The Rise and Fall of a Northern Star: Interview with Stella Grundy

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Former Intastella front woman and cutting edge Manchester actress and playwright Stella Grundy talks to Culture Vulture Rich Jevons.

They discuss her groundbreaking work as front woman in alt-rock band Intastella, the Madchester scene, magick and hallucinogens, the multi-media event Nico Icon Play on the Velvet Underground chanteuse, and her latest work The Rise and Fall of a Northern Star, a comic tragedy in development at Bradford’s Theatre in the Mill.

Firstly, could you tell us a bit about your Intastella days. They’ve been described as ‘Manchester’s hidden gem’. Were you at all disappointed that they didn’t have the recognition of say Massive Attack or Goldie?

Intastella was basically a group of people who were massive music fans and wanted to incorporate the then newish technology of sampling, using rhythms and drum loops much like the hip hop music around with noisy 60s psychedelic guitars.

We named ourselves after a Pink Floyd song. We had a real hippy ethos, I think, and worked hard to sound different from other bands and the same mix up was happening in Bristol. It was the 90s and the remix was king with bands having five or six mixes of the same song. I think that’s why so much music was lumped together.

Intastella did not realise their potential commercially but I for one am very proud of the three albums we produced. I believe we created music which has not dated so I am not disappointed.

What was it like working with Shaun Ryder – was he really a 24-hour party person?!

I didn’t really work with Shaun except to put a vocal take down which he did soberish and without fuss. 24 hour party person? Probably not. He’s a business man now.

How did it feel as a woman heading an indie band?

I had been in bands since the age of 14.  Music was a working class kid’s way of escape. My musical heroes achieved cult status and/ or were dead. … All very introspective and nihilistic… by the time Intastella were formed in 1990 things had gone boom. It seemed the right time for a female-fronted band from Manchester and I relished it.

Looking back I was marginalised in stereotypical ways; in the studio; at the record company; making decisions. I do feel this was as much to do with my accent and background as it was to do with gender.

Can you describe the Madchester scene for those of us that weren’t there?

It came out of a hedonistic period in the late 80s based around this new music coming over from America, new euphoria-inducing drugs which spiced up the menu of amphetamine and LSD. It was very much about the individual at first being brought together by the oneness of this new music and Ecstasy and was special, attracting the working classes and people form rural areas into clubs usually viewed, by them, ‘for weirdos’.

Ironically this also brought about its demise. This phenomenon was well published by the media focusing mainly on The Hacienda, Factory, baggie jeans, drugs, gangs and laddish music for the terraces calling it Madchester. Which people from outside of the city bought into making it a brand rather than a scene?

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Could you explain your particular interest in magick {Crowley and the Golden Dawn/OTO etc} and using magic mushrooms as a form of shamanism?

I read a lot growing up and got kind of obsessed with the 60s which led me to Kenneth Anger films which featured an image of this bald dude Crowley so I looked him up and was fascinated. I found his writing dense and hard to get into at the time.

But reading about him and that particular point in history, when the relatively wealthy, outward-thinking individuals like Aleister Crowley and Golden Dawn founder, Annie Horniman, would travel, experiment with spirituality, magick and hallucinogens.

Total hedonism of the idle rich in one way but could be argued that this hedonism filtered through into modern society increasing interest in alternative religions, human self -improvement and individuality and even social freedom. I do enjoy the notion of Crowley as public enemy number one and am surprised no one has made a decent film or play about him yet?

What led you to do a play about Nico?

I don’t know I must have been insane at the time!!! Basically I am a fan of her work and the fact that she lived round the corner from my house made her even more familiar. Her times with Warhol and The Velvet Underground are well documented but her years in Manchester were not and many of the people she knew then are still around.

Her son often stays here not far from where I grew up. It’s on odd mix of New York, Paris and North Manchester. I thought it would be a rich vein to research and it was. Full of tragedy obviously, but also of friendship, love and a lot of humour.


Without being a spoiler can you tell us the story of Tracy Star?

Tracy Star was an only child of a single mother form a working class background. She lived above a chippy and wanted to escape her bleak surroundings and become a rock and roll star like her idol David Bowie

In 1980s Manchester she hung around at gigs dreaming of forming her own ban. She joined several bands supporting acts such as John Cooper Clarke eventually forming her own band Northern Star in 1988.

Tracy began to get noticed in town for her outlandish clothes and secured some free demo time at Strawberry Studios. When the opportunity arrived as the world press turned its attention to Manchester she grabbed it with both hands and began to negotiate the mine field that was and is the music business with some unexpected challenges.

How do you feel now about the escapism of sex, drugs and rock’n’roll?

My experience of sex, drugs and rock and roll was more Spinal Tap than Led Zeppelin. There were those people about who snorted cocaine off gold discs but I found it was more managers and record company execs. It was/is certainly easier to live in a bubble and there is often easy access to the self -destruct button. I always viewed the established rock and roll excesses with a certain amount of humour. If you start believing your own hype you are in big trouble.

Is Tracey’s story very much a rollercoaster ride with the narcotic highs and breakdown/rehab lows?

The story is in one way a rock and roll archetype but also a startlingly insight into the intimate reality of Tracy’s experience through her narcotic highs and lows. It’s about how she struggles to maintain her dignity and her reaction to the both glorious and unsavoury characters she meets along the way.

The key is her willingness, rightly or wrongly, to sacrifice everything in the pursuit of a dream. She is imperfect, infuriating, down- right idiotic at times.

However she is honest and brave and you do root for her.

Would you say the show is more comedy than tragedy, or an even mix of both?

It’s been described as comic tragedy and I don’t think you can have one without the other. It certainly has had audiences both laughing and crying. On occasion at the same time.

The Rise and Fall of a Northern Star was in development at Theatre in the Mill, Bradford on 1 August 2014.

Rich Jevons review of production in development.

Tours dates:

1 October, The Met, Bury.

2 October, Square Chapel, Halifax.

9 October, Carriageworks Theatre, Leeds

24 October, The Edge, Chorlton

31 October, The Lantern, Liverpool

Rise and Fall trailer on You Tube.