John Grant: A Boy From Michigan? Or The “Queen of Denmark?”

JOHN GRANT

If you want to know how a person can just throw every thought he ever had into his music, then you need to let John Grant into your playlists. He was a “nobody” gay kid from Michigan, was in a Denver based band called “The Czars”, then ended up having some of his favorite musicians ask if they could do covers of his songs. He happens to be “The Greatest Mother Fucker you are ever going to meet”, how do we know that? Well, he wrote a song where he explains “I’m the greatest mother fucker you are ever gonna meet”. He lives in Iceland, and is non-stop writing and recording some of the most enigmatic songs you will ever hear with titles like “Sigourney Weaver” and “Glacier”, all of which have multiple meanings in them. I listed his debut album “Queen of Denmark” at Number 15 of my favorite albums by queer artists. In short, he has plenty to offer, and his beard is legendary, if not world famous.

Credit Shawn Brackbill

Jeremy Hinks: So John, thanks for working around the time difference, now that most of us believe the world is flat, how are things in Iceland?

John Grant: Good, good, I can’t complain.

JH: So, the most important question, let’s get it out of the way, have you ever met Sigourney Weaver?

JG: No, I wish, but now, she is an amazing lady but never got to actually meet her. I waited on her once in New York City, she got the chicken. She is actually one of my favorites, I could talk about her for hours.

JH: Well, because of your music, I would have to say that if they made a movie of my life, they would have to get Bruce Willis to play me.

JG: HA, really? Why Bruce Willis?

JH: Well, he looks enough like me, and has the same rude bad-ass attitude, and we have the same haircut. He is 20+ years older than me I think, but it would have to be him. You said, they would have to dig up Richard Burton’s corpse to play you, so, a good choice with that one.

JG: Actually, it would be either Richard Burton, who is amazing, or John Hurt, he is my actual favorite.

JH: Oh yeah, John Hurt, he would have to grow a serious beard and give it some serious love to look enough like you though. The only beard that equals yours I would say was Barry Bostwick’s in that cheezy ’80s action movie “Megaforce.” That was the best beard of the 80s man. I met him at a comic con with the rest of Rocky Horror, Tim curry, and Meatloaf, and he told me that they had to put a lot of love into that thing every day while shooting that film.

JG:Holy shit, I don’t think I did see that movie actually, I’m just looking that up hang on. Yeah, I remember him, wow.

JH: So I see you always doing some love and care of your beard in your videos.

JG: Ha, yeah, it’s true.

JH: So, you are a pretty nebulous guy, though you put everything out there in your music, still “Mysterious”, I mean, Iceland, who goes to Iceland? I mean, I’ve been there several times, and loved it. My first time there hanging out, I took a bus into the city from the airport, went into a café and said “I would like a Reindeer steak” in bad Danish, and the waiter said “We speak English to the Danes.”

JG: Yeah, I don’t imagine it going over well in Iceland or Sweden.

JH: So, going through your history, what stood out was that time when you were on the panel with Cosey Fanni Tutti from Throbbing Gristle, and I mean, I love her work, and she is this trans sex worker, industrial, violent punk musician. Totally out of your wheelhouse, and musically, she is 180 degrees from you and your work.

JG: Well, I am a HUGE Cosey fan since the ’80s, and I love Throbbing Gristle, too, I grew up listening to a lot of the industrial and electronica from the 80s and 90s. I still love Front Line Assembly, Ministry and Skinny Puppy, absolutely love Throbbing Gristle and Cabaret Voltaire and all those bands, from the late ’70s well into the ’90s. So, it was really great to be on that one with her. 

The full audio of the interview can be found in the podcast inserted at the end. Here are some of my favorite excerpts.


JH: Oh yeah, I’m all things New Order so that Cabaret Voltaire vibe from that time still stands out as a fave sound.

JG: Oh yeah New Order is amazing.

JH: So, you sound NOTHING like Throbbing Gristle, then your piece “Love Is Magic” was called Industrial, or Electronica, but that one sounded more like Tangerine Dream meets Kraftwerk. I thought you were going back to those early influences, just wonderful. Aside from it being the most enjoyably bizarre album I have heard in years. It was so different from Queen of Denmark for sure, but talk about that “Love is Magic” album.

JG: I had a blast doing that one, I was working with one of the guys from Midlake, the bass player, and we did some stuff in Texas, and it was one of the best times in my life making that record.

JH: How did your fans react to it, because it was really different?

JG: Hey, the fans kept coming to the shows, and the gigs were full, positive response from the crowd, I suppose it wasn’t to some people’s taste, but people seem to stick with me, because I didn’t feel like I was doing something terribly different. Though, yes that was stronger on the electronica side, because my great love is synthesizers, like I said, Cabaret Voltaire, Cosey Fanni, I’ve always been a huge Yello fan.

JH: You better say Ultravox.

JG: Oh yeah of course, Ultravox, that was just a given, but there are so many, Missing Persons, DEVO was huge for me, those guys are GODS to me. I love the 80s, so much great stuff happened in that decade, that was when all this new equipment was coming out, and people were just doing all these great new things, it was pretty incredible.

JH: Yeah, we lost a synth God recently, Dave Greenfield from The Stranglers, he was 71, but died of COVID. Die hard Stranglers fan, The The, XTC, and Killing Joke. I remember sitting with Greenfield in 93, talking about our cars mirroring our personal nerd interests, my car was “The Red Dwarf” and his was a little green MG called “Spitfire.” He was one of those pioneers, he was so influential for synth in Rock and Roll.

JG: Oh yeah man, The Cars, losing Ric Ocasek a little while ago, that sucked too. Did you like The Cars?

JH: Oh yeah Totally, I remember when they played that show “Saturday Night Special”, and Ric was just this odd looking dude, and people who watched it kept saying to Benjamin Orr that he should stop trying to look like Freddie Mercury. I don’t think he was ever gonna live that down.

JG: Didn’t he sing drive?

JH: Yeah, “Drive” and “Let’s Go” , he played bass, he was the other voice. You probably have a big music collection like mine.

JG: How many do you think you have?”

JH: I have about 4000.

JG: I would say I have something like that, not quite 4000 but over 3000 for sure.

JH: I have piles of vinyl, and I haven’t counted my 7” collection in years. I’m that collector, I have plenty of duplicates. The English print, then the Dutch print, only difference is the sleeve cover says “Printed in Holland”.

JG: Oh yeah, you gotta have EVERYTHING.

JH: So I told my friends I was going to interview you, and they asked what your music was like, I said you were Frank Zappa meets Billy Joel.

JG: That’s great, I like Frank Zappa, don’t know his music as well (Hard to when he had 30+ albums) but I have been talking to his daughter Moon Unit, I would love to do something with her, and get into his work more.

JH: So, jumping into “Queen of Denmark”, that is probably the best FUCK YOU song ever written, the best insults put to music with oozing sarcasm and vitriol.

JG: Well, thank you that’s an awesome compliment, a great honor man.

JH: So about that song, I knew your version, then one day I heard Sinead O’Connor’s version of it, and it was amazing, I know you are friends, and, I love her work. I loved her stuff since before she didn’t have an album, when she did stuff with U2, and World Party.

JG: She is a bad-ass isn’t she.

JH: Oh yeah, but when she does a cover, it’s either really great, or absolute shit. I could go the rest of my life never hearing “Nothing Compares 2 U” again, and it’s still too soon.

JG: Well, there is no accounting for taste.

JH: Do you know her song “Hold Back The Night” on the album “Faith And Courage”, that one could have been written by god himself. Then the new album, with songs like “The Wolf Is Getting Married” total gem.

JG: Yeah that whole album is amazing.

JH: It is, and there was her cover of your song, that actually made the album. That is her best cover.

JG: What did you think of “Success has made a failure of our home”?

JH: Oh great, not the best of her work, but yeah a fine number. I mean Prince loved her for that cover she did, cause she made him rich, but, not at all her finest work. SO, that being said, it is just the funniest thing to see Sinead singing backup for YOU.

JG: Yeah, it’s while, how do you think I feel?

JH: Yeah the pressure, Liz Fraser and Sinead are your backup vocalists, quite a line up you had there.

JG: Yeah, for me that whole thing was a dream come true, but I’m this kid from Michigan, who never dreamed he would meet his heroes and that they would be as amazing as they are. So when it comes to my life and my career, I’m like everyone else, you never get to a point where you say “I’m one” I mean, I’m only 52. But I feel pretty happy with the way things have gone, I didn’t expect it.

JH: Well, I put out on instinct the 15 best albums by queer artists, and Frankie Goes To Hollywood “Welcome to The Pleasuredome” was at number 1, because it stood the test of time, and “Queen of Denmark” was at number 15, only because it was the newest album on the list. There was Grace Jones, Lou Reed, David Bowie, “Ziggy Stardust”.

JH: Wow, I’m honored to be on there with those bad-asses. I don’t know what to say to that, but I’ll take it.

JH: Number 2 was your next door neighbor, Jonsi, with “Takk” by Sigur Ros. So, I have a question from a friend, because of the song “GMF” which is your token piece, most people know you for that one. But he asked “Is John Grant serially sarcastic, chronically sarcastic, or psychotically sarcastic” because of that song, so I said “Well, I’ll ask him”.

JG: I don’t know if there is a lot of sarcasm in that song. It’s about the guy who has beat themselves down their whole life, and has been their own worst enemy their whole lives, and now has said “Fuck that, I’m just as good, or bad as anybody else, so I might as well be the greatest mother fucker”. People are flawed and good the way they are flawed, and perfect that way. It’s basically someone learning to love themselves. There is a bit of an exaggeration of course, but you can forgive yourself for singing a song like that.

JH: And the line “It’s you I hate, because you had the nerve to make me feel”?

JG: Sometimes I have felt that way, somebody makes you feel uncomfortable, and makes you feel something you don’t want to feel at that moment. Or makes you face what you don’t want to at that moment. I mean it’s a good thing to be able to face that shit, as a human being, but at the same time “FUCK YOU, I didn’t want to be confronted with that right now”. But it’s good in the long run. I’m also quite serious too, I have felt those things in the moment, so when you look back on it, you can think I’m not the greatest mother fucker, I’m just as good and as bad as anyone else. I think that’s a good place to be. I’m perfectly fine the way that I am, there is a lot of truth to what I am saying in that song, but there have been moments for all of that shit.

JH: I could tell there was a lot of pain in the song, that you handed to us in a very palatable fashion.

JG: Thank you.

JH: So your video for “Down Here” my fave line in that whole song, “All we are doing here is learning to die”. But the video was powerful, and the statement was this young man, saying “Fuck all that, I am going to be that” not “I want to be that”, I am that, I want to let that be expressed now, and that “Moment”, it was well done, but I thought to myself “How the hell did he make synchronized swimming interesting, or even relevant?”. (Laughing)

JG: Actually that video was all done by Lisa Gunning, a great artistic director.

JH: So when I watched “I want to go to Mars”, that really covered the “Dangerboy” phase, at least it covered the situation in Utah with young gay men.

JG: Yeah, Utah can’t be an easy environment to come out in.

JH: We have the highest rate of LGBTQ suicides because of the stigma around it all. And, long story, but that is how I ended up writing for Instinct.

JG: Well, that is an amazing thing, I applaud you for doing that. I gotta say, I do want the kids to understand, you are going to think about suicide in those situations, it is a nasty place to be in, but I would just say please don’t do it, because the road ahead, it’s going to be hard, because you think when you get out of it all, that the adults are going to be adults, but sometimes, they are even fucking worse. I’m sorry, but it’s true, and the journey is incredible, if you can stay open, and sort of just sit with pain and let it pass through you, and keep moving, there is a lot of incredible stuff along that road that’s coming for you, and it’s going to be amazing. One of the big things is that you gotta just keep showing up.

JH: So, it’s funny that you just said that, because my last question of an interview, thank you for answering it ahead of time, but the question is, “What would your message be to the young gay kid who is in the closet, afraid, and in that vulnerable state?”. So, hey thank you, John. I think the most profound thing you have ever said was in your song “Glacier” and you said “This pain is just a glacier moving through you, carving valleys, and creating spectacular scapes.” That is your message to every gay kid out there, I would think. I watched the video and I have to say, I did not recognize all of those movies, I recognized “Milk” and “Thelma and Louise” and “Private Idaho”, “I Shot Andy Warhol” , “Angels in America”, it was amazing to see that beautiful montage, the lyrics are marvelous. I thought if I could get you on a stage to sing that to every kid in Utah, or just every gay kid in the world.

JG: Actually, I was just thinking that, I would love to play that to the kids in there. What I say in that song that is really important, even your fellow gays, don’t listen to anybody, you have to figure out what you think. Anything you take from someone at face value. You have to believe it yourself. I think a lot of us grow up, just doing what our parents told us, and we thought if we didn’t do that we were fucked. I think it’s really important, even if you don’t know for a long time what you think, it’s OK to take a long time to figure it all out, and if people don’t like that, well, you know FUCK THEM.

JH: Well, your line “Don’t pay them fuckers any mind” in that song, that’s it, applies to everyone. So, your song “Smug Cunt” was that about someone in particular?

JG: I think you can guess.

JH: So It is who I thought it was about, SCORE, two points (Bitch is out of a Job, and soon). That was the “Queen of Denmark” fuck you song for this album.

JG: Absolutely, but the album is just an amalgamation of the day, you go through a lot of different ideas and feelings, most of us go through that range of emotions, and that one of “FUCK YOU” comes up to most of us, especially if you drive a car.

JH: So closing this one off, what can you tell us about the new album?

JG: Well, it is coming out in April of next year, we spent two months of COVID in the studio, I’m pretty sure it’s going to be called “Boy From Michigan” , and I talk about Michigan, Denver, what’s’ going on in the world, just making your way through the world as a human. And the idea of being a “Man” in this world, and “Toxic Masculinity” whatever that means. There is one to my love of languages called “Rhetorical Figure”, and I can’t wait for you to hear the title track. I can not wait to share it with you guys.

JH: Well, thank you John, we are looking forward to the album, and good luck with this one.

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The full audio of this interview with all tangents can be streamed at:

 

 

 

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