"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno
Uncut MAY 2002 - by Chris Roberts
'Frantic' isn't a very Bryan Ferry word, is it?
"It's a good rock'n'roll word! Nice and short and to the point, punchy and direct. It suited the last days of making this record, and the mood in which it was created, which were hectic. I'd been working on my live tour, then the Roxy tour - juggling a lot of projects at the same time. The record company were screaming for the finished album, and things were nothing if not frantic."
Will that mood come across to the listener?
"Probably not. Because now it's finished, it's all calmed down a bit. I think it's a well-balanced record, in terms of moods. But I wanted to do an up tempo, rockier thing than the album of '30s songs, As Time Goes By, that I did a couple of years ago. As a contrast, I will go there again, but this time I wanted to get some electric guitars out. Mamouna, for example, which seems a million years ago now, was a quiet, rich-sounding, layered thing. This is more live, there are more juxtapositions."
Did the long-awaited Roxy world tour energise or exhaust you?
"Oh, the whole thing was a wonderful success - we might even do something like that again. It was great to take its energy, and some of its players - Paul Thompson and Chris Spedding in particular - and ride on it here. And I enjoyed putting on a show which was all my songs, from these Roxy Albums. To do a focused show about that, with these guys. It was great to work with them again. And to see the audiences who love that music: there were younger elements in there too, who can't have ever seen the band play before. A fresh wave of enthusiasm. That's always good.
How did Jonny Greenwood come to play guitar on the track Hiroshima?
"He's somebody who's emerged over the last few years, but is the kind of player I like: inventive, adventurous. I'd thought Radiohead were working in a similar sort of area to mine. It's not really so far-removed. He proved to be really good and exciting. When you make an album over a period of time, like this one, you get the chance to work with a wide variety of people.
"It's a strange song, that one. The music suggested to me this rather bleak science-fiction world, which has been sketched in by films like Ridley Scott's Blade Runner and William Gibson's cyber-punk writing. The movies have explored it quite well. I tried to work in this strange lyric, where you're jumping through time and space. I started thinking of Osaka, and all these amazing neon streets, smoke rising up from the sidewalk, strange eerie people... all that. I like that kind of place, at least to be fantasising about in a song. And then there was the classic French nouvelle vogue film, Hiroshima, Mon Amour, directed by Alain Resnais - another inspiration. It's very angst-ridden, but quite rich and sultry and... swirling. I've been to Japan lots of times and love the look of the place, especially at night. It's very different from anywhere else, visually very exciting."
The other obvious movie-related track is San Simeon, which bears stirring echoes of For Your Pleasure...
"Yes, I wrote the chord sequence and stuff with Dave Stewart, but then took it away, as I do, to work on. And I found this set of lyrics I had from when I was writing In Every Dream Home A Heartache in '73. Some of these, which I'd left out and never used, were perfect for this song. It's either a return to Dream Home, or an extension of it. It's more particularised. It's about this place, San Simeon, the American newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst's fairy-tale castle, which he built in California. And of course Orson Welles made one of his great movies, Citizen Kane, about the man and the house - which was called Xanadu in the film.
"Anyway, you wander into the song and you're in this kind of ghostly castle, where all the memories of a very glamorous past come flooding in on you. This house was the party place for Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Barrymore, Chaplin - all the greats of Hollywood's early days. The whole idea of this appealed to me. It was rather wistful and... Proustian. And it's a bit Cocteau-ish as well, with a touch of Beauty And The Beast, perhaps. The flickering images, the black-and-white... oh, the opening scene of Hitchcock's Rebecca might be in there too... that's one of my favourite pictures.
"What happens is all these images and memories combine in your imagination: one thing will kick it off for me, then something else will jump in as well. It becomes very interesting, I think, how your mind leaps from one thing to another. Especially if you're mad."
You've worked with Brian Eno again here. Was that fun or forced?
"I guess I Thought, which closes the album, is only the second time I've worked with Brian since the Roxy days so many years back. We co-wrote that, and he also plays on Goddess Of Love and One Way Love. He sings on both, too - with gusto!
"I find it terrific to work with somebody with whom you've had a very close and fruitful working relationship, but one which you've never overplayed, as it were. People forget we only spent two years, two albums, together. Perhaps if we'd spent ten years in Roxy together, we wouldn't've had so much to say later on! Every time now, I feel there's a freshness about it. I went to visit him in St Petersburg, where he was staying, and the song emerged from there. I don't know whether that comes across, as it's an introspective thing. We sort of ride off into the sunset together, with my Third Man-style harmonica working against the more fanciful, posher instruments..."
Is Goodnight Irene included to re-emphasise your (often overlooked) love of old-fashioned, earthy blues?
"Mmm - Leadbelly was the first blues singer I ever heard, when I was a young lad. I was completely captivated and became a big blues fan after that. That was a great foundation for me - it led into soul, jazz, R&B. The casual listener might not be so aware, but it's very much part of my sensibility, as people who follow me know. There's an interesting contrast between that very raw music, which I feel, and then all the dressing-up and artiness which I've done in my career, both with Roxy and outside it. But to me all the visual things don't contradict the soul. Even those early blues singers had great style - they had their own look. You see pictures of Leadbelly in his bow-tie and linen suit, and he's... giving it some. The jazz men always had a kind of glamour, too. Charlie Parker and all those people were a bit laddish, y'know? A bit naughty.
"I remember hearing Leadbelly and being really moved. I was staggered, actually. There's a yearning and longing in his voice, in everything he sings. In Billie Holiday's, too. It's stayed with me ever since. I like songs with an angst about them. The sound may be uplifting in the blues, but the message is always rather sad."
Your lyrics on this album are classic Ferry: lots of "heartache" and "impossible true love". There's this constant, doomed romantic searching for an unattainable ideal.
""Hmm, well... you've got to have some holy grail, if you like. Nobody Loves Me has that bluesy tinge of 'Oh God, nobody understands me, isn't life terrible, if only...' - but that's where a lot of the best music comes from. As the singer, you take on the point of view of the down-and-out hero. Hopefully one doesn't feel like that all the time, but you know what it's like, so you live the song and do it."
Do you relate to Marilyn Monroe?
"Well, let's say it was about a time I fitted her into a song, Goddess Of Love. She was obviously the ultimate screen goddess and a Pop Art icon, immortalised by my old art teacher at university, Richard Hamilton, the godfather of English Pop Art. He was a huge influence on me. Marilyn was seized on by artists as the face of Hollywood. I threw some catch-phrases of hers in - it's just a pop song, really, but it has its place in the pack. In my studio there are a lot of posters and photographs of her scattered around, so she's always looking down on me as I work. There's a warmth and vulnerability about her that we find fascinating. And the tragedy adds to the myth and mystique,as with James Dean, Maria Calls, Jackie O..."
Are you living in the Middle Ages on Fool For Love?
"I thought that a courtly, mediaeval feel would be good there. It gets us away from the urban ghetto of American R&B for a while. Yes, dragons, unicorns, wizards - you can't have too many of those these days! And the introductory piece is a French song written by Richard the Lionheart. It's good to see a king on the writing credits!"
You're more soul boy than sultan of suave these days?
"I'd like to think I was a beautiful blend of both! Others might not endorse that..."