Harmony in my head - The Brian May interview

Typed in by Matthew Pickles from 'Guitarist' magazine December 1992.
David Mead spoke to Brian May on the day that the news broke that his guitar had been mistakenly despatched to France, to await an uncertain fate at the hands of 'lost and found'...

Happily, Brian was able to dismiss the story as complete fiction. "It certainly didn't come from me," he shrugged. "I haven't even seen it yet, I just heard about it." But it would be difficult to imagine May separated from his lifelong playing companion. "I'd certainly find life very difficult without it," nods Brian.

So how's the guitar actually wearing? It must be going on twenty-three years old.

"It's amazing how it's holding up. The only thing we've ever replaced are the machineheads. Everything else is original; the frets are very worn down, but they still work and I wouldn't like to touch them until I have to. It does have a good feel.

"The frets were one of the few things I actually bought for the guitar. Everything else was junk. I bought the fretwire from Clifford Essex in Cambridge Circus. They used to publish a magazine called BMG - banjo, mandolin and guitar - which was rooted in old, acoustic instruments and older players, bluegrass players, really fascinating stuff. You could get anything in that shop, though. It was one of the only places that you could get banjo strings to put on the top, because in the old days you couldn't get thin guitar strings. So we used to go up there and get our .008" banjo strings and put them on the top and it really transformed what you could do."

You've always used a combination of very light gauge strings with a very heavy pick - the notorious sixpence.

"It is heavy, but I hold it lightly, to compensate. What I like is that I can feel the movement and it all gets transmitted to the fingers. To me, it's a very sensitive way of playing."

What with the AC30s and the guitar and so on, you must have got your gear sorted out pretty early on...

"I was lucky. I knew the sound that I wanted, in my head, and I just happened to find this old AC30 which belonged to a friend of mine. I played through it and thought, 'That's it, that's what I want,' because of the warmth. And with the treble boost you can push it hard, smoothly into distortion. And it has this lovely articulation on the top..."

On the sleeve of 'Back To The Light' you say that you use both old and new AC30s. Are these the vintage re-issues?

"Yeah, that's right. There was a period in the middle which wasn't too good. I don't like any of the transistor stuff and some of the modifications didn't work, but nowadays they're making them just like old ones and they're brilliant."

Your live setup was twelve AC30s, split into four banks of three, each group with a different effect. Were they all on at once?

"Really, I played off the monitors. The bigger the venue, the less you can hear your own amps anyway. So I just played off the monitors. I'd have them all on if I needed a confidence boost, or just for the sheer enjoyment of the sound, but it was fundamentally one AC30 that made that noise. And then I used a delay, which in the beginning was an old, modified Echoplex, to produce a single repeat. That came back through a separate AC30 so they could both distort to their hearts' content and not interfere with each other. You wouldn't get this intermodulation distortion; they would both have this full-blown, distorted sound, which blended together really nicely. Eventually I had the other repeat to make three parts, so then I could make harmonies by playing along with the tape."

Have you ever been tempted away from your tried and tested gear by anything that you've seen?

"I've tried out a lot of things on the way. I've tried most of the guitar synths and stuff, but I just prefer my instrument: it's very human and it makes the right noise. I do play through Zoom boxes these days which I enjoy; I think they're a good little piece of apparatus. They're great for each end of the spectrum: for the full-blown solo or for clean rhythm. The only thing that perhaps they don't handle is that intermediate area, which the AC30 is very good at - where you can strike a chord and it's distorted, but you can still hear what the chord is."

I hear you've been looking at Eggle guitars...

"Yes, I've been playing around with one for quite a while; it's a very nice piece of work. We've actually talked about doing a deal together. I don't know whether that will actually happen, because Guild really have the first option, but I was hoping there'd be a way that we could cooperate and perhaps Eggle could go the British end of it. But they're beautifully made, really beautiful.

"I've also got an Ibanez Satriani guitar, which is really inspiring and so speedy up the top end of the neck."

You established some elements of your sound very early on: the stacked harmonies and so on. Was that a fixed idea from the word go?

"It was a dream to do that from way, way back. I was always fascinated with harmony, anyway, from the 60s records that I grew up with - the Everly Brothers, Buddy Holly and the Crickets. But I also felt that the guitar became a different instrument when it was turned up to maximum and fully distorted - it was no longer a polyphonic instrument, really. So it seemed to be crying out to be orchestrated, and I could hear just what it would be like in my head. This was long before Queen and even before Smile, which was the group before that.

"Then there were a few things that reinforced that feeling. For instance, Jeff Beck's hit 'Hi Ho Silver Lining' had a bit in the middle where he double-tracked the guitar and, just for a moment, it breaks into harmony. I don't know if it was by accident - I should ask him one day - but I used to play that over and over again and just revel in that sound, and I thought if you could get hold of that sound and make a feature of it, and if it were not just two guitars but as many as you needed to make a proper arrangement, the possibilities would be endless. So, as soon as we got in the studio, I was on the trail."

You must have an established formula for achieving that harmony sound. So where do you start?

"It starts in the head. I find the best ideas come from when you're not actually touching the guitar, otherwise your fingers fall into the same positions and you get stuck in ruts. Also, the best solos often come from the best songs, because there's something in the song to feed off - a chord structure, a feeling or an atmosphere. That's why it was so great working with Freddie and the band; there was always something unusual to work the guitar into, and usually it was in some weird key as well. And that helped, because then you have no preconceived ides, so if you do come up with something, it's going to be something unusual."

Do you think of it in terms of a melody and then harmonise it, or does the whole thing come as a block concept?

"I've always thought of the guitar as another voice, so I start with a voice, singing along with the vocal, and from time to time you can hear a place where other voices would come in, like backing harmonies, which then become part of it. It's just a question of realising what is in your head, because I find I can usually hear roughly what I'm trying to get to. Occasionally, there's a happy accident that leads me in a nice direction."

How many tracks do you use for one of your multi-track guitar lines?

"It varies. On this album I think the maximum was about thirty. On 'The Dark', I wanted this frightening wall of sound coming out to contrast this very small voice - the kid in the cot. You can get a long way with three parts and with four you can conquer the world!

"In the case of 'Killer Queen', which I still like, it was just three separate voices and they go in and out of harmony, but they play their own tune. I enjoy things like that, where they have a life of their own."

The Queen harmony vocal idea was pretty much fully developed even on your first album, and it seems like the most significant developments since have been on the part of technology catching up. But it must have been very difficult to start with...

"True, you had to bounce things as you went along. It's a bit of a shame, really, because when we go back to those old multi-tracks, there's nothing you can do in some cases. Somebody re-mixed 'You're My Best Friend' the other day and I always thought it would be nice to re-balance that stuff, but when we got the tape out, it was all on one track, so that's it."

I was thinking recently that if anything was a prime candidate for digital remastering, it would be the early Queen albums...

"Well, we've been working on digitally remastering them all. There is a lot you can do when you get back to the original mix tape, but for us the mix was all part of the creative process and I don't really want to remix stuff. We have let a few people remix a few things, just for fun, but normally I wouldn't want to change it; it had a certain magic at the time.

"I like most of those original mixes, but they were incredibly complex to do, and without any automation. We all used to be at the desk - four of us, plus Roy Thomas-Baker and Mike Stone - all six of us with fingers on the faders and sometimes we'd work thirty-hour mixes! At the end, you were totally blind and deaf to it, you'd go to sleep and wake up the next morning and the mix was still going on! Weird... very intense. But they definitely have a special quality, those early mixes."

The pioneer spirit! But that's what I meant about technology having caught you up. For instance, have you seen the Digitech Vocalist? Instant Queen vocals!

"Oh yeah, I've used one. The beginning of 'Driven By You' is just one voice, put through the Vocalist. I did it live, but it's only one take - great machines!"

Going into the studio now, you must know exactly what you want.

"Well I try not to stay with the same methods. Certainly when I was setting up my studio in the country, the nice thing was that we didn't do anything standard; we didn't take anything for granted, whether it was the mics, positions of drums or anything. We started everything from scratch, which is nice, because people get so stuck in their ways: you walk into a professional studio and things are always done in a certain way. The guy says 'The drums go over there...' and it's nice to get out of that and just find your own sounds with no preconceived ideas.

"For instance, there was one little overdubbing room in Air studios which was tiny - it was about as big as an armchair - but we used to put the AC30 in there and put the mic facing the window and get this amazing sound. There was a very nice room in Wessex, I don't know if it's still there, but it was the main room, where we recorded 'We Will Rock You' and that was all acoustic stuff - it's just us stamping on boards and clapping over and over again."

There wasn't a bass drum on that?

"No, no drums whatsoever - just feet on the boards and handclaps."

The new album starts with an entirely different version of 'We Will Rock You', that is to say, the traditional carol. Was that kind of polarisation with the Queen song intentional?

"Er, yes. I'm a bit wary of explaining things, but throughout the whole album you can hear this person who is very confused, confronted by different situations as they roll past him. So I started off with the idea that there's this little baby in the cradle, he's completely in the dark and the dark is something really frightening. It was convenient that it was 'We Will Rock You' because here was this nursery rhyme and the version Queen did was very big and macho. Total opposites."

It must have been very strange making an album containing many familiar Queen attributes, but without Freddie.

"Very strange. It was always a project which was in parallel with Queen, because we always had a positive attitude to people doing stuff outside the band, getting new experiences and bringing them back into the band. But it did become something very different at the end, when Freddie went. I started to realise that this was a kind of bridge toward the next part of life, whatever that may be.

"I always felt close to Freddie in the studio, whether he was there or not, because we worked together so intensively over the years. So I can still hear him talking to me when I'm doing some of this stuff, especially when I'm trying to sing - which has not been easy. But I wanted to do it, because I didn't want anyone else to be speaking my ideas when it was such a personal statement. So it was good for me to imagine Freddie sitting there.

"In the beginning, Freddie didn't have all the powers that he wanted to have as a vocalist; he just worked to achieve those and improved as he worked over the years. So I just took that as a good example. I thought, 'If I'm going to sing this album, I'm going to have to work at it,' and I treated it rather like a weight-training program - I went in there, sung my guts out and tried to reach further every day. It's amazing what you can do if you really try. I was quite stunned, because in the beginning I was struggling with it - all those regions around top A - and in the end, in 'Resurrection', I got up to a top D above that, without going into falsetto, which was quite a little crusade for me. I was amazed that I could actually do that. It's another question as to whether I can do it on stage, but at least it happened, as least I know I can get there if I really try hard enough."

When you first performed 'Too Much Love Will Kill You' at Freddie's tribute concert at Wembley, you played it solo and there was a point where you paused and the audience went a little wild. You seemed to register surprise...

"Relief, more than anything else! It was a big step to do it and I wanted to do it for Freddie. It wasn't that the song had a particular relevance - it wasn't about AIDS - but it was a song that I felt was the best way of expressing myself and also the best thing I had to offer at the time.

"It was terrifying! It was in front of 72,000 people in the Stadium, half a billion people around the world and so it took an incredible amount of getting hold of myself to do it. As I was walking over to the piano I was thinking, 'Should I really be doing this?' So it was difficult, it really was. It's so easy to do in rehearsal and yet, when that moment comes, something happens to your throat. Plus it really brought me back in touch with what was going on; suddenly there was only me doing my personal little bit."

At the Tribute and subsequently in Seville, it must have been great to be surrounded by so many people who openly acknowledge Queen as a huge influence. I'm thinking of Extreme in particular.

"It's fantastic, a great compliment and I think Extreme are great. If they're going to carry the banner, they're very worthy. They're incredible musicians and they have this feeling that they can cross all the boundaries, which we had, too. The new album is unbelievable; they're so adventurous and they have a habit of pulling it off, whichever area they go into."

I remember the medley of Queen songs they did at Wembley...

"That took a lot of courage, more than people realise. In front or our audience, to do our songs, it could have gone awfully wrong. And they must have known that."

What was the Guitar Legends concert in Seville like for you?

"Fun. Really great fun. I had the opportunity to get all my favourite people together. What made it fun on the night was the fact that we knew what we were doing. We put enough rehearsal in to know we were going to be okay; it wasn't people just going up there and jamming."

"I was particularly keen on the idea that Joe Satriani should play with Steve Vai. This was a one-off and a chance to do something special. They both played on my stuff and we all played with Joe Walsh, which was a really great buzz, pounding out 'Rocky Mountain Way'..."

Although the riff went wrong...

"Ahhh... You noticed that!"

Only because it's one of my all time favourite riffs...

"It was very funny. I guess Joe Walsh started it, but the two drummers heard it in opposite senses - you can see we're all laughing.

"But I've got this attitude that if you're going to show guitarists off in their best light, you don't just put them on stage and let them weedle around all night. Some of the greatest guitar songs have been the riff songs, so I immediately thought of Paul Rogers. Sadly, Kossof isn't there but I knew every guitarist in the world would enjoy playing 'All Right Now'."

It must have been some challenge to oversee that. You had to learn some of Steve Vai's stuff too.

"Yeah! My god! What a fool to even try!"

But you played 'Liberty' from Steve's album and that brings it right back to your influence - the tightly arranged, harmony guitar thing...

'He said that 'God Save The Queen' was an inspiration for that."

How did the Ford advert come about?

"I had some time off while I was working in Los Angeles and I was down by the hotel pool. There were these two outrageous guys, splashing about, and they just came up and asked if I'd ever considered doing anything in the advertising world and I said, 'No.' They said, 'Do you want to?' and I said. 'Not particularly,' but they suggested running a few things by me to see if I was interested.

"Anyway, they came up with this slogan, which originally was 'Everything We Do, We Do For You' which was uncannily similar to the Bryan Adams song, which came out a little while afterwards. I thought it sounded a bit slushy and didn't really relate to it. But then they came back and said it was changed to 'Everything We Do Is Driven By You' and my initial thought was 'Yuk, I don't think I can do anything with that either,' because it just sounded like motor cars and I'm not interested in singing songs about motor cars. But then I thought 'Driven By You...' and ping! the lights went on; I thought of it as the power struggle that goes on in relationships. So this song sort of sprang to mind and I could hear it as I wanted it to be and I could also hear a few modifications that would suit their purposes, too.

'It's funny, I've spent most of my life thinking of advertising as a sort of dirty business, but in fact the same mechanisms work: you get input from someone, you get inspired and you give back. So I enjoyed it and they were great to work with. Very quick, very efficient. I produced a first version of that track in a week and they had it on the TV the next night! They really don't mess about and it also gave me a lot of momentum for the album. And it also gave me a hit, which I never expected."

Presumably the next step is to tour with the new material...

"Yes, well luckily for me, Cozy Powell and Neil Murray are into it and we will go out in November and do some gigs. I'd like to start somewhere not too much in the public eye, because it takes the pressure off, so I'll probably go to Argentina or somewhere like that, do some rehearsals and some gigs and see what transpires."

But you're used to doing challenging material on stage. I mean, 'Bohemian Rhapsody' can't have been a picnic...

"I think we copped out with 'Bohemian Rhapsody'. We never really played it all the way through. But we never played to a tape, either. I mean, with the middle bit, we'd put the record on and get off stage so there was never any doubt that we were playing live when we were on stage.

"But you're right, we did bluff our way through almost everything. It's a nice way to be; I don't think you need all these backing tapes and samples. A live show is something separate and you do different things in a live show to what you do on a record. I personally don't get any joy from seeing people reproduce their records exactly on stage; I want to see something which is special for the night."

Queen certainly had a reputation as one of rock's most impressive live acts...

"But I'm not trying to be Queen. Stage shows have become a little formularised, and a lot of things we brought in are now commonplace. But I don't really want to compete in that world; I want to do it a bit differently, something a bit more personal. I say this now, but we'll see how it goes."

I suppose the $64000 question must be, 'Is Queen actually over now?'

"It's a difficult question which we're still tossing around. We had a meeting today and there's a lot to talk about. But there's no reason, in principle, why we couldn't work again together; but in my mind it would be wrong, certainly this soon, to go out and try and be Queen without Freddie. This is my personal feeling, but I really don't want to be out on tour with another singer trying to be Queen. It would be dreadfully wrong. So then you think 'Well, can we do anything together?' and the answer is that we can probably do something. There are some projects which have been offered to us and there are a couple of tracks just sitting there which have Freddie's vocal on - not much, but maybe two or three songs."

Brian sits reflectively for a few moments...

"On the whole, Queen was a good old band, really..."