Interview: Steppin’ On, Happy Mondays.

Interview: Steppin’ On, Happy Mondays.

Hello, and welcome to Monday. And so we begin: as Bryan Ferry once conceded on Roxy’s itself straight-up sublime If There Is Something number from their eponymous début effort, “to keep a straight course not easy.” And however the weekend just gone treated you, he, for one, has done his fair share of slicing himself up with that straight-edge lifestyle and allowing in all manner of ill. Though why the witter? Well, because it is down a comparable pitfall of elaborate overindulgence and limitless intoxication the length and breadth of England itself that the Happy Mondays so often fell. From ensuring Tony Wilson’s revered Manchester indie Factory Records powered down for good back in the halcyon Haçienda days of the early ’90s, to the band breaking down in utterly dystopian disfunction on numerous occasions since sex, and drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll recurrently proved extravagances altogether too enticing for Shaun Ryder and Mark “Bez” Berry’s insatiable thirst for getting totally and utterly fucked. This year, however, the band’s original line up reconvened for the first time since their initial split now almost two decades ago, and they’re to top the proverbial with two festive shows at London’s Roundhouse. These represent that forked sprig of holly sat prickly atop the Christmas pud; the volatile booze slathered right on. And consequently, we spoke with longstanding vocalist, and Shaun’s onetime woman Rowetta “Manchester” Satchell who staunchly avows there’ll be no boozing, and that the venue’s geographical situation of Chalk Farm is about as close as the band are to get to any form of unpigmented powder. All set?

Well, when we wagged chins over the wireless, the band themselves weren’t quite. They’ve suffered a belated beginning to rehearsals, with an unnamed band member in need of an equally nebulous “medical treatment” though with now only two days ’til the dates, we can but hope all ailments have been painstakingly tended to, and that realities are kept in check. Egos have, Satchell proclaims, been checked in at the cloakroom this time around: the initial decision to fully reunite as was “was talked about before Christmas, because we had to get everyone to agree to meet up. We then met at The Lowry in Manchester for a photo shoot, but we hadn’t then properly spoken to each other. I mean the rest of us all get on fine, but it’s really most of us and Shaun who hadn’t seen or spoken to each other for years, so it was a pretty big day back in January. It was just really nervy, ’cause you’re worried but we all got on brilliantly – it was a really nice atmosphere, but I was scared it wasn’t gonna go well…”

Satchell and Ryder were once known not only for their charismatic onstage collaborating, but also for their tempestuous relationship off it. He infamously lamped her on a ferry crossing over to the Isle of Wight – where the band are to play next year’s mid-June retro rock slog – when in the throes of a customary, and excessively analeptic stint. Both Satchell herself and her confidence took a hefty knock, having been grossly manhandled by a previous partner in onetime dealer Noel Satchell, and she subsequently assumed a proactive approach to affronting domestic abuse. For one to have suffered so much, she not only today sounds inspirationally exuberant, but has also surrounded herself incessantly with what one may deem Black Grapes, so to speak. Touring with an otherwise exclusively male cast of tens surely can’t be easy, but au contraire: “It’s great! I’ve always gone around with lads so I’m very comfortable with it, and they’re comfortable with me. On our days off, I usually go away with Bez, or the guy who plays Bez. They’re me mates: in the film 24 Hour Party People, when I played meself in that [her voice becoming increasingly Mancunian in tone], again I was surrounded by boys and it was all very comfortable. But to be honest, it’s because they’re so comfortable with me – they know they can trust me. I’m into football; we’re into the same music… I’m not a girly girl – I don’t talk about makeup, and I don’t care about what people are wearing. Some of the lads will ask if they look alright, but I don’t have to go through the what colour are you wearing, or any of that.”

So far, so employable were you just so happening to currently be contemplating embarking upon a rock voyage to be charted down the laddier end of the spectrum. Satchell continues to convincingly put forth her case: “Also, I know I talk a lot but on the tour buses and stuff I’m very good to travel with, ’cause I’m a good listener as well. This is what Bez has said. We’ve just got back from Bangkok, and me and Bez are like brother and sister so all his mates that used to come round with us, they’re all my mates as well. And they all treat me with more respect than they do their girlfriends! I’m a very strong woman now, after years of not being. And so joining the ‘Mondays made me feel strong. I have a great time with ’em.”

It is, given the stories the band’s members have indelibly etched into both their own personal and collective histories, something of a modern-day wonder that they could now be cajoled back into the same room; let alone hotel, even if it does happen to be one as unsparingly plush as The Lowry. To contextualise, Satchell wasn’t alone in avowing she would never speak to Ryder again as his own brother and bassist, Paul Ryder, declared his hand and opted out of all ‘Mondays involvement some time around the year 2000. Shaun had thrown enough acerbic vitriol at his sibling during live shows in which, without a mic to call his own, Paul was effectively left voiceless and had, more perturbingly, insistently condemned his brother’s attempts to rid himself of addiction. So there was surely plenty to mull over with the band having been somewhat sobered by the multitudinous benefits of hindsight: “There was absolutely loads of deliberating, and I just couldn’t imagine it happening. I was thinking about me and my feelings; wondering whether I could ever get along with Shaun again. But I was also thinking about everybody else’s problems with the band, and you just think: ‘I don’t know how this is gonna work.’ I couldn’t see that it ever could, but I kept saying to myself: ‘Well, if the others do it, then I’ll do it’ and they were all the same. We kept asking ourselves whether we were sure everyone was in and then when Paul declared himself in and said he was coming over from L.A. to do it then I thought: ‘Well, I’ll do it.'”

All for one, and one for all: the Happy Mondays were back in action. However, arguably one of Britain’s most repeatedly dysfunctional bands had in fact been functioning for some time, with Shaun Ryder trolling a pale imitation about the place. Satchell, needless to say, wasn’t exactly overjoyed at his then latest venture, and her distaste for his frankly distasteful gambit gave birth to a greater ambition to reform: “I always wanted to sing the songs again – I hated other people playing and singing our music as Happy Mondays. I didn’t think it was right, and the fans always felt cheated. I was always getting emails saying: ‘That girl’s not as good as you’, or ‘that bass player’s not like Paul’, or ‘the guitarist is no Mark Day’, so people would always go and come away feeling cheated. I mean Bez wasn’t even with ’em so in the end, it was only Shaun left over from the original band.” To this day, that is the only form in which I’ve witnessed the Happy Mondays and, with Shaun’s nephew (and Paul’s son, quite unbelievably) on drums, they looked a shambles and sounded worse. I never felt any great ownership over the Happy Mondays’ music – they exploded and burnt out before my time – but I can comprehensively see how the band’s other members may have felt greatly aggrieved by the Ryder’s dubious rouse.

“I just felt as though what was our band had been taken away from us by people who were going out playing as the Happy Mondays that weren’t, and I just don’t agree with that. Not when the whole band isn’t there”, she continues. “And because of the internet, the fans are gonna get in contact with me moaning: ‘Oh! It’s no good!’ Especially in other countries, they’d paid money to come and see us, but it wasn’t us at all. So that was important to me – that the fans, the real fans, get to see the real band. That they get to hear the real guitars live; my real voice live – you know, the real ones and not just people playing as us.”

Of course, the reformation in itself – whether full-blown or half-baked – is never without its cynics and its intrinsic scepticism. It’s really only for the money, isn’t it? I mean it must be – they all hated each other last time they were boxed within the same four walls together. The human tends only to abandon a good thing once it’s gone bad, and the ‘Mondays went sour as the blackest of grapes. Though their intentions, Satchell adamantly appeals, are now pure as can be: “The Stone Roses did it first, and it went down so well: so many people wanted to see them so much that they sold so many tickets so quickly, and I just think that if there’s a fan base out there that wants to see it then it’s great to do that. The ‘Roses didn’t have to reform – there’s no way any of ’em needed to reform [for financial motives]; they wanted to, and I think it’s for all the right reasons. They could’ve reformed years ago for millions, and they didn’t so I think it was just the right time for them. With that happening, we got loads of offers and it became possible but it wasn’t so much because of money and whatever [related] reasons because if it were, we could’ve just done a tour and stopped. We could’ve taken the money, and stopped. But instead we’re carrying on – we’re doing new music, because we’re working well together. We wanna do more gigs. We don’t get loads of money for every gig we do – what people don’t realise is that we go all over the world and sometimes it’s not great financially – but we wanna perform for the fans out there.”

Without doubt, there are still legions of acolytes out there, baying for a glimpse of this reportedly glistening reformation though again as far as Satchell is concerned, “it’s more about getting these fans to see the real band. For me, that’s important. I mean I looked at the rest of the band, and they still look alright. Bez still does what he does; Shaun’s looking, and even singing better than ever before. The question was can everybody still play? And everybody’s now better. I think it’s only rubbish to reform if you’re rubbish. But we’re not – we’re great now. We’re better than we were when we split up. If you’re gonna perform, then make sure you can still perform. If any of us were found lacking, then I think it’d be time to go. If you get bands reforming and there’s anyone not doing their bit, and not working properly, then just leave it. It’s not for you any more. But hopefully we can continue as we are…”

As they are, and not as they were then. With a new record on their newly broadened horizons and due next year, do they D.A.R.E. to dream of a storied continuation to their ever rich, if not always entirely fulfilling escapades? “Well, everything’s changed, and we’re now kept more separate than we were back then.” I probe not as to who it is refereeing the ‘Mondays these days, though I can’t envisage it to be all that enviable a responsibility. “It’s really that we’re away from Shaun: he goes home to his kids after every gig, and does his writing separately. We used to all sing in the studio together and nowadays the rest of us still do, ’cause we all get on well. We can even travel on the tour bus together, but Shaun doesn’t because you’re gonna get arguments starting again. And we don’t want that. It’s great onstage – the chemistry between us, and the little bits of banter that go on. I mean there have always been arguments onstage, and that’s great that it’s up there. But once we’re off it, we have to be kept separate. We don’t socialise together, really, because it’s not good for any of us any more. He doesn’t want to do that party lifestyle any more, because he can’t. It wasn’t good for him. He’s had to keep off his droogs [, her broad Manc accent again getting the better of her. The term comes with the territory, I suppose]…”

So there are seriously no more fiestas? No more after show excesses, and distressing incidents? “Well the rest of us, like meself and Bez, we still party. Bez has after parties, and I’m at ’em all. Mark Day comes, too. But most of ’em are off the booze; they’re off the other stuff, and it’s a good thing. It’s completely different to how it was before – then, we’d all stay together in a big studio but I think that stopped on Yes Please! in the end, because of the things that went on in Barbados.” The Barbados episode is perhaps the most fabled in the ‘Mondays’ memoirs: it was Yes Please! that put paid to Factory Records once and for all, as the band holed up in Eddy Grant’s West Indian studio and promptly lost it. All of it. Paul and Shaun were shipped off in the hope that, on the outskirts of the Caribbean of all places, their work ethic would be safeguarded from the harmful interventions of heroin. It reportedly was, although they instead sniffed out copious amounts of crack cocaine instead. As the band descended further into the unreachable realms of the irredeemable, stacked sun loungers were clicked and clacked into so-called crack dens whilst Grant’s own furniture was unceremoniously flogged in order that the Ryder brothers could continue to aliment the addiction. Shaun, inevitably, wrote not a solitary lyric.

“The drugs meant we couldn’t get a record made, and so it ended up just being Shaun on the vocal bits in some place in Surrey, and it’s a bit more like that now. Just so that we can actually get stuff done, basically! And musically, the rest of us are going in, writing our parts, working together brilliantly, and then sending each other MP3s of what we’ve done over night. We couldn’t do that before – we didn’t even have CDs or mobile phones last time around! I can sing an idea down the phone now; Paul can lay down a bass line from L.A. so yeah, things are much better now. Mainly because of the internet, really. MP3s, and CDs, and phones even.”

The times they are a-changin’ daily, and uncountable days have passed since the band originally disbanded. The internet, above everything else, has catalysed the speed at which things are being constantly refashioned around us. Yes, the Ryders may both now be in healthier respective states of mind, though to turn to the music industry at large, are things actually getting better all the time? “I think there must be something missing, because everybody still yearns for the old bands”, Satchell says. “I mean I do Joy Division stuff with Peter Hook, and you can’t get better songs than Atmosphere. And some of the ‘Roses songs – I’ve been to see them loads of times, and even went to Milan last year – those songs are just better than most of the stuff you get from newer bands. Or at the very least they’re as good as. To me, they’re better and to me, it’s the songs, really. The Manchester scene especially has really stood up over the years – it can stand up to anything that’s out now. I might not be into pop, other than the odd tune, so the commercial side isn’t really my cup of tea. And I know that I’ve been on one of those sorts of shows [Rowetta was in fact the last lady standing in the original ’04 series of The X Factor], but it’s not really for me.”

What is, and seemingly always will be her, however, is her native Manchester. In among the artillery-like barrage of words cannoned off from her end through mine, she dispels the city’s common footballing misconception (“most people from Manchester support United; people from Stockport support City”) before going on to extol its virtues at insistent length. And whereas one of their closest contemporaries from beyond the boundaries of the metropolitan borough in Primal Scream were questionably devoid of definitive place (the hallucinogenic haze of this halcyon early ’90s, as illustrated in, say, Michael Winterbottom’s 24 Hour Party People, or Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting aside), the Happy Mondays were, and always will be inextricably linked with Manchester. “I love Manchester, and I think it’s more real when it comes down to it. That’s why our music’s so much better than other people’s. But that might be just because I come from Manchester, and I love my city so much. A lot of people leave Manchester to go and buy a home somewhere else, like the Gallaghers for instance, but I would never leave. I mean I can’t now, as I’ve said it in every interview, but I won’t anyway. I love it here; I love coming home. I do live near the airport, and I do travel a lot but I love coming back. There’s something special about Manchester, and that’s why I changed me name to Manchester.”

She is Ms. MCR, and one suspects she’d quite happily have that emblazoned across her chest on a touristy tee for all eternity, by the sounds of it. Though it’s somewhere she’ll be out of, more than in (if no less into, I don’t doubt) for much of next year, as grand designs are already afoot for extensive world touring. Long since perceived as a live band per se, Satchell can’t suppress the thrill still inherent to the live aspect: “The fans are excited when we announce something, but then so am I. I get overexcited, if anything. And I think people have always commented on that: at the end of the day, I began as a Happy Mondays fan so for me, the ‘Mondays playing the Isle of Wight Festival is what it’s all about. I love the fact that we’re known around the world, and that we get good crowds. We did South America after the UK tour – Argentina and Chile – and we had packed crowds with people singing along to all the words. Well, that’s amazing! Sometimes I think the ‘Mondays get overlooked by other bands and audiences, but it’s great that we are still important to so many people.”

Though it’s not as though the band are strangers to such protracted touring technique; anything but. You don’t just cultivate that sort of cult appeal by circuiting the hideously enormous MEN Arena incessantly over the years. Of course from the outside in, it may appear as though every band has it in them to perhaps reach a stage whereby they feel as though they’ve already seen, done, and ultimately achieved everything feasible though as far as Satchell’s concerned, the ‘Mondays still have goals to net as it were: “Oh, there are definitely still new things to do – I’d love to do an album where everybody’s pretty much straight and clean, and one that everybody likes. You know, the new songs so far on this new album sound brilliant so I’d love to get this album done and tour it around the world. To do America, Australia, Japan – all with the new album – would just be great after all these years. I do sing with other people, and I sing on me own, but the ‘Mondays is me little baby; it’s me family. For good and bad, it’s always in me family and although I didn’t think we’d ever do it again, now that we are I’ve got lots of hopes for the band.”

“For the fans of the band who haven’t seen us yet, I just want them to ’cause everyone was pleasantly surprised on the last tour with how good we were. Everyone put an effort in, and we were just better than people thought we’d be. You know, there were a couple gigs with technical hitches that weren’t great great, but apart from that it went brilliantly. Nobody wanted a day off, and we were all getting on really well so it’s already surpassed what I thought it would. Shaun’s already talking about going on for longer than The Rolling Stones, so you never know! We’re all lookin’ alright, and we’re all able to sing and play, so I’m really enjoyin’ it. I’m just buzzin’ about singing with Mark Day and Paul Ryder again – it’s just brilliant. That combination of guitar and bass is so special. Me and Shaun are singing really well together, so whether we’re getting on or not doesn’t really matter. We are getting on now, but that’s because of the way it works – we don’t spend loads of time together offstage so onstage, you get that buzz when you’re singing.”

Which, finally, takes us right back to this week and bang up to speed. Apart from Shaun Ryder smothered in a rotund red and white, dishing out mince pies, ho ho ho’s, and so forth what are we to expect from the two festive London dates penned into many a soon to be defunct diary? Again, returning to the root of our conversation, uncertainty reigns supreme: “I don’t know too much about ’em yet, though I do know that we’re definitely doing what we hope to be the new single that’ll hopefully be out around about spring. And that’s a big thing for us – we’re hoping to play at least one new song which nobody will ever have heard before. They told me to make sure I know one of the songs backwards, as it’ll be an early Christmas present to the fans who’ve really, really supported us this year. Honestly, we couldn’t have dreamed for it to have been better, and it’s just been amazing. Brixton was wonderful, and we sold really well. New fans in among the old – there were loads of kids in the audience – but it’s gonna be a special one. I know they’re thinking of putting on some surprises for these London nights, but I don’t know if they’re confirmed as yet. It’ll be huge if it happens…”

One thing that is for sure and wholly firmed up, however, is that “Bez is having an after party, and Bez’ after parties are like no other. Believe me.”

Experiencing is believing, and the Happy Mondays play the Roundhouse Wednesday and Thursday of this week.

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