HAPPY MONDAYS: SEE, WE’RE GROUND BREAKING!
Stream: Happy Mondays “24 Hour Party People”
Happy Mondays were the actual 24 hour party people and legendarily—but perhaps not actually, says drummer Gaz here—helped bankrupt Factory Records during the recording in Barbados. They have been banned from Disneyland and the BBC (but will still appear at both) and speak now despite a million mea culpas about being boring. This interview by Dan Collins.
I’m recording you on side two of the tape I interviewed Billy Bragg on.
Gary “Gaz” Whelan (drums): Okay! Just don’t ask any political questions. He knows a lot more than me about that.
Shaun Ryder flaked on the interview today. Is he out doing something he shouldn’t?
Gary “Gaz” Whelan: He’s probably at home. We’re all really boring these days! I’m really boring. I’d lived in Australia for a few years, but that’s just too far.
You should try L.A.! It’s burning hot. I came home and poured myself a glass of Scotch and realized the Scotch is HOT!
Gary “Gaz” Whelan: Ha ha! It’s warm here. It’s fantastic! I’ve been walking about in the briefest of shorts!
What were things like when you joined the Happy Mondays?
Gary “Gaz” Whelan: From the very start of the band—from the very first song, it’s only been me and Shaun from the start to the very end. I was fifteen, back in the early eighties, and Shaun was about 19 or 20.
And you’ve always been a principal song writer.
Gary “Gaz” Whelan: Yeah! Shaun did the lyrics mainly.
I was listening to the ‘Delightful / This Feeling / Oasis’ EP from your early years. It sounds SO MUCH like Joy Division! Was that conscious?
Gary “Gaz” Whelan: That’s just because we were fucking rubbish! Maybe. We tried not to sound like Joy Division, but the first couple songs when we first started… the thing when you start a band, you start a band and learn your instruments later. And so we tended to do Joy Division songs early on, and we did a Depeche Mode song. But we made a point of not sounding like that band. Can—I thought we sounded more like them than anything. But yeah, it’s probably inevitable. We’re all miserable fuckers in Manchester. It just fucking rains and it’s grey so you just end up being miserable. So you come up with good lyrics because there’s nothing else to do.
Your first album was produced by John Cale. I heard it didn’t go down quite like you’d expected.
Gary “Gaz” Whelan: How he was then is how we are now. And he’d given up smoking the day before we started the album, which is probably bad timing. And he just ate oranges and tangerines all day. We got on quite well, but it wasn’t the session we expected it to be. I don’t think he really got us.
I was thinking about what you guys were doing in terms of the rave culture. It seems like you guys were part of the rave ‘culture’ without playing what I would consider ‘rave music.’
Gary “Gaz” Whelan: Shaun only listens—as far as I can remember—to hip-hop, and I mainly listen to electronic and soul and Felix da Housecat. There’s lots of stuff I like. So when we get in the room with guitars and live drum kit, that’s the only way we know. We tried to do electronic music organically and sometimes make a mess of it. We were big fans of A Certain Ratio, who were kind of like Joy Division but with funk and a horn section—with the great Don Johnson, a great drummer who taught me how to play. They started on Factory, but like if Joy Division had a DJ in the band and a funk drummer.
It’s funny you mentioning Shaun’s love of hip-hop. I interviewed Chuck D a few months back, and he mentioned Public Enemy being sort of the Rolling Stones of rap. Do you think with the dynamic between Shaun and Bez, you guys are like the Public Enemy of rock?
Gary “Gaz” Whelan: You know what? We’ve been likened to two U.S. acts—Public Enemy and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. That’s absolutely spot on!
Is Shaun the Chuck D, or is that you?
Gary “Gaz” Whelan: No, I’m more kind of the studio, um, who is that? Shocklee! Absolutely spot on!
It’s getting to surreal levels, with Flavor Flav becoming a reality show star in the U.S. and Bez being a reality star in the U.K. and winning Celebrity Big Brother.
Gary “Gaz” Whelan: Yeah, that’s exactly a similarity as well. Bez is good at it! He jumped off a cable car with Jack Osbourne! He’ll do anything. He always wins them all!
Bez was going to play with you guys in the States recently—at Coachella. But he couldn’t get in.
Gary “Gaz” Whelan: He couldn’t get a visa. Because he’s a very naughty boy! He’s always going bankrupt.
How did he join the band?
Gary “Gaz” Whelan: We’d been together probably four years, and we’d been doing gig shows for about two years, and Shaun was a bit embarrassed about not wanting to be seen as the front man, and so we had different friends of ours and buddies getting up and dancing with us. And he just did it once, and he’s never… we never actually asked him to join the band! He’s just never left. He just decided he’s in the band and that’s it. But it took the pressure off Shaun a little bit. He kind of took the pressure off all of us. He could just do his Flavor Flav thing! That’s all part of rock ‘n’ roll, innit? That’s what it’s all about. To me, anyway. You got to play the part.
Has his recent turn on reality TV helped or hurt the Happy Mondays?
Gary “Gaz” Whelan: Both! When he does these TV shows, people like him because he’s very genuine. He’s who he is. He’s actually quite a likable person. And he is hilarious—he says lots of ridiculous things. One of the first tours we did of the States—about 1990—we arrived in New York and we did a bit of a press conference. And there were journalists from different newspapers, and they spoke up and said what newspaper they were from. And one woman said she was from the Pennsylvania Tribune, or something and Bez said, ‘Pennsylvania? Perfect! Where Dracula’s from!’ He takes away the credibility, I suppose—but he’s funny.
Bez has been popular on TV, but Shaun was actually banned from the BBC’s Channel Four.
Gary “Gaz” Whelan: Yeah, he was actually named in the law. It’s the ‘Shaun Ryder’ something…
The ‘Shaun Ryder Rider!’ He’s literally the only person ever specifically mentioned in the Channel Four BBC Reference Guide as someone who’s not allowed to appear! But despite that, you guys appeared on there last year, right?
Gary “Gaz” Whelan: Yeah, we did a live gig. It’s all delayed. See, we’re groundbreaking! The problem, to be honest, is that we all swear when we speak to each other, and when we come do TV we find it hard not to! We’re just rubbish at playing the game! That’s been our downfall as well.
Steve Jones swore on TV in England, but they gave him a radio show here in L.A.
Gary “Gaz” Whelan: Me and Shaun did it last year. We got taken there really late and got lost. We were supposed to be there for two hours, and we only ended up doing ten minutes.
I’ve been talking with you eighteen minutes! So L.A. RECORD beats Steve Jones. Did you get to see him play with Hollywood United’s football team when you were in L.A.?
Gary “Gaz” Whelan: No! I used to play professionally for six months for Everton in Liverpool, just down the road. I was just a rookie, and had to leave it because of the band.
Do you ever wonder what could have been?
Gary “Gaz” Whelan: Every fucking day! Every fucking day.
I think you did okay.
Gary “Gaz” Whelan: I got lucky! I can’t complain. I complain all the time because I’m British—that’s what we do.
A lot of us in L.A. really like Black Grape a lot. Which band was better, Black Grape or the Happy Mondays?
Gary “Gaz” Whelan: I prefer Black Grape! Shaun’s answer would be that they’re the same band, and they kind of were almost. We were veering towards what Black Grape were, anyway. We do a couple Black Grape songs when we play live.
I know you’ve been interviewed to death about 24 Hour Party People, but what percentage of the movie was actually true?
Gary “Gaz” Whelan: I’ve not seen it properly! I’ve only seen bits of it but it’s poetic license, you know. A lot of their stories are mixed up.
There were lots of scenes of tour buses and snorting cocaine off naked women, and things like that.
Gary “Gaz” Whelan: No! We used to play a lot. We used to play Scrabble.
You never snorted cocaine off the Scrabble table?
Gary “Gaz” Whelan: No, ha ha! Absolutely not!
I have read interviews with Shaun—and maybe you—saying that in the early days of the band, he would walk around on ecstasy like every day. Just take a quarter tab or a half tab and walk through record stores.
Gary “Gaz” Whelan: That’s back in the old days! I can’t remember when I was younger! Them days were pretty bad days. It’s like asking someone about the sixties. There were days in the eighties… I was teenaged and in my early twenties. I was out partying. I can’t remember!
Was ecstasy as important in your scene as LSD was in San Francisco in the Sixties?
Gary “Gaz” Whelan: Absolutely—without a doubt!
What do you tell your kids about your drug use?
Gary “Gaz” Whelan: The funny thing is, they’re not old enough yet. But that’s my biggest fear! My parent instincts kick in.
Most parents can just lie, but you guys are on the public record. Like right now!
Gary “Gaz” Whelan: Not me personally, so I’m okay! But I’m sure they’re going to come to me one day, and say, ‘Dad, you know your band, this and that.’ I’m sure that’s what Mick Jagger had to do.
At least your kids won’t ask if you had sex with David Bowie. But didn’t Shaun get kicked off a plane once for threatening a flight attendant with a plastic fork?
Gary “Gaz” Whelan: No, that didn’t happen.
I looked it up on Wikipedia!
Gary “Gaz” Whelan: No way! Absolutely not. That never happened. Ian Brown from the Stone Roses got sent to jail for something on a plane, but it certainly wasn’t us!
Were the Stone Roses a band you felt pressure from—like competition? Were there other bands at the time you felt pressure from?
Gary “Gaz” Whelan: We never felt pressure to do better.
Maybe it was the opposite? A rising tide hoists up all the boats?
Gary “Gaz” Whelan: Maybe. But we never thought about it. That was our problem. We never thought about things. We’d just do them!
Was there a particular show where you guys looked out in the audience, and you realized, ‘Wow, we’ve really done something. We’ve crossed a threshold?’
Gary “Gaz” Whelan: There was a gig at the Free Trade Hall, which is a famous building in Manchester where the Sex Pistols played and Bob Dylan played with his electric band. That was probably the one. Definitely. I think it could be ‘89. I could be way off.
Were you surprised when in the U.S., news about the Madchester scene became totally eclipsed by grunge band coverage?
Gary “Gaz” Whelan: Not surprised. I think punk rock was a very English thing, and grunge was a very American thing. I think it was great. I was never a huge fan, and then I saw Nirvana do MTV Unplugged, and they did ‘All Apologies,’ and I thought that was absolutely mind-blowing. Dinosaur Jr. I thought were great as well!
Were there some American bands in the late eighties that you were influenced by?
Gary “Gaz” Whelan: Talking Heads were a big influence early on. We were massive Talking Heads fans. We liked the Breeders; we liked the Pixies. We did our first U.S. tour with the Pixies, and became great friends. They were a massive influence. American music is the greatest music of all time!
I listen to it a lot.
Gary “Gaz” Whelan: The Rolling Stones were the biggest influence though. Charlie Watts’s killer drumming—Mick Jagger was one of the greatest frontmen ever, along with Jim Morrison.
Those guys had a bad-boy image, which definitely you guys had as well. Was there a conscious decision to play up that side of yourselves?
Gary “Gaz” Whelan: I don’t think so. That’s just who we listened to. It just found our way to our conscious soul, but it wasn’t a conscious decision. Early hip-hop was a massive massive influence, but we all read the Stones books and the Doors books.
Now that you guys are all friends again, what are some of the bad things that made you break up in the first place?
Gary “Gaz” Whelan: We did years and years of touring—the usual one in the back of the small fucking van—and then all of a sudden we’re getting all these luxuries, and people are going off getting their own friends, and there’d be five or six different parties on the bus. We weren’t hanging round together. There’d be whispering—the he-say-she-says—and because they’re old friends, you don’t want to bring anything up. And then things fester. And then Factory went bankrupt.
Some blame has been thrown your way about that.
Gary “Gaz” Whelan: Someone said we spent too much money in Barbados. When actually we didn’t spend that much money. We were forced to do an album quickly because there hadn’t been an album out for a few years—an album we hadn’t finished writing. And then everyone thinks that because Factory went bankrupt, it was due to us. I think the film kind of portrayed that…
Giant booze and drug bills?
Gary “Gaz” Whelan: I think we probably had a large bill, but I don’t think it was us at all. In fact, I think they probably owed us cash. It was just badly run financially. They were a great label—I would never have wanted another label. Tony Wilson was a great champion of us. One of my heroes—he was fantastic. At the time, a lot of major labels in the UK were interested in us, but they were trying to mold us into an image and have these haircuts and wear these silly clothes. And we went to Factory, and he said, ‘You’ve got no image—that’s your image!’ So we loved Factory, and were big fans. If we could go back to the beginning and knew what would happen, we would still go through them again because they were just fantastic. Financially, they just weren’t great. But that’s what was great about them! They just did things. A great idea—just go for it!
Tony Wilson actually introduced you at Coachella last year, right?
Gary “Gaz” Whelan: That was the biggest disappointment—that that was the last time I saw him. He gave us this massive introduction, and we went on stage. And the guy who runs our computer with stuff on it, he hadn’t configured the power supply, and something didn’t happen, and a lot of stuff wasn’t working, and all the guys were playing different tempos. And the gig wasn’t very good. I thought we let Tony down. I was ashamed. It was beyond our power—the computer went just completely fucking barmy, but I just felt we let him down a little bit.
What’s the craziest time you’ve had in your most recent reformation?
Gary “Gaz” Whelan: We’re all very boring these days. Seriously, we do the shows—and Bez is his own person—but as soon as we do the show, we’re back to the hotel, have a couple drinks, and that’s it. I never thought I’d say that, but we’re boring! I just can’t do it anymore. Shaun’s doing his own thing, I have this kind of electronic, guitar/hip hop band called the Hippie Mafia…
The ‘Hippie Mafia?’
Gary “Gaz” Whelan: It’s like Sweethearts of the Rodeo crossed with Public Enemy. I can’t party and be in two bands. I just can’t do it! How fucking sensible do I sound? That’s what happens when you grow up.
I’m in my early thirties. When can I expect that to kick in?
Gary “Gaz” Whelan: When I had kids, it kicked in. The last two years. But I don’t like flying, so I always drink when I get on a plane.
Otherwise, you might threaten a flight attendant with a plastic fork! What are you guys doing next?
Gary “Gaz” Whelan: We just got back from Australia. It was a long flight, so I had a lot of drinking to do.
Which airline has the best complimentary booze?
Gary “Gaz” Whelan: We like Virgin! Virgin business class is the way to go.
Would you let them use one of your songs in a commercial?
Gary “Gaz” Whelan: Anyone can use one of our songs in a commercial! Please do!
Where are you playing in L.A.?
Gary “Gaz” Whelan: We’re playing Club Nokia in September, and in Anaheim at the House of Blues…
That’s next to Disneyland. Have you ever been?
Gary “Gaz” Whelan: I haven’t been. But we did our second or third album in the Capitol records studio where the Beach Boys did Pet Sounds, which we didn’t realize until later. Someone went to Disneyland—I can’t remember which one, but they called the studio and had got caught for pinching something from one of the shops and thrown out. So I think we’re banned from Disneyland! Is it good?
Space Mountain is pretty good.
Gary “Gaz” Whelan: I don’t like rides. I don’t like heights. I don’t even like being as tall as I am!
HAPPY MONDAYS WITH THE PSYCHEDELIC FURS ON FRI., SEPT. 18, AT CLUB NOKIA, 800 W. OLYMPIC BLVD., DOWNTOWN. 7 PM / $27.50-$35 / ALL AGES. CLUBNOKIA.COM. VISIT HAPPY MONDAYS AT HAPPYMONDAYSONLINE.COM OR MYSPACE.COM/HAPPYMONDAYSONLINE.