The One. TheOnly …
“How do you fancy interviewing Brian May?” That’s what they said. “Brian May?”, we replied. “The revered guitarist of Queen, national anthem playing, Buckingham Palace mounting doctor of astrophysics and now Victorian stereo card restoring art exhibitor? Yeah, go on then.”
The call from the Royal West Of England Academy came as a bit of a surprise, but we’ve never been averse to a curveball. Especially from a figure as substantial as May, truly one of the most distinctive artists in rock history. As the voluminous-haired axe wielder in Queen, May’s guitar prowess was the stuff of legend. Yet below the rockstar surface lies one of the most intelligent and gentlemanly men in music.
Impeccably-spoken and intensely passionate about the things close to his heart, his manner is congenial, articulate and welcoming. Yet you get the impression that far from the inevitable mellowing of a person in older age, it’s simply the way he is. May’s reputation as a genuine and warm individual stretches way back.
Having always found time to nurture his passions and interests, most notoriously an astrophysics PhD, May’s current extracurricular activity is the restoration of Victorian stereophotography. A form of Victorian entertainment, these images, when viewed through a special viewer, offers a much clearer form of 3D that anything you’ll you get in today’s cinemas. May has collected these cards ever since his time in Queen and a series of these in their restored state entitled A Village Lost And Found is now being exhibited in the RWA, as well as being gathered together in a book. They allow us an insight into Victorian life, and it’s the innately human, yet remarkably ambitious, nature of this method that attracts May. He views these cards as a gateway into another world.
It’s also a measure of the man that this particular chapter in his frequently astounding career coincides with his latest musical offering – a collaboration with Dappy from N-Dubz. Nope, we didn’t see that one coming either.
Crack and Brian chatted Victorian villages, animal welfare and Freddie.
How did you first get into the world of stereoscopy?
It goes back a very long way with me. Right back to childhood, where I experienced 3D cards you got free in Weetabix packets. As soon as I saw that magic happen, when you had two uninspiring little pictures fuse together to make a magical three-dimensional view, it lead me back to Victorian times when this was all invented in the 1850s. When I was a student I couldn’t afford to buy stereo cards so I used to go and buy them at auction. As soon as I made a bit of money I started buying and collecting them and I have done ever since. They were like the pop records of their day and the London Stereoscopic Company sold millions. There was a stereoscope in every home in the 1850s. Every subject matter you could think of was represented in stereo cards; from landscapes to portraits to various kinds of stories being told. They are all amazing and beautifully printed and hand-coloured. They’re magic. I developed a real passion that lasted.
There was one particular series that intrigued me called Scenes In Our Village. I started to get a real obsession with them that lead me to collecting the whole series. One of the great things about modern media is you can scan cards and make copies that are as good as the original and improve on them in Photoshop in a very non-destructive way. I thought a great thing would be to share this with people in the 21st century because no one’s seen this stuff.
Is it a lost practice then? The people who recognise stereo cards or even recognise the process must be few and far between?
It’s the Victorian method of 3D, although the term 3D was invented in the 1950s rather than the 1850s. Everything that could be done with stereoscopic technology was produced in the 1850s and it was incredible the level of artistic and scientific expertise involved. The Victorian way to use a stereoscope is still the most perfect way to view a 3D image. We’ve all seen 3D films and Avatar, and I thought it was a beautiful piece of work, but the separation in these films is not perfect.
3D films sometimes play with the brain a little, don’t they?
If you do it the Victorian way you really don’t get any of that. It’s a very satisfying, very relaxing way of experiencing it. I put all these images in a book and we did a lot of research to find out where the village was and put it in context. My real drive was to put these images in a form where the 21st century public could enjoy them in exactly the same way as the 19th century public did. I had to invent a viewer along similar lines to a Victorian stereoscopic viewer so they could be viewed in the right way.
So how did the exhibition with RWA come about? Is this the first time they’ve been shown to the public?
I started the exhibition idea when we started the book (in 2009) and we made some viewing cases especially for the cards and mounted them in these cabinets. It went very well and we moved the exhibition to the Julian Margaret Cameron Gallery on the Isle Of Wight. When we heard from the RWA in Bristol we grabbed the chance.
There’s clearly a human element to the project and the scenario you’ve chosen to represent is a Victorian theme using a Victorian method. It seems a very real scenario on which to focus your work.
I had a great belief in this material from the start, but the more I worked on it, the more I realised it’s a completely unique work of art. There is nothing like this in the world. It’s a complete set of stereo pictures, so you feel like you can almost talk to these people and they aren’t actors of course, they’re real people in the fields and going about their business in the 1850s. For each view there is a piece of documentation that was written, probably by the photographer, even though I can’t prove it, that really enlightens things a lot more. It’s a really in-depth portrait of the villagers, their hopes, their dreams and how their lives work. I think the astonishing thing is how their lives are so similar to ours. It’s a wonderful human story.
It’s clear you’ve accomplished a huge variety of things. Have you always had these side projects, even when you were in Queen?
I’ve always been pulled in many directions and I never seem to sleep. When I was on tour with Queen for all those years, I would get up early when we checked into a new city and meet all the stereo card dealers I could find, so I know everyone worldwide that deals in this stuff. It’s an amazingly different world from the world of rock music.
Are you working on a new project of this nature?
The follow up to A Village Lost And Found will be a book on French Diableries. It’s a portrayal of life in hell. It’s a whole world of skeletons and devils having a great time in hell. There’s a lot of depth to that because they leap out in stereo and their eyes glow, but underneath there are all kinds of other messages. It starts of as a religious exercise but becomes a satire on life in the 1860s in France. It was a very underground and risqué thing because they were taking the piss out of Napoleon III and royalty. Not the done thing.
You manage to straddle these intelligent projects, but it’s nice to see you still working musically with other artists, such as your recent collaboration with Dappy from N-Dubz. How on earth did that come about?
I’m very happy with how Rockstar came out. I get a lot of things come through my door, probably too much to be honest. But I got a request through from Universal in the usual way and as it happens I’d heard Dappy’s record No Regrets, which was Number One at the time. I was really impressed and I put what they sent me on and I was like, ‘yeah, I can do this.’ It’s a very different genre and it’s hard for me to understand. Things have changed a lot, but I could hear things in there I could relate to. They might use different language, but I though ‘this is me. I can contribute here.’ So I immediately went in the studio and had a go. I sent it over to them and they liked it. I just follow my gut really.
How did you find working with Dappy?
He’s a lovely bloke. We’re obviously quite different people, but we made it work on record.
It’s brilliant you can straddle a highbrow intelligent art form and then at the same time rock out and have fun on a record. It looks like you’re still enjoying yourself?
That’s my criteria. It’s got to be enjoyable, fun and it’s got to get your adrenalin going. If it does all those things it’s got to be worth doing, and chances are other people will think that too.
It seems you are massively in touch with your fan base. You keep a regularly updated blog as well as being an animal rights activist?
I spend a lot of time working on animal welfare. I was lobbying the Labour Party only last night. I’m not a member of the Labour Party or the Conservative Party, but I am really close to the group Conservatives Against Fox Hunting and I’m also in touch with the Green Party. I went there to lobby them and I think it went quite well. I met Ed Miliband and told him I wanted him to start talking about animals and I think he
listened. My campaign is called Save Me and we’re all about the welfare of wild animals and we support any individual politician that supports us.
Moving on, it was recently the 20th anniversary of Freddie Mercury’s death and you hosted a tribute concert for Freddie in Clapham. Was that a good opportunity to mark his passing?
It was a very small event for the fans and a really nice evening. We are very conscious of our fans and doing something for them now and again in an intimate way.
How do you think Freddie’s legacy best lives on in modern times?
I think the music speaks for itself, as does the fact that people still want to sing his songs. Queen seems to be more current than ever. There seems to be an incredible momentum out there and more love for Queen than I ever remember. It’s an incredibly spontaneous thing. I hear from people of all ages and people who weren’t even born when Freddie died about how much they love his music. If the music speaks to people in any way then it’s very rewarding for us and very precious.
Do you hear Freddie and Queen’s influence in music today? Do you see yourselves here and there and does it make you satisfied that you’ve influenced an entire generation?
It’s very rewarding if people cite us as an influence. People like My Chemical Romance; I heard from them out of the blue three months ago and I hadn’t realised we were such an influence on them. I had a bit of an inkling and I already enjoyed their stuff, but they got in touch and asked if I’d consider playing with them, so I played at Reading Festival with them. It’s things like that that keep me alive to be honest. To feel like I’m part of something going on at the moment is a really good thing.
It’s obviously important to keep abreast of what’s going on in terms of music and popular culture.
I don’t understand everything and I wouldn’t pretend to, but certain things do leap out at me. It’s important to break down barriers in myself. I’ve got my ideas about what rock music is, but there are no rules and that’s the great thing. I’ve just been working on an arrangement for Kerry Ellis (musical singer and actress whose album, Anthems, was produced by May) and we’re going to do a one off at the Sanremo Festival. You shouldn’t be afraid to step into other genres, so the arrangement I’ve done for her is very Euro-pop, but it’s also very guitar based. It doesn’t compromise the quality of arrangement. I think people will be shocked, certainly as shocked as they were about the Dappy thing. It’s a great challenge to produce something like that.
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Brian May’s ‘A Village Lost And Found’ is being exhibited now at the Royal West of England Academy, Bristol