January 2012, page 56
Back Chat by Mike Whitton
Brian May CBE PhD FRAS – born 1947
Founding member of Queen and one of the world’s great rock guitarists, Brian May is also an astrophysicist, co-authoring Bang! The Complete History of The Universe with Patrick Moore and Chris Lintott. Another passion is stereoscopy. and with photo-historian Elena Vidal he has written A Village Lost and Found, an annotated tour of the 1850s series of stereo photographs by T.R. Williams, as seen in the recent RWA exhibition.
ART MAGAZINE: What is your most treasured possession?
BRIAN MAY: It would probably be the Red Special, the guitar my father and I made together when I was eighteen. I’ve been playing it for a considerable number of years. I designed it originally because I couldn’t afford a guitar, but also because I wanted a guitar that would sing.
All guitars in those days were designed not to have feedback, but I wanted to make one that would have feedback and, either by luck or by design, it worked. It sings; it has a certain voice to it. I like to build up layers of sound, using the guitar as part of an orchestra.
Which guitarist initially influenced you the most?
I think we all loved Hank Marvin, but at that point in my life I looked around for everything I could find: from Segovia and Julian Bream to Charlie Byrd, Django Reinhardt and Chet Atkins. Ricky Nelson’s Hello, Mary Lou has this wonderful solo with a bending of the notes that really got me. The guitarist was James Burton; he created this amazing effect where the guitar seemed to talk to you, and that’s what really fired me up. His playing had the same emotional qualities as a singer would have.
Rock guitarist, astro-physicist and wildlife campaigner. Which is most important to you?
I’m still trying to figure that out. More and more I’m feeling that my destiny is to try to make a difference for animals. We are animals, and part of it is recognising that fact; I’d like to see us try to treat each other better. But surely it’s not too much to ask that we treat all species on this planet decently. That’s my starting point. It’s something I feel very strongly about, especially as we have a government at the moment which is completely unfriendly to animals – wrong about badgers and wrong about fox-hunting. They seem to want to hurl us back into previous centuries as far as treatment of animals is concerned. We need to ride up and say that we are not going to put up with it.
If you could own just one piece of art, what would it be?
You know, the funny thing is I don’t feel the need to own art. I’ve been through that. I like the fact that art can be experienced by everybody, as part of a conversation. There was a time when I was trying to possess everything, and then I realised that wasn’t necessary. The great thing is to be some kind of appreciator, which means you are getting the message, and then a communicator, which means you are passing the message on, becoming part of the conversation.
If you could spend one day with any figure from the past, who would that be?
It would probably be T.R. Williams, the man who took the stereo photographs in Scenes in Our Village. I feel that he was such a pivotal artist. He was massively influential during the period that he worked and then became largely forgotten. I am very proud of the fact that I’ve managed to channel him back into the 21st Century, because I think his contribution is terribly important. To me, he spans art, science and humanity. That’s crucial to me. I think he’s a great example of the way that an artist should be, or indeed the way that a human being should be.