When Black Grape were reactivated in 2015 for a tour to mark the 20th anniversary of their chart-topping debut, It’s Great When You’re Straight… Yeah, it was a treat to have them back.
But after that there was little expectation of the genre-splicing act fronted by the Happy Mondays vocalist and lyricist Shaun Ryder alongside rapper Kermit.
So when the Mancunian bad boys turned up again last year with a new album Pop Voodoo that harked back to their glory days it was a very welcome surprise.
For the past few years, Shaun has been busy on the road with the Mondays – they played at this summer’s Victorious Festival in Southsea in Saturday's special guest slot. And as a result he wasn’t even thinking about reviving his other great act – the one he formed with Kermit after the Mondays first imploded in 1993 in a welter of drugs and acrimony.
Signed to Radioactive records and shepherded by legendary American music producer and manager Gary Kurfirst, Black Grape’s initial run only lasted two albums.
‘We got an email from The States from the people who look after our publishing out there,’ says Shaun of the band’s return to action, ‘saying its 20 years since the release of the first Black Grape album, what are you going to do for it? Are you going to commemorate it or something? And I hadn’t even thought about it.
‘Me and the wife sat there and talked about it, and we said: “Yeah, let’s do something.” So she set up a website for Black Grape, I made some inquiries, and then it got rolling.’
Ryder got back in touch with Kermit – the two had fallen out in the late ‘90s – and with hatchets buried, found that the old magic was still there.
‘The [superstar DJ and former Happy Mondays’ producer] Paul Oakenfold got in touch and said: “Do you want to do a football song for the European Championships? So me and Kermit got together in my little studio in my back garden, and we started doing a few things there.’
The resulting song, We Are England, was released under the name 4 Lions. Although it didn’t set the charts alight, it set a light under the Black Grape duo.
‘When we’d done, I was supposed to be doing a Mondays album but we couldn’t get it together – we couldn’t get everyone together n the same place at the time – so we thought why not carry on and make a Black Grape album? And that’s what we did – and it turned out really well. It took us about four weeks to write it, record it and produce it, and before you know it, we’ve got the label putting it out, and we’re getting a mid-week chart rundown of number one, and it’s like: “Wow, this is great!”
Black Grape peaked during the heady days of Britpop, but are rarely mentioned in retrospectives of the period – perhaps because their music revelled in futuristic hip-hop and psychedelia, rather than the guitar-led trad-rock that most now remember the era for. But Black Grape were commercially far more successful than the act that made Shaun’s name.
‘Oh God, yeah, we sold a lot more records. We got a number one with Black Grape, we never got that with the Mondays. The Mondays has become a bigger sort of iconic band and all that – and we’ve been back doing that again and all, even with all of the original members back in it, we’ve been doing that for about six years now.’
The debut album also yielded three hit singles in Reverend Black Grape, In the Name of the Father and Kelly's Heroes.
Was their success a surprise to Shaun?
‘Not really – we’d sort of gone hip-hoppy and that made it a bit more commercial – it was more poppy I suppose, more chart-friendly than the Mondays, and we had a major label supporting it and a dude managing us who had some of the biggest bands in the world – Blondie, Talking Heads, Jane’s Addiction – he’d had the lot.’
And the relationship between Shaun and Kermit is arguably better than ever.
‘When we split up we were still relatively young, nutty kids, and now 20 years later we’re in our fifties, and all that bull had gone – plus he nearly died! We’ve both been big time drug-abusing nutcases,’ he chuckles. ‘Once we stopped doing that, it all goes out the window.
‘Me being in the Mondays before, I’d learned a lot of lessons already, but Kermit, it was his first time. He’d been in [cult act] the Ruthless Rap Assassins, but he hadn’t been on Top of The Pops, he hadn’t been in all the magazines, and it went to his head a little bit. People take it in different ways, and… but it’s all good now.
‘All of the nonsense we were falling out over has just gone. Plus we were really good together me and him. We wrote really well together and we were friends, we weren’t just drug buddies, so when that was gone we still had a lot in common.’
He also reckons they’re a better live act than they ever were.
‘Yeah, we’re all compos mentis now. The sex and drugs have gone so it’s just the rock’n’roll. Years ago, the most important thing for us was to get to the party than the show. Now we really do appreciate what we do, and love what we’re doing – all the bull is out of the window and we all enjoy it and it’s a far better far show.
‘After the show these days, I’m off straight back to bed or off to watch the news.’
It may be that Shaun enjoys a quiet night in now, but that doesn’t mean he’s not busy for the next few months – and there may even be a new Happy Mondays album at some point.
‘The plan is at the moment, when this Black Grape tour is finished, we go off to Australia and Japan with the Mondays, come back here and finish another Black Grape tour here and in a few other places.
‘When we were trying to get the Mondays album done before, and it didn’t happen, we thought that idea had been put to bed. But now [legendary music impresario and Monday’s manager Alan] McGee has just announced he would like a Mondays album, so it looks like... I would never say never on that, he wants one, so we’ll try and fit one in!’
And even with Shaun being something of a regular on the reality TV circuit, his latest TV venture is unexpected even by his standards – he’s going on Celebrity Mastermind.
‘I got asked and you can’t say no to that one, can you? Just to sit in that chair and have the music going. Just the thought of Shaun Ryder being on Mastermind it’s funny isn’t it? Could you imagine if I won it? There’d be no justice in the world!’ he cackles loudly.
With a specialist subject of Manchester from the 1960s onwards, he’s due to film sometime around now, with the show airing over the festive period.
‘Let’s hope I get some right...’ Shaun adds, laughing again.
Black Grape are at Concorde 2 in Brighton tonight, doors 7pm, and Engine Rooms, Southampton on November 30. Go to blackgrapemusic.com/tour.