Tab Interview: Brian May
TABATHA LEGGETT talks to guitar legend turned photography pioneer Brian May about why philosophy and physics are the same.
Brian May is a talented, clever, and an utterly charming man. Not only did he send me a free copy of his book pre-interview (worth £35), but towards the end of the interview, as I was saying goodbye, he asked me what I was studying, engaged in some semi-awkward philosophical banter and asked me to send him a link to my previous Tab articles. And I didn’t get the impression that he was just being polite. He was genuinely interested in what I do.
Brian’s latest project, a book entitled A Village Lost and Found, is an annotated collection of the original 1850s stereoscopic photograph series Scenes in Our Village by T.R. Williams. Don’t worry; I had no idea what stereoscopic photographs were either. It’s hard to describe, but the pictures come in pairs, and you have to look at them through a stereoscope and try to relax your eyes, so that they merge together and look 3D; which is much cooler than it sounds.
‘To me, stereoscopic photography was magic on a different universe,’ Brian explained. ‘Seeing two flat pictures somehow spring to life and create a real space on a page is something that still thrills me today. If I’m totally honest, I sometimes wonder why flat photography is so successful and why more people don’t know about stereoscopic photography. I truly love it.
‘I started collecting the photographs when I was touring with Queen. It was quite a slow beginning, because I was so busy with the band. But, when we stopped touring, I managed to do some more thorough research.
‘I suppose the final catalyst in the process of making this book was when Elaine Vidal, my collaborator, and I discovered where the village was. We went there together and saw how everything had been preserved.’
Queen performing Bohemian Rhapsody
You see, Brian May is a man of many talents. ‘I love stereoscopic photography just as much as I love music,’ he told me. ‘And I love astronomy too.’
How does he manage to do it all? The answer is simple. ‘I don’t sleep.’
And this non-sleeping mantra clearly started when Brian was a student at Imperial College, London. ‘University was really tough. It was hard work. But I loved it, don’t you love it?’ he asked me. I explained that philosophy is essentially a degree in nothing, so it actually involves little to no work. ‘Really?’ he asked, ‘I studied physics and maths. I guess I didn’t have as much fun as I could have, because of the huge demands of a physics degree workload.
‘In a way physics is similar to philosophy,’ Brian somewhat curiously said. ‘I mean, they both equip you to do more than just research and they don’t lead to obvious careers. There are certainly parallels to be drawn.’ I was doubtful. But I was also a massive fan of drawing parallels between Brian May and myself and so kept quiet.
‘The coolest thing I did at uni was booking Jimmy Hendrix to play in our main hall. We paid him £1000, and he played for 100 people. It was such a spectacle – totally awesome.’
So, Brain May is a physics guru, a stereoscopic photography expert and Queen’s guitar legend. This list is by no means extensive, however; he’s also a bloody nice person. He founded the animal rights group Save Me, and is a keen animal rights activist.
‘In the run up to the election, animal rights debates were hot, and I think we made them hotter,’ he explained. ‘As I’m sure you know, the Conservatives want to bring back fox hunting. And now, because of the coalition government, we’re in a lull; no one knows what to do. The Tories were talking about having a vote to repeal the ban. But, of course, they have to consider this very carefully, because if they lose the vote, that’s terrible for them.
‘I’m hoping that that’s exactly what happens: that they have a vote and lose it. This would, of course, be my greatest preference.
‘In the meanwhile, Save Me are quietly working to spread awareness. We’re putting pressure on MPs to put an end to this inexcusable barbarity, and we’ll be launching an anti-fox hunting petition soon. The biggest thing we need to do is to achieve a cohesiveness between animal pressure groups, because they’re all so different. The RSPCA, for example, is something that people can identify with, and it’s easy for them to gather support. But hunting is a totally different ball game. There is an organised set of people who work against anti-hunt protesters. The RSPCA would never have this; there is no organised set of people who work against people who look after abused dogs, or something like that. So, we have to use different tactics.
‘Don’t get me wrong, I don’t enjoy protests. But, I’m in a unique position where I can genuinely influence people. In a way, I feel I have an obligation to state my cause and raise awareness; someone has to.’
Brian is also a vegetarian. ‘I’m considering veganism,’ he told me. ‘I’m really unsure about dairy farms. I know that there are good and bad dairy farmers. But, some of the stuff that goes on is just so cruel.’ As someone who has been a vegetarian all of my life, and who toyed with veganism last year, I was fascinated to hear Brian’s views. ‘People like us need to exert pressure on more people to at least be aware of farming and the cruel things that are done,’ he said.
By the way, Brian is also a producer. Just on the side. His latest project is Kerry Ellis, whose debut album came out on 13th September. ‘Kerry is an extraordinary phenomenon,’ Brian told me. ‘Her voice is one in a million. Her commitment to music, her dedication and her professional attitude are amazing. Kerry has the instrument and a talent for interpretation.
‘She’s from the world of musical theatre. She’s strange, different and wonderful. She has a colossal presence in the theatre; it’s really hard for other actresses to follow in her footsteps.
‘Wicked is the most demanding musical in the world. It kills actresses. But Kerry excelled in the leading role, which was extremely taxing. She did 8 shows per week. She might be made of steel.
‘Whilst she was in Wicked, we worked on her album as a side project, using whatever time we could grab. When Queen moved record companies from EMI to Universal, I negotiated a deal for Kerry. Her album can only be described as orchestral rock music. It’s something I’ve always wanted to produce, but I had to wait for the right singer to come along.’
Kerry Ellis recording ‘Defying Gravity’
Brian is obviously a hard worker, and the main reason behind his respect for Kerry is that she is a hard worker too. What would he think, then, of television programmes like Over The Rainbow, that pluck musical theatre amateurs from nowhere and turn them into overnight successes?
‘It’s a tricky subject,’ he said diplomatically. ‘Shows like Over The Rainbow have made musical theatre cool to young people, which is great. But, they have undoubtedly lowered the bar of talent required to enter the industry. I mean, people spend their whole lives dedicated to their craft and then youngsters come from nowhere and sell huge numbers of tickets purely on the basis of television viewing figures. It lowers the standard of talent.’
Brian is, of course, heavily involved with We Will Rock You, the rock theatrical sensation. ‘The success of We Will Rock You has been incredible,’ he said. It’s a phenomenon that is so far beyond anything I could have imagined. I’m so proud of the musical. It’s been going for nine years, for eight shows a week to 2,000 people per show. Where do these people come from?
‘And audiences stand up and clap so loudly at the end of every performance. Every single one.’ So, how is a musical that has been running for so long still drawing in audiences? ‘People can lose themselves in it; they can break away from their stresses.’
Queen were, undoubtedly, ground breaking when they were first around. Could anyone prove a rival to Queen? ‘Yes, of course,’ he said. ‘Muse have a technical command that is so much better than ours was, and they just pursue excellence to the nth degree. The Foo Fighters are excellent too. They defy the limits in a different way.’
Finally, I asked Brian where his heart lies. In astrophysics? Stereoscopic photography? Music? Producing? Musical theatre? ‘That’s easy,’ he said, ‘it lies with my family.’
I LOVE BRIAN MAY.