Shaun Ryder interview: Pills ‘n’ Thrills and Backaches

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Shaun Ryder

Happy Mondays frontman Shaun Ryder brings his Q&A tour to Liverpool and chats to Getintothis’ Jamie Bowman about back ache, scousers and making a pop record.

Shaun Ryder is unwell.

“Fuck me I’ve been in the wars mate,” says the Happy Mondays frontman by way of an introduction. “It’s a very dangerous age for men is the 50s.

“I’ve got fucking sciatica, Fucking hell, even my hip replacement was no where near as painful as this. Even codeine doesn’t touch it.

“I’ve also had alopecia totalis so all my hair has gone and is never coming back, At the end of the day it’s just a fucking bald head isn’t it? I’m more gutted about my fucking beard.”

Suffering for his art has been a common thread throughout Ryder’s career. Overdoses, fights, death threats and bankruptcy have all played a part, with the 57-year-old’s willingness to play sacrificial lamb when it comes to upholding his band’s image as one of UK music’s most hedonistic finally taking its toll.

But somehow Ryder is still here and with a forthcoming Q&A tour on the horizon he’s even going to explain how he’s done it. Well sort of.

“I’ve done quite a few now and I really enjoy them,” he says. “It’s good fun and it’s certainly not boring because it can go anywhere. When we throw it open to the audience we get all sorts.

“I still have to deal with talking about myself though – I’m constantly thinking ‘fucking hell, how big headed.”

It’s 35 years now since the Mondays first signed to Manchester’s legendary Factory Records and began a journey that would soon see them acclaimed as leaders of one of UK music’s last genuine movements.

Their ability to meld acid house with guitar rock while immersing themselves in everything from electro to hip hop, Northern Soul to Talking Heads means they remain truly original. No one has ever sounded like the Happy Mondays and for a short moment in time it felt that the whole world was ready and willing to dance to their tune.

“The Mondays‘ fan base and that of Black Grape and then those who’ve seen me on television means there’s a massive age range who come, “ he continues. “We’ve got Guardian readers, doctors, dentists and people who were at university at the time of the Mondays. Then we’ve got our other lot who probably read the Sun and like a bit of football hooliganism.

“Sometimes they just want to talk about drugs but other times they want to ask about the cowbell on a b side.”

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The band’s biggest success, 1990’s Pills ‘n’ Thrills and Bellyaches, remains that rare beast of an album in that it sums up totally an atmosphere and ethos and yet somehow remains timeless.

30 years on it remains one of the finest LPs ever made and one that away from the constant cartoonish stereotyping of the band shows the deep artistry behind the band’s music and Ryder’s incredible lyrical skill.

“I’ll take the compliments,” he chuckles. “We recorded it all in Los Angeles. We were touring the States and we stayed there to record it. We needed an album that was going to make us full time residents on Top of the Pops and move us away from just getting indie sales.

“We wanted it to be a crossover album and the reason we got Paul Oakenfold in was because he was working in different ways from normal producers. Back then he wasn’t the household name he is now. There were a few people in London who knew who he was and people in Ibiza but our manager didn’t know who he was. He was like ‘who the fuck is this?'”

Oakenfold and fellow producer Steve Osbourne relished working in Capitol’s studios where the likes of the Beach Boys Pet Sounds had been made and using his record collection to suggest a mood, create loops and build songs around. Classic tracks like Kinky Afro, God’s Cop and Loose Fit quickly followed.

“Bummed (the band’s second album, released in 1988) was harder,” says Ryder. “It was more indie but with Pills we were making a pop album. It still sounds modern.”

Released in November, 1990, the album was an instant smash both critically and commercially. Stuart Maconie of NME called it “a tremendous record, and a gauntlet chucked at the feet of all the other would-be legends in town.”

“It was great,” remembers Ryder. “At the time we got a lot of people saying ‘you’re selling out’ and we were like ‘fuck off’. If we’d tried to keep living off the sales of the other albums we’d have ended up working part time in Burger King.”

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Madchester‘ became the sound of that year with the Mondays even winning hearts and minds at the west end of the M62 – no easy task back then.

“We had a lot of pals in Liverpool,” he says. “When we were kids Liverpool was a no go area. When I was a teenager you couldn’t go there and it would be the same if scousers came to Manchester and tried to shop there. It just wasn’t done but that changed a lot when E came along and we toured with The La’s and The Farm – all the people with that football mentality stopped being violent. We’d have Cockney kids coming to our shows shouting out the Arsenal score especially if they’d beaten United but there wasn’t any fighting.”

It was another pal, Tony Wilson, the boss of the Monday’s unique label Factory Records, who first saw something in Ryder‘s ability with his words, famously comparing his lyrics to the poetry of WB Yeats and playing up his working class roots.

“Tony was brilliant,” he says. “A brilliant fella. I don’t think we’d have even got a start if it wasn’t for Tony.”

Modest to a fault, you suspect Ryder still has difficulty crediting himself with creating the Mondays‘ groundbreaking music or being one of those crucial lightning rods that change a generation. He’s more bothered about his bad back.

“I’m off to see the chiropractor next week, “ he adds. “At least on this tour I can sit down. That’s something.”

An Evening with Shaun Ryder is at Leaf Liverpool on Friday, February 28. 

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