Mike Atkinson

Interview: John Grant

Posted in interviews, Metro, Nottingham Post by Mike A on September 2, 2011

A shorter version of this interview originally ran in Metro and the Nottingham Post.

Your current main place of residence is in Sweden, is that right?

Not really; I just stay in Gothenburg for a while, and I stay in Berlin, and I stay in London.  So it’s either of those three places.  I don’t have a place of my own.  I just stay with friends.

What’s the Swedish connection?  How did you fetch up in Gothenburg?

I made a bunch of friends when I went up there, and I started learning the language.  I went up there to start working on a different project with Andreas Kleerup, and now I’ve started to develop some roots there.  It’s just been in the last year and a half.  I’ve met a bunch of amazing people, and they’ve taken me under their wing a little bit, because they can see that I’m excited about learning Swedish.  Most of them are musicians, so we have that connection as well.

The Swedish music that I’m most familiar with is a certain kind of quite witty electronic pop music.  Is that indicative of something that you’ve got up your sleeve?

Yeah, that’s part of what I really love.  There are a lot of great bands in Gothenburg: Little Dragon come from there, and Jose Gonzalez lives there.  There’s a band called Pacific!, and there are just endless amounts of good music.  And of course I was always a big Abba fan when I was growing up.

There’s no imperative for you to learn Swedish, as many of them seem to speak better English than we do.  So is that just a part of your general inclination towards modern languages?

For me, it’s about having a deeper connection.  You can only get so far if you choose only to speak English.  If you really want to get to know them, you have to learn the language.  There’s a lot of stuff that they can’t explain to you, unless you speak their language. 

I would imagine that your efforts would be greatly appreciated, because it must be quite unusual that anyone would care to do that.

From what I can tell, what happens a lot is that men come from all over the world and meet the love of their life there.  Then they move there, because their wife or girlfriend is Swedish.  So you have all these Brits and Americans and Australians, and people from all over the place, who come there because of some beautiful Swedish girl.  I’ve met a lot of those guys, and they’ve all gone through the process of learning Swedish.  It’s necessary, to get to know who they really are.  I feel like if you don’t learn Swedish, then you’re always standing on the outside a little bit. And I want to get in there.  All the way in there!

My Swedish vocabulary runs to two words.  I know that love is “älskar”, and I know that the word for gay is “bog”. 

That’s funny; I haven’t even come across that word yet.

I remember there was a shop in Stockholm where you could buy a T-shirt with BOG on the front, which if you were in Sweden meant that you were declaring the fact that you were gay.  But if you wore it in the UK, it would be declaring the fact that you were a toilet.

That’s hilarious.  I think maybe I’ve been told that fact before, but I didn’t do any further research.  It’s funny; sexuality hasn’t really been a part of my experience over there yet.

Well, it’s a very integrated society anyway, isn’t it?

Yeah, and I haven’t really talked about that area of my life. 

How many different tongues have you now acquired?

Well, I continue to deepen my knowledge of German, Russian and Spanish, and I work on my French when I’m in France.  I have good friends there, who know what level I’m at.  French is one of the languages that I’m least proficient in.  I know a lot of French, but it’s a matter of living there and speaking it on a daily basis, to get to a level where I would be able to communicate, and do interviews, and stuff like that. 

I’ve been working on Dutch and Swedish.  I’m really, really into Dutch.  In fact, it’s sort of my favourite right now.  But I’ve worked on my Swedish a lot more, because I’ve been spending a lot more time there.  I’ve made huge progress with my Swedish, and I need to keep that going.  I see Dutch and Swedish as hobbies that I want to spend the rest of my life just doing for fun, and getting as far as I can.

I’ve learnt German and French, and I used to have a bit of Russian which has gone now, but I found that a switch would flick in the brain: from “native language” to “foreign language”, whichever that might be at the time.  So if I was in Germany and I suddenly had to speak French, I’d almost find myself trying to translate from German, which was impossible.

Well, I lived in Germany for six years, and that became a second native tongue for me.  You had to pass a proficiency exam to study in a German university, and I studied Russian for six years in German – so that really rounded my German into perfection.  It wasn’t until I went to Ukraine and Russia that my Russian really took off.  And when I went back to Germany, after having those experiences, then I was really flying with the Russian as well. 

As far as going from foreign language to foreign language, the only problem I have is between Spanish and Russian.  They seem to be the two that I mix up.  It’s not that they clash; it’s the opposite.  They flow together, and they seem to fit together in a weird way.  It’s the way they sound: the rolled “R”, and stuff like that.

It’s very strange, because I never mix up German and Russian, and I don’t mix up French and Russian, or German and French.  But I buy my books in all sorts of different directions.  I have a Swedish grammar written in Russian, and I have a Russian-Dutch dictionary, and I have Russian-French, and I have Swedish-German.  It’s just a great way to keep all of your other languages fresh, while you’re learning the new one.  If you read about Swedish grammar in Russian, you learn more about Russian.

Each language has a different way of looking at grammar, because of the way their specific grammar functions.  So you learn all sorts of different ways of approaching it, and it gives you a lot more tools.  It’s really fascinating.  It’s really just a blast for me, and I absolutely adore it.

There was a period after The Czars broke up, when you were making a living as a Russian interpreter.  Was that a period where all musical activity ceased?

Yeah, I just didn’t have time for it, and I wasn’t seeking out musicians in New York.  I worked at a really high class New York restaurant called Gramercy Tavern, and that took up about 90% of my energy, because that was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. 

I guess you have to maintain “world’s best” standard at all times?

Yes, and I’m really grateful to them in a lot of ways, because you really do receive an education.  In a lot of countries, you go to school to become a professional waiter.  You learn about food, and you learn about wine.  You can spend the rest of your life learning about those subjects, especially wine.  People who are actual sommeliers are few and far between. 

So it was that level of knowledge about food and wine, and especially cheese.  Cheese is an important thing in a lot of places these days.  We had a cheese board with twenty different cheeses, and that would change quite often.  So we were constantly taking classes on how cheese is made, and where it comes from.  You would study cheeses from France, and then you would study cheeses from Germany, and cheeses from the States.  And we had classes on Madeira, Calvados, Armagnac, Cognac, Champagne…

Normally, if a musician says “I was waiting tables”, it’s indicative of economic hardship – of doing a service level job in order to get by – but for you it was quite the opposite, as this was a proper professional environment.

It was – but I did do ten years of that other waiting.  The whole time I was in my band The Czars, I was working in this Italian restaurant.  I worked in the same place for ten years, when I wasn’t out touring.  Then when I moved to New York, I stumbled upon an advert on Craigslist, for this place called Gramercy Tavern.  And I thought, well, I’ll just try that out.  And my friends were like, do you have any idea what that is?  And I said, no.  And they said, that’s one of the top places in town. 

So I went in there, and basically they’re looking for people that they want to be a part of their organisation.  They’re not too terribly concerned with how much knowledge you have in those areas.  They want to know if you are the type of person that they want to impart that knowledge to. 

So there are more general personal qualities, like whether you’re the sort of person who can establish a rapport with the diners, in that way that you get in those high class joints.

Exactly, yes.  And they wanted people who were self-aware.  That’s what their big deal was.  They wanted people who could communicate well.  It’s very difficult to get fired from a place like that, because they’re not easily intimidated by any sort of fuck-up that you can come up with.  They want to have people there for as long as possible.

So you’re not living with the threat of instant dismissal for a single fuck-up?  Because on reality cooking shows, you see scenes in kitchens where you get the feeling that people live under that kind of pressure.

Yeah, but it took me months to realise that I wasn’t on the line.  The first night I was on the floor, I was in the main dining room.  It’s sort of hushed in there, but it’s extremely high volume.  You’re doing maybe eight tables of people and you have up to seven courses per table, and that’s all going at an extremely fast pace.  It’s not as slow as you would think it is.  And then I spilled an entire silver pot of coffee, on a white cloth in the middle of the dining room.  It went all down the front of the cloth, and there was just this collective gasp.

But the test of a great restaurant isn’t so much the mistake, as how you recover from the mistake.

Exactly, and that’s an art form in itself.  (Laughs)

Maybe I’m romanticising it, but that sounds like a blissful existence.  Was it a wrench to leave?

Well, like I said, that job was the most difficult thing I ever did.  At the end of every night, you were completely exhausted, and your brain was mush.  There was a sense of pride in what you were doing, but it was a really high pressure environment, and a lot was expected of you.  But I met people there who I’ll probably be in touch with for the rest of my life. 

I was glad to get out of there, because I found there was too much pressure.  The fact that I don’t drink any more made it difficult for me to achieve the level of knowledge that one needs to achieve in the world of spirits and wines. 

Once I’d finished the schooling that I was doing for Russian, I went to Texas to start my album, then I came back to New York and I decided to work only at the hospital, doing Russian medical interpreting.  But I just didn’t have any energy for music at that time. 

Was there a kind of flashpoint, where you knew you had to switch your priorities?

It was a decision that took me a long time, because the Russian thing was really fascinating.  It had the potential to be extremely fulfilling, and I was starting to really get into it.  But I couldn’t really pass up the opportunity that Midlake were offering me.  They were offering me an entire community to feel comfortable in.  It wasn’t that they wanted to mould me; they wanted simply to offer themselves as tools, for me to achieve my vision.

I suppose you’re swapping a very structured, even regimented existence – and also quite a secure existence – for stepping back out into the unknown, and being much more the master of your own destiny.  That must have been a strange and radical switch to make.

Well, it was.  I was building something in New York, and I had started to put roots down, and I had gotten past the most difficult part.  The first three years are the most difficult part in New York.  It’s extremely hard to get to know people there at the beginning.  And to get into a restaurant like the one I got into, and to get into that world: you could pretty much go to any other city and say “I worked at this restaurant”, and immediately have a job in that industry, because of the reputation that place has.  And then the language thing: I had medical insurance for the first time in years, and it was a huge decision to leave all that security and leave my apartment, and depend on other people again, and live with other people, and not have my own space.

So it was a communal existence when you were working with Midlake?

Yeah, I lived with a couple of them.  I went back and forth a little bit.  That’s not easy.  Living with other people is really difficult, the older you get – especially if you want to be invited back.  You have to be cognisant of lots of different things: about the way things are done, and about how to respect other people’s space.

And you were living with people who were representing your songwriting vision.  The songs you wrote for Queen Of Denmark dig pretty deeply into your own personal emotional experiences, so you’re laying yourself bare in front of these people, who are supporting you in that process.  That must be a very strange situation to be in.

The basis for that was that they really loved who I was as a person.  They loved the whole package.  They didn’t just respect me as a musician; they were fascinated by me as a person.  So I felt very safe in revealing myself to them, because I didn’t feel judged in any way.  I didn’t feel like anybody was looking at me with a critical eye.  They thought what I had to say was great, and they felt like I had a voice that people hadn’t heard before, and that people should hear.  They all come from very different backgrounds to me in some ways, and very similar backgrounds in other ways.  They really did an amazing thing for me.  It can’t be stressed enough.

Are any members of Midlake accompanying you on this tour that’s coming up?

No, but we are playing a big show together at the Royal Festival Hall [on Wednesday September 7].  That will be like wrapping up the Queen Of Denmark chapter, and moving on to the next chapter.  We’re going to be doing the entire album, except for one song:  Leopard And Lamb.  I’ve never done that one.  I want to do it, but I’m not sure how to do it yet.  So that’s going to be a really special night.

As for the provincial UK dates, are you going to be completely solo for those?

No, that will be me and one other guy.  We switch off on synth and piano, and he brings backing vocals with me.  I think it’s a very full experience.  It’s the best way to see the songs on the album done.

Is there a psychological price to pay for having to drag these songs around with you on tour, long after you wrote them, and long after you’ve had the experiences which created them?  It’s almost like dragging round emotional baggage.  Does this trap you in those experiences, without being able to move on?

I think the jury’s still out on that.  I find it really fulfilling, but I’ve definitely had that thought a million times.  In other artists’ lives, you see these drastic changes, which people say they don’t understand.  And that is the result of what you’re talking about.  Yes, there is a high price to pay for dragging those things around. 

As for the relationship that caused me to write many of those songs, it probably was much more difficult for me to let go of that person, because I was reliving a lot of the feelings that I had for that person on stage every night. 

I think about the next record, and what I want to talk about, and what I don’t want to talk about.  I’ve thought about being on stage with Allen Toussaint the other night at Bush Hall; he accompanied me on Chicken Bones, and it was an absolutely amazing, transcendent experience. There were three of us on stage: James Dean Bradfield from Manic Street Preachers, Allen Toussaint and myself.  We each played six songs, but we went in a circle, so it lasted for about two hours. 

And to have Allen Toussaint across from me, playing things like Let’s Make A Better World, Yes We Can Can and Southern Nights, which is a song I grew up listening to…  I’m sure there’s going to be a time when it’s going to be too difficult and too heavy for me to constantly sing about the difficult stuff in the world.  At some point, in order to move on from certain things, you have to move to different subjects.  But I feel very comfortable in that world.  I think that’s probably a big part of my problem in my personal life, because I feel comfortable in that warm blanket of awkwardness and pain.

There’s an interesting paradox.  You’re expressing these emotions lyrically, but the musical style on Queen Of Denmark is actually very pleasant on the ears, with those references to Seventies soft-rock.  So if you’re just listening to it as music, without focussing on the lyrics, it’s quite reassuring and uplifting – like a warm blanket.

That’s the effect that the music had on me, when I was growing up in the Seventies.  I love that type of music, and I will always love the David Lynch aesthetic.  But you also have to be really careful in what you choose to drag around with yourself.  It can really drag you down, if you don’t have perspective.  The way that you can continue to do what you want to do is to have perspective. 

As an artist, the difficult thing is getting perspective, because you inhabit these places very deeply.  These things that you talk about, and these things that you express on stage: you must inhabit them, in order to bring them across in an honest way.

So maybe you need a couple of show closers, which are all about redemption and resolution, with a kind of beatific view on the world…?

What you’re talking about is interesting, because the feeling that a lot of people get when they listen to Queen Of Denmark is that redemption is built into the songs.  You don’t come out of that record thinking “I want to commit suicide”.  It’s more of an uplifting experience than a negative one – because of the way the music is, the way it’s structured, the humour of the record.  Otherwise it would be too much. 

On the next record, I’m going to be dealing with some really heavy subject matter as well, and once again it’s about striking that balance.  It’s about finding the humour and bringing everyday life into it.  That’s another thing that I like about Queen Of Denmark: in order to give an honest picture of the human experience, when you deal with these heavy subjects, you have to bring in everyday life.  Because that’s how we actually experience it.

So you have details like the old sweet shop, and the chicken bones…

Yes, and Sigourney Weaver too.  You’re drawing from your personal loves.  So you’ve just finished watching Alien for the twelfth time, and you absolutely love that movie.  And you’re thinking about these other things, and it’s like: Jeez, I feel just like that fucking lady from Alien, you know?  It’s that scene where she has to shoot all these aliens, and you can see her rolling her eyes:  “Are you fucking kidding me?  I can’t believe how ridiculous this is!”  And yeah, it’s stuff that everybody can relate to. 

Queen Of Denmark has had a lot of critical success.  Has that had a positive impact upon your creative process, or does it create new pressures?

Definitely both.  Sitting there with Allen Toussaint the other night was a big deal for me, because he was very complimentary about my song structure and my melodies.  When we went back on stage, he said, “We should go out there and do more of his songs; they’re so beautiful.”  That can’t do anything but give you confidence.  And what Mojo has done has thrust me into another world, where I definitely feel like I can call myself a musician and a songwriter.  That was something that I didn’t have before. 

At the same time, when Queen Of Denmark came out, nobody expected anything from me.  So it was much easier for me to do that record.  Now, of course, there are expectations and people are very, very attached to that record. 

But I’ve started introducing new music into the set.  You’re going to hear a new song, and it’s another one that I feel really proud of.  It’s dark subject matter, but it tells the story of how difficult it is to communicate with another human in a loving relationship at times.  And the extreme emotion, and the vicissitudes – the ups and downs – of fear, joy, hatred and being hurt, and allowing yourself to be vulnerable to somebody else, and taking the risk – because that’s what you do as an artist too.  You do it every night when you get up on stage. 

That’s why I think the touring process is so difficult. In order for you to connect with people, you have to stay in this space where you are vulnerable.  You have to constantly go back and forth while you’re on the road.  You’re putting up walls and you’re putting on your shield of armour, to protect yourself from all the bullshit; just the logistics of what it takes to tour.  And then there’s being in your creative space and actually reaching out to people, listening to what they have to say, actually connecting with them, and forging those relationships on stage.  I mean, it is mentally fucking exhausting. 

When you finish a show, what sort of emotional state are you in?  Do you just want to go away and find some quiet time?

Sometimes I just want to break down and cry, and sob for an hour.  And most of the time, I feel elated; I feel euphoric.  A lot of times, I go out and talk to people afterwards, and that takes a good hour and a half to two hours.  If you go out there and make yourself available, then you have to do it.  And “doing it” means listening to what people have to say to you.

And that might be all to do with their own reactions to the songs you’ve sung, and how they relate to their own lives.  So they might be sharing quite detailed personal stuff with you – and that’s on top of having done a show where you’ve expressed your own stuff.

Exactly.  And it’s really, really heavy duty.  Then also you get a lot of people who are drunk, and who want to say, “Oh, that new song was really shit”.  Or, “I thought those first three songs ended way too harshly.”  And you just want to say, “Who gives a fuck what you think?”  It would never occur to me to walk up to somebody and tell them those things, and to express my dislike for somebody’s art to their face.

That’s the culture we’re in.  Social media encourages that.  You get the chance to be rude to people in public life.

Yeah, you have to take the good with the bad.  But for me personally, it’s something that I don’t understand.  I usually walk up to an artist when I want to tell them how much I appreciate them, and that is what the majority of people do. 

But those people are not usually coming up to you and telling you that they don’t like a song in order to hurt you.  They’re doing it for different reasons.  They’re usually doing it because they want to enter into a dialogue with you.  They really respect you, and they feel like it’s OK, since they love you so much already.  So you’re called upon to have a lot of understanding, and to try and see it from a different perspective – because at first glance it can be, “Well, what the fuck are you telling me this for?”

When people say “I’m really looking forward to your next album, but that new song really sucks”, I’m like: “Well, maybe you shouldn’t be looking forward to the new album then, because that’s going to be on it!” (Laughs)

See also: live review of John Grant at Nottingham Glee, September 8th 2011.

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  2. […] was alerted to Little Dragon when interviewing John Grant, who has been spending a lot of time in their home city of Gothenburg. When assembling my Best of […]

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