Interviews: Brian May: Guitarist Magazine '98
Interview by Simon Bradley
The impossibly tall Brian May curls up in his chair with a copy of the January issue of Guitarist and pores again over the list of your top 100 solos. "I must say I was thrilled to be in there," he says "and I’d like to thank everyone who voted for me. Actually, I was going to get back to you about my own favourite solos, as there are a few that I love that weren’t in there. Those first moments when people were bending strings and starting to use feedback and distortion were a great influence on me, you know."
For a man who is an instantly recognisable star of the music world, not to mention a player with five entries in the aforementioned list, Brian May’s modesty in a domain of planet-sized egos is as refreshing as a dip in the briny at 20-below.
There’s a great deal for us to talk about, not least the imminent release of Brian’s second solo album "Another World". As he explains the ideas behind its content, you get the impression he’s only just returning from a very dark place indeed.
Although we spoke before the tragic death of Cozy Powell, the man who provided the lion’s share of the album’s drumwork, this was just the latest in a line of personal upheavals that May has had to traverse in recent years. But there’s a line that runs from the most publicised tragedy, the sad death of Freddie Mercury, to "Another World".
Following Freddie’s tribute concert, where bands as diverse as Extreme and Metallica paid their musical respects, Brian then decided to respond to calls from friends and colleagues across the music industry who wanted his input.
"I decided to interact with different people because I thought it would be very good for me," he reveals. "Previously I’d just there like a hermit, working on "Made In Heaven", and I suppose it has a certain intensity because of that. But I felt it was time to start to let stuff in from the outside. So not only did I go out and guest with people, I also made sure that I answered the phone. I had a lot of people ringing me up asking me if I could do this or do that, and I did them all."
Participating in different musical arenas was the catalyst May needed. "I had this great influx of input, and every time I did something with another artist, it brought something out from inside me, and sometimes that’s been a problem."
"Now, when someone asks me to write a song about, say, a robot, I go away and do it. From that, I get
more inspiration, which becomes another track. When I was writing the album, all these bits came together and I realised what I was trying to do."
A New May Record
A total of three covers have wound up on the finished article, including Mott The Hoople’s "All The Way From Memphis" and the Hendrix-penned "One Rainy Wish". The original compositions, as you may expect, vary enormously in style, from the ‘Red Special set-to-stun’ rawk of "Business", to the intensely personal "Why Don’t We Try Again".
"I’m pretty keen on the first track, "Business", it’s very heavy and uncompromising, just the kind of stuff I love. The idea is that life is a hard business; basically you’re on your own when it comes down to it. It’s got a little preamble, a little slice of a song called "Space", just to set the mood and what the train of thought through the album is."
"My favourite song at the moment is the last song on there, "Another World", which is utterly different from anything else; it’s very kind of grown-up and calm. There’s another track called "China Belle", which is very easy stuff to play…"
May trails off to such an extent that I wonder if he has a problem with explaining, in minute detail, the meanings behind his songs. Evidently so…
"You spend a lot of time as a songwriter - if I dare call myself a songwriter - living with a song. During that living period where it’s growing, it changes and you’re aware that, if you pin it down too much, you’re destroying it."
"If it’s going to have any value to other people, it has to be something that when they hear it, they can say ‘That’s me; that’s how I feel about this’. As a songwriter, you hope that’s what you do."
A Night At The Microphone
Naturally, May handles all lead vocal duties on the new record, and there’s a real marked improvement in this department when compared to his first solo effort. "Back To The Light". In previous interviews, Brian has pointed to the initial struggles that Freddie Mercury experienced in controlling his own voice during Queen’s early days, as an inspiration to improve this part of his own musical armour.
"Sometimes when we came off stage, Freddie couldn’t even speak. The rest of us would be shouting and having a drink, while he’d be upstairs in his room, resting his voice. It’s so much more physical being a singer; no wonder Freddie didn’t like touring as much as the rest of us."
Singing in the studio is one thing but doing it live is another matter, even for a seasoned pro like Brian May. Queen was a band of four equal members and, while Freddie was the definite focal point, each musician on stage had a specific role to play. But when the Brian May Band first hit the road in support of "Back To The Light", the reality of singing, playing guitar and being the frontman, all at once, struck home like a mallet blow.
Remember the gig at London’s Brixton Academy in 1993, where Brian finds himself stranded stage left, trying to play guitar with the vocal mike still in his right hand? Or pelting back to the microphone to catch the final verse of "Tie Your Mother Down", arriving those vital seconds too late? Brian cringes at the memory and underlines just how secure he’s felt at Queen’s lynchpin.
"That position, standing just right of centre in Queen, was a fantastic and very comfortable place to be," he says, uttering what must be the understatement of all time.
"I didn’t have much belief for the first three solo gigs we did in Brazil; I was catastrophically nervous and discovered I didn’t have the physical energy to maintain it. I was a pool of sweat and hopelessly out of breath."
But it wasn’t long before if all started to come together.
"We did a gig a gig in Argentina," May reminds himself, visibly breathing a sigh of relief, where suddenly it all clicked into place.
"The audience was incredibly up because it was a big Queen territory, and the place went berserk when we did that stuff. I got so much energy from the crowd and suddenly felt that I could do it. I looked around and realised that it was fun and that I could actually sing. I was able to experiment with how I related to the audience and after that, the only time that it remained a problem, was when the health wasn’t there - as soon as your voice has gone, you’re struggling for the next three weeks."
Brian isn’t the only guitarist to be concerned with his singing, as he relates an interesting tale about that ‘little known’ player, Jimi Hendrix.
"Gerry Stickells, our Road Manager, used to be a roadie for Hendrix; he was the guy behind the cabinets, holding them up while Jimi was doing all that stuff," he laughs.
"Gerry told me that they’d go into the studio and lay the tracks down, but when it came to the vocal, Jimi wouldn’t want anyone to watch him singing. So they had to build this screen, because he felt so inadequate as a vocalist."
One of the many facets that make Queen songs instantly recognisable, is the multi-layered vocal harmonies, meticulously worked out and recorded. With bassist John Deacon rarely participating, it was left to the remaining three to do the honours.
"It was the three of us, almost always," says Brian, chugging away from his cuppa.
"We were stronger in different areas; Roger was very good in the higher range, while I was better lower down, so it depended on where the harmonies were set. Sometimes we’d deliberately let a certain voice predominate in places, to vary the colour, but there was a certain natural blend between those three voices that made it sound huge. Freddie had this razor-sharp, incisive and pure sort of silver voice, Roger had a raspy, toppy voice, while I had the sort of middly stuff which blurred it all together; I was probably less in tune than anybody!"
The final Queen studio album release was "Made In Heaven", pieced together by the band at a time when Freddie was, on occasions so ill that he could only come to the studio for minutes at a time. Yet despite all that, "Heaven" is as accomplished a release as any other.
"It was a long journey," sighs May. "And it was a much bigger job than anyone realised; we didn’t talk much about it," he adds, still plainly uncomfortable with the recollection.
"We were able to work with Freddie on it, but hardly at all, and the object was to make an album that sounded like four guys in a studio. We knew that if we achieved that, then no one would ask any questions. And that’s almost what happened."
"We started off with just scraps of tape. It was a huge job, two years of my life finding a way of developing the songs, but at the same time using the limited input we had from Freddie. Sometimes there was a complete first take vocal, while other times there were no more than three or four lines.
"It was a labour of love for me, working through the night perhaps on just one line. But if you can listen to, for example, "I Was Born To Love You" and say that it was a good performance, I’m glad in sounds so, but obviously it couldn’t have been."
The final bridge between Queen and "Another World" was built by the release of the original track "No One But You" for the recent compilation "Queen Rocks". Although it was written by Brian for a possible inclusion onto his own album, things didn’t work out that way.
"When I wrote "No One But You", it fitted into my original concept of what my album was supposed to be - I was going to make it about the heroes of my childhood; you know, do a Buddy Holly track, something by Hendrix, all kinds of things. Anyway, it was written as a sort of tribute to Freddie and before long I became aware I was trying to make it sound very Queen-like. There are some musical and verbal quotes in there and I thought, if it’s going to sound like Queen, maybe it ought to be Queen. I sent the track to Roger and he loved it and said we had to do it."
"Although I lost that track from my album, it worked out alright in the end; it was the final thing that made me realise I was on the wrong track for my album anyway."
Vox Of Tricks
As well as his famous home-made guitar, which Brian dubs ‘The Old Lady’, many of May’s trademark tones issue from yet another piece of garden-shed gear, known by Brian as the "Deacy" amp.
"It’s a very simple thing, a small amp that John Deacon made. It’s an old hi-fi speaker that he put together and an adapted hi-fi amp that he stuck inside. It’s not valve; its an old germanium transistor amp, but when you put a treble booster in front of it, you can make it sound like a saxophone or a trumpet."
Brian probably noticed that my jaw had hit the floor at this point…
"Yes, it sounds ridiculous I know, and God knows why it sounds that good, but I got more and more used to it alongside the AC30s. It just gives the sound a kind of liquid edge, and you can hear it on loads of Queen tracks."
Heinous rumours have been circulating for a while that May has discontinued his fabled use of the Vox AC30, in favour of the yummy Matchless DC30 combo. Surely, Brian, this can’t be so?
"Well, I’ve mainly switched back to the Voxes, but the Matchless amp is essentially a copy of it anyway. It’s a very good copy, and it’s a lot more flexible. But that was always a handicap to me because I know exactly what comes out of an AC30. There aren’t too many knobs on it and there’s a consistency about them that I like."
That Brian May has several of the most distinctive guitar tones ever to assault the ears is plain fact. That they come from a combination of a home-made guitar, one of the most basic guitar combos that exist and a baby transistor amp that’s recorded with a coat draped over it, simply adds fuel to the legend.
Although Brian hasn’t played on stage in his own right for a while, he’s popped up as a guest from time to time, most noticeably with Steve Vai and Joe Satriani, both of whom say he’s a major influence. How did he feel playing alongside two intensely technical guitarists?
"Deep insecurity, let me tell you!" he laughs. "I got up with Joe and Steve when they were here last and there’s that moment when I was thinking, I shouldn’t be here! There’s loads of kids in the audience who could put up a better show than me."
This humbling episode was repeated when Brian roped in Jeff Beck to contribute for a track for the new album called "The Guv’nor".
"It was a great experience. He’s a great player and a real hero, so there’s a bit of reserve on my part again. That song has a few meanings to it, but it seemed that it would be fun to angle it slightly so it’s about Jeff as well. Cos he is like the Guv’nor, isn’t he? But he’s very up and down, and there’s only certain times where he feels he can do it. We did a take early on, which I thought was really good, but he wanted to do another one, and like, 18 months later, he did it at his own place and I finally got the stuff to mix about a day before we were going to cut the album. He’s unbelievable. Nobody plays like him; he can pick up any guitar and still sound like Jeff Beck."
Another player who gets the Brian May vote is someone with whom he must empathise with more than most: ex- Nirvana man Dave Grohl.
"Grohl is a very good guitarist, especially for a drummer who’s stepped out front and decided to write his own stuff. His performance on the Foo Fighters’ first album was very brave, as he was showing his vulnerability and weaknesses. I love that album. Their second album is fantastic too; it’s just so beautifully recorded, and their new drummer Taylor Hawkins played on "Cyborg" on my new record. He’s in the Dave Grohl mould; astounding. His whole body moves with every single hit." May shakes his head in disbelief at the memory.
As a musician who doesn’t have to justify himself to anyone, when I ask Brian his opinion of some of today’s bands, he speaks as he finds.
"People are always trying to trip me up; it happens to me a lot," he confides. "They always try to make you slag off The Spice Girls, but The Spice Girls haven’t made a bad single, or album for that matter. They’ve got a good team; everything’s there; the songwriting, the production and the performance are all very good."
"The same goes for All Saints, or The Backstreet Boys. It’s strange; everything’s changed. You used to look for that in guitar music but, with a few exceptions…"he trails off.
Plans for touring are still going ahead, even in the light of Cozy Powell’s tragic passing.
So how many AC30s does Brian fancy using this time?
"Well, I haven’t been out in a while, so I don’t know," he smiles. "These days the trend is towards having very little sound on stage. When I saw Steve Miller’s show recently, it was all done by earphone monitors, none of the old crap all over the stage; no backline and stuff. But I was really disappointed, as I didn’t feel like there was any vibe coming out."
A few linked-up Vox AC30s and a newly renovated guitar would probably be enough to cure anyone’s ills, and when Brian May gets back on the stage again, it’ll be just like he’s never been away.
Brian May’s Top 10 Solos
(In no particular order)
Stay: Tony Hicks (The Hollies)
Hello Mary Lou: James Burton (Rick Nelson)
Shapes Of Things: Jeff Beck (The Yardbirds)
Gypsy Eyes: Jimi Hendrix