"I've only served eight weeks, I can't really write a concept album about jail"
With the news of The Stone Roses' reunion last week, here's a companion piece to the blog post I wrote earlier this month.
This is a transcript of the interview I conducted with singer Ian Brown on 2 February 2000. It was recorded at Wise Buddha in London prior to the release of Ian's second album, Golden Greats.
It was intended to be a syndicated interview that other radio stations could easily reuse. However it was too 'conversational' and was only ever broadcast on my show.
Welcome to the show, Ian.
Thank you, a man called Adam.
Golden Greats came out a couple of months ago. Did you consciously wait a while before doing interviews like this to let the music speak for itself?
Yeah, with the end of '99 everyone either thought that they were going to get flipping sanctified or the world was going to blow up so I didn't want to confuse anyone by telling them about my sorrows from 1998. I wanted the music to sound fresh and to be judged as it was, as the music.
I've also read that you wanted it to be regarded as a 21st century album, anyway.
The guys that I was working with I said, 'look, it's got to sound like it was made in the year 2000'.
Was one of the reasons for that that it's very difficult for you to exist in the here and now because people are always bringing up your past?
I've not got my own daily newspaper, I've not got my own radio show, so my only comeback against what the media has been saying is the music. People that don't know me, the only channels of communication that they've got to hear from me is my music. I've had my downers, people accusing me of being a homophobic, northern thug and I didn't want to have to come out talking about jail and all that... I wanted to be able to talk about my music for a change.
Fans of the Roses, fans of you, will know that you've always stressed good values, so it was distasteful to see these stories painted all over the press, and obviously 10 times worse for you.
Distasteful, yeah. It always is distasteful when people are telling lies about you, and I've had some wicked lies told about me.
The way that Golden Greats has been received, and the love that was shown at the shows you did recently, that must have empowered you.
Yeah, it sure did empower me. The love that people have got for me overwhelms me sometimes, you know, I could never contemplate the amount of love that people have given me in all the time since I started singing.
Is that what drove a lot of Golden Greats, because it's a very positive album?
I believe that if you feel empowered it's up to you to empower others.
Positivity is a difficult concept to sell in this business. Do you find the business still gets in the way?
I just blank it and do my own thing. Nobody tells me what to do except for my own father, you know what I mean?
The lead track on the album, Gettin' High, starts off with a guitar riff. It's about the only time it sounds like a rock album. Was that you playing with people's expectations?
I did want to make kind of a standard American, FM rock tune, but I wanted it to sound modern so I didn't use a bass guitar in it. I wanted this album to sound more like an acid house thing where the guitar is dropped, it's not the main instrument. Then I wanted to turn it round and go into Love Like A Fountain and take people on a whole different trip.
Love Like A Fountain is the first occasion you've had to get your love of acid house on record. Was that important to you?
Yeah, you know, because in those days I was looking at people coming together and strength in numbers. A year later the Berlin wall fell, a year after that South Africa fell, when people do come together anything can happen.
It seems to me that you make records that celebrate that sense of community, and yet your contemporaries seem to try and set themselves apart from that.
Where I come from we do celebrate our community. In Manchester we come from all different types of backgrounds, some come from India, some from Jamaica, some from Pakistan and Ireland. But we're all Mancunians together and I'm proud to come from somewhere that celebrates the fact that we're all the same but we have our differences.
Is that why the album sounds so worldly?
I was deliberately brief with my lyrics on the album, there's certain phrases that get repeated and I deliberately did that for the people who buy my records that don't speak English. I get a lot of letters from people who say they've learnt English from a Stone Roses LP, or they've tried to! My girl's Mexican and I've been to Mexico about 10 times with people who don't speak English, or only speak a little English, so I've consciously tried to make my lyrics brief so that non-English speaking people can understand.
It's one of the reasons The Beatles were so successful, isn't it? Because once people could understand the word love, they could understand the lot!
Well, love is a nice thing to sing about.
When you've got those influences in the pot and you're producing it yourself, how do you filter out all the extraneous stuff?
I got to a certain point where I believed that 90% of the cake is the preparation so I did all of that beforehand. Then I decided half way through recording that it would be nice to get an extra pair of fresh ears in so I bought in a kid called Steve Fitzmorriss who mixed Seal. Now, Seal uses about 70 vocal tracks, 150 snare tracks, so I knew I had a guy who could help me and basically my brief was just to get the bicycle pump on it! So the recordings I had he just pumped them up.
Even though there's a lot going on on the album it still sounds minimal; there's nothing hiding you.
I wanted to make it minimal so that it sounded more honest, so it's just one keyboard note, one drum beat, and one voice and no trickery.
That gives it a soul. Did you want to make a soul record?
Yeah, I wanted to get out what I was feeling.
There's a lot of different feelings on this record. The middle three songs are the ones you wrote in prison. Why did you put them all together on the record?
I did mess about with the running order of the record so that it would all run together over 45 minutes, so that it made sense and was cohesive; not necessarily lyrically, more as a mood thing so that you would be uplifted, suspended, whatever.
What was your mindset when you wrote those songs?
I wrote a lot of lyrics in prison, but they'd all be like "crawls upon the shoulders, hatred in the eyes". I wrote about 50 songs in there that were all about jail. I've come out and thought I've only served eight weeks, I can't really write a concept album about jail. I did, though, want to include a jail tune on the album.
Do you have more of a sense of urgency because of the time that was taken from you?
In a way, yeah. I do feel like 60 days were robbed from me. I have to try and take those back.
Looking back it seems to me that Unfinished Monkey Business was your punk rock record. You were defying the law that states you have to have learnt and played an instrument for years before you can start writing songs with it.
Sometimes attitude can count equal to talent. You can have super talented musicians but they might forget how to feel something. You might get a kid come along who's full of beans and full of spirit and he's just as good as those.
To me Unfinished Monkey Business sounded like someone stretching their wings, and Golden Greats sounds like someone in flight.
Very eloquently put! A nice thing to say, I think I'll use that myself. Making Unfinished Monkey Business and being accepted as a solo artist gave me the confidence to then go and make another record. The fact that people went out and bought it gave me the confidence. My Star was straight in at number five and I had no idea.
With the Roses I knew we were great, I felt that we would achieve something. On my own I had no idea. It felt good to me, but I truly didn't have any idea what anyone else would think about it. The fact that people went out to buy it gave me the confidence that I'm on the right lines.
What would you have done if people hadn't gone out to buy it?
I would still have made another record anyway, but the fact that people did buy Monkey Business meant that my record label could give me a decent advance so I could get a decent studio, decent mixers, decent programmers, you know?
So that was the fundamental difference?
Yeah, I had a proper studio to make this album in.
You were a member of the best gang in town for a long time. The buck stops with you now. Do you miss being in a band?
I miss the company of the lads on a day-to-day basis where we'd be laughing all the time. I'm going back to the times when we were as close as brothers, but we did lose that and I don't miss the times when we lost it. It's half the grief, now.
Sometimes it must be twice the grief, because if critics turn round and say that Ian Brown's solo album sucks, you've got no-one to shoulder the burden with you.
I am fully immune to criticism. I don't mean that I arrogantly don't listen to it, I'm just immune. They said on TV that I was violent, my sons have seen that! I don't care what anyone writes about me; I was falsely accused and it puts all of that in perspective.
Tell me about some of the collaborators on the record. They're not household names and more power to the record for introducing us to new people.
I'm into the idea of trying to bring kids up with me, help put people on the map.
Where did these people come from?
Luckily the engineer in my studio turned out to be a guitarist, so he's played with me. My programmer is super musical, he's not just a computer programmer, so we've written a few songs together. I'm working closely with Dave McCracken on my next LP which we've started now.
Babasonicos were friends from New York, an Argentinian band who are big in South America. We'd had loads of chats about doing something, they sent some tracks over and told me I could chop them up and do what I want, so I did! And I worked with Anif who did the original chant on Voodoo Ray, which was great for me because my brief was to do the acid house thing, and here's a kid that's done the ultimate acid house record.
Tell me about the percussion player.
Inder Mathura. He's greatest percussionist in the world.
I think that his percussion takes the acid house influences to a whole different world, like on Neptune.
He takes it to a whole new level. You see, he was never involved in those things, he's never taken ecstasy, he doesn't take drugs, he's come to it with a certain purity.
On Neptune you've got this trancey feel to the track and all these delicate fills of percussion that take it to a different place entirely.
On that we put cymbals in a bucket of water... well, recorded them being hit and then being put in a bucket of water, that's how we got that 'w-w-w-w' sound.
So you obviously still love experimenting in the studio.
Very much, it's my favourite place to be in what they call the music business.
Do you still get as excited working on new records?
I probably get more excited because with the Roses we used to work on them and rehearse them that much that we only ever got excited when we stuck the tapes on backwards at the end of the session. We used to look forward to finishing the recording of something so we could whack the tapes on backwards, it was the only time we used to really enjoy our own music!
So Guernica and Simone, Stone Roses b-sides that were essentially Made Of Stone and Where Angels Play, but backwards, were just the product of boredom in the studio?
Not really boredom, but looking for something different, and I think it worked as well.
Dolphins Were Monkeys is the new single and for many people the stand-out track on the album. What was the musical conception of this?
I wanted to have that soul/Motown feel to it, which is why we've got that Stevie Wonder-like Rhodes riff.
Is soul and Motown an important part of your heritage?
I used to put Northern Soul discos on when I was 17, 18 in a place called the Black Lion in Manchester on Blackfriars Street. We used to hire the room, pay the DJ £15. The first week we had about four or five kids, the next week we had 200. The week after that we were locking 200 people out!
Tell us a bit more about Babasonicos and their contribution to the last track on the album.
They're friends from Argentina that I met through my girlfriend. They well known in Argentina, Bolivia, Columbia. You know, as we'd go to France, Holland or Germany, they go to Bolivia or Columbia. They've been Roses fans and they know my Monkey Business, and they asked if I would like to do a record with them, and I'd heard some of their old music so I said 'Yeah, send me some tracks over'.
So they sent me three four or tracks and told me to do whatever I wanted to do to them, chop them up, cut them up, whatever. I compressed them, as much compression as I could get, and floated over the top and I'm made up with it.
I read today that you're planning on recording a Spanish album, and they would appear to be the ultimate collaboration for that.
Yeah, I've got an ambition to be the first English kid to go to a Spanish speaking country and sing the songs in Spanish. Whether that means writing brand new songs or re-recording them and using Spanish, I don't know yet - it could go either way.
That's one hell of a challenge.
Well, my girl's Mexican, I've a baby coming at the end of March so I've got to learn Spanish fluently otherwise the two of them are going to be laughing about me and I won't know what they're saying!
That troubadour spirit and that love of travelling is something that has always been with you, isn't it?
Yeah, I've always loved travelling... travel broadens the mind, as they say.
One of the things that that gives you is a sense of curiosity that shines through the lyrics. Is that important?
I think that that's really important, to retain an awe of the world, to be able to look up at the stars and retain an awe. No matter whether you was to become a billionaire, you have to keep that awe for the beauty of the planet.
Is that what stops you from relying on clichés? There isn't an obvious cliché on either of the solo albums, it's like you walk down the street and see the little things that we might miss and turn that into a song.
I have a sense of wonder, but I can't say what it is that makes me want to write about something. I've always had the time, you see. I spent from '84 to '89 on the dole so I understood then that time was more important than money. I've not had to go and do a job and come at 8 o'clock at night and be tired, I've always had that time and made that time.
Do you feel lucky in that respect?
Super lucky, yeah.
If there was a simple message that you or your music could be boiled down to, would it be that, make the most of your time, retain an awe...
Love one another... that's my message.
Feel free to comment! If you want to have your say, on this or any other BBC blog, you will need to sign in to your BBC iD account. If you don't have a BBC iD account, you can register here - it'll allow you to contribute to a range of BBC sites and services using a single login.