Interviews: Brian May: Faces Magazine '84
For Brian May, 1984 is a very good year. Queen’s 13th album, The Works, is an international triumph, voiding all the bad vibes from its misunderstood predecessor, Hot Space. His own first solo effort, Brian May & Friends: Star Fleet Project, with Eddie Van Halen and bassist Phil Chen, is already a cult guitar favorite. Where solo efforts often tend to be politely applauded and then forgotten as an artist’s “indulgence,” the raw power of this album has given it instant, unanticipated acceptance. Plus which, Brian’s first production effort, Heavy Pettin’s debut Lettin’ Loose, has been so well received in both Britain and the US that it’s made the band, months ago unknown, into the newest heavy metal heroes.
A highly stylized guitarist, Brian has seen his considerable gifts weather all the ups and downs and end-less infighting of the band. Queen was, again, rumored to be on the point of a breakup following the puzzled reception of their experimental Hot Space, each member admitting to the press he could not bear the company of the other three. The ego of Freddy Mercury, said to release enough energy to propel the Columbia into orbit, was the catalyst that inspired all four to complete solo projects. But with the wild success of The Works, calm has prevailed. FACES caught up with the contented May just before the Queen world tour to hear his new secrets of preventing harmonic distortion, onstage and off.
FACES: I’ve been a big fan of yours since seeing you open for Mott the Hoople at the Winter Garden—that must’ve been a good ten years ago. But I admit I’ve been a bit confused about the tangents Queen’s gone off on now and again.
May: You and me both.
FACES: But your two new albums have set everything straight again. Your solo album and The Works are both well received, to put it mildly.
May: Whereas with the last album— Hot Space—we were way out on one of those limbs you mentioned, this one uses the type of songs we’re best capable of doing. The Queen trademarks are back in there—we’re painting pictures as we did three or four records ago. We wanted to sound more like Queen - the group.
FACES: You all are brilliant musicians—I’ve enjoyed the experimental albums a lot, once the shock wore off.
May: As a group, we do not have a single direction. We’re four very different people. I do feel we’re more democratic than any group I’ve come across. But that means there’s always compromise—no one ever gets his own way totally. We’re always pushing four different directions, not quite
sure where the equilibrium position is, for balance. We fought about arriving at a sensible format for Hot Space, then decided to push into a very rhythmic and sparse area, disciplining out all the indulgences we’ve been used to putting in. We felt our fans would take it as another experiment. But we found we’d stepped out—at last!—from the music people felt they could expect from us. Other times, we felt we’d made big departures, but no one raised an eyebrow.
Now it was strange to discover that fans really did get upset, and in some cases, gave us a lot of stick.
FACES: Didn’t you anticipate this kind of possible response, having fought so much in the studio?
May: I just didn’t realise how far outside we’d gone. I myself was least keen on this concept. But I did feel it was a good, and valid, experiment.
FACES: But no band can go on with the same sound forever. To me, the first two Queen albums were classically excellent, flawless. But I realise you can’t live in a musical vacuum and never move on.
May: You must keep your spirit alive, otherwise, you feel like you’re dying. Up ‘til this, our fans had been very tolerant. We considered them a thinking audience, understanding—but it was a strange time with that album, alright.
FACES: It struck me that there was a strong change in your sound about the time of News of the World. Many of my rocker friends were very upset that they didn’t hear the old Queen—the first two albums.
May: In actuality, we had complaints on the second album. Some people said, oh, that’s not rock & roll anymore, it’s too textured, too multi-layered. We felt that we’d gained more than we’d lost, and got new blood into the music—even if we did receive a few angry letters. Then, with News of the World, some said, oh, that’s nice, but it’s one-dimensional, it’s too stark without the harmonic content. But really, we were just trying to purge ourselves—and start again from the bottom. But all the complaints we’d had, really, were from a small number of people. So when a large number went against Hot Space, it made us stop and consider: what does make an album worth-while? It is totally the number of people who respond favorably?
FACES: I would guess it starts with the opinions within the group.
May: Not one of us is ever totally happy with an album, because we each want some-thing different out of it—and we never get it. Now, The Works is doing very well, but I myself am starting to wonder—does that mean we played it too safe? I really do think you need to take the musical risks, to be comfortable with yourself.
FACES: Then you must feel totally satisfied with both the critical and commercial success of your solo album.
May: Star Fleet was totally unpremeditated—we did it on the spur of the moment. It was very hard for me, but somehow I had a lot of courage that day, and everything worked.
FACES: How did you like working with Eddie Van Halen?
May: It was wonderful—the whole couple of days was one of the best experiences of my life. Such a great feeling to play with people who were excited to play with me! That's a feeling I haven't had for a long time. So I didn't care if it sold - I didn't even think it would make it to an album I just wanted to have a tape for myself.
FACES: This is slavish, but it is excellent - there's no other world.
May: I must contest I still enjoy it - I still put it on the record player and like what I hear. Whereas I rarely put on a Queen record and enjoy it. I'm usually agonizing over every note, listening for mistakes. And that brings back all the tensions of working together in the studio.
FACES: Is it really that painful?
May: I'm not saying we never had a good time because that can happen. But there's an awful lot of real heartbreak that goes into every note Queen ever records.
FACES: Do you feel the same in stage performance?
May: Not at all. The big reason I think the band is worth pursuing for myself, is that I love being onstage with them. The nights when the group really catches fire - that is quite a thrill. I think, were I to leave, this is what I would find it hardest to do without.
FACES: You certainly appear to relate splendidly onstage.
May: And we do. All those studio pressures are swept aside when we're on tour. Individual fights don't count - all you're conscious of is doing the best you can for the fans who’ve come to see you. We again become aware of each other’s talents. We have complete trust, complete reliance upon one another. I would so like to get this onto our albums.
FACES: But you feel that’s a hopeless proposition?
May: In fairness. I must say that all the others go through these strong feelings, as well. As it is a democracy, they don’t get their own way, either. With this last album, now. I wrote a single, you might call it one of my heavy indulgences. lt was very rough and raw, but I really liked the sound. The other three hated it so much they were ashamed to play it. So it wound up as the B-side on “Radio Ga Ga” which is good as it gives the fans a song they didn’t receive on the album, more for their money. But you see, it was kept off the album by the majority.
FACES: Lets talk about your first production job with Heavy Pettin’ earlier this year. You’ve certainly done a lot to make them a household word.
May: I really liked their demo and as I’d never produced any other band. I figured I should really do this now or I never would. They reminded me of ourselves, starting out—talented, a proper group in all ways, but not recorded. So I felt I could give them my experience and perhaps prevent many of the difficulties we endured.
FACES: Did you enjoy the process?
May: 50/50, at best. They were a fine band but the experience of dealing with managers and record companies was quite harrowing. In any event, it certainly was a learning experience! Mikael Kirke and Diana Clapton