With the help of aliens, he's off the methadone. Now the ex-Happy Mondays' singer wants to find his kids. By Miranda Sawyer
Sunday February 25, 2007
Like Keith Richards or Shane MacGowan, Shaun Ryder is revered by those who believe that rock'n'roll should be lived as well as recorded. 'I still get five offers a day off the biggest nutcases around,' he tells me, 'asking me who I want murdered.'
For Shaun, this isn't weird. These nutcases are his fans. Though his heyday was in the early Nineties, when he and his harem-scarem band, Happy Mondays, led the Madchester scene that ushered in Britpop and rave, Shaun's star still shines brightly enough for him to be the subject of films (Michael Winterbottom's 24 Hour Party People) and documentaries (BBC 3's The Agony and the Ecstasy). And to have bullets sent to him in the post. 'Oh, aye, yeah. I get them all the time. Them and photographs. Snatch shots, mucky Polaroids.' He laughs his filthy, cig-rattled laugh.You can't imagine James Blunt getting such heartfelt gifts, but then Blunt doesn't have Shaun's reputation. Straight out of Salford, Happy Mondays' loping, scuzzy groove was soon drowned out by their escapades, most of which involved heavy drug-use and thieving. They could be scary, but Shaun and Bez, the Mondays' dancer, were blessed with enough charm to become cartoons, Madchester versions of Shaggy and Scooby.
But that was then. Shaun is 44 now, and he has new management, new teeth, new music and a new attitude. Not that's he turned into Gillian McKeith, but he's slimmer, his eyes glint with mischief and his mad chat, the most engaging part of Shaun's talent, is back.
Our rendezvous is a London bar. Last time we met, about three years ago, Shaun wasn't at his best. Overweight, with rotten teeth and thickened speech, he was living in a small end-of-terrace house in Derbyshire with his then-girlfriend Felicia and their toddler, Joseph. When I say that he seems much better today, he takes this as a comment on his weight. 'Well, with methadone, you get that big pile-on,' Shaun explains, seriously. 'All that sugar.'
Finally, Shaun is opiate-free. A heroin addict by the age of 18, he came off smack several years ago, but found it harder to stop taking methadone, the heroin substitute, perhaps because he used to take both drugs together. For the past 14 years, he's tried everything: naltrexone implants, cold turkey, extreme rehab. Nothing worked. Which makes his current health all the more remarkable. How did he manage it? 'Exercise,' he says. 'Exercise and Hail Marys.'
Every day, Shaun gets up early and cycles, runs, skips, trains like a boxer, 'from about half past nine in the morning, until 10 at night'. He's not working at the moment, so it's just non-stop exercise for this all-new fitness freak. What's it like being straight?
'It's great. But it is freaky. I don't know whether it's all the rearranged molecules cos of the methadone, but I went through some kind of godly experience. It was pretty mental. It should have been on the Discovery Channel.'
Before we discuss Shaun's other-worldly encounters, however, it's time to take stock of what's really going on. Which is both not a lot and a shed-load. The dominant story is legal. No surprise there: the rock industry is about law and cash, as anyone who's ever been to the Brits will know.
The situation is this. In the mid-Nineties, Shaun signed a contract with his then-managers without reading it, when he was stoned. Since then, they've all been locked in legal dispute, with Shaun giving his ex-managers and solicitors several hundred thousand pounds, and still owing a huge amount. (The court deemed the contract unenforceable, and yet also enforced, because they all worked together for some time after it was signed.)
Anyway, he still owes them money. Most pop stars, other than Mick Jagger, are not natural accountants, and if there isn't someone close to them paying the bills, those bills go unpaid and debts go haywire. Shaun has had a series of conscientious girlfriends by his side, but when Felicia, his last partner, left him last year, his payments to his ex-managers lapsed, which violated a court order.
Since last month, all his assets have been frozen. Every penny he earns must go straight to the receivers. So, naturally enough, Shaun doesn't want to work.
'No, I do want to work,' he says. 'But if I do a [recording] deal, they'll just wipe it all up. They take everything. It's doing my head in. The amount of work you turn down ... this is the first time I've sat on my arse since I was 17. I was DJing for a bit, but I can't do that now. Everything gets taken off me. I can't stay in my house cos I can't pay the rent. I can't pay money for my kids. When Damon [Albarn] wanted to give me writing royalties for the Gorillaz stuff [Shaun sang on the 'Dare' single], I said, "Keep it. Have it, keep it, fuck it. There's no point."'
Shaun's current management tell me they're trying to negotiate a final settlement with his old managers. While he waits for this, Shaun has written several new songs with the re-formed Happy Mondays (of the original line-up, only Shaun and drummer Gaz remain, with Bez continuing as dancemeister). The songs sound promising, funky and woozy like all the best Mondays tunes, top-spun by Shaun's threatening growl. (Despite his new lifestyle, the subjects are the same as ever. 'Deviant' has a rapper asking him: 'Yo Shaun, you got the number for the guy with some?'). But no deal can be signed until Shaun's legal monkey is off his back, though the band are playing the Coachella festival next month.
That's not all he's got to worry about, however. Shaun's other pressing problem is his children. He has three with three different women. Jael, 16, lives in New York with mum Trish; Coco, 10, in Majorca, with her mother, Oriole; and Joseph, now four, is somewhere in Manchester with Felicia. The truth is, Shaun says, that he doesn't know their exact whereabouts, because their mothers, for various reasons, haven't kept him informed. He recently found out that Jael has been put into a residential school, but he's not allowed to phone or email her (he's written her a letter). He's negotiating to see Coco; he shows me some angry texts from Oriole that don't seem promising. And Joseph?
'Ah, that's the worst. Felicia's disappeared, moved address, not telling us where she is. She's not playing ball at all. I feel terrible; I haven't seen him since last April. Joseph loves me and I can imagine him going, "Where's Daddy? Where's Daddy?" and it's doing me in.'
Now Shaun's off the gear, he's finding it hard to cope with his emotions. 'I never had any feelings from 18 years old; now I feel like a ball in a pinball machine. I've only just grieved for my nan and she died in 1989. I've got a photograph of Joseph and I just look at it and tears come out. And Jael too - I could cry myself to sleep every night; it's terrible.'
There's a short pause. 'But,' insists Shaun, 'no way am I a preacher. People who want to take drink and drugs, let 'em do it.'
You're hardly an advert, Shaun.
'I'm all right. I'm positive.'
He is, too. He tells me, with glee, about the event that caused him to quit methadone. Shaun was, he announces, 'kidnapped by aliens'. He isn't joking. Shaun saw a UFO when he was 15 ('And once they see you, they do keep a check on you'), and it was after a Happy Mondays gig in Denmark last year that he and two other band members, Kav and Johnny, had out-of-body experiences.
I spend quite some time insisting to Shaun that he, Kav and Johnny must have been out of it, that someone must have spiked their drink, until Shaun just shouts: 'Or we was visited by aliens! I've had all sorts, I've had stuff from the Amazonian rain forest, but that doesn't explain the telepathy!' So I stop. Anyway, they asked the aliens some questions - 'they was a bit shady about Jael' - and the whole experience got him off methadone, so well done to the ETs.
Since then, Shaun's mood hasn't really dropped, despite his money and family troubles. He's moved in with a new girlfriend, Joanne, who he used to date 20 years ago, and they seem very happy. She has a 13-year-old son, Oliver.
He displays his new teeth, a present from his dentist, with great delight, too. 'Since I've had them done, I can do all sorts of impersonations,' he says, unprompted. 'Like, here's a cat [he gives a little miaow], here's my dog [woof] ... they're actually industrial diamonds, like what they stuck the tiles on the space shuttle with. They're worth about 25 grand.'
So if the worst came to the worst, you could sell your teeth.
'Or become a registered charity.'
Shaun would like to buy a house, which seems optimistic - he's even picked the area: Greengate, in Salford. He tells me that Sitting Bull and his braves disappeared into Greengate when they were travelling round Britain. They were wanted by the US government, says Shaun, 'and Sitting Bull and his braves say, "Fuck that" and they walk down Market Street, under the arches at Greengate and they disappear. The people of Salford hid them; they had lots of children, and now we all know why Salford's great!'
He grins. The man is ridiculously cheerful for someone whose future is uncertain, to say the least.
'Well, I feel all right,' he says. 'Most people would have hanged themselves in my position but you know you have a group of kids when you're seven, eight, nine, 10, your gang? Well, all the kids I grew up with, they're all dead. Shot. Dead, dumped in Tesco's pond. Dead. Or they've just got out of an 18-year sentence or an 11-year. I'm really lucky to be in the music business.'
I can't decide if he's right or wrong. Rock'n'roll goes with sex and drugs because both those vices are distractions; while your head's turned and your mind spun, there will always be someone rummaging through your pockets. Despite Shaun's street savvy, his heavy presence and scary connections, he still got done, didn't he? His life today is no kind of life. Someone should warn Pete Doherty.
Shaun's life so far
Born 23 August 1962, in Salford, Greater Manchester, eldest son of a postman and a nursery nurse. One brother, Paul.
Early Life Left school at 15 and, until the age of 28, could not get past the letter H in the alphabet. Sacked for stealing credit cards from his first and only non-music job as a messenger for the Post Office. Heroin-user since 18; moved on to crack but is now clean.
Career 1981 Formed Happy Mondays, a band at the forefront of the Madchester scene notorious for their heavy drug use.
1992 Happy Mondays split after four albums.
1995 Formed Black Grape with Mondays sidekick Bez and rapper Kermit.
1998 Black Grape split.
1999 Happy Mondays re-formed for one year.
2005 Co-wrote, with Damon Albarn, and rapped on Gorillaz' single 'DARE'.
Family Three children by three different women.