Interviews: Brian May: A Kind Of Magic '86
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This took me a while to transcribe, so you'd better bloody enjoy it! Have fun. Greg <- in Australia.
I) The new record that Queen has out is from the film. What different approach do you use when it comes to writing for films as opposed to just writing for records? How does your song writing approach differ?
B) Well, I'd better say something quickly before we get into this, and that is that the album isn't really a soundtrack album. It started off, a lot of the ideas come from the movie, but really, once the movie was delivered, once the film was out of the way we just concentrated on making it a Queen album.
Right. Now to answer your question [laughs]. We actually enjoy it a lot. I think that all of us would agree that although we are used to getting our own way and that we like to make our own albums, when a film comes along that we really get fired up by, if we get inspired by it, it's a very good starting point, because instead of reaching inside yourself and putting things out, you're being directly inspired by something. It's like having someone sticking things into you and producing a reaction, it's no problem.
We saw, I think, 20 minutes of the "Highlander" film before it was finished, and we all went out going "Yeah, yeah, yeah, I can hear this, I can hear this", and we all had songs in our heads from that point. I wrote the love song that I wrote for the movie in the car coming home from that first showing, because I was so inspired, so ignited by what I saw. So it's easy.
The first stage is great, because you have all your ideas from outside. The hard bit is when you have to fit the music in detail to the action. You come against all sorts of problems, and things you think might work don't work. Very often things which you would almost throw away, you suddenly find work perfectly with a particular piece of the film.
We spent, I s'pose, three or four months just working on particular passages in the film. The problem was compounded by the fact that they kept changing the film while we were doing it. So it's like trying to pin the tail on a moving donkey. But really there are these two stages. In the initial stage it's great because you get this inspiration from outside. No problem, you don't even feel responsible for what you're doing, it just flows out. Then the final bit is just sheer hard graft, getting that stuff done. It was a relief to get the stuff on that piece of celluloid, get it finished and done. That was about six weeks ago I guess. From that point on we said "OK, the films done, great, fine. Now we'll make an album." And that's what happened. We used some of the ideas from the film, and some other ideas which came from completely different places.
I) Russel Mulcahy was involved for some parts of the project. How did you get on with Russel?
Brian) Very very well, yes. He's a brave man actually because we met him very briefly in London, then he came out with us to Munich where we were doing some demos for the film, on his own and just pitched himself in with us. That was quite a brave thing to do. Not many people can actually get away with that, because we're a sealed unit, and if anyone comes along it's hard for them to fit in, but it was great. He was there, he pitched in ideas, he argued with us, talked to us, got drunk with us. It worked out very well, and I think that's a major part of why the whole project worked for us, we were in tune with him.
It turns out we were always an admirer of his work. We've been associated with videos from way back, we did some of the very first videos. Russel is also one of the best known names and it was always strange that we never worked with him before. So this seemed natural that finally we were working with this guy, 'cause we both came from the same place, in a way.
I) You said about the group being very much a closed unit. Now, "One Vision" the song was, correct me if I'm wrong, that was the first song you'd written all together, is that right?
B) Yes it was really, unless you go back years and years ago to things like "Stone Cold Crazy", which came out of the whole of us. But yeah, that was an unusual event. We all had bits of ideas and we hammered it out of all the things we put together. It was very much a group effort. I like it a lot, actually, but it wasn't one of our most commercially successful pieces.
I) I think you said it took the cake at Live Aid, though. (Note from Greg <- in Australia: I know One Vision was after Live Aid, but I'm sure that's what he said!)
B) Live Aid was great for us, everything worked right.
I) A lot of people said that U2 took it, but I think the consensus would have to be that Queen showed that they're a good musical group.
B) It was nice for us, at least we were able to show that we can play without the icing on the cake. We didn't have our show, but we could play OK. Yeah, it was a good time. I think everyone was there, including us, for the right reasons. I'll never forget that day, it was wonderful.
I) Besides the songs from "Highlander" on the new album, what are some of the other songs? What are they about? Can you say anything about them?
B) Freddie's written a song called "Friends Will be Friends", and I think Freddie and John worked on it together. It's something which I took to heart very much as well because it's kind of traditional Queen sound. It has this... If you can remember "We are The Champions" or "Play The Game", it's in that kind of mould, it has all the Queen trademarks. And yet it's a new song and a new idea, and that's something I instantly related to. Very nice, very good track. It sounds very complete.
There's a song called "Pain Is So Close To Pleasure" which I started off, and I think again John and Freddie worked together on it. That's really sort of a motown sounding track, very unusual for us.
"One Vision" is on there also, There's a track called "Don't Lose Your Head", which Roger wrote around one of the riffs which was used in the film. There's a song called "The Prize", and that is a song which is based around the Kurgan's theme, which... The Kurgan is the bad guy in the "Highlander" movie, and I wrote this piece for him, and then once the film was out of the way I was able to make it into a complete song.
Then there's "Princes Of The Universe", which is the title track of the movie, even though the movie isn't called that. Should've been actually [laughs]. I think it's a better title than "Highlander". A lot of people get the wrong idea from the title, they think it's just a film about Scot farmers or something. We told them that they should call it "The Immortals", because that's what it was about. It's about this group of immortals who are battling each other from the 15th century in Scotland up to 20th century New York when the film climaxes.
It's a very good film by the way, I think. Very dramatic, very heavy and also has a very nice romantic subplot.
There was a song which was written for that called "Who Wants To Live Forever." The hero of the movie discovers in his first battle that he can't die, and unfortunately he finds that he falls in love with this girl, and everybody tells him that it's a bad idea if they stay together because eventually she must grow old and die, and he won't.
But nevertheless he does, he stays with her and she does grow old and she dies in his arms and she says "I never understood why you stayed with me" and he says "I see you just the same as I saw you when I first met you" and she's old and she's dying. I was very moved by that and I wrote this song called "Who Wants To Live Forever (When Love Must Die)." That's another part of the movie.
Then there's a song called "One Year Of Love" which John wrote, and that was written around a different romantic interest. It's about the Highlander as he is in the 20th century when he's just about to fall in love again, even though he said he wouldn't - har har! That's a romantic song too.
I'm trying to think what else there is... That's most of it.
I) Who produced the album, was it all Queen?
B) Yes we did but with the help of Mack, who is our co-producer for the last two to three albums. Also with the help of David Richards, who is a new face in a way, except that he's been our in-house engineer in Montreux Mountain Studios, which are our studios, and he really came into his own on this. He did most of the work that related directly to the film, and did a wonderful job. Very bright young man.
I) You've all got numerous solo outlets for expression, besides Queen. Do you think those solo things are essential to the health of Queen as a band?
B) Yes I think they are, I think they're a very bloodletting process. They release the frustration which all of us feel because we can only have 25% of our own way in this beast called Queen. I think it's very important that we all get out and do our own stuff now and again.
I) Besides your guitar project, what else have you been doing?
B) I produced a group called Heavy Pettin', I produced their first album but not their second. I think that we'd both had enough of each other after the first album [laughs].
And then mostly I've been producing my kids. I have two little children and my primary concern is to make sure they're brought up right. So the time I've had available I've jealously guarded and I've tried to spend it home while they're growing up.
I) With the video for "Princes Of The Universe", I believe Christopher Lambert also appears in that. Now is that from the movie or is that something extra.
B) No, he came along and made the video with us. It was a lot of fun. He's great, A very nice guy.
I) Did you see "Subway"?
B) No. I still haven't. I saw "Greystoke". No I haven't seen "Subway", I hear it's very good.
I) It's very good.
B) I like him a lot. I think he's great, very good.
I) "Subway" to me is almost like a 90 minute rock video
B) I haven't seen that, I would like to... Have you seen "Round"
I) No, but I heard it's the most blood thirsty thing in the world.
B) Oh it's great, it's just... You gotta see it. Sorry.
I) You played Sun City in South Africa a few years ago.
B) Yes we did. We stirred up a whole hornets nest of controversy.
I) What's the current thinking from the Queen camp about return visits or the attitude to South Africa and apartheid?
B) OK, the current thing is that we said we won't go back until this regime is gone. That's in response to what everyone else has said. We went there, and we're not ashamed of the fact that we went there. It would be very easy to say "OK, we made a mistake. Sorry" and all that stuff, but that's not really the truth.
The truth is we thought very carefully about going and we considered that it was right because for the first time we were going to be able to play to non-segregated audiences, which we did, and it's absolutely true, whether people believe it or not.
I was there, I saw it with my own eyes, I know what happened. We feel that by going there and by stating very clearly our point of view, which was that we were utterly opposed to apartheid, that we did a lot more to accelerate the end of that way of thinking in South Africa than many people have done by staying away.
I know it's a very unpopular thing to say, probably, but it's the way we feel, and that's the truth. We've been there, we've seen it, we've talked to people of all races there and we feel that, well know for a fact that a lot of people who were there feel that it was right for us to go. It's kind of special for us, because we've been selling records in South Africa for a long time, but not just to the white part of South Africa. We've been selling records to the black community, particularly "Another One Bites The Dust" and "I Want To Break Free", which became like an anthem for the human rights people down there. So we feel very close to the people who are fighting for their rights there.
By going there we feel like we helped them, and I know a lot of them there feel the same way. I can go on about t for a long time because it's something I feel very strongly about.
Nevertheless, we've now had so much pressure from people, the UN committee, Little Steven and all his friends, that it's better to stay away that we've said "OK, we'll go along with you, we'll do it your way", and we've said we won't go back.
I just pray that it's the right way. I think in my heart I'm not convinced that it's gonna do, that it's gonna be the best way to achieve the end which we all want to achieve. All I can say is that our aims are all the same, we just have slightly different ways of going about it.
I) I think without going there, though, people very much think it's all a black and white situation. It's not, there's 16 shades of grey, and people don't realise that until they get there.
B) That's right. That's right. That's so true, yeah. I would challenge so many of the people who come up with this very glib thing "OK we'll boycott the bastards. We're right, they're wrong." I would challenge them to go there and find out the real situation and then come back and say the same thing.
Of course apartheid is wrong. Of course the present situation produces a lot of misery, but how do you go about bringing about the change? I'm not convinced that this isolation policy is right and I'm not convinced a cultural boycott has ever achieved a change of internal attitude in a country. I don't think there's any examples in history where this worked.
I think all you do is tend to make people more bitter and more entrenched in their own opinions. Anyway, that's what I think.
I) Now onto some cheerful topics.
B) Yes Yes Yes
(Note from Greg <- in Australia: End of side one.)
I) The album. In what way do you feel that it's a progression over the previous album?
B) It's a bit early for me to be able to answer that question. I can't really see it in perspective yet. I can only see it as a bunch of songs that we did, the same as I always see the album when we've finished.
I've no idea what people will think about. I think we are gradually improving as musicians, I think we play our instruments better that we used to, truthfully. I think we have a bit more taste in the way that they're applied. I think we have a better overview of what we're doing in relation to how people see us.
You have to because people are all the time telling us what they think of us. Now, that in some ways is a good thing, and in some ways it can create difficulties. I listen to those first three or four albums that we did and they were done in great naivety.
They were just flowing out of some young boys who had some ideas. Although they're very imperfect in many ways, I like them because they have this unselfconscious drive about them. What we're doing now, we have to be kind of self-conscious about them because we know what's happened with us and we know what's happened to us.
We still think the same about each other, but it's hard to separate the cause from the event, you know what I'm saying? We're all thinking "Well what are people gonna think of us?" and "What's this gonna be like once it's out there?" and "How are we gonna do this on stage?" and it's a...
I) So you're saying you actually think more about how the end songs are going to turn out than you did before.
B) I think we do, yes I think we do, and I don't know whether it does us any good or not, to be honest. It's there and it can't be taken away.
I) You would never take, or would you think if you just sort of put out something that you didn't put much thought into, thinking about all the various aspects: the video and how it would sound on stage , if you just sought of... Don't you think that that is perhaps just a little too calculating?
B) Well, if I was on me own I would, and that's what the Starfleet thing was about. I did it because I liked it, and I put it out because some people liked it and that was it. But with the four of us, we have such different tastes anyway that most things get torn to pieces before they ever reach the point were they're on a piece of plastic.
So things can't be illconsidered. Generally if somebody writes a song and the other three hate it then they will either chuck it out or else they will work on as a band until we reach something which we all think is acceptable. So that it can't be totally spontaneous. Having said that, we're aware of the value of spontaneous performances. We try and keep the bits of, the magical moments which happen in the studio, and get them all on the album.
But that's not quite the same thing. A Queen album by the time it comes out has been quite carefully crafted. You can call it calculated but you can also call it caring about your creation. It's like... I don't know how a painter behaves when he's putting together a picture, but my impression is that there will be a moment of inspiration when he knows his direction, he'll get going on it. Most times he'll spend a lot of time making sure he's got the maximum out of his idea. That's what we're like. We don't like to let it go until we think we've rung all the potential out of it.
I) You don't think, at this stage you'll get to the point where you'll say "I'm sick of Queen. I've just had enough"?
B) I very often get to that point, very very often. Particularly at album making time. It's so frustrating to be able to get 25% of your own way and that's all. It's continually a problem for us all, and we fight a lot and we push and we push. But I still think it's worth staying within the group, somehow, because it has a certain kind of chemistry which works.
I) So the whole is greater than the sum of the parts?
B) Yes. Exactly. I think so.
I) What do you do with all you money? [laughs] Just to lighten the tone a bit here.
B) [laughs] I'm glad you didn't ask me what I do with the spare time that I have. What do I do with my money? I give some of of away, I use it to buy food, I use it to educate my kids, I use it to collect photographs, which I'm passionately interested in.
A certain group of photographers who operated in the 1860s whose work I collect. I regard them as kind of the rock stars of their day. They were doing things which were very popular for a short space of time. I collect their work and I want to write a book about them.
And I use it to buy bus tickets to get places, and air fares and God knows what else. Without ruining my kids completely I think it's a good idea if they see quite a lot of the world, so I try and take my family a lot of places. And I buy toys, lots and lots of toys.
I) For yourself or your kids?
I) So, where's home for you at the moment?
B) England, London.
I) Do you think it will always stay that way?
B) Yes, I think so, really. I've got too many roots here to leave.
I) Have you got any new challenges. Things that you think in the back of your mind "Ooh, I wouldn't mind doing that one day"? Racing a power boat across the Atlantic or something silly like that.
B) Not that. I'd like to go into space. I'd like to be on one of those shuttle jobs. I was an astronomer for many years, that's what I was trained to be. I don't want to take measurements and be an astronomer though, I just want to go up there as a sightseer... And a poet, as a musician.
I don't know if that's possible, but I'd like to do it. The fact that those poor people got killed on the last American effort doesn't put me off, really. I think there's always going to be an element of danger. But I'd love to do it, I'd love to do that. If I don't do it, then maybe my kids will. Maybe they'll send me a postcard from the moon.
I) When you listen to early Queen albums, are there things that you cringe about, or things that you think still hold up well?
B) I think ideas wise they hold up quite well. Some of it I think is a bit embarrassing sound wise. I hate the way the drums sound on those early tracks, and sometimes the guitar is a bit iffy. We were very much... We were very strong minded even in those days, and we fought for or own way, but we didn't know how to get it. The fashion when we started was to record everything dry and separate, and I think over the period when we were making the first album we realised that this was wrong for us.
Various people told us that it could all be done in the mix, and of course nothing can be done in the mix, really.
If it's not right on tape the first time, it's never going to be right. So from that time on we experimented with ways to make it sound more alive and more real, more exciting. I think we're still learning, we're still learning how to get things on tape.
I) Are you still discovering new things about one another, or do you know each other so well that there's nothing that shocks you or surprises you?
I) Something you can say on the radio.
B) I think we're still discovering each other. We talk to each other a bit more freely than we did in the past. We're able to discuss our differences a bit more open mindedly. I'm sure we still get shocked by each other. We're all very extreme, all four of us, sometimes it's very very hard to find a middle course at all.
Even on the most elementary things like "What's the album gonna be called?" We've been talking about that for the last three months - no one can decide. It sounds stupid, but if you can argue three months about that, what about when it comes down to intricate musical pieces? You can argue forever.
I) So who finally wins out in all the arguments?
B) The person who wins is the person who persists the longest and feels the strongest, I think.
I) You're shortly to go on a European tour of fairly massive proportions. Does it bother you some ways that perhaps things have got just a bit out of hand, because you're playing to what, 70 000 people at a time, 60 000 people at a time? Do you feel as if sometimes you're losing contact?
B) No, this is something new for us in Europe, we've done it outside. To be honest, we were the slowest people to get into this. We've been playing music for 15 years - and the demand has been good for us which is great - we're very lucky. But we've stuck in the whole to doing either theatres or arena type situations like 15 000 - 20 000.
It's only recently that we've allowed ourselves to get moved outdoors, and we were quite nervous about it in the beginning. But I think we've done enough of them now to know how to handle it.
We've done very large gigs in Argentina, Brazil and Mexico, the outdoor situation, and I think we can handle it now. You can throw Live Aid in if you want. We've also done... We did Leeds a few years ago, which was great, one of the best concerts we ever did in my mind. That was outdoors and everything was right.
It's very dodgy, a big gamble. I think if we were ever ready for it we're ready for it now, and I feel perfectly ready to take on that challenge.
And as far as losing contact is concerned, you're losing contact as soon as you play to two people instead of one, but your also gaining something. You gain a very special feel of an event that you get at those large concerts, and I think it's worthwhile giving it a try.
I don't think I always want to play in those situations, not at all, but I do want to try it this time out. I want to see what happens. I think it's very exciting. We had some great moments in South America and we've been telling everyone about it, and there's been films of it come back but nobody realises what happened down there. I think people are suddenly gonna realise what we're able to do in that situation. I think they'll be surprised, I really do.
I) Next question. Will it be coming to Australia or New Zealand?
B) Yes we've talked about that already. We had a great time down there last time, especially New Zealand which was a new territory, and new territory is always exciting, and Australia seemed like a new country to us.
I) It had been a while since you'd been there, hadn't it?
B) Yeah, it was so different, and so... It seemed like... In the old days it seemed a hard place to break into in the sense of the way people thought about us. Now it seemed like everyone had their arms open and it's very much like a rock and roll territory, and we thoroughly enjoyed ourselves down there.
So as soon as we get the opportunity we'll be down there, doing Australia and New Zealand, and hopefully a bit more thoroughly than we did last time, because we didn't manage to get to Perth or Adelaide, all those places. We need to get back there, and we're aware of that. To be honest we were very over cautious.
I) A lot of English groups say this. They don't realise how much people in Australia really crave to see, y'now...
B) We were kind of... I know people don't think we're like that, but we were quite nervous about overdoing it. We thought that if we go down there and try to do this massive thing, perhaps people would have forgotten about us down there, y'now. But the response we got in Sydney and Melbourne when we were down there was unbelievable, really. We'd just wished that we'd done the whole tour of the whole country.
We just... What can I tell you? We just underestimated what was going to happen. So we're very aware of that and we feel that we didn't do it properly, and we will do it properly next time, you bet ya' life!