John Grant Interview
By Alexander Laurence
John Grant was once in the band The Czars. They were an indie rock band started in Denver, Colorado. They did well in Europe but never made an impact in the States. Grant retired from music and moved to New York City for a few years. He was invited to move to Texas and start a new record with Midlake. The result was his first solo album Queen of Denmark. It is an astonishing powerful record. Soon John Grant was back on the road and introduced to a whole new audience. His album was picked as best of the year on many critic’s lists in 2010. Mojo Magazine picked it as their album of the year. I got to talk to him during the beginning of this year. He is playing SXSW this year.
AL: What happens when you get the flu on a tour?
JG: I just do it. I have trouble controlling my voice because I am all stuffed up. The last show in Brooklyn I was able to sing again, and it was very good, so I am on the mend apparently. .
AL: Your record has been out a while. How many shows did you play in 2010?
JG: I did about a hundred. I started out with an American tour. Then I did a majority of the shows in Europe. I was here, then there, and one last American at the end of the year.
AL: Who are you playing with? Do the people who play on the record play with you on this tour?
JG: No. It’s just me and one other guy. It’s a very stripped down version of the songs. I played with a band on the earlier American tour. It’s been just me and one other guy for a while now. I am not sure when I will play with a full band again. When the label feels like they can afford it, we will do it as a band.
AL: You had taken a break from music for a few years. How did this record come about and what was the process of making this record like?
JG: I was in New York City doing other stuff. I had pretty much given up on doing music. I was asked to do a few shows with Midlake at Bowery Ballroom and Webster Hall. Midlake kept bugging about possibly moving to Denton, Texas and living with them. They wanted to do a record with me. They would be my backup band. We would work on my first solo record. They kept hounding me, and they thought it was a great idea. I thought about it for a year or two. I realized that it was an offer that I couldn’t refuse. I wrapped up things in New York and moved to Texas. I thought that I would give it one last shot. If it turned out to be a mistake I would just blow my head off.
AL: You were going to kill yourself in Texas?
JG: Yeah. Maybe on stage? I would do one last big show. I would blow my head off as the encore.
AL: Like G.G. Allin?
JG: Exactly. But with more clothes on.
AL: What sort of preparation did you do before you went to Texas? Were any of the songs already written?
JG: I had two or three songs before I went down there. I wrote about 11 or 12 songs in Denton. Midlake would be in the studio most of the day doing their record. I would write my songs during that time. They would go home for dinner and come back into the studio with me at night. That is how we did things for a year. At first I didn’t have a lot of confidence. I was discouraged about everything. I didn’t know if I could come up with enough material. Midlake created a creative situation for me and took me serious as a musician, and things were able to flow naturally. It’s important to get out of your own way.
AL: Your former band The Czars came out in 1994. That was before the internet age. Can you talk about music and bands were 15 years ago, as opposed to your solo record in the past year?
JG: Back then no one gave a shit. We had very little success. I always felt like the material wasn’t good enough. I feel like if the material is good enough, and people respond to the music, then it happens automatically. People talk about it. It’s not that much different now. People have quicker access to things, but it still depends on whether people like it or not. With my new record, I think the material is stronger, and I was able to take my time with it, and express myself fully. You can tell because it has resonated with so many different people. The response has been bigger than anything I did with the Czars. It’s hard to know whether it had to do with bad decisions and bad planning, and the lack of a manager or an agent back in the day.
AL: You were on Bella Union back in the early days?
JG: Yeah. Bella Union is a whole animal now. They have a bunch of successful acts like Fleet Foxes, Midlake, and Andrew Bird. They have a lot of clout now. They are considered one of the labels to be on. Back in 1995, nobody knew about Bella Union and nobody cared.
AL: Do people think you’re a European band?
JG: It is strange. People go “It’s such a European thing you are doing.” If you listen to Queen of Denmark, it is an American thing from start to finish. Yes. I have lived in Europe for six years. I speak some languages and I feel comfortable there. At the end of the day, I am just a midwestern boy from the States. That is what I identify with and love the most. I love the sounds of the 1970s. That is what I put in my music. You can’t deny that part of yourself.
AL: There was a lot of bands in the 1990s who were forced upon us. I don’t think they would have been as big if the record labels didn’t promote them heavily.
JG: There were some good bands in the 1990s, but for the most part I hate the 1990s. The last ten years were better. The 1970s and 1980s were off the hook. The 1990s only had Portishead, Tricky, and a few interesting albums by Cocteau Twins.
AL: Many bands write songs about their childhood, and they exhaust all that material on the first few albums. Do you feel like since you are a solo artist now, that you are free to be yourself, and be up to date?
JG: That is exactly how it is. The big difference is this music is more focused. I don’t feel inhibited at all. I realized that I am good with language. That is one of my talents. I can write what I want to write. At the beginning with The Czars, I thought you had to do things a certain way. You want to be perceived a certain way. You want people to compare you to your favorite artists. You want to do things that fit into identified categories. As you get older, you suddenly make peace with yourself and realize that there is enough inside myself that gives me material for what I want to do. The Czars was all over the place. My own personal story didn’t relate to the other members of the band. It’s easier for me as a solo artist to talk about whatever I want to talk about. And then, there is the added confidence of growing up a bit. I am able to take risk and say things, and not worry what other people think.
AL: What other bands do you like now?
JG: I like Our Broken Garden. I have been listening to their new album. There’s also Gonjasufi. I really got into him this past year. I like School of Seven Bells and Neko Case. I follow Neko Case closely. I think what she does is off the charts. There is so much incredible stuff. I like the new Matthew Dear record. I like Jimmy Edgar. I like First Aid Kit and The Books. I like Fever Ray and The Knife.
AL: I read something about you playing SXSW in 2004 with The Czars and being depressed. Would you go back to SXSW again?
JG: I am going this year 2011. It’s a fun thing. You can’t take it too seriously. You shouldn’t crap yourself over your performance. I am going to play some shows with Midlake this year.