The reluctant star of this year’s Kerrang! Awards is a busy man. In the process of archiving acres of Queen material and co-compiling an album of air guitar classics, he still found time to have a chat with Guitarist.
This could be Brian May’s last ever interview. He doesn’t like doing them because he says he’s never asked questions that haven’t been posed before; or that tax his not inconsiderable brain for more than a few seconds; or that don’t contain side-swipes at the band he still adores and the friend and singer he still misses. He only agreed to speak to me because of the strong relationship with Guitarist that goes back 15 years.
Still, my problem was, what the hell do you ask a guy who’s told us everything there is to know about his band and his trademark harmony guitar playing, who’s let us into his home to see his world famous guitar in pieces during its restoration and whose career is, quite frankly, the stuff of legend? With that in mind we thought we’d have a bit of fun, and while some of the questions put to our hero were typical Queen-related fair, others were a little more serious and some were plain silly.
So, between demoing a new Greg Fryer amp-driver for us, proudly showing off his new Burns signature guitars, and having a play on the old Red Special for good measure, we got down to business…
Brian you’ve got a most distinctive style and you’re an incredibly revered player. But have you ever, just for a moment, wished you didn’t sound like you?
There were times during the mid-Queen years when we weren’t getting on very well and were trying to get things out of each other that weren’t natural. Then I probably asked myself that question. But I’ve been to so many places and tried so many things that now I know if I relax and play the way that’s natural, and from the heart, that’s the moment people go, Yep, sounds like Brian May. And I feel quite comfortable with that now. I know what you mean though – you apologise and say, There I go, back in my old rut. But I’m glad I have my own style and, as long as you don’t feel to satisfied, it’s okay.
And you’ve run the tortuous route of becoming lead singer…
After Freddie died I went on a whole journey of regarding what I was singing as more important than what I played. Partly because I didn’t want anyone else to sing those songs after Freddie, but partly as a challenge to see if I could express myself properly, but not through the guitar. It was a long and painful process and there were joyful bits, but the conclusion I came to, somewhat reluctantly, was the moment I stepped away from the microphone and started to play the guitar, that was the moment people went, Yippee! So I slowly realised that things have developed the way they should have done – that I should always have been the guitarist. In some ways that’s hard, because I love to sing and I do regard vocals as the backbone of what Queen were doing. I always spend weeks and weeks on the vocal and the arrangement and then it’s, Oh, let’s play some guitar. And it’s done in half an hour, it sounds good, and it sounds like me.
Are solos devised beforehand?
Almost always. I don’t physically sing it, but I would sing it in my head long before I would play it. The moments when I’m reduced to making shapes on the guitar are the worst moments of my life. If I’m tired or stressed or the sound is really horrible, I lose that sort of singing sensation and I’m just trying to make the guitar sound good with my fingers. Those are the moments you lose your soul, like a child of three trying to play, and I hate that feeling. I’m not the world’s greatest guitarist. I’m not a virtuoso and if I’m around people like Joe Satriani, Steve Vai or Steve Lukather I feel totally humble. But then there’s a moment when they say, Hey Brian, we enjoy what you do… and then I feel great. I actually got up with Steve and Larry Carlton at a jazz festival recently. It was, Oh, we’re just about to go on, do you fancy a play? I said yes, but felt ever so insecure. Then as soon as I played a few notes they all smiled and were making faces like that was what they wanted to hear. I couldn’t have done it for very long, because they go places I can’t get to, but it was great just to spend time with them. It was such a precious few moments and I’m at an age where I really appreciate that.
If Queen hadn’t happened, what other band could you have seen yourself in?
I would like to have been in a band like AC/DC, where there was no confusion as to where the focus lay. It was just pure and you knew exactly what your style was. That’s my idea of musical heaven – my drug.
Okay then, suppose you had left Queen after A Night At The Opera, who do you think might have done a decent job of replacing you?
Nuno Bettencourt has great melodic sense. But of my era I’d say I had a lot in common with Mick Ronson, if that doesn’t sound big-headed. I always found his playing truly supportive. I think Jeff Beck would have taken it in new directions, although I don’t know if he would have got on with Freddie. Freddie had a great appreciation of guitarists though, and he was very appreciative of me. He once did a cassette of all my solos in continuous form and I wish I still had it. I was amazed. I went to the studio one day and he had done all that.
If all the Brian May models vanished from the face of the earth, what guitar would you gravitate to?
That’s a hard one. But I finally got a reproduction of the classic Gibson SG. I got it when I was in New York for the Hall Of Fame award and I love it. It doesn’t have the tremolo, of course, so I suppose I would probably get one of those and try to put it into my style. But I love the shape, always have. I remember at school I had a friend with a rich dad and while I was trying to make my guitar he bought a Telecaster. But then they traded it for this SG. I’ll never forget their first gig at school. There was Woody with his gleaming new SG and it made an amazing, kind of spoon-shaped sound and I was well taken. Then when I got my guitar I discovered I could make that same sounds, and I still use it. But I’ll never forget that moment – and SGs feel great.
Your visual image is almost as strong as that of your playing. If you were to chop off all your hair, would you lose that identity?
You’ll find out someday, when I go bald! In the early days I had long hair and nobody else did, and it was a way of not being compared to other people. We’ve been through a period where everyone had long hair and now they don’t, so why should I want to conform? But I wouldn’t wear a wig, I’d wear a hat.
I’ve often thought that a good way to tell who wrote the songs in Queen was that the writer usually sang the backing vocals.
Sometimes true, not always. But it did happen, as with Love Of My Life. Normally I would try to use the others, but sometimes it was nice to use just one person’s voice for a particular texture. We all had very different voices, so we’d experiment. We were so lucky though, because when the three of us sang a line and tracked it, it instantly became huge, with that combination of tones. Also, because you’ve worked with each other so much, you echo each other’s phrasing. There are places on early Beatles records, when they were not so heavily produced, where it’s quite hard to tell who’s John, Paul or George. And that happened with us. Devoted fans would ask if a certain piece was sung by me and I’d say, No, but Freddie was so anxious to please me he sang it with my inflections and intonation.
I know you’re a huge George Harrison fan and I’m sure his illness must have saddened you, as it has us. A friend of mine lives near his house and told me that helicopters regularly fly over it, trying to get pictures…
It’s obscene. I’ve been thinking about George a lot recently and I really wish him well. And just before you came I was thinking about how the press treated Freddie when he was ill. You know, he literally couldn’t step outside his door for photographers. They were even trying to get in the windows and there’s absolutely nothing you can do; you have no protection.
But I’ve only met George once. We played together at a Water Rats do, when Bert Weedon was King Rat. There was George, Joe Brown, Bert and me… what a precious moment. I had a blinding migraine, but the moment overcame the pain. I wish I’d had the balls to say what I really wanted to at the time. I hold George in such reverence and I think he’s so underrated by the guitar community; everyone raves about people who play fast, but if you look at the catalogue of stuff he’s produced, it’s colossal.
You received some great personal accolades at those Kerrang! awards, from bands like Muse and Linkin Park. Matt Bellamy said receiving his award was actually eclipsed by being in the same room as you…
It’s funny, you know? I don’t have a huge store of confidence and I walked into that place thinking people would wonder who I was – probably rightly so – and wondering whether I still had a part to play in all this. But the reception I received and the things people said made me feel unbelievably moved. So many people came up and said stuff that seemed genuinely from the heart, telling me that I was very much in their life, and it’s an indescribably good feeling. I went home feeling a huge mixture of emotions. There’s a part of me that lives in that world – when I hear that sort of sound, that passion – but I’ve chosen to have a life and a relationship now and do some of the things I wasn’t able to do 30 years ago, but there were big pangs when I walked in there.
John Deacon apparently wasn’t impressed with Robbie Williams’ version of We Are The Champions. What do you think?
I think it’s a pretty good piece of work. It was my idea to collaborate with Rob in some way, so the seed was planted in our minds that something might happen. He’s a great performer. But the idea for doing We Are The Champions came from him, not us. Originally he was asked to sing it for A Knights Tale, an interesting film which does the seemingly ridiculous thing of combining mediaeval jousting with rock music. Anyway, they’ve got We Will Rock You in there and they’re now desperate to have a version of We Are The Champions. So they ask Robbie to do it. Robbie said it would be nice to do it with Queen, so then at about two days’ notice we went into the studio and did it – live. We did four takes, Rob sang live and he came up with the goods. Not many people could have done that – he’s not lacking in guts. It’s a controversial thing to do because you get people firmly entrenched in their cage. A lot of Queen fans were like, Why are they consorting with this person from Take That? Shock horror! But I thought it was really worth doing, partly because Robbie fans could get into the song and also because he has great potential as a rock singer.
Roger, myself, Robbie and his producer Guy Chambers devised a new way of doing the song. It was going to grow, it was going to change key and it was going to start off acoustic and then develop into this huge ending. We sent a rough mix to Song, who were dealing with the film, and suddenly we got this panic call saying, You can’t so this, it has to sound like the original. So we ditched it and did a remix of the original, which was a shame and not what we’d planned.
You’ve talked about the problem of singing rock. So how about an acoustic album?
You mean, would I inflict it on the world? I don’t know. The whole unplugged thing never suited me really, because the electric guitar is my instrument. I do play acoustic, I’m not that bad at it and I don’t really want to make an album without it. But I think the other stuff would naturally creep in. Actually, I’ve been playing some blues lately. I’ve done a couple of tracks and I usually end up singing, and not screaming; it’s in the range where I can put some passion into it. The funny thing is I actually can scream. I just did this track for Scotty Moore on a Sun Records tribute. It starts of very quiet and then the guy screams because he’s totally pissed off. It’s called I Don’t Want Nobody Teasing Around With Me. I did a version of that and I screamed it; the problem is that I can’t do it all night. At the jazz festival I did a few songs and that was the second one. I couldn’t avoid putting the passion into it and my voice was screwed from that point on. I just don’t have the capacity to do that, like Joe Elliot or those guys from Pantera onwards. And Dave Grohl. God, I wish I could do that. The acoustic sound of Dave’s voice in an arena – hard, but very toneful and totally in tune. Full of everything you want a voice to have. Some people have just got it.