It is a normal festival evening on The Usual Suspects, Radio Scotland's nightly sampler of the Edinburgh Festival. There are some improbably clean-cut Cambridge students hamming up an orgasm. There is the poet and novelist Barry Graham wearing psychedelic surfing shorts and a T-shirt which reads "Die Yuppie Scum." And reassuringly, there is Arnold Brown, telling his joke about the importance of timing (if the audience turns up one day and the comedian comes the next, the chances are he won't get a laugh).
Finally, Janice Forsyth--resplendent in her best Peter Pan outfit--turns to James Grant, leader of the Glasgow group Love and Money, and asks him to account for his long absence from the public eye. He whispers--for he is shy--to the effect that he has been away because of problems with his record company, but that these problems are over and that in late October or early November, he will have a new record out on a Scottish label. It will be called littledeath, he says, because it is about catharsis.
There is no punchline.
The following day, the same James Grant is sitting on his white leather settee in his wood-paneled living room in the West End of Glasgow. His guitar and a Brewer's dictionary lie on the floor, as does a paperback of Roddy Doyle's novel, The Van. The cream carpet is spattered with tiny stains which seem to point towards the television. "That was from the World Cup," Grant says, ignoring a fresh application of tea to the deep pile. "I keep meaning to buy a rug." Statistically, Grant might be said to belong to the ever-growing club of Scottish rock's Nearly Men, a group of musicians show promised more than they delivered during one of the music industry's periodic flings with Scottish talent. Grant had two bites at the poisoned cherry, first with Friends Again, who were thoughtful, melodic and bland; and then with Love and Money, who were bold, brash and loud.
For much of their substantial live following, Love and Money's anthem is "Candybar Express," a joke song written in the van on the way to a Friends Again show. The song is as subtle as a Radion billboard, mixing rock and funk with a lyric which preaches vanity and materialism. A sympathetic reading might say that it was an attempt at the ironic joke which U2 are currently selling. It used the bludgeon of advertising to send up the commercial process. The problem for Love and Money is that it didn't sell.
"'Candybar' was the joke that backfired," Grant says "It wasn't meant to be taken so seriously, and I ended up, stupidly, being captain of that ship and steering it into the great beyond. The Marie Celeste. And it didn't happen and it ended up looking silly, because the whole thing was one great advertising slogan."
Grant now dismisses Love and Money's first album as "a turkey. If people like that, they should examine Wham's back catalogue." But he remains justly proud of 1991's Dogs In The Traffic, which had the misfortune to emerge when its author was disillusioned to the point of illness with the music business. Only a handful of dates were played to promote the album, and the commercial desperation of the group's record company, Phonogram, was signaled when it dumped a truckload of snow outside Broadcasting House to promote the single "Winter." The point that the song was only metaphorically seasonal was just one of the subtleties to get lost along the way.
For a time after Dogs, Love and Money ceased to exist. As the songs make clear, Grant was in an emotionally vulnerable state. Eventually, he had a kind of breakdown and stopped going out.
"I'd had about all I could take of the music business and what it meant, and I had to re-assess...my life, really. It became crystal clear that the most important thing in my life was my health and not a hit single. As opposed to what the record company might have thought. It was really painful. I think self-pity's incredibly negative, and I don't feel sorry for myself. in many ways, it's very good that it happened. But it was just a kind of fracture. But what got me through everything was music, my faith and other people's faith in my ability."
Grant's recovery was cemented by the removal of bassist Bobby Paterson from the group, and the recording of littledeath, which builds emphatically on the dark mood established by its predecessor. It is rich in melody and poetic reflection, and shot through with religious imagery, drawn from Grant's Catholic upbringing.
"It's a subconscious thing when I'm writing. I can be quite acerbic about certain aspects of the church or religion. I don't really intend to lay it on that thick, but it just comes through.
I remember, probably the most terrified I've been in my life was a hellfire sermon from the priest. I was eight years old, in the chapel. It was a really sunny morning. And he just got right into it, saying 'You will burn in Hell if you have mortal sin in your soul.' I ran from the church and I was crying. I was terrified out of my wits. I'm still scared. I think that's really horrific. If I was to have died that night, I would have died a wee nervous wreck, and I'd maybe have gone to what is most probably a void in that state.
"But I find the imagery--and the words--really appealing. The image of Christ on the cross, or St. Sebastian." He cites the Gunter Grass novel, The Tin Drum, in which Christ is referred to as 'The Athlete.' "Death is not the thing that I take from the image. I think I can identify with the Christ figure. I don't wish to build myself up to Bono proportions, but the Catholic religion seems to tell you constantly that it's good to suffer. I think I'm quite practiced at it."
Grant's attitude to religion is double-edged, and to overstress its importance will make his work sound drearier than it ought to. But it is not stretching things too far to say that his attitude to music verges on the devotional.
"I'm not really sure how I feel about religion, or organized religion. I don't really know if I believe in anything. Sometimes I do, and sometimes I reach out in the darkness and there's nothing there. But I feel closest to an idea of God when I'm writing a song. I put the very best part of myself into my work. And I feel closest to the idea of spirituality through music--my own and other people's--and through art and books. And architecture, countryside. If I have a nice bath. I'm thankful for small things."
All of which runs the risk of making James Grant seem a more grim proposition than he really is. If his music springs from disappointment, the result of listening to it is uplift. Off-duty, Grant is not above laughing at himself either, whether it is over missed chances in the penalty box, or over failed romantic dalliances with models. In between songwriting and worrying about the unexpected collapse of his kitchen ceiling, he finds time to support Celtic, and fantasize about Winona Ryder and Uma Thurman. He is a voracious reader, citing Nick Hornby's football confessional Fever Pitch and Roddy Doyle's Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha as recent favorites. Both are populist titles with a dose of intellectual rigor behind them.
"If you listen to most music on the radio, it's like Bon Jovi. Bon Jovi shoots his load before the first chorus every time. That's it. If you've not got the hook by then, you must be absolutely stupid. We're the antithesis of that. We want to draw people in and involve them in what we do. Especially live--I want it to be like a communion for people who love music. I love it as well."
It wouldn't do to call James Grant the best songwriting in Britain. To do so would be to commit the sin of the Candybar, to confuse art with marketing. But you might whisper it.
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