Happy Mondays star Shaun Ryder: There's no sex, no drugs, no madness anymore
Ahead of the band's Belfast gig this weekend, Happy Mondays frontman Shaun Ryder tells Edwin Gilson why middle age has helped them leave their famously wild rock lifestyle behind
Shaun Ryder, the original 'Madchester' icon, is contemplating his career progression, from his hedonistic but highly fruitful early days to his "more responsible" current existence.
"Here's the thing," he begins. "Back then I was in the music game. Now I'm in showbiz."
The 50-year-old uses this phrase a number of times during our conversation, and one wonders if it's a tongue-in-cheek reference to the on/off drama his band Happy Mondays have been through in recent years.
Manchester's first 'baggy' psych-dance group have, since initially splitting up in 1993, reformed on three occasions, most recently last year. Ryder, who is in otherwise high spirits today, breaks in defensively when I ask him if all these reunions might be losing their meaning.
"Nah man, not at all. Listen, it's all about the music, isn't it? It got a bit boring a few years ago, but people love our music and our band which is why they keep coming to see us."
So the Happy Mondays are here to stay this time? "Of course! I'll still be doing this when ... well, you just don't retire from this game, do you? It's all about doing it for as long as you want, and what I want is to be around for a long time yet."
Indeed, his band have been flitting in and out of the UK music scene for so long now that Ryder's seemingly hyperbolic assertion that "Happy Mondays have never really stopped playing" isn't actually too far off the mark.
Even so, adjusting to the current climate must be a somewhat surreal challenge, judging by Ryder's analysis of a typical modern-day Happy Mondays crowd. The image he conjures couldn't be further removed from a standard night at The Hacienda, the bustling, drug-fuelled Manchester nightclub where his group made their name in the late 80s.
"We do a lot of afternoon shows nowadays at these family-orientated festivals," says Ryder, somewhat sheepishly. "It's weird; we get five-year-old kids coming to see us now, as well as these 70-year-old grannies."
Happy Mondays will be one of the headline acts at the West Belfast Festival this Sunday, with Ryder promising a "full-on best of" set. "We've got the full, original line-up now too," the singer enthuses. This features Shaun's brother Paul on bass, guitarist Mark Day, backing vocalist Rowetta Satchell and, just about, dancer Mark 'Bez' Berry. Despite not contributing much to the Happy Mondays musically, Bez has been a vital member ever since Ryder realised his unorthodox boogying helped the audience to loosen up at the band's early gigs.
But, this time round, Bez was reluctant to return to the stage. Having entered his 50s he was, perhaps for the first time, concerned about the potential indignity of shaking his limbs in front of thousands.
"Of course he had concerns about getting up and dancing at the age he is now," admits Ryder. "Maybe a little bit of self-consciousness. How did we convince him to come back? We just told him a lot of people out there really wanted him to do it, which he knew already. Nowadays he doesn't dance all the way through the show; he comes on for a bit of a wiggle, then goes off, then comes on again. It's just great to have him there."
So, all would appear rosy in the camp at the moment. How long relations will stay that way is another question, particularly given the past friction between the Ryder brothers. Earlier this year Shaun admitted he and Paul "didn't speak for about 15 years", blaming the band for ruining the relationship.
One way or another, though, perhaps through simple maturity, they seem to have put aside their differences. In fact, going on the frontman's assessment, the whole Happy Mondays vibe seems more level-headed than ever before. "It's more normal now," he says. "There's no sex, no drugs, no madness, no drama that comes with being a young lad. When we split up we were a bunch of young kids; we didn't even know what we were arguing about most of the time. We just haven't got that huge drama in our lives anymore. A lot of the time, when people were having a go at each other, it was completely meaningless anyway. But now we're all middle-aged men; there just seems to be less to argue about. Now, we go on stage, come off and remember having played a good gig. It's easy."
Happy Mondays helped turned Manchester into the undisputed party capital of the UK in the late Eighties and early Nineties and the band's affiliation with Factory Records is partly why the label, and its infamous venue The Hacienda, have gone down in legend. Yet Ryder's communication with the company was almost non-existent. When, in 1992, Happy Mondays returned from a disastrous recording trip in Barbados with a half-finished album (lacking any vocals at all from Ryder, who was in the grip of drug addiction), Factory were left completely in the mire. The commercial failure of the record, entitled Yes Please, effectively bankrupted the label and The Hacienda was soon forced to close its doors.
"It's such a stupid story," moans Ryder today. "Basically I wanted to wait for a few months in Barbados, so Paul Oakenfold could produce the album. I liked his way of doing things. But the other members said 'Hey, why should we wait? Let's just do it now!'. They thought the record would turn them into big stars, so they were impatient. It was just a bunch of egos that created complete nonsense. I wanted to wait and they didn't. End of story."
He insists "there was no comedown period" after Happy Mondays split up a year after this debacle. "I don't know what you mean! I formed my side-project Black Grape 12 months after; there was hardly time for a comedown period! I was a young lad, and, back then, young lads formed bands."
Such music Ryder frankly describes as "cartoon-like." He adds: "I always use Octopus's Garden by The Beatles as a starting point and from there I just made it up. I don't write about my life experiences or being in love or whatever, God no!"
Somewhat sadly, it took something Ryder "really, really didn't want to do" to put him back on the nation's agenda in 2010; reality TV programme I'm a Celebrity ... Get Me Out of Here, where he finished runner-up to The X Factor's Stacey Solomon. "I was so reluctant but my management, my record label, my wife and my kids all wanted me to do it, so I did. And I'm glad, because I enjoyed it. At 50-years-old you have to try new ways of doing things, you know? You can create a whole new fanbase by doing this reality television stuff."
Three years on, Ryder is keen to stress that despite "absolutely loving" the newfound interest in Happy Mondays generated by that TV appearance, his primary focus is on being a dad (he's father to six children, aged from three to 22, from three mothers).
"When I had my other kids 20 years ago, I wasn't there for them because I was caught up in the music business. So this time I get to stay at home with my two little girls as much as possible. They like some of my music too!"
So does this mean Ryder is too occupied to focus on new Happy Mondays material? "There's not much time at the moment, but we'll make something happen in the future I'm sure. One day there will be a new record. One day!"
In the meantime Happy Mondays will continue to relive the spirit of Madchester. Ryder isn't worrying about where he fits into the current musical landscape; he's just interesting in getting the party started across the UK. As he remarks for the umpteenth time: "It's all showbiz isn't it? We love it."
Happy Mondays play at the Feile an Phobail festival this Sunday. For details, visit www.feilebelfast.com
When Madchester ruled the charts...
Other bands who flourished during the iconic Madchester era:
The Stone Roses – the influential quartet released their seminal first album two years after the Happy Mondays debut, and often played at The Hacienda with Shaun Ryder's group, but split up due to internal tensions around the time of their sophomore record The Second Coming. The band, led by Ian Brown, reformed successfully in 2011.
Inspiral Carpets – the group behind hit singles such as She Comes in the Fall and Saturn 5 split up in 1995. For a while, Noel Gallagher was guitar technician for the band. They reformed in 2003, but as yet there has been no new material.
Northside – one of the shorter-lived bands of the scene, Northside only released one album, Chicken Rhythms, on Factory Records in 1991. Their single Shall We Take a Trip was initially banned by the BBC because of its reference to drugs.