an interview with john grant
  • TUESDAY, DECEMBER 21, 2010

  • Posted by: Dan Siegler

John Grant is having a rough week. Not only is he suffering from a nasty flu and a throbbing toothache as he kicks off his first solo headlining U.S. tour, but the lover for whom he wrote painfully intimate songs like "Caramel," ended things recently by telling him "I don't know you." "They say addicts confuse intensity and intimacy. That has been a painful realization for me," Grant admits. Grant delivers both in spades, on Queen of Denmark, a record that has flown under the radar since its release in April, but is now picking up steam after being named Mojo magazine's album of the year. Backed by his label-mates, Midlake who provide astonishingly authentic recreations of '70s MOR ballads and slippery '80s synth symphonies, Grant's lyrics range from rageful invective, to lush romanticism to mordant humor, all the while, never sparing himself a cold, hard look.

Does the fact that you've made a great break-up album give you any solace?

It does help. It helps a lot. But also, I want to learn the lesson I've been given the chance to learn and I feel like it hurts so much I can't even learn the lesson. He once said to me "You could never not be enough for me as a man." And then later he goes "Well you know what I meant by that is 'nobody's ever not enough for anybody.' And I was like "Well, you're an asshole. Who says sh*t like that? Do you realize that you just negated what you said? Do you realize that means nothing? Do you realize that Hitler was doing the best that he could do too?" I said that to him. He said, "Everybody's just doing the best that they can" and I said "Yes and so was Hitler." And it wasn't good enough, it was not good enough. Everybody's doing the best that they can. That is a fact. At any given moment, most people really are doing the best that they can. But that doesn't excuse rape or murder or unprovoked malice or misdirected rage. There has to be some accountability for your actions.

Have you been able to write anything during this time?

Yeah, but a lot of it is really, really angry. I mean there's a lot of really, really nasty...

... as opposed to? There's some pretty nasty stuff on the record...

It makes that stuff look like nothing.

Worse than the song "Queen of Denmark?"

Oh yeah.

In that song for instance, some of the things that you say...when I first heard some of that material I just thought, "Who says this?"

That's definitely my personality. I think that I am going to record some of it. There's one that I've written about him and it's about going to the movies and going out to eat with somebody and noticing that you're actually dining with a zombie. It's called "Guess How I Know You're a Zombie?"

That's not an unfamiliar theme for you. "Sigourney Weaver," "Outer Space," "Marz." You use images of monsters, aliens.

That's just inextricable from my personality. I love that stuff. If you ask me why I love that stuff, what it comes down to is I think that the pain that I felt as a child, I think the monster movies, the alien stuff, the science fiction, that represented possibilities that were unknown to me about things that I hoped could be true. That there could be other places where I could be accepted. That this wasn't the only world I was going to have access to because this sucks and I don't want to be a part of this one.

The song "Marz" is actually a list of tastes and flavors. It seems like you're singing from the point of view of the child.

That's a good point about that song. It's another one that's full of imagery because the beauty is just thrown in your lap. The imagery of serving a drink called the Green River at a place called Marz. That's beautiful. But it has nothing to do with planets, it was a family named Marzita that shortened their name. They called the place Marz and the Green River was a popular drink at that time. It was phosphate with lime syrup. But what that place represented in my childhood was basically before I knew that this ugliness that was homosexuality was growing inside of me, and I was becoming this creature I did not want to become, because I already knew that it was wrong. That sweet shop represented those moments and that time before you know how nasty the world can be.

The sweet thing that you can have as opposed to this thing that's building up inside of you that you know you can't have.

Yeah and that I'm not supposed to have. Then, "Sigourney Weaver" is about escaping Michigan and going to Colorado and finding out that no, you haven't been able to leave it behind. It has followed you out to Colorado as well. I love using all of that imagery. I love going to a soda fountain. I still love ice cream and I want to write about the actors I like and the movies I like. Bram Stoker's Dracula. I love that movie. It has some really horrible camp things about it. What I talk about in the song is the accents. Keanu Reeves and Winona Ryder trying to do a British accent, so horrible.

But you don't mention Keanu Reeves in the song. You call him "that other guy." It's something you seem to do in a lot of your writing. You leave something out.

Right. Because intelligent people don't want to have shit shoved down their throat. It's like "All right, you already hinted at that, we know you're talking about Bram Stoker's Dracula, and then it's like giving them something else to figure out on their own. You don't want to spell it out.

But it's also funny. Even if it's dark. It's conversational, like you're trying to remember "Who was the other guy in that movie?"

And it's f*cking Keanu Reeves! So it's almost like you're saying "I can deal with Winona Ryder but I'm not going to say HIS name." (Laughs) The Midlake boys, they gave me an atmosphere where I didn't have to feel embarrassed about any of the stuff I was trying to do. I felt a little bit weird about "Marz" when I first wrote the lyrics. I took it into the studio and played it for them and they said "Wow, that's gorgeous." Not, "You can't use the menu at a soda fountain to make your lyrics."

There's a more literary awareness of language in your writing, but you also throw in Wonder Bread, Pop Rocks and Calgon, junk food images that are communicated in almost a non-literal way.

I've described the process as a distillation. I worked at Gramercy Tavern for a couple of years when I lived here and I learned a lot about that sort of thing because you have to go to classes about Madeira and Calvados. I feel like that's what happened with this record because this was also a chance where I had time to sit there and say, "You're censoring yourself again. Stop doing that. That has no place in this song, what you just did. You're using a filter because you want to be perceived in a specific way. Because you want to be cool still. You still want to be MGMT. Because you still have that kid inside you that wants to be accepted by the cool kids."

Was there just as much of a conscious process musically as there was lyrically? I noticed there are no guitar solos, only synth solos...

...Well that was my idea. Not only am I a big '70s fan, but I'm a big '80s fan. Abba, Supertramp, Yes, Journey. That was the age of synth solos. That synth solo in "Caramel," nobody wanted that there. Everyone was like, "You cant do that. That doesn't fit." I would say "You have no idea who you're dealing with if you think that doesn't fit in that song." (Laughs) "You want to say you know me, but you don't think that fits in that song?" There is no other instrument that could play that solo in that song. Period. It was the same with "It's Easier." That's one piece of music I've made that I'm so proud of. I love to listen to the synth solo in that song. I'm thinking about Ice House and Visage and Blancmange. All of those things that I love. Especially Ice House. Listening to Ice House in 1986 is exactly what I wanted that to sound like.

The drum fills are also really simple quarter note or at the most eighth note tom fills. Really big lead-ins to choruses.

I said those things specifically. And I probably was thinking about Missing Persons, because Spring Session M is probably one of the biggest records in my mind. The drummer, Terry Bozzio. Those '80s sounds. Or we'd reference a track from Journey's Infinity album. Working with musicians that understand how to do what you want them to do. That was not an easy thing.

How did you and Midlake come together?

We were both on Bella Union.

You were on Bella Union from the beginning right, with The Czars?

I was there way before Midlake and when Midlake came along I was like, f*ck them! I've never had any success. The Czars are like total zero and then these f*cking Texans come along? Where the hell did you dig them up? (Laughs) I felt bitter about it but then I meet them at SXSW, fall in love with them because they're fantastic people and they fall in love with me. They got me, they just got me. Then I went through the years of getting sober. They knew I was struggling with the music scene and they said, we really feel you have an important voice and an important talent. We feel like you have an important way of expressing yourself. We love the way you express yourself and we think you need to make your solo album with us.

So it was really generated by them being fans of your work.

And of me as a person. Basically them just saying...

...Let us help you...

...Let us help you, yeah. I can't stress it enough...

...What a gift.

There's no way you can overestimate what that meant to me.

And now Queen of Denmark has been named album of the year by Mojo Magazine.

Mojo is huge for me personally. The amount of music you can read about in a magazine like that, the type of writing. Extremely intelligent, extremely well done and you can learn about everything from the Electro stuff that you love, to the grass-roots basics. To have a magazine like that say we think you're the best this year, especially after everything its taken to get there, I mean it's huge.

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