Ian Brown reflects on The Stone Roses' seminal music, drugs, the British music industry and prison.
There’s a few things you need to know about this interview. It was conducted on March 13th 2000 at a time when Ian had recently been released from jail. The stupidly huge interview was done for a magazine that covered video games (not prison life, music or drugs). Most importantly, however, it was conducted at a time when I had only interviewed minor indie types like Travis, having recently left college. And people like Travis NEVER talked about drugs or called people cunts. I considered posting this as a Podcast but I sounded like a nervous chipmunk, so you’ll just get this transcript instead. The bit about rocket scientists confused me a bit and, also, I don’t use the words ‘musical’ and ‘landscape’ in the same sentence anymore.
The Stone Roses were recently given the ‘best album ever’ award from NME readers and you were nominated for a Brit for your solo work. How does it feel to get praise like this at two very different points in your career?
It’s strange really. The Roses getting voted Number 1 is great, but we never actually got paid for the record because we signed the contract before there were CDs and 95% of what we sold was CDs. I’ve got mixed feelings. It’s hard to punch the air thinking we’ve been voted Number 1 when you never saw a penny. The Brit thing, I think they only put me in there for credibility really. Tom Jones is in there, he’s only sold 40,000 copies of his album. You get a Brit Award, you’re guaranteed half a million sales. They’ll give it to him to get him his money back. I wouldn’t have minded winning it, just to say ‘thanks for your prize, but I’m not really arsed’. A Brit award is kind of a reward for the money you’ve made – it’s music and art – you can’t say this is ‘best’ and this is second.
So what did you think of the Brits as a whole?
Pretty damn poor, wasn’t it?
Would you have performed if they asked you?
Yeah, I was trying to get on and do Billie Jean. They nominated me, but they wouldn’t let me play. They wanted to use my name for credibility but didn’t want me to take part. Fuck ‘em.
You were 25 when the Stone Roses took off. A lot of bands now have much younger singers – if you’re 27 you’re sort of perceived as being past it. Why do you think that is?
It’s a way of getting money off young kids. The first music engineers and producers were ex-rocket scientists, clever people – the whole industry exists on young peoples’ cash – it only exists in the west. Obviously if younger people are buying records, they want them represented by young people. I was 26 in ’89, looking back, the Pistols would’ve been 19, the Stones would’ve been 20. I did think we were old at the time. John was 27, Mani was 27…
Do you think it was better that you were a bit older, though?
I wouldn’t of minded being out there at 19. You could say it made us all a bit more stable because we didn’t go mad when we were 27 but I don’t think it makes much difference. If you’re out there, age 19, it must be fantastic.
After Britpop and the popularity of guitar bands now, it seems as though record labels are looking at modeling agencies for musicians before they look at new bands.
Yeah, it’s like it’s gone back to the 1950’s. Look at Robbie Williams. I call him a ‘stripper for kids’, like a Chippendale for kids. But look at him now, he’s as big as Elvis.
John Squire has just signed a model for his new band…
I think it’s like Oasis, now you can hear them and listen to what talent they actually have, now they’re under the microscope. You see that, basically, they’ve just got a good looking singer. They’re pretty much, musically, less than average really…
You like their original stuff though?
I never really heard their LPs, just the singles. I did like the first singles they put out, they were different. Now they just sound boring. You know what you’re getting – it’s style over substance.
The music industry has perpetuated that myth by saying ‘Keith Richards is cool because he’s off his head’. There’s nothing cool about it.
With your new album Golden Greats, how does it fit in to the musical landscape in 2000?
I don’t know. I just made the sounds I like to hear. I tried to get it as musical sounding as possible. I tried to put uplifting lyrics in there. To me, it doesn’t sound like anybody else and that’s a hard thing to achieve. I wasn’t smart enough to think it’s ‘going to be like this and go in this direction’, it just came out. There’s bits of everything in there, a bit of rock, electronic, beats, dubby sorts of sounds.
Where do you envisage your music going next?
I’m working on some new stuff, it sounds like kung fu music at the moment. Like the Enter The Dragon soundtrack! It minimal but it’s got beats.
Is it important for your sound to keep a dance angle?
I think that’s what made the Roses. We had beat, we had a groove. Any of the bands that copied us, whether it was clothes, guitar or a haircut – they all missed the point. The thing that set us apart was the fact we had a groove, a beat. That’s what people tuned in to. The beat is the most important thing. If you’ve got a shit drummer, it doesn’t matter what you sing like.
At the moment, there’s a few bands adding the Roses’ kind of beat…
Yeah, I don’t mind it. Imitation is flattery and all of those things. We did say when we started out, we wanted other kids to see our band and form a band. We only formed a band because in ’84 there wasn’t anything out there. I’m happy that anyone is influenced by the Roses, I just don’t rush out and but their LPs.
You’ve always had a strong stance on drugs, has that changed?
I always think it’s a lie that people out of their faces are cool, the music industry has perpetuated that myth by saying ‘Keith Richards is cool because he’s off his head’. There’s nothing cool about it. The guy can buy the best gear and when he feels ill, he can go in a nice rehab clinic. To push that sort of thing is sick. I like it when big stars say ‘drugs are for mugs’ you know? It’s sad because now cocaine is massive. If you’ve got nothing, it’s kind of glamorous. It used to be the preserve of the rich, but now a wrap is ten quid, it’s like a status thing. I don’t think you’re being rebellious, I think you’re destroying yourself. You’re not rebelling against anything, you’re just losing yourself.
You mentioned Keith Richards. Do you think that there’s any point when rock stars should call it a day?
I don’t think age is anything to do with it. I went to see Carlos Santana the other week and that was fantastic. If you’ve got it you’ve got it, you know? I do know a sound engineer for one old rock band, they actually use a guy who does an impersonation of the lead singer behind the curtain! The main man only sings one in every fifteen words because he’s got this guy behind the curtain singing for him. They mix the two together. Imagine that, people pay 120 quid for a ticket and he’s miming. It’s not even his voice. I hope it gets exposed, it’s criminal.
What are you listening to at the moment?
Dead Prez. Fantastic LP. It’s hip hop but they don’t sing about guns and bitches and shit. The Ghost Face LP too. I mainly listen to hip hop, I still buy new reggae stuff too.
I take exception with the Mondays because their label collapsed and they were owed a load of money. They were owed around a million between them and they didn’t make anything.
What do you like about hip hop?
The lyrics really, I like the construction of the sound. It sounds really modern, stuff like Q Tip. I went to New York recently and there’s loads of deviations of that sound. Like electric pylons when the rain is hitting it. That kind of modern, electric sound. Those producers understand music you know? They’re flippin’ out there. It’s far and away my favourite type of music. All the soul greats too love them. Did you see that 60’s soul show on Channel 4?
Yes. It was surprising to see people like Marvin had drug habits though…
They reckon that Marvin was on coke during every record he ever made. You can hear it in music when there’s cocaine. There’s a hollow, there’s a void. He’s singing it how it is, telling us about the destruction in his head.
So Golden Greats is a completely ‘clean’ album then?
Yeah, all the guys I work with are like little miners. They’d all do 18 hours a day. They’d never even think about taking drugs to keep themselves on it.
Do you think it’s a bit sad that the Happy Mondays have reformed and are a support act to bigger bands at the moment?
I take exception with the Mondays because their label collapsed and they were owed a load of money. They were owed around a million between them and they didn’t make anything. I don’t begrudge a band like the Mondays going out and earning some money. I think it’s sad that a band of that calibre had to end up signing on the dole.
You’re learning Spanish at the moment?
Yeah, been learning it for the last three years really. My wife’s Mexican. When I met her she could hardly speak English so that was the time I started. I’ve got a child due this week, but I’m thinking that I might end up with a wife and a kid speaking Spanish, laughing at me! I’ve got an ambition to go to Spain and Mexico and sing my set in Spanish.
I really did think there would be someone in there that wanted to knock me out, like a jealousy kind of thing. I thought they’d piss in my food and bum me in the showers.
You’re writing a book?
It’s about the experience of going into prison, when it becomes a zoo. To contrast with the life in prison, I put a few stories in there about festivals in Tokyo. It’s a good thing to do to get it out of my system. I didn’t even swear at that stewardess, people don’t really know that full story because they can only read what was reported in court. The main reason in doing the book was to address the bullshit that had been written about me. It’s a good story, to be in jail and be like a famous zoo exhibit – everyone wants to come and check you out.
Did it shake you up, being in jail for four months?
No. You can’t go any lower though, apart from losing a limb or being in a car crash…
How long did it take you to get back to normal?
I couldn’t stop walking around my house, I couldn’t sit still. Everyone I meet now says what a load of bullshit it was that I was locked up. Same with the kids inside, they know I’m not a criminal.
Did you ever feel threatened?
I really did think there would be someone in there that wanted to knock me out, like a jealousy kind of thing. I thought they’d piss in my food and bum me in the showers. There wasn’t any of that, they’d give me radios and clean socks. It was the officers who called me a knob, trying to get me to respond and get extra time.
When are you releasing new material?
February next year. I had to rush Golden Greats because I just got out of jail. I’m gonna take my time this year!
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