"Humour is a handy defence mechanism," burrs John Grant’s mellifluous tenor down the phone.
"It helps you deal with all sorts of uncomfortable things..."
Well, he should know. Growing up gay in the devoutly Methodist midwest, John Grant’s battles with bullies – later booze and cocaine – led him down a dark path of reckless self-destruction.
Happily he’s done with all that malarkey now. And his life’s second act is replete with commercial and critical acclaim thanks to cast-iron radio bangers like ‘Disappointing’ and joyful misfit anthem ‘GMF’.
What’s up now then? Another brainy electro-pop LP – ‘Boy From Michigan’ – is what. It’s bloody ace too, and should cement his reputation as our favourite grownup pop idol when it drops this Friday.
Here’s what went down during our little chinwag…
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You’ve said several disparaging things about the US over the years, and yet this record goes out of its way to romanticise America. Pick a lane dude.
We’re always toughest on the people we love, aren’t we? America is where I come from. It deserves criticism, but also I love it deeply. It’s a beautiful place. I certainly don’t buy this idea that it’s the greatest place on earth, by the way, it’s just one of many great places.
So you’re not what we Brits call a ‘flag shagger’ then?
I’ve never been a flag worshipper. The flag doesn’t give a fuck about you. I was never invited to the party when it came to ‘the American dream’ – that’s just for specific people, in a specific context.
Supposedly everybody has the exact same opportunities in the States, and the dream is available to everyone. In some ways that’s true, and in other ways it’s an offensive joke.
New album climax ‘The Only Baby’ is about Trump, right? Is he the baby in the song?
It’s not necessarily about Trump himself. But the mindset, the society we’ve built, around capitalism…. That inevitably leads to a narcissist. Trump becoming president didn’t surprise me, it made perfect sense that him, or someone like him, would come along.
Somebody once said that when fascism arrives in America it’ll show up holding a cross, wrapped in a flag. That’s how it felt, that’s how it still looks.
Is your heart at least a little bit lighter now he’s out of the picture?
I was relieved, sure. But something was unearthed and brought to the fore during his presidency that’s never going to go away, ever again. The cat’s out the bag, and even though it’s nice having an actual human being now, who exhibits actual class, I can’t say I feel particularly comforted.
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There’s plenty of gags on the new record, and throughout your career. Is making the listener smile important to you?
I think humour is part of the truth. It’s part of my personality, and a defence mechanism. For the first part of my life I was constantly dancing around like a court jester, so people wouldn’t stop me and be like ‘hey, wait a minute, you’re one of them faggots aren’t you?’
Was it an effective strategy?
No, they’d let me finish my joke, then threaten to strangle me with my own intestines anyway.
You’re one hell of a wordsmith. Do you ever write a nice word into a song purely because it’s pretty, or are you more into dense layered meanings and such?
In an ideal world both things come together. I won’t use a word just because it’s pretty, it has to fit into the context.
What about when you busted out ‘ocelot’ back on Disappointing?
That goes back to when I was a kid. I was looking at Encyclopaedia Britannica, and became fascinated by this creature called an ocelot. My grandma told me people have favourite numbers – my number is 83, you’re supposed to have one apparently. From there I guess I reasoned I needed a favourite everything. So ocelot became my favourite cat.
Any lyrics on this record you’re especially proud of?
Well, not to pat myself on the back, but in one song I rhyme ‘sacagaweas’ with ‘onomatopoeias’.
Crikey. I was weeding in the garden listening to your new album and was captivated by your use of ‘fritillary’ on 'Best In Me'.
I’m a pretty dark fellow, but once in a while I like to throw people a bone and talk about nice things, like friendship and how it has saved my life. The metamorphosis of a caterpillar into a butterfly is a very fitting and beautiful way to look at friendship I think. - I bought this giant book of caterpillars, and I really love browsing it, discovering these lovely words. ‘Fritillary’ is just too good to resist.
The record is sonically huge. What gear are you using these days?
Lots of different synths. But the ones I’ve returned to time and again are the Juno-106, and the OB6. I love the creaminess of the Oberheim synths, and the brass. Beautiful pads, and that fat bass on the OB6. Plus the Access Virus, it sounds like the Terminator.
Check out the ending of the title track, there’s this ambient spot where we have a solo going on the Access Virus, and the sound of a saxophone in there. We nailed the fuck out of that motherfucker.
It’s always struck me that although you love synths, your songwriting is pretty traditional.
Fundamentally I want to take Elton John’s vibe and put it through a Kraftwerk filter. Sure I love synth, but Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, that huge AOR sound that people call ‘yacht rock’ these days, is so very special to me.
Your cover version of 'Sweet Painted Lady' – off 'Goodbye Yellow Brick Road' – is sublime, dude. And funny, too, in just the right way.
Thank you. Elton John is one of the funniest people I’ve ever met, one of the greatest wits I’ve ever encountered. There’s so much of him in me. Also bands like Supertramp, and especially Abba. I wish I could say I was one of the cool kids listening to Throbbing Gristle back in ’78, but I just wasn’t.
Hobnobbing with Elton, eh. Now you’re at that level in your career, have you tried to get a collab going with Abba?
No, I’ve never tried. They are just so… It’s like there’s a 1,000-foot steel wall between them and me.
Maybe the real 1,000-foot wall is in your mind, John Grant. Which Abba tune would you perform with them, given the chance?
'Eagle'. It’s one of the most beautiful melodies they ever wrote.
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You quit booze and drugs almost two decades ago now, do you kick yourself you didn’t do it sooner, or are those experiences invaluable to you as an artist now?
I don’t really kick myself, and I don’t try to imagine things playing out a different way. I’m glad I woke up at some point. I was so immature, so behind. And when I was told there was no place for people like me in society, I decided I’m not going to bother learning, or trying, or doing any of the things I’m expected to do.
And in the end that just damaged me, because I barely made it out of high school. I wish I’d applied myself more, but then maybe I wouldn’t have ended up here.
Is the old cliché about songwriting being a form of therapy true?
I wouldn’t call it therapy. But it’s a way to live, a way of living. It lifts my spirits, keeps me sane. Stops me becoming emotionally and spiritually constipated.
So making music for you is like a huge, satisfying dump?
Absolutely. We all love a good bowel movement.
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'Boy From Michigan' will be released through Bella Union on June 25th.
Words: Andy Hill
Photo Credit: Hordur Sveinsson
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