Interviews: Brian May: Classic Rock Magazine '98
That's what guitarist Brian May has been doing since the demise of Queen. Now confident as a singer and solo artist in his own right, he tells Maura Sutton that he's determined to carry on for the sake of the late, great Cozy Powell...
It's the first truly radiant day of the summer. Sitting in the front room of his quite large - better make that huge! - Surrey residence, Brian May is in his element. Curly hair and clogs in place as usual, surrounded by his legendary Vox AC 30 amps, he tells of his own particular journey from dark to light, which has resulted in his second solo album, 'Another World'. May's manner is quiet and gentlemanly as he explains just why it's been six years since the release of his first post-Queen album, 'Back To The Light'.
"I travelled a lot of paths to gather all the pieces that are in this album," he begins. "After the first album was finished I toured with my own band for about a year. Moving from left of centre of stage to being a frontman and a singer was a massive step at the time, and I learnt a huge amount - some of it the hard way!"
"We supported Guns N' Roses for a while, in Europe mainly and in some of the States. We headlined in this country. It was like a re-apprenticeship and it was a lot of fun. Amazing. I had my ups and owns, though."
"For the first couple of gigs in South America I remember coming off in a pool of sweat and thinking, 'I am not going to be able to hack this.' It was just too difficult. I gradually learnt techniques and I learnt confidence. One night when we went on in Buenos Aires the reception for us was so enormous that I forgot to be nervous and just gave what I felt was expected, and more."
"From that moment on I believed that I could sing, I believed that I could be the frontman. It seemed a long way away from Queen, which was what I needed because it was really painful to deal with the situation with Freddie. Getting out on tour was the best therapy in the world."
When he returned home from the 'Back To The Light' tour, Brian was immediately faced with working on the post-Queen 'Made In Heaven' album, with bassist John Deacon and drummer Roger Taylor.
"The others had already begun without me, so it started off in a fairly stressful way, anyway," Brian recalls. "Basically, I spent the next two years of my life either sitting in front of a computer trying to make the most of the scraps that we had of Freddie's vocal, or arranging and producing and performing to fill in all the gaps. It was an enormous project and it's so much easier if you've got all the guys in the band around you. We didn't have that situation, but the aim was to make an album that sounded like we did."
"We were trying to make an album up to the same performance and arranging and producing standards of the others, and I think we succeeded. It's definitely a kind of fantasy album. It's like what if Queen had still existed, because there was no such thing at that point. It had its moments of great joy and discovery, but a lot of hard slog and a lot of hard bits emotionally."
"Somewhere during that time I decided that in order to have something worthwhile for the next Brian May album I would have to rediscover who I was. I decided to go out and do a lot of playing and open myself up for projects because I didn't want to make another introspective album. I thought I would go out into the world, experience things and rediscover my roots."
Brian's idea had been to call the album 'Heroes' and cover some of his favourite tracks by the likes of Jimi Hendrix and the Beatles. However, this whole concept was thrown into chaos when the track 'No One But You' (written about Freddie and intended to be the centre-piece of the album) was diverted to the recent 'Queen Rocks' compilation.
"The best thing was that it removed this last element of nostalgia from the project," says Brian thoughtfully. "It reminded me that what this album is supposed to be about is my own journey. It's not about revisiting my heroes. That's a part of it, but there's a whole lot more going on."
Like its creator, 'Another World' is a deeply emotional piece of work. In conversation as well as through his music, May wears his heart on his sleeve, which goes some way towards explaining his extraordinarily unique guitar sound. Solos played with far more emotion than the average guitar hero combined with an amazing knack for arrangement and melody.
"There's a fine line between being very commercial and without any depth on one side, and being totally academic and not relating to people on the other," he reflects. "I have a great interest in operating in this area which is almost art for art's sake, but you are speaking to people and you care whether they buy it or not. I want them to feel something. I want it to do something for them, which, thank God, it normally seems to."
So, let's talk about the current music scene, Brian...
"I get excited by things, but normally not what I hear on the radio. I find it very hard to relate to the radio these days. Generally, I find things that I like by accident or by meeting someone, like the Foo Fighters. They are excising and creative in their own right and their second album is quite a milestone. After that it gets hard."
"I kind of like Smashing Pumpkins. I like some of the stuff which my three kids make me listen to. Things like that Coolio record 'Gangsta's Paradise'. I tend to be a bit anti-fashion really. If somebody is telling me something isn't cool I will probably want to go and listen to it!"
Does Brian still have a role to play in contemporary music?
"I'd have to say yes, wouldn't I?!" he cackles. "I don't know quite what contemporary music is, but I know that there's a thread of rock music that lives and it's changing. It's had to kind of go underground, which is where I came from, because rock music in the beginning was an alternative culture. I know hat there are kids out there who are really into it cos I meet them a lot out on the street everyday. They go, 'Wow man, I'm really into your stuff.' Usually I'm surprised, because if I paid attention to the general vibe of the press, I would imagine that on one was remotely interested in what I was doing."
"It might actually be good for us because it makes everyone try that bit harder. It has to be something special in order to get that word of mouth thing going. That's why I spent six years on the album. I could have put something out three years ago. I had enough songs, but I wouldn't until I thought I had something which would actually be important in people's lives."
Brian's jubilation at the completion of 'Another World; was overshadowed by the death of the legendary Cozy Powell, the drummer who was an integral part of the project. Clearly, May is still coming to terms with the loss of his good friend.
"He was much more than a musician and very much a hero," Brian sighs. "He wasn't in it for any other reason except that he loved it and he gave it everything. That was his life."
Cozy's death came as such a shock to the band - also featuring Neil Murray on bass, Spike Edney on keyboards, Jamie Moses on guitar and vocalists Zoe and Susie - that for a while they considered cancelling the forthcoming UK tour.
Brian explains: "I didn't like the idea of going out without Cozy. I thought, "Well, maybe this is it. Maybe the world is trying to tell me something.' When Freddie went, I really felt strongly that we shouldn't be Queen anymore, and I still think that I don't want to go out around the world with a replacement for Freddie. So that was my first reaction to this."
"My band was built around Cozy. But I did a few showcase acoustic gigs and a percussionist to sidestep the problem, and for a moment I thought maybe that was the way I should be going. Then I listened to the album again and I thought that Cozy would want us to take it out on tour. He wouldn't have wanted this album to be swept under the carpet. The best thing is to tour the album proudly and do it for Cozy."
"So we bit the bullet and auditioned some drummers, and Eric Singer (Kiss, Alice Cooper) walked in and really blew us away. He's phenomenal. It's not going to be like Cozy. Nothing could be like Cozy, but this guy is shot hot, state-of-the art. He has a bit of that dangerous energy that the Foo Fighters' Taylor Hawkins has. So it will be a new band."
A new band and hopefully a new dawn for a man who has already borne more than his fair share of heartache and loss.
* Brian May and band appear at Nottingham Royal Concert Hall October 24, London Royal Albert Hall 25, Bristol Colston Hall 27, Birmingham 28, Newcastle City Hall 30, Manchester Apollo 31, Sheffield City Hall November 2.