Complex, Unshamed, Brave & Painfully Funny. An Interview With John Grant

They say let go, let go, let go, you must learn to let go!!!! / If I hear that fucking phrase again, this baby’s gonna blow / Into a million itsy bitsy tiny pieces don’t you know / Just like my favorite scene in Scanners.” The four verses contained in the title-track and first proper song of John Grant’s latest album, Grey Tickles, Black Pressure, could be perceived as an encapsulation and description of Grant’s spirit. The former vocalist of the Denver-based alternative rock band The Czars had to deal with the lack of success of his previous band, the addictions (alcohol and drugs), depression, being HIV-positive (which he acknowledged back in 2012), and the fact that being gay isn’t easy period… not to mention the heartbreaking that came from an intense six-month relationship, the first in his sober adult life – 2013’s Pale Green Ghosts tackled the subject ferociously. These are the struggles Grant had to face. It was obvious that he didn’t have a problem to fight them in the mud and from that arrives Grey Tickles, Black Pressure, with the aggression that will not vanish and at the same time a victory lap of sorts – it’s never that simple with Grant. It was about the new album (which comes from the raw translation of two phrases from the Icelandic and Turkish languages respectively: “grey tickles” refers to approaching middle age; “black pressure” comes from the Turkish word for nightmare ) – a John Congleton-produced album with special participations of people like Amanda Palmer, former Everything But the Girl vocalist Tracey Thorn, and onetime Siouxsie & the Banshees drummer, Budgie – that we spoke with the Iceland-based and Colorado-born singer-songwriter.

Just a few days before your new album to be released. Is it in any way kind of nerve racking for you? Do you feel nervous about it? [Note: At the time of the interview, John Grant’s new album was about to be released]
No… [pause] I’m not nervous about it, I’m just excited about it. I feel proud of the record that I have done so I’m looking forward to it. And the work we have been through… lots of work getting it ready and so if there was any nervousness that was a long time ago. [laughs]

Is it easy, for a guy like you, to wrap your head around the success and accolades that you been having with your solo career?
No, it is not easy for me to wrap my head around that. I… you know, I’ve questioned a lot and a lot of times, I question whether I deserve it and… but I’m getting a lot better just accepting it and enjoy it. There’s one side of it which is you wanting to disqualify the success that you’re having because you sort of think that, “If I accept this then something horrible is going to happen to me.” But I’m getting much better at just sort of being in the moment and enjoying it because there are a lot of great things happening and it’s nice to be able to just accept it and enjoy it. So, I’m getting a lot better at that, but yeah, it has been sort of mind-fuck, you could say.

On Pale Green Ghosts’ title track you confess “I am right here but I want to be there”. How much of that kind of “drifter” state of mind/persona makes its way onto the creative process?
[pause] I don’t know, I think the creative process is more about the moment and not about fantasy. Not wanting to be here and wanting to be there is more a fantasy and an escape. So, I think that the creative process for me is more about reality and being in the moment than it is about escape… Although I can describe a scenario where I’m experiencing the desire but mostly… That line that you are talking about is sort of the… that line talks about the young person who is somebody that is going through adolescence and thinks that if he goes somewhere else things will be easier or better. I think that when you are younger you might be something like that but I belong since realized [laughs] that you can’t escape anything by going somewhere else.

It is what it is.
The thing is, I think that you keep getting the same lessons until you decide to learn them, and I think that sometimes it takes a long time, but you still keep getting the same shit over and over until you finally learn the lesson and it doesn’t matter where in the world you go.

Did it take you a long time to realize that?
Yeah, I would say that it took me longer than I would wish would happen. [laughs]

Listening to Grey Tickles, Black Pressure, it seems that you were in a complete different place compared with where you were with Pale Green Ghosts.
Well, I was in a much better place. I mean, I sort of didn’t have the sadness that I felt over the failure of the relationship that I talked about on my first two albums [Queen of Denmark (2010) and Pale Green Ghosts (2013)], which was basically me talking about my failure as a person. It was basically me sort of dealing with a lot of things that were uncovered inside of me as a result of the failure of that relationship. A lot of things that were very painful for me to face and… you know, when I did this album I had come through a lot of that and come out on the other side, and I was in a new relationship. One that was benefiting from all the lessons that I’ve learned from the last one. I mean, it took me a long time to… I really had to decide that I was going to learn the lessons in order to move past and forget about it, until… When I started doing this album there was none of that pain left and so I was also benefiting from being in love. That is a very uplifting feeling, of course.


“… I wanted to be as nasty as possible because I feel like there has been a lot of nastiness directed at me in my life…”

With this new album at times I get this stand-up comedy feeling from you. I started thinking in comics like George Carlin, Bill Burr, Louis CK, etc. Did that specific world influenced you in any way?
Oh yes, definitely. I would say that my heroes are like Woody Allen, and as far as when it comes to comedy I’ve gotten a lot of my humor from Woody Allen, Mel Brooks, and a lot of British comedy like Alan Partridge – you know, Steve Coogan’s work -, Julia Davis, and also Chris Morris, you know that… Brass Eye and [Blue] Jam, and all that sort of thing. Also, Gary Larson, the creator of The Far Side… The Simpsons, it has always been very big for me. So yeah, that world is extremely important for me. Saturday Night Live and people like Gilda Radner, Tina Fey, Kristen Wiig… So, that world is very important to me and you definitely can see it in my work, I think.

You’ve said in an interview, “Say I feel like shit and look in the mirror and am like, ‘Fuck, you again.’” But it seems that in tracks like “Down Here” and “Voodoo Doll” you’re not only looking at the mirror, but you’re also taking the time to have a conversation with the person on the mirror. Is it a more recurrent thing in your life now that you’re almost reaching your 50s?
Definitely! Absolutely! I think I’ve stopped… When I decided to get sober eleven years ago, that was the beginning of me wanting to have the conversation with myself, and basically I was taking away all the crutches that I was using to avoid this conversation with myself, and avoid myself. I was basically an optimist. I was saying, “I’m going to take away all of these defense mechanisms, I’m going to take away these escape devices, and I’m going to figure it out what the fuck is going on with me and why am I so troubled and why am I finding it so difficult to… grow up.” [laughs] To become a part of this world which we live in… I’m really glad that I did that. It’s not always fun, that’s for sure, but it needed to happen.

But it seems that it is getting easier for you.
Yeah, I would say that. For sure.

Would it be fair to say that Frank Zappa was a direct influence with the song “Snug Slacks”?
No, not at all. I would say that… I mean, I could see that, for sure, and I do like him, but I have not YET made the effort to really get to know his work. I would say that “Snug Slacks” probably comes from Grace Jones. Although the delivery is very Frank Zappa, I would say.

Yeah, exactly. That’s why I asked.
I mean, that’s a great compliment because I think he is fantastic. So, thanks for that. [laughs] And you know, I saw a tweet on Twitter from Moon Unit Zappa [Frank Zappa’s daughter] about my music, saying that she likes my music. That’s interesting. That was just a few weeks ago.

It seems that “You and Him” was a pure exercise of being as nasty as possible, diss track level, really. How much time did it take you to get all those punchlines? That is like a long and great bit.
[laughs] Thank you! Yeah, that is one of my favorite ones. That one just developed over time and I think that it has my favorite line on the album, “You probably went to Chernobyl to your honeymoon and you probably acted surprised when they showed you the room.” I think that’s my favorite thing on the record. Yeah, I wanted to be as nasty as possible because I feel like there has been a lot of nastiness directed at me in my life… People expressing to me that I should be dead because I’m gay and that I’m an inferior human being because I’m gay. But I was also thinking about many different… I mean, that song is about very different levels of hatred. It’s about good business. It’s about how things like the food industry in the States, and the tobacco industry in the States, about how they scientifically engineer their products to… you know, they target children, they engineer their products to be addictive, and unhealthy, and they know what they’re doing. And you see the obesity rising in the States but… it’s good money. Sugar is good money, junk food is good money, and so that is what we have. And people committing genocide… So, it’s about the nastiness in the world and it’s about all this subtler forms of hatred. It’s certainly not directed towards a specific person.

I guess that comes across very clearly.
It’s about hatred because I’ve never understood how you could go out into the world… I never understood that, I guess I was always, maybe it was just because I was very sensitive, but I never wanted to go out into the world and hurt other people. There’s a lot of people out there in the world that will go out, who leave their homes every day looking to kill, humiliate, or harm, or fuck with, and I… I don’t understand that. I do understand that is a pattern that comes from childhood and being raised in a certain way, but I really hate it, I hate to see people who go out and look to victimize other people, and attack other people. I really hate, I really hate it that so that song is about that.


“… the way I react to things is extremely revealing about what kind of a person I am and how I have been affected by the things that have happen to me…”

Don’t people sometimes assume that you’re harming them just for the sake of it when in fact you’re just being honest about something?
No. I mean, sometimes it is me exposing myself to myself. Sometimes it is me looking at myself and saying… [pause] Because my reaction to being hurt is just as revealing as the things that were done to me so I mean, the way I react to things is extremely revealing about what kind of a person I am and how I have been affected by the things that have happen to me. I think it’s more about being honest. It’s more about just absorbing things exactly the way they are. And there’s a lot of ugly things there too, that aren’t pretty and I’m not proud of some of those things but I think it’s better to look at them exactly the way they are and that way you can deal with them, you know?

You don’t have to be proud of those things but you also don’t have to hide them.
No, because I don’t think you can hide them anyway. Most people can see through you. I mean, sure a lot of people don’t give a shit about you, or about me, or about anyone else. Most people are just worried about themselves, but also when you’re dealing with people in the everyday life most people can pick up… you know, people aren’t stupid either. People can – and I’m not talking about education here – just sense where other people are coming from and so a lot of people think they are pulling wool over other people’s eyes by putting on an act and most of the time if you ask people they are like, “Oh no, that’s all bullshit. I can tell. The guy is bullshit.” Even if you’re good at it… you can’t fool everybody, for sure, but not forever. To me is about honesty because that
feeling is where I could get better.

Could you please shed some light on why did you decide to open and close the album with a biblical quote (from 1 Corinthians 13)?
First of all you can come at it from… It is looking at it from several different angles. People use it in weddings all the time and so it’s sort of an ironic thing because the divorce rate is over half, or whatever, and yet people are always starting off their lives by talking about this verse in their weddings, even if they aren’t religious sometimes, or even if they aren’t practicing. So, I just thought it was interesting because the whole album is about love, the different aspects of love… or at least what humans call love. The way we feel on this planet. We think that is normal to be jealous, normal to be… I don’t think that… Well, I guess that for me it’s more of just like an anthropological study of the way things have been for me on planet Earth, and just sort of what I was told because I heard that verse all the time when I was growing up because I grew up in a very religious environment. And so I thought it was very interesting and beautiful to sort of… I mean, because it is an incredible verse, it’s quite beautiful, but…

But unfortunately it is not practiced all the time.
I would say it’s rarely practiced, you know? [laughs] Of course you do see people really loving each other, but I think it’s a very difficult, very long process and you have to stick with it. You have to commit over a long period of time and these days it’s all about what’s the best way for me, you know? I want to get the best piece of ass, and I want to get the best situation for me so that I can have all the things that I want. I’m basically just absorbing the way love has been in my life and the way I was told it was supposed to be. So, in the beginning you hear it coming from all these different languages which sorts of represents the world, the chaos of the world telling you the way things are supposed to be, and then I have my own experience in the form of twelve songs, and then at the end after all of that mess – the chaos of the world and the mess you’re made of love in your own life – you have the voice of a child saying those words all over again and… it sounds very different. I really like it, I think it’s quite beautiful even though you’re looking at from many levels just because you heard that verse for years in all these different situations… and so there’s a big cheesy and hip factor attached to it as well, you know? But then when you hear a child saying those words it sounds quite different because you know that a child isn’t being devious and the child doesn’t even know how to do it wrong yet. You know what I mean? [laughs]

Because they love no matter what.
Yeah, exactly. So… I thought it was a good choice.

Words by Tiago Moreira
You can also read the interview here:

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