“Everyone’s telling me to let go,” says John Grant, his unhurried Midwestern inflection beaming in from Rejkjavik. Loosely, letting go is what he says his new album ’Grey Tickles, Black Pressure’ is about – but in response to the ‘let go’ dictum on its title track, you’ll hear him growl: “If I hear that fucking phrase again, this baby’s gonna blow.”
This seems like a contradiction: Grant’s fierce intelligence makes him the kind of conversationalist that’s often quick to make one statement, counter it with another, then present a moderated, considered result. But that’s not to say he’s unsure of himself.
Just a minute into ‘You & Him’ – a new, sardonic tirade suggesting its self-obsessed subject and Hitler “oughtta get together… learn to knit, and wear matching sweaters” – you’ll understand that Grant is capable of offering very definite views, sometimes roasted in his deep-seated ire, but always presented with a garnish of dark, caustic humour.
Grant is all about precision, and the key to why seems to lie in his love of languages. This is at its most obvious in the title of his new album – a literal translation of the Icelandic for ‘middle-age’ and the Turkish for ‘nightmare’ – but his passion for linguistics is really nothing new. After his 10 years with alt-rock band The Czars, he retrained to become a Russian interpreter at a New York hospital, where he worked from 2007-2008.
It was then, in 2008, that Midlake prodded him down to their studio in Texas to make his first solo album, ‘Queen of Denmark’. The record was by turns beautiful, wry, and bleak – a series of candid confessionals from a man who had grown up gay in a religious family; who had struggled with addiction and anxiety disorder; who had a heavy burden of rage to shed. The following LP, 2013’s ‘Pale Green Ghosts’, was made in Iceland and was largely informed by Grant’s diagnosis as HIV-positive. Now, on ‘Grey Tickles…’, that rage is still there, but he continues to vent it stylishly.
“I don’t want to become one of those people who just snaps and murders somebody,” he ponders. “I had a lot of rage built up from the way people treated me when I was younger. I put up with a lot of shitty behaviour from people because I didn’t think I deserved better. And that’s a very sad thing to have to realise about yourself. When you wake up later in life and realise what a horrible joke that is, you have to figure out a way to process that stuff. I suppose that’s why I go at it from an absurd angle.”
Absurdity infuses Grant’s music, particularly when he addresses his homosexuality and others’ reactions to it. But he’s always been very frank about it too: since starting his solo career he’s used gendered pronouns ‘him’ and ‘he’ for lovers – something Years & Years frontman Oli Alexander recently noted a lack of in music. Was doing so something that ever concerned him?
“I definitely had that thought process when I was younger, in the Czars,” he responds. “Like, ‘You can’t say “him” here, or you shouldn’t.’ That’s something I did away with when I started writing ‘Queen of Denmark’.”
This, Grant says, was his way of staying sober. “What got me into addiction was the constant need to escape from my reality. If I was to stay sober, I needed to talk about things exactly the way they were, so I was going to use the pronoun ‘him’ where it was appropriate to do that, and not worry about what anybody thought.”
"Even though I love the idea sometimes of getting revenge on certain types of people, I don’t think it’s all it’s cracked up to be."
— John Grant
He’s now been living in Iceland for three and a half years, and has been with his Icelandic boyfriend for two. In the close-knit capital of Rejkjavik, he sometimes spots Björk, who he says “has always been a huge influence. I've never met her but I've bumped into her several times. Sometimes I've been with people she knows and she'll just say 'hey', you know.”
Right now, life seems pretty ideal – but Grant’s music often highlights his insecurities, which makes it hard to know if he appreciates that things are going so well. “I really feel like it’s important not to have too much of my self-esteem attached to whether I’m succeeding right now as a musician,” he says. “If it were all to go away tomorrow I would hope I’ve learnt enough to know that that wouldn’t mean I was all of a sudden not successful. I would still be successful by being who I am.”
This makes sense, because Grant has been through a lot, and it seems he has this serene way of looking at things as a result. Case in point: HIV. “My HIV came about because I made some really poor decisions,” he says. After getting sober, “I was still hanging onto a lot of my self-destructive behaviours in the world of sex.”
Addressing this beautifully in ‘Grey Tickles, Black Pressure’, he sarcastically romanticises the hedonism of the ‘70s: “I love the way men looked then,” he says. “Their moustaches and their beards and their tight jeans and their snug slacks. But if I’d been alive in the ‘70s it wouldn’t have been romantic, it would have been me indulging in my self-destructive behaviour, which would have resulted in my death a couple of decades ago. It’s a very dark joke, basically.” In the same song, though, he compares his own HIV-positive status with cancer-stricken children; he finds an even thicker tangle of issues therein.
“We need to use these things in order to have perspective about what’s going on in our personal lives,” he says. “It helps you to be a little bit more humble.” But then again, “you can’t say that your problems don’t matter because there are children with cancer. You must never use it to say, ‘My life is stupid because I have first-world problems.’ When you live in the first world, those are the kind of problems that you do have. It’s grotesque, but that’s the way it is. And that’s not your fault or my fault.” Not contradiction: precision.
His pinpoint skewering of the things and people he loathes seems to get sharper with each record, but it always seems righteous. As he embarks on a tour – “my favourite part” – of both the US and Europe, he reflects on this, and concludes, “I don’t think it can be my goal to hurt. Even though I love the idea sometimes of getting revenge on certain types of people, I don’t think it’s all it’s cracked up to be.”
Everyone is telling John Grant to let go. Even John Grant is telling John Grant to let go. On the face of it at least, it seems as though he already has – but knowing Grant, there’s probably far more to it than that.
Photos: Michael Berman. John Grant’s new album 'Grey Tickles, Black Pressure' is out now via Bella Union. Taken from the October 2015 issue of DIY, out now.