Kermit was booked in to have a chat with Sounds, via his friend and our magazine photographer, Stu Turner. However, I thought it would be a good idea if we recorded the interview so I could also nab it for the radio show. Black Grape’s founder member, Kermit, was a here to talk about, amongst other things, the band’s new album, “Pop Voodoo”, which is due to be released on July 7th.
Black Grape was formed in 1993 by Shaun Ryder and Bez from the Happy Mondays, who were joined by guitarist Wags (from the Paris Angels), Oli “Dirtycash” Dillon and two members of Ruthless Rap Assassins, Carl “Psycho” McCarthy, and of course, Paul “Kermit” Leveridge. The band split in 1998, briefly reforming in 2010, and now almost 20 years later there is the promise of the first new album since, “Stupid, Stupid, Stupid” was released in 1998.
Kermit joined me in the studio on a warm afternoon. ‘It’s cramped and sweaty’ he laughed, ‘but I’m a backstreet kind of guy – I like it.’ Pleasantries over, I asked if he’s happy with the new album. When promoting a new release, most artists will say yes they’re happy with the recording, and happy with the album. Kermit was genuinely enthusiastic, ‘I’m very happy with the album, we are, I’m very happy with it, you know, it’s been a pleasure working with Shaun again.’ It’s been well documented that Shaun sacked the other band members, and working together now, Kermit acknowledged, ‘we both admitted that we’ve had unfinished business with Black Grape and it was good to get together and make a good album.’
The album has been produced by Killing Joke’s, Martin ‘Youth’ Glover. ‘He’s just a mega producer and a thoroughly nice guy,’ says Kermit. My next question was, ‘do you enjoy the whole recording process and writing process?’ ‘Yeah, I like the recording and writing process — I thrive on that— I like being in the studio throwing ideas around, and you know, I like that, it’s like living on the edge.’ My own view is that to some people, studios can be boring places; to others they are magical places.
No surprise that Kermit thrives in the studio, as he said, ‘I’ve been recording in some form or other since I was in school, primary school – I went to Manchester High School of Art, which was in Cheetham Hill. I think if I hadn’t gone to that school, I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing now, you know, because it was a school for kids that showed aptitude in the arts — dance, music, sculpture; whatever it was we had some pretty crazy teachers — it was a good place.’
After listening to the album I was very interested to hear from Kermit what the album is about. He described the artistic process in detail, ‘me and Shaun tend to write little stories, y’know — it’s hard to explain how we do it, well we sit in the same room facing each other, we do write eyeball to eyeball.’ With a laugh he told me that although he writes on pads, ‘like a normal human’, Shaun ‘writes on beer mats and train tickets, then he sticks it all in some teapot that he’s got at home and then he’ll turn up with all these ideas.’ He continued, ‘like little strands of words everywhere, so you have to look through all of them. Every track was different and because we hadn’t worked with Youth before, it was nice and it’d been like 20 odd years since I’d worked with Shaun last.’ Not quite 20 years, as, in collaboration with DJ Paul Oakenfold and singer Goldie, under the name, 4 Lions, they recorded and released a song, “We are England,” in support of the England national football team for the UEFA Euro 2016 football competition. ‘I saw the video’, I told Kermit, wryly.
As Kermit had talked about unfinished business I wondered if by revisiting Black Grape, who had a lot of success, were they chasing that kind of success again. Some people can come up with the goods and produce good music again and I wondered if it ever went through Kermit’s head that the aim of this was to earn a few quid touring again.
Kermit was quick to disagree, ‘For me personally I do what I do because I love doing what I’m doing and I love making music, and I love, like I say, I love the creative process, I like coming up with things, and Shaun’s the same way you know. We work really easily together, we bounce off each other really easily, you know, like I was in the Rap Assassins back in the day with Andy and Carson — we all used to write our raps and everything but you write your rap I’d write my rhymes and we might swap some things. Working with Shaun is different as we do this kind of word to word and line to line thing — it’s weird I couldn’t explain it to you — It’s like some kind of like mashed up telepathy, and it works.’
As there’s a new album I presumed Black Grape would have a lot of gigs over the summer, but apart from a few festivals they are doing very little live until next summer. ‘Shaun does his Mondays thing and I do my Super Words thing with Greg Wilson and all that, so it’s good because it can be a bit too much just focussing on this one thing. It becomes the be all and end all, and then it turns into something else and it can become quite destructive, so it’s good to be able to step out of it and do something else — and it’s been lovely working with Shaun I have to admit it, it’s been really nice working with him.’
Since Black Grape first had success in the 90s the music industry has changed so much and I asked Kermit what he found to have been the biggest change for him.
‘Ah the biggest change, well back in the day you used to record an album and you’d get an advance, you’d get a big advance, ooh a nice chunky advance, whatever, and that doesn’t happen nowadays. Now, it’s about touring and merchandising and downloads and things; it’s a totally different game now.’ I asked him if that’s not better because it’s only a loan from the record label and then you had to pay it back in some way by sales.
‘Yeah but you could say that about any industry. Whatever industry someone’s in, if someone works at a bank, they’re a slave to the bank, you know? I mean we’re all slaves in some way or other, we’ve got to feed our kids and pay our mortgages.’
I couldn’t disagree, and he went on, ‘You know it’s just that some of us are freer than others and when I say freer, I mean, be able to be creative in their thoughts. That’s the thing about Manchester,’ he laughed, ‘because it rains a lot in Manchester, people stay in, and they smoke weed or whatever. There’s nothing much to do, except go and hang out with each other, so that’s why there’s so many bands in Manchester and artists, because people are staying in being creative, staying out of the rain, man, you know what I mean?’
Kermit was not finished yet, ‘Well not all the time, cos we like to party as well. You know but that’s one thing I’ve learned about this city, people are very — now what’s the phrase? Very blue sky with their thoughts! Obviously I’m a Mancunian and I’m gonna love this city.’
I suggested the city, like the music industry, has changed a lot and Kermit had yet more philosophy to share, ‘Yeah yeah, well everything changes, you know; if you don’t change, if you don’t evolve you’re a dinosaur, you die; you have to evolve as an artist, as a human being— you know we’re all about growth.’
I wondered if he thought Black Grape had grown. ‘I really do, musically and lyrically, I mean like the people that I’ve played the album to, they’ve gone, ‘oh my God, it sounds like a Black Grape album but wiser and smarter’, and that’s good. Muhammed Ali said, ‘show me a man that is the same at 40 as a man that was 20 and I’ll show you a man that’s not grown in 20 years.’
When I look back at Kermit’s career, I had to confess that I always preferred Black Grape by a million miles to Happy Mondays; I thought Black Grape had more substance. When I said this to Kermit his response was, ‘Yeah Black Grape fans always say that. We’re a different thing, you know, Black Grape basically, we’re the embers of the Rap Assassins and the Mondays at the time.’
This allowed me to move on to Rap Assassins and hip hop in general, and black music in general in Manchester. Did Kermit think it had gone forward, backward, or sideways.
Kermit’s response was, ‘Wow, see that’s a loaded question — you know the black sound of Manchester doesn’t get the props that it deserves. Places like the Reno in Moss Side are kind of forgotten, but a lot of the old black artists like Ewan Clarke and Tomlin were playing in these places, back in the day. Places that Shaun and Bez were going to, and Barney and Hooky — they were hanging out there and soaking up all this and like, it always gets underplayed when people talk about Manchester. It upsets me because Manchester is a multicultural city. I don’t think it’s the Mancunians doing it, I think it’s the media. They see a certain thing —It’s like the Rap Assassins, our first album got top reviews in all the music press, but it didn’t translate into sales because we weren’t three white guys.’
I asked Kermit what he sees now from when he and Rap Assassins were going strong and black music in general then, to how it is now; did he think it’s diluted in any sense?
‘Most of the real black music that’s being made now, people probably call it specialist —a lot of stuff that is in the charts now, that is popular music, for the past I don’t know, since like about ’98 or something, has basically been hip hop grooves. It’s been hip hop culture stripped of its wheels and rims and lights and everything. Listening to some of the rap nowadays is mumble rap stuff; you know, I’m an old hip hop head and one of the whole things if you’re MC you want to write...when you’re spitting your bars down that mic you want to make sure you got a cold 16 —Boom —but they’re saying the same word over and over again and it’s like...I...maybe I’m old,’ he laughed.
Whether we’re old, or not, I was interested to hear what Kermit saw in the future, for particularly Manchester, and black musicians and artists, and what would make it easier for them to be successful as creatives and artists.
‘Wow! Wow, see that’s a deep question. Respect at gigs, and gigs for people that are doing something different from the million indie kid gigs that are on throughout Manchester during the week. You don’t see any, urban stuff, you know, however you want to describe it. Urban sounds awful; wash my mouth out with soap but you know what I mean? You know you don’t see much of that out. Ah people say, ‘there’s gonna be trouble, there’s gonna be trouble’ and so we’ve had that since back in the day when I was young. You know with the Rap Assassins we had to put on our own things, we had to organise our own events to get out there. I don’t think it has changed over the years. I see things going on, like black DJs playing somewhere and it might be on Facebook, but I just know that only a certain type of people are gonna go there, but if everybody went, they’d hear all these awesome tunes that these awesome DJs are playing, and they’d perhaps learn something. That’s what we need; you know we’re supposed to be a big multicultural city. It’s just happened that way because people coming here from wherever in the 60s and they’d settle in one neighbourhood, and that neighbourhood became synonymous with that type of person and everything. It happens all over the world, you can’t change that, and every town’s got its Chinatown and its Curry Mile. It’s part of living in Britain nowadays.
Our studio time was drawing to an end but before Kermit left I wanted to ask him about the video I had watched of a track, I presumed, taken from the album, which features Donald Trump quite highly. Kermit laughed and said, ‘We don’t even laugh at his surname anymore, d’you know what I mean, that’s how normal it’s become; the man’s name is Trump and nobody laughs anymore —It’s crazy!’
The obvious question was to ask for Kermit’s thoughts on the world we live in now, as I thought that song, ‘Everything You Know Is Wrong’ summed it up really, everything is wrong. ‘Right, yeah, everything you know is wrong; everything you’re taught in school is wrong, you don’t get taught properly. You go to school, 9 o’clock till 3 o’clock, to prepare you for your working day as an adult slave.’
I had to agree. It’s all about paying your taxes, or becoming cannon fodder. ‘That’s it’, Kermit nodded, ‘I’ve heard old people in the past say, ‘oh we need a good war and that’ll sort ’em all out’ But we are at fucking war man— the battle is for the fucking culture, and I keep telling everybody that. I like to think that I’m on the front lines for it— the arts are being cut here, this is happening, that’s happening, we need a big social movement. People need to care for each other more, you know, because the people above us aren’t looking out for us, we need to look out for ourselves. I don’t mean me as an individual, I mean me looking out for you, we’re all human beings; we’re all part of this planet, man. If this planet was a spaceship we’d make sure it was clean, make sure the filters were clean; we’d get rid of the rubbish, we’d do all that stuff. But people don’t think of the planet like it’s a spaceship, but that’s what it is, it’s a spaceship, hurtling through space, and if we don’t maintain it, it’s gonna break down, and it is breaking down.’
Some serious food for thought there from Kermit; it was a real pleasure talking to him on the Ripman Show. Go and see Black Grape live when you get the chance, do not miss these guys. The album, ‘Pop Voodoo’ is out on the 7th of July.