John Grant first made his mark as the frontman of the Czars. He recently released his first solo effort, Queen of Denmark, which received MOJO magazine’s seldom-awarded “Instant Classic” label upon review. Sitting down with PopMatters 20 Questions, John discusses his love of roller coasters, his kinship with Charlie Kaufman, and his expansive multi-lingual talents.
Lucky for us, we didn’t have to translate.
1. The latest book or movie that made you cry?
That’s a good question. I think Synecdoche, New York was the latest film that made me cry, or Adaptation. The lead character in Adaptation is pretty much me but with more talent. Every time I watch Adaptation, I feel very emotional, because it makes me be kinder to myself and see the human situation a little more clearly. All this comparing oneself to others and being down on oneself because one doesn’t look like this, or can’t do this, or can’t get the hang of that. It’s all useless. You can only be you and there are plenty of people out there who wouldn’t have you be any other way.
2. The fictional character most like you?
Well, I sort of answered that in the first question. That would be Charlie Kaufman from Adaptation. I really identify with the crushing self-doubt he feels and as of late (don’t know why) the sweating. It’s the-grass-is-always-greener syndrome. If I could BE like that or DO this or that or LOOK this or that way, I would be happier and better. I deal with that a lot. And although I don’t deal with it as much anymore, fear kept me from doing many things throughout my teens and twenties. For me it has mostly been about getting out of my own way and accepting that I deserve love and happiness and a healthy confidence in myself just as much or as little as anyone else.
3. The greatest album, ever?
Horrible question. There are SO many. For me though, I think it would have to be NunSexMonkRock from Nina Hagen, simply because of how it affected me when I discovered it. This woman who was growling and screaming and shrieking like she was possessed fascinated me. I was just a clueless church-going, choirboy type at the time who didn’t know what all was going on in the world, what all was out there. This record really blew me away and I have never stopped listening to it. It is always fresh and invigorating, and sounds like it could have been made yesterday or tomorrow or in 100 years or, as is the case, almost 30 years ago.
4. Star Trek or Star Wars?
Star Trek. The uniforms. The colors. Too cool.
5. Your ideal brain food?
I suppose my ideal brain food is learning languages. I speak fluent German and Russian, solid Spanish, decent conversational French and am currently digging into Dutch and Swedish as a hobby. To me, this is really the ultimate brain food, because it challenges the most basic things about how your brain works. The process of becoming fluent in a foreign language, overcoming that language barrier to the point where one no longer thinks in one’s native tongue is a fascinating and extremely frustrating (at times) process.
Plus, it leads to all the other things I consider to be important brain food: you learn about the people of a different culture, you learn about new music, new literature, new food, new ways of expressing your feelings and your personality, different ways of doing things, new movies, new all sorts of things. Basically, each new language opens up an entirely new world. What could be more inspiring than that?
6. You’re proud of this accomplishment, but why?
I’m very proud that I have learned German and Russian. Especially Russian, because of how difficult and beautiful it is and because of how much I struggled in the beginning to get my head around how it works. The grammar is a true testicle-crusher, but it has been worth it. Also, being on Later with Jools Holland was a goal of mine and I recently achieved it. I am proud of that because it took a long, long time to get there but I finally made it. I think it’s the best music show on television.
7. You want to be remembered for ...?
My sense of humor. My music. How excited I could get about the little pleasures in life. That I didn’t give up even though I wanted to quite often almost did many times.
8. Of those who’ve come before, the most inspirational are?
Tough question, because as far as I can tell, everyone is a fuck-up in one way or another. But the people that impress me the most are the inventors, I guess. I don’t know their names, but they are master problem solvers and didn’t stop until they figured it out. Who figured out how to make bread? That yeast could be used in this way? That yeast even existed? I’m sure there were lots of happy accidents that lead to the existence of many things. Like Champagne, for instance.
9. The creative masterpiece you wish bore your signature?
I think Hounds of Love or The Dreaming by Kate Bush are the sorts of masterpieces I could wish I had created. Or Man-Machine by Kraftwerk.
But then there are roller coasters: Son of Beast, Mean Streak, Millennium Force, Viper, Loch-Ness Monster. Oh, and the NUMBER 1!!!!!!!!!!! Those things are pure beauty to me. Another creative masterpiece I wish I had created is the carnival ride known as “the Zipper”. I still love to ride it, even though it makes me sick sometimes. I could stand and watch it at night for hours and hours, and have.
10. Your hidden talents . . .?
I can make a mean peanut butter-cream pie. I am very, very good at playing Millipede. I can skip rocks with the best of them. And there are “other” things as well.
11. The best piece of advice you actually followed?
Get a job is probably the only advice I’ve ever really followed, and that was usually more of a command that I did out of fear. Seriously, I don’t think I’ve ever listened to anyone about anything. I’ve always been very stubborn and it has caused me a lot of pain. :) I have serious trouble being disciplined.
Here’s the advice I wish I could have been able to follow: Let people go. If someone wants to walk out of your life, don’t hate them, don’t hold a grudge, just let them go and do what makes them happy. You can’t force anyone to do anything anyway (and it wouldn’t make you or them happy even if you could). Sorry if I sound preachy. I haven’t quite mastered the art of letting go, but I’m working on it.
12. The best thing you ever bought, stole, or borrowed?
I think my favorite thing is my Siamese Cats TV-Lamp. I sort of collect those and have an owl, a black panther, the cats and two swans. The cats are the dopest though. Also, there’s my vintage, white-frame BluBlockers, which give me much pleasure.
13. You feel best in Armani or Levis or . . .?
Levis for sure. Or some sort of well-fitting pair of jeans. Don’t care too much about the label. I like expensive clothes but rarely buy them. I want to be comfortable more than anything. I do wish I would dress up more, though, and recently found a great suit in Berlin.
14. Your dinner guest at the Ritz would be?
I would want to dine with Viggo Mortensen. He is an impressive creature in many ways. And he is Danish and speaks Danish, which is important. I would want to discuss the Danish language with him and the pros and cons of being that handsome. I wonder if it’s easier or more difficult? I think the latter but used to think the former.
15. Time travel: where, when and why?
To New York in the ‘70s. I would be dead by now, but that must have been amazing—the clothes, the rawness (please refer to Cruising starring Al Pacino). And I really dig afros. There aren’t enough of those around these days, although they do seem to be making a comeback. I wish I had an afro.
16. Stress management: hit man, spa vacation or Prozac?
Whatever works, and that could be many things. Usually for me, it’s a combination. Watching Law & Order or Dexter or Brotherhood helps me relax as do sex, riding my bike, listening to music, exercise, taking a long walk. I would like to go on a tour of all the best amusement parks in the U.S., which would be equal to a year’s supply of Xanax. Also, going to a good book store or record store has a very relaxing effect on me and can often lead to a very successful bowel movement.
17. Essential to life: coffee, vodka, cigarettes, chocolate, or ...?
As embarrassing and horrifying as it is for me to admit: Diet Coke is currently my essential drug. My nervous system is rather displeased with me as a result. German yoghurt (chocolate) is also right up there and once I start eating it I CANNOT stop.
18. Environ of choice: city or country, and where on the map?
I prefer big cities and have lived in New York, which I loved, and am currently in Berlin. If I were going to be out in the country it would have to be upstate New York, or Northern Sweden and Norway. Scandinavians are not fucking around. They know what they are doing when it comes to many things: living, music, food, furniture, care, architecture, movies.
19. What do you want to say to the leader of your country?
I hope you’re enjoying yourself.
20. Last but certainly not least, what are you working on, now?
I’m just writing new music mostly using Reason and Record. I’ve started using Ableton and will soon have Logic so that I can be considered a human being. I love learning about how all these programs work and playing around with sounds. I’m also learning Dutch and Swedish as a hobby. I have American Psycho in all the languages I’m interested in or speak. I have it in English, German, French, Spanish, Russian and Swedish. Great vocabulary. Now I need it in Dutch, so…