When I met Russell Brand in February 2002 he was on a mission. He'd been sacked from presenting on MTV (for bringing his dealer to work), sacked from TV comedy Cruise Of The Gods (something to do with masturbating, prostitutes, fighting and drugs, possibly together), and sacked from DJing on XFM (for reading porn on air). He'd just made Re:Brand, a great series for digital channel UK Play in which he challenged taboos by throwing himself into various confrontational situations, and I was commissioned by Jack magazine to meet him for an interview. He was putting together a documentary on the planned closure of East London's Spitalfields Market, and I spent a day with him as he visited a school on Brick Lane to educate the kids about their community. Holding court at the front of a classroom, he made them laugh while explaining why the market was important and how they could get involved. They loved him.
I saw him play a lot of stand-up gigs over the next year or so, mostly upstairs in a handful of North London pubs. Everything he did was a fluid, passionate mix of politics and exhibitionism. He was the most charismatic stand-up I was aware of, and fed off crowds; the energy and electricity of those gigs, even with only 20 or 30 people present, was fantastic. Some of the staples of his current arena shows - self-loathing sex rants, tabloid dissections - were there back then, although those small gigs were undoubtedly more anarchic. Working the room, he'd interact with as many people as he could, would sometimes turn up as the Elephant Man, and performed riotous puppet shows with dead mice. Later, when he told me he'd cleaned himself up and got off the drugs, I wondered if he'd lose some of that energy and electricity, but he didn't; he got his career on track, stopped getting sacked from jobs, and translated that energy and electricity to bigger venues.
Re:Brand was a great, unique series (much of it's on YouTube). Based vaguely around the theme of exploring his, and society's, masculinity. He hung out with Eddie Kidd, invited a homeless man to live in his flat with him for a week, hung out with the Youth BNP, had a boxing match with his dad, dated an old lady, and wanked off a man in a toilet. Just like its presenter, it was revealing, provocative and funny. After leaving the kids in Brick Lane, we went to a coffee shop in the market to sit down and talk about it.
The thing that stands out most for me about Re:Brand is your honesty. You almost have a childlike approach to things, like asking Eddie Kidd how it feels when he talks, or muttering about the girlfriend who left you because you’re an idiot. You're very candid on stage too.
I suppose what that is, is that through some kind of psychological disorder I maintained a childlike sense of wonderment with stuff… George Orwell said ‘In times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act.’ Just don’t get too confused and distracted by all the brightly coloured lights and things that are meant to disorientate us, because everything’s quite simple, we’re all motivated by the same things. Even when I’m getting angry with someone, and my baser emotions are being stimulated, and I think ‘God, I wanna fucking kill that person,’ then you can take a moment to reflect that there are people that feel inadequate and just wanna be loved. And if you could keep that in your mind at all times, we are just simple, biological mechanisms that essentially just want to be looked after, it’s very disarming. Life and humans can be very complex, but really everything is so simple, really we’re just tall children, and the same things that scared us and frightened us in our infancy are prevalent in our adulthood.
Look at reality TV now, it’s become dull, ridiculous, but authenticity TV, honesty TV, I’d be into that. I have a craving to be accepted for what I am, and not some manufactured version of myself. Yeah, that’s gotta be the start of everything, being honest with yourself and with other people, and not treating the audience like idiots. I’ve always wanted to get the people that read Richard Littlejohn and only get their social commentary from The Sun’s political pages to look at a more compassionate view. And because I’m a misfit and always have been, I require people to be compassionate and patient towards me, and almost deal with me like I’m handicapped. Just be honest, and admit our failings… I want to be in showbusiness all my life, and I’m very ambitious, and I want to make films and do this thing all over the world, and I believe that as a movement we can change the world, and do something to end oppression and bring about some sort quality, and I truly, faithfully believe that, and that’s ultimately what drives me. And there’s nothing really that I’ve done that people can ever come out and say ‘He tried it on with me sexually,’ or ‘I saw him taking drugs,’ because I’ve been honest about that, I love women and I’m a bit lascivious sometimes, and I’ve had problems with drugs, it fucks me up, it really does. I think it’s because I’ve always taken them to medicate, to try and quell the pain. It’s never ‘Ooh that’ll be a laugh, let’s do some pills,’ it’s always ‘Christ, give me something, just so I can sleep, just so these noises stop!’ I have to be honest, because I’ve just not been discreet at all.
There was one point in Re:Brand where you told homeless James you were starting to want your own space again. Not everybody would have been that upfront on camera. What would you have done if he wanted to stay longer?
Fuckin’ hell, I reckon I would have had to let him stay another couple of days wouldn’t I, but I reckon I would have made it conditional. But it makes you think, would society be better if we all just took homeless people home and let them live in our house? What I learnt from that investigation is no, it wouldn't, because they’re institutionalised: homeless people aren’t just homeless people without a home, they’re people that haven’t got the social strategies that we've got, they’re people that have been abandoned, or for one reason or another don’t feel part of society. Letting him stay another couple of days, even though thank god he didn’t want to, it wouldn’t have helped him. He got bored of it before I did! I didn’t envisage that happening, I didn’t think that he would prefer homelessness to my company, that’s quite an indictment.
Indeed. What was the idea behind Re:Brand, how did it come about?
I got the commission from UK Play, and we vaguely knew that we wanted to do something that experimented with emotion and how I felt about things. But also it was about misfits and disenfranchised people. And that’s motivated by feeling like a misfit myself. Hardly anyone saw it because of when it was on and where it was on. Might try to get it out there on terrestrial TV.
There were moments in that television programme that properly changed my life, having that fight with my dad, meeting Mark Collett, things that really had a profound effect on me. One of the ones we couldn’t broadcast, we stayed with these heroin addicts for three days. There was a woman who was a prostitute/heroin addict, her boyfriend heroin addict, her boyfriend’s brother heroin addict, and their three-year-old daughter. And the woman’s prostitution was paying for the habit of the two men. She was going upstairs with clients and we were downstairs looking after her daughter. That was amazing, because the initial impression is they’re human debris, human waste, half-finished suicides. But there’s incredible beauty and dignity – the dad was a warm beautiful man, but when we first met him there was no indication of that, he was like a smack zombie, couldn’t reach him at all, gaunt, drawn, listless, completely outside of society. But we had this chat in the back garden, and I was talking to him about his daughter and about how it was obvious that he loved her, and he started crying. He’d been a heroin addict for 10 years, and you got the impression that the emotional terrain that he was visiting in that conversation, he hadn’t been to in a very long while. He properly wept, talked about hating himself, and it just made clear that addicts are sick people, and criminalising them is fucking ridiculous. In fact in all of the cases, all of the people we met, what it indicated to me was that you just need a more tolerant inclusive society, where people feel that there’s somewhere they can go, that there’s some sort of social warmth.
Those are the areas that I want to continue exploring in my career, ‘cause it just seems that everything else is pointless; however much you achieve, however successful you become, however much money you make, you can never be happy if you live in this social context. Because I’ve come from having no money to having a little bit of money – I’ve wasted it all now, I’m back to having none again – but having money didn’t make no difference to how I felt inside. Because I’ve always thought that if I fulfil these things then maybe I’ll feel better in general, but I just don’t think it’s possible to be happy while everything’s so fucked up, because I think that we’re all part of the same psychological and spiritual organism. And as long as it’s malfunctioning we won’t be happy. That’s why things like that Soham tragedy, the murder of them girls, Holly and Jessica – I did a stand-up gig at the Edinburgh Festival and I said to the audience, ‘You killed those two girls.’ And I was being antagonistic, and they went fucking mad, and beserk…
"It’s never ‘Ooh that’ll be a laugh, let’s do some pills,’ it’s always ‘Christ, give me something, just so I can sleep, just so these noises stop!’"
What had you said?
I was meant to be compering the gig, keeping it all warm and nice for the other acts, but I’d gone a bit dark. There was a sort of quietness, and the atmosphere was bad, and I said how pointless and ridiculous life was, and that we shouldn’t be behaving like a cognitive mist, we should be aware of our power of what we’re doing and what we’re responsible for. And I just said ‘You killed those two girls.’ And I’ve done a lot of bad gigs, but the atmosphere at that moment was terrible, I’ve never felt so alienated and confronted. And I now realise that I didn’t explain what I’d meant, I just said it. But what I mean is that as long as we live in a society where people feel alienated and ostracised, you will get malfunction in the components. Like Ian Huntley and Maxine Carr, if indeed they did do it, I think they’re a sick kind of cell within the organism of which we’re all part, and we’re all kind of responsible and it’s too easy for us to say that it’s otherness that’s bad, it’s other people that are evil, instead of acknowledging that we all have the capacity for terrible darkness inside us. And I don’t like that kind of tabloid attitude towards things, like ‘Those people are heroin addicts, they’re disgusting, that person’s homeless, he’s disgusting.’
You told me the other day you actually got thrown through a door at that Holly and Jessica gig.
Yeah, bloody hell, it got even more intense, after the gig there was a terrible atmosphere. You know the famous, ‘If I reach just one person, that’ll make it all worthwhile…’ Well two people after that gig, when the rest of the audience were ready to kill me, went ‘Thank you man, that was amazing,’ independently of each other. Then I went out all defiant, and I knew that it had been a really crazy gig, and I was going to the toilet and had a bit of a push and a shove with this bloke who was staring at me and had been in the audience. It developed into a bit of a tussle and I must have looked like I was in the dominant role of the fight, because when security came, it was on me they focused. When I get attacked by police or authority figures it just reminds me how ugly things are, and what the dynamic or our society is, that there is no actual freedom, there’s freedom as long as you do exactly what you’re fucking told, the minute you step outside those parameters, bang, they’re down on you. I’ve been arrested nine or ten times the last few months, just by being silly. Just silliness, taking my clothes off, jumping on things, dancing about. And that’s why I advocate idiocy, because when you start behaving like an idiot it’s like you’re refusing to behave in a conventional way, and people can’t control you. And when those security guards came over I just see bullies from my childhood, I just see oppressive forces. And they started dragging me about, and because my blood was up I tried to throw myself over this balcony and pull them with me. They saw that I was crazy at that point, and dragged me down the stairs and I started thrashing about a bit again, and as they tried to throw me through this door, and I was thrashing around trying to get away from them, and my leg went right through this fucking fire-door, with mesh wire in it. And it was just terrible, blood was splaying everywhere, and at that point they got another one: this happens a lot, I’ve noticed the security system’s very hierarchical, the first ones you deal with are normally mild-mannered David Banner types, and The Incredible Hulk comes out later. So at this point he arrived, clamping my throat shut so I was gagging, choking, humiliating agony. He dragged me outside and they sat me down while I waited for an ambulance, while blood pulsated out of my leg. And I got to the hospital and didn’t realise the seriousness of it: there was glass embedded in my bone, I needed 100 stitches, the nurse said to me an inch to the left and they would have had to have amputated my leg because it would have gone into tendons. And then the police arrived while I was lying on the bed in A&E, to charge me with criminal damage to the door! I said ‘What about my leg, I didn’t do that on purpose!’
Charging you with criminal damage? Was that a joke?
It seemed like it at the time. They didn’t care, because obviously they went and spoke to security and they just said ‘He’s a nutcase.’ I think the charges have been dropped, I heard no more about it. That was unfortunate, because The Gilded Balloon, where I did it, had been really tolerant of me, because I got to the final of 'So You Think You’re Funny' a couple of years back. I used to do political type material, but I started to feel it was very disingenuous, and I think, if I go to see a live performance I want something to happen. With me a lot of the time it's not comedy, nothing funny happens. But I think what you go home talking about is like, ‘Fuck me…’ I did a gig the other night at the Comedy Café. I did an autopsy on some woman’s handbag in celebration of [Body Worlds'] Gunther von Hagens, and did The Elephant Man, he’s one of my main characters, I love doing him.
What do you do with him?
I would just be John Merrick, because I love that film, it’s beautiful, and he’s such a wonderful, magnificent fairy-tale character. It’s just so painful, you see that film and that man is so beautiful and pure inside, and ugly and twisted. That bit when Michael Elphick comes, ‘Ere, buy yourself a sweet…’ [laughs] I saw it when I was a kid, it’s one of those films you saw before adolescence that starts to form your, makes you feel that kind of ‘How dare they, how could anyone be so mean to that lovely man!’ When you’re a child you have a sense of what’s right and what’s wrong, that sort of innate sense of justice, which makes you think morality does exist. So I was speaking to this friend of mine who I went to drama school with, who was a really beautiful person, and I thought he was bound to love The Elephant Man, ‘cause he’s a sentimental sweet guy. But he said he didn’t like it because he said the Elephant Man was too sentimental and too grateful for things, like [in John Merrick voice], ‘Ooh, a sweet! Thank you, thank you very much!’ And it made me look at the film in a different light, that John Merrick is almost too nice, how does he manage? ‘Oh, if my mother could see me with such fine friends!’ It’s like, bloody hell, it’s almost too beautiful. So it takes that aspect of his character, how can anyone be that nice in this horrible disgusting dark world. So I just get dressed up as him and do him as a stand-up comedian. And my jokes… [Merrick voice] ‘I always read The Sun newspaper because I simply cannot bear to look in the mirror…’ And I’ll go up to a girl and say ‘Ooh, you remind me of my mother, so beautiful! Are you busy after the show?’ And she invariably says yes, and I say ‘Are you sure, they call me The Elephant Man for two reasons… No no, I really like peanuts.’ And then, ‘It’s actually historically true that despite my hideous deformities I have a perfectly formed set of genitals… unfortunately they’re on my neck…’ All that kind of stuff. And also it gets me on the stage, because I get very very scared before performing, so it’s nice to have that bag over my head for that initial walk.
What do you think of Tom Green? I think the more absurdist side to what you do has something in common with some of his stuff.
He’s wicked. I love him, he’s just the idiot kid in your class that’s never grown up, he’d eat ants for your entertainment. When I first saw his stuff I thought ‘Wow, that’s amazing, you can do telly just being yourself and acting like an idiot, it’s allowed! I love that Canterbury Tales stuff he does where he dresses up in a wedding dress and drags bones and skulls about on the floor, it’s got no relationship with Canterbury Tales at all. Just drags things about, screaming. That’s what I like about him, because I don’t think Tom Green’s a political person, but his refusal to accept convention is a political act!
It’s always good to annoy the public.
Yeah, and people get offended. This is one thing that’s been bothering me for a while. When I did that gig the other night, someone threw a fucking lit cigarette at me at one point. And another time, I was doing a gig at 93 Feet East, and I used to do this thing where I used to get dead animals and smash them up with a hammer. You can buy frozen mice and chicks from pet shops, and I’d get loads of them and [laughs] line them all up on the stage and get a hammer and just smash them up. Guts come flying out, and mush, and people get a bit disgusted. And I say ‘I’m only rearranging the atomical structure of these things, they’re already dead, nothing’s actually happening, you shouldn’t be shocked and disturbed by that, that’s nothing. And once I was doing that with a cute little chick, and I smashed it and all its guts flew out, and I lifted my foot to kick it into the audience, and this guy goes, ‘Hey buddy,’ this great big George Foreman type, dressed like a Harlem gangster, and he goes ‘Better not kick that at me.’ I wasn’t gonna kick it at him, but ‘cause he said that I thought ‘Well I’ve got to now,’ so I kicked it right at him and it splattered right on his nice cashmere coat. And he peeled it off himself and threw it back at me, but I ducked so he never got the satisfaction of hitting me back. So he comes lumbering onto the stage, this giant of a man… In performance I don’t really get scared of much, because I feel like nothing can go wrong, it’s all a performance. But he comes lumbering onto the stage, and at the front we had this goat’s head we had bought, it was all horrible, it had loose eyes and all these tendons all over it, I just like to have these shocking, weird things around me so people feel unbalanced and don’t know what’s going to happen. This big bloody George Foreman geezer picked up this goat’s head and held it aloft, like a caveman, and grabbed my throat and marched me towards the back of the stage. Serious stuff, he was a foot taller than me, and he was staring in my eyes. And I said, ‘Mate, what are you doing? This is a performance – come on, help me bring on the second act… Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome Simon Taylor!’ And he just went, ‘Oh yeah…’ [applauding] and just dropped it and forgot about it. I’m a performer and I I think I should do things to shock and inspire and confuse people, so anything I do, it’s like, who cares, people think, ‘He’s only showing off, he’s doing it for a performance.’ But when you get people that have just come out to watch a bit of comedy, or just straying in to the back room of a place by mistake, and start picking up goats’ skulls and attacking people, it makes me think, fuck me, how far away from absolute insanity as a society are we? It doesn’t take very much for people to start behaving in a completely irrational fucking manner. And that incites me and scares me.
"I did a stand-up gig at the Edinburgh Festival and I said to the audience, ‘You killed those two girls.’ They went fucking mad, and beserk…"
What happened at the Mayday protest with the police? Was that a plan, to take your clothes off?
No, I just got excited. I wanted to do a show on anti-corporate protesting while we were doing Re:Brand. I always go to demonstrations, it thrills me, the first one I ever went to was Liverpool Dockers, and Reclaim The Streets were involved in it, and it just excited me, the thrill of the masses, like football, the euphoria, the tribal instinct, being part of a mass, the power, you can see how hysteria is induced. Because I reckon innately we are part of one big psychological organism, some Jungian subconscious deal, and when you’re in a crowd that becomes tangible, one big sprawling mass of people. And I got so excited by that Reclaim The Streets sense of power, the feeling that we could do anything, it’s like that end of term type sensation of madness, and seeing the police look slightly worried and slightly out of control. So I wanted to do that thing on Mayday, and we were just going around talking to protesters, talking to police, and I was aware that the show needed some sort of climactic moment, and we were in Piccadilly Circus and I wanted to organise a football match between the police and the protesters. I said ‘Let’s settle it like a football match, it can be like The First World War on Christmas Eve, we can have a lovely peaceful truce for a few moments.’ And the police we like, ‘Oh come on, don’t be ridiculous.’ And I had all these sex aids with me and all these stupid props and toys, and I ran over to this meat wagon and put a double-ended dildo through the window and simulated sex with it, and there were loads of press and cameras there so I started showing off more. Then I ran over to the Eros statue and stood on the steps around it. And during demonstrations, if you’re elevated, physically, it gives you some weird sense of power. And Eros was ringed by coppers and I started to take off my clothes and asked the crowds if they wanted me to strip – you know, an audience, to the crowd… Come here, Freud… and I started to strip and they were all shouting and I got down to my underpants and they were shouting ‘Take them off, take them off!’ And I thought God, I’d done that much, I might as well, and before my pants got to my knees the police folded in around me, consumed me. Horrible bastards, one of them was pinching me and whispering, ‘Yeah, you bastard, you like that?’ and ‘Ooh, did you hurt yourself then?’ as they pulled me down the steps, horrible. Some policemen are nice but a lot of them are horrible, why would you do that job if you didn’t enjoy having authority over people? I think the main things policemen should be doing should be helping women carrying prams down stairs, friendly public servants, not some authoritative nightmare. And they pulled me down some stairs, and I remembered some trick from somewhere, and I went ‘No, I’m epileptic, I forgot to put my bracelet on! And started spacking out and rolling my eyes in the back of my head and kicking and thrashing. And they all panicked a bit and some senior officer came over and said ‘Let go, let go,’ and they all moved, and I was just there in pants. And he said ‘Are you alright there?’ And I said ‘Yes I’m fine!’ and sprang to my feet immediately. And they tried to hustle me away to the side, to a theatre doorway, and this beautiful black geezer came over with beautiful long dreads and came and stood right next to me, and the police said ‘You can clear off,’ and I said ‘No he can stay, I like him there.’ And he just stood there like a mighty guardian angel towering above us all. And the police made this foolish error, they had me in this doorway so I was elevated by about a foot on this stairway and I had my shirt off, and they were all clustered around me taking notes. And when I saw this footage of me, towering above them, shirtless, with this noble black man beside me, and as an image, they looked tiny. They arrested me and then did something I’d never heard of before: de-arrested me. That to my knowledge doesn’t legally exist?
They struck it off?
Yeah, they read me my rights and then said ‘Ok, you’re de-arrested now, just go quietly.' But you can’t do that! Doesn’t sound legally right. Just made up some new word. And then they asked me on RI:SE the next day to talk about it, and they said ‘Oh you just did that for attention, didn’t you.’ And I thought, bloody hell, it’s on RI:SE, how can they question my principles, when all these people work for RI:SE, that vile programme. So that was an adventure, the Mayday thing. But we couldn’t make into a programme because the police did press charges in the end, I got a phone-call some weeks later, and they called me down to Harrow Road police station and they arrested me and charged me with criminal damage and ‘indecent exposure with intent to offend a female.’ The law they were hitting me with was flashing. And criminal damage, because later on during the day I’d climbed on top of this van and did another strip and larked about up there.
Have you always liked to provoke people? I heard you were expelled from drama school.
Yeah. I’ve been expelled from every school I’ve ever been to. And a lot of jobs I’ve had I’ve been sacked from, as well. At drama school they looked after me very well, and when I was there it was run by these beautiful, magnificent homosexual men in their 70s. They were intellectual, dogmatic, wonderful people, but they loved working class boys, [laughs] in a slightly rough trade, distasteful way, if I’m honest. And they were very tolerant of me and a few other people in my year, they put up with me drinking too much, taking cocaine in the rehearsal for Macbeth... This director, I was taking direction for the scene where Macbeth kills Duncan, and I was hiding behind this screen with a bit of coke on my bank card, so stupid, and he goes, ‘Russell, what are you doing behind there?’ ‘Oh, nothing…’ And he started to come towards me and because I didn’t want to waste a miserable bit of coke, I wouldn’t put it down and just held it in my hand. And he said, ‘What is that, is that speed, is it coke? I don’t care what it is, sort it out Russell, sort it out!’ And I went outside and put it down somewhere, and one of my mates could see me from a balcony, waiting for his turn to rehearse, and he said that every so often he’d see me disappear behind this screen and just hear this [big snort] really loud, hideous snort. I behaved like an absolute bloody idiot while I was there, got away with murder, bud did some good performances as well. But I used to smash stuff, burst into tears, punch the walls and crack up. And I had this mad habit, it comes from time to time, where I’d do this really loud whistle thing, walking round the school whistling. And I remember doing it in a rehearsal, and the teacher said, ‘Russell, what is WRONG with you?’ And I went ‘I don’t know!’ and burst into tears, a highly emotionally volatile person, always on the brink of some sort of outburst, be it this terrible emotional rage, or something. And with a week to go, he just called me into his office, he was drinking some wine I think to calm his nerves, and he said ‘Russell, I can’t let you do this performance, it’s not fair on the group.’ They looked after me and nurtured me and paid for me to go to psychiatrists and did all sorts of lovely things, but in the end I was a bloody nuisance. Just too much trouble for the school, and that was devastating, because a lot of agencies had shown interest in me but I’d already got a bit of a reputation for drinking and being a bit if a twat. And that put a bit of a nail in it to tell you the truth, and I left and got into a double act with my mate Karl, and we were doing sketches in the back of a pub, which went really well, but then we both started doing stand-up independently. Comedy’s really good in that a machine exists to process new talent, there are a lot of stand-up shows and open mic things. If I didn’t have that, I don’t know what would have become of me.