My interview with John Grant could have started better. For someone with a dislike for being woken up suddenly, I manage to offend against my own pet hate: it’s midday on a typically rainy London Sunday and Grant, in town on a brief promo trip, is asleep in his hotel. My call wakes him up and there are, patently, some cross-wires, as he is not aware that we’re supposed to be having a conversation.
A hastily re-scheduled attempt 15 minutes later finds Grant scrambling to check out of the hotel and arrange for a taxi. He apologises for the inconvenience and we agree to try again in another 45 minutes when he is – hopefully – safely installed in a cab. I look at some of the more personal questions I have planned on asking and worry that they may not be appropriate for what increasingly looks like it is going to be a rushed job, on the phone, in the back of a hackney carriage. As it turns out, I needn’t worry. The setting is immaterial. John Grant can be honest, interesting and engaging even in circumstances such as these.
A little over a year ago, Grant found himself unexpectedly relocating to Iceland. An alumnus of Denverite thoughtful-rock outfit, The Czars, Grant’s original plan was to make the follow-up to his 2010 solo album, Queen of Denmark, in Texas again. But a quick jaunt to Reykjavik for the Iceland Airwaves festival in 2011 resulted in a chance meeting with Gus Gus co-founder, Biggi Veira. Suddenly, plans were changing.
I open our conversation proper by asking Grant at what point he thought, right – I’ve got to stay here. “I think it was while we were recording the song ‘Pale Green Ghosts’,” he says. “There was a moment when I was sitting in the studio, letting the enormity of this track wash over me, listening to Biggi make the sounds for it and I just realised that he and I had to make this record together. That was the last week of January 2012. We were basically just meeting up, ostensibly, to make some sounds for me to use on my record in Texas and then at the end of that week we had ‘Pale Green Ghosts’ and ‘Blackbelt’ almost done. They still needed work doing but the base skeletons of the tracks were there and I realised I needed to take advantage of this opportunity to work with him and he was clearly into it as well. Of course, that was a big part of the equation – whether he would have the time and the desire to continue working on it and he was really excited about it too. It was with a sort of horror that I realised that I would have to change my plans and upset a bunch of people and stay in Iceland and do the whole thing there”.
This bunch of people he refers to included two members of Midlake, with whom he’d previously worked on Queen of Denmark. “I was going to do the rhythm section with McKenzie and Paul and I was going to work with the producer John Congleton, who works with St Vincent”, Grant explains. “It wasn’t as much about me not thinking I could do the record with them, because I know that we would have come up with something great too, albeit different. But I felt that I had to do it with Biggi”. Was it a difficult decision to make? “Oh yeah, of course”, he says. “But everybody was fine after a while. It was just the shock, I guess, because nobody really knew what was going on with me. It was like, why is he freaking out and staying in Iceland all of a sudden? But I think – them being artists as well – I think they understood that these things happen, you know?”
I ask Grant whether the majority of the songs that ended up on the record had already been written by the time he decided to stay in Iceland and record it with Veira. “Well, most of them had a skeletal form”, he confirms. “Like the idea for the lyrical content. A lot of the time, I have an idea of what the chorus is going to be like and then I go about structuring the song in the studio. So, I’d say a little more than half of the album was basically formed in my head and just had to be recorded. And the rest of it Biggi and I worked on in the studio”.
We then turn to discuss whether, if The Czars, were still together, there is a possibility that the band’s sound would eventually have progressed towards the electronica of Pale Green Ghosts. After considering this for a moment, Grant is decisive: “It would have had to, you know? Because it’s just something that I always wanted with The Czars, anyway. But the thing was, I never had any money. I was always wasting my money on booze and such things so I never had the money to figure out how to make all these sounds that I wanted to make. It took me a lot longer to get there. Even now I chose to work with Biggi because he was a seasoned pro at making these types of sounds. It was a huge learning experience for me”.