Brian May Interview: "Freddie being Freddie"

"Bohemian Rhapsody", the new movie about British rock band Queen, is a blockbuster sensation, drawing huge crowds to theaters around the world. Focusing on the band and in particular its lead singer Freddie Mercury, the film has attracted casual music listeners, not just diehard Queen fans.

NHK correspondent Akira Saheki sat down with guitarist Brian May to talk about the movie, Freddie, and the band's time in Japan.

Q: I've seen on your Instagram that you went to see Bohemian Rhapsody with your grandson. How was that?

It was a great experience. I think it's one of those formative moments. I’m sure he'll sort of remember it for the rest of his life, going to the film with his granddad and seeing what his granddad's life was like. And for me it was great, because you need that bonding and I don’t get that much chance to be one-to-one with my grandchildren that way. I have seven grandchildren, which is a lot, and it's hard to keep up with them. But that was a precious moment.

Q: The movie has been a big hit in Japan. You look at Twitter and people are saying they've been to the theatre five or six times. Why do you think it's attracted so many people and what message do you think it delivers?

We are thrilled it has done so well in Japan, and of course, Japan was a huge part in making us what we are. When we first went to Japan, they treated us as if we were The Beatles. But everywhere else in the world we were just a band starting off, so we have a wonderful history with Japan, as you know. So it means a lot that the film has connected. But from what I have heard, the film has connected with a broader audience in Japan, which is great.

Why? I don’t know. I think the film has a nice honesty to it, a kind of spiritual honesty to it. This has been a journey for me. I don’t think I understood what a biopic was until we did this. A biopic is an attempt to get beneath the surface. It's not like a documentary where you just put a few bits of film and opinion together.

This is an attempt to paint a picture of somebody; not just what they look like but what they feel like and what drives them. And I think it was very well done in the end. It wasn’t easy. It was a difficult journey. But I think what you see is a very good portrait of a man, a very exceptional man, Freddie, and you see his vulnerability, which is important, and you also see his strength, and then you see the battles that take place within him. That is what I think the film succeeds in most. It's not really about the facts so much.
It’s not about whether he had a moustache at a particular time, or when this happened. It's about trying to paint a picture and understanding what was inside this man. I think that is why it's a kind of universal thing, and I think perhaps the film is a little more unusual than people think at the beginning. Some of the critics took it at face value and said, "This is not right, this tour is wrong," and I think they kind of missed the point that it's not a documentary, it's a portrait and a painting of somebody. And of course that somebody is precious to us and it took us 9 years to get to the point where we were confident the film would be a good portrayal of Freddie. It was worth the wait.

Q: In another interview, you mentioned you were moved by the scene in the movie where Freddie gets into an argument with the other members before Live Aid. Can you tell us more?

That particular scene I love because I think you see such an accurate inhabitation of Freddie by Rami. He is an amazing actor. It's a good script, in the end, but he went beyond the script, and he got inside Freddie, and those moments where you see him kind of walking around nervously, you can see what's going on in his head. He's thinking, "I don’t want to say this but I have to say this to the band."

It was a very difficult moment and I think it really captures that feeling for Freddie. He had this great urge to explore the other side of himself in a solo career, but he also felt a lot of pain because we were a family. You can see him not want to appear disturbed, but he is disturbed. I like that. It is very much Freddie. Freddie would be always very brisk. "I don’t want to talk about this. This is fine." But inside, you knew he was having his own battles, so I loved to see that scene and I'm glad it's in the movie.

Q: In past interviews, you mention many times 'Freddie being Freddie.' What do you mean by that?

Freddie being Freddie. Well, he was unusual. I don’t know what I mean in a particular case, but Freddie was a person of, he would say, no compromise, and I think the compromises were made inside of him, but he didn’t want to appear as if he was compromising because he wanted to come from a position of strength.

So that’s one thing. It’s unusual. I think most of us in the world like to please people. We feel a need to be liked and need to please them. Freddie didn’t have that. He somehow got beyond that and if he didn’t want to do something he would say, "No, I'm not doing that," and if somebody wanted an autograph at a particular time when he was doing something else, he would say, "No, fuck off darling," which is quite rude, but everybody understood that he was so focused that it made sense for him.

He had a freedom. Freddie represented to me a kind of freedom which we all strive for, which is the freedom not to be governed by pleasing people. You can appear selfish, but in fact, you achieve more this way.

Freddie Mercury died in 1991 at age 45 due to complication from AIDS.

Q: That's interesting because he always pleased the crowd.

I think that was his focus. He knew what his mission was. He wanted to do that thing with the audience. He wanted to make his music and he wanted Queen to be a force in this world, so anything which wasn’t conducive toward that he would get rid of. So I guess it is about looking at the big picture rather than the small picture.

Q: The movie also focused on the agony he felt as a minority. As a close friend, did you ever see or talk about this with him?

No, we didn’t talk directly about these things very often. Occasionally we did, but sometimes it would be in writing a song where a certain conversation would get triggered because we were trying to channel our feelings.

A good example is, It’s a Hard Life. Forget the video for a moment, just the track to me was very significant because it was Freddie trying to put his feelings quite directly into a song, which is unusual. You look at My Fairy King or Bohemian Rhapsody, or the March of the Black Queen, it’s all quite oblique. It’s not a direct conversation, but Hard Life is, and it looks like quite a light song, but actually there is a lot of pain.

And there was a moment when Freddie and I sat down, and we were both in a lot of pain at the time. We were both dealing with relationship problems if you like, and we were writing this song in a way which united the feelings. Now, he had those feelings about a man. I had these feelings about a woman, but it was the same thing. It was the same story we were telling, so in that few moments I felt we communicated a lot about the pain we were dealing with. And to put it in a song is a good thing because it helps you, it liberates people who hear it and feel the song is about them, and it increases the understanding between people, I think.

It doesn’t matter where you are, how successful you might be. You might be surrounded by everything material, but you can still feel pain inside, and that’s kind of the way humans communicate, through their pain and their longings and their need to connect. The need to connect makes us connect.

Q: About Live Aid, which was the climax of the movie. How important was that to Queen when you look back at the history of the band?

Live Aid was a pivot, I think, and in the film, again, it's slightly metaphorical because you see certain material pressures outlined, but in fact, for us it was an inner thing. Because even though we were still successful, we were in a place where we didn’t have much confidence, and perhaps we felt like we had reached a place where it wasn’t creatively right. We weren’t communicating with each other right. So to go on and be this group at Live Aid in a different context took some courage. It’s not quite what you see in the film. It was more about the inner confidence than the outer confidence, but I think it's a good metaphor.

And what happened was, we went on without our usual show, without darkness. Queen shows were always in darkness, with the lights very dramatic. We didn’t have that at Live Aid. We didn’t have our regular costumes because it made no sense without the lights. We didn’t have our usual sound system, so everything was taken away and it's just the four of us in an environment which was I’m going to say alien. It was a different kind of vehicle, a different car we're driving, so to go on and do that and still find that we connected was very important.

The other ingredient was that the audience was not our audience. It's an audience which bought tickets to see everybody else and not us, so we went out there thinking, "How will this be? Do we have the strength? Do we have the power to do this?" It was a pivot and it was a reassurance for us, and then we were able to kind of find each other again a bit.

And then we went back and did One Vision in the studio, enjoying things again. I think that's the important thing. I think maybe the enjoyment had seeped away and Live Aid gave us back the feeling that we are something, we can do things, we are a force and we need to use our powers to create again.

Q: That stage is now an iconic scene. Roger Taylor told us that when he was playing the drums during Radio Gaga, he saw people waving and that's when he thought, "This is going great." Do you remember a specific moment when you thought that?

It was the same point for me, the same time, that moment, because the audience is making a lot of noise, clapping and singing along, but when we did Radio Gaga, and when that beat came up and everyone is doing the "boom, boom, shoop", it was really chills up the spine for us all, because suddenly we thought this is not our audience, but they know what we are and they know what to do to become one with us. It was an extraordinary moment. I will never forget looking up and seeing that.

I think you can see if you watch the video, you can see what happens to the band at that point. We have a new energy at that point. You can see it in the film, with Rami and Gwilym, who does an amazing job of being me. I think those boys did a monumental job in portraying not just what we look like but what we felt like. That’s the secret of the film, I think. It's not just about the events, it’s about what we felt and what it was like.

Q: It's been almost half a century since the 70s but Queen is still gaining new, younger fans, and new fans from older generations. What makes the band so special or unique?

That’s always the hard question to answer. The film opened up something for me because, from the time we did Live Aid up until recently, I was always kind of surprised, why do people see something special in what we did at Live Aid, and I didn’t really see it. I'd seen the stuff on YouTube, but in making the film and in looking at that stuff again, I began to appreciate that it was something special and magical.

If there was one thing I could crystalize it into, I think it's the fact that we communicate on a very basic emotional level. There's a lot of kind of bombast and show and drama in Queen, but at a base level, it's about talking about the emotions we all feel, and I think that came out at Live Aid.

Freddie was very good at involving everybody right to the back of the stadium. Now, we had an unfair advantage at Live Aid because we had already done stadiums in South America, so we understood the dynamic, so we were able to reach out and connect, but especially Freddie. Freddie had that skill which he had honed, and I think he is a channel. He's a channel for the big show, but he's also a channel for the emotional content of what is actually in the songs.

It’s about dreams and disappointments and love and wanting to break free. "I want to break free, I want it all." These kinds of things we all feel, not just rock stars but everybody feels this stuff. I think if there's a secret to Queen, that's it, being about people and not being about rock stars. That’s what it is.

Q: Why did the band have the ability to reinvent itself over and over again and make new music? What gave it this chemistry?

We were lucky. We had good internal chemistry and the four of us were always pulling in opposite directions. Now that's a kind of unstable situation but it's very creative. We were always criticizing each other and always trying to lead the band off here and then lead the band off there.

John, for instance, had a completely different view of where he wanted to be. He's pretty much funk and Roger is traditional rock and roll. Freddie is everything from ballet to opera. He just wants to expand. And me, I think I’m always trying to make Queen more hardnosed. I like the drum, I like the kind of hardcore excitement. I like hard rock. So there's these four completely different people always trying to fashion what’s happening in the studio, and the studio dictates what happens outside. The studio is where those seeds are grown and become plants, which we use. We were fascinated. We were like, how far can we go? What can we do? Can we try this? Can we try this? We never wanted to create the same album more than once.

Freddie Mercury and Brian May of the band Queen at Live Aid on July 13, 1985 in London, United Kingdom.

Q: About Japan. Queen has a very long and good relationship with our country. What did you know about Japan before going there for the first time?

We had little idea, it was like talking about the moon. We had seen some pictures, I don’t know if I'd met any Japanese people, but the ideas we had were so unformed. We had no idea what was going to happen. It was like another planet for us. I think, in those days, countries were more different in those days. I think it's a shame that in all this internet and internationalism we have lost some of the magic of being separate. We went to Japan and everything was different. All the colors were different, all the streets were different. There were no English names on the streets and most people didn’t speak English, so if you went walking in Tokyo and you got lost, you were really lost. People had to take little pieces of paper with the address of their hotel on it.

We arrived at the airport and there were thousands of girls screaming. We thought, "We’re not the Beatles, how did this happen? What's going on here?" We did the Budokan, the very first one, and suddenly there was this sort of heaving mass of excitement and energy and it blew us away, and I think it really propelled us to a new place. We became different people in this environment. It really was something so extraordinarily powerful.

The fans brought us these beautiful wooden traditional little toys, paper things, dolls, swords, and we were suddenly saturated in this wonderful different culture, and they were so kind. English people tend to be very reserved and cold. Japanese people to us were immediately warm and kind and excited to see us. It was just an incredible experience which I will never forget. Every time we go back, I still feel that. I still feel that regeneration of that. And the terrible thing is leaving Japan, because it seems like we make very deep relationships and saying goodbye is heartbreaking. We always leave Japan feeling bereft and emotionally drained. It's an unusual relationship we have with Japan, and I can’t wait to go back.

Q: You participated in the tribute album for the Great Earthquake in 2011, which lots of people in the country appreciated.

We feel close. We feel a kind of responsibility, I think. It's so strange for our generation because my father’s generation was at war with Japan. I remember when I first went, he was like, "So you went to Japan and it was ok?" For him it was difficult because his whole life had been that kind of conflict, and I showed him lots of the things that happened, the presents and the sounds of the audience, and he really came around and he realized how wonderful it really was.

But our generation forged a new relationship between Britain and Japan. I think that was important, and I think it endures. That is the more serious side. I'm an internationalist and what’s going on in the world at the moment, this kind of rebirth of nationalism with all the evils of that, I really hate. I hate the idea of us coming out of Europe. I think it's a backwards step. I like to build bridges not walls, so I hate what's going on in America. So I'm hoping this is just a sort of period that the world is going through, and after we've done this we can go back to making the world one planet, making the world’s peoples one community. That is what it is all about.

Q: Do you have specific places you go to in Japan or specific things you do?

I suppose I do. In some ways, it’s nice to relive moments. What's that little market with the temple? Is it Asakusa? I love that because I remember taking my little children there when they were very small, and in my Queen in 3D book there is a picture of me holding Jimmy and he's looking at these little bells and obviously enjoying all the colors and the sparkle of things. So I very often go back there and relive that experience.

I love the gardens. I love to go to Kyoto to see that. And there is a particular hotel I like in Tokyo that has a beautiful garden, so I feel very comfortable when I go back there. Probably best I don’t say what it is.

What else do we do? I don't know? It’s not so much particular locations in Japan. I think it's about the general feeling and I like to meet people. And things change. I suppose people treat us as if we are stars, you know, whereas, in the beginning, it was all new and different and we were able to sort of reach out in public. It’s hard to be public in any place in the world now because things have changed. It’s wonderful that things have changed and we became recognizable, but it makes interactions different, and more difficult sometimes.

I remember that the first tour there was all this screaming and shouting in the shows, but outside we would meet people and just have very normal interactions. It was lovely. So maybe that's not possible so much now, but that’s what I seek, the normal kind of engagement. I enjoy the food and I enjoy the vibe, I enjoy the feelings. I like the way Japanese people think. I like the idea of respect, and you feel that as soon as you meet a Japanese person.

It's a cultural thing, and I think we embrace that very much. I think the way people treat each other one-to-one is different in every country, but in Japan, you start off with the idea of respect, the fact that you bow and you put yourself slightly below someone that you meet. It's a very enchanting way to begin a relationship. I think it's a very healthy way, very nice. I just like the whole thing.

This interview was conducted on 13 December 2018 at Brian May's personal archives in England. The transcript has been edited for brevity and clarity.