Interviews: Brian May: Circus Magazine '76
Brian May is a famous Queen, known far and wide for his fingerwork. No matter where he is, Brian always carries around a pocketful of British coins. He uses them as guitar plectrums - instead of the usual plastic picks - to get his distinctive howling metallic sound.
Brian May is responsible for the dense regal sound that is a large factor in Queen's otherworldly image. A masterful guitarist, May utilizes the full dynamic potential of his axe; he can soothe Queen's audience with a wistful baroque melody one second and then obliterate them with a barrage of power chords the next. No one guitar had ever satisfied Brian so he and his father built their own out of bizarre materials. A high glossed beauty, the guitar looks like the offspring of a Stratocaster and a Gibson Les Paul. And its peculiar three hand-wound pick-ups give Brian a fluid yet piercing tone.
"There are practically no electronics in the guitar at all," says Brian, who is also an astronomer.
As a child he used to read Eagle Comics. They had a strip in it, May remembers, with a hero called "Dan Dare," a space pilot. Dan Dare had a certain influence on May, the Queen of today.
Scott conducted this interview during a lunch at the gilded Sherry Netherlands Hotel. The walls were hung with giant mirrors and Brian was wearing a black velvet jacket. He was feeling "a little flu-y."--Ed.
Circus: What word best describes you?
Brian: Highly creative (ha ha). I don't know if you can best describe someone in a single word.
Circus: Highly polished?
Brian: We're not always polished. On the records it's pretty polished; onstage it could be a little looser.
Circus: What about image-wise?
Brian: Image isn't a very conscious thing. Everybody thinks it's a contrived thing, but in fact it's not. We grew up that way and you know, if you're on the road for a long time, together, then a group personality just evolves. We like to think we're professional.
Circus: Do you think being together can make you look more like one another?
Brian: It probably does. Music and our personal style.
Circus: Do you think it's a good idea?
Brian: Let me see. I think it's very often the way things grow. I think maybe the Beatles evolved that way. They were conscious of each other, and grew that way, so the group as a whole can be more than the sum of its parts. I think that applies to us as well. Yet, we're all very different from each other in personality and even in our approaches to living, writing songs or arrangements. Just look at our albums. Everyone has a different idea of what's the group's about.
Circus: What's your idea?
Brian: I knew you'd say that. Umm, my idea of the group functioning at its best is when somebody in the group has an idea, say something worth saying in a song, and somehow manage to get the best out of the rest of the group. In other words, they manage to use the group to its best effect.
Circus: What's the most contrary idea to yours?
Brian: You've got to ask the others that. Try asking them that and see what they say. You'll get very different answers, from Roger particularly. I think Roger's answer would be that a rock & roll band's important in its own right and he'd pursue it from that end - to entertain people.
Circus: Is the name Queen as in Queen Elizabeth or in the Little Richard sense or...?
Brian: It's all too far back to remember, really. It's just our name now. It was sort of ambiguous. It was Freddie's idea. In England at that time, in circles that we moved in, it meant something very loose, like somebody pretty flamboyant. It didn't have particular bisexual connotations or anything. That probably came a bit later.
Circus: Ever in Queens, New York?
Brian: Passed through. We once ran a competition - Would you like to spend a day in Queens and see Queen? A crazy idea.
Circus: Would you like to be in fashion magazines?
Brian: Me personally, not particularly. There is a thing we did when Xandra Rhodes did our first leather stage costumes, one of the fashion supplements in England was very interested and got us to do some pictures. I think it was the Sunday Telegraph. At the time it was okay, but I wouldn't like to get too far into that because it's not what we're about. Freddie's more into fashion than I am probably, but he's concerned with being a performer most of all.
Circus: Who do you think are the great beauties of our day?
Brian: Natalie Wood. I can't think of anyone else. Oh, I'll tell you, Juliet Mills. I like sort of delicate, sensitive faces.
Circus: Are you more influenced by males or females?
Brian: In music, most of them have been males like Jimi Hendrix, Jeff Beck, Clapton and the blues people that preceded them.
Circus: There really aren't too many female guitarists.
Brian: I wonder why. Someone's sure going to do something about it soon.
In England, if you're going to advertise for a guitarist, you have to take female ones as well. That's because we now have equal rights for women. For once in me life I agree with the Pope. It's all gone too far. But at the same time it's all probably necessary to go too far in order to find the balance. I'd hate men and women to be the same though. That's my idea of a nightmare world. The duality of the male-female is the whole thing.
Circus: What's your idea of a dream world?
Brian: Being comfortably at home with the people I love, with the means to do what I do and get my ideas across.
Circus: Who was your first pop crush?
Brian: I like those early, sort of atmospheric records that Phil Spector did, "Born Too Late" - The Teddy Bears.
Circus: Did you like Connie Francis?
Brian: Yes. Yes. Definitely. I remember going out to see her and being embarrassed because I had this big crush on Connie Francis.
Circus: She does late night television ads now for "Connie Francis' Greatest Hits."
Brian: I saw that and I wanted to get it.
Circus: She looks a little older, but wears the same clothes.
Brian: Yeah. A lot of mystique, really. Her face was never seen really. I couldn't tell you what her face was like, but I knew I was really keen on her.
Circus: Usually you saw Frankie Avalon's face.
Brian: Yeah. Where can I get that album?
Circus: K-Tel Records, probably. Did you like the Beatles?
Brian: I was crazy about the Beatles. And Cliff Richard and the Shadows. They were big in England.
Circus: When did you get your Ph.D.?
Brian: I actually didn't get a Ph.D. I did a BSc. in physics, which takes three years in England, then there was this post in the newly formed astronomy department in my college and I couldn't resist the opportunity. I did about five years research in astronomy, and wrote a couple of papers, but the Ph.D. never got published. It's about 95% written, but that's as far as it gets, because I don't have the time now. It's a shame - it's all written up, the diagrams are there.
Circus: Do you have a particular thing for penguins?
Brian: Yeah, I like penguins. They are very stylish.
Circus: Do you see emotional reasons, besides physical reasons, why you had hepatitis?
Brian: I think that has something to do with it. I was pretty run down - I really hadn't learned the technique of touring - and I think I was fighting against it rather than going along with it. I was feeling pretty desperate, yeah. I was feeling New York was pretty oppressive the first time around. I was sort of scared to go out of the hotel room.
Circus: Some people break their leg just so they can cool out - and not know until later that that was the reason.
Brian: There can be something in that. I've often wondered about that. I know in some ways it was a relief to get hep, even though I felt so bad physically. It really is a killer. You felt like you wanted to die.
Circus: I'd like to know something about your guitar.
Brian: Well, I made it with me father. There was this very old fireplace, and it was the fashion at that time to take out of old houses these beautiful mahogany fireplaces to put in these little tiles things in, and there was one lying around a friend of me dad's, and that was used for the neck. A nice piece of wood, pretty well seasoned, a few worm holes we plugged up. The body's made of oak. It sort of looks like a Gretsch Firebird in general outline, but it's my own design.
Circus: How much thought had you given the design?
Brian: Lots and lots.
Circus: How long did it take you to make?
Brian: About eight pounds ($20).
Circus: How long did it take you to make it?
Brian: About two years.
Circus: What was the first thing you played on it?
Brian: It might have been something by the Shadows. I don't remember that.
Circus: What was the first thing you ever played?
Brian: The ukelele banjo, which my father had, and I used to play little George Formby numbers. A great star of his day.
Circus: What was his day?
Brian: Early '30s.
Circus: Are there guitars that you have idolized?
Brian: Loads. I used to think the Stratocaster would be the thing when I got one. Always thought when I got enough money to get one of those, that will be it. Then, when I got enough, I didn't like it. The same with the Les Paul. I thought the Les Paul would be it.
Circus: What does your guitar do that the others don't?
Brian: Do you want to know about the pick-up arrangement? It's something a little different. You can put any pick-up in or out of phase with others, so you can cancel out the low harmonies or accentuate them, so you have a wide range of sound. On each string there are three pick-ups and you can have all three pick-ups working in phase in which case you amplify the highs and wipe out the lows; and you can have the three pick-ups out of phase, in which case you amplify the lows and wipe out the highs. Actually, people are doing that now, and I've seen a few guitars being made that way now.
Circus: Do you remember your first telescope?
Brian: Yeah--a four inch reflector. I was about 14.
Circus: First star?
Brian: I can remember getting up about 4 am to see Jupiter, running out in the road trying to find a place where I could get a line on it with me telescope, and actually seeing it with its moons and everything.
Circus: Did you ever get into microscopes?
Brian: Not really, no.
Circus: Was Jimi Hendrix as important to you as Galileo?
Brian: Yeah, more. He's sort of the god of guitars - electric guitars. He came along and left things very different from the way it was before he started.
Circus: Is there a luxury you won't deny yourself?
Brian: Well, it doesn't matter to me what kind of hotel room I stay in, but I do believe in having good food. Food might be the only tangible luxury.
Circus: Would you be more extroverted if Freddie Mercury was more introverted?
Brian: Maybe. That's a very hard question. I was always pretty shy - a lot more than I am now.
Circus: Do you fall in love a lot?
Brian: Yeah, pretty easily I suppose. Another thing I can't go without is some time alone. I need to be alone in a room with no engagements and no one there. But I would hate it if I didn't know there was somebody there to talk to if I wanted to.
Circus: What do you like to do when you're alone?
Brian: Sit and think, really.
Circus: What do you do with your left hand that you don't do with your right?
Brian: Throw balls.
Circus: Can you see people's auras?
Brian: I get a strong atmosphere from people. The people I admire most are those who can cut through all that.
Circus: Who do you admire most?
Brian: Maybe John Lennon and Paul McCartney.