Interview: Shaun Ryder
Pioneers of the Madchester scene in the late ‘80s and ‘90s, The Happy Mondays are now back out on tour in celebration of the 25th anniversary of their classic album Pills ‘n’ Thrills and Bellyaches. With 90s culture experiencing a bit of a resurgence as of late, we got main man Shaun Ryder on the blower to chat about the early days: the music, the partying and the notorious antics. Were they really as crazy as the rumours suggest? Shaun clears a few things up for us and, unsurprisingly, the answer is a resounding yes.
Hi Shaun, how are things going?
Things couldn’t be better, mate.
You’re going back on tour with the Happy Mondays as part of the 25th anniversary of Pills ‘n’ Thrills. What do you think of the album looking back on it now?
Well it was our breakthrough pop album, before we were kind of doing the dark and moody indie stuff. Pills ‘n’ Thrills was our attempt at chart music and it got us on Top Of The Pops, so it was a good album for us.
Your favourite album?
Yeah, we all had a great time making it. It was our first time in America and we got to spend a few months in LA. We were living in apartments with rock stars, film stars and porn stars. We thought it was really rock and roll at the time but looking back on it, LA was really just a glorified Butlins.
So will you be playing Pills ‘n’ Thrills in its entirety?
Absolutely! Because it’s our most popular album we always played a few songs from it like ‘Kinky Afro’ and ‘Step On’. There are three or four songs from it we’ve never played live and it’s the first time we’ve played them all in the order we released them in.
Are you looking forward to getting back on tour with the band?
Yeah, I’m enjoying it now better than ever. Ever since we made Bummed we were kind of on the treadmill constantly going through the motions. We never really got to enjoy the tours at the time as we usually did them loaded and just saw it as a way to get enough money to record another album and go out partying again. Now it’s less about the sex and drugs and more about the good old rock ‘n’ roll.
What differences are there between touring now compared to touring in the ‘90s?
In the ‘80s and ‘90s we were all young men and we just wanted to do what all young men want to do: have a laugh and a good time. In ‘84, when we were starting out, the music scene had become really fucking boring. It had all become really controlled, like a shit episode of Top Of The Pops. We wanted to bring it back to rock and roll and make it exciting again, like the Rolling Stones, The Sex pistols and the Velvet Underground. For us the drugs and the partying were all a part of that. When we were talking to journalists from the NME and stuff we could have done it like the other bands and talk about what amplifiers we were using but we would have been really fucking bored so we would just roll up a spliff, play pool and chat about stuff. I really think that having fun with the interviews and the partying reputation helped us to get us where we are.
We seem to be going through a bit of a ‘90s resurgence at the moment – why do you think people look back on the era with such nostalgia?
I don’t know to be honest. No one’s making people go to these Factory nights, they are going because they enjoy it. When I was in my 20s I was listening to older stuff like the Velvet Underground and the Stones. I don’t really know what’s going on at the moment though. I’ve got two young girls and they’re listening to stuff like Jessie J and Taylor Swift – and I just want to say that I really fucking love my kids – but I’m also looking forward to when they get a bit older and I can get back into proper bands and stuff again.
What was it like to be part of that Madchester scene?
It was great because all of a sudden Manchester started getting the attention, and people from London and the rest of the UK were looking to our scene. It was great for the city and the music. To be honest, we had more in common with some of the pop acts rather than the other Manchester bands though.
Did you always plan to be a musician?
I grew up with music; it was always on in the house. When I was little my parents bought me a Beatles album so I’ve grown up listening to music. What really made me want to be in a band was Stardust, this ‘70s movie which was about the life of a rock star, and I saw all the parties, sex and drugs and just wanted to be a part of it.
Are there any plans to start writing new material with the Mondays again? Can we expect an album anytime soon?
Well, I’ve recently released two singles called ‘Close the Dam’ and ‘Electric Scales’ on iTunes. The release was a bit under the radar but they went down really well. We’re then releasing another single called ‘Pop Stars Daughters’. Then I’m going to be working on a new album which should come out next year and I’m planning to start work on another Black Grape album too. So it’s a busy time but now I’ve got a clear head I’m finding it so much fucking easier to write stuff and I’m enjoying it again.
The Happy Mondays recently featured on the show Singing in the Jungle where you lived with a tribe in Panama. What was that experience like?
It was mad having all of us back together living in a mud hut. It was the first time we’d all lived together like that since ‘86 when we were recording Squirrel and G-Man – well we weren’t living in a mud hut then but it wasn’t the best conditions. But yeah it was great, I only got in one argument and that was with my brother over who had the biggest beer belly.
You’re currently working on a screen adaptation of your autobiography. How’s it going?
To be honest, I really wanted it to go on TV so it would get more viewers. It’s now going to be a film but I guess most films end up on TV now anyway. It’s gone to the people who made the Joy Division film, Control, and Nowhere Boy, the John Lennon one. They were two great movies so it’s in good hands.
There have been a lot of crazy stories about you in the past. Go on then, put some of ‘em to rest once and for all and tell us whether any of these are true…
Paul Davis’ nickname in the band was knobhead.
Yeah, because he’s a fucking knobhead! He’s the only original member who’s not in the band anymore. We tried to persuade him but he was having none of it. He couldn’t even play the keyboard, he just played tracks we had programmed in. He was just one of our mates we had in the band as kids but as an adult he was a bit of a freak. The best bit was when we played live it was actually our musical director playing but he totally believed it was him the whole time.
You once broke into New Order’s dressing room to try and nick a few beers.
Kind of. This was in Barrowlands. We walked in with their blessing to pick up a few beers but the bouncers decided we weren’t having any. We then gave them a bit of stick so we had these six foot four Glaswegians beating us up.
You claim to have seen UFOs over your local bus stop as a teenager.
Yeah, absolutely! I was 15 years old doing my job as a post boy and was walking past the bus stop. Then, all of a sudden, me and a few others see this light in the sky. It starts zigzagging and flying about at 10,000 miles an hour. I don’t know what else it could have been.
You told your careers teacher you wanted to be a porn star in Amsterdam.
Probably! It sounds like something I’d say. I didn’t really get to that stage though as I left at 13 to start work on a building site.
Whilst recording Yes Please!, you and Bez tried to trade Eddie Grant’s sofa for drugs.
That’s true, but we ran out of stuff to trade. We ended up swapping a car battery for three bags of coke.
You tried to kidnap Johnny Marr and take him with you to Barbados.
That’s one of Johnny’s stories. It’s not true.
You and your mates drugged 3000 pigeons in Manchester.
Yeah, me and a bunch of my mates did at 15. I’m not really proud of it. We used to get KFC and go eat it in the square but we had all these flying rats trying to nick it off us so we found a box of rat poison and put it in a loaf of bread. They ate it all and we then just watched as all these pigeons started falling out the sky. The local paper ran with the following headline: ‘Sickos Poison Pigeons’.
So, what can we expect from the show when you bring it to Sheffield? Any more mad antics?
A fucking great show! Better than ever! I now feel comfortable in my own skin and I don’t have to be loaded to go out on stage. Performing used to just be part of the job, now it’s my favourite bit.