John Grant has made one of the albums of the year, but you probably already knew that from the press coverage and incessant witterings from people who've fallen beneath its spell on messageboards or seen their love for it splattered amongst your social media feeds. Our good friends in America, who run the fantastic Under the Radar magazine caught up with Mr Grant for a chat about the record and the life events which inspired it.
This article originally appeared in June/July 2013's print issue of Under the Radar - you can by back issues and pick up the digital editions over at undertheradarmag.com
Words by Stephen Humphries
Photo by Garoar Olafsson
John Grant’s acclaimed new album Pale Green Ghosts includes a track called 'Ernest Borgnine'. Anyone expecting an ode to the late, great star of Marty and McHale’s Navy might be a tad surprised to discover that the song is about contracting HIV. Grant uses the song to address his reaction to the diagnosis: “Doc ain’t looking at me, says I got the disease/Now what did you expect, you spent your life on your knees.”
"‘Ernest Borgnine’ is about me getting HIV and me talking about escaping from that reality by wondering what my hero Ernest Borgnine would do,” says Grant, a longtime native of Denver, CO., during a call from his tour van en route to Milan, Italy. "Movies have always been a big part of what’s kept me inspired."
It is typical of the songs on the album: The lyrics are butcher-cut raw, yet tenderized by mordant wit. But unlike Grant’s 2010 debut album Queen of Denmark, which employed the Texan band Midlake to emulate the ’70s soft rock of bands such as Bread and The Carpenters, Pale Green Ghosts is a hard swerve into up-tempo electronica. Producer Biggi Veira from Icelandic electronic group GusGus contributes streaks of keyboard textures as colorful as the aurora borealis. Several songs feature Sinéad O’Connor on vocals. But it’s Grant’s booming baritone that conveys the impact of cathedral doors flung open during a recital.
"Queen of Denmark was very much about childhood, whereas Pale Green Ghosts seems to be about adolescence," explains Grant. "This one is about how adolescence is connected to the present and how I relate to love, actively and passively, because of where I’ve been."
One can’t listen to Grant’s brutally confessional lyrics without wondering about his past. His strict Protestant family lived in the working class town of Buchanan, MI. (pop. 5,000) and, to hear Grant tell it, his childhood played out like a psychological horror movie.
"I started to notice that I was different, that I was attracted to men. It also became clear, very quickly, that that wasn’t going to be okay. I don’t know how I got that message so young, because I never really talked about my homosexuality to my parents when I was seven,” says Grant, his laugh catching in his throat. “It was like there was a giant poster on the wall in our house that showed the most evil creature in the world, and I saw myself slowly turning into this creature, which was a completely unlovable creature and a fate worse than death.”
During his teenage years, Grant’s family moved to Colorado. He felt even more ostracized once his classmates started calling him a "faggot." He was once beaten up outside his house.
"I remember that the attack surprised me so much that I pissed in my jeans and it was one of the most humiliating moments of my life,” he recalls. “I walked into the house and just went up to my bed with my tail between my legs because I knew, under no circumstances, must I draw any attention to myself. Otherwise, people would want to know, ‘Well, why would someone want to attack you?’”
Grant freely admits he struggled with discomfort over his sexual identity and self-esteem for years afterward. One of the new songs, “GMF” (an acronym for “Greatest Motherfucker”), includes the telling lines, “I should not be attracted to males/But you said that I should learn to love myself/Well, make up your mind, Dr. Frankenstein.”
The title track of Pale Green Ghosts is similarly haunted by old memories. Grant’s rhythmic phrasing during the verses mimics a slowed-down bossa nova. The chorus boasts blasts of brass and lush orchestral strings that sound as if they’re from the soundtrack to a European spy thriller. 'Pale Green Ghosts' was inspired by the luminescent, silvery leaves of Russian olive trees that line the I-25 in Colorado and give off a sweet fragrance in late May.
“I was driving up and down that highway when I lost my mother to lung cancer, when I was in love and broken up over love, and when I was driving very, very drunk to and from clubs,” muses the singer.
For better or worse, Denver came to feel like home. Grant returned to the city after a brief stint living in Germany in his early 20s. In 1994, he formed a band called Titanic that would evolve into the six-member indie rock band The Czars. The band’s first two independently released albums attracted the attention of Simon Raymonde (formerly of Cocteau Twins) who signed them to his label, Bella Union. Raymonde felt they deserved to be one of the biggest acts on the planet. Yet, despite releasing several excellent albums that might have appealed to fans of Mark Eitzel and Sparklehorse—most notably the Raymonde-produced The Ugly People Vs. the Beautiful People in 2001—The Czars only garnered minor success, mostly in Britain. Not helping matters: Grant’s alcoholism and rampant drug use. He used to make crack pipes out of stolen car antennas. Those weren’t his only vices.
"Crazy for me was having unprotected group sex while smoking cocaine off of foil, waking up in the morning with my asshole bleeding,” says Grant, as unstinting and unflinching in person as he is in his lyrics.
The Czars imploded in 2004. Grant relocated to New York City, became a waiter, and joined Alcoholics Anonymous. While writing songs for what would become his debut solo album, he crossed paths with Ernest Borgnine while working a lunch shift at the restaurant. “I got to meet him and shake his hand and he was very cool,” enthuses Grant. Such moments of joy couldn’t ward off Grant’s deepening depression. Prior to the release of Queen of Denmark, the singer contemplated suicide.
"I think of it like a guy in a blizzard on top of a mountain who lies down and thinks it’s okay to go to sleep. That’s the thing that you’re never supposed to do in those situations," says Grant. "I felt like I was about to make that decision to lie down and go to sleep. I was able to recognize what state I was in and I asked for help. But then when I went into the hospital, I got even more scared about what was going on in there and what kind of environment it was."
Grant checked himself out of his One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest situation within a week. He began to work on sobriety. The release of Queen of Denmark on Bella Union in 2010 proved to be a useful distraction. It was universally lauded by critics, and MOJO magazine named it album of the year. Grant also found love with a man whom he refers to as 'T.C.' in his songs. Yet his troubles were far from over.
"A lot of people during that time thought that the darkness was much, much further behind me than it was," he says. "I remember an especially dark time when I was in London. I woke up after I’d hardly slept at all. I told my friend, 'God, I just really feel like I must put an end to this life.' He sat with me and helped me through that time. What’s amazing is I never drank or did drugs again during that time. I never fell off the wagon."
Grant’s greatest temptation to return to the bottle arrived when T.C.— who he thought was 'the one' — broke up with him. Many songs on Pale Green Ghosts are tirades against his former lover. The pop melodies may be sweet, but the Woody Allen-influenced wit in the lyrics can’t mask the vitriol behind them. Case in point: On “You Don’t Have To,” Grant laments, "Remember how we used to fuck all night long/Neither do I, because I always passed out/I needed lots of the booze/To handle the pain."
Grant’s broken heart sought solace in what he describes as "destructive behavior in the world of sex." It came at a dear price. On his way to Sweden to work on new music, he received a text from a sexual partner that said, "I have bad news." Grant barely knew the man. He realized it could only mean one thing. As soon as the singer got off the plane, he went looking for a doctor to get tested.
"After all this time of addiction and drug use and unprotected sex for years, I made it through only to get HIV after I became sober," says the songwriter. “I was furious. I was just like, ‘You stupid motherfucker. Can’t you fucking wake up?’"
This story has a happy ending. Grant found a way out of the darkness by expressing his woes and tribulations through Pale Green Ghosts. Tragically, one of Grant’s close friends believed suicide to be his only option: “Sensitive New Age Guy” is a tribute to a transvestite friend who shot himself in the head. The gorgeous final track, a ballad titled “Glacier,” delivers a defiant message learning to love oneself despite the bigoted opinions of others. Grant calls Pale Green Ghosts the album he’d always wanted to make. Until recently, he had lacked the money to buy equipment to make the electronic music that he first fell in love with when he heard the likes of Devo, The Eurythmics, and Missing Persons during the ’80s. (His current choice of music in his tour van is also electronic—he loves Shaking the Habitual by Swedish duo The Knife.) Grant’s outlook brightened when Sinéad O’Connor, who had covered “Queen of Denmark” on How About I Be Me (And You Be You), offered to help out with the album.
"It’s a friendship that I never saw coming," says Grant, who had been a huge fan ever since he first heard “Mandinka” on a dance floor in Boulder, CO. “She makes it clear: ‘This is your art, your thing. You use whatever you want of what I do and get rid of whatever you don’t want. I don’t care….’ She’s very modest and humble and fun to work with.”
When Pale Green Ghosts was released in the UK in March, it received a number of five-star reviews in music magazines and newspapers. Grant hopes it will lead to greater recognition in his home country when he tours the U.S. this summer. The adulation arrives at a time when the songwriter has a fresh perspective on life. He says he is a more empathetic, caring person as a result of what he’s been through. For his next album, Grant would like to write about the people who have helped him the most during the bad times—the real, non-movie star heroes in his life.
"I feel like this album and this period in my life is about moving into a state of acceptance of who I am,” he says. “The band I’m working with are really amazing people and I have amazing friends all over the world. Even though the word ‘blessed’ reminds me of a lot of negative aspects of my childhood, I do feel blessed.”
This article first appeared in Under the Radar's June/July 2013 print issue.
Under the Radar's current issue - which is on newstands now - features: Charli XCX (on the cover). Exclusive Interviews with: Austra, Big Black Delta, James Blake, Camera Obscura vs. Lloyd Cole, Caveman, Cheatahs, Daughn Gibson, John Grant, Little Children, Laura Marling, Mt. Wolf, The National, Neon Neon, OOFJ, Primal Scream, Rose Windows, Savages, Michael Shannon, Sigur Ros, Small Black, Smith Westerns, Still Corners, Surfer Blood, Tricky, Kurt Vile, Wampire, When Saints Go Machine, and Young Galaxy. Digital magazine interviews: Light Heat, Grant Morrison, The Pastels, and Andrea Riseborough.