Ian Brown was interviewed in the latest issue of Clash magazine, with rap superstar Jay-Z on the cover. The former Stone Roses frontman releases his new album, ‘My Way’, later this month (read ClashMusic’s review HERE), read the full transcript of our chat with him below.
So, you’re on your sixth solo album. Did you use the same musicians?
Yeah similar crew. I’ve got me live drummer Maxi, Inder on the percussion, he’s on it. Tim Hutton’s my trumpet player, he plays drums and trumpets. There’s three drummers on it. I’ve got a lad Stubbsy, he used to be in a band called Nylon Pylon, he’s on the bass. Mr Hudson guests on a track, ’In the Year 2525’, and I’ve got Dave McCracken. He’s on keys, and Dave, who I co-wrote ‘F.E.A.R.’ with and he co-produced the ‘Music of the Spheres’ LP, and he’s playing the live-set and he’s been saying that Roc Nation was a riot and all. We co-wrote the songs, he produced it and played it on the keyboards.
Do you do it quite a lot?
Yeah, quite a lot, me and him have been tight up. Since mid September working on it. We started working on it in the autumn, through the Winter. We started recording it in the Spring, then mixed it and finished it up in the Summer, so we’ve done all the seasons on it really.
So you worked on every track?
How did the Mr Hudson thing come about?
Because Dave got signed up by Roc Nation, they asked him to work with Mr. Hudson, so he worked on it on the last single. The one with Kenny on it. We worked on that and then the first song we actually wrote after that was called ‘Vanity Kills’. We actually wrote that for Kanye, cos Dave was asked to write a song for Kanye. He works with Amanda Ghost, Amanda Ghost did the melody, I did the lyrics and Dave did the music for the ‘808 Heartbreaks’ album. We delivered it a bit late so it didn’t get there and so I was like fuck it it’s a great tune, I’ll use it. And the sort of brief from Amanda, whose brought in to do it was it’s gotta be an autobiographical song bought Kanye. It’s gotta be about his life, so I wrote what I know about it.
What did she tell you?
Well she told me, he’s the sort of guy whose confused cause he’s a kind of ghetto superstar but he is not from the ghettos. So he’s always in a bit of flux, so I kind of tried to write about that kind of sort as if… I don’t know, just like where you’ve ended up, what you’ve become and where you are. What he could get and what he could lose, so I did that and it kind of put me on the theme then to make it into my own album, like into my favourite subject like myself and do it semi-autobiographical and do it that way. Doing that track for him kind of set me up, right now I’m going to do and call it ‘My Way’ and write it about my experiences as a singer.
So you’d call it a concept album then?
Don’t know if I’d go that far, definitely there’s a lyrical thread.
Where did you record it?
I did it in Battery Studios in Wilsbury, where we did the Roses album, not the same studio but the same complex. I’ve not been there for twenty years, but Dave’s got a writer there using the writing room he’s got, that’s the same room we signed the Roses deal. Which was wild, I mean like twenty one years later we’ve come full circle and back in that same room… so it’s pretty amazing.
Where did you write it?
We wrote it all in that room, we did it all there. We did it like from 10 in the morning ’til like 3 in the morning. Like Monday to Friday… put the hours in. We started, I had a couple of tunes we had last year and I came in with 2 new songs, ‘Crowning of the Poor’ and then the tune ‘So high’ and then about mid-September we started it and we only finished it 2 weeks ago. So 9 months did go fast, a good 9 months from conception to completion.
And you’re happy to just finish with the 2 weeks and then let it set?
We’ve been sitting on it for ages anyway. I’ve been twiddling with it since Easter, we’ve had all the ideas it’s just about transposing them and getting good performances.
So before you sat down what did you set out to achieve on this album?
I wanted it so that every song, you could play it separately on an acoustic guitar and it would sound like a proper song. With a structure, like a classic song with choruses, middle eights, verses, nice melodies. Also like they were about something, like before every song we were like, we need uplifting that’s got a beat up. We had to talk about the song and the subject, so we had to write everything for hours before we did. We were like right, we need a song with trumpets, we need something that’s simple just six piano notes… that’s got something jazzy about it. So everything was talked and planned hours before we even got down to it.
What do you think you learnt the most?
I’m a good songwriter that I can write songs.
What’s the most distinctive element of the new songs?
The beats. The beats are dead sharp and dead minimal. We tried to make it like a wall of sound, but like dead minimal. So the track builds up excitement and each track, two or three times is a sort of move of itself. So when you finish hearing it, you’re like hang out there was nout there except six piano notes, a dead simple beat and a couple of chords and that was it. Dead clean and dead pure sounding, loads of space. We tried to make it like a wall of sound, so all the instruments melted into each other, you can’t necessarily pick out each individual instrument, they all kind of melt into each other. At sometimes it’s not just full of space, it’s minimal. I wanted to make it sound super-modern, contemporary sounding as I could get it. It’s always hard to be original, but that’s what I strive to do.”
How much do you go back or scrap stuff?
All the time. If it’s not working we scrap it. If we think, oh that’s great, and we can’t find another part we just sack it. Always keep moving, don’t get bogged down, don’t edit yourself too early. Let it all out and then edit it, but if it’s not working we move on to another.”
So how many songs did the sessions produce?
About 25 songs, we still have stuff that never made it. I’m a great believe in that, Keith Richards said, “you don’t actually just make anything up, you just find it”, it’s like you find it. It’s always been there, you just have to find it
Are you writing in the same way that you used to write with the Roses?
Yeah, yeah. It’s the first time we’ve actually done that, since the Roses album, but if we usually collaborate with someone it’s usually a piece of music they’ll give me and I’ll take it away and go with Eric and we’ll get back together, arrange which way it’s gonna go. This time we sat down and physically wrote it up as we went along. Which is the first time I’ve done that since John had a seat with an acoustic guitar to get the melodies and I’d work out the melodies on a keyboard and it’s the first time I’ve done that in twenty years. Sat down in a room and work it up from scratch. Felt great, felt dead natural. We’ve known each other for years, cause he was programming my set in Alban. Everytime we had a musical decision, we felt exactly the same thing. It was like, oh shit I don’t like that bit and I’d turn around, he’s say it to me at the same time as I was saying it. He’d say summin and I’d be thinking it. Right to the end, when we’d mastered it, we need a bass drum to kick through more on that song ‘The Glory’ and before I said it, he said we need the bass drum on that song. So we just kept on indepentendly thinking that same thought, all the time. It was the perfect foil for me.
Do you wish that you’d had a muse and a co-writer for the other five albums?
No, I don’t really. I love the way it all worked out and I do think each one has been an improvement on the last one and that’s great because that means that everything’s just been going uphill, I’ve been getting better, I’ve been getting stronger. I’ve got more musical and the way I express myself has got better.
Would you go back and do any of the middle bits?
“No I wouldn’t, I wouldn’t change anything on all of them. I’m made up how all of them have turned out. I wanted that first one sounding all rough and ready, like you was just sat at the end of your bed and listening to me just work my way through it. I wanted it to sound like that. The last one orchestral and all that and to sound like that… everything amazed how I wanted it to be, I didn’t want to change any of it.
What was the biggest influence on this album?
Er, I don’t know what to say there… I dunno, I suppose writing a book, I could’ve written a book. I decided to write songs instead of writing a book so there’s obviously more fun than book reading, there’s nothing wrong with book reading. I do believe music’s the highest form of art cause you can’t get hold of it, it’s just in the air and you can’t get hold of it. It’s got a power to it, that other forms of art don’t have. It was just to make strong songs, with a brand new sound.
Can you tell me more about the book idea?
I just feel like, I’ve just got a good book in me and it’ll be a good read. I do want to do that one day and now ain’t the right time. I’m still feeling musical, so I did it that way.
Do you feel like you don’t really need to compromise much these days?
I’ve never had to compromise. I’ve got here all the way on my own steam; I’ve never had to do anything I didn’t want to do. No record company has ever suggested I do anything that I didn’t want to do ever. I don’t understand about all these that you read about all these evil companies that do all this, that and the other, they’re just lads like me who work in the record company… I’ve never had to dilute me works.
‘The Second Coming’, was that not a compromise by you?
It wasn’t for me, the same for John. At the time I thought, we’ve got another three albums. You know if he has to let the bee out of his bonnet and let everyone know he’s a great writer, then I’ll help him do that, I don’t mind that. Maybe if I could change one thing, maybe I wouldn’t have done that one thing, maybe I wouldn’t have sung those songs for him.
Do you think that writing a song with someone, it can produce a chemistry?
For sure, two heads are better than one anytime. Plus collaborating with someone is more fun than on your own. If you do a great song, you’re buzzing on your own, to me it’s like going on holiday on your own. It might be good, but it’s not gonna be as much fun as when you’re with someone else. I love how you can work with someone else and you don’t like one thing and they don’t like yours and you’re strong enough to take it and improve and someone can change it like Dave was saying, “I think you could do a stronger lyric there”, or “I think you could have a stronger melody there” and I’ll take it cause I know he’s got good ears. I don’t think “Who the fuck are you? I’ve sold X amount of records, I’m the king”, and I think that makes me better, makes me stronger and that then gives a better result in the end.
It took you six albums to get to that, why do you think it took so long?
Because I tried to keep each album fresh really, I was using different teams on each album, and Dave’s been involved in virtually every album except the last one and the first one. I’ve just had to keep it fresh and use that feeling that I want to work with anyone I want, do it that way.
Would you say you’re in your comfort zone as an artist?
I think I would say, I’ve taken myself out of my comfort zone, I did have the option to do it at a Pacific studio with a beach and sharks all round it, brings back all those times with the Roses and all those deals I got shafted on. No, very much took myself out of my comfort zone, I think. It wasn’t fun being in the rain. It was fun being in the room, but I could ‘ave brought a lot of heartache back on myself… and I had a chance to go to Thailand and do it, they offered me a studio there. I could have done it there, that would have been in my comfort zone but I did it the hard way. Back where I started really.
When you knew the Roses were going to end, was it just unquestionable fact?
No, not at all, I just gave up on music then. As soon as the Roses finished going, “I’ve had my go”. That’s how I looked at it. I wanted to grow flowers, my grandfather was a market flower seller and like summit noble about it, dead simple, had just enough money to buy a chicken dinner, dead natural. He watched the flower grow, took it to market, you could do that in any century in any country, it’s just a real way of living. It’s the opposite in the music business with all the people ripping you off and all the fucking all crazy heads, all the sharks and the shysters. Growing flowers is like the opposite end of the spectrum. Sounds like peace and that’s what I needed, that’s what I’ll do, but it’s just like people around you, people around on the street would say, “You should fucking do something” you know what I mean, “You’re better than that, you should do summit”. But I didn’t habour any ambition to go solo, at the time, I’d had enough, the game’s all about, it doesn’t matter who you are you’re always gonna get a get it in the bollocks. You’re always gonna get a piss in your pocket. Keith Richards, Madonna, whoever you are, they come out. You’ve got to be prepared to come out of piles of shit, you’ve got to be prepared to eat shit, you’ve got to be prepared for people who are gonna rob you, attack you. It’s all about, you’ve got to get your music out and you know you’ve got to put up with a lot of heartache and downers, to be able to do that.
So how long, did you go with the flower plan for?
’96 mostly, we split up. We did the show in the August and then we realised down the reviews that they wanted to kill us. We’re never gonna have a chance… We’re gonna have to change the name and do something else. Then it was about Feburary, March of ’97 when I decided to do my first solo album.
Do you think John’s found his peace, painting himself into a corner?
I think he’s had to find his peace doing that, cause no one was having his work. His Seahorses record was rubbish, his solo records did nothing, he couldn’t sell gig tickets; he had to do summit and knowing him, he’s creative and he likes being successful and creating, so it would have been killing him that, his music was being blanked, he was going into another realm, I think. He’s not that great with working with other people, you know, he’s not that much of a team player, he’s not a people man. Solitary artist, would suit him a treat. He’s not into sharing anything, John.”
Is that just his personality then?
That’s just how it is, yeah.
For them, getting full of coke all the time must have brought that all forward?
Yeah, it just accentuated all of it, yeah for sure. It made him even more of a loner.
Did you worry that working solely with Dave, all your material was going to be quite similar?
No, ’cause I tried to do each one different from the last. No, not at all. What Dave is now, is what I saw 10 years ago. I hired Dave as a programmer, I could see he was a brilliant musician. He was doing bass and keyboard lines and I could see that was composition. I work with people all day, [doing bass lines], and I can see they’re ripping you off, ’cause if I’m humming your bass line then you wrote it and I ain’t going to go to bed at night taking 100% of the publishing, that’s composition also. He was just as keen as me about trying to get a new sound for myself. So what he is now is a writer, producer, but I knew him when he was back then when he was a programmer and I gave him some writing credits on the end of my second album. He was co-writing 3 tunes, then he ended up co-producing the record so like when Roc Nation have seen him and signed him, he is what I saw 10 years ago. He’s really improved in these last ten years. He’s in another league, it’s fuckin great that my mate came and sang with me and make me beats sound better than I could get. I mean, I could come up with the patterns but I want the tune to come off contemporary and I’m not clever enough to come up with tthe sounds and I can talk to someone and they can get the sound for me.
What’s your favourite solo track? What are you most proud of?
’F.E.A.R.’. It’s got the best feeling, it’s got the best lyrics. I wish I had another 9 of them.
Does it make you uncomfortable as a musician, knowing that you might have written your best song ever?
Nah, not at all… I don’t believe that. For years I have been struggling to come up with a song as good as ’F.E.A.R.’. I mean when I end my shows, I end them with ’F.E.A.R.’ and not had anything to follow them with; but now I think I could do ‘Stellify’ or ‘Crowning of the Poor’. I think they’re up there with ’F.E.A.R.’.
Do you think that cause they’re new?
No, I think that they sound different, ‘Stellify’’s just six notes on the piano coming at you for 3 and a half minutes, it’s a strong song ‘Stellify’. The crowd love it and there’s no anti-climax so it can’t go up again.”
What else do you want to achieve as a musician?
I wanna write songs for other people. I’ve got another album on the upcome… Maybe another 12 months I don’t know. I don’t want to do it if it’s not better than this. I truly believe everyone I’ve done is better than the previous one. I want to write songs for other people. At the moment I’m writing for this guy called Sammy Yusuv. He’s a Muslim singer, he’s pretty big in the Middle-East, he’s sold about 5 million in the Middle-East, he sings in Arabic and he’s mainly religious songs, but he came to me and asked him to write lyrics cause he wants to write an album in English. He’s a got a piece of music. It’s great, it’s Arabic strings, Arabic melodies and I’m writing for that and I’ve almost finished that. And then I want to get into writing for other people, like help them out. I love the thought of putting words in someone else’s mouth.”
Your total now is six albums in thirteen years?
Eleven years! Yeah, ’98 come out, plus my Greatest Hits that I did, so that’s six and a half in eleven years.
Do you tend to make music fairly relentlessly?
Yeah I love music, because I love that whole creating… you know the days of making a song and then you’re settled. “That’s going to work, let’s record it”, that’s my favourite.
Would you want to be an artist with 20 albums behind you?
If I’m enjoying it. If it had the quality control, I’m not just doing it for the sake of doing it. I wouldn’t do it unless I thought it was better than the last one, I’d have to genuinely believe it was better than the last one. But I’m just as excited as writing for other people… I just think, like a good-looking 20 year old girl who’s a good singer could get that album into more houses than I could, unlike a forty-six year old guy who’d have more people discover it, know what I’ve done. Me writing songs for someone who can get it further than me. I’m up for that.
Do you reckon your fan base isn’t growing that much? Is it mainly made up of Roses fans?
I still do get, 15/16 year olds at gigs. I still get young kids coming up to me and I’m going, “Shit, you hadn’t even been born then” and it’s still growing so, bigger or not, I don’t know. I just think that the right singer or the right band could get a song further than I could get it.
What’s the best decision you’ve ever made?
Going solo. Yeah it honestly was, cause I never thought I could ever find a band like this, with this sort of chemistry who played like we did and I didn’t have an ambition to go solo. I remember doing a gig with the Roses at the Geffen deal and the lawyer said, “Give me half an hour”, he said “’cause there’s clauses in the contract that, if you’re solo, you’ve got to change and you’ve got to improve the way you look”. I was like, “It’s never going to happen, don’t waste your time”, and he was like “You never know”, he was like, “You might do” and I was like, “It’s never gonna happen” and then 5 minutes later, John signed his own record deal. He did, but yeah I was thinking about going solo cause I’ve been in 35 countries playing. I’ve been in Hong Kong, China, Argentina.
What’s more important self-criticism or praise?
I think they’re both equal. I think you’ve got to remember you create yourself, but in the nature of the society we live in, where we’re all fuck all really, plus I’ve been in jail and I know that when they shut that cell door there’s only your family that give you thought, this system doesn’t care whether you live or die when they open that door in the morning. So you’ve got to have some knowledge of self-worth as a person. You’ve got to have that as society isn’t gonna give you that, your Mum and Dad’s gonna give you that or your girlfriend’s gonna give you that. You’ve got to find it out, I’m not one of those people who go around thinking I’m a speck of dust. I’m not a speck of dust. I’m not a 25ft guy whose gonna go around and change the world, but I’m more than a speck of dust. I’ve got value. I’ve got worth. It’s about self-praise, self-criticism is how you connect with people, cause if you can’t criticise yourself, you can’t take it when other people criticise you and if you can’t take people criticising you, you’re gonna be a right mess in music, especially some of the shit I’ve heard about me. It just makes me laugh, I mean the nastier, the better. Like I went on one of those things the other day, YouTube and someone put, what did they put? They put ‘Brown [is] a smackhead ratface paki cunt’. I thought brilliant, they’re calling me a ‘paki’. They’re calling me a ‘smackhead’. It’s like fuckin brilliant. There has to be an element of self-criticism to anyone who’s creating anything. Sculptures, anything.”
What’s got you further, talent or belief?
Oh definitely belief. Belief outweighs talent. I think that if I could sing like Elvis Presley, I’d be dangerous. I think I’ve done a few good words and a few good tunes, but if I could sing anything like Elvis, shit. Self-belief’s got me everything, self-belief.”
What’s the most embarrassing that’s every happened to you?
It’s embarrassing getting sent to jail and the stories around when I got into jail. They had to work to get me in jail. It’s a lie to think they had to work that hard when I kicked off on an aircraft. If you’d seen it, if you’d seen ‘em, you’d have seen nothing happens. The whole situation was engineered, they had to lie to get me in. It was a much bigger deal at the time, but now it’s just embarrassing, and there was no way in fighting back. I didn’t have my own newspaper, no one knew the truth until they heard my side.”
That’s the most shameful thing that’s every happened to you, you’ve never shat yourself on the bus?
(Laughs) No never shat myself on the bus, never shat myself at home either. I got myself beat up a few times, that’s a bit embarrassing. These big bouncers, that was pretty embarrassing, just cause they were jealous of me, everyone was just giving me drinks and spliffs and hugging me and they were just well jealous of me and they just weighed up to me and, it’s just embarrassing getting beat up in front of 200 kids, you know what I mean? Getting dragged off stage in Sheffield, my head split open. Ten stitches, mother of all headache, couldn’t move for about a week, ruined my big day with the Sex Pistols on the Isle of Wight, I couldn’t enjoy it.”
Words by Matthew Bennett