the back.”
A lot of those tracks have certainly stood the test of time.
“Yes, and now, more than ever, because the sex and drugs has gone and it’s just rock’n’roll for this bunch of old blokes, we’re enjoying it.”
I was guessing you were enjoying the live work and being together as a band again. Despite a few well-documented financial problems and legal wrangles over the years, it can’t just be about the money, can it?
“Happy Mondays is certainly a labour of love, after all we’ve been through for it. It’s great. And years ago you didn’t really make money doing live gigs.
“You went out to promote albums and made money off the merchandise. At least now you make money from concerts, although the record sales have gone.
“It’s weird with kids now though. My lad laughs at me because I download from iTunes, get music or movies and stream it through the right channels, while they get everything for free.
“But there’s one thing for which they do expect to pay, and that’s watching live gigs.”
You mention one of your lads there. Has family life helped straighten you out after all those wild days?
“First time around, I was a kid having kids, building a career, so I was never home. Now I’m an actual adult having children, and get to do it right this time.
“I’ve been lucky enough to start again and have a seven-year-old and a six-year-old, and the chance to be at home for them.”
There certainly seems to be a little more wisdom on show from this 53-year-old.
“Ooh – a lot more wisdom! Absolutely, it’s great! It’s the best!”
Even if he’d only released 24 Hour Party People, Lazyitis, the third Mondays LP and first Black Grape LP, Shaun would deserve a place in rock’n’roll’s hall of fame, as far as I’m concerned. But what work does he most value – be it with either of those bands or as a solo artist?
“All of it! And I wouldn’t put it past us if we went out and did – after the Bummed andPills’n’Thrills tours – some Squirrel and G Man anniversary shows too.
“And I’m properly listening to it all again, rather than taking it for granted. I think, “F****** hell, lads, we did some good stuff!’
“I had writer’s block for a long time, and there was a lot of crap going on, whereas now I’ve released a couple of solo things, and at the end of the year or the beginning of next year a new solo album will come out.
“I’m really proud of that. First time I did a solo album it was very experimental, but this time it’s totally structured and I’ve spent a lot of time writing songs.
“It could be ground-breaking, rather than some form of unconscious rambling.”
Shaun’s always had his champions as a songwriter. In fact, late, great Factory Records founder Tony Wilson – whose Steve Coogan-fronted biopic ended up with the title 24 Hour Party People – once compared his lyrics to works by WB Yeats.
“Oh yeah – Tony said some very nice things … some of which I didn’t quite understand! He gave me some of the best advice and some of the worst advice.”
The line goes quiet for a while, and I have to prompt him. You can’t just leave it there, Shaun – give us an example.
“The worst thing he ever said to me was, ‘Look, what you should do is share everything equally with the band, because that will cut out all the crap and arguments’.
“So I gave everyone a cut of my songwriting royalties, but it didn’t stop all the crap, and it didn’t stop all the arguing!”
There have been plenty of TV shows featuring Shaun down the years, not least a cameo on cult drama Shameless.
There’s not enough time to ask about all those media projects he’s been involved with in a bid to keep a roof over his family’s head. However, I did ask if he kept up his saxophone practise after tuition from Soweto Kinch for a TV show, culminating in him playing live with Jools Holland’s big band on Glenn Miller’s Tuxedo Junction.
“I’m sad to say I didn’t. I’ve just not had the time.”
Talking of celluloid projects, there’s word of a screenplay of his autobiography, Twisting Your Melon. Any progress there?
“I really wanted it to go on to television, and Granada bought it. And I’ve just signed a deal two days ago, giving it to the people that made Control and the John Lennon film,Nowhere Boy.”
That sounds promising. I look forward to that. And who does he see most of these days from his band days – is it Bez, Gaz Whelan, Kermit, or Rowetta perhaps?
“We’ve just done the Black Grape tour with Kermit, but I see Bez a lot more than anyone else. We’re always bumping into each other with all the TV stuff we do.
“Actually, we have the premiere of the latest TV show out later this month, Singing in the Rainforest, so we were in London plugging that the other night.”
That Watch TV project certainly sounds like one to watch, the series following musicians living alongside remote tribes, Happy Mondays’ contribution involving the band spending a week living with the Embera Drua people of the Upper Chagres River in Panama, profits from the resultant single made with their hosts going back to the tribe.
In fact, from their Little Hulton roots and Forty Five EP debut for Factory 30 years ago this month to their latest charity stint in Central America, there have been many memorable moments and as many highs as wrong turns for Shaun and Happy Mondays.
I have to ask though. When he sees himself and Bez in those early interviews, like on The Word in the early ‘90s, does he wonder, ‘How are we still here?’
“Not really, because people really bought into what we did, and that’s the good thing about it.
“I knew from day one we would still be doing this 20-odd years later. It’s just that we grew up in front of the press and the TV cameras.”
There have been some unlikely or at least unexpected Shaun Ryder collaborations over the years, from a Talking Heads link-up to a Russell Watson duet, via Gorillaz, a Peter Kay video and even a TV series about his interest in UFOs. So what’s he going to surprise us with next?
“You know, I really want to tell you, and there’s a couple of TV things I’m on with. But I can’t talk about them, although I really want to … especially if you’re a big fan of kids’ television.”
I make encouraging noises, but he’s not for saying any more on that front.
“What can I say? You know what, you’ve just got to get the mix right, between all that TV stuff and keeping releasing the records.”