Talking with Rowetta from The Happy Mondays is akin to a rollercoaster ride. You ask a question and then just try to hang on as the fast-talking Mancunian takes off...
The band, who defined the Madchester sound in the late ’80s and early ’90s with their funky grooves and surreal lyrics, are occupying the special guest spot on The Common Stage at Victorious on Saturday.
With a history littered with drugs, booze, break-ups and reunions, it’s amazing that all the main players are still upright, let alone still performing together. But with the current line-up together since 2012, Rowetta insists things are on a (metaphorical) high.
READ MORE, BIG INTERVIEW: Shaun Ryder: ‘The sex and drugs has gone so it’s just the rock’n’roll now’
They last played here at The Pyramids in Southsea in 2017.
‘We had a great tour,’ says Rowetta. ‘Probably our best in terms of reviews and everything – we’re playing better than ever.
‘In the past we’ve done gigs and we can’t even remember them. People say: “We loved it when you came here in 1992.” No idea, we can’t remember – or even in 1999, not a clue where we went or what it was like!
‘Luckily people didn’t have camera phones back then so we got a way with a lot of things, and it’s all a bit of a blur. So people think it was a great gig and it probably wasn’t, but now you’ve got people filming you instead of dancing. I love watching it back on YouTube the next day though, or seeing the pictures on Facebook. So this time we did remember it, and we’re looking forward to coming back.’
Rowetta joined the group in 1990 after months of pestering their then-manager for a try-out. And her first recording with them turned out to be their biggest hit, Step On.
‘The manager kept on saying, we don’t want a girl in the band, it’s a proper lads band. I was saying I’m not like a normal girl, I know I’d be good for them – I’ll be like Gloria [Jones] for T-Rex, and luckily he listened, then Paul Oakenfold was interested in bringing me in for Step On. That did so well – it went to number five – that before I knew it, suddenly this cult band I’d loved was on Top Of The Pops and Smash Hits and doing really well, and playing places like Wembley.
‘This band I’d seen playing at a small venue in Widnes, I’d thought it would be more of a punk band, but it ended up with this big pop audience.’
As the band crossed over into the mainstream, and their next album Pills 'n' Thrills and Bellyaches became a huge hit, so the lunacy increased.
The recording of their 1992 album, Yes Please! has gone down in legend. Packed off to Barbados to help frontman Shaun Ryder and his brother, bassist Paul get off heroin, they landed in the middle of a crack-cocaine epidemic. The resulting farrago led to the bankruptcy of their label, Factory Records.
‘It all got quite massive, and along with that goes massive egos and things like that. We did our final gig in November 1992 in Tokyo, and then sadly we split.’
Amazingly, Rowetta actually has fond memories of the period.
‘After we’d been in Barbados, me and Shaun were in a big mansion in Surrey, and I think none of the rest of the band were allowed to come – I think [manager] Nathan came, Paul Ryder came one day, but Shaun had been into rehab, so he just got his head down and worked. So Yes Please! was a good experience for me with Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz from Talking Heads producing it, and we had a lovely time doing it. ‘The press were a bit mean about it, there were headlines like “Yes Please! No thanks,” and things like that. I think there was some fall-out with NME, and if you fell out with the press you get all that…
‘But I think a lot of people have gone back to it, and now appreciate it. Gaz [Whelan, drums] loves a lot of the tunes on it now. It’s had its moment and it may not have gone down well at the time, but it’s part of the band’s history.’
Now that the band are largely substance-free, and with the passing of time, things are very different on the road these days.
‘We’re all family people now – Shaun goes straight back to his family after gigs, but [band totem and dancer] Bez and I do some after-parties, and really enjoy them, but when we’ve been doing tours and there’s gigs on back-to-back nights, we can’t do the partying every night any more, it’s just too much!
‘I think sometimes me and Bez forget we’re not children any more, but it’s good to let yourself go sometimes, but not to the point where the gigs suffer. The minute we know the crowd’s out there we want to go out there and party on the stage – but not in a drunken, I can’t remember way.
‘Bez has got to make sure he can still dance and look after himself because he keeps injuring himself and I have to look after my voice and make sure I get some sleep, same with the boys. We travel on the bus together and sleep on the bus together, it’s me and 10 boys.
‘I get treated really nicely because I’m the only woman, but I like travelling with them, I’ve known these boys for like 30 years.
‘We know each other backwards, which used to cause arguments, but now it’s more of a love thing, more of a family thing.
Do the old problems resurface?
‘Very rarely, Shaun doesn’t travel with us, and that’s probably why!’ she laughs.
‘It’s a bit like Oasis with the brothers – there’s this underlying thing between them, which causes problems with the rest of the band. Me and Shaun fell out, but I get on very well with him and his wife now, but with the brothers, there’s that thing that it could kick off if they spend too much time together…
‘The rest of us have always got on really, we might argue absolutely nothing, but because there’s not a lot of alcohol involved any more, people might just not talk for half a day, but we’ve got to talk eventually because we play together and we travel together.
‘The audience used to want to see people arguing on stage but you won’t get that now. It’s great because we’re enjoying working together.’
Away from The Mondays, Rowetta is best known to the public for her stint on the first series of ITV’s X Factor 2004.
‘I did the X factor for my grandma if I’m honest. She just didn’t understand why I had this great voice, in her opinion, but hadn’t made it, even though I’d been in the Happy Mondays. I’d be like: “But grandma, I sang at Wembley!” And I’d had quite a bit of success with house music as well, but she just didn’t get it.
‘So when I saw this advert, and Simon Cowell said there was no age limit, I thought I’d do it for my grandma because I wasn’t doing much at that point - I’d been looking after a relative.’
With it being the first series, it was a step into the relative unknown for the singer, and that Mondays fans might not like it.
‘I knew I’d get some backlash, and I might not do well at it, you don’t know how you’re going to do.
‘I ended up doing it and not telling anyone. I got on the train to Leeds to do the audition and I did this mad audition because I was a little bit drunk and had all these nicotine patches on, but then you become a memorable contestant. So it ended up a bit embarrassing but I was the top woman that year, and grandma died happy with all of these newspaper cuttings, and that was her dream. She was in the audience as many weeks as she could at 90 with her young boyfriend.
‘It’s not the coolest thing to do but it was such a challenge, and completely out of my comfort zone to sing whatever Simon Cowell tells you, like Somewhere Over The Rainbow. I’d ask for an Oasis song and he’d be like: “No that won’t work on the show.” I just did as I was told. I was a puppet, but I enjoyed being his puppet just for a while.’
But she has no regrets about doing the show.
‘It gave me a big gay audience, and I love doing the Prides - that’s been constant ever since X Factor, and I do corporate events and stuff like that – it was really good for me.
‘My solo shows are mainly house music, but around the world I’m known mostly for that. I did a song which has been sampled by Black Eyed Peas on their song Boom Boom Pow, and I probably do better from that financially than anything else!’
Paul Weller is headlining the same stage as The Mondays, and this sets Rowetta off on another tangent.
‘I’ve just done something with Paul Weller which I’m so excited about, it’s probably the best thing I’ve ever done – that’s with [electronic duo] Amorphous Androgynous, it’s a little bit like The Beatles’ Tomorrow Never Knows, and it’s called Crossing Over/Mantra. It’s like eight minutes long and it’s phenomenal. Oh my god, it’s amazing! I was so excited when I saw Paul Weller was playing Victorious too - maybe I could sneak on stage with him…’ she giggles.
With The Mondays going well, the band is looking ahead
‘It’s the 30th anniversary of Pills coming up and it would be nice to get something new out there as well. I think [manager] Alan McGee’s talking about doing a new album next year – it’s so difficult to get anything done because there are more of us. We have started writing, but it’s nowhere near done - the stuff we have started is amazing.
‘It would be good to get an album done, maybe even an EP would be great.’
Victorious Festival, Castle Stage
Saturday, August 25, 1.15pm