Ahead of Hong Kong debut, Shaun Ryder talks 25 years of Happy Mondays
Reformed and rehabilitated, Manchester's madcap mavericks play Hong Kong next week. Lead singer Shaun Ryder fills in the gaps from the late 1980s to today, in which time he's become a reality TV star and father of six
When Happy Mondays frontman Shaun Ryder signs off an interview with the words "Gotta go or I'll miss the school run," you know his declarations of being a reformed and sober man are genuine.
Where once there were parties and drugs, these days Ryder's life is filled with domestic chores, strict health regimens (more on that later), the business of launching a solo career and visiting Hong Kong for the first time with the newly resurrected original Happy Mondays line-up this month.
"I'm just not very rock'n'roll any more," he says by phone from his home in Manchester.
Ryder's sobriety these days is in stark contrast to the young singer whose ragged stewardship of the Happy Mondays saw them fuse indie rock and dance music in a giddy whirl of guitars and beats in the late 1980s.
His drug taking, outrageous antics (he once sold all his clothes to buy crack cocaine) and big mouth stirred controversy as much as his music thrilled fans. But half a lifetime of abuse took its toll and these days Ryder has submitted to the life of parenthood. "It comes to us all, responsibility," says the father of six, the youngest of whom is still in primary school. "Having kids again in my 40s helps — so does not doing this while I'm off my tits."
The Happy Mondays' musical importance can't be overestimated. In bridging the divide between rock and dance, the street-urchin five-piece were the slurred, leering face of Manchester's rock resurgence.
When things were going good, the Mondays were unstoppable.In the space of two albums, 1989's Bummed and 1990's Pills'n'Thrills and Bellyaches, they took indie rock from the clubs to arenas, combing the spectacle of rave — lasers, strobes and big beats — with the gang sensibility of a rock band.
In manager Tony Wilson — the storied Factory Records supremo who gave the world Joy Division and New Order — they had alternative-rock royalty on their side and a champion who compared Ryder's freestyling lyricism to the great poets.
And with freaky-dancing, maraccas-waving loon Bez — Ryder's old school friend Mark Berry — as counterpoint to Ryder's slouched, prowling presence, they crafted a whole new stage dynamic. To this day, any band that employs a dancer is deemed to have its "own Bez".
But the Mondays were destined to crash. As success brought money and harder drugs, the band's lifestyle began to take prominence over the music. At the same time, the ever-present air of criminality that surrounded the band assumed frightening proportions and began to contaminate the scene. What had been dubbed the blissed-out Madchester movement (the Mondays were "mad for it" long before Oasis were even thought about) acquired a new moniker: Gunchester.
"I remember the 1960s more than I do the 1990s," Ryder, now 52, says of the heady days. But he's defiant. "I was young and had a blast and wouldn't change it for a second. To go into this game and make money, it's like being a Premier League footballer. But you wake up one morning and find you're 52 — you only get the one chance at life, unless you end up dead. I didn't end up dead."
The Mondays split in the early '90s only to reform later in the decade when Ryder received a tax bill "the size of Canada". Barring a few fallings out with past members, the band have remained intact ever since, recording another album, Unkle Dysfunktional, in 2007.
In that time, Ryder cleaned up his addictions and became a staple of British TV after charming audiences with his appearance on reality show I'm a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here. Being forced to eat bugs in the Australian bush alongside politician Lembit Opik and former Bond girl Britt Ekland had a galvanising effect on his life — he literally and metaphorically refers to as "coming out of the jungle".
"Reality TV saved my life," he says. "I was off the rails. Since then I'm on daytime TV frequently."
His newfound celebrity has fed through to his music career. "It helps to sell everything else," he says.
"Our fan base now goes back to 14-year-olds; that's thanks to reality TV. When I started in music it was all about being mean and moody. But that's changed. The music business is now part of the entertainment business with reality television."
While sobriety is treating him well, he's still no stranger to drugs, only these days they're of the life-saving sort. Ryder has succumbed to a hereditary thyroid affliction that requires daily testosterone injections. "If I don't take me medication I'll go into a coma and die, simple as that," he says matter-of-factly.
But it's to the three-monthly dose of hormones that he attributes his sudden flourish of activity.
As well as going back on the road to promote Pills'n'Thrills in its 25th anniversary — the first time the original Mondays line-up have played together in two decades — he's resurrected his other '90s band, Black Grape, with old friends Bez and former Ruthless Rap Assassins member Paul "Kermit" Leveridge. There's also a solo album he's putting to bed, a record on which Ryder says he tried to capture the atmosphere of the first Rolling Stones album.
And if that's not enough he's "returned to the jungle" to shoot another reality show, this time with the entire Mondays line-up travelling to a remote Central American location to record new music with local tribespeople.
"It's all to do with the testosterone — it makes me feel like a teenager again."
Happy Mondays, July 28, 8pm, Kitec, 1 Trademart Drive, Kowloon Bay, HK$650, Cityline. Inquiries: 9709 2085