Interviews: Brian May: Vox Magazine '91
It's not often that the members of legendary rock band Queen are caught talking about the day-to-day details of being the super-group that they are but below, lovlingly rendered in hand-crafted typescript, are excerpts from a world-exclusive interview in which Queen's guitarist Brian May comes clean on the making of their latest album, 'Innuendo'. Remember. You read it first in Vox...
Question: Which is your favourite track on the album? 'Innuendo?
Brian: I think 'Innuendo' was one of those things which could either be big - or nothing. We had the same feelings about 'Bohemian Rhapsody'. It's a risk, because a lot of people say "It's too long, it's too involed, and we don't want to play it on the radio." I think that could be a problem in which case it will die. Or it could happen that people say "This is interesting and new and different", and we'll take a chance.
I also very much like the last track on the album, which is called 'The Show Must Go On'.
It's one of those things which evolved, and there's bits of all of us in it.
Q: It's very much a Queen track because it has those big, thick block harmonies.
Brian: That's right, yes. It has a little bit of retrospective stuff and it has a little bit of forward looking stuff. There was a point where I looked into it, and got a vision of it, and put down a few things, and felt it meant something special - so I'm pretty fond of that one. Sometimes these tracks have a life of their own, and no matter what you do they have a certain sound to them. 'The Show Must Go On' has a very broad and lush sound to it, which I like, whereas 'I Can't Live With You' turned out very, very close and harsh. And no matter what you do, you can't mix that out of it. It probably benefits the track, but they just have different atmospheres - you do them in different places and in diferent ways.
Q: Have you used any new techniques on this new album, or have you stuck with the techniques you know and love?
Brian: As much as possible we've done it live in the studio, with three or four of us playing at one time. There's a fair bit of new technology. Sometimes we would start off by programming something and working around it, but in almost every case we replaced original material with real stuff as we went along. With the digital [recording] gear you can allow yourself to do that more freely, because if you make copies you don't lose quality. What I've always said about digital is that you can preserve the "liveness". In the old days you would say: "That's very nice as a demo, but now we'll do it properly". Now you can say: "That's great as a demo; we'll use this piece and incorporate it into the finished product". So you use tht first take of a vocal for instance, and it's there: sparkling and clear on the final mix.
Q: What about your own guitar techniques? Are you still learning?
Brian: I'm pretty basic as far as technique is concerned. I don't use many gadgets, and I like the sound my guitar makes, anyway. But I'm very aware of a lot of new input into guitar playing - there are a lot of great people out there, like Steve Vai, Satriani, Edward Van Halen and Jeff Beck. Every time I listen to Jeff Beck my whole view of guitar changes raidcally. He's way, way out, doing things which you never expect. That's my kind of model in a way; I would like people to listen to what I do and say: "Ah, he took a chance there: this is something different", I'd like people to think it's melodic and not just "wheely, wheely, wheely" for being flashy's sake.
Q: You're clearly still very keen on playing?
Brian: I love playing, yeah. Always do - and I always come back from doing different stuff thinking "It's nice to pick up the guitar again". The guitar has a kind of grit and excitement possessed by nothing else.0
Q: Would you like to take your guitar out and play in small clubs?
Brian: Yeah, I love playing anywhere. If I go to places where other people are playing, I often get up and play myself. I just enjoy the sound and feel of playing, and I guess we don't do it enough as a band. That may change, but at the moment we're making albums and making videos; and touring worldwide.
Q: How do you rate 'Innuendo' against past albums?
Brian: I think it's the best one for quite a long time. There's nothing I'm embarrassed about. Often you put out an album and you think "...But I wish we'd done this". This one I feel quite happy about, and I can listen to it without any problems. I like it a lot. I think it's nicely complex and nicely heavy, and there's a lot of invention on there.
Q: When you're in the studio, do you think of the fans? Do you think "Queen fans will like this track"?
Brian: Yeah. First of all, you think "What am I trying to say myself?"; and then you think "How is the band going to interpret this?"; and then you think "How's Mary Potts going to feel about this?". Sometimes it's a joke, because we pore over one little phrase, or the tuning of one note and then you think "Well, Mary Potts of Biiggleswade won't actually complain if it's a little bit out". So you try not to be too obsessive about things. But we're always conscious that people have a view of us and expect something of us, and we do play to our audience. It's very important. You can't create music in a vacuum.
Q: After 17 albums, have you ever been tempted to bring other people in to augment your sound?
Brian: Sometimes we are. We've had the odd track where we've done an arrangement with an orchestra, but I think the best stuff tends to come when it's just the four of us. If we branch out it tends to be individually. I've just done some music for Macbeth on stage. Within the group, I think we're conscious of trying to use each other to the maximum. It is a group, and it still sounds like a group, and I think it should be that way.
Q: When you write music, do you think in terms of other instruments? When you're playing guitar do you think "This would be a good 'cello part"? Do you lay those parts down on guitar?
Brian: I generally lay them down on keyboard. I tend not to write on guitar very often. Sometimes, if the guitar is the last thing to go on it's very fresh and it's different. If I write on guitar, it often seems to come out the same each time, so I tend to start off with keyboards. Well, really, you start in your head. The best way I write is by singing into this little tape recorder, and when you bring it out and you've got your keyboards and your guitars and the studio ready, you can hear what was in your head at the time. Generally you do hear it all at once.
Q: Going back to Queen, do you all work together in the studio, or do you tend to go individually and do your own thing?
Brian: It varies. These days we seem to be able to write together, which is nice. So a lot of the time there are the four of us in there, and we're actually haggling over words and phrases and arrangements. That's the most healthy situation, I think. But there are times when you just hear something in your head, and you go for it. There are a couple of tracks on 'Innuendo' which came into my head when I was in Montreux on my own, and I knew they were for the whole group. You bring the group in, and we work on these ideas afterwards. So there's both [sorts of writing] sometimes it's one person's idea, and sometimes it's a proper interactive situation.
I think we are quite selfish with ourselves. I think we're quite competitive, but that, sometimes is the spark which produces the extra edge. Being selfish can mean you want to keep it solely for yourself, but you're cutting off your own nose in that case. There's a track on here (I won't tell you which one) which I dearly would have liked for my solo album, whch I'm still working on, I thought "I enjoy singing it, I enjoy playing it and it sounds good to me", and then I played it to the group to see what they thought and they liked it. I decided if it gets the treatment that the group can give it, it's going to gain an extra dimension, and it would be stupid to keep it just for myself.
We have each other's measures quite well, and we argue fiercely. But there's that point where you know you've said your bit, and then you should back down. I think we all know that, and it's what keeps the thing running.
Q: If you had to describe Queen in one or two words, what words would come to mind?
Brian: Well, there's this word "anthemic", which keeps coming up. A lot of our biggest success has been material which brings people together in the spirit of togetherness. It's related to that feeling you get at football matches. The difference is that in a rock concert everyone's on the same side - which is rather nice. A lot of our music since the third album has been a reflection of that kind of feeling, and I think that's one element. But a lot of people would all it bombast and being over the top, and I'd take that on board.
Q: Have you every thought "Let's uproot and move to the States"?
Brian: When we were touring heavily in America, we based ourselves there for a couple of years, but now we're back here and it seems to be the place. I often wonder why I don't move to somewhere warm, like Los Angeles or Tenerife, but I have the kids here, so I guess that's why I slog on in England.
Q: Would you hate to be in a band that were stating out now?
Brian: I know how hard it is, because I communicate a lot with people who are in various stages. I got involved with this group called Crash And Burn, who were making their first album. You're full of hope, and you have something which you know is worth something, but getting past those first few stages is really an incredible problem. I think a lot of people would be better off in America, where at least you would find some radio station somewhere that would play you. It's more regionalised.
Q: What do you think about the radio situation in this country at the moment?
Brian:. There are more radio stations now than there were ten years ato, but unfortunately they chase after the same market, so they end up playing largely the same material, and that's sad. I think a little bit more adventure would be great. The powers from above need to realise that there are people out there who want to listen to proper music, and it doesn't all fit into the same category.
Q: George Harrison recently had an outburst against rap/dance/culture music. Do you think that it's over-played on the radio?
Brian: I don't really relate to it, I have to say. I listen to 90 percent of the rap reords and I think "What is this?" I'm just not in that world, you know. That doesn't mean it's rubbish, because a lot of people love it. I have kids, and they get into a lot of that stuff. Occasionally there's a little flash which gets to me, like Leila K and MC Hammer. I think Hammer's very cool, he has a great voice and great presence. The stars emerge, but the general run of it I don't understand and I wouldn't pretend that I did.
Q: The charts started out in this country in 1952 as a bit of fun, for people to look at but they've become a heavily marketable thing, which people forcing records in there. Do you think we're too chart-dominated?
Brian: I do. I think [the whole chart processs] has become very silly and very destructive. If a record's rising up [the charts] everyone can play it and that's fine, but as soon as it goes down one place you know you're dead, you're yesterday's news. I think it's all way too serious and competitive. I'd like to see things broaden out, and for people to just enjoy listening to what they listen to.
Q: Let's go back to the days when you were a lad playing guitar at Hampton Grammar School. Did you go out to local clubs to see groups playing?
Brian: Yeah - when I was a boy we used to play a lot during lunch hour, in the cycle shed. We weren't allowewd to play in school because rock music was unacceptable and not cultural, so what we did was kind of underground. And then we would go and see people at night. I was a bit restricted, because my parents thought you shouldn't do too much going out. They thought you should stay home and do your homework and then, when you were about 20 years old, perhaps you could go out into the world. So I was a bit sheltered, really, but I spent a lot of time around Richmond and Twickenham, and I saw people like the Yardbirds and the Stones and Clapton at the Club, which was hot news at the time. Thre were lots of local things like school dances, where there were people like The Tridents, my school group was called The Others. They were very big at the time, around when we were.
That was very influential to me, because I was very insecure. Whenever I did go out to those things I used to think "My God, I don't know what to do, I don't know what to wear, I don't know who I am!" I was a very, very nervous boy, and I remember thinking that if I was up there doing that - which I do instantly relate to - then I would actually be a lot more comfortable than being down here wondering whether I should ask someone to dance. That was really a push that convinced me I should be on the stage rather than watching it.
Q: So a guitar was a sort of crutch - you felt more confident when you had it?
Brian: That's right. The guitar was my weapon, and my shield to hide behind.
Q: And you're still doing it?
Brian: Yes, still doing it.
Q: You seem all to be great Hendrix fans. Is that an individual thing, or did you collectively say "Oh yes, I liked him as well"? did you all go and see Hendrix?
Brian: Yes, we did. Freddie, paticularly, was a manic fan of Hendrix. I was converted when I saw him at one of Brian Epstein's shows, where he supported The Who. I can still remember the feeling now. I thought: this guy came along, who was so far in advance of everyone else, and it was like he was on the same road but almost out of sight, ahead of us all. It was frightening and a bit upsetting, really. I went to see him a lot after that, and I just became devoted to him, wondering how he did it. I really thought I was pretty good before I saw Hendrix, and then I thought: "Yeah, not so good."
Q: Was it just his ability or was it his attitude and persona as well?
Brian: Everything. The sound ws wonderful, warm, huge, enveloping - I can't describe what it was. And his technique was incomprehensible, it was so good. I mean, people are still trying to work out how he did all that stuff, including me. As a person, as an event, he was unsurpassable - he'a magnetic. He actually played at my college when I was there. I was one of the people who was instrumental in getting him in there, and I'll never forget it. We actually supported him. We were in a little hall downstairs, and he ws in the main hall, and I went up (when we'd finished) to watch him. I couldn't believe the sound. You didn't have that much equipment in those days, and he had nothing much - just the same as everyone else. But it was wonderful, and his sense of showmanship and putting it across... I could go on all night.
Q: What did you want to be when you grew up?
Brian: My mum says I wanted to be a surgeon, but I don't remember that. I think from the time I knew what was happening, and for along, long time I wanted to be a guitar player most of all. There was a part of me that wanted to pursue the academic side, because that wa quite firmly bred into me. I did a degree in Physics for three years, and then I did four years' post-graduate study, doing astronomy research. I still love astronomy, and I still keep in touch in an amateur kind of way, but there was always this feeling that if there was a chance for me to go up and play, to make my own music, then I would do that - and I've never regretted it. I'm much better at doing this than I would have been at doing the other stuff.
Q:. Do you still look through telescopes?
Brian: Yes, astronomy's much more fun when you're not an astronomer. When I was an astronomer most of the time was spent making equipment, or making it work, or setting it up - or else typing away at computers to try to analyse the situation. The amount of time you spend actually looking at what you're doing is very small. Everybody thought I was a bit of an eccentric for wanting to be out there looking at the stars, because astronomers don't do much of that. But I still do. In fact, last night was a wonderful clear, slightly frosty night and, just like when I was a kid, I was out there looking. Mars is up there, and you can have a little look at that.
Q: So it's a bit like a road map to you - you know exactly what's going on up there.
Brian: I do. I know it and I love it. They're all old friends up there. Your life can fall to pieces, but you've still got friends up there. It's rather nice.
Q: So maybe you could combine the two, and do a guitar version of Holst's 'Planet Suite'?
Brian: A very interesting thought, that, very interesting. Yes, maybe that'll happen, but I don't know. I'd certainly feel free to attack other areas at the moment, and strangley enough, the piece I did for the opening of Macbeth was likened to 'Mars' from the 'Planet Suite', which I thought was guite a compliment. If I do it, you get the royalties. Fair deal?