Vivienne Kennedy interviews Bristol RWA artist and rock star Brian May
The Royal West of England Academy in Bristol is currently hosting A Village Lost and Found, a collection of 59 photographs taken by Thomas Richard Williams, the master of Victorian stereoscopic photography. The photographs are owned by rock star Brian May who, working with photo-historian Elena Vidal, has revived them. May has designed and produced a new focusing stereoscope, when viewed through it the photos leap into 3D and the scenes really come to life.
The exhibition runs until 04 March and Brian May will be visiting the RWA at 4.00PM on Thursday 26 January to sign copies of the accompanying book and to chat to visitors about the photos.
I spoke to Brian recently about the exhibition, his animal welfare work, his music and a little about his future plans, we also chatted about his breakfast cereal preferences and which TV dance show he really enjoys watching.
Brian, you’ve performed in Bristol a couple of times when We Will Rock You has played at the Hippodrome and now you’re exhibiting your stereoscopes at the RWA, would you say you have a particular affinity with the city?
I’m close to Bristol, I go there a lot really for various reasons, but actually the RWA chose us in a sense. They’d seen the exhibition, which we did in the Isle of Wight; it came about after we’d launched the book in Hinton Waldrist, the village (in Oxfordshire) which the book is all about. The RWA gave us the opportunity to exhibit in Bristol and it’s gone very well, I’m looking forward to getting down there and getting amongst it, getting close to people who have a passion for this kind of thing.
I understand that a certain breakfast cereal might have led, indirectly, to the show at the RWA and I wondered if you could tell me a little bit about that.
That’s right, yeah; Weetabix packets back when I was a kid arrived with a secret toy inside, or a secret gift, and for a long time they were little stereo cards. In the back of the stereocard it said to send away 1s 6d and two packet tops for a viewer, which I did, and for the first time I experienced 3D and I was just bowled over by it. The fact that you could put two pretty ordinary looking little pictures together, very flat and dull looking pictures, and then in this little stereoscope they sprung into life and you felt like you could walk in and touch the things in the field of view.
I was completely taken by it and ever since I’ve wondered why anybody bothers doing flat pictures, because 3D pictures are so magnificent and they portray what they’re depicting so much more vividly. So that’s it, I was hooked on stereo and I have been ever since.
Are you still hooked on Weetabix?
I still enjoy Weetabix, I tend to work through the night, it’s very quiet and nobody’s around, usually about three or four AM I get a bit peckish, so I go and eat a bit of cereal. Generally Sugar Puffs, I have to say, I hate to be disloyal but Sugar Puffs tend to figure more than Weetabix at the moment.
Do you know what? Nobody knows this but we’re actually talking to the Weetabix people at the moment to see if we can recreate that experience, I’m hoping that the stereocards that I’m producing now could be put into Weetabix packets, that would be a thing wouldn’t it? Another generation of kids could get their stereocards and get hooked on 3D.
I’ve seen some of your own stereoscopic photographs on your website, have you ever exhibited them anywhere, or could they be the ones that go into Weetabix?
They could. I think though that the ones the general public would be interested in would be the Queen ones, we’re doing a series of Queen 3D pictures; I carried a stereo camera all the way through those Queen tours and I used to put it into the hands of various photographers when we were on stage, so I have a good collection of pictures of the days of Freddie and John and Roger and me on tour, so I think those are probably the ones that would go best in Weetabix.
I’m doing an astronomy series and I’m hoping to republish the Scenes From Our Village views plus the views that I’m working on at the moment which are Diableries, little French devils enjoying themselves in Hell. It’s pretty bizarre, it’s another thing that really hasn’t been seen in the 21st Century and I’m hoping to channel it in, I think people are going to love these things, little skeletons and ghosts and ghouls, all enjoying themselves in Hell, but there’s a lot of hidden messages which are significant, from the 1860s.
It sounds like there could be another exhibition in the offing at some point.
Yeah, I think so; I’m hoping that I could do that.
Stereoscopes have been around for a long time, since the 1850s, what makes your viewer different from previous viewers, in simple terms?
It’s a good question; everyone’s very familiar now with 3D, it’s very old. When I first started this project I had to explain to people what stereoscopy was, but now that we’ve all seen Avatar and lots and lots of wonderful 3D films in the cinema everybody knows what we’re talking about. The book and my system is not a modern system, it’s a Victorian way of looking at stereoscopes and in some ways it’s still the best. You have to wear these special glasses when you go to the movies to separate out the two images, so that your left eye sees one image and your right eye sees another, it used to be done with red and green but now it’s done with cross-polaroid filters, but the thing is it’s never a perfect separation.
In the Victorian way of doing things, using the stereoscope, the separation is perfect, so you get no fatigue, no confusion in your brain; it’s a very perfect way of looking at stereoscopic pictures so that the illusion of reality is incredibly strong. My stereoscope is basically a modern version of the Victorian stereoscope, but nobody had ever designed one that could fold outwards, flat, so it’s the size of an A4 piece of paper and can go in the book. It’s also focusable, a lot of people give up on stereoscopes, because perhaps they need to wear glasses and they find it difficult, well this stereoscope focuses enough so that anyone can use it, with any kind of eyesight, which is another big feature in its favour I think. I worked very hard on the design of this, and I’m pretty proud of my Owl.
Another of your great passions is animal welfare and you’ve founded Save Me, a group that promotes animal welfare issues, you’ve been quoted as saying that you’d rather be remembered for your animal rights work than for your music or science; what’s been your greatest achievement in this field?
Well not very much really and to be honest with you it’s a very hard road and it’s hard to keep your spirits up because you work very long hours and confront lots of difficult situations but at the end of the day you wonder if you’ve made any progress at all. It’s very different from my music stuff, I’ve always seen rewards from music, I’ve seen people smiling and records being sold, you play to people and they get happy. The animal welfare stuff is really not rewarding most of the time, you bash your head against these brick walls, people really do want to abuse animals still, in so many ways, and to me I think it must be very much like working towards the abolition of slavery. It seems like the world is completely against you and I remember reading William Wilberforce saying that the whole world was saying “look, the world can’t do without slavery, how could we economically survive?” He was saying that it’s not morally acceptable and it has to change, and that’s really what we’re saying about animals. Very often I go to bed at night wondering did I achieve anything today, but we’re chipping away.
Moving on to music, I was reading earlier about the Queen Extravaganza, am I right in thinking that this a band put together by Roger Taylor as an ongoing tribute act to Queen?
How does it feel? Have you had some say as to who will play your role in the band?
Yes, I’ve kept in touch in the background. The idea came up a long time ago really, and I think it was me that came up with the name The Extravaganza, but really my vision of it was more an extravaganza in the sense that it would be big, it would be orchestral, and it would be a different kind of presentation of Queen. The way it’s developed it’s become a kind of tribute band to Queen and at that point I thought well that’s ok but I don’t really want to spend my time doing this. Roger said “look, I do, I passionately feel that it’s going to be a great thing, so I want to take it on as a project.” So that’s the way it’s worked out and I support Roger in what he’s doing and I also went through the auditions and gave them my input, so, yes, I know we’ve got the right guitarist, there’s no problem about that.
It’s Roger’s thing and I’m happy that he’s doing it but I feel more of a loyalty to We Will Rock You, which is something I’ve been very close to for a long time, well coming up to ten years, it’s coming up to the anniversary at the Dominion and we’ve also taken the show around the world. We have bands in those shows and I feel a great closeness to those guys and loyalty to those companies. I suppose we’re splitting our energies a bit, Roger’s working on the Extravaganza and I’m still working on We Will Rock You.
You played Father Christmas for the We Will Rock You cast didn’t you?
Hehe, yes I did.
Did they recognise you fairly quickly?
Yeah, when they were sitting on my knee they recognised me. I didn’t even have a proper costume really, but I had a good beard.
Over the years you’ve worked with many, many artists. You’re currently working with Kerry Ellis, are you playing a festival in Italy soon?
Yes, we’re doing another project which I’m really very excited about.
You’ve also worked with Dappy recently?
I did a session for the Dappy record yeah, and I have a very good feeling about it, I think it’s a smash hit I have to say. It was instinctive, I follow my guts, Universal sent me the track and said would I like to play on it, I listened to it once and thought, yeah, I can relate to that. Actually a lot of that genre I find difficult to relate to, I’m not a person that was brought up on this kind of music, but actually music is music is music and if there’s passion in it, and if there’s an element of excitement and human emotion then I relate, and I related to this record. We worked on the video together, which was fun, in that situation I was actually there with Dappy and I think the result of that is very good as well, it’s good bit of work, a little bit tongue in cheek but also an element of seriousness, which is always a good thing, it’s a bit like Queen innit.
We’ve just mentioned two artists that you’ve worked with recently, is there somebody, past or present, that you haven’t worked with, that would be your dream collaborator?
That’s a hard question to answer, I guess I would say John Lennon, yeah, John Lennon or maybe Jimi Hendrix. I don’t dwell on things like that, I consider myself very lucky to work with the people I do work with. I’ve been working with Kerry for ten years and that to me is very inspiring, I think she’s one of the greatest voices this country has, to be able to write songs and produce and play guitar with someone who has that kind of instrument, and that kind of passion, is a privilege.
Ten years ago you stood on top of Buckingham Palace to sing God Save the Queen at the Golden Jubilee, any plans to do something similar for this year’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations?
You know I could stand on top of a lot of things these days, but I never quite get the urge, I think I started at the top and there’s no way to follow that. It was an amazing experience and incredibly demanding in terms of facing fear because you walk on in front of a billion people and it had to be totally live and it was on top of this building. It was an insane thing to do but incredibly life changing, I came down from that, put my fist in the air and said “Thank you God, I didn’t screw this up” and it seemed to me at that point that nothing would ever be difficult again, if I could get through that...I love challenges, I really do, but it won’t be that challenge that I do again. There are a couple of very interesting challenges coming up this year and I’m probably not able to talk about them yet, but there are a couple of very interesting things on the cards.
This summer you’ll turn 65; many people would be thinking of slowing down, do you have any plans to do so?
I don’t seem to be able to slow down; I don’t think I even want to. I enjoy being challenged, I enjoy working and making things, I like making magic happen and if I wasn’t doing that I don’t know if there would be much point in being alive, it’s what I was put here to do in a sense. I do love my home life and I have to work very hard to make space for that, but my kids are all busy now, they’ve all grown up and they’re very busy, my wife is very busy doing the tour of Strictly Come Dancing, so it’s good that I’m occupied.
Are you tempted to take on Strictly yourself?
It’ll never happen. To be truthful I like dance and I think it can be very inspiring and very expressive; but ballroom dancing to me, following a set of pre-destined moves, I just don’t get, I don’t know why anyone would want to do that really. Obviously there’s a great sort of gymnastic content but I don’t see it as dance in a sense of expressing yourself.
Not quite creative enough for you?
To me it’s difficult, I don’t quite get it, obviously I support Anita doing it and she’s loved it, but it’s not my thing and it never will be I’m sure. I tell you what, I love this programme Got To Dance, have you ever seen that on Sky? To me that’s kids off the streets who really are using dance as a form to express themselves and it’s blindingly good and the judges are great, they’re not sort of pompous people trying to get people to fit into slots, they’re people who really understand and appreciate what people are doing with their dancing and I really love it, I really love watching that programme.
To me that’s the way a reality show ought to be, it’s people giving and people appreciating, there’s none of this humiliating and “let’s make people cry”, it’s just all about “let’s be joyful about what we can do.”
Finally, you are constantly juggling a lot of balls; you’re a musician, astronomer, astro-physicist, Chancellor of Liverpool John Moores University, you do the work with stereoscopes and your animal welfare work – how do you not drop the balls?
It’s a hard question to answer, because it’s a hard thing to do. Scheduling is my biggest difficulty in life I suppose. Having said that I feel fortunate to say that, you know, people ring me up and ask me to do things that I’ve always dreamed of doing, but the problem is that I can’t say yes to everything and I find that hard, I find decision making very hard. All I can say is that I follow my gut feelings and try to prioritise, and try to keep a balance. Balance is very important in life and it’s very hard to achieve, you can talk about it, but actually doing it is tough.
I enjoy life and I use it to its fullest extent, that’s what I try to do. I guess that’s all you can do, you get one life, or it seems you get one life, and you have to live it the best you can.
Brian May’s exhibition, A Village Lost and Found, runs at the Royal West of England Academy in Bristol until 04 March. Brian will be visiting the RWA this Thursday (26 January) at 4.00PM to sign copies of the accompanying book and to chat to visitors. For further information please visit www.rwa.org.uk.
You can find out more about stereoscope’s at Brian’s website www.londonstereo.com and about his work with the animal welfare group Save Me at www.save-me.org.uk.
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