The true grit of John Grant

He couldn't have been more candid as he discussed depression, addictions and a recent HIV diagnosis

When approaching to interview a band or artist, the desired aim is often to break down the barrier between artist and human, between person and persona, to excavate and reveal a personality and pick and scratch at the brain that shaped the musical output of their alias. Often this is a fraught, exhausting and occasionally futile exercise because many artists build safety walls to protect themselves. They create characters, wear masks and operate from the screened-off comfort of mystery and darkness. Others, like John Grant, bulldoze down that wall, merging and solidifying the human being and the artist as an indistinguishable one. Neither one is ‘right’ or ‘better’ but merely a means to be more reflective and indicative of the artist at work, a truer representation – and there is no truer representation of John Grant than the truth itself.

A year after the success of ‘Pale Green Ghosts’, an album scattered with fluttering electronics and gut-wrenching moments as frequently as it was with lyrical frankness, tenderness and scorched bile, it was a breakthrough album that superseded Grant’s supposed breakthrough album, his 2010 debut, ‘Queen of Denmark’. Grant finished highly, often top, in the end of year 2013 accolades and even ended up with a Brit Award nomination for International Male Solo Artist, squaring up against Bruno Mars, Eminem, Drake and Justin Timberlake. In 2014, his 46th year on the planet, Grant finds himself receiving his highest level of praise, success and achievement no doubt with more on the way. However, the road to success for Grant has not so much been a rocky one, but – from a personal and mental journey – one more akin to a trip along the Gaza strip.

For the last two years Reykjavik, Iceland, has been home to Grant after he fell in love with the Capital when working on ‘Pale Green Ghosts’ with Gus Gus’ Biggi Veira. There is a feeling of serenity to Reykjavik that makes it easy to see why somebody would settle here. The sea air is crisp and fresh and it gently whips through the city streets, landing deep into your lungs; the towering mountain skyline, coated with snow, glistens and twinkles under the shimmering spring sun and it is a constant source of beauty and magnitude every time it meets your gaze. The people are endlessly kind, gentle and helpful, something that seems to permeate within the culture and general attitudes here – whilst walking the streets the evening before meeting Grant I stumble across a bar (a themed Big Lebowski bar no less) and in capital bold black letters on the front of the door it reads: ‘If you are racist, sexist, homophobic or an asshole, don’t come in.’

I meet Grant for lunch and we settle down for a big bowl of sustenance. “I’ll be human once I eat this,” he tells me, still somewhat tired after a few busy days, some of which were spent in Paris playing as part of a Rough Trade Record Store Day event. After lunch, we head back to his place, taking a detour past a local bakery. We then walk past a giant pond filled with ducks and swans and Grant recalls how, the previous evening, he saw three swans on the water, at sunset, perform an almost synchronised swimming-like series of motions under the rich changing colour of the sun, moving gracefully atop the gently rippling and sparkling water. “It was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen in my life,” he says, clearly enamoured by his surroundings.

We enter his basement apartment, a neat, cosy and welcoming place filled mostly with books, records and musical equipment. On the wall are homages to the music of his formative and defining years via mounted album covers from the likes of Devo, Missing Persons, Nina Hagen and Yello. We flick through books together, gush over a shared love of Throbbing Gristle, Cabaret Voltaire and obscure documentaries and we listen to Carter Tutti remixing Chris and Cosey which, through his infinitely superior speaker system to mine, sounds like pure, untainted, glorious bliss.

He brews up some fresh coffee, plates up the traditional Icelandic desserts we picked up from the bakery (one of which is called grandma’s snail) lights a candle and we sit down in his kitchen for what becomes a three hour interview, plunging deep into the life of a man who’s been through more than most.

“This is the first place I’ve had to call home since 2008,” he says, looking around his place contentedly. “Iceland is the first place that I’ve been to – maybe that’s why I feel so comfortable here – where I didn’t feel like I was treated any differently.” Grant is openly gay and I mention the bar sign I’d seen the previous evening. “Yeah, and that’s like a mainstream sports bar that you’d see in the States, you know? It’s not some weird little artsy fartsy hole-in-the-wall. But yeah, this is the first place where men literally did not see me differently after knowing about my sexuality. They didn’t turn away from me in the showers at the swimming pools.”

Issues surrounding Grant’s sexuality have long plagued him. Growing up in a strictly religious home where even swearing was considered a serious sin, he ended up having a lifetime’s worth of homophobia instilled in him before he could even fully come out as a gay man. It was these “traumatising” years that set the ball rolling for a substantial period of mental anguish, confusion and self-inflicted shame that followed. He recalls the period with unease. “I’m just thinking back to the high school stuff,” he says. “I just wish I could have gotten out of that state of fear I was in – if everybody knew [I was gay] then my parents would find out. I remember being attacked at my house one night physically, one guy was waiting for me to get home and I remember pissing my jeans because I was so surprised by the attack and I remember going into the house, humiliated, and unable to say a single word about it because I knew it would raise questions about why this person was attacking me and it would become my problem. So, I just remember walking upstairs and going to bed and that was such a humiliating experience for me because I should have been able to talk to somebody; I should have been able to say something to my parents but I was too ashamed and I knew that I couldn’t afford to have my parents ask any questions.”

Grant left high school and moved to Germany where he would live for six years studying German and Russian, but an escape from his home soil would not alleviate the issues he was having. “In Germany my depression really started to blossom with anxiety and horrible panic disorder. I had a hard time sitting in a classroom without freaking out. My depression and anxiety were worsening by the day and getting more pronounced and there was no way that I was going to be able to stand up in front of people and interpret. I couldn’t concentrate on the studies because I was so terrified to be around people – I don’t think I’ve ever really expressed it like that before, I always talk in interviews about how I went back to the States because my mother got sick with cancer – and to some extent it’s true – but part of it is also because I was tired of being terrified and tired of being around the stress of people who were doing well at their studies and I was struggling with mental issues.”

His time in Germany did hold one important milestone however; he sang in public for the first time.

“I was encouraged. I wasn’t laughed at. I was super drunk but that was the only way for me to do it. I felt super uncomfortable but there was also a rush, people really took me seriously when I was singing – more than they did in any other context, it seemed like.”

Grant returned home to the States where his Mother’s lung cancer diagnosis was worse than first thought. “She died within the year,” he says. “That’s when I was given this anti-depressant for the first time called ‘Paxil’ which I’m still taking twenty years later and that changed everything for me back then. I became social and I immediately went into power drinking. My mum had died and I just went into boozing, I was finally coming out, I was twenty-five or twenty-six and coming out for the first time.”

In 1994 he would form the Czars, a group who experienced some critical success but fairly minor commercial success. The band lasted a decade, finally disbanding in 2004, but it’s not a period that Grant looks back on favourably.

“I worked in restaurants and record shops because that’s all I could get. The band was doing well on the local scene but man I was just so terrified, I was scared all the time – there was a lot of shame because I was gay, I couldn’t get over that. I could not get past that. That’s what had been instilled in me. People would call me faggot all the time and it was made clear to me that I would go to hell if I indulged in that lifestyle, that ‘choice’. I guess I heard that for so long that when I was free of those environments I was unable to get away from it inside my head. So, the Czars period is a particularly painful one for me because that’s me at my most awkward, even after I’d been able to come out I still wasn’t doing anything because I still couldn’t accept myself. So, I saw that as a failure.”

Sadly, ‘failure’ is a reoccurring word Grant uses to describe himself during various stages in his life. At times the urge to get up and give him a hug and assure him he is not is hard to shake. Self-loathing has, and largely still is, something he’s battled with enormously. “I saw myself as a huge failure during that entire period [the Czars] and it took huge amounts of alcohol for me to get on stage and do that,” he says.

By this point booze was a major factor in his life and soon the drugs would come too. “When the depression and anxiety was happening in Germany, it was easy because they had really strong beer and you could have it non-stop everywhere and everyone was doing it, so I got really into drinking in Germany and when I came back to the states I had access to a car, I wasn’t living in a little village anymore; there were gay clubs that I could go to. So that was the first time I got let loose and I felt comfortable with myself to some extent – with copious amounts of alcohol. Then it wasn’t until the 2000s probably that I started to get into cocaine; that was very quick. I mean, I never had the money to have a constant habit but it got to the point where as soon as I would smell beer it was like ‘okay, where are we going to get coke from?’ and then the horror of another sunrise without sleep. It got to the point where it was like, ‘oh god, it’s happening again’ and again and again and again. I went to the emergency room several times with heart stuff going on. That was quite scary and then I started smoking crack. Not because I wanted to but because that’s what people had and I started to notice that I really liked that too.”

After several years like this something snapped. An encounter with crack cocaine, sex and two men (one with Aids and the other with syphilis) led to him clean up. “I’ve talked about this many times before – and there is still some shame connected to it – but if I hadn’t got syphilis by going to the clinic to get it treated… it was pretty humiliating because I didn’t know that I had syphilis and I’d had it for such a long time that all these spots were all over my body which don’t occur until a second or third stage of syphilis when it’s starting to get really into your system. Then they brought in all of the student doctors to look at me because it was such an advanced stage that they would never get the opportunity to observe it. That was sort of humiliating, it was like something out of a Woody Allen movie – ‘do you mind if we bring in the entire team of students to observe you because we’ve never seen anything like you before’. So, that was the day I decided to start going to AA.”

This proved both a useful and successful step for Grant.

“AA was great because I got a lot of perspective,” he says. “I heard about people who had it a lot worse than me. That helped me through a lot of that time, just hearing what other people had been through. I found them very helpful and I still do… besides, I wasn’t a good drunk, I wasn’t particularly interesting. I was just rotting on the inside, silently.

“To be frank, I don’t know what the fuck my problem was. We can look at all the facts and say that it’s a perfect cocktail of you not ever being able to have any self-esteem because you were always told it wasn’t okay for you to be who you were from the earliest times but still there’s people who go through that and come out okay. So it’s sad when I think about it, it feels fucking sad, it’s pathetic because it’s just more of the same, it’s me continuing to put myself down now for not being able to get past all of those things when I was younger. Like, why didn’t you stand up for yourself or fight back? But I guess it makes sense if you feel like you weren’t even considered to be a human being… It seems like in retrospect that nobody was as hard on me as I was, at least not after a certain point. My parents, the church and people at school got me started; they got me started with the zero self-esteem and I took it to great new heights punishing myself continuously for not being a real man or being able to really do anything.”

Leaving behind his music, booze and drugs Grant moved to New York, he says to “get away from constantly being faced with my own failure. There was so many great things going on in the world of music and I thought ‘you’re not part of this’.”

It took several years and many attempts from Texan band and friends Midlake to coerce him back into music. This finally came in 2010 with the release of ‘Queen of Denmark’, a 1970s AOR-indebted record filled with sandpaper-dry humour, acerbic takedowns and plenty of personal pain and torment. It was a surprise success story, which led to an even greater success story in 2013’s ‘Pale Green Ghosts’. However, somewhat typical to Grant’s luck, it would appear, there had to be a stumbling block. Between albums Grant was diagnosed as being HIV Positive. In representative form, true to his newfound commitment to completely being himself and not being ashamed of it, he announced it on stage at a show with Hercules and Love Affair at Meltdown festival in 2012. Being so open, both personally and musically, is in many ways rooted in a need to overturn so many years spent living in shame and keeping things held in or hidden.

“There is a part of me that enjoys talking openly about myself because of all the hiding I’ve done,” he says. “So, it’s fun for me to talk openly. A lot of people say, ‘oh, don’t you feel like you’ve made yourself overly vulnerable?’ Like, to what? You going to blackmail me with my HIV status? How’s that work? What you going to do? I don’t really see the downside. I just feel like if there are people who don’t want to have anything to do with you because of who you are and because of your status and things like that then I guess this is a great way of getting those people out of the way before I even have to encounter them.”

However, as someone who is living through a life-changing diagnosis, the public discourse can also act to benefit Grant too. “There’s a lot of selfish motivation here, too,” he says, “because I’m looking to make contact with people who have gone further than me. Like, one of my great friends, Holly Johnson from Frankie Goes to Hollywood, he was diagnosed back when things weren’t so good and was on his death bed to some extent, not doing very well at all, and he made it through that and came through that nightmare and made a life for himself in spite of that and helps the youngsters like me, of which I am slowly not a member of that club any more! But I’m looking for connections with people too and I’m finding a lot of them. Sometimes I wish I could be one of those guys that hides and doesn’t wear his heart on his sleeve but that just isn’t me.”

Grant continues in relation to this and how it is again an extension of eradicating the old him.

“That was one of the things I was trying to destroy with the alcohol and the drugs – I didn’t want to be sensitive, I wanted to be a strong man like I was supposed to be, who didn’t show emotion. Sometimes it’s a pain in the ass, like I don’t want to be an emotional cunt, I want to be one of those people who is very measured and reserved when it comes to emotion, but that’s just not who I am and it’s good that I am who I am, as much of a pain in the ass as it can be sometimes.

“Being a character like David Bowie is a dangerous thing for me. I don’t want to come back from that. I wouldn’t want to, that’s been my method of operation my whole life, to disappear into something. I feel like it might be dangerous for me or difficult for me to come back from a character in music.”

It doesn’t help that Grant’s diagnosis can be linked to some of the poisonous, homophobic rhetoric he would hear as young man, though.

“That was my fear in talking to my family about having HIV at first,” he says, “hearing that, ‘well, you got what was coming to you’. Then I started asking the questions, like, ‘did Mom get what was coming to her?’ I mean, I knew a Christian woman who believed that she got Breast Cancer because – she was a very loving individual, she was very good to me this woman, she was the mother of one of my best friends in high school, she was a really wonderful lady – she felt that she wasn’t submissive enough to her husband. Because of the stress that that had caused in her life, by not letting him take over the role of things that he should have been doing and that she shouldn’t have been doing, that caused the stress in her life that eventually led to that cancer and I just remember thinking…” A very long, thoughtful pause takes place as John seems a little lost in the pain of the memory.

“That’s heartbreaking,” I say.

“It is heartbreaking,” he softly and sadly replies. “I took a step-back from her at that point because she was the one that told me that now was the time to get out of the gay thing before I got the punishment that was coming my way and even though I really, really loved her I just had to distance myself; I didn’t want to hear that kind of thing.”

I ask about Grant’s feelings on religion these days considering the impact some of it has had on his life. “I consider myself to be someone who believes in God in spite of my upbringing,” he says, but then starts and stops multiple sentences, not quite finding the right words. “I think maybe I wanted to be an atheist but after a lot of things I’ve seen, I think there is a world out there that can’t be explained. So yeah, I do believe in God but I’m very vague about how I define that. I need to keep it that way because God was used against me for so much of my life.”

Similarly, I enquire, can much – if not all – of Grant’s personal difficulties in life be attributed, fundamentally, to institutionalised homophobia?

“Hum,” he says, almost laughing somewhat. “I wonder about that. I think it’s a combination of that and my natural pre-disposition. As there are some people that go through that, it’s the way you react to it. But yeah, I mean, let’s face it, you’re not considered to be a human on the same level as other people are human and that’s just a fact. You’re considered to be mentally ill at best. It’s a very difficult subject for me because, yes, that should be my natural inclination and to say ‘fuck that shit’ because it was only used to hurt me, but I’d be hard pressed to sit here and tell you that I know how things are because I don’t feel like I do.”

Much of the anger in Grant’s previous work has been centred around the pain of relationship fall-outs he’s encountered but he currently finds himself in a lot more positive place in this respect – he has met an Icelandic man. “It would be nice to have a healthy relationship with somebody. Of course that scares the shit out of me as well. It’s definitely a step in the right direction, this relationship. It’s great to meet somebody who just really likes you how you are, just thinks you’re fantastic and isn’t intimidated by any of your baggage. That’s pretty cool. Although, I definitely feel like running away from it a lot of times, just because it’s difficult. Relationships are difficult, even when they’re great and healthy. I do find that to be a challenge but there’s no time like the present. I’m not getting any younger here!”

Things are on the upswing for Grant and, pleasingly, he seems to be aware of this too. “Even though I’ve felt really worn out lately, I still feel like I’m continuing to go up and continuing to understand and get more tools – and this is so fucking revolting – to become that better version of myself that I always knew I could be.”

And the anger?

“I still feel a lot of anger. I think you need to stay angry to some extent but I also think the next twenty years are going to be more that period where hopefully I’ll learn to let go of a lot of that stuff. I like a lot of angry sounding music but I’m not sure how great it is when you’re living that, when you’re living that life. I want to continue to express anger in music but I don’t want it to be what I’m feeding off in my everyday life. That takes a huge toll on your health.”

Grant does, for the first time in his musical life, feel a sense of pressure. “It’s a bit daunting,” he says. “The pressure is just in your head but there are a lot of people around now who are expecting something that weren’t there before. That’s a really good problem to have, obviously – it’s great, but I want to exceed people’s expectations. I want to challenge myself vocally and not become a different singer but go out of my comfort zone and still be doing what I know fits for me. The possibilities are endless.”

While ‘Queen of Denmark’ relived Grant’s ’70s childhood sounds and ‘Pale Green Ghosts’ his electronic-infused adolescence, can we expect the next one to follow suit? “I don’t know, that’s the question. There’s definitely going to be a German element to it. The beginning of the adult horror movie began in Germany for me. I remember the anxiety that was just so crippling it is like a horror movie. You don’t ever have that heart attack and you don’t ever pass out, it just keeps happening. You feel like you’re dying but you don’t and that’s worse. I remember the horror of that coming back to the States with me when that first started to happen because I thought this was happening to me because I was homesick and because I was culture shocked or I’m having a difficult time. Then I remember having my first panic attack – a crippling, mind-numbing panic attack – sitting at dinner with my own family back at home and I can’t tell you how horrifying that was for me because I knew then that even the safest environments for me were no longer anywhere near safe. So, I feel like I will write about that because I feel strongly about that and so I do feel it will sort of continue on into the young adult, into the twenties. Which is good. Then we can call it a trilogy or a triptych or something.”

Grant has procedures put in place to escape the pressures, too. He says: “I did a good job on the last two records – at least when I was up at night worrying what people would think of the record – I would keep that away from the studio. You know, worry about it at home, freak out, lose sleep but when you go into the studio, no way. I’m going to write that song about Vladimir Putin that’s called ‘Smug Cunt’ and not worry about the fact that people think that I am swearing too much because you can’t really swear enough in this current world.

We retire to the living room, listen to more music and Grant turns some of his many synthesisers on and begins to play them, creating oozing, rushing swirls of dread, menace and beauty. His eyes light up. “Most of the things you see in this room, it’s all I ever fucking wanted. All those years with the Czars, in the years before them, all I ever wanted was a bunch of synthesisers and a way to record.” In 2013 he told the Quietus that the next record may sound like a cross between Einstürzende Neubauten and the Beach Boys, I tell him that sounds like a fucking dream to me – “Yeah, me too” he says smiling widely. “There might be elements of it but I need to go in a certain direction and that sounds like a dream to me. I would like there to be a lot of darkness and a lot of beautiful harmonies and a lot of electronics but I want to explore really nasty, giant walls of sound as far as guitars go too. I want the album to sound like a horror movie score as well but with lots of great electronic stuff going on and I’ve started to write the songs and put down ideas and make loops and just play with sounds. I really hope to go in-depth from a musical standpoint this time, it feels like the last couple of albums were just more about me getting things off my chest and lyrically they were so important and it’s not like the lyrics will be less important on the third album but I really want to come at it more from the direction of the music than the lyrics, or at least have them equal. Whereas it seems like the music has always just been supporting the lyrics. I want there to be some pop elements on there but also a lot of darkness and I really love the noisemakers out there in the world like Add (n) to X and Throbbing Gristle – I would love to have those elements, maybe just as interludes connecting the songs.

“I want it to be another big journey. I do believe I will start to tell other people’s stories on this record too. I’m really excited about it but I do hope I can continue to ignore this pressure that I feel about it right now because it’s not really real and I have to remind myself how much I’ve loved it when artists I love just do whatever the fuck they wanted.”