Ian Brown Interview: Finding The Other Side Of King Monkey

Ian Brown is back with an album which he describes as his best ever – but if you’re expecting a barrage of scally Manc arrogance and threats to cut The Quietus’ hands off, you’re mistaken. Joel McIver pulls back the curtain and reveals the hidden side of King Monkey

You can judge a person by how and when they offer you a cigarette. Some proffer the packet, some fire up a tab of their own before you get one, others make like they’re the most generous person in the world for sparing one of their precious cancer sticks, still others don’t bother at all. Ian Brown instantly makes the top of my Most Generous Pop Stars list by handing one to me without even asking if I want one. He doesn’t care that I don’t smoke.

We’re sitting outside a café on Holland Park Avenue, an über-affluent London boulevard near the flat he occupies when he’s not in Manchester. The cast-iron Manc accent is in place (with the perpetual "isn’t it", "aren’t they" and "don’t they" interjections that Mancunians often deploy in conversation) but apart from that, Brown is all the things that you don’t expect, thanks to the way he’s been portrayed in the media in the past. While we talk, he’s excruciatingly well-mannered, a master of considered, reasoned argument and capable of pulling historical and political facts out of the air with no apparent effort. Physically, he’s fearsomely skinny, greying of hair and beard and facially hard to read, as the irises of his eyes are almost as dark as his pupils. Think of 2D, the Gorillaz singer, and you’re halfway there.

We chat for a bit about his kids (17, 13 and nine – "a right handful") before the conversation turns to My Way, his new album.

My Way is autobiographical. Do you touch on the subject of fatherhood on it?

No, I’ve never addressed fatherhood, because it’s always bad news if you start writing about your kids, isn’t it? I’ve not actually gone there yet and I don’t really intend to, because everyone is different, aren’t they? Some people take to fatherhood and others can’t cope with it. To me, the best thing that ever happened to me was my kids – of all the things I’ve done, it was the birth of my kids and watching them grow. On the new record I’ve tried to write about my life since I’ve been a music-maker, and what that means to me, and what my hopes and dreams and aspirations are, now and in the future.

Kind of a big subject.

Yes, I thought it was more interesting than writing a book. My last album [The World Is Yours, 2007] was my comments on the state of the world, so for this one I came back to writing about myself and making it more personal.

Why the confessional urge?

Just because I was so far out last time, dedicating whole songs to slagging off the churches and the Iraq war. I wanted to sing about my own thoughts, whatever they might be.

Do you ever run out of inspiration?

No I don’t. Life inspires me. I remember being asked about that 20 years ago and I said, ‘People, the sun, birdsong, the moon, the stars, the sea inspire me’… everything. The big things.

You’re into fitness, aren’t you?

I’m not crazy fit, but I’ve done karate for eight years. Even when I was a kid I used to wake up in the morning and do exercises. I rarely go to gyms though. I started running this year, which is something I’d never done before. Y’know, I wake up in the morning and do some stretches and some situps – and I’ve not had a drink in 11 years, so I never wake up with a hangover. I wake up with a nice warm feeling inside.

What does giving up the booze do for your creativity?

Booze slows you down, doesn’t it? It slows you down and you become the lowest common denominator. I do feel unusual, as an Englishman who doesn’t drink – there’s not many. I’ve got good friends who are AA, and I can go out with them and just drink water. It’s great. I’ve never had a problem, I just gave it up because I didn’t like it. I said ‘never again’ and I’ve stuck with it. I know that people only drink to take the pain of life away, which is the reason that people do anything – to take away the pain. A doctor comes home and pours a brandy from a decanter, and a labourer stops in the pub to get the dust off his throat from the site.

Where did you come up with the idea of anagramming your name for the song ‘My Own Brain’?

I was working with a guy called Peter Mescall, a hip-hop sampler from Dublin, who came up with the idea of calling himself Sampler Elect as an anagram of his name, and he said that I could be Own Brain or Brain Now, and I thought ‘That’s brilliant, I’m gonna do a song called ‘My Own Brain”.

Why did you cover ‘In the Year 2525’ by Zager & Evans?

That’s a beautiful song, isn’t it? I found out that it was the biggest-selling song of 1969 – it outsold ‘Hey Jude’ and ‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash’. It was No. 1 for six weeks, but they only had one hit. I wanted to do a song about the environment and global warming and the greenhouse effect, and I couldn’t come up with anything cleverer than that when it came to singing about the way things are going. And I love that line in it, ‘Now man’s reign is through’. What a line. Forty years later, you could have written that today.

Is the world going to hell in a handcart, then?

No, I think everything’s gonna be all right. I truly believe that. We’re lucky that the youth are intelligent. Each generation’s been more intelligent than the preceding one. I look at my sons and their friends, and I think they’re so cool and so aware what life is and how to enjoy themselves.

Haven’t kids lost some of the innocence that previous generations enjoyed?

I thought it was really sad that my sons saw 9/11 when they were six and nine years old. What a terrible thing for kids to see. That day, my heart went out to all the kids who had to see that. It makes you strong though – that’s life, isn’t it? There’s good and bad: kids are aware of paedophiles now, and in the 70s we weren’t. We knew about child molesters and the weirdos in the field who’d try and grab hold of you and all that, but these days kids are a lot more aware of things like that, aren’t they? Sometimes a loss of innocence can be a positive thing.

How does My Way stand up compared to your other albums?

I think it’s my best, in every way. The best beats, the best melodies, the best lyrics. It’s the smartest. All the songs can be played on an acoustic guitar and they’ll still stand up. It’s got the best sound. The one thing I do on every album is try and make it contemporary, like it could only have been made this year. I’m always trying to make something new. My best tune is ‘F.E.A.R.’ and I’m always trying to get up there. People who don’t know me say ‘You’re the guy on that bike!’ because of that video.

Who’s going to be our next Prime Minister?

It’s looking like fuckin’ David Cameron, isn’t it? They don’t like Gordon Brown, do they – he’s Scottish, for a start. The English were never gonna vote Neil Kinnock in, because he was Welsh, and they’re never gonna vote for Gordon Brown. They still exist, don’t they, them sort? The English are the smiling assassins: they’re the masters of smiling at you while their thoughts are the complete opposite of their facial expression.

That’s a bit dark.

I think they are, though. I honestly do. The majority of English are miserable, selfish bastards.

Did you hear what Lemmy said the other day? "In England, the prevailing emotion is resentment – they’re still trying to get over losing India."

It’s true. I can rent a convertible BMW in America and drive around, and I’ll get homeless people saying ‘Nice motorcar’. I get one here, and people want to put a 50p up the side of it.

But you once said "America – what a sick country!" in an interview with The Face, because someone had sent you an Uzi in the post.

Yeah, but I love America. I love that ‘Have a nice day’ thing. I don’t care if they don’t mean it. If you go in a shop and they say ‘Have a nice day’, that’s a great thing. When I go abroad, or I go up to Manchester and I come back here, I call London ‘the home of the long face’. There’s like 15 million people here, and it’s so lonely. No-one gives a shit. I’ve actually literally seen a guy collapse on Oxford Street once, bounce his head off the kerb with his head split open, blood everywhere, and I actually watched people walk over him.

And that’s an endemic thing in England – we’re all unhelpful bastards?

I think so, yeah. Maybe it’s our history, and the fact that we were slave traders. The wealth of this country – schools, public parks, courts, prisons, children’s homes – was all basically donated by rich patrons who were all slave traders, and we’ve never got over that, I don’t think. Liverpool was the biggest slave-trading port in the world, and that’s a hard fact to take on. It’s been airbrushed out of history. None of us have been to school and learned that we come from a slave-trading background, but that’s where all our wealth comes from – we’re told that a rich patron donated a park to an area. But the money for that came about when Charles II gave the jurisdiction in 1642 to 30 earls, dukes, lords, viscounts and barons to do what they will with the British Empire. Fiscally and financially, they were the richest people in history. The wealth that they amassed was unaccounted for. They reckon, don’t they, that four generations of English lived in absolute luxury, just on what was taken out of India – there’s not even a record of what exactly was taken from there. You go down to the East End and see those dock warehouses, and imagine them full of goods plundered out of India – it’s just mind-blowing what we’ve done to the world.

That’s profoundly depressing. Doesn’t our previous bad behaviour contradict what you said before about how everything’s going to be all right in the end?

I believe in young people. I believe that people will stand up and not take it. It’s like South Africa in 1989 – through the 80s we used to watch the news every night, and the police were storming through townships, destroying people. But people stood up to it, so they gave up. Like the way the Romans gave up, the South Africans gave up. It’s not just something we were taught about in our history books: we watched it happen. That gives me faith in people, the same as the fall of the Berlin Wall did. That thing was oppressive and morally wrong, and the East German soldiers had to give up, because a million people hit the street. People power – I believe in people power. It works, I’ve seen it in my lifetime, and it makes me see the light at the end of the tunnel of global warming. People will stand up, and it will be sorted, and we’ll be OK.

Does the concept of New Labour still work for you?

Labour is more of a liberal party now, isn’t it, rather than the traditional socialist party that it was set up to be – the voice of the people, which it no longer is. They have to appeal to the businessman and they have to appeal to the people who control society, and what’s worrying is that it’s multinationals who run the world. Laws won’t affect them: multinationals will always find a way to cover up.

What would be the ideal scenario for UK government?

We need someone who’s rebel-minded, someone who’s people-minded, to stand up. That’s what we need. The fact that in this country 70% of the land is owned by 1% of the people is a frightening statistic – that’s 70% of the land that we’re never gonna see. The best, nicest, choicest crags, valleys and salmon rivers.

How could that land be fairly redistributed?

Easily – by someone seizing it and redistributing it. Take the fuckin’ palace off the Royal Family, put them in a council house or whatever, and turn the palace into apartments for the homeless. Build houses in the grounds of Windsor Castle.

But then we’d lose the revenue from tourists coming to take pictures of the Queen.

Do you believe that? I think that’s a lie to keep the monarchy going, that people only come to England to see them. I don’t believe that. People have always come to England – as much for the Beatles or David Beckham or Man United as for the Royal Family. Or Oasis. Or whatever it might be.

Have you thought about going into politics?

Nah. You’ve got to watch your Ps and Qs. I’ve actually got a friend who’s the Labour MP. for Cardiff West, called Kevin Brennan. We met on a plane about five years ago. He’s a great guy. He specialises in rights for the disabled.

I could see you standing as an independent MP

Hmm. I think you’ve got to be too squeaky-clean. Someone would dig up an old quote about me taking ecstasy or marijuana or something like that. Anyway, it’s not exciting enough for me: plus, you’ve got to play that game of letting the other side have their say, and they’re a load of greedy bastards. I wouldn’t be able to do that.

Isn’t politics the biggest thing of all, because it’s about improving people’s lives?

It is, but I do that in my own way. I try to do it through music and singing and standing up and expressing myself like that. I think music’s the highest art form: it definitely has the power to heal. You can’t get hold of music, can you? You can stare at a painting or a book or a sculpture, but music is in the air, you can feel it. It’s not about seeing it or understanding it, it’s about capturing something. It can make you happy, sad, angry – it’ll make the hairs stand up on the back of your neck. It’s the highest form of communication between people.

Are you a religious man?

I believe in a higher force. I believe in the human spirit. I don’t believe in any organised religion, I think all organised religions oppress people and abuse power over them. All organised religions are about money and power, and I don’t trust any of them. I don’t see why a priest is any more holy than a taxi driver.

I’ve asked all my questions, but there’s no rush: we sit and chat, relaxed and pressure off, for a while. Brown knows about this website, saying "I met Ben from The Quietus the other day. Nice young guy. Extremely young", although he doesn’t read his own press, admitting that doing interviews makes him feel like a "whore who’s not getting paid". He’s working on his memoirs, two or three pages at a time, although he doesn’t really enjoy it. While we talk, three people among the stream of people walking past recognise him – three blokes in their 30s and a schoolkid. Each of them nods and smiles at him: he returns the gesture.

In case you were wondering whether there was an elephant in the room during the interview, a Stone Roses-shaped one, there wasn’t. The subject of Brown’s old band only comes up once, and then in passing – when I ask him how long it’s been since he had a job outside music. "Twenty-five years," he marvels, "since I was 21. And even then I had the Roses on the side…"

We shake hands and part ways. As I walk away, the realisation hits me that maybe, just maybe, the cheerful, courteous Ian Brown I’ve just met is the real thing: perhaps the stewardess-threatening hard case you’ve read about in the red-tops was an invention all along?

Ian Brown’s ‘Stellify’ single is out now. My Way is out on 28 September and tour dates follow in November and December.

Joel McIver’s new book about the late Metallica bassist Cliff Burton is out now

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