The Life Of Brian
Guitar World magazine, August 1991.
Extreme's Nuno Bettencourt, rock's brightest new star, fires the questions and Queen's legendary Brian May supplies the answers in an historic meeting of the minds.
'People always ask about my influences,' says Nuno Bettencourt. 'With every Queen record, Brian May gave me a library of influences. The first thing I want to tell kids if they're guitar player - or any musician, really - is to get the Queen catalogue.' Brian May has had a similarly profound effect on guitarists from both sides of the Atlantic. Since Queen's self-titled debut was released back in 1973, May's songwriting, arrangements and flamboyant yet tasteful playing has helped propel a little-known British group into one of the most powerful rock bands in the world. On such classic tunes as the claborate 'Bohemian Rhapsody' (A Night At The Opera), the primal 'We Will Rock You' (News Of The World) and the brilliant rockabilly smash 'Crazy Little Thing Called Love' (The Game), May demonstrated what Bettencourt regards as his hero's greatest strength: 'Brian May plays for the song.' Some guitarists praise their idols for teaching them favorite technique, licks, tones. Significantly, Nuno Bettencourt says of Brian May: 'He taught me what not to play.' To a craftsman like May, there could be no greater compliment.
NUNO BETTENCOURT: What do you do when you're not working with Queen?
BRIAN MAY: The number one thing in my life is my three children. I recently split with my wife and I went through a huge transition. It was very traumatic and I was very depressed. The only thing that was constant through the whole thing was that I wanted to maintain a stable lifestyle for my children. So I spend a lot of time with them. It's given me a great perspective on what they mean to me.
On a professional level, the band usually records in three-week intervals. We try to go away to places like Switzerland to spend a lot of time in the studio together without any distractions. Those times have been very creative and productive for us. Whenever we try to record in London, the process unfortunately becomes very businesslike - you can never tell if John [Deacon, Queen bassist] has gala meeting or Roger [Tayior, Queen drummer] has to go off to do something else. It's very in and out.
I don't know if you can relate to this, because you're at a different time in life, but in general, I'm starting into the second half of my life and I'm really trying to take stock. That's been hard.
BETTENCOURT: Has your age affected your music? I always felt that age has nothing to do with it.
MAY: That's how I feel. I feel very good about what we're doing. I certainly don't feel that age stops you from doing anything. Music consists of two things: performance and material. I'm very passionately into the material. As time goes by I find I'm more concerned with the lyrics than ever.
A lot of people say you can only create when you're in pain. But when I was really in pain, I couldn't create anything. I couldn't even get out of bed. When you're climbing out and beginning to get things in the right boxes again, that's when you can put it into music. There's quite a bit of that sort of thing on this album. There's some in "I Can't Live With You"; it's very personal, but I tried not to make it autobiographical because that narrows things too much. I tried to express it in a form that everyone can relate to.
When you describe an experience in a song, it's nice because you can examine it, inject some humor and put it into perspective. Even though the humor is in there, I think people get the message. It helps both the writer and the listener.
BETTENCOURT: You are a highly underrated singer.
MAY: Me? No.
MAY: I like to sing, but Freddie [Mercury, Queen 's lead vocalist] takes it to a different level. He's pushed himself further than ever on this album. That's another thing about age. His voice seems to be cleaner than ever - more powerful. He extends his range with every album we make. He's great. I love the guy; he's incredibly inspiring.
BETTENCOURT: Were your parents supportive when you began playing rock and roll?
MAY: It was difficult. My dad was pretty much against it, and we fell out because of it. To give him credit, he did help me make my guitar. We sat with it for two years. He just thought playing the guitar should be a hobby. He never felt it was a worthwhile pursuit until he saw us play at Madison Square Garden. Then he thought, "Maybe it is a proper job." The funny thing is, his attitude rubbed off on me. When I was doing this reassessment of myself a couple of years ago, I began thinking that maybe playing rock wasn't a proper job. Something inside me said, "I'm only doing this for a little while, and it's fun, but soon life will get serious." It was almost like I was unaware - after 20 years - that I was actually a professional musician. I only discovered it when we had decided not to tour much anymore and the whole thing began winding down. I started to miss it.
BETTENCOURT: Do you compose on the piano?
MAY: I love keyboards. And having hated synthesizer music for the first part of my career in Queen, I find a lot of it very inspiring now. I just did a score for an English production of Shakespeare's Macbeth, and I hardly used any guitar at all. It was all synthesizers.
It was good for me because I was on my own - I wasn't part of a group. The production was done very cooperatively. The director would sit down with everybody and we'd discuss every line, and what we were trying to do with it. I always liked having input from outside anyway. I tackled the project initially because I thought, "If you can't get inspired by Shakespeare, there must be something wrong with you." The play is unbelievable - I get shivers up my spine just reading it.
BETTENCOURT: I wish I could see it.
MAY: I'm hoping they'll make a film of it. But it's hard with Shakespeare - you have to convince people they can make money off the classics.
BETTENCOURT: Are you a good collaborator?
MAY: In the past I've tended to be too dogmatic. I've written songs that have made Freddie's life hell because I wanted them sung a certain way. But these days I try and make sure that I'm open to his input. Songs do change when you collaborate, and I think it's very often for the good.
BETTENCOURT: How much control does Queen have vis a vis production?
MAY: We fought big battles with Roy [Thomas Baker, Queen producer] from the outset. He was initially able to blind us with science, saying, "It will be all right in the mix." We'd note that the drums were too dry, and he'd say, "It's okay, we'll take care of it. lt'll be okay. " We sort of had the feeling that it wouldn't, but at the same time we couldn't argue because we were the boys and they were the bosses.
I wouldn't knock Roy - he did some great stuff. But we had a lot of fights. And we just gradually took greater control.
BETTENCOURT: Anyone familiar with Queen has no doubt that the band is in control. Every song has a life of its own. Your music has so much personality that you know it's the product of an extremely creative team effort. It's not a producer's band.
MAY: Yeah, well, I guess we were always precocious in that way. We always fought for control. And like you said, every song dictates the way it's produced anyway, and that can only be done by the artist. The important thing to us now is to find people we can relate to on an equal basis. The producer we now use [David Richards] is great in that way. In the technical realm, he is beyond reproach. At the same time, you can look at him and say, "Am I deluding myself - is this rubbish?" And he'll give you an honest opinion.
BETTENCOURT: The producer must be able to balance both the performance and the music's emotional content. The Beatles are a great example of a band that didn't worry about technical perfection, yet wrote great songs and consistantly delivered powerful, emotional performances. Nobody cared whether John Lennon and Paul McCartney were a little out of tune when they doubled their vocals. You have to maintain a balance.
MAY: I'm with you. It's great to hear you say that. And where were you when the Beatles stuff came out? Not very old.
BETTENCOURT: No, I was born in '66. I was lucky enough that when I was very small, my brothers turned me on to all kinds of music. You can't forget where you come from. You can't forget why you're playing. MAY: That's right. I'm always suspicious of anyone who says he doesn't have any influences -where did the guy grow up? You cannot make music in a vacuum. You take in, you process, you feel, you give out. There's no other way.
BETTENCOURT: That's the beauty of it. We're all part of an ongoing tradition. Bands are suddenly realizing how cool the Seventies were. All of a sudden there are bands cloning Zeppelin - which I think is all right. It's like when the Rolling Stones played Chuck Berry songs. I think people should be proud of their influences and not try to hide them. When people say to me, "This thing sounds like so and so," I usually say, "Thank you." You are what you eat.
MAY: You have to be secure enough to say that.
BETTENCOURT: I may be wrong, but when I hear you sing, I sometimes hear a very Beatles-esque quality.
MAY: I suppose so. Yeah. I grew up with the Everly Brothers and Buddy Holly. Buddy is still a big hero of mine. Buddy and the Crickets were the first people to do those harmonies that really chilled your spine. It's pretty simple, but, boy, those old Cricket records are great stuff.
We also used to go and see the Who and get very excited. In the early days - when they were doing "My Generation" and "Substitute" - they were the most outrageously adventurous thing I'd ever aeon. They were just hooligans. But amidst all the hooliganism, there was this wonderful breadth of sound and the great brain of Pete Townshend. Both Roger and I were big Who fans. I remember they played at one of the colleges in London, and they were an hour-and-a-half late. No one was sure if they were gonna show up, and the place was seething with about 1,000 kids. And finally they come on - and they didn't give a shit. Townshend waved his arms and started making airplane noises for about twenty minutes before they even played a song. They didn't have any regard for anything, and it was wonderful and real.
I also saw the Who with Chuck Berry at Albert Hall. I think there was some dispute at the time as to who should be at the top of the bill. There were all these rockers in the audience rooting for Chuck. The Who were mods. You had to be either a rocker or a mod - it was completely polarized. If you were a mod, you wore all these pop art clothes and you hated rockers. If you were a rocker, you wore leather and you hated mods. That was the whole scene. Stupid - so childish. When the Who came on, the rockers started throwing things at them. Pennies and stuff, aimed at Roger Daltrey's face, which is no fun at all. So the Who stopped what they were doing and went into an Eddie Cochran number, "Summertime Blues," just to say, "Eat that!" They were so courageous. We were in the second row, standing up and screaming, "Yeah!" I was beside myself. I was ready to get up there and defend them. They were my inspiration.
And then we saw Zeppelin. We thought, "Shit, they've done a bit of what we wanted to do." We loved them, but there was a feeling of envy. But they were great. Zeppelin is a model of the way a band should handle themselves - artistically, management - wise, their attitudes to albums and touring, and how they lived. We used to look at those guys and think, "That's the way it should be done."
I was already playing. I listened to all the old blues guys, and the Yardbirds, the Stones and Clapton. We were also trying to collect rare Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry records in an effort to learn their licks before anyone else did. We just wanted to eat it up. My friends and I were playing at school, and we were all trying to play faster. We thought we were pretty good by that time.
BETTENCOURT: Were you a Hendrix fan?
MAY: Definitely. One of my friends said, "You should hear this Hendrix guy - he's amazing." And I thought, "Well, he can't be that good. " All we had was this record of "Hey Joe," which had a pretty nice solo in the middle. And I thought, "Well, that's pretty good, but it could have been a fluke. " Then we turned it over and heard "Stone Free" on the other side, where he's playing and talking to the guitar at the same time. And we thought, "Ohhh. Is he really that good?" And I began to really resent it. I must have a terrible competitive streak in me.
We went to see the Who one night, and the support act was Jimi Hendrix. It was really an unbelievable experience. The support group situation never changes. Jimi didn't have a sound check, his gear wasn't working properly and his amp kept cutting out. He was getting really embarrassed, but amidst all that he was unbelievable. It was beyond anything I could imagine. I had to revise everything I felt about guitar. I just couldn't believe how good he was. I became a disciple in the course of a few minutes. Then the Who came on - our heroes - and they had a terrible time. They just looked so - I don't even like to say it. You hurt for them because it was impossible to follow Jimi. I still have this great regard for Town- send, but I think he would say the same. There was no one on earth who could follow Hendrix.
I think that was one of the things that galvanized me: Hendrix made me think, "I've got to start being adventurous. I haven't been looking far enough into the future. I've got to start seeing what I can really do." It made me want to be a professional instead of an amateur.
BETTENCOURT: Queen II is both my and Gary's [Cherone, Extreme vocalist, co-songwriter] favorite record ever. We met because of that record: We were in a club; both of us were in shiny bands. Nobody I'd ever met before liked Queen II as much as I did. I never met anybody in my age group who would even mention it. So Gary and I hit it off - our love for Queen hooked us together. We even mentioned on the record that Queen still are the champions to us.
MAY: That's great, I can't tell you what that means to me.
BETTENCOURT: Queen II was ahead of its time - your guitar sound in particular. Even players that were considered heavy metal had nothing close to the warmth of your tone. It's a very tubular sound, not like a fuzz thing.
MAY: Jeff Beck had a big influence on me. I always thought people at the time didn't pay enough attention to the sound. If it was scratchy and shifty, I didn't enjoy it. I wanted to get the warmth and the edge. It needs to sing - it must have the articulation. That's what I always wanted, and I fiddled around until I got it.
BETTENCOURT: "Ogre Battle" is so heavy. And I don't mean like heavy metal-heavy; just so heavy. What did it do to people? Did they stomach it? Were they afraid of it? Was it a monster? How did people react?
MAY: It was very mixed. A few people thought we weren't playing rock and roll any more. Since Queen II was very layered, I think it was difficult for people to understand. So much so, that when we were making the follow-up, Sheer Heart Attack, we thought we'd better take it a bit easy and spell out what we were doing, one thing at a time, so that it would be a bit more accessible. But I'm with you. I love Queen II. I think it's still my favorite Queen album.
BETTENCOURT: It sounds as though the ideas just exploded.
MAY: As soon as we were let loose in the studio, we just went crazy. It was a dream. I always wanted to do all those guitar harmonies, all those orchestral bits and pieces, and the vocal harmonies. And finally we got the chance.
BETTENCOURT: Your writing projects seem to have a lot of hope and a lot of pride - it's almost galactic to me.
MAY: I always did have this dream that music could be a way of bringing everyone together. I'm just a poor little hippie at heart. I still feel that way, although it gets harder these days.
BETTENCOURT: I think music can be just as powerful as politics, insofar as reaching the public and saying something significant.
MAY: Yeah, we have strong feelings about that. The whole question of whether to play South Africa was very difficult for us. But we felt that if we were going to refuse to play in a country because of its political situation, we wouldn't be able to play anywhere. Music has got to be able to cross frontiers. Childish though it may seem, my dream is to make music so powerful that it makes the notion of war absurd.
When we went to South Africa, we made sure our audiences were integrated. And then we stipulated that we would have to have freedom of speech. So we were able to do interviews with the South African papers and say what we felt about Apartheid, and have our views printed. We got hell when we came back, but I would argue that you achieve more by going places than by staying away. The South Africans took us to clubs, but they couldn't take us to any that were segregated-they knew that we would be outraged. And I think that the more people go there with our attitude, the more difficult it becomes for their position to be upheld. Barriers will get broken down by the sheer weight of opposing opinion.
BETTENCOURT: Let's talk guitar. The flamenco guitar segment in the middle of the song "Innuendo" is wild.
MAY: The Spanish motif is suggested from the start; those little rifts at the beginning are sort of Bolero-esque. It seemed like the natural thing to explore those ideas on an acoustic guitar, and it just gradually evolved. Steve Howe helped out and did a fantastic job. We love all that stuff - it's like a little fantasyland adventure.
BETTENCOURT: The solo section of "Simply Mad" is like a conversation piece.
MAY: That's the way I would think of it too - a conversation without end. It sort of disappears into something that doesn't make sense.
BETTENCOURT: It's simply mad. The production on "Can't Live Without You" is very loud.
MAY: For some reason, that track was almost impossible to mix. It was one of those things where you put all the faders up and it sounds pretty good, and you think, "We'll work on this for a couple of hours. "Then it gets worse and worse and worse. We kept going back to the rough mix. It's got an atmosphere to it. I think it sounds so special because we kept a lot of the demo stuff on it. Usually it all gets replaced.
BETTENCOURT: "All God's People" is my favorite track. It's chilling.
MAY: I love it, too. I had less to do with that than I did with most at the stuff on the album. That was originally something Freddie was going to do on a solo album, and gradually we all played on it. I went in and played guitar and it seemed to work very well. John went in and played bass, Roger put the drums in, so it became a Queen track. I love it. Not many people have spoken to me about it, but I think it's great. It's got a lot of depth to it.
BETTENCOURT: "Days Of Our Lives" is very dynamic. Some guitar fans would think it's meaningless because it doesn't kick in, but it sets a mood before it kicks in.
MAY: I was very pleased with that. That's the first take I recorded, and Roger said, "Well... " And I said, "Just leave it there for a while and let it sit. See if it grows on you. " I had a feeling about it.
BETTENCOURT; It's great. You expect the predictable solo to kick in, and it doesn't - it just hangs out for a while and creates a mood.
MAY: I really prefer it. We could've done a cut-and-dried solo which, on the face of it, would' ve been more dramatic, but that was where I wanted to go.
BETTENCOURT: It definitely fit the song. It demonstrates, again, what guitar players in the Eighties lack - an understanding and control of dynamics. "Delilah" is just Freddie. It reminds me of his solo album, Mr. Bad Guy.
MAY: I was pleased with the guitar on that - [mimics sound] "meow, meow, meow."
BETTENCOURT: Was that played through a talkbox?
MAY: Yeah. It's the first time. I finally succumbed and used one. They wheeled it in and I said, "Well, I suppose there's no other way I can make 'meow' noises."
MAY: I have a debt there, and you know to whom - Jeff Beck.
BETTENCOURT: "The Show Must Go On."
MAY: It's my favorite song on the album, now. It's got that kind of sadness, but it's hopeful.
BETTENCOURT: What is Queen's future?
MAY: I look you in the eye and say that I have no idea.
BETTENCOURT: That's the beauty of Queen. We don't know... and that's why we buy the next record. Thank you.