Interviews: Brian May: Best Magazine '98
Translated by Bebel
Q : You were 50 last year Brian: which changes did it involve in your life, as a man and as a musician ?
Brian: Big question! I think we get older more in what fills our mind than on the level of the age. You have to begin to deal with the death of your parents, of your friends. These are the things that can make you change the perception of the speed life is going. As a musician I think I am better than I used to be, not necessarily technically, but in my ability of having more outlook in my playing. I've been incredibly impatient for long and I stuck too much to every note I played.
Q : At the first listening of "Another World", one is struck, almost overpowered, by the feeling of freedom it gives out. It is more obvious than on "Back To The Light" which was more "static".
Brian: For this new album, I had to fight a lot to express a kind of optimism, as opposed to "Back To The Light", which was more introspective. I wanted to wait for the ground to open, to see the lava boil under, which is not frequent ! So Another World is much more interactive and linked to the world around me. There has been more ideas exchange with the other musicians, for instance. On the previous one, I had only one gloomy thought in mind, the one of losing everything, to be wrong at the same time, I didn't want to give up. I was thinking, to use another figure of speech (laughs), that if I was sinking, there would always be something interesting that would be floating...
Q : It's a very broad vision of the world, as we can also see the other planets, paradise - besides, the references to Queen ("Don't lose your head" at the end of "Guv'nor") or directly to Freddie ("Being on my own" in "Business" are frequent...
Brian: I see you have found many keys and, indeed, this research for the creation, the finding of this "other world" was a real struggle for me, on many levels. You'll see, once you have the final version of the record, that you'll understand even more things.
Q : On "Space", the short introduction, you sing that you are going to create a "little space around you, a very special place around me - noone can come in.." These are at the same time moving and worrying words. Do they mean you don't want to trust anyone anymore, or is this not really about you ?
Brian: While I was recording this album, I was fighting on several battles at one time. I was looking for the possible directions I could orientate my life to, and this idea (expressed in the song quoted above) comes from a friend, who offers a previously unreleased kind of therapy. These are little tricks that work with mind but nothing to do with a classical therapy, with which you have to go through your past again, back to childhood. It's an exceptional work on the brain little mental blocks. You just go backward a little and you try to spot the triggers that don't work. I was not going well at all, and he taught me how to create this space around me. For instance, if a pain related to your past obsesses you, you learn to "setup" this space between you and the past. It lets you be a bit stiller, to suffer less for the next five minutes, hours and sometimes days that follow. It also works physically.
Q : A way of fighting these mental viruses that attack without warning, that sometimes nearly prevent you from breathing...
Brian: Exactly. And this song allows me to share this experience.
Q : So this method worked ?
Brian: Yes !
Q : The title of the album itself contains these ideas of dreams, this will of escaping the reality, but also makes an allusion to paradise - and hell, on "China Belle" - and so to death...
Brian: that's exactly it, you are perfectly right (silence)...
Q : Do you need special conditions to work, like a place, a time or a state of mind ?
Brian: It's particularly the state of mind I'm in that's important. And I'm not often in the state of mind I would like ! I like working in my studio which is in the country, far from everything, surrounded by trees. I'm very lucky to be able to compose there, to receive friends there...
Q : Would you define your music as progressive or progressing ?
Brian: Both of them! Above all, it's in my life that I try to progress. And as far as music is concerned, progressing is vital, just not to repeat yourself. All the interest in going into making music is to find something new. On the other hand, once an album has been released, I'm not afraid of considering it finished. As for the "progressive" form of my music, of course, it's where we come from. 20 years ago, it's what made the difference between simple pop music and more adventurous and experimental creations. You could also say it's music that is seldom played on the radio, that could be another definition. Because radios play what's most easily accessible. And I tend to consider, beyond our commercial successes, that Queen was in that progressive sphere of influence. It's the case for me now, I'm convinced about that. Pop music can be nice, but nothing is as good as Rock.
Q : How did Jeff Beck happen to cross picks with you on Guv'nor ?
Brian: This song was originally intended for a movie, but it wasn't made, for lack of money. It was a story of fighters that I tried to respect as long as the film was going on, then I changed the lyrics a bit. I'm fond of difficult challenges ! After that, I thought "hey, it could be cool if Jeff Beck played on this song. We could keep the "fighting" spirit". I called him, not sure at all he would follow me, and a short while after, he called me, to tell me that he loved the song and that he agreed. I was especially delighted that he could come and play in Seville (end of October, 1991 - one month before Freddie's death - Brian organized in Seville a top meeting between guitarists, "Leyendas De La Guitarra", with, among dozens of others, BB King, Joe Satriani and Keith Richards). My big problem was that Jeff is a hero for me. I had to find the right attitude to communicate with him in the most possible natural way! There are few people I respect that much. In short, we are good friends anyway and he came to record the song in my studio. It' funny, because we're really close : he's a perfectionist and demanding too. He played and I told him : "it's great Jeff, it's terrific !". And he told me "I dunno, I'm not so sure... I'd prefer to take it away and think about it". A year later I finally called him back, and he told me he absolutely still agreed, but he also wanted to be in the right state of mind. His guitar parts were finished two days before the deadline for finishing the record.
Q : Cyborg is at the same time a real surprise, in its boldness,and finally not so surprising coming from you...
Brian: The question is an excellent answer. The structure of this song came very spontaneously. I resisted the temptation of building it in a more classical way. It is actually strange and different and it is also quite exact to say it's not surprising coming from me... I like to find myself in places where there are no rules. This complete freedom came essentially from the fact that this song was set in a futuristic context where, by definition, everything can be imagined. Then I realized little by little that there were many more links with the actual period that I could imagine, human nature being what it is, with its moments of joy and grief. I have also always been a science fiction fan, in the sense that it becomes possible to transpose men in a different context. With my son, I become immersed again in many books of this genre, in which I found a great pleasure.
Q : Don't you think your perfectionism and your the fact that you're extremely demanding lead you, sometimes, to sweet madness ?
Brian: There is actually something obsessional in this process, but if you attach importance to your art, you have to be that way, without mercy, very self-critical, or you could get complacent. The limits are very narrow. In astronomy, at night, when you're looking at the sky, you have to give yourself the time to get used to darkness. This way, you can see more and more stars. When you try to catch a glimpse of a gleam, the best thing to do is to find the right distance not to lose its sight, and, finally, when your retina is used to it, you see it better. So there is this kind of game that makes you concentrate better on a precise point. It's the same for music. If you look at something too directly, you become too sensitive to it. So you have to turn around it, without losing the sight of the thing, without forging ahead on it. There are several ways to play this game. You have to find the equilibrium between your influence on your creation and the space it needs to develop by itself.
Q : Every time you compose a new song, aren't you tempted to think that the best is behind you ?
Brian: No, I don't think much about these things. It's the future, above all, that interests me. I never judge myself according to the success I had before. I think only about one thing : Try to be better, still, because I don't think I have already said everything, "having done it". I would even say that now, I think the songs of this new album are better than everything I did before.
Q : This album is full of references, of knowing nods to the past: are they partly unconscious or do they all have a really precise meaning in your mind ?
Brian: Let's say that I'm conscious of everything there is on the record. The unconscious part of the result is a part of the creation process.
Q : After giving so much of yourself during all these years, don't you feel sometimes dried up?
Brian: No, not really. I still see many good things to come. What could worry me is, by means of exposing myself so much, to become too vulnerable. But do I really have a choice ? It's the only honest way to write, I put much of myself in it, I believe in what I do. When I take a walk in the street, I have the feeling that others have an advantage over me - they can come and talk to me, which is not obviously the case for me. But on the inspiration level, I'm lucky not to feel any block. The only thing that could block me would be this slightly depressive state of mind I tend to get into quite often.
Q : On stage, your music is much wilder than on record. Don't you feel sometimes the need of recording in a quicker, raw way and to capture this way all this energy in a few days ?
Brian: I happen to feel this urge. Sometimes, during the recording of this album, we had chances to be together with all the musicians and it gave frenetic recording sessions. In the end, I thought : "yeah, we really have fun, there is a true energy, why shouldn't we keep it this way ?" And then after, I wasn't as satisfied as I was before. A record must pass the test of time, it can't only be fresh and warm. So I just kept one song recorded this way and we worked on the rest, so that the album could be really deep. There is already a live album and it is, I think, a very particular type of album, that doesn't leave the same kind of marks that the creation of a studio project has.
Q : Was the cover of "All The Way From Memphis" recorded live or not ? On the other hand, is it a knowing nod to the first real Queen tour, as a first part of Mott The Hoople in the early seventies ?
Brian: (smiles) It's a secret! In Another World! I wanted to do something like the story of my experience on the road. I recorded many covers for this album and finally I kept only three of them, among them, this one, which means my life is still there, in the rock 'n' roll world, and that I intend to stay there for a long time... Otherwise, I actually keep very precisely in me the memory of this first tour, and I make the connection with my current "trip".
Q : After the power and the impact of such a song, why did you choose to end the album with "Another World" ?
Brian: I cannot give you a more satisfying answer than the fact I think it fits there.
Q : The second part of this song doesn't appear immediately, it is "hidden". Is it an echo to the unbelievable "13th track" of Made In Heaven ?
A : In a certain way yes... When I was a teenager, when I bought records, I was always looking for something magical, hidden. "Track 13" is a bit in the same spirit, I think one can detect the presence of Freddie there. On my album, the end of "Another World" is rather an echo to the first "real" song, "Business". I wrote it late at night, I had switched off from reality and besides, in the end, you can hear the phone ring and abruptly bring me back down on earth.
Q : On "Business", you sing that it is difficult to "be walking on the edge". Do you think you can be creative without being in this situation of precarious equilibrium ?
A : I would say no. By staying in a more "protected" area, you take the risk of doing something that has already been done before! You definitely have to take this risk of "falling", to approach interesting creative spaces. Cozy always did that, besides, and we know where it took him. But it is also the case for Hendrix, Janis Joplin (pause). And Freddie, of course...
Q : Are you more someone who likes to communicate but who doesn't like to say it much, or a rather secret man who is looking for more contact ?
A : (repeating the question) Don't worry, I'm thinking... (long silence) It would rather be the second solution. There are a certain number of situations in which I think it's not easy to communicate. During certain meals for instance, or during celebrations, I am able to stay extremely silent for a long time. Not that I don't have anything to say, but simply because I find it difficult to start a conversation. It's really through my music that I communicate the most easily.
Q : Of what or who would you accept to be the slave ?
A : (laughs) Of my muse. To lie down on a bed for hours waiting for my muse to come and tell me what to do.
Q : Do you sometimes have close friends listen to songs in progress? When do you consider a song is finished ?
A : I don't . But I play rough mixes to my friends, to get their opinion, especially on vocals, because you spend so much time hearing yourself sing that a moment comes where an outside opinion becomes very important. You know every word by heart and you have to have someone else tell you if it's comprehensible or not. I can't stand to not understand what I listen to, so I apply this attitude to my own work! It can also happen that someone tells you 'it's very nice but there is no guitar!' And you realize that you had let down a part of the song and you come back to the studio!... It's even more interesting with other musicians. For instance, when I listened to a song again, during mixing, with Cozy on my side, I could hear with his ears... By listening with him, I knew what he was thinking about this or that part. And it was the same with Freddie. He had nothing to say and I knew what he was thinking - this part was too loud for instance... As you may know, I've been living with an actress, Anita (Dobson), for twelve years now, and she tells me how directors feed themselves with the actors' energy. They have a wonderful bunch of actors, they're going to make them act as they want and finally, it gives a lifeless result. They don't give actors the chance to be free. I have this authoritative tendency to always think I'm right!...
Q : Do you take as much pleasure now as playing the guitar ?
A : Indeed, it's more and more rewarding to sing, it's a great pleasure. I've spent all these wonderful years with Queen and Freddie's voice was an outstanding instrument. The best you can find, really. But there was always this process of adapting the vocal parts we proposed to him. It was his interpretation and he had this ability to make the best of it. Now I don't have that option anymore and it would be useless to cry . So I take this situation as a possibility to explore and then to express my own feelings. It's exciting.
Q : On "One Rainy Wish", your voice reminds, in a disturbing way, of Freddie's, especially on the introduction and the hardest part. We even wondered if you didn't sample something.
A : No, but we've been seeing each other regularly for such a long time, there are necessarily bonds that remain... Anyway, I've been devoting more time to singing than to playing the guitar. I sometimes spent days and days on the same melody, to really try and give the best of myself. The guitar parts were made rather quickly, although I needed quite a lot of time to complete the solos. But I can play the guitar, when I'm still learning how to sing.
Q : Do you still consider that composing on the piano widens the choice of possible melodies, more than from basic guitar chords ?
A : I would even go further - you find better things when you don't try to work on a particular instrument. You just need to be at the right place at the right time, here, for instance! Lately I've essentially been working and composing on a keyboard linked to a computer, it keeps an idea fresh.
Q : Have you heard songs from Roger Taylor's next album ?
A : No. When I made him listen to - and finally record! - "No-one but you", which he was going to sing with me on my album anyway, before we decided otherwise...