White Boys (Can Control It): Boy George Interviewed
, September 24th, 2013 06:03
Simon Price meets George O'Dowd – the man who changed his life – and hears how he took the decision to get clean and get happy
The 70s had the Daleks, and the 80s had Boy George.
Just as it's become a cliche of television nostalgia to claim you "hid behind the sofa" from Dr Who's sociopathic wheelie bins, everyone has a variant on the same story about the greatest of the gender-benders. It usually involves one kid, slightly more clued-up on pop than his peers, walking into to the schoolyard the morning after the Top Of The Pops performance of 'Do You Really Want To Hurt Me?' in October 1982, quietly listening to the other boys leering "Phwoar, tell you what, I really fancy that girl out of Culture Club!", then delivering a devastating corrective "Um, actually lads..." and watching them squirm, splutter and blush. I was that kid. And, I'll keep this as brief as I can, but if you'll indulge me here, I'll tell the story of Boy George And Me.
To say that I “ran away” from home to see Culture Club would be to over-dramatise things. My mum knew I was going, after all. I'd bought a ticket to see them at the Birmingham NEC on the Waking Up With The House On Fire tour as soon as they went on sale at Spillers Records in Cardiff, along with my school friend Roger (or, as he was inevitably known, 'Dodger'). What she didn't know was that Dodger and I had no plan for getting back to our hometown of Barry, nor anywhere to stay in Brum, and would end up sleeping like vagrants on the benches of Bristol Parkway station for the night. But the reason for our ill-planned adventure was that we'd both fallen helplessly under the magnetic spell of Boy George.
In my early teens, Boy George was a guardian angel figure to me. His public persona was a killer combination: a truly heart-melting voice, encoded lyrics which, to a young mind, seemed to hint towards some sort of deep and arcane philosophical truth, gorgeous pop-reggae or faux-Motown tunes (my gateway drug for the real thing), a warm and benign personality, and an androgynous beauty which – officially, at least – had nothing to do with homosexuality, or any sexuality at all. To me, Boy George demonstrated a different way of being a man.
By the time actually I met George, in the early 90s, I was a music journalist at Melody Maker taking part in a round-table debate on sexuality in pop. The biggest thrill of all was that he couldn't believe I was straight. I derived a Ready Brek glow of pride from having inadvertently confounded the gaydar of the King Of Gay. (By this time, George's sexual preference was no longer a guessing game.) I chalked it up as a personal victory, but of course, I'd only learned from the master.
I've had my minor fallings-out with him over the years. During my stint as Rock & Pop Critic at the Independent On Sunday, I wrote a review of what I felt was a substandard Culture Club reunion show at the Royal Albert Hall, during the course of which I made an ungallant "fat lady sings" joke about Helen Terry's replacement as backing singer, Zee Asha. The morning after the review ran, Interflora knocked at my door with the biggest bunch of yellow roses I'd seen in my life (yellow roses being a coded sign of contempt). Attached was a card, sarcastically reading "Simon, your kindness overwhelms me. Love, George and the Fat Lady". I had a sneaking admiration for the style and wit of the gesture, but also a mild terror. Like any good Culture Club fan, I knew that George used to box at school, and had a temper on him. I took the real message of the delivery to be "I know where you live".
Another time, I turned up to a solo show at the Electric Ballroom, blitzed out of my mind on Strongbow, and began drunkenly screaming at my friends in his backing band, somehow thinking they would hear me but no-one else would. “Oh, shut up, you lesbian", came the withering put-down. Frankly, I was asking for it. I was an idiot.
We've run into each other on a handful of occasions since and we're fine now, which is a testimony to George's apparently boundless powers of forgiveness (of which, more later). There have been times when it was desperately uncool to admit it, and times when it was almost de rigeur, but if anyone ever asks me which pop stars shaped me, one name is always near the top of the list: Boy George.
We meet, this time, on the last day of Summer, in the Euston offices of Big Life, his management company. He's looking incredible right now: lean and healthy, the face of that Boy George – the face of the biggest star of the early Eighties, the face of “that girl from Culture Club” – easily visible behind a Van Dyck beard and moustache, and no longer needing to paint his neck black to create the illusion of a jawline. He's in high spirits, and his good humour is infectious: Boy George's laugh should be available on the National Health Service. His arms are an art gallery inked in homage to the heroes and heroines who, in turn, shaped him: David Bowie, Marc Bolan, Leigh Bowery, and Soo Catwoman. I couldn't disagree with him more about certain matters – spirituality, astrology and so on, but it's always interesting to hear him talk.
In the years since his first drugs bust in 1986, George has had numerous run-ins with the law, the media or both, most recently the 2008 case in which he was convicted of false imprisonment. He doesn't wish to talk about that today (“All it does is titillate people, and it doesn't help anyone”), and glances over at his publicist with patient exasperation when it comes up, before politely shutting the topic down. And frankly, fair enough. So, if you've only come here to tap 'Ctrl-F Radiator', sorry, you're out of luck, bye bye.
Get him onto a subject he does want to discuss – like his new album This Is What I Do, or his favourite book The Power Of Now by Eckhart Tolle - and boy, does he love to talk. Ask him a question, and ten minutes later he'll still be talking, invariably about something completely different.
I saw you at Yoko Ono's Meltdown recently, and it was really unusual in that the audience were completely fine with hearing a set of mostly new material.
Boy George: I think people haven't seen me for such a long time, and all they've seen is chaos! Just having something orderly was a relief.
I'm detecting a mischievous irony in the title This Is What I Do, a reminder that amid all the circus that surrounds you, you're actually a singer.
BG: It's exactly that! I came up with the title on the spur of the moment. I was doing this thing for Sky Arts with Malcolm Gerrie, and they asked me what the album was called. And I said... "It's called This Is What I Do!" I had this weird moment a couple of years ago at the BRITs, where I was having all these namechecks from really cool people, and I thought, "Wow, this is really random", and I realised that everyone knows who I am, but no-one knows why they like me, or what I do. And I thought, you can look at this two ways. Either it means I've really, really fucked things up... or it's actually BRILLIANT, because it means I get a chance to do something new! The great thing about the past is that it's always behind you. It's gone. And everything feels fresh. I've got new management, pretty much everything's new. Except the band, who are all people I've worked with - some solidly, some sporadically - over the last 20 years since leaving Culture Club. Including Richie Stevens on drums, who produced the last Culture Club hit 'I Just Wanna Be Loved'. We needed someone in who knew about reggae, and he saved it.
Hearing your voice on a reggae track feels right. The first Culture Club hit was a reggae track, and so was your first solo hit. It's like you're coming home.
BG: I think the reggae on this record is a little bit more authentic. The reggae on Culture Club records was a bit, like, cod! 'Live Your Life' is a bit more old-school, because of Richie. He's played with everyone from Linton Kwesi Johnson to Horace Andy. He's the token white-boy drummer in all those bands! He's a shit hot reggae drummer, one of the best. He lives and breathes his reggae. I was working with Youth, who thought we were making a reggae album, and turned some of the songs into reggae tracks that were not reggae tracks. But Richie understood, and undid them. He's not somebody who has to obsessively turn everything into a reggae tune. To me, it feels like a Seventies record. Because even though I'm most closely associated with the Eighties, the Seventies is the decade that shaped me. And I loved it because it was so bonkers, and you had everything happening at the same time. And I think my album's a bit like that!
There's at least one country-flavoured track on This Is What I Do. Is that a first for you?
BG: No, 'Karma Chameleon' is a bit country! Country and reggae are quite closely linked. If you go to Jamaica, they listen to a lot of country, and they love Charley Pride. So there is a relationship there. I've never been scared of country, but I prefer the early, proper country to pop-country.
One thing reggae and country have in common is that they're both associated, rightly or wrongly, with certain entrenched, bigoted attitudes. Which makes it gently subversive when you sing in those styles.
BG: Absolutely, and I think country and reggae are both camp. Particularly the ragga aspect of reggae. The dancing, and the dressing up, and the girls you see at the dances, posing in their lycra catsuits, it verges on drag. It's the sort of thing you see on fierce drag queens on Miami beach. And equally, Dolly Parton's wigs, back in the day, were verging on Marge Simpson. And sometimes things are camp without knowing. Even country lyrics are so dramatic. When I use the word 'camp', sometimes people get really offended, but I never mean Larry Grayson. I love Larry Grayson, but that's not what I mean. It can just mean it's got gall. Divine on Top Of The Pops is one of the campest things ever, and you're thinking, "How did she get away with it?" You couldn't do it now, that's the fascinating thing. You look back at a lot of things and think, "That wouldn't be possible now'. Some of my interviews, no way would I be able to say those things on telly now!"
Your voice has noticeably changed over the years. I first noticed it on 'You Are My Sister', with Antony And The Johnsons...
BG: When I was working with Antony, I was pretty messed up and I was smoking heavily. But it worked on that track! Taboo (George's musical about Leigh Bowery and the New Romantic scene) had just closed in New York - we'd literally just had the news we were shutting down - and it was like, ugh, can things get any worse? Then Antony rang, saying, "Hey George, I'm doing this track..." I was like, "Do you know what? It's my day off. You're lucky." We knew each other already through other friends in New York, and I loved some of his early stuff like 'Cripple And The Starfish', so I went. It was snowing, a pretty horrible day in New York, and I went down and did it on the spur of the moment. I knew what he was trying to get: the chords were a bit Judy Garland, and I was a bit raspy, and it kind of worked. When I think of it now, I think it's a really special song, the whole sentiment of it. Although I have to say, I did it again with him. I happened to be in Melbourne and I noticed that he was there with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, and it's not like me to be pushy and get myself onto gigs, but I rang him up, like, "You're in Melbourne! Can I do the gig with you?" At first he was a bit unsure, "Oh, it's a set piece, we're wearing white... Will you wear white?" And I went, "No, absolutely not!", so he went, "Let me think." Because he's not impulsive like me. A couple of hours later he rang me back and said, "OK, let's do it." And it was such a thrill to go onstage with him, and an orchestra, and sing it so beautifully. He cried!
Your voice seems deeper now than it used to be, and there's a richer timbre.
BG: I gave up smoking three years ago, because someone wrote, "His ruined voice", and I was really devastated by that. It was Neil McCormick, and no, he didn't mean it as a compliment. And I couldn't disagree with it. I was really struggling to sing. Every time I sang was like going into the ring. And I thought I'd better stop smoking. It was obvious: I'm asthmatic, and I sing! One of my close friends, who's a Hare Krishna, said "What are you doing?! Stop smoking!" And I literally put down my cigarette and stopped. Because I was so angered by that comment, "I can't believe he said that!" I wanted to record this Italian song called 'Nel Sole' just for fun, and I couldn't quite get it, because it's a big dramatic song. And after about six months of giving up smoking, I was able to do it. So I tweeted Neil and said, "By the way, I gave up smoking, bitch!" But he just poked me, and it was going to happen. I don't get ill these days, I don't lose my voice, I've got quite a Teflon throat now. I can go deeper, I can go louder, I can sing for longer... I don't have quite the full range I used to, but you lose that anyway. I don't have a falsetto any more. I used to have a really good falsetto, like a bird. But I used to sing through my nose, so when I hear old songs, I just think they're really out-of-tune and I'm singing under the note and bluesy, and when I sing 'Victims' now, I feel like I've grown into the song. I understand the song now. Some songs you grow into. But other songs, like some of the songs I wrote with Culture Club... I don't feel like tumbling! [A reference to 'I'll Tumble 4 Ya'.] At all! If we ever do work together, I guess there'll be a bit of tumbling... but I'll try to keep it to a minimum.
There's a song called 'My God' on the new album which describes an unpleasant encounter with a judgemental Christian. Is it a true story?
BG: It is. I was in the B Bar in New York, and I was kind of partying, and this man came up and gave me a Jesus pamphlet. And I was kind of furious! I think he did know who I was. He was gay, and it was quite an odd thing to happen in a gay bar. I went after him and said, "What does that mean? How dare you assume that I don't have any faith?" The truth is that I was pretty godless then, and pretty lost, but I just never forgot it.
Did he think you were an abomination against the Lord, or something like that?
BG: I just think he thought, 'You're a mess.' I don't think it was anything deeper than that.
You were raised a Catholic. At what point did you renounce that?
BG: I don't think I ever renounced it. I always say I'm Catholic in my complications and Buddhist in my aspirations. I'm a practising Buddhist, but I am Catholic. With Buddhism, you don't really need to relinquish what you grew up with.
So there was never an atheist phase in between?
BG: Oh, loads of them! As a teenager, loads of, "Oh, I don't believe in God" - phases. But then I figured out that atheists are kind of obsessed with God. They're the same, really, aren't they? They go on about it all the time, "There's no God, there's no God."
Do you believe in a literal God?
BG: No. I don't believe in anything literally, hahahaha!
So, when you speak of 'God', you don't mean a supernatural entity, a creator-judge guiding events, or any of that?
BG: No, I don't believe in anything like that. I believe in energetic forces, I believe there's a kind of universal energy... It's all quite hippy, my idea of what God is. Also, I'm really into this guy Eckhart Tolle, who wrote The Power Of Now. It is brilliant, and he's helped me a lot in terms of transforming the way I look at myself and other people. It was given to me by a friend's husband who I met at a wedding. His point is that we live so much in the past, and worry so much about the future, that we miss all this incredible nowness. Put your face in the cake of life and go, "Brrrrr!" And he says that the minute you try to contextualise what God is, you've kind of lost it. It's this great unimaginable thing and you can't understand it. I see it like believing there's a wizard behind the curtain. We all know there probably isn't, but it's quite nice to have that belief. He says you should just go out into the street and look at all that infiniteness up there, and realise how small we are, and insignificant. I used to say, "We ARE God" - you know, we're all part of a totality. Like Pantheism, where God is in everything. But I don't think of God as being a person. Or a thing. I think it's an idea. And I don't think there's anything wrong with ideas, even if they're mad ones. And I don't think that people who don't believe in anything are better than people who have beliefs. In some ways I think people who have beliefs are better off because they have something solid they can lean on.
There's a line in the song that goes: "I wouldn't be here today if I didn't have faith."
BG: Yeah, but I think faith is a very different thing to religious doctrine.
Does it just come down to a mindset of optimism towards life?
BG: Or even faith in other people. When things are awful, you think, "Oh my god, everybody's hideous." Then you encounter someone who's really amazing and sweet, and you think, "Oh my god, people are great." We all do that thing of judging other people for the way they look or the car they drive, we all do it. No matter how "spiritual" we are, we still think "Wanker!" Ha ha ha! And sometimes it's nice to have your ideas challenged. I like that.
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You don't need me to tell you this, but you're looking fantastic right now. How did you do it?
BG: Well, everybody thinks it's something that's happened overnight, but it's been hard work. I think your well-being is like a house of cards. If one thing's out of place, everything falls apart. I've always eaten healthy, but being a Gemini, there have been periods where I've been obsessive, and I've been on a raw diet for six months and I'll look great, then I start taking drugs and it all goes wrong. [laughs] So, when I got sober in March 2008, I started looking at all the things I do. In the 90s I think I had this halcyon period where I was really happy and together, and I look back at those clips and think, "Wow, I was really together." But who knew what was going to happen? Which was that I'd go out and do more... research. Ha ha ha! But I think turning 50 has been a real turning point for me, and I'm able to step back and say, "Ah, OK, I get it." I get why I should do this, why I shouldn't do that, even why I should breathe when I sing. I'm better at learning stuff. But the biggest thing is being clean. And when you're clean, you make better decisions.
You've been clean of drink and drugs for how long?
BG: I got clean on March 2, 2008.
Wow, you remember the exact day.
BG: Every day is important. Exercise [and] eating differently [are important] but mainly it's thinking differently. And maybe slowing down a bit. In the last five years, I've been able to enjoy doing mundane things, ordinary stuff, a lot more. Whereas before I'd have been freaking out: "I'm not doing anything, I'm not making a record, oh my god! I'm not getting attention!" So I think a lot of it is just growing up.
I want to talk a little about the transformative power of pop stars. In the Seventies, a whole generation had their lives literally changed by David Bowie...
BG: And Marc Bolan! [He points at his tattoo] I sang 'Spaceball Ricochet' and 'Telegram Sam' with T-Rextasy at a Marc Bolan tribute show. Marc was such a genius. Not even Bowie wrote lyrics like that, so etheral, so mystical... Sorry, I'm going off the point! I always do.
...and in the Eighties, you changed mine. Most recently, Lady Gaga has been that kind of figure, would you agree?
BG: I think I revised my view of her this year. When I heard 'Applause' I wasn't sure if liked it, but when I saw the video, I liked her without the slap. She looks like Liza Minnelli! And she sang beautifully at the VMAs. And I thought, "She's really camp!" So she's coming over into my camp folder. And I think it's really dangerous to sit there and say, "Oh, I've seen it all before." I could show you all her reference points very easily - Marianne Faithfull with Bowie, Grace Jones with Pavarotti, there's a lot of that in that performance – but they're all great reference points, so what's wrong with that? Basically, everything's been done before, so what's left is how you do it. Having said that, I don't know if what she's trying to do necessarily bleeds over to some of her fans. Having had a few Twitter spats with Lady Gaga fans calling me "faggot", and telling me, "Die, faggot!" and all of that. And I'm thinking, "You're missing something she's telling you!”
People must tell you, all the time, "Oh, you changed my life." That's a great power, and a great responsibility.
BG: Oh god, yeah. In the old days I was too full of my self-importance and didn't really think about the effect I was having on people. It was only later that I started to realise. And now, I feel much more of a responsibility. Because there's still so much work to be done. 30 years ago, I'm not saying I didn't have a message, but I was just kind of doing what I was doing and it was all about me. But having travelled the world and had people come up to me and said, "I had a sex change because of you", or "I became a man because of you", and I'm like, "Really?!" I was in a chemists in New York and this stunning woman was following me, and it was really bright and I was really hungover, thinking, "Why is she staring at me?" She said, "Are you Boy George?" She was from Argentina and she was a transsexual. I said, "Well, you're amazing! You're really beautiful!" And she was like, "I did this because of YOU!" and I was like, "Wow!" So I hear that a lot, and it means more to me now than it ever did. [Especially now when you look] at what's going on in Russia, or even somewhere like Italy where you can still advertise an apartment with [the restriction] "No Gays". So, in the words of Patti Smith, there's work to be done! I think there's always going to be that horrible terror. Because sexuality is such a grey area for everyone, including me.
The BBC4 drama about your life, Worried About The Boy, implied that it was Jon Moss (Culture Club drummer and, for a time, George's lover) who advised you to tone down in terms of public extremism and overt gayness.
BG: That's not true. I terms of his influence over me as a boyfriend, he never said that, but it was obvious we didn't want to tell everyone. We didn't want them in our business.
Intended or not, that ambiguity had a real value to people of my age. The fact that you weren't an outrageously transgressive figure – you weren't a Leigh Bowery, say - made you more welcoming and approachable.
BG: But that's how I felt. Even though as a youngster I was an outsider, and I got called names and all of that, I always felt part of the world. When I first met my manager, Tony Gordon, he said when he first met me I'd be walking down the street spitting and snarling at everyone, "What are you fucking staring at?!" But that was more to do with being 17 or 18, and having developed a tough outer shell because of what I went through at school. But at the same time, I had four brothers so I never really got beaten up, cos I went, "I'll get my bruvver on you!" So even though my family were madly dysfunctional in lots of ways, they were also very much there for me. So I was never disowned and I never had that experience of being an outcast.
Really? I hate to quote you at yourself, but in the 2006 documentary The Madness Of Boy George, you said you'd always been “an alien on the outside of the outside”.
BG: Yeah. I think at that time I was in a mood of "I hate the music industry, I hate everyone", but it was more to do with my condition. The older I get, the more I find that almost everything is to do with your condition! With Buddhism, chanting's all about "polishing your mirror", and really looking at yourself. Not in a self-obsessed way, but "How do you want people to see you? And how do you want to feel about things?" I get to laugh at myself a lot more now, like things that happen in relationships, where Old Me would have run with it and it would become the biggest thing... World War Three. And it's not pretty and it's not attractive, and it made me miserable. You can never change other people, only yourself. I didn't know that. I'd try everything – give them a quiff, put them in a Boy T-shirt – but it didn't work. Ha ha ha! You have to love them as they are. All the cliches, really – you have to love yourself.
The Madness Of... was an extraordinary thing to do, having a fly on the wall crew follow you as you did Community Service for that drugs bust.
BG: I was mad to have ever taken part in that documentary. Someone should have locked me in a cupboard! It was such a stupid thing to do. "Let's just highlight all the things that are wrong with me!" I think one of the most important things I learned, in all of that period, was that less is more. There was a point where I thought, "I really have to have my say about everything", but now I don't. I wish I could unsay half the things I've said! And I still do it. I've had too much sugar and I'll say something stupid.
Your first autobiography, Take It Like A Man, was remarkably candid.
BG: Yes, and I wish I hadn't been so personal about Jon, for example. I could have been nicer. And I should have been more dignified.
Kirk Brandon didn't take it very well. [The Theatre Of Hate/Spear Of Destiny singer unsuccessfully sued George over revelations in the book regarding their relationship.]
BG: No. I wasn't unkind about Kirk, though. The first book's alright, but the second book (Straight, 2007) was the rantings of a deranged drug user. When people tell me they're going to buy that one, I just tell them to buy The Bible instead. I've taken responsibility for everything that's happened to me in the last ten years. That's a big part of the change in me. It would be so much easier to say it was someone else's fault. All the things I've been through, I don't know if I could have become who I am any other way, and I'm very grateful for who I am now. My closest friend, Philip Sallon, says, "You are exactly like when you met me, your 19-year-old self." I don't LOOK like my 19-year-old self, but he says, "When you became famous you got really maudlin and cynical and lost your sense of humour, but you've really got it back." We were in Ibiza and he said, "Do you think you're more respectful of people?" And I said, "Oh absolutely!" And then I had a row with someone! Ha ha ha! But when I do that now, I have to account to myself. And that comes from my father. He could smash the house up, then ask for a cup of tea. Literally. He had this thunderous personality where he'd explode, then he'd say, "Put the kettle on." I'd say, "You've just smashed up my record collection and ruined my life", but I'd still have to make the tea. I've got a bit of that in me. I look back at myself and think, "How the fuck did you cross the road?”
How bothered are you about success these days?
BG: The funny thing is, I'm more ambitious now than when I was 19. I didn't have to be ambitious at 19. Everything happened so quickly. But I invest a lot more time and effort in what I do now. Things like the DJ Top 100 poll, I've been driving people mad to get votes. And people say, "Are you getting desperate?" But I've just spent years being indifferent. It's not like if I don't get it, I'm going to jump out of the window and cry, it's fine, but... Now I'm fascinated by how I've got a quarter of a million followers on Facebook and Twitter so why aren't they buying my record, when its cheaper than The Big Issue? Is a fan a follower, is a follower a fan? It's interesting, the way things are now. And there's no pressure now. If Big Life say to me, "Oh, you won't get played on the radio", I'm like, "I haven't been on the radio for 20 years, it's fine." I mean, I'm being told the Sugababes are too old for Radio 1, and how old are they? I don't think when you're old you stop being relevant. I feel more relevant than ever. Dusty Springrield got better with age. So did Shirley Bassey – I love 'The Girl From Tiger Bay'!”
Going back to Worried About The Boy, were you involved hands-on with that?
BG: Only in the sense that I met the scriptwriter, and he didn't want me involved! I managed to get a few of my friends jobs on it, so they got the look of it down. And how could I not be pleased at Douglas Booth playing me?! "Oh, he's the spitting image of me, it's like looking in a mirror!" Plus I'd just come out of the nick, so I was pleased it was being made. Because it was something positive. I laughed so much. Some of it was spot-on and some of it was ridiculous. But they turned my dad Irish, Steve Strange was turned into Caligula, Malcolm McLaren was turned into Toad Of Toad Hall.
Of course, you'd already dramatised your own life with Taboo.
BG: I'm actually rewriting Taboo with Mark Davies Markham, who did the original book. We just had this run in Brixton that was really successful and we won an award for it, but for me it highlighted everything I didn't like about the show.
It must be strange for a living person, having these competing fictional versions of yourself out there.
BG: I think this one will be closest to the truth! Having read a bit of Quantum Theory, it's more interesting than science fiction. "How can that possibly happen?" But the recent production was disrespectful to some people. Even Steve Strange, who I'm good mates with now. If I'm honest, I was quite impressed with Steve back in day. He was bizarre, he got famous before me, and 'Fade To Grey' by Visage is a brilliant pop record. And he's adorable.
Most of the other bands who came out of the Blitz Club scene made music that was quite cold and aloof, Visage being an obvious example, but Culture Club were unique in going the other way and being warm and welcoming.
BG: I had a strong idea of what my band was gonna be... but other people come in, and I'm not really a dictator (although I have my moments). We were originally a goth band, called In Praise Of Lemmings. But then Jon Moss came in and said, "Urgh, what is this miserable shit?" He used to say that about Kirk: he called his band 'Spear Of Mid-European Angst'. He'd auditioned for Adam And The Ants, and he said, "They've got two drummers, it's brilliant! Let's do something colourful!" I loved Jon's energy, and I like colourfulness, that Las Vegas thing, that Dolly Parton thing, so we went with it. It's not as if I ever sat in my bedroom painting my nails black – I was too much of an attention-seeker for that – but it could have all been very different.
What I mean is, as much as I love Visage, and I really do, nobody ever played a Visage record and thought, "This band speaks to me."
BG: No, maybe not, but Soft Cell spoke to them. I love Marc Almond. I'm trying to set up a collaboration with him. We had a Twitter conversation and I asked, "Do you like reggae?" and he answered, "No, it's my least-favourite genre." Ha ha ha!
So many artists seem to thrive on angst and friction, and a sense of fighting against the world. You seem like the opposite.
BG: When I look at the periods when I did my best stuff, like Cheapness And Beauty or 'Bow Down Mister', it's always been when I'm clean. And it's always been when I'm out in the world, not when I'm isolated. When I came back from America after the Community Service thing, all my brothers were there, which is very un-O'Dowd. I was almost in tears. It was their way of saying, "You need to be around us, in London and with your family." I did go crazy again for a while. [laughs] But a lot of people have come back into [my] life in the last 5 years. I couldn't be around that darkness any more. I decided to be happy. In the past, I thought you were either happy or not happy, rich or poor, in love or not in love. I didn't know that "happy" was something you could decide to be. But you can.
When we part, as I'm getting him to sign my copy of 'Time (Clock Of The Heart)' to please my inner teenage Culture Club disciple, I tell George that as chance would have it, my next interview will be with Kirk Brandon.
"Please tell him I don't hate him", George says. "Just tell him that."
This is what I do.
The single 'King Of Everything' is out now, and the album This Is What I Do is out on October 28