16 December 2013 by David Browne ‘
I think people will find it very touching,’ he says
When Freddie Mercury sang “we will rock you” in 1977, even he probably wouldn’t have imagined that the rocking would continue into the 21st century. Mercury died in 1991, yet the industry of Queen continues. A touring version of We Will Rock You, a theatrical production based around Queen songs, is currently on the road in the U.S. through next summer. Founding members Brian May and Roger Taylor are preparing a second posthumous album of Queen material, and both men are eyeing possible U.S. shows with Adam Lambert, who most recently joined the Queen founders onstage at an iHeart Radio show in September. Then there’s the long-in-gestation Mercury biopic — which will now star Ben Whishaw (Q in the latest James Bond film, Skyfall) instead of its previously annnounced lead, Sacha Baron Cohen – as well as May’s new book, Diableries: Stereoscopic Adventures in Hell, a collection of reproductions of 19th century cards depicting various devil’s-playground scenes. (The book comes with 3D glasses that truly make the roughly 150-year-old images pop.) “My life is anything but relaxing,” May says from his home in England. Rolling Stone ran through May’s various projects, both Queen–related and not.
See Where Queen Ranks on Rolling Stone 100 Greatest Artists of All Time
Tell us about your interest in Diableries.
I found the Diableries when I was about 20. I came across one at the Portobello Road market. I was just knocked out. You have to bear in mind there was no TV, radio, films or whatever in the 1860s, so your window on the world was a stereoscope, and stereo cards were made in the millions and sold in Britain and France and actually in the States around 1860. So you got, for instance, stereographs of the Gold Rush, the Civil War, and a few of American Indians. It was an enormous thing. Normally, a family would have a stereoscope. The technology that we think is so brilliant in the 21st century could not do what they did in the 1860s.
How many cards do you have?
Probably two or three hundred, including duplicates.
In the way they take shots at people in power, they’re very Occupy 1860.
They spoke to me of mystery and imagination and arcane powers. What I couldn’t see was the other subtext, which was sedition. They were veiled messages attacking the regime of the time. Sometimes they were attacking them in a humorous way, sometimes in a very serious way. Napoleon III is featured in there as the devil. It’s a bit like me making cartoons about David Cameron with horns on his head. But it was very risky. You could have been put in prison for that. They were lucky to get away with it. You realize that their feelings were very similar to ours.
We Will Rock You briefly ran in Vegas, then closed. What happened?
The London show is still running probably stronger than ever, after our 12th anniversary, and 6 million people have seen it in London. We did have the Vegas production, but we were in the wrong time and the wrong place. It’s a shame. It was a show we were very proud of and we had to condense it to fit into the requirements of the theater we were in. The owners were more concerned with getting people on the gambling tables than keeping them in the theater.
When it opened in London in 2002, it received, shall we say, mixed reviews.
We got the worst reviews in history apart from Les Miserables. And I’m happy to say both of us are still around and holding our fingers up to the critics. They would have loved to destroy us. I think there was a kind of resentment because we came from a different genre and music critics were horrified, like how dare you think you can come into theater and take it over? But we didn’t go in and just tear up the rules of musical theater. We’ve taken in a lot of what musical theater traditionally has to offer and done it from a point of view of people who understand rock & roll. Eleven years ago, that was something pretty new. We got destroyed in the press, but one of those reviews said this is a new kind of musical theater, and I think that guy got it right.
Have you seen Jersey Boys, Rock of Ages, and other rock Broadway shows?
I’ve seen them all. And American Idiot. I’ve seen and enjoyed them all. It’s nice when I meet the people who created those. They all say they owe something to We Will Rock You. It’s a nice feeling that we’ve contributed something to the river of what rock theater has become.
What can you tell us about the “new” studio album from Queen?
Well, there’s something coming. I’m not really quite sure what it is yet. I don’t know if there’s a whole album. There’s a piece of an album. We were looking at putting together a compilation of the more unusual and yet memorable Queen tracks. Things that weren’t singles that have become or stayed popular through the years. That’s the way it started and then we unearthed a few tapes of Freddie singing and us in the studio that we never finished off. We thought we got to the end of it with Made in Heaven. But there are a few other things which have turned up. So the album may turn out to be a mixture of some unusual things from the past and some very unusual things which no one has heard at all.
With newly recorded backing tracks?
Yeah. Roger and I have both been working on tracks in our spare time. A couple of them have Michael Jackson on as well, which adds another layer of interest. Freddie and Michael singing together and experimenting in the Eighties.
How did you guys hook up with Michael?
Michael used to come see us a lot. He was a big big fan, especially of Freddie, and Freddie and Michael got on real real well. Michael was very impressed with our lighting rig, I remember. I can’t remember which tour it was. We had pods of lights that moved above the stage that had pilots in them. He said, “I’m stealing that,” and sure enough on the “Victory” tour they had something very similar. But Michael really was very fond of Freddie and sort’ve idolized him. Michael really felt he wanted to be a rock star.
Did he record in the studio with you?
No, he and Freddie worked mainly at Michael’s studio. That’s the tapes we have. Some of the tapes they worked on had us on them as well. But I never actually worked in the studio with Michael personally. Sometimes you come across a spare reel of tape and think, “Well, what’s on that?” And lo and behold, here’s a tape of Freddie singing something we’d forgotten about.
What do the songs with Michael sound like?
At least one dancey, at least one ballady one. There’s sort’ve three main contenders at the moment, possibly four.
As far as the Freddie biopic, why did Sacha Baron Cohen drop out?
There was a story put out by Sacha’s publicist — I think that’s where it came from — that Sacha had walked out in disgust because we didn’t want to make a film with the kind of script we approved. But none of that was true. We parted amicably. We’re still in touch and we’re still good friends. We just came to the conclusions that it wasn’t going to work with Sacha in the leading role. He’s brilliant. But we felt that having Sacha in there would be so distracting because he’s such a powerful persona and the characters he makes tend to stand out in a way that wouldn’t be suitable for the film. Freddie has to be, in this movie, completely believable. You have to not question for an instant that you’re watching Freddie, and that couldn’t have happened with Sacha.
When did you realize all that?
It didn’t occur to us straight away. We were excited by the project because Sacha is such an originator and such an entertainer and he came to us with a lot of great thoughts and great ideas and a lot of enthusiasm. No, it dawned on us slowly as we started to look at what he had done in Hugo. I don’t know if you saw it … and in Les Miserables and in The Dictator. The more we looked at it, we thought, “No, this isn’t going to work,” and I think that anyone who sees those films will probably have the same feelings. We really were enjoying working with him, but you just have to come to a realistic decision in the end.
There was a report that Sacha wanted the film to be more R-rated and you wanted a more family-friendly movie.
Well, that was all crap. That was all made up by some publicist somewhere. That’s not the case. Anyone who knows us knows that we’re not people who duck real issues and we’ve never ducked being outrageous if it was the right thing at the right time.
Now you have a new star, Ben Whishaw.
Roger mentioned Ben in an interview a few months ago. I think he got carried away. But that’s fine. He wasn’t the only person we were talking to. But he’s a great actor and he’s exactly the right kind’ve material, because he’s not that well known a face yet but he’s of international stature. The script depicts Freddie in a very lifelike way, but in the context of Queen, which was a kind’ve family. So it’s about what happens in families, in a sense, and I think people will find it very touching.
How difficult was it to dig into Freddie’s personal life?
It’s a question of how much is comfortable and how much can you deal with discomfort. Because it’s our personal lives too. How much were you going to say about all the people that were still alive? There’s a whole nest of worms to be negotiated in this kind’ve movie.
Is Queen bassist John Deacon involved with this project at all?
No, John doesn’t want to be. He’s in his own space and we respect that. It’s a shame, because we would love to have him around but he doesn’t want to be in that arena anymore.
It was odd when he wasn’t at Queen’s induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
Yeah. Again, he just doesn’t want to be walking those roads. We kinda mourn for John as well as Freddie in a sense because there ain’t nobody quite like John on those four strings. He’s an amazing player and it was just the companionship, as part of the group. Hopefully you’ll see that in the film – the relationships we’ve had were very strong. I do know John’s read the script and he’s in approval.
Why is Queen music so enduring do you think?
I don’t know. Maybe it’s just good. It does seem to have an incredible knack of effortlessly moving across generations. My only theory is we wrote as common people. We didn’t write about what it means to be a rock star. We wrote about the dreams and fears and ambitions of everybody. There are songs like “I Want to Break Free,” “We Are the Champions,” “Bohemian Rhapsody,” “I Want It All” – songs of people searching for a way out, a way to express themselves so they fit naturally into the architecture of people’s everyday lives. You go to any football match or hockey match or English rugby match or whatever around the world and you hear “We Will Rock You” and “We Are the Champions.” They’ve become glued into people’s everyday lives in a way that is much more powerful than what you have on a record in you collection. It kind of shocks me that we are still so current, but it’s a very good feeling.
You’re certainly busy.
Yes. The only thing we didn’t talk about was astronomy. Tell everyone to watch out for comet Ison, which we might be able to see by the end of the year.
What are your thoughts on an asteroid hitting the planet?
I think it’s highly likely. It’s more than possible and we don’t have enough scouts out there looking for them. So that’s another one of my little crusades. I’m funding a project that’s going to increase the amount of surveillance we do on dark objects that might be heading towards us. A few months ago, we were all looking at this object that came between us and the moon, and while we were all watching that, something hit Russia, which was completely unseen and unexpected. It ought to be a wake-up call. That was a pretty big object. If it had been a little bit bigger and a little bit later, you would have seen a city disappear.