Interviews: Brian May: Guitar World Magazine '93
Brian May reflects on his days with Queen, life and music with Freddie, and his long-awaited solo album. BRIAN MAY Is not your average guitar hero. Never was. In an era when flashy blues-based leads were worshipped, May spun stately guitar lines that swelled and twined in majestic orchestrations, rather than frantic little bursts of ego. His symphonic guitar playing helped make Queen's 1973 debut album a landmark event. In the years that followed. Queen charted a highly original course between glam rock and progressive rock; while flirting shamelessly with both, they never got pulled under by either. Queen's rudder was Brian's trusty Red Special guitar, the idiosyncratic axe he built when he was just 17. Designing and building an electric guitar from scratch was a piece of cake for a kid who went on to take a degree in physics and math and later pursued a doctorate in astronomy. But the real wizardry began after the Red Special was constructed and Brian started to play the thing.
May's passionate but methodical creativity found a perfect foil in Freddie Mercury, Queen's flamboyant lead singer. It often seemed that Freddie's voice could soar as high as Brian's guitar. The singer's recent death from AIDS put an abrupt and unkind halt to a 20-year musical partnership. It's not surprising that May deals with Freddie's loss on his new album. Back To The Light. But this tragedy is only the latest in a long series of personal misfortunes that May says almost led him to suicide. Fortunately, his music served him well in times of crisis, and continues to do so. His new record documents his triumph over tragedy. Back To The Light's walls of velvet-toned guitars harken back to the grandeur of classic Queen albums like A Night At The Opera and News Of The World. But the singing, songwriting and arranging on May's solo effort announce a new chapter in May's life. His struggles behind him, the soft-spoken guitarist seems willing and even glad to discuss his long night's journey into day.
GUITAR WORLD: Why has it taken until now for you to record a solo album? Had you ever wanted to do one prior to this?
BRIAN MAY: I continuously wanted to, really, but there never was the time. That's the main excuse. Queen was always a very time - consuming thing - it took up all of our lives for 20 years. So if ever I had an idea that didn't fit the group format, it would always get put away someplace on a piece of paper or a piece of tape. But it wasn't until about five years ago that I decided it would be a good thing to use some of these ideas in a solo album. I really started it as a form of therapy. I was very depressed at the time; at one point, I was really very suicidal. At such moments, it's only the fact that I've got kids that stops me from driving off bridges. During this time. Queen was doing the Miracle. There were only a few days during that time when I managed to play guitar solas. It's really a miracle that I did anything on that album at all.
GW: What brought you so low?
MAY: Purely personal things. I think most people reach that point through too much drugs or alcohol. But for me it was just too many problems in life that I couldn't deal with. Basically, I had an image of myself which was based on my relationship with my parents and then on my wife and children and me. And also I had an image of myself as this person who romped around on a stage. All those things got taken away from me at once. My dad died, which I found very difficult. And I was going through a time when I realized I couldn't live with my wife, which meant that I couldn't be with my kids. And also - this may sound trivial in comparison - the group had decided not to tour at that point. So suddenly here was a great hole in my professional life, too. I couldn't have any outlet on stage. And I think the balance of my life just got completely destroyed. I didn't know who I was anymore. So some of these songs - like "Too Much Love Will Kill You" - are about a man who feels very sorry for himself. It's not so much the problems he has, as the fact that he can't deal with the problems, because he hasn't grown up, you know. In retrospect, that's the way I see it. In fact, my darling therapist tells me that the song should be called "Too Much Unhealthy Dependence May Lead To Psychiatric Symptoms." I'm rewriting it, but I'm having a problem with the meter. [laughs] The rhyme scheme just won't fall into place.
GW: Some of your vocals on the album sound very much like Freddie.
MAY: That's interesting. Of course, we sat doing vocals together for 20 years. And I did a lot of writing for Freddie to sing, in common with all of us. So I guess there are things we evolved together that I can't escape from.
Sometimes I feel good: I feel like Freddie is still around. Very often, if I'm at a sticky point, I can hear what Fred would say. [small laugh] And I can also see him psyching himself up and gathering the strength and determination to reach certain notes, which I apply to myself.
GW: How do you feel about people comparing your solo record to Queen?
MAY: I suppose it's inevitable. There's bound to be similarities. I've got to carry some trademarks away from Queen, because I can't help being me. In my opinion, there are superficial similarities to Queen, but I think what is underneath on this album is actually pretty different. It's much more of a personal statement.
GW: It's great to hear you doing thunderous heavy stuff like "Love Token."
MAY: Yeah, I enjoy that. I have an outlet for that now. Whereas sometimes the band had to be a bit more broad, stylistically. Now I can get more into the heavy stuff. And I do enjoy it, I must admit.
GW: It's also a funny song.
MAY: Yes. That's one of my mamma/poppa songs. I've got a few of those. I'm gonna have a little anthology of mama vs. papa songs one day.
GW: Many times down through the years, you've written about family situations, even going back to a song like "Good Company," on A Night At The Opera.
MAY: That's right. It's very helpful for me. I find it nice to get outside of it - as though I were an observer looking at it through a telescope from another planet, you know. Make sense of what is actually going on. The humor helps too.
GW: Did a lot of Queen's hard rock direction come from you?
MAY: I do like the harder stuff. Each of us had a preference. Roger [Taylor, Queen's drummer] is into good-time rock and roll. And John [Deacon, Queen's bassist] is into funk. And Freddie was into really different areas, particularly the operatic thing. Strangely enough, we all have a bit of that in us, because it was around us when we grew up. It's part of our English upbringing; we absorbed a lot of classical music subliminally from our parents. Same as we were lucky enough to absorb the early beginnings of rock and roll - Elvis, the Everly Brothers.Buddy Holly and the Crickets.
My basic training was very broad, 'cause there weren't many guitar records to get hold of. So you would grab anything there was: Chef Atkins, Django Reinhardt, old blues things, Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry, even vaudeville and traditional jazz. And this thing called skittle - which Lonnie Donegan brought in-which was really an antecedent of the birth of the blues in England. People tend to think it started with the Rolling Stones, but really Lonnie Donegan was bringing Leadbelly songs into the country quite a few years earlier, and we were all very taken with that. I think every kid in England at that time was strumming a guitar and singing Lonnie Donegan skittle songs.
GW: "The Rock Island Line...."
MAY: That's right. That was the first record I owned. My dad bought it for me. Along with our first record player, which he brought home from a place called Tottenham Court Road, where they sold spare parts. My dad built everything. He built our telly; he built our radio. I first plugged my guitar into the amplifier that he made for the radio.
GW: So by the time you built your first guitar when you were 17, you already knew guitars and guitar playing pretty well.
MAY: Yes. I figured out how to wind a pickup for myself, and stuck it on this acoustic guitar that I had, and I was off.
GW: Did the unique sonic qualities of the Red Special guitar play a role in developing the orchestral approach you forged with Queen?
MAY: It was more the other way around. In my head, I knew what I wanted. I knew I wanted a guitar that would sing and have a lot of warmth to it, but also a nice articulating edge. When we designed the guitar, my dad and me, we had that in mind - so that it would feed back nicely through the air. We tried to make it so that it would have the benefits of a hollow body - so that it would feed back through the body, but not in the uncontrollable, nasty way earlier hollow - bodies do. I don't know if we were skinful or just lucky, but it did seem to work. And I found this Vox AC30 amplifier that just goes beautifully into distortion if you drive it hard. So the sound was there. And it suited very well the sort of violin effect that I wanted to use to build those orchestras. The childhood. That was a dream from childhood. I could hear it in my head.
GW: In '73 or so, when you first came up, the emphasis was really on hot leads, not orchestral work. Did you feel like you were bucking a trend?
MAY: I suppose so. We were very much into our own world, even early on. We knew what was going on around us, but we were much more into our own stuff. We didn't pay that much attention to anyone else. Except our heroes. Which were really the Beatles, as regards production. And for me, Jimi Hendrix and Jeff Beck for guitar playing. And Erie Clapton. I would have to say Clapton also. 'Cause the album he made with John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers was our Bible.
GW: You said you were into your own thing in the early days of Queen. But did you feel like you were part of the glam scene that was happening at that time?
MAY: Well, it's funny. Things very often tend to be triggered off in different places at the same time. When we started this thing, no one else was standing on a stage and putting a lot of time into the costumes and the lights and the dramatic appeal of a show. But by the time we'd spent two years banging our heads against the wall, trying to get ourselves heard, it had become a trend. Not because other people copied us. They were just at the same point at the same time. I remember feeling so frustrated when David Bowie and Roxy Music were out there really breaking down barriers. We thought, "God, we're still stuck trying to get our album released. It's been 18 months!" So we didn't necessarily feel we were part of a trend. We just suddenly found we were in the midst of it. The glam tag tended to hold us back, in a way. Once you get put into any kind of box, there's a temptation for people to want to keep you in it. And glam wasn't what we were about. We were about making music that meant something and about using dramatic effects to heighten the experience. It was always a problem for us to be associated with people who were just into glam for glam's sake.
GW: Do you have any treasured memories of glam rock days? Any lingering recollections of divine decadence?
MAY: Well, that first tour of the States was an incredible, mindblowing experience. At the beginning of it, we were boys who were just starting to realize some of our dreams. And by the end of the tour, we realized that most of it was beyond our dreams. It was just so intense and so, kind of.... What's the word? It was kind of unsettling. You'd been beavering away in your own little corner, doing your own thing, and suddenly the world explodes in on you. And you find that there are people out there who are not only ready to accept what you're doing, but are a part of it already. It's like finding your own family after years and years of thinking you're on your own. We threw a lot of parties, even on that first tour. And the people that would come were surprising, even to us. We thought we were unusual, but there was a whole load of very creative and very fringe-type people, who became attracted to what we were doing.
GW: Like who?
MAY: A lot of transvestite artists, for a start. I remember feeling mildly shocked, and I never thought anything would shock me. I discovered that I was a lot more naive than I realized. But I guess, over the years, we've always felt close to people who didn't feel comfortable with the normal conventions.
GW: That was the first era when rock intersected with the gay world in a big way.
MAY: Yeah, we just met a lot of great people who were on the fringe of everything. Like when we came into touch with the New York Dolls and Andy Warhol - people who were creating in a very new way. In a way that appeared to trash everything that had gone before.
GW: That whole wave of glam bands was, in the States at least, the first big thing after hippiedom.
MAY: It was a great feeling. It's hard to put all that stuff into words. I guess some of it was associated with the drug culture. But personally I always felt like I was pretty screwed up anyway. My mind is on a very delicate balance. So I never took any drugs. I wanted to know that everything I experienced was real. And even so, it was very disorienting.
GW: What do you make of the current "Queen Renaissance"? The songs are back on the radio, "Bohemian Rhapsody" was in Wayne's World...
MAY: I really think we owe most of it to Wayne's World. We fought until our fingers were bleeding to get back to the States. It had been wonderful for us around the time of 'Crazy Little Thing"  and "We Are The Champions" [1978} and "Another One Bites the Dust."  It was like we could do no wrong in the States. Then it just trickled away. And I know it was one of Freddie's dreams to go back to the States one day and restore that closeness we'd had with our fans. So he would have been very happy to see this. And he would have laughed at the fact that we weren't able to pull it off, but that these' guys called Wayne's World came along, put us in their movie, and suddenly there it is again. But things do happen in these odd ways, you know. Pavarotti was a little-known opera singer in England until they put one of his songs on a football series. Things do happen for the wrong reasons. But if they happen, well that's fine. So not to beat about the bush, I'm thrilled with the Queen revival.
GW: Getting back to your new album, were all the guitar parts done on the Red Special?
MAY: Ninety-five percent of them were. On a couple of tracks, I also used this wonderful guitar that Joe Satriani gave me, which was a big departure for me. He gave it to me after we did the Guitar Legends concert in Seville, which I was lucky enough to be asked to put together. We all had a great time and I developed an even greater admiration for Satriani than I already had. He's such an amazingly dexterous player, you expect him to be technical and nothing else. But the fact is that he's got so much soul and feeling in what he does. He's really a guitarist's guitarist. Plus, he's a nice guy. Anyway, he sent me this guitar and I picked it up and was inspired. So I kicked in with it.
GW: Is it an Ibanez?
MAY: Ah.... yes, I think it is. It's his special model, and he had one made for me. It's wonderful. I'll be taking that out on tour with me, I hope.
GW: How many tracks typically go into one of those trademark layered guitar parts of yours that we hear on the album?
MAY: Up to 30, I guess. Sometimes more. I tend to lose count. The song that begins the album, "The Dark," has a lot of Packs built up like a wall. At the beginning, I'm trying to give the impression of a very frightened child faced with a very impossible wall. So there's a lot of guitars on there.
GW: "I'm Scared" is an interesting one.
MAY: Yeah, that goes back a long way. I kept doing different versions of that, as I kept finding out that I was scared of more and more things. And I figured that most of us are. We just keep it inside. I think it's good to let all that stuff out sometimes. Do a bit of screaming.
GW: Moving to another extreme, "Driven By You" was originally written for a Ford commercial?
MAY: That's right. See, I thought advertising was a dirty word, and I didn't want much to do with it. But these ad guys threw some slogans at me and I thought, "Well, I can do it if I relate it to my own experiences and my own feelings." And the phrase "Driven By You" immediately jumped out as a description of the way I saw the power struggle between two people in a relationship. It just poured out. I wrote a version for me, and I wrote a version for the ad people. And it worked out great. It was a good kick up the backside for me too, because these people work quickly and do high quality work. On English television, the adverts are a lot better than the programming.
GW: Did you write "Just One Life" after the tribute concert to Freddie at Wembley?
MAY: No. Strangely enough, I wrote that after going to see a memorial concert for an actor, a friend of my lady friend whom I'd never met. I'd never even seen his work, though he was pretty well-known in England. But by the end of the evening, I felt that I knew the guy. I wrote the song around that and realized that it related very closely to the stuff I was searching for in my solo work. So it became another germ which grew into a piece of the album.
GW: I perceived it as a song about Freddie.
MAY: There are many threads in the album. And one of them is Freddie, obviously. It had to be. Because all through the making of this album I was becoming more and more aware that Freddie was facing the end of his life. So obviously I was aware as I finished off this song that in some way it was going to relate to Freddie, too. And also to my dad and also to me. So there were a whole lot of link-ups there. But the song most directly concerned with Freddie is really "Nothing But Blue." It was written around the time we lost him, and I had this strong feeling that this was the end.
GW: Do you see much of Roger and John these days?
MAY: Yes. I'm in the studio with them at the moment. We're trying to sift through some tapes of the Freddie tribute and do some mixes. We're going to put out a video of the tribute, hopefully in time for Christmas. We're trying to get clearances from all the musicians involved, which is a major task. But it looks good. I'm surprised at how good it looks. I tend to shy away from looking at these things after we've done them, 'cause there are always things you wish you'd done better. But this actually looks great. Looking at it, I'm actually very cheered up.
GW: Do you think you'll go on to do more work with Roger and John?
MAY: We're talking about it. But it's very hard to see how we can be on a stage without Freddie. To me, personally, it doesn't make much sense. One of the things that we've agreed to do is finish off the tracks that Freddie sang after the end of the Innuendo album. There's two or three or four pieces there which we can finish, and they should be called the work of Queen. But after that, who knows? I don't think anybody knows.
GW: Tell us about your plans to tour behind Back To The Light.
MAY: Well me and Cozy Powell and Neil Murray - and hopefully my wonderful singers who helped me out in Seville and also hopefully Spike Edny, who was a mainstay of many a Queen show on keyboards-are gonna go down to South America and do a few gigs. Try to get "played in." And if we come up with something that we think is a good show, we'll be off on tour and we'll see you before too long. Personally, I can't wait. You're talking to someone who's been off the road for six years now, and whose major love in life was touring.
GW: That's interesting, because one associates you, in particular, with studio craft.
MAY: Yeah, but my favorite moments were always live. Definitely. You do the studio work so that you can progress. But the best times are always on the road.
Brian May looks back at some of Queen's finest moments.
"KILLER QUEEN" (1975)
SHEER HEART ATTACK
"I was always very happy with this song. The whole record was made in a very craftsmanlike manner. I still enjoy listening to It because there's a lot to listen to, but it never gets cluttered. There's always space for all the little ideas to come through. And of course I like the solo, with that three-part section, where each part has its own voice. What can say? It's vintage Queen.
"The first time I heard Freddie playing that song, I was lying in my room in Rockfield [a residential recording studio in Wales], feeling very sick. After Queen's first American tour I had hepatitis, and then I had very bad stomach problems and I had to be operated on. So I remember Just lying there, hearing Freddie play this really great song and feeling sad, because I thought, 'I can't even get out of bed to participate in this. Maybe the group will have to go on without me.' No one could figure out what was wrong with me. But then I did go into the hospital and I got fixed up, thank God. And when I came out again, we were able to fin- ish off 'Killer Queen.' They left some space for me and I did the solo. I had strong feelings about one of the harmony bits in the chorus, so we had another go at that too."
"BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY" (1975)
A NIGHT AT THE OPERA
"Freddie used to come into the studio armed with sheets and sheets of paper with notes scribbled all over them in his own particular fashion. It wasn't standard musical notation, but A's and B's and C's and sharps in blocks - like buses zooming all over his bits of paper. He had the song all worked out when he came in. We played a backing track which left the gaps. And he would go, 'bum bum bum bmm, that's what hap- pens here....' He knew exactly what he was doing all along. It was Freddie's baby. He had It in his head'. We Just helped him bring it to life.
"We were stretching the limits of technology in those days. Because 'Bohemian Rhapsody' was entirely done on 16 track, we had to do a lot of bouncing as we went along; the tape got very thin. This 'legendary' story, that people think we made up. Is true: we held the tape up to the light one day - we'd been won- dering where all the top end was going- and we discovered was virtually a transparent piece of tape. All the oxide had been rubbed off. It was time to hurriedly make a copy and get on with It.
"WE WILL ROCK YOU" (1978)
NEWS OF THE WORLD
"That was a response to a particular phase in our career when the audience was becoming a bigger part of the show than we were. They would sing all the songs. In a place like Birmingham, they'd be so vociferous that we'd have to stop the show and let them sing to us. So both Freddie and I thought it would be an interesting experiment to write songs with audience participation specifically in mind. My feeling was that everyone can stamp and clap and sing a simple motif. We did that record at Wessex, which is an old converted church that has a naturally good sound to it. There are no drums on there. It's just us, stamping on boards many times with many primitive delay machines and clapping. A bit of singing, a bit of guitar playing and that's it.
"At concerts, I discovered, people tend to do three claps rather than two stamps and a clap. The amazing thing is to go to football matches, or sports events in general, and hear people do it. It's very gratifying to find that it has become part of folklore, sort of. I'll die happy because of that. "
"CRAZY LITTLE THING CALLED LOVE" (1980)
"The guys put down the backing track for that one when I was out doing something in Munich, where we were working; Freddie said he wrote the song in his bathtub at the Munich Hilton. I came back and thought, 'Oh my God, it's almost finished. Let me put some guitar on It before they stick It out.' Fred plays the rhythm acoustic guitar. All I really did was add a kind of ersatz rock and roll solo and some backing har- monies and it was done.
"ANOTHER ONE BITES THE DUST" (1980)
"John Deacon, being totally in his own world, came up with this thing, which was nothing like what we were doing. We were going for the big drum sound: you know, quite pompous in our usual way. And Deakey says, 'No, I want this to be totally different: it's going to be a very tight drum sound.' It was originally done to a drum loop - this was before the days of drum machines. Roger did a loop, kind of under protest, because he didn't like the sound of the drums recorded that way. And then Deakey put this groove down. Immediately Freddie became violently enthusiastic and said, 'This is big! This Is important! I'm going to spend a lot of time on this.'
"It was the beginning of something quite big for us, because it was the first time that one of our records crossed over to the black community. We had no control over that; it just happened. Suddenly we were forced to put out this single because so many stations in New York were playing it. It changed that album from being a million-seller to being a three-million seller in a matter of three weeks or so."