S3 Brian May: ‘My name’s Brian and I’m a depressive’
How Do You Cope? …with Elis and John
PODCAST ON BBC RADIO 5 LIVE
Elis and John talk to Queen guitarist Brian May about living with depression, the grief that came from losing his father and bandmate and his experiences with therapy.
Here’s the conversation:
ELIS & JOHN: Hello everyone and welcome to “How do you cope with Elis and John” and we are really delighted to say that we’re joined today by none other than Brian May, Hello Brian. How are you doing?
BRIAN MAY: I’m coping so far, Thank you, yes. I’m sure it’s going to be a very very enjoyable journey with you guys because I love you guys .
E&J: Oh thank you so much. Well I thought I would start by asking you – I mean we’re talking today on the day that COVID restrictions have been lifted all across the country and I know you had a a bumpy COVID. You were very busy but also you had some health problems. You had some problems with your house, sojust sort of a general question: how do you feel coming out of that period now? Do you feel a changed person?
BRIAN: I feel a very grateful person that I actually got through because I did have some really bad stuff happen and I did end up getting the blooming COVID – the Omicron I presume, although they don’t tell you. But, yes, a lot of stuff. I guess I feel – I feel a lot older and sometimes that’s a good thing but not often. Generally getting older doesn’t have many advantages, I find. I have a strange kind of persisting condition, I think from the COVID. I think it’s from the COVID which is – I get these kind of brownouts, so generally I’m okay. I’m not that tired all the time but I’ll get to a certain point in the day where something inside my head goes ‘you have to sleep now. You have to sleep. You don’t care about any of this. Go to sleep – who cares’- and it’s an almost irresistible call and I just go out like a light. It’s really weird. I just hope it doesn’t happen in the middle of a gig, because it’s going to be very embarrassing, I have to say, you know, “Just hang on half an hour I’ll have a nap, guys, and then we’ll do Champions and …[Laughter] So yeah. But I feel good.
I don’t know if it’s changed me. So many factors kicked in. I suppose. I was quite jolly at the beginning of lockdown because I got very focused and decided I would get on Instagram and perform, because there’s no other way to perform and that turned out really well got all these nice interactions going on with musicians and with the fans. So I kind of got closer to my followers than I’ve ever been in my life, probably, because I was actually kind of immersed in the Instagram community, and that stayed with me. I still feel like Ihave a life there, which is nice. I never had that when we were kind of strolling the world as a touring band. Because when the glory days of that were happening, you didn’t have Internet. You hardly had phones because in the beginning we couldn’t afford a phone. If you’re in Tokyo, whatever, you couldn’t phone home. So things were very different then – was very different. Now, no matter where you are in the world you can be plugged into the world and that can be good. It can also be kind of draining, I think. So I try and maintain a line between my public life and my private life and don’t let anything leak. You knowI’m fairly open on Instagram. I tell a lot of my feelings and my experiences and stuff, but there is a line – there’s a kind of shell around me within which I won’t let anybody trespass. It actually says that on my album which we’re putting out at the moment. It says: “’I’m going to make a little space around me. Just a little space where no one can come in”, and I think that’s kind of important for your sanity.
E&J: Did you find that it was important to keep that sort of line in the sand when you had a heart attack. Was it about a year ago now or maybe more, because obviously that becomes instantly quite a traumatic thing for you. That becomes a News story because it’s you. Were you able to sort of manage how much you wanted the world to know about your health, because I think the one thing we all take for granted is that our health is a private matter. But obviously if you’re a public figure – you’re in a hospital – it’s not necessarily possible to keep all of that information to yourself.
BRIAN: No it’s a variable thing. It changes from day to day. I like to be open. If I’m having a problem in life I think it’s nice to share it with the world, because then it stops other people feeling that they’re alone if they have a similar problem, so I do like to be transparent. In the case of the heart attack, I wasn’t in good shape for a while and I just didn’t have the energy to to keep communicating at all.
The case of the COVID thing, I was okay really. You know I did – it was like a nasty bit of flu and a bit scary when it starts, but I found it helpful to keep publishing stuff on that because I know a lot of people were incredibly anxious out there about getting it and I was able to reassure some people by saying: “Yeah, okay, you can get it and it’s not that pleasant but you get through and you just have to deal with the days as they come”.
So I don’t have an easy answer to your question. It’s something I kind of wrestle with from day to day and sometimes I feel like I’ve broken a line. Sometimes I publish something and I think and the reaction that comes back is so extreme sometimes I wish I hadn’t said anything. I’ve had that happen to me, but on the whole I’m learning. I know how much I can reveal.
It’s actually, it’s one of the worst things that happens is you put something out about being sick and you get this massive deluge of sympathy. That’s why the last time happened I went: “Please, please don’t give me sympathy. Give me advice if you like but just don’t give me that stuff because it’s exhausting.” You can’t reply to everybody you can’t acknowledge people and kind of doesn’t help, but it’s odd because obviously people’s good nature wants them to give you sympathy and I would probably do the same thing. So it’s complex, ‘aint it.
OPEN AND TRANSPARENT
E&J: Have you always wanted to be as open and as transparent as possible or is this something that’s developed with age?
BRIAN: No I haven’t always wanted it and one of the things that happened as soon as things took off with Queen, it was like a UFO came and took us off the planet and put us somewhere else you were by the very nature of touring detached from home and, like I say, there weren’t phones in those days that you could rely on and it was a completely different world out there – so as time you know – during all those early years we did get a lot of fan mail and mine stacked up in a corner in my house and I just couldn’t get to I, there was no time. I couldn’t answer through Instagram or Twitter or whatever. I didn’t have the time to write so I got this mounting kind of anxiety and guilt I think about not replying to the people who were sending me nice messages. So this is new – the fact that you actually can reply. Sometimes it’s kind of onerous and I burn myself out sometimes but I do try to keep a kind of contact with the real world and with real people out there and especially with real people who care about me because I appreciate it.
E&J: There’s a very funny Simpsons episode where Ringo Starr is in a mansion and he’s replying to fan mail he’s had in the 60s.
BRIAN: I’ve seen it. The Simpsons always nail it. That’s great, yeah. I do that….
We’ve recently had a flood. There’s another of my blooming disaster stories and in taking out all this stuff from the area that was flooded I found lots of things including piles of fan mail and I did actually get in and answer a few – probably 15 years/ yw20 years later just for the hell of it, thinking maybe there’s someone out there who actually would like to get an answer, so yeah, it does happen. It happens on a large scale and a small scale.
E&J: I say this is someone who as you know is a huge fan of Queen and all of your work,as somebody’s been a Queen fan for a long time, has met lots of other Queen fans, but they are I would say unique amongst the fans of bands in that they are very very, I mean, there’s a nice way but they can be quite obsessive. They get very deep into the music. They care very deeply about all aspects of the band in a sense that I think, you know, if I met a Rolling Stones’ fan they might have a poster on the wall. They might have a couple of vinyl. Queen fans tend to have a room.
BRIAN: Yeah (Laughter[
E&J: Well don’t look behind me in the screen now, but they will have some form of display. [Interjection: Ask John about his tattoos Brian]… that must be on the one hand such a wonderful resource to have behind you as support but has it ever been quite sort of full on – bit stressful – made you feel that you need to take a step back from interacting with your fans?
BRIAN: Short answer is “No”, I don’t think so…. I appreciate people appreciating us. We’ve always treated our fans if you want to call them that as not really fans but as people that we have an interaction with, and I kind of don’t like the word “fan”, and unlike some other people perhaps we’ve never really pandered to the fans. We’ve always done what we felt was right and I think the people who who didn’t like that we lost along the way but the vast majority of people respected that and felt respected in themselves, I think. We always thought our greatest obligation was to be true to ourselves and not to be run by some kind of anxiety to please people. That’s the wrong motivation. You have to be motivated by what’s inside you and what you believe in – what you care about – and that’s always been the way. So I think our fans, if you want to call them that, have always understood that and we have that mutual respect thing going.
So, yes, I think Queen fans are different. I found that too and generally I find them delightful because they are very cognizant of the fact that we need our space to develop musically and personally and it’s a good feeling. Yeah. They are obsessive, yeah, but I mean I’m obsessive. I’m a collector of stuff. I have just about everything that was ever put out in the Queen name or the Brian May name in the public domain, so I have like the the 1983 single release of ‘Long Away’ in Korea with the picture disc and the… You know I love collecting that stuff just like a lot of our followers do, so I understand it and it’s a funny thing being a collector and being obsessive in that way. It doesn’t really lead you anywhere but it’s always there and it can be, it can give you, good feelings. It gives you a feeling of completeness and safety I suppose.
That’s why it was so upsetting for me to get the place flooded. I was lucky really. It could have been a lot worse but a lot of the things which I found floating in this horrible filthy water when we got home were things which made me feel safe like my childhood photograph albums. I spent a long time, I hardly slept for the following week just trying to rescue every one of those little hand printed photographs from my – well from way back from when I was about eight years old and that was important to me.
Why was it important? I suppose a feeling that part of me is my history and it’s been very interesting for me reissuing these solo albums because that’s very much part of it. I’m looking at myself as I was, wondering what was in my head – wondering where it led and you probably saw my video for ‘Back to the Light’ where I actually managed to go back and appear on stage with my former self. That was a great journey. It’s amazing. We’ve done something similar – we’re working on a video for ’On My Way Up’, which again is kind of autobiographical and it starts off with me looking through memorabilia in an attic and finding stuff from childhood – finding my first band like 1984 – pictures of Smile – all this kind of stuff – looking at it and correlating it with the way the world is now. It’s been a really interesting journey for me and I keep asking myself well what is important to me? Why is it important to me? Why am I getting all kind of wrapped up in the past when obviously what matters is the present? So that’s a long answer to a very short question – and I’ll bid]you good night.
BACK TO THE LIGHT / ANOTHER WORLD
E&J: [Laughter] Well I wanted to talk about the two albums you’ve put out during lockdown or or re-released – should I say “revisited”. So the last time we spoke to you was on the release day for “Back to the Light”, which originally came out in 1992 and in April you’re going to be re-releasing “Another World”, which was your next solo album. So I wondered if perhaps for the next sort of – for the bulk of the rest of the conversation – maybe we could go on a journey between those two albums, because I think that covers an awful lot of ground in terms of where you’ve been and how you’ve coped with a lot of those challenges. So I wonder if you could cast your mind back to when you were preparing “Back to the Light”? That would have been sort of mid to late 80s. There was stuff going on for that quite a while before it came out and I know that was a difficult time for you personally. What was going on for you as that album began to form itself originally?
BRIAN: Well, ouch. It was a lot of stuff, as you’ve said. The whole process of learning that we were going to lose Freddie and then actually losing him; process of losing my Dad to cancer and breakup of my marriage – a whole period in which I thought I was losing my kids as well. Thank God I didn’t in the end – a lot of stuff – and some of it was motivation for writing the album. Some of it was actually incredibly difficult to get through to even get in a studio because it made me massively depressed, and when you’re really depressed you’re not writing songs or you’re not writing the Blues. You can’t write anything. You can’t even get up in the morning. So I went through a lot of trials and I remember sitting in the studio feeling so incredibly bleak and wondering if I had anything to say. All I could feel was pain. Now my studio at that time was a billiard room where we’d just taken out the billiard – no – we just slid the billiard table over to the side and set up this tiny little recorder, so I was there with Joey, my guitar tech, trying to put some ideas down on a reel-to-reel tape recorder. So that’s how this solo album began – very tentatively – and I think quite early I wanted to call it “Back to the Light”, but I had no idea of what that might feel like. I didn’t think I was ever going to get back to the light. I thought it was all over. Yeah, I kind of felt life was over and I just wanted to try to get to the point where I could put it into music, and again this idea of sharing it with other people. I thought, if I can get through this then maybe I can help other people get through it. So that’s where I was, yeah, and you can hear it in the album. You can hear all over the place and ‘Too Much Love Will Kill You, ‘I’m Scared’ – a lot of stuff and the ‘Back to the Light’ title track is very black in the verses. It has this kind of grasping at optimism thing going on in the in the choruses and I like the track because it does actually give me a lift, but, yeah, that’s what that first album was about. It’s about struggling to get back to the light.
E&J: I’m interested in what you said about perhaps people’s perception of depression in an artist as being in an inspiration or being what fires them forward, but would you say that the depression you’re experiencing was more like an inability to create and move forwarS?
BRIAN: Yeah, because depression is a very palpable thing and I would define depression as not being able to see a future that you can stand – that you can bear – and of course music is part of that.
I had been out there playing – having a wonderful life playing stuff – getting close to audiences, writing, producing singing even – and then suddenly it felt like there wasn’t a future, not only for that, but for everything in life that I had treasured. So, yeah, it was a kind of paralysing thing. It’s not a good feeling and I AM a depressive. I think. You know, people sit around in a therapy session and go: “I’m Brian, I’m an addict” and whatever, you knoq. I sit around in therapy groups and go: “’I’m Brian. I’m a depressive”, because come and go, in and out, up and down, I have that chemistry, and it’s always kind of like Winston Churchill used to say – it’s always a black dog on your back. Sometimes it’s going to bring you down – sometimes it’s not, but it’s something which is part of your makeup and you have to kind of make a friend of it if you can.