With his own new solo album nearing completion, John Grant tells Daniel Dylan Wray why Creep Show – his experimental collaboration with long-time musical hero Stephen Mallinder – is far more than just a side project…
“It was a step into the unknown for all of us,” says Stephen Mallinder, one-time Cabaret Voltaire frontman, now of analogue electro act Wrangler. He’s speaking about Creep Show, a new collaborative project between Wrangler (which also features Phil Winter and Benge) and John Grant, with new album Mr Dynamite, out on 16 March on Bella Union.
Grant may be, somewhat unfairly, more strongly associated with the traditional singer-songwriter category than the leftfield electronic output of Wrangler – and also now Creep Show. However, not only do electronics quietly and subtly bubble through much of Grant’s solo work, leaving room for his powerful and rich voice to lead the songs, but he’s also a huge fan of such music. In fact, Cabaret Voltaire have always been one of Grant’s biggest influences and greatest loves.
“It was still very early in my career and I was standing there with Robin Guthrie [Cocteau Twins] and Stephen Mallinder, two of my biggest heroes in music. It was pretty crazy,” Grant recalls of the first time they met, back in the late 90s, at an aftershow party for Moloko.
However, Mallinder doesn’t have firm recollections of a night more likely to stay in the mind of Grant, who had grown up consumed by Mallinder’s music. It would be years later, in 2014, at Sheffield’s Sensoria Festival, that the seeds for Creep Show would be sewn. “We turned up for the soundcheck and it was just like, ‘Wow, John Grant’s here’,” recalls Mallinder of the show that Wrangler were playing with Chris And Cosey (another of Grant’s deep loves).
Grant recalls the collaboration taking shape. “When I talked to them at Sensoria, I told them how much
I loved what they were doing and we stayed in touch, and I said it would be cool to do something together, and they just invited me down to their studio.”
A collaborative 2016 gig to celebrate 40 years of Rough Trade shops was lined up and material was formed. A studio session in an analogue-synth-filled haven in Cornwall was then booked to further evolve that material into an album. The result is Mr Dynamite, a nine-track record that fizzes with a sense of fun from its creators, an album that simply goes where it wants to and feels all the richer, looser and more vast for it. The electronics weave between eerie, sci-fi-tinged explorations and joyous pop, and from minimalist Kraftwerk-like propulsions to early hip-hop beats, all the way through to much stranger, more esoteric experimentations that work in mangled, effects-laden vocals from both Mallinder and Grant.
This project allowed Grant to do things to, and with, his voice that perhaps his solo records don’t offer the right outlet for. “I wanted to do vocal manipulation. I wanted to get away from some of the vocal stylings that I do on my own records and experiment a little bit,” he says. “I also wanted to make songs that weren’t personal, to just have fun with words. My own music is so personal that this is more about having fun and being off the wall and just putting words together in interesting ways.”
However, for all the creepy treated vocals that echo throughout the record, adorned by oscillating electronics, there are also moments of classic Grant. The closing track, Safe And Sound, being a clear example of his caramel-smooth voice in its purest form. Largely, though, the moniker of Creep Show appears to have created a sense of liberation for those involved to truly explore new ground, free from the pressure of it being attached to their own names.
“We kind of thought that we better do that, because otherwise, we’re going to ruin John’s career,” laughs Mallinder. “That was a genuine consideration, to be quite honest with you. It was like, ‘Don’t use your real name, John, it’ll completely ruin your career if you do that’. We used a different name so that if we need to hide behind it, then we can.”
There’s no hiding required, however – because the finished product, while stylistically varied and free from a tight thematic narrative, feels remarkably complete and coherent in its output. “We became a band,” Mallinder says. “It began to develop a life and identity of its own. It became this surreal, otherworldly thing, almost. It was like the album had a sense of personality from us, but it wasn’t directly from us. It developed its own dynamic, it gained this odd feel.”
The title and character of Mr Dynamite is, according to Grant, “sort of like a character from a horror movie”. Mallinder adds: “There is this dark, almost comic book-like feel to it. In some ways, it’s an unambiguous album in that it has its own sense of identity; there’s a sense of humour and absurdity to it. It’s almost got a mad feel to it. Although none of it was contrived. We didn’t think about any of these things.” Studio Lockdown
Being locked away in a remote Cornwall studio with no internet or phone signal, not only created an intense focus on the music being made and the sense of exploration, but it also helped to forge a deep bond and friendship between them. “Initially, I didn’t want to come in and feel like a third wheel,” Grant says. “I wanted to contribute and, from the very first moment, they were really easy to be around. They really made me feel comfortable. Being surrounded by all these analogue synths in this really beautiful place – Cornwall is breathtaking. It’s definitely been one of the happiest times in my life. I felt like a child again.” Mallinder echoes Grant’s positivity: “There’s a lot of mutual admiration there.”
It led to a free-flowing session that avoided any of the traditional difficulties with collaboration, as Mallinder reflects: “There wasn’t a moment where we felt in any way worried, or that we didn’t know what to do, or anything like that. We were never drying up, because we all had things we wanted to contribute, and we really did enjoy it.” Grant, too, feels that there was surprisingly little flab to cut from the whole thing. “There are always things that come up that are crap and don’t work, but I have to say there was very little of that, we all seemed to be very inspired throughout the whole process.”
Despite Mallinder being concerned that making an oddball electronic record could somehow damage or interfere with Grant’s solo career, Grant himself is overjoyed with the process and the results. “I’m very proud of it,” he beams. “It’s something that I haven’t really stopped smiling about, to be honest. Stephen is such a lovely human being. We were taking a walk one day and I was thinking, ‘This is really quite unbelievable’, as from the time I had discovered Cabaret Voltaire in the early 80s, I haven’t really shut up about them since.
“So being able to work with him has been a really big deal, and I spoke to some friends from high school about it and they said, ‘Your life has sort of turned into your fantasy from when you were 15’.
“It’s certainly not lost on me, and I enjoyed every single minute of that collaboration. I must sound like a six-year-old child at Christmas, but it really was a dream come true for me.”
Grant’s love for Cabaret Voltaire, it seems, often eclipses Mallinder’s own knowledge of the band. “I love John, because sometimes, he knows more about me than I do,” he says with a chuckle. “He’ll reference mixes of things that I’d long forgotten about and will tell me all sorts of things about myself. It’s very humbling that he knows all that. John just loves music, he has that enthusiasm, he knows my stuff but he just loves music and it’s testament to him that he’s able to absorb that knowledge and work and draw on all those things. It’s nice to know that a little bit of what I’ve done in the past is involved in the DNA of what he’s done.”
With Grant having a busy solo career himself as well as regular Wrangler activity, it leaves the question of, is there life for Creep Show beyond this album? “John’s career is the priority,” Mallinder says. “And we have stuff we need to do, but there’s no way that any of us would want to leave it as it is, we’re looking forward to doing some shows as soon as the opportunity arises.”
Grant is speaking to Long Live Vinyl from Texas, where he’s currently working on his new solo record: “I’m getting deep into the vocals and trying to get it finished up,” he says. He also feels that Creep Show has a future beyond this record and hopes to hit the road with it as soon as possible. “Those songs need to be heard through a big PA.”