The night before our interview, John Grant is in Heaven. Not the transcendent cosmological seat of assorted deities and their feathery acolytes, but the London club lurking under Charing Cross Station’s vaulted arches. This occasionally bacchanalian location is one to which Grant and his music sounds increasingly suited, given his recent striking shift from the pastoral soft-rock flourishes of his debut solo album Queen Of Denmark to the pulsating, icy synth-tinged tracks that make up much of his astonishing new work, Pale Green Ghosts. Material from the latter forms the focus of his Heaven set, which takes place just a few days after the album’s release. Resplendent in a beanie and lumberjack shirt, and sporting a full beard, Grant’s everyday appearance belies a presence and voice articulating coruscating, on-the-nose lyrics. Along with the album, the signals are unmistakably writ large – Grant is heading upwards. And not before time.
The Colorado-via-Michigan native’s career in music began back in 1994 as front man of The Czars, whose six-album career drew to a close with the departure of the band’s five other members in 2006. Grant’s subsequent four years before the release of Queen Of Denmark meandered through a smorgasbord of trials and tribulations, not least addiction, rejection and depression. Much in this vein is unstintingly bared for the world in Grant’s confessional songwriting. Yet, in no small part due to his considerable intellect and mordant wit, they more often than not prove to be by turns enlightening, engagingly funny, and entirely compelling.
Despite having been around the block and back again and with scars testifying to the journey, there’s a sense while listening to Pale Green Ghosts that Grant’s penetrating songwriting process is still uncovering aspects of himself for examination. Mining a deep seam of emotions and events in search of answers to intractable questions, he is able to fashion songs out of the resulting wisdom by means of metaphors and comedic timing, all expressed with that wonderfully resonant honey-roast baritone voice. A case in point took place when Grant performed at the Antony-curated Meltdown Festival with Andrew Butler’s extended disco collective Hercules And Love Affair, and announced from the stage that he is HIV positive. This fact of his life is referenced on the Pale Green Ghosts track Ernest Borgnine – “the disease” – but is, typically, placed within context, and as such is far from being the dominant consideration around which all else spins; in the song he is candid without being maudlin, matter-of-fact without being boring. For it is a fact; while it’s inevitably a talking point, it will not define him; there are other facts.
His embrace of electronic sounds between his first and second albums is especially striking given that it almost didn’t happen. Grant was all set to reconvene with Queen Of Denmark collaborators Midlake, but then something changed. “It wasn’t really a decision to leave something somewhere and move somewhere,” says Grant, installed in a west London hotel room with the curtains drawn. “In fact, I’ve always been there. I’m there every day, and have been for 40 years. Well, maybe not since I was four, but from the time I started listening to my ABBA records – six, seven, eight, nine, 10, around there, I’ve been where I’m at with this record. Queen Of Denmark was a great representation of childhood and ‘70s vibe,” he says, closing the door on that chapter. “Basically I just sort of see it as putting on different clothing, a different shirt. All of these things have always been in my wardrobe. I’m just wearing a different shirt today.”
On Pale Green Ghosts that different shirt came courtesy of Birgir Þórarinsson, better known as Icelandic minimal electro masters Gus Gus’s main man Biggi Veira. “Biggi was an extremely important part of this record,” Grant confirms. “He was the one sitting at the controls; I wasn’t the one engineering the album. I was the one writing the songs. I would do things on my computer in my programs, sounds that I wanted, and I wanted to sound like this, and Biggi is the guy who knows how to make that sound a reality in a much bigger way. I suppose one of the reasons I chose him was because I have very, very specific ideas about what I want to do. I also feel like I have really good taste, and I know how to pick good people. He’s a master of what he does and he’s so great with two of the most important things in electronic music. One of them is tension and the other is the mixing of the sound, of showcasing of certain elements, addition and subtraction, which is extremely important in electronic music. Pale Green Ghosts (the song), I think, is a great example of that. It’s just one bassline the whole way through that doesn’t change much at all.”
He’s also a fan of Gus Gus more generally, and eulogises vocalist Earth’s most recent work. “I’ve always loved Gus Gus ever since their first album came out, and they keep doing interesting things. They’re very relevant still and I think a lot of people have forgotten they’re still relevant in what they’re doing. They keep upping their game. Forever is amazing. 24/7 was one of the most amazing things they’ve ever done. Add This Song is absolutely stunning, gigantic, it’s epic. You can really use that word here. I knew it was going to be a huge learning experience for me.”
He engineered a meeting with Biggi at Reykjavik’s Iceland Airwaves festival. “The only reason this happened is that he happened to be in a space where he could be open to communicating with me. I told a girl named Kamilla (Ingebergsdottir, who helps run Iceland Airwaves) that I wanted to meet Biggi, and she made it happen. Then I went back in January and I had a month off, had a great Christmas and Thanksgiving with my family, and decided I wanted to keep my foot in the door in Iceland and explore that, and Biggi was open to working with me. So I went back there and started making sounds with him and it became clear to me that I couldn’t leave there and that I had to stay there and do it with him. The whole thing.”
“I would have done (this album) much earlier if I’d had the tools or known how to do it, or hadn’t been busy worrying about getting high or drunk. It’s the music I love – the ‘80s, and electronic music in general.” – John Grant
Working with Biggi Veira on Pale Green Ghosts meant calling a halt to his planned rendezvous with Midlake. Switching sounds meant switching personnel too, and he describes the “very multifaceted relationship” he has with the Denton, Texas outfit who to some degree rescued his music career back in 2010, continuing to believe in his talent despite his addiction issues. “They’re basically brothers to me,” he says. “I can’t even explain in words how I feel about those guys, how they’ve treated me as a human and like a precious jewel that they don’t want to get sullied. They want to keep it and protect it. I can’t even tell you what that has done for me. So that relationship is extremely dear to me. And I was going to go back and do a sort of Queen Of Denmark 2, as I was calling it, and I’m sure we would have made a wonderful record together, but there was a part of me that felt like I needed to strike out on my own, stylistically, and I was afraid we were going to be clashing, opinion-wise, on a lot of this electronic stuff.”
Diverting from Denton to Reykjavik was a big step, and not one he took lightly. “I felt like I needed to put myself in an environment where I couldn’t possibly do anything else. That’s why I chose to stay in Iceland. It was a difficult decision, as far as telling them a week before I was supposed to be there that I wasn’t coming. They were looking forward to it and they were upset and confused. But we worked it out, and they were gracious and understood that it was part of the artistic process and I needed to make this decision.”
Pale Green Ghosts vindicates his decision, and he’s justifiably pleased with it. “This is most definitely my album of adolescence, and the confusion of adolescence, and the horror of my adolescence,” he explains. “Finding out slowly that the world was going to be giving me the big old reverse peace sign; it just makes total sense. Obviously a lot of people haven’t known me since I was 10 so don’t know what’s going on inside here,” he says, pointing to his head. “It’s a very natural progression for me, and one that I’ve always wanted and planned, and one that I would have done much earlier if I’d had the tools or known how to do it, or hadn’t been busy worrying about getting high or drunk. It’s the music I love – the ‘80s, and electronic music in general.”
No adolescence would be complete without tales of love lived and lost, and lyrics in Pale Green Ghosts bring out ‘TC’, the ex at the centre of Queen Of Denmark, for rather a no-punch-pulled drubbing. On Vietnam he is compared to Agent Orange; Why Don’t You Love Me Any More needs little explanation; and on It Doesn’t Matter To Him, Grant laments “I could be anything, But I could never win his heart again. It doesn’t matter to him, He took away my triple A pass, I am invisible to him.”
As a songwriter who deals in the confessional, to self-edit is anathema to Grant. But does he ever pause for a moment before releasing these verbalised feelings out into the world for everyone to hear and judge and respond to – not least the man to whom much of this is directed? “Yes I do think that way, but then I ignore that impulse,” he says forcefully. “I don’t see why you shouldn’t express the truth about being a human. The song Black Belt is a nasty assault on the character of this man that I loved and that I still love. How can you say that about somebody that you love? Well look, it’s just a moment of anger, of rage, of lashing out at this person because you’re trying to get your head around the fact that you’re left with this love and they’ve abandoned you, so to speak, in your perception – this is all my perception. I’m not saying I was abandoned, I’m saying that’s how I perceive it. And the fact that I’ve lashed out at this person, that’s maybe a moment, one moment of a day when you’ve got these ideas and you’ve thought to yourself that’s actually kind of funny too, but that’s a real moment. It doesn’t matter what the context is, or who’s going to make what of it.”
Has he heard the views of the person to whom the words are directed? “Believe me, he’s fine. He’s not worried about what I think about anything. I just feel that it’s really important for me to go through that distillation process. Yes I do find it scary to do this sometimes, but I just ignore it and do it anyway, and I’m very proud of myself, being able to ignore that impulse and put it out there. I don’t feel brave; I see it as, with me having been an addict, I can’t afford to live in a fantasy world. I need to present things exactly as they are to the extent that I’m able to see the truth at any given moment that I’m able to understand it. It’s not like I’ve expressed shocking feelings from another planet that we’ve not had access to on this planet. John Grant is expressing the feelings of Jupiter, that are completely beyond rage and are completely different mental perversions and words and things that you’ve never… it’s not like that. If anything there’ll be people who say, ‘He sounds immature.’ That’s what I can imagine.”
These songs taken together suggest a man seeking and achieving a sense of closure, of stitching up a gaping wound with the only twine he finds to hand. “This man whom I’ve written two albums for, it took him forever to say ‘I don’t love you’, but I wish that when I was told ‘I don’t love you anymore’ that I could just have done what in my mind I knew would have been the right thing to do and said, ‘Fine’. And, if I love this man a fraction of how much I say I do, then I must want for his happiness at all costs. And not be thinking of myself and what I want. That’s what love is.”
Love is so central to Pale Green Ghosts that the album might have been titled differently. “I wanted to call this album Human Love,” he says. “There’s a bible verse I remember hearing, and I was going to start the album with this bible verse in all the Nordic languages, intertwined with cool tape delays. ‘Love does not boast, love is kind, love does not seek its own.’ I was going to express what I’ve experienced, and what I’ve called love, in this world, that I’ve tried to possess it, that I’ve sabotaged myself, that I’ve destroyed love because of my inability to love myself, that I don’t know much about love at all. That it’s painful to me. I don’t believe I should be embarrassed to express that in any way. I can’t imagine what anybody would say to me to make me regret doing this.”
“I don’t feel brave; I see it as, with me having been an addict, I can’t afford to live in a fantasy world. I need to present things exactly as they are to the extent that I’m able to see the truth at any given moment that I’m able to understand it.” – John Grant
The new album features fellow survivor Sinead O’Connor on backing vocals on four of the songs. The Irish star covered the title track of Queen Of Denmark on her 2012 album How About I Be Me (And You Be You), and here the pair duet on the affirmation anthem GMF, short for ‘Greatest Mother Fucker’. He’s big on affirmation songs, as weapons in his armoury against ever-present doubt. “A manifestation of the doubt would be to stay in the nest and not go out on my own,” he says, indicating the trigger for that decision to move to Iceland. “The doubt is always there for me. It’s a very, very multifaceted question, with this whole doubt thing. The doubt is a constant but I think I’ve made peace with it, pushed it to the side and ignored it, and say, ‘Oh, you again; would you mind taking a seat in the corner while I go about my day?’ I can’t be worried about what it looks like from the outside. I can’t afford to think about that at all. During the process of course I thought people were going to be like ‘What’s he trying to do’?”
He’s able to push aside the doubt because he has considerable confidence in his abilities, and what he’s latterly been doing with them. “I really feel very strongly about my taste in music,” he affirms. “Putting it through the John Grant System, as I’m beginning to call it, which means it’s free from censorship and free from my filtering, the John Grant filtering, of wanting to be perceived in a certain way. I always want to make sure that I strip all of those things away in the distillation process so that what I’m left with is the raw essence of whatever I’m talking about and trying to express.”
In his adoptive homeland of Iceland, he has found particular aspects of the place which nurture the John Grant System. “The way it affects you is that it inspires you. It’s a vague thing, it’s uplifting and makes you want to create. I’m very good at isolating, being selfish and being locked in my own little world. I’m still very much me in whatever context I put myself into, but I feel like I can allow myself to take risks there, like I feel comfortable enough in that community to take risks. I’ve never really been in an environment like I am in Iceland where people are just interested in what you do. Your actions as a person, not what you are – nobody gives a shit. There’re people there who are maybe not so into homosexuality, but for the most part I’ve never been to a place where the straight men… it was like literally they didn’t really hear that you’d said you were gay. They simply didn’t treat you any differently. They didn’t withhold affection from you because you might see it as an advance or you might misinterpret it. Things like that I’ve never experienced before.” He leans in. “But I remember the other day seeing (Björk‘s long-time partner) Matthew Barney riding his bike down the street… I’m not Icelandic, I don’t have to adhere to these rules,” he bellylaughs.
The people aside, he finds his surroundings visually stimulating. “The neighbourhood that I live in there, I guess they call it 101, that is the zipcode, that whole hill near Hallgrímskirkja, the beautiful church, that hill where I live between the pond and the church in the middle of town, cats are the Icelandic equivalent of a dog. You see cats everywhere, in these beautiful houses of corrugated iron…” his eyes glaze. “It very much inspires me. When I go out and the air is so fresh, and I love that there’s this chill in the air, it’s not as cold as people think it is. Last summer was the best summer I’ve had since I was a child. When you’re a child and you’re so unaware of everything and summer is the most magical thing, and you go outside and play with friends, at least growing up in a small town in Michigan, there was lots of playing with the kids in the neighbourhood, and you’d be out all day and come home in the evening for your supper. I felt it was that way last summer in Reykjavik. It is an amazing place. I’m always afraid to talk about something that is amazing for fear that it will be destroyed. The apocalypse will probably start in Iceland now,” he rumbles, eyerolling.
There’s a perception that, despite his entirely American accent, Grant is rather more of a European in his outlook. Having escaped smalltown America for Germany in the late ‘80s, he developed his talent for languages. It was a course that would eventually lead to him being fluent in at least five, and being able to get by in several others. For a while he worked as a translator. “I am completely American, such a product of my environment and upbringing, the whole consumer attitude, the whole service industry entitlement attitude,” he counters, before impersonating a typical American consumer: “I’ve been sitting here for almost six seconds and I still haven’t received my order. We ordered that food almost two minutes ago and I want to tell you that it hasn’t arrived, and I want to speak to your manager now.” He chuckles. “It’s fucking ridiculous. But I love the States. I have so many dear dear friends. I love the mid-west, especially the people from the mid-west. They’re amazing. I love American food, I love American cinema, I’m a big fan of escaping into American cinema.”
“Reykjavik is an amazing place. I’m always afraid to talk about something that is amazing for fear that it will be destroyed. The apocalypse will probably start in Iceland now…” – John Grant
But his love for his homeland is tempered by a theme he’s returned to in his writing more than once; on Queen Of Denmark’s Jesus Hates Faggots, and on Pale Green Ghosts’ Glacier. Examining it, for the first time in our encounter he is angry. “I am disgusted by politics and the whole gay marriage thing, people saying that the United States has always been a theocracy – and don’t tell me that’s not what they’re saying. Anybody that makes a statement that marriage is only between a man and a woman is saying that the United States has always been a theocracy. And I don’t care what the fuck they think they meant. I don’t care what you fucking think you mean when you say these things. I know what you’re saying. You’re saying that the bible is the constitution of the United States of America. And if you believe that then you have a big fucking problem.”
He’s well aware such matters are not confined to the United States. “In France, we’ve always known that Serge Gainsbourg was not representing the majority; I love his musical legacy. But this conservatism – the Americans ain’t got nothing on the French bourgeoisie. No way! You’ve seen the reactions in the papers against gay marriage in France? People are freaking out about it. Tradition! That’s not the way it’s done! It is between a man and a woman! I can’t believe people have the balls to say it’s on the grounds of tradition. It’s almost like a class thing. Like homosexuality is something reserved for the diseased proletariat; Nineteen Eighty-Four style, the proles.”
Having laid out the case for the defence and then a counter for the prosecution, he comes eventually to his judgement. “All of this means to say that I am extremely American, and at the same time the exact opposite. Because I have had this gift of being able to spend a lot of time elsewhere and having a talent and passion for languages. And that opens up the entire world for you. I can’t even begin to tell you how much I love it.” Specifically he’s keen on grammar. “Even if I do end up getting my esophagus removed because of throat cancer, I’ll be able to teach grammar still,” he chuckles, blackly. “I could teach Russian, German, Spanish… Icelandic grammar at some point. I’ve learned how to study grammar. Those aren’t even the hardest languages. The four-tone system in Chinese… it’s not about grammar in Chinese, it’s about learning six billion extremely complicated little characters.”
His love of languages has sparked off another progressive idea in that polymath mind. “I’d like to find a way to bring those two worlds (music and languages) together. I have an idea to turn my website into something special where people from all cultures and in all languages send in their favourite sayings from that language and it’ll be like a portal with different sections for all the different languages, and people can use Soundcloud to record their favourite expressions and then explain them, if they feel like it. Talk to me about different accents and dialects – one of the things that I love the most. I haven’t figured out how that needs to be done. I’d love to do a huge tapestry of people speaking their different languages and knit them together.” He pauses. “I hope I’m able to be open enough, smart enough, to take advantage of the thoughts when they’re coming.”
Pale Green Ghosts attests that John Grant should have no concerns at all on that front.
John Grant’s album Pale Green Ghosts is out now through Bella Union. Tour dates and further information can be found here.