The uncompromising self-believe that’s fuelled one of the most turbulent, controversial and richly productive careers in musical history has inspired two generations. As the paradigm for Britpop and father to Oasis and Artic Monkeys, Ian Brown’s instinctive, idiosyncratic pop has consistently found new ground amid mariachi trumpets and electronic, three-dimensional soundscapes. As the King Monkey treads down memory lane with Andrew Future, he reveals all about autobiographical masterpiece My Way and tells us that the only John in his sights is Marr, not Squire.
At primary school in the early seventies Ian George Brown wanted to be George Best. From the day they won the European Cup in 1968 when he was five, the joiner’s son grew up a Manchester United fan in a family of City supporters. Now they play Stone Roses classic ‘This Is The One’ before every home game at Old Trafford.
As a teenager, his love moved to karate, but Brown gave up just before winning his black belt. He’d previously called it a regret, but it’s not mentioned today.
Attacking a bowl of chips in a diner near his west London home, Brown’s glowing sense of satisfaction and slight frame belie the monumental personality and towering pout that has been his trademark ‘King Monkey’ look for two decades. But far from any egotism one may expect from a musician who’s influenced two generations, it’s the simple warmth of a family man that he exudes.
While the teeth-marks of time creep across those patented cheekbones and his hair begins to chalk over at the ends, Brown’s boutique Japanese attire is as sharp as his wit. And at 46, his penchant for dissecting any subject you lay before him with a crucifying sense of honesty and pub wisdom has, like his music, only got stronger.
While 20 years on The Stone Roses still invariably tops polls and unites the imaginations of millions, Brown’s solo output has consistently improved. From the experimental electronica of early hits like ‘My Star’ through to the idiosyncratic anthems like ‘F.E.A.R.’ and current single ‘Stellify’, he’s moved with the times, embracing technology where most of his contemporaries are still messing with the same old guitar licks.
Although he dismisses the reunion rumours by comparing the Roses to an ex-girlfriend you might still love but avoid because you’re married, new record My Way was not only recorded at Battery Studios (where the Roses signed their deal) but also references, quite openly, his former band. Written with ‘F.E.A.R.’ producer Dave McCracken, it’s his most emotional record by a mile.
‘Crowning Of The Poor’ is a twisted, drum-looped lament to the working class Brown came from while ‘Always Remember Me’ is a sweeping, majestic chugger of an anthem, recalling early Stone Roses melodies, remembering when they ‘had it all’. ‘By All Means Necessary’ is the darkest song here as lines like ‘Even though you did me wrong/Still I wish you well’ swoop over brooding, war-torn synths. The unsettling orchestration evolves with typical fist in the air gusto.
But the album’s open-hearted standout is ‘For The Glory’, a driving piano anthem talked up for its ‘When the bombs began to fall/I didn’t do it for the Roses’ ,horus line. It heralds a new-found peace for Brown, rekindling past song writing genius, not just with Squire but with McCracken with whom he wrote ‘F.E.A.R’.
So you two were writing for Rihanna and Kanye West?
We wrote ‘Stellify’ for Rihanna but then I kept it for myself. Dave [McCracken] has just been signed to Roc Nation [Jay-Z’s label]. We wrote a song for Kanye called ‘Vanity Kills’ but then we were a bit late in sending it in and I thought I’ll keep it. I love Kanye and Rihanna. She’s got a killer voice – what a singer. I’m always trying to improve. I look at The Beatles and every album gets better than the last and I just hope I don’t make my own Let it Be. If I quit at Abbey Road I’ll be alright.
There’s a lot of paranoia in your lyrics and you’ve become increasing political, with 2007’s ‘Illegal Attacks’ being the most vehement anti-war song released on a UK major label in years.
When you say political, I say social comment. ‘Illegal Attacks’ was called political, but I see a 17-year-old join the army. Six weeks after joining he gets his legs blown off in Afghanistan. That to me is a social problem. They call it politics so we’ll get bored of it and we won’t get involved.
Why do you? And why don’t others?
They’re scared it’s going to affect the record sales in America, whereas I don’t really have any.
When you were locked up for four months in 1998 for air rage, how did you come through it?
It was that burning sense of innocence that keeps you going. I went in there with very little respect for authority and I came out with absolutely none whatsoever. I lost my faith in it a long time ago. Outside your family and friends, no-one gives a shit about you. No-one cares if you live or die, they just want you to pay your tax and that’s it.
Speaking of family, you claim to be from the ‘Republic of Mancunia’ yet dismiss patriotism saying you’re ‘not proud to be English’, why is that?
I don’t know how anyone could be proud of an accident. No-one decided to be born, we all got born accidentally. I don’t get it. Be proud of something you’ve achieved.
But what’s the difference between being proud to be English and being proud to be a Mancunian?
I’m not proud to be Mancunian, I’m just glad, because I think it’s a great city full of great people. I’m not proud of it. Be proud of something you’ve achieved. I’m proud I’m still making music. 20 years later I’m still selling concert tickets and people still love me and my music. Where I was born was an accident. I’m not a typical Mancunian, because 90% of Mancunians don’t leave Manchester.
And 90% of Man United fans live in London…
So they say, but where I sit in the East Stand you only hear Manchester accents.
A more sombre 20 year anniversary than your debut is of course the Hillsborough disaster. Do you still remember it?
I still don’t buy the Sun newspaper because of that, yeah. They said the fans were animals, but it was actually the police’s fault wasn’t it? The police forced everyone into the terrace. And no charges were brought but it was the police that killed those people. Liverpool used to be the most hated and most feared in the country and now thanks to the Roses, Happy Mondays and Oasis it’s the Mancs.
Are we starting to see a regression with football violence?
There is that tribal thing in it that is unhealthy and negative, yeah. It’s the borderline between banter and violence. I don’t know how you can solve that. My answer to it is to take my kids to Liverpool so they know Liverpool people are good people. I sit in the car and say: ‘You want a Subway, you go and order your own.’ I take them and say: ‘Look how Liverpool people live.’
Do you think about embracing life a bit more and leaving England?
It’s only my kids and my friends that keep me in England. It’s too cold and rainy. I wanna see some palm trees in the morning. Eat some mango up in the hills somewhere. My wife’s Mexican and I’ve been there a dozen times – it’s fantastic. There’s a big love of music and the culture’s five thousand years old. It comes from native Indians and the culture that they lived. What a life: being an Apache Indian with your family and your friends, being surrounded by nature.
Mysticism has always figured in your music, what’s inspired those ideas?
‘My Star’ was about how the space race was a military front. The astronauts were ex-fighter pilots from the US Air Force and the whole thing is a complete con. It’s like marketed as if it’s finding other life-forms but it’s about military domination, which is a lie. There’s few things more inspiring than things which are free – birdsong, women and the stars in the sky.
What do you think about music being free?
Maybe the record industry has had a stranglehold over people for 50 years and now they’ve lost it. They’re trying to get into live shows and t-shirts ‘cause they can’t sell music anymore. It’s probably not good news for people like me who make music because we’re not getting paid for it, but it’s like karma. A CD costs 10p to produce and its £15 in the shops. They’ve been squeezing us for years and now karma’s bitten them on the arse.
You considered making your own bootlegs with the Roses while you were fighting the Silvertone Records court case didn’t you?
We were gonna bootleg gigs and sell that. It was forward thinking back then. If we hadn’t won that court case we would have only survived by playing shows.
What’s the Ian Brown that we don’t see much of like? What are you like at home with your wife?
Well I won’t wash any pots up because I used to be a kitchen porter so I feel I’ve done my share of pot-washing. I would rather put the pots in the bin, go to the market and buy another load of plates. So my missus does all that kind of thing. It’s not that I’m a male chauvinist; it’s just that I can’t wash pots up. I did two years of it and I swore after that I’d never do it again. I’ve got a dishwasher and I sometimes load it, but that’s as far as I’ll go.
And what about being a 21st century dad?
It’s the best thing that’s happened to me aside from all me musical success. They’ve all got a little bit on me. They’re all a bit smarter, cooler, better dressed, they’re all a bit better then I would have been at that age. They’ve all got totally different personalities but they’re all free spirits and that’s all I could give them really. I love that you can make a child but you can’t control its thoughts. That’s a beautiful thing.
One of the other things you’ve fathered is Oasis. Have they blown it?
Well The Stone Roses had a massive worldwide record deal and we split up after the second album so we still had another four records to make. We maybe should have been a bit bigger than we were, so we blew it. But Oasis have had an amazing run. They’ve had 15 years in music. That’s one great run. You’re lucky if you get five minutes at that level. I don’ t think they’ve blown it. They’re the biggest, most successful band since The Beatles, that isn’t blowing it. I think Noel will do a solo album and then he’ll tour for a year and then they’ll get back together.
Would you ever do a record with someone like Noel?
I’d like to work with Johnny Marr. We talked about it a few times over the last few years. We got some songs on the backburner, just hoping to do it when we’ve both got some time. Obviously he’s a bit busy at the minute being a full time Crib. We haven’t got as far as titles yet, but they’re gonna sound soulful.
What are your thoughts on your peers, like Morrissey and New Order?
Morrissey was a great lyric writer, a great popstar, the most unlikely popstar. I think ‘First Of The Gang To Die’ was one of his best ever songs. It’s brilliant that you can do that 25 years after you come out. I think he’s really great. And again, New Order had quite a run. It’s funny that you’ll never find a Manchester band slagging off another Manchester band but every Manchester band will rip each other apart.
Speaking of which, you played with The Verve in Spain didn’t you?
They had separate dressing rooms. One had The Verve on and the one next door had Richard on it. Ashcroft arrived five minutes before the show and he left five minutes after. I thought that was a bit strange: that you’re gonna reform but not even talk to each other in between shows.
You’ve said that you regretted singing John Squire’s songs and didn’t like the big solos, would you like to do a big guitar record again?
I don’t really like guitar music to be honest. I only really like The Beatles and Jimi Hendrix and since the Sex Pistols there hasn’t really been a guitar band that I’ve liked. I like the Roses and I love Squire’s guitar playing on the first album. But on the second it’s derivative. It’s like he’s trying to ape someone else’s style. But his original fluid psychedelic style is second to none for me. But I don’t like guitar music. I never liked the Pixies and I don’t own any Oasis albums. I like hip hop, reggae and soul.
As a kid, the Sex Pistols showed that you didn’t have to be a virtuoso musician or Oxbridge educated to get into music. You could be a working class kid and not have any musical abilities but still express yourself.
And your quip that you’d be dangerous if you could sing like Elvis underlies that.
You say you have no regrets but if you could go back to 1993/94 and change anything would you?
I would have quit the Roses in 93/94 and gone solo a lot earlier. I used to think they were my destiny but now I feel like this solo thing is. I’ve played in 35 countries solo, places the Roses never got to. I did leave in ‘93 but the manager persuaded me not to. I look back and think I should have quit then.
The political situation is all very ‘1994’ at the moment, like the dying days of John Major. What do you make of the possibility of a Tory government again?
Pretty amazing innit? They’ve got no ideas and no ideas men, but ‘cause of the shambles Labour made of it they’ve got a chance of getting in through the back door. It’s not like they’ve got a strong alternative, they’re the only alternative. Labour’s let everybody down. I thought they were dead and buried already after John Major drove them into a brick wall and I thought everyone would see through the lies.
One of your own legacies was changing the way kids dressed, yet you’ve said that was unintended.
That was the Manchester look. We definitely didn’t know that the kids were gonna copy us. I think it was the Blackpool show where we realised that everyone had flares and beanie hats. We thought it was great that we wore flares because no other band did and that separated us, but we didn’t realise the crowd were gonna do it as well.
I think it’s great that the kids have got their own sense of style and it’s like the younger and younger they are, they’ve got more style than ever. Like I look at my kids who are like 13 and they’ve got the coats and the trainers. My nine-year-old likes straight jeans because he sees me in baggy jeans so those to him are for old men, and he wants a pair of tight straight trousers on.
What about your own threads?
I’ve got a Japanese designer friend who sends me clothes. He’s called Kazuki Kuraishai and he does Wizz, Resonate, Neighbourhood, mainly Japanese labels and since ‘99 I haven’t actually been shopping. This shirt was made for me by him and these are Fenom jeans. I’m an anti-consumer, I’m trying to wean myself off what I’ve been indoctrinated with, which is to consume.
So what else would you like done to improve society?
I’d get rid of the royal family because they’re parasites, for a start. Prince Andrew spent £3 million on transport alone last year. How much of that was flying to the golf course? How can we call ourselves a 21st century industrialised nation and have a royal family? They own all the best property because their ancestors robbed it. I’d give it to the homeless and the poor. I’d close down the skyscraper estates of Salford and Liverpool and they could move into Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle.
I’d also bring back unemployment benefit for 16-18 year olds because the welfare state that’s slowly being dismantled is a right our forefathers earned. And I’d re-nationalise all the industries that were sold off. That’s our oil up in Scotland that Thatcher went and sold to BP and a load of fat cat Americans who got rich off it. If you live in Brunei you don’t pay tax and you get something like two grand a year ‘cause every citizen shares in the profits.
But where would you get the money from to start paying kids benefit now?
I’d dismantle the army and all nuclear weapons. Melt down all the bullets. I don’t believe there’s anyone who wants to take over England. I don’t believe the Russians ever wanted to and I don’t believe Al Qaeda want to either, so I don’t know why we’ve got an army.
To protect against potential threats perhaps?
There’s no photograph of the 7/7 bombers all on one day – the only photograph came from the supposed reconnaissance. Not one witness saw four Asians. The British army are only in Helmand province protecting the oil fields and a pipeline being built up to the sea to move that oil.
It’s the same as 100 years ago when we put the king of Afghanistan on the throne. Now we’ve put the governor of Afghanistan on the throne. It used to be the opium and silk routes and now it’s the oil. How are they gonna take Afghanistan? What they call an insurgent is someone who doesn’t want foreign soldiers on his land. Well, if there was a foreign army in England, people would be out fighting and that would make us insurgents. Who are we to determine what goes on 5,000 miles away in a culture that’s 5,000 miles away as well. It’s all about oil and money and power. I don’t believe it’s about the war on terror – it’s a joke.
What does the future hold for you?
I think I’ve got another album in me. I haven’t got concrete plans for that one yet but if I get the chance to do it I’m gonna go for it. But I’d like to help younger people. I’d rather do that then attempt to be a film star. I’m quite happy with the position that I’ve got. I wouldn’t swap lives with anyone anytime in history. I think I’ve had the best life a man could have.
What will be written on your tombstone and what will be your legacy?
I don’t intend to have one. I don’t think you’ve got a right to take up land with your body. My dust is gonna be scattered wherever. All those people in graveyards now from 1801 – who remembers them? Nobody. And I don’t care about a legacy to be honest. It don’t bother me either way. I won’t be here.
Words: Andrew Future
Photos: Michael Robert Williams
Art Editor: Elliott Webb
This feature was first published in Issue 04 of FASHION.MUSIC.STYLE, Autumn 2009.