Roxy Music 2001


Groomed down to his socks
The 30th anniversary of Roxy Music seemed as good a year as any for Brian Ferry to get the band back together

He talks to Tony Clayton-Lea about Roxy's ahead-of-its-time art-rock sensibility
Irish Times, 12th May, 2001

As reunions go, Roxy Music on an international tour is surely better than Chas 'n' Dave having a back-together knees-up in London pubs. There's also a smidgin of rhyme and reason behind the reformation. Historically, 2001 is the 30th anniversary of the band.

Another reason? As Bryan Ferry sheepishly admits: 'The promoter was very persuasive.' A vaguely proprietorial, promotional air wafts from Ferry now and again, the distinct impression being that if he hadn't been interested, it would never have happened. And so it proves. 'I'd been asked on and off so many times over the years to reform the band, saying no, no, no. But this time I just thought I'd quite like to do it'. Indeed.

He's groomed with a capital G - the blue corduroy jacket, the V-neck pullover covering white shirt and smartly-knotted tie, the fringe falling at just the right arc. But then - there can be no getting away from the man's inherent, often infuriating sense of style - even Bryan Ferry's socks are groomed. At 56, he's the dad who can get away with wearing leather trousers without any sign of embarrassment whatsoever.

The Irish Times meets Ferry at his London studio/offices, a deceptively shady building in Kensington that houses enough floor space to integrate open plan office suites, a bedroom, a waiting area and a lounge. It's in the latter we meet, a room groaning with the weight of books, vinyl, CD box sets, art. Ferry doodles on squares of paper while we talk. For the most part he is focused, but occasionally he allows his replies to drift away, as if he had lost interest in what he was talking about.

The Roxy Music reunion (which features original members Andy Mackay and Phil Manzanera, as well as former drummer Paul Thompson - the remaining original member, Brian Eno, was not asked to rejoin) has taken precedence over Ferry's plans for a solo album and tour, which have now been postponed until the spring of 2002. His new album, he says, is a mixture of self-written and co-written songs, with a few covers. He describes it as guitar-based rock, and aligns it stylistically to his 1978 record, The Bride Stripped Bare, a work widely recognised as containing his best, most personal solo material. 'It's quite organic - not a programmer in sight. I'm glad to be out of that, as I seemed to be trapped in these bloody studios with people programming things.'

It's a far cry from 30-odd years ago, when Roxy Music couldn't wait to clamber into a studio. 'Our main desire was to make our first record,' says Ferry. 'None of us had made an album before. It was also our first band. I'd had a college group, and I suppose I put the band together, so it was my baby and all my energy went into it. I didn't have anything else to do; didn't have any family or girlfriend - no other life except writing and recording. It was a fantastic discovery for me, as a creative person, to have finally found my metier - I thought I could do it well, too. It was like, yippee! I was full of it. The fact that I could do all my art designs as well made me feel very complete with the group. Plus, I had five other people who, I suppose, I'd selected, who were fantastic. They also gave everything and were desperate for it to work as well. That combined energy was fantastic to have around you.'

Roxy's first two albums (Roxy Music, 1972; For Your Pleasure, 1973) were a rare combination of ambition and ideas fusing together to create rock music that was in equal measures wonderful and weird. At this point, Ferry's sexual magnetism was at its most feral, a gilded rock star surrounded by the be-feathered Brian Eno, the be-quiffed Andy Mackay and Phil Manzanera in fly wraparound shades (decades before Bono used them to hide his eyes).

If the imagery was strangely retro-futuristic, the music was something else altogether, an interlocking of Ferry's ironic, often bitter lyrics with a melodic if (then) unconventional art-rock sensibility. If there's one good reason why the band's early music sounds so modern today it is because it was so ahead of its time back then.

Ferry admits that he prefers the early material, which was a series of diamonds in the rough, over the more sophisticated, later work. He divides the Roxy Music years into three phases: the early, experimental days; the middle period when the band was successful enough for him to venture into solo territory; and the closing era when, to a degree, the band's ridged artfulness was smoothed out by the seamless, svelte sound for which Roxy is perhaps best remembered. The reunion, Ferry stresses, is not about to herald phase number four.

'That isn't the plan,' he says, again the band leader. 'It's to recreate the old Roxy Music. I got a big taste of it last year when I was touring my solo album, As Time Goes By. As the tour developed - which had started off as a promotion for the album, with horns, string quartet - I started adding more and more songs from the Roxy period. I enjoyed singing them very much and the audience, I detected, really liked it. When somebody then came up with an offer for Roxy Music to do this tour, I thought why not perform the songs to an audience who has been missing them? To go from playing those songs on a solo tour to with the real guys from Roxy Music is just a further step. Plus, the scale of the upcoming tour is more rock-oriented. That'll be fun to do and a change for me.

'There's no downside to it. I like playing my own songs, whether they're 30 or 10 or two years old. Obviously, the songs that made your reputation are the ones you're very close to. The songs I've been writing now and the likes of Virginia Plain - they're from the same period as far as I'm concerned. Thirty years is a big stretch for the pop world, but if you look at the art world [Ferry gets up from the table and walks around the room pointing at various works of art] 30 years apart is nothing. Listening to Virginia Plain now doesn't feel too antiquated, otherwise it would be embarrassing.'

Ferry is a regular visitor to Ireland - his wife's mother lives in Co Clare, and his father-in-law once owned a fishing cottage near Spiddal, but died tragically in a fire there several years ago. This was also the place where Ferry wrote most of the songs for 1981's Avalon and where the album cover was photographed. He listens to little rock music because, he says, he's so wrapped up in his own work. Through his children (he has four sons, all down for Eton, naturally) he has become acquainted with the likes of Eminem, Nelly and Outkast. 'I listen to mostly women,' he offers, still doodling after 30 minutes. 'Men rap all the time, don't they? Do I like rap music? I've always listened to black music, it's got so much energy to it.'

At 56, where does he see himself in the pantheon of post-middle-aged rock stars? 'Time wasters you mean! I don't feel I've finished doing what I want to do. That's why I don't mind doing this tour - I'm delighted to be doing it - because I've also got one foot in the future, what with the solo album coming out next year. There just never seems to be enough time to do things, so I certainly don't waste my time thinking about what my position might be in the rock star league table. I like to think that I do reasonably good work, but you have to keep ringing the changes otherwise you get stale.'
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