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an interview with John William Grant by Martin Williams
unedited transcriptIt's nearly 2am when the rain starts coming down. John William Grant, the limber voice of The Czars, is already battling the tail end of a cold and standing out here in the summer drizzle isn't doing him any favours. But when the waitresses of the Spitz tapped their collective watches and turfed us out onto the street just as our chat was taking off there was nothing else for it. We caught a taxi back to the flat the band are sharing for the duration of their UK jaunt- during which Grant enthused about Woody Allen and spoke about his original ambition to become an interpreter, something that led to him spending 6 years at college in Germany. But on arrival the flat reveals itself as somewhat compact and bijou (Mostyn) and is occupied by the rest of the band enjoying an after-show shandy. Tonight we're destined for the pavement.
By now it seems a long time since the band brought the stage at The Spitz to life, demonstrating again - after last weekend's RoTa show - thatThe Czars are a puzzle that can't be properly pieced together until sampled live. With a pedigree that boasts of classic meat-and-potatoes song writing with a hazy hint of Americana, it's only when the dynamics of the twin guitars weave and uncoil on-stage, skirted by Grant's lithe vocal, that The Czars really hit the ground running, outmanoeuvring the lumpen tendencies of the rootsy crew with whom they've been wedged. It was after he was cajoled into joining a band for a short period immediately before he left Germany that John William Grant first had intimations that he could sing.
I hadn't really started thinking that I could sing at that point, but people were telling me that was something I should think about doing.
Personal circumstances intervened and Grant returned to his hometown of Denver in the mid-nineties, leaving Germany behind, and, it seems, all ambition to be a translator.
It became clear to me that I wasn't a good translator because my English skills were really bad. Your mother tongue has to be very strong to become a translator. It looked at one point like I could achieve that but it was just overwhelming. I never went back to Germany, I just concen-trated on getting a band together.
Initially calling themselves Titanic, this name was soon scuppered in favour of The Czars, a name that would seem to be a nod to Grant's background in Russian studies. With some changes of personnel it took a couple of years for the line-up to settle with the current five-piece: Jeff Linsenmaier on drums, the two guitars of Andy Monley and Roger Green and Chris Pearson's bass. Their 1996 demos, later packaged and sold as Mood Swing, led on to the album The LaBrea Tar Pits of Routine in 1997, a record that the band will only grudgingly admit to liking.
It's not that I don't feel that's a part of who we are, Grant explains
. I feel that I've developed as a songwriter since then and it's just a fact that I sang out of tune all over the place on that. I do think that I could have done better.
For the recently released Before...but Longer, the paternal, guiding hand that the band felt they were lacking on their previous record was provided by Bella Union's Simon Raymonde. It's an alliance that Grant is clearly still enthusiastic about, having initially instigated the connection through his own obsession with Raymonde's old band.
I had been a huge Cocteau Twins fan and we had heard that they had started their own label so we sent them the disc and I think Simon liked the music and the voice to some extent but I think basically, what he saw was some potential. So we developed a dialogue for a while. We did some more demos and sent them to him and he was more impressed by those and invited us over to do an album.
One proviso being that Raymonde would act as producer.
He added specific things to it later once we'd recorded the album together but, in the beginning, he never really asked us to do specific things. He was really patient and just said, 'I'd like to hear what you're doing now.' He was basically allowing us to develop on our own. And when we finally went into the studio in London then that was more of an atmosphere where Simon and others at the label could say, 'let's try this.'
After his relative dissatisfaction with the previous album, what was Grant's mood going into the new record?
I just felt stronger as a songwriter, because one of the big problems with the first album is that I wasn't comfortable writing lyrics. It's this whole thing of wearing your heart on your sleeve and trying to do it without being dramatic. Without being too obvious. Because I really don't like the over-dramatising of the personal problems type thing. I prefer to touch on subjects in a way that everyone can apply it to their situation without necessarily having to experience your own personal drama. It takes a long time for me to write a song and it can't be contrived, it has to be something I've experienced or something that I feel. I can't just randomly try and tell a story that has nothing to do with anything in my life because I'm not good at that. I can't do it.
As a consequence, many of the lyrics remain in flux until it comes time to record them.
I didn't really start writing lyrics until we went into Bella Union to start recording. I was a little bit unprepared and when it came time to record the songs Simon would be like, 'well, you need to have some lyrics for this.' So I would go off to Twickenham or Richmond, you know they have these little paths there by the Thames? And I'd just sit on the benches and write lyrics for the songs. And that was the first time I specifically wrote lyrics that I sang time and time again. Because one thing that I didn't say is that first album we did, most of the time it was improvisation. Every time we played those songs live I made up new words. Which made it difficult for me to ever do the same song twice. I used to think it was cool to improvise like that but not anymore. For example, Val, the single from the album, I had different lyrics for that one every time. And when I finally got lyrics that were set in stone it was the first time I was really able to enjoy the song and really sing it with feeling. That's another thing, you can't really sing anything with conviction if it's improvised every time because it's always different.
It's an edginess that I'm sure some people thrive on.
I thought I did, but I don't think I do. Everything's up in the air. Tonight we did one song that was complete improvisation and I felt really uncomfortable because the words don't mean anything to me and I'm sure half the crowd can tell it's just bullshit words that mean nothing. But I love the song and once I've written some lyrics I'll really enjoy singing it.
In common with anyone who works with a degree of vocal elasticity, Grant has borne comparisons to Tim Buckley. The Czars' involvement in the recent Buckley tribute album, Sing a Song for You, would seem to underscore this comparison, but, for Grant, the reasons behind the band's involvement lie somewhere other than hero worship of Buckley Snr.
They wanted a statement about how I felt about doing a track for the Tim Buckley thing and, to be honest, the reason I love Song to the Siren is because of Elizabeth Frazer not because of Tim Buckley. And so to have Simon Raymonde of the Cocteau Twins ask me to cover Song to the Siren is a huge honour that really has nothing to do with Tim Buckley!
With a voice acrobatic enough to soar through moments of fragility and stormy intensity, from crystal clarity to imposing drawl, the comparisons Grant draws are legion.
I hear different things every day, he says
. I hear Morrissey, Jim Morrison, Bono, Sixteen Horsepower, Ron Sexsmith. I heard that a lot last night in Glasgow, Ron Sexsmith.
And while such comparisons may provide a convenient hook to hang the band on, a way a pinning them down and familiarising them, ultimately they are only reductive.
Basically at this point I'm hoping people will say, 'that's John'."
Somebody's obviously listening, because on a blackboard outside the venue tonight, they had chalked, 'Tonight The Czars featuring John William.' Skipping over the fact that they shot themselves in the foot by getting his name wrong (doh!), it does seem a little premature for separate star billing. Grant heartily agrees.
Don't you have to be established yourself already in order to be featured? Maybe I should have a career first. I think I'm developing as a performer and that's not saying much because I really don't do anything on stage. It's definitely a terrifying experience for me, but I really do enjoy it. And for me, being a good performer is not jumping around like a fucking idiot on stage. I feel perfectly comfortable just standing there and feeling that weak and that naked in front of a crowd.
With plans to record a new album before the end of the year, it might seem that The Czars are in a hurry to capitalise on Before...but Longer. Partly in an effort to preserve their momentum, but also because the record that is relatively new to us listeners is rapidly becoming old news to the band.
It's two years in September that it was actually done, Grant explains
. It took them a long time to mix it because [Bella Union] had several different projects going on and I think it was difficult for them considering we were back in the States at that point. To be quite honest we got really frustrated for a while, we were just sort of thinking, 'what's happening here?' We were really excited to come over here and record with some of our idols and then going back home and figuring it would be a few months at the most, but it's been two years. But, no regrets.
Delays and self-criticism aside, Grant is in no doubt this time around.
Here's the good news, he eagerly adds
. I still love the album.
CWAS #6 - Autumn 2000