INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno
Mojo NOVEMBER 2014 - by Tom Doyle
He's the suave visage of glam sophisticates Roxy Music, the working-class Geordie who became Hollywood royalty. But it was no easy ride. "It's hard to keep your life on track if you're really dedicated," says Bryan Ferry.
Partly shy, partly wary, Bryan Ferry welcomes you into the well-appointed lounge of his West Kensington nerve centre, offers you tea, and beckons you to sit adjacent to him on an antique chair. Dressed "down" this Monday afternoon in navy sweater over crisp blue and white shirt, matching dark blue suit trousers and box-fresh beige suede brogues, he might be a merchant banker enjoying a day off. But a shelf full of J.G. Ballard novels behind him, revealing a keen interest in twisted, dystopian science fiction hints that his talents may lie in other areas.
It's hard to square this urbane individual with the odd, futuristic gure who first appeared with Roxy Music on Top Of The Pops in 1972, gurning his way through Virginia Plain while thumping at an upright piano in his sparkly black jacket and winking towards the camera with his glittery green eye shadow. The product of a working-class North-eastern upbringing, as a rock star Ferry was seduced - and in some ways jaded - by international high life, gradually transmuting down the years into the almost aristocratic, bruised-hearted romantic he is today.
Having seemed to want to escape Roxy Music since their second album, 1973's For Your Pleasure, via a parallel solo career, he took part in a 2001 touring reunion of the band, which - frustratingly for some - didn't feature founding member Brian Eno. "It was never mentioned," he avers, a touch cagily. "He's always too much into doing his own thing."
Ferry's slight edginess today can likely be put down to two things: his natural hesitancy when it comes to being interviewed, and the fact that Mojo is the first outsider allowed to hear Avonmore, his fourteenth solo album, four years in the making and the successor to the impressive Olympia from 2010. Employing a cast of collaborators including Nile Rodgers, Johnny Marr and Ferry's drummer son Tara, it is detailed and groovesome - more uptempo in places than its predecessor and recalling in others the rolling sophisto beats of Roxy Music's 1982 finale Avalon.
Speaking so quietly that Mojo is thankful for a posh digital recorder, Ferry's accent is a peculiar mix of Received Pronunciation and still-Geordie burr. As he talks, he stares into the middle distance, although as our eighty minutes together roll on, he relaxes and makes eye contact more frequently, particularly when relating a tale accompanied by an incredulous laugh. Generally, though, he is as thoughtful and introspective as his music.
You've described your upbringing in Washington, Tyne and Wear - dad a farm hand, mum a factory worker - as "unglamorous". So you lost yourself in films and music?
Yeah. I always had a vivid imagination, so movies kind of sparked that, as did music, of course. When I first heard music that I liked, at the age of ten, I was hooked on it. Blues and jazz. Something just reached out to me - the sound of people singing sad songs or playing their instruments with a haunting refrain. I was captivated by the world of music.
The first record that blew your mind?
I dunno because there was a bit of an assault from different musical genres. At the same time that I was discovering blues and bits of jazz, Little Richard was putting out his first things. The family were getting 78s of Elvis, Fats Domino. Really good people. But the jazz things were particularly appealing 'cos nobody else seemed to know much about it... of my generation anyway. So it was my own little world of Charlie Parker. His was the first EP that I bought. It was like buying an encyclopaedia - something to treasure and look at and ponder over the liner-notes.
Apparently you showed real promise as a writer at school. You never thought about becoming a journalist or novelist?
I don't know if I had that discipline. When I was very young I had a teacher who encouraged me within kind of imaginative writing. But when I was at grammar school, I was taken under the wing of my art teacher. He encouraged me to go in that direction. First of all, I wanted to be an art historian because I was really fascinated by art history. But I got more and more interested in the idea of creating. So the next step was going to college where [English pop artist] Richard Hamilton was teaching. That was a great move for me.
That must have been very inspiring.
Yeah, even though I got basically his last year as a teacher. He was around for about two years 'cos he stayed around and he was working on his own things in his studio in the college. It was great to feel you had a really powerful artist working in the same building. And the other people I met at that time were very important. It was the first time I'd met any people my own age who also wanted to be artists. It was a great environment for me and at the same time I started dabbling in music. Being in the college band and stuff.
Richard Hamilton did the artwork for The White Album in 1968 at the end of your time at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne. Did that feel like a direct connection to London and the worlds of art and music?
You felt very connected to the world of London and to some extent New York because New York was beginning to be a kind of Mecca for artists, with people like Warhol and Oldenburg and Jasper Johns and so on. Some of the students from my college would go over and do internships with these artists, so we had some sort of dialogue going on, which was exciting for us 'cos being pop artists, as it were, we were enamoured of American culture, totally, and obviously American music. At that time the music we liked was Stax and Motown and all the black music coming out of America.
Did R&B speak to you more than the psychedelia of the time?
Uh, yeah. Although I really liked Jimi Hendrix. I saw him playing in Newcastle, in fact, and he was what you'd expect... really extraordinary.
You were inspired to dedicate yourself to music after hitchhiking to London to see Otis Redding at the Roundhouse in '67.
The whole Stax roadshow that I saw was incredible 'cos Sam & Dave were electric as well. Incredibly powerful. And with that show, each artist that came on, it notched up a little bit higher. Finally Otis came on, stamping around the stage, a big guy in a red suit. A very powerful impression he made.
You were always very interested in style. The advert for Strand cigarettes made an impact. Could you identify with the stylish loner who is never really alone?
(Laughs) The man in a black mac.
Did you want to become that man?
Pfff. I dunno. It was appealing. It struck a chord somewhere, I think.
In the late '60s you moved to London. But were you really sacked from your job, teaching ceramics at a girls' school in Hammersmith, for playing records?
Well, yeah. I think we agreed to disagree (laughs). I liked playing music and the kids really liked it actually. But we had an old-fashioned art teacher there...
Then, in the early 1970s, while writing songs for the first Roxy Music album, you auditioned for King Crimson. As the story goes, they were impressed but felt your voice didn't suit them?
It wasn't far from here. It was in North End Road in the basement of some shop. That's how I met Pete Sinfield, and [Robert] Fripp of course. I think they liked what I did, but they wanted a singing bass-player. They got Boz Burrell instead.
Were you disappointed not to get the gig?
Well, no. I was pleased that I'd met them because then they put me onto EG in King's Road who managed them and they signed me up with Roxy. 'Cos at the same time as I saw King Crimson I was taking the tapes around to record companies. I'd always sit there, 'cos I only had one tape and I didn't want to leave it (laughs). I was very lucky really because I gradually met the various members of the band. First it was just me and Graham Simpson sitting in Kensington High Street in this small house, working on the songs that became the first record. And then I met Andy Mackay who came along with his oboe and his synthesizer. We wanted to tape what we were doing but we didn't have a tape recorder. Andy said, "Well I know this guy who's got a tape recorder, he's called Brian Eno." He came with this huge Ferrograph tape recorder and he recorded what we were doing and joined in and became part of the band. We had a couple of different guitar players and then settled on Phil Manzanera, who was terrific. Paul Thompson, of course, was the powerful drummer in the band. Added that kind of earthiness.
Roxy described themselves early on as an "avant rock" group...
Well, Eno and I had art school backgrounds and Andy had been to university, so we wanted to do something for an intelligent audience, maybe. We were interested in inventing different musical textures. It was fun making those early records.
You've said you saw songs as collages and you wanted to create "pictures in sound"?
Yeah, and condensing two or three songs into one and making it something more interesting than the run-of-the-mill verse-chorus-bridge type of thing. And plenty of room for improvisation as well, which is important.
Virginia Plain got its title from a brand of tobacco but was also the title of a watercolour cigarette-packet artwork of your own.
Yes. We weren't really trying to make singles at first. And then it all seemed to catch on. We were quite taken aback when it quickly started to happen. When the album was finished, there were wonderful reviews. But there wasn't really a single, a radio record. I said to Island, "Oh well, I've got this song we haven't done yet." So we went and did Virginia Plain.
On your first Top Of The Pops appearance with Virginia Plain in 1972, Roxy appeared strange and fully formed. But your character was also very eccentric. Was it a persona created to mask your shyness?
Oh, but we all were shy, pretty much. Well, reserved, maybe. I think we all had an amount of theatricality lurking somewhere, except perhaps for Paul. But on-stage we felt like we were getting into costume or getting into character. It made it more fun and easier to perform, oddly enough.
You've said that Roxy always appealed to a "blue-collar audience who wanted to be taken out of themselves, to dress up and feel a part of something special".
Oh that's true. We appealed very much to the northern audience in the industrial areas. Manchester, Edinburgh... Glasgow was always great. I think a lot of working-class kids identified with the romantic imagery that was presented in some of the songs but also the fact that it had a strong pulse. It had a strong gutsiness about it. There was a funky kind of undercurrent to the music. Eno was very funky. The bass synth on Virginia Plain is what really made it. He was terrific to work with. It's a shame that we didn't do more later.
Oh, he was much more outgoing, yeah. Also I was usually nursing a sore throat. Doing promotion when you're on tour, if you're a singer, is tough. It's just very hard talking if you're singing the same night.
Did you feel he was hogging too much of the spotlight?
Basically, he wanted to do more and I think I felt that it was my baby. I wish in some ways it would have been possible to accommodate both of us in the same boat. But if you look back it's perfectly natural that he should have gone on to do something himself. It's a shame he couldn't have done that and stayed within the band, as I did with my solo things. That might've been the best solution.
Not at all, no. It's that after For Your Pleasure I felt excited. 'Cos the first album we just kind of stumbled through, helped by Pete Sinfield. But when it came to the second album, it felt a lot more accomplished. So having made that, I felt really excited about making another one. But I didn't have any songs and I wanted to have a go at covers, at doing a different kind of record, which featured me as a singer and an arranger but not as a songwriter. I also thought that doing songs which I thought were great might link with a broader public. Or, at least, that's what happened. 'Cos they were much more approachable songs than The Bob (Medley) or Chance Meeting or something. So A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall was the first Dylan thing and it had a lot of energy and people really liked it.
Throughout your career, you keep coming back to Dylan. Superficially at least, he might seem an unlikely idol for you?
It's strange, that. I guess people don't know me. Beautiful words, and you get very fussy about the words that you sing. Which is why writing songs is so laborious and takes me forever. But with Dylan, he generally doesn't put a foot wrong. His lyrics are wonderful. So that's really why he's cropped up so often. It's the quality of his writing.
Country Life from 1974 documents the period's decadent hedonism with a certain sadness. Did you find it all a bit hollow?
I guess so. I was probably finding celebrity a bit difficult. Where do you go? 'Cos that period, the mid '70s, I was very visible 'cos I had the Roxy career and the solo career both doing incredibly well. So you found increasingly that you had to sort of hide (laughs). The only places you could go to were places where people wouldn't bother you. You couldn't go into the local pub or anything like that. So I found myself more and more getting into the kind of elitist places. And maybe that came out a bit in the lyrics. Not that there was much time off because it was a very, very full-on period running two careers, as it were.
You were massively productive in the '70s - eleven albums, six Roxy, five solo, within seven years. Were you utterly inspired? Seizing the moment? Making up for lost time?
I didn't have much life really outside of that. I didn't have any family or children or anything. I loved making records, and the touring was something that you sort of had to do.
Roxy first split after Siren in 1975. Why?
What happened was I'd made all these solo albums and I hadn't really toured. So I toured Japan and Australia and everywhere as a solo artist. Basically, Roxy was on hold and I wasn't sure whether it had finished or not. I wasn't really sure what was going to happen.
Were you seeing if you could go it alone?
Yeah, I guess so. And it was probably time to have a rest from the band, 'cos we'd done a lot of stuff, one thing after another.
You re-recorded five Roxy cuts on your Let's Stick Together solo LP in '76 - did you really think you could improve upon the originals?
Oh no no. I didn't feel like I could improve on them. What happened was we made Let's Stick Together, which was this wonderful record by Wilbert Harrison. The original's much better than what I did. It's fantastic. We did it in a different way and it was very good. So we had this single and suddenly the record company were crying out for an album to go with it. And so we did alternative versions of [Roxy's] Chance Meeting, Casanova and so on. It was weird, 'cos in a way it was like I was covering myself and trying to do them in a different way. Casanova was very different from the original.
You relocated for six months in 1977 to Los Angeles to write The Bride Stripped Bare, but hated it...
Well, no, love and hate. Some of it was appealing, 'cos it was on the outside very glamorous for a young lad from the North-east to suddenly be living in Bel Air. It was interesting meeting movie people and so on. I met Groucho [Marx], he once sang Hooray For Captain Spaulding to me [from Animal Crackers, 1930]. Him and Ahmet Ertegun were doing a duet at some dinner. There were lots of colourful people around LA at that time. A friend of mine, her dad was one of the producers of The Wizard Of Oz, so it was real A-list Hollywood people that one met. It was fascinating to meet one minute Billy Wilder, the other minute Lucille Ball. So it was very strange. But LA was very conservative in those days, there was nowhere to go to, there weren't any cool restaurants. It was very old-fashioned in that sense. Everything took place in people's houses. Parties. There was no kind of street life. After a while it seemed rather empty and barren.
Returning in '79 with Manifesto, Roxy Music are a very different beast, with an emphasis on classy grooves...
That's 'cos I'd learnt a lot from working with not only American players, but English session players, who were the very best.
Avalon, from 1982, was recorded at Compass Point, Nassau, in the Bahamas. Did the exotic environment inform the music?
Well, I'm sure it did, in the same way as if you record in the evening, you get a different mood from the morning or afternoon.
It's a very precise-sounding record. Was recording it a painstaking process?
Oh yeah, it was agonising. I drove everybody mad (laughs). Just trying to get it right.
Is this where we get striving-for-perfection coming into your recording career?
I guess so, 'cos we started multitracking lots of things and constantly sifting through. You have to set yourself goals and you can't make the same record year after year. Certain things have to change. You hope you'll get better at your craft if you're working year after year. Obviously your standards change. Something you'd let go on your first record, you wouldn't let go later on. Like the first downbeat of Virginia Plain is way out of time (laughs).
Does that bug you every time you hear it?
No, because we fixed it eventually when remastering a few years back. But if you listen to the first version, it's way off. So Avalon, it took a long time to get it right. But it's very hard if you've created one thing then try and do something else which is as good and that's different. I think we succeeded in the sense that Avalon had a very different mood from, say, For Your Pleasure, which was another landmark recording for me.
Avalon is unrecognisable as the work of roughly the same band which made the Roxy Music debut album ten years earlier.
We'd been through a lot of different things and different people, so we were different people ourselves. You have to move on. Then people say, "Oh well, it's a bit too smooth", or, "It's too groovy". You can't please everyone.
Uh, I suppose in a way it was. Yeah, just trying to do something as good, y'know. By then I really just wanted to work with new people all the time, so I didn't do any more Roxy records after that.
Post 1987, you start on Horoscope which becomes Mamouna when it's finally released in 1994. You called it your Heaven's Gate. You're using digital recording, fifty-six tracks - were there just too many possibilities?
I think so. Maybe I didn't quite know... I didn't really have a strong producer to bounce off. Quite a few years of experimenting in the studio but not quite sure what I was looking for, although some people really like what happened on Mamouna.
Making it, you said you were "self-conscious and determined to write my masterpiece". Is that really where your head was at?
That's where it always is (laughs).
Roxy Music reunited in 2001 for touring, but no album. Then Olympia (2010) began in 2005 as a Roxy album before it mutated into a solo record. What happened?
Well, the others in the band wanted to make a Roxy album and I guess I was intrigued. We spent a little bit of time in London having a go. But (sighs) I decided it wasn't what I wanted to do. I think I'm so used to being able to try out different people for different roles on different songs, having an unlimited palette, as it were. It's not to say that we couldn't have done something but I just wasn't really loving the process. And I wanted too much to bring in other people and do different things. That's not to say that we can never do anything together again, 'cos Andy and Phil are both really talented and Paul's a great drummer and always will be.
You've hinted that if Roxy work together again it may be for a film soundtrack...
You never know. Something might happen one day.
How is it working with Tara, your son and your drummer?
Oh really good. It's great to have a drummer who has the same taste as yourself. It's great when they listen to the same records, I guess. All they've got to do is listen to Al Jackson [Jr, Booker T. & The M.G.'s] and they're set. He doesn't play in the live band now because he's at art college, but he's all over the album. Do parental difficulties arise? Not really. They would if he was on tour, I think. (Adopts blunt, stern tone) "You're late."
In 2011, you were made a CBE. What did The Queen say?
Oh. I can't remember really. It was all a blur. Something about travelling and music and how people love it. She was very nice. I've always liked The Queen. I'm quite old-fashioned in that respect. My parents would've been very pleased.
What does the title mean to you?
It doesn't mean anything. It just means that somebody somewhere approves... or, y'know, it's nice to be recognised for something. I'm not bolshy - I wouldn't say, "WelI, actually, I don't want this." I'm very grateful for you to give me anything.
Looking back, you've said, "lt's all ups and downs and severe turbulence most of my life." Sounds like a rough flight?
Well, I dunno. Being a musician, it does have ups and downs. It's quite passionate work and it's long hours and it's intense and it's very hard to keep other parts of your life on track if you're really dedicated.
Given how long you take to make records, ever fancy doing something more simple? A piano and vocal album maybe?
Well, that would be nice. Sometimes when I listen to some of the demos, I think, Oh, maybe it would be nice to do something like that. (Laughs) Produced by Eno, of course.
ROXY & ELSEWHERE
Top stops on Ferry's musical voyage
THE AVANT-GARDE ONE Roxy Music: For Your Pleasure - Emboldened by their eponymous debut released the previous year, For Your Pleasure perfected Roxy's pop-art/art-pop blueprint in the company of producer Chris Thomas. Do The Strand was a strident, cut-up invention of an imaginary dance craze, Beauty Queen pined for an unattainable female (set to become a recurring Ferry theme) and the hallucinatory title track closer showcased their elegant ennui.
THE SOPHISTICATED ONE Roxy Music: Avalon - Meticulously-crafted in New York and the Bahamas by remaining original Roxy members Ferry, Manzanera and Mackay, with supporting session players including drummer Andy Newmark and guitarist Neil Hubbard, Avalon was a stunning realisation of the rarefied, soulful atmospheres the band had been building to create since reforming for Manifesto three years earlier. Arguably the album that invented the '80s.
THE MATURE ONE Bryan Ferry: Olympia - A weighty roll call of supporting players - including Flea, Mani, Scissor Sisters, David Gilmour, Jonny Greenwood - join Manzanera, Mackay and even Eno for this germinated Roxy Music reunion album which grew to become a Ferry solo record. This mature take on old obsessions - nailed by the artwork's Goethe quote: "The eternal feminine leads us on" - is centrepieced by a lovely 3AM take on Song To The Siren.