Photo by Michael Berman
John Grant’s records burst with powerful lyricism and ironic style. In October, he released Grey Tickles, Black Pressure, which is as candid and refreshing as Grant is in conversation.
Born in Michigan and raised in Colorado, John Grant spent a large tranche of his formative years in the closet. Fending off the spectre of his youth with booze and cocaine, he decided to boot the palliatives when his band The Czars crumbled in 2004, a decade after its inception. Following a move to New York and a sabbatical from songwriting, fellow rockers Midlake coaxed him back into the studio and co-produced his solo debut Queen of Denmark in 2010. Grant’s progress took a heavy blow a year later when he was diagnosed with HIV, which he made public during a show with Hercules & Love Affair. Having found peace in Reykjavik, he wrote his last two albums Pale Green Ghosts and Grey Tickles, Black Pressure in rugged Iceland. Catch him live at PBHFCLUB on Thursday, November 26.
You have a flair for languages – including German. Warum?
It was after I started listening to Nina Hagen in the 1980s that I became interested. Everyone at my school was learning French or Spanish, I wanted to learn German. In my senior year they started offering lessons. That was the first time I found something I excelled in, where everybody was looking at me for the answer, and it was sort of nice.
When did you move to Heidelberg for your studies?
At 19 – that was a whole different ball of wax. I definitely wasn’t ready for the way Germans are. It’s a very confrontational society, Germans love to argue about everything, tiny little things that don’t even matter. Somebody’s always got to be right, everything’s got to be discussed. I found that terrifying at first.
Did you find the people cold at all?
Oh yeah, I was constantly being made fun of. Being an American was a bad thing. People looked down on me because of my class, but they were confused by the fact that I could speak educated German. It’s not something Americans are known for, even today. Now, I hear Germans complaining about how nobody speaks German in Berlin anymore. You cannot go to another country and not learn the language and truly get to know the culture. I don’t want to sound a snob, but I think it’s important.
You lived in Berlin for a while. How did you end up here?
I reached Berlin touring for Queen of Denmark and stayed with a friend for many months. I was so tired from touring and getting my head around how much my life had changed in such a short period of time. I was confused about what to do with myself. I felt very naked without my old toys, the drink and the partying. Usually I would’ve gone to clubs like Kumpelnest 3000, and I’d have probably tried to get into Berghain, but I mostly stayed home. It was very chilled. I wasn’t interested in going out, it would’ve been the end of me. It’s pretty wild in Berlin, especially the sex scene, you can get into all sorts of crazy stuff. It’s kind of a dangerous city for me, but I have a deep love for it, especially Berlinerisch. Whenever I’m in town I always go to Dussmann, I spend hours in there searching out all sorts of books. I also tear through the vinyl looking for oldies like Hildegard Knef.
Before releasing Pale Green Ghosts, you discovered that you were HIV positive.
It definitely weighed on me, not knowing what my life was going to be like, how the drugs would work or whether it would limit my ability to be out in the world. When I found out in 2011 it was a dark period, I was scared shitless. I was a little bit relieved, though, because I’d spent a large portion of my life afraid of getting this disease, so a part of me felt like, now I can quit worrying about it, it’s happened. It was a rude awakening, I was indulging in a lot of destructive behaviour in the world of sex. It’s a tough one because sex is inherent, it’s part of being human. If you truly look at how you can use it as an escape, chasing that orgasm or chasing the high of the chase itself [laughs], it becomes the same as alcohol and drugs.
What was the motive behind your decision to publicly acknowledge your HIV status onstage?
I struggled with the decision because it was difficult for me to know my motivation. I wanted to avoid being sensational and ask what I was trying to achieve. I’d written a song about HIV [“Ernest Borgnine”] and how it didn’t have to happen, it was totally avoidable. In that moment when I stood onstage I thought, “You know what, there’s nothing shocking in telling people what the song you’re about to perform is about.” I just tried to keep it really simple. It shouldn’t be startling to talk about it, because it’s a reality for millions and millions of people.
Is music a medium for you to confront your life?
Yeah, in a way it’s an anthropological study of just one tiny little grain of sand’s experience on planet Earth. Just one out of seven billion stories. When you get a chance to do that through your art, it’s an amazing experience.
Your new album has a pretty moving title given its etymological origins – “grey tickles” is the Icelandic term for a mid-life crisis, and “black pressure” refers to the Turkish word for “nightmare”.
I feel like I’ve been in a mid-life crisis since the day I was born. I’ve been out of my comfort zone since I left my mother’s uterus! [Laughs] As I’m getting closer to my fifties, I’ve become very aware that everything can be gone in a second. Getting older with a tendency for depression, there are days I think about death and how shit it is that you have to get your head around it. You need to be present and be grateful for what you have, and enjoy the fact that even if you’re not in the job that you want, there are still a million other opportunities that arise on a daily basis. The title track explains how it appears the world is going to hell in a handbas ket, the horror of the images that you’re seeing everyday. Because of social media, it’s at you all the time, you have to work to get away from it. It’s overwhelming, how’s it possible for my life to matter, or anybody’s, if it doesn’t seem like we have a say. It’s like a bunch of powerful, rich people are taking everything and doing whatever the fuck they want. Everybody’s worried about their careers, their money and survival. It’s pretty bleak sometimes.
JOHN GRANT Thu Nov 26, 20:00 | PBHFCLUB, Straße der Pariser Kommune 8, Friedrichshain, S-Bhf Ostbahnhof