INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno
Arena SEPTEMBER/OCTOBER 1994 - by Mark Edwards
THE BEST OF BOTH WORLDS?
"You'd better hold out / When you're in doubt / Question what you see / And when you find an answer / Bring it on home to me" - Bryan Ferry, Manifesto
"So, do you think I should put the group back together again?" You have to be careful. Most interviewees will ask the journalist interviewing them to advise them on their next career move. They do it for one simply reason: a journalist whose ego has been flattered is more likely to write a positive piece. So, since they don't really want to know what you think, you can say any old rubbish. But when Bryan Ferry asks you if he should reform Roxy Music, you have to think carefully before answering, because he isn't trying to flatter you; he really wants to know what you think.
"I do like to have other people's opinions," - he says - the word "people" bringing out far stronger traces of his original Geordie accent than you had expected. "I like interaction. I like to know what the tea-boy thinks. When I'm recording I don't like just to say 'It's my record. I'm right. Everybody else shut up.' I'm not like that at all. I'm always asking, 'What do you think of that then?' Sometimes it infuriates people, because it can imply an element of indecision. But it's not. I just like to make up my own mind based on all the available information."
It's late afternoon, the first Saturday in July. We're sitting in Ferry's suite in the Hotel Lancaster. Tucked away just off the Champs-Elysées, the Lancaster is awash with eighteenth-century antiques, and it's Ferry's favourite hotel in Paris.
Ferry has finally finished Mamouna (out September 5 on Virgin), his first album of original songs since 1987's Bête Noire and he's now beginning the promotional slog while also settling a few last details concerning the album's packaging. Simon Puxley, Ferry's friend and creative sounding-board since the earlier days of Roxy, has brought the album's back cover artwork up to the room, along with overlays: one holds all the type for the back cover in black, the other has it all in pink. Ferry slots first one, then the other into the CD jewel-box. "Personally, I still like the black," he says, "but I can see what the record company means when they say that the pink one stands out better."
Stalemate? Certainly not. Ferry slots the pink type back in place, and then puts the black type over it: the result is black type with a pink shading around it. "How about this?" he asks Puxley. "I quite like this."
"That's the trouble with you," Puxley says. "You always want the best of both worlds."
We had spent the morning at La Fondation Cartier Pour L'Art Contemporain, the upper floors of which contain sleek, modern offices - the headquarters of Cartier - while the ground floor and basement hold a series of galleries and performance spaces. The building itself is astonishing. Faced with the seemingly impossible task of designing a prestige office block on a site covered with protected trees, the French architect Jean Nouvel came up with a Ferryesque solution, constructing his building around the trees, framing them in its steel and glass construction. The best of both worlds. And also the perfect location which to photograph Ferry, the former art student turned symbol of sophisticated elegance. As a bonus, one of the art works on show is a giant question mark - clearly Ferry's favourite form of punctuation.
Arena had managed to pull off the chic equivalent of being enable to organise a piss-up in a brewery. We were in Paris, and we couldn't get hold of any clothes. The major fashion shows were being held that weekend and the samples that designers are normally all too happy to supply for shoots were needed on the catwalks. So, clothes: model's own.
Ferry opted for evening dress and climbed cautiously on to one of the shiny Ron Arad-designed tables that fill the Fondation Cartier's performance space. As soon as he was happy that the tables would take his weight, he turned on the Ferry effect: one knee bends slightly, the shoulders droop a little, the head hangs forward sending the hair off on a mission of its own, and a hint of a smile creeps on to the face. Don't try this at home. You'll end up looking like a shy three-year-old. When Ferry does it, however, the result is grace and cool.
During the shoot, Ferry seemed relaxed and happy - as well he might be. Mamouna is his best album since Avalon, twelve years ago. It lacks instant appeal; you have to live with it for a bit; but when you do, you soon realise that it's a wonderful piece of work. Polished and detailed like all Ferry's later work, Mamouna clearly wasn't rattled off in a weekend, but neither does it sound like the product of seven years of creative struggle (which it was).
It's far from raw, but it's not overcooked. And while Ferry is still working the spacy post-Avalon groove, fans of early Roxy will note with pleasure that Brian Eno features heavily on several tracks - variously credited with "sonic ambience", "sonic emphasis", "sonic swoops", "sonic awareness" and "sonic distress". It's the first time the two have collaborated in over twenty years.
Mamouna has taken so long to emerge that any piece about Ferry is bound to be full of "first time sinces". At the end of September, Ferry will begin his first tour since 1988. Indeed, as Ferry poses by various work of art, Puxley takes the man from the Fondation Cartier to one side and asks him whether the Fondation might not be interested in a bit of sponsorship.
"I'm a married man with children. My lifestyle doesn't really fit in with touring anymore," Ferry says later. "But I think I've missed it. I think my work's missed it. I think it's a more potent way of promoting an album than doing masses of interviews." There's a pause, then he laughs. "Please tell me I'm right because I'm committed to it now.
"When I did the last tour it really perked me up. I thought, 'Oh great, I have an audience. These people like me.' Doing lots of interviews is more exhausting because you don't get that fulfilment. And you hate yourself for getting conned into doing it. I read that ridiculous piece in the paper the other day , saying that anybody who does interviews does them out of vanity. That's bullshit. I do not enjoy it. I can enjoy talking to you when it's about football, say, but I start squirming when it's about me."
James Truman, editorial director in Conde Nest in New York, has known Ferry since the late '70s. Truman says that Ferry's dislike of interviews can partly be put down to shyness, but also to fear of self-analysis: "I think the place where his work comes from is something that he wants to keep private, partly because he doesn't want to investigate it too fully himself. The whole dreamer-romantic side to him is something he never analyses in case it disappears."
When we begin to talk, Ferry reaches for the TV remote, turns the set on, mutes the sound, but flicks through the channels keeping half an eye on the screen. It's a transparent defence mechanism but I let him get away with it, partly because I've already had to ask him to take off his sunglasses (and depriving him of two defence mechanisms at once seems too harsh) and partly because he settles on Eurosport, which is showing the Tour de France.
Cycling was a passion of Ferry's when he was fourteen and fifteen. He wasn't that good, but he had all the right gear, thanks to his earnings from weekend and holiday jobs on building sites, in a steel factory, and at Jackson's the Tailor on Northumberland Avenue in Newcastle. "Newcastle was quite a forward town for clothes," he remembers. "Mainly mod." In the summer before Ferry went up to university, a friend from his cycling club asked him if he could sing. "I said, yeah, sure. His dad was the manager of the band. He owned a fish and chip shop and a hairdresser's salon. They rehearsed in the hairdresser's salon with all these hairdryers around them."
Ferry left this group - The Banshees - to study art at Newcastle University. There he sang in a group called The Gas Board, which covered American blues and R&B hits, but when the rest of The Gas Board dropped out to turn professional, Ferry opted to continue with his studies. "There were two sides to me then," he explains. "What I was doing at college, and then the singing at night; and somehow it was hipper being at the art college than it was being in a group. I was a bit of an intellectual snob. I liked being at a "seat of learning".
"A couple of years later I thought, well, what I'd really like to do is get my art involved with this more physical thing I do in the clubs in the evenings. Once I started writing songs, that became possible because I felt I was being creative with the music, it wasn't just something I was vaguely ashamed of - trying to sing like this or that black singer."
The merger of Ferry's art with the "more physical thing" soon became Roxy Music. Roxy revived the piano and sax-driven sounds of early rock'n'roll, but mutated it through synthesizers. The result was awesome. Puxley remembers going down to see them play at the 100 Club. "I was totally amazed. It was like what you had occasionally imagined might be possible - what you had always wanted to hear from rock'n'roll. It was a new sound, and it had to work."
And, of course, it did. Up until 1976, anyway, when Ferry took his first stab at a solo career. This ended two years later, after the critical and commercial failure of The Bride Stripped Bare. "That was a bit of a nightmare," says Puxley, who is the one of five co-producers credited on the album. "We went to Switzerland to do it, and not long after we got there Jerry Hall left Bryan for Mick Jagger, which cut Bryan up quite a lot. The whole thing was very tense. There were lots of rows, a lot of fights, and we were all doing too much coke, which I think in some ways you can hear on the album. It's got that slightly nervy, edgy quality."
In 1978 Ferry put Roxy Music back together, but the seeds of their eventual dissolution four years later had already been sown. "On The Bride Stripped Bare I'd been working with musicians from that LA scene where they play in a very laid-back, spacy way, slightly behind the beat," says Ferry. "They could do less and it would mean more. Andy [Mackay] and Phil [Manzanera] found it hard to adapt."
Roxy released three more albums culminating in 1982's Avalon - their masterpiece. Then, after a strained tour, Ferry broke the band up again: "I thought I'll just do my own songs, and I'll do them on my own - don't want to be part of the group thing anymore - and I'll chose the players, and I won't go on tour anymore. I'll just do it all in the studio, and I thought we'd all live happily ever after."
Ferry laughs: "How wrong can you be?" And then he sighs, and does indeed squirm slightly on his seat as he forces our the next sentence: "The '80s were not... not... not a great... uh... time for me... career-wise."
Back in 1975, Ferry had told Rolling Stone: "I've always run over deadlines and screwed up release dates rather than say 'OK, that'll do', and I just hope I can keep that kind of integrity going." He needn't have worried. Mamouna is only Ferry's fourth album since Avalon - twelve years ago (back in the early '70s he released four albums in just over eighteen months). "Boys And Girls took three years; Bête Noire took two years; and the aborted Horoscope project took three years before Ferry put it on hold to record Taxi, an album of cover versions. When he returned to the Horoscope songs after Taxi, they became Mamouna relatively quickly.
There are several lyrical references on Mamouna to time passing, and time running out. Clearly Ferry - who will be fifty next year - has been frustrated with his meagre output in the '80s, and by the long gestation period of Mamouna in particular. "Obviously I've thought about it a lot," he says, "because I've spent all my money on this album, and it's something I would never want to get wrong again to the same degree."
Throughout the '80s Ferry had been working on progressively more complex recording formats. By the time he began Horoscope/Mamouna he was up to fifty-six tracks - a potential nightmare for someone who works in the way he does. "He adopts working process that are more applicable to a fine arts background than the way musicians usually work," says Nick de Ville, a contemporary of Ferry's at Newcastle University, and a long-time friend and collaborator. Ferry owns a series of prints by de Ville titled Five Simultaneous Possibilities. "I've watched the way he builds songs," de Ville says, "and the idea of simultaneous possibilities is very apt. He builds up track after track until he reaches an overload, and then he carves away at them."
Ferry can always see an alternative, another possibility, and hates making a decision which will close off the other possible avenues. He wants the best of all worlds - an endless number of simultaneous possibilities. "Digital technology was an abyss for him," says de Ville. "The possibilities became so much greater. That's the reason why this album took so much longer to get under control. It was in danger of becoming a kind of cancer, duplicating itself into infinity."
One of Ferry's problems was that he began Horoscope/Mamouna without a manager or a producer; and, as with all his recent work, he missed the band atmosphere of the Roxy albums. Truman says, "Bryan once explained Roxy to me like this. He said, 'I like these guys around me because they come into the studio and play something really naff, and it inspires me to do something better.' I think they annoyed him, so he wanted to get out of the studio quickly, and so the records got finished quickly."
Does Ferry accept that he needs a catalyst to get his work finished? Does he see himself as indecisive? "Er... It depends," he replies (honestly). "'Indecisive' isn't a very nice word. I'd say sometimes I am, but a lot of the time it's just that nothing's good enough. Something's not right. I don't know what it should be, but I know that's not it. I can be indecisive about little things, like what restaurant do we go tonight."
In fact we go to Bofinger, which claims to be Paris's oldest brasserie (but then so do several others). It's not Ferry's choice. He's not that bothered. Nor has he given much thought about his image for his upcoming tour. Nor does he wait for his rock-star Mercedes to take him to the restaurant, preferring to jump in a battered old taxi leaving the automative perk for us mere hangers-on to ride in.
It's hard to connect this man with the image-meister of the '70s. And he certainly doesn't correspond to most of what is written about him. In his press coverage, image comes first, then his voice, then his music, and finally his lyrics. "Which," as Ferry points out, "is where all the work goes, where all the pain has been."
Reading through a decade's worth of features on Ferry it's striking that not a single lyric is quoted or mentioned, when in fact, quietly and largely unrecognised, Ferry has turned into one of finest rock lyricists around.
In contrast to the Noël Coward-like word-play of his early Roxy songs, Ferry's lyrics are now condensed, almost haiku-like, revelling in language for its own sake rather than for narrative purposes. The process began with the title track on Manifesto.
"Ah, Manifesto. Yes. I loved that one," Ferry says, when I mention it. "That's one of my favourite lyrics. Nobody ever commented on it, though... which hurt my feelings."
Even a casual glance at his lyrics reveals that Ferry is a man whose feeling are just lying there waiting to be hurt. A brooding, mournful loneliness permeates much of his work. "The place where his work comes from is a very lonely place," says Truman, "and necessarily so. He doesn't want people in there. There's a verse on the new album: 'You make me nervous / you telephone / you drive me crazy / I want to be alone'. That's the quintessential Bryan Ferry lyric."
Even more than the perils of music technology, it's the lyric writing that slows does Ferry's output. He writes, and rewrites - draft after draft. You could say this is more of his indecisiveness, or perhaps you could refer back to one of his teachers at Newcastle - the pop-art pioneer Richard Hamilton. "If any of my students ever learned anything from me it was to think more and do less," says Hamilton. "The thing to worry about is diarrhoea. It's the quality that counts and you're not going to get quality be spewing stuff off."
It's not surprising that Hamilton has had a lasting influence on Ferry. While the rest of us measure Ferry's output in terms of what we expect from a rock star, Ferry would clearly like to be evaluated in the same terms as the artists he studied with. "It's interesting," says Ferry, "when you see an artist doing a show, which they do once every two years, they maybe have twenty pictures, and it's all really one picture. There'll be one version in pink, one in blue - just colour variations on a theme. You can't get away with that in music. You have to come up with ten winners every time. It really is tough if you pick up the gauntlet and say, right, I'm going to show them... show the knockers... I'm not really saying it very well. I'm just saying: one does try."
Ferry laughs as he remembers on of the knockers. "Last year, when I was promoting Taxi, this French journalist was really having a go at me about how I didn't make albums that sounded like For Your Pleasure anymore. He said, 'Oh, you fell in love with the sound of your Avalon album, and now you just make it again and again'. He made me feel really awful. I felt terrible after this interview." He sighs again: "Am I that bad? Was he right? I don't know."
Between the photo shoot and the interview we had gone for lunch with various representatives of the record company and the Fondation Cartier. As we walked along the Boulevard Raspail, Ferry strode purposefully ahead. I caught up with him, and asked if he actually knew where this restaurant we were going to was. "No," he said, "I'm just going to keep going in this direction until somebody yells at me to stop".