“I’ve spent the last year and a half talking about badgers. It’s quite refreshing to talk about music again.”
Former Queen guitarist and environmental activist Brian May is back on the road with a new tour combining two of his passions – music and animal rights.
He is being joined by singer Kerry Ellis to raise money for the Horsham-based Born Free Foundation, which works to protect and conserve threatened species, particularly Africa’s lions.
“It came about very organically,” says May from his office at Duck Productions. “Kerry and I went to Africa to help [actress] Virginia McKenna and join in some of the rescue work.
“While we were there we sang to people in small groups out in the jungle, which was quite magical. That’s the feeling we want to bring to these shows.”
Inspired after the collapse of a concert in Hyde Park, where they were due to play, May and Ellis have embarked on a series of 11 intimate, acoustic, candlelit concert dates.
“It’s an opportunity to talk to the audience and have a play around,” says May. “The theme is to make it intimate, small and very personal.”
It’s a world away from the bombastic stadium shows and West End theatres both are used to playing.
“I still love big loud rock and orchestral theatre,” says May. “But there is something special about stripping a song back to its basics and listening to the lyrics. Kerry is a great interpreter – she doesn’t embellish for the sake of embellishment, as is very much the fashion these days, when people widdle around.
“That’s not the way to treat a song. I like to find the inner truth of a song. The song is king. That was what Queen was about.”
May has been working with Ellis since casting her in the role of Meat in We Will Rock You. The pair have collaborated on two solo albums, Wicked In Rock and 2010’s Anthems.
“I was very fortunate to find Kerry,” he admits. “I realised hers was the kind of voice I wanted to work with when I saw her as second understudy in My Fair Lady, taking on the role at a moment’s notice.
“It was just magnetic, she didn’t just have a wonderful voice, but also an incredible presence and enormous passion in the way she sings. I still get chills hearing that voice.”
When it comes to singers, May knows what he’s talking about, having worked in Queen with arguably the world’s greatest frontman for more than 20 years: Freddie Mercury.
“I feel very proud of Queen,” he says. “It feels almost like another lifetime now.
“We had a great strength and lots of arguments, but we always kept that side private and presented a coherent face to the world.
“In a sense we are still Queen – I continue to keep in touch with Roger [Taylor, drummer] and we still have projects which are still Queen, including the new Freddie film.”
Mercury the movie is currently in development, with Sacha Baron Cohen set to take the title role. It’s due for release in 2014.
What could be even more exciting is something the band has found in the vaults.
“With the Made In Heaven album, we only had fragments to work from and it turned into our best Queen album,” he says.
“We have done some work on a couple of tracks featuring Freddie with Michael Jackson, which are interesting and might see the light one day.
“They’re not very well known. One was going to be a Queen song but never quite made it, so it veered off to Freddie to work with Michael, the other Michael initiated and they worked on together. It’s good – it could be great!”
Much of May’s post-Queen career has seen him investigate projects outside of music.
Having given up his astrophysics PhD at Imperial College London in favour of a career as a rock guitarist, he completed his thesis A Survey Of Radial Velocities In The Zodiacal Dust Cloud 30 years later.
“It was unfinished business,” he says. “I was always fascinated with astrophysics. It means a lot having my real doctorate, as well as my honorary doctorates.”
He has also explored his passion for stereoscopic photographs – essentially the Victorians’ take on 3D imaging – releasing the book A Village Lost And Found with Elena Vidal on the work of stereophotography innovator TR Williams.
While that book was largely images of village life, its follow-up will be slightly more dramatic.
“I’m working on a new book of diableries,” he says. “They are French devil tissues – stereoscopic adventures in hell – which will be out next year. There are lots of subtexts and human meanings.”
The other big part of his life now is the campaign he set up in 2010 – Save Me – a non-profit organisation fighting against wildlife injustice.
Most recently he has been vocal about the planned badger cull in an attempt to prevent the spread of bovine TB, but the origins of the group date back further than that.
“I had worked previously in a not very co-ordinated way,” he says.
“Although I was full-time making music, I was always in my simple way trying to make a difference to the world. There was always a message in what I was doing – I just realised I had to be more direct if you want to change the world.
“Queen did change the world in the sense that we opened up opportunities to do things in a more direct way.”
A trio of things came together to help him start realising his dream of working towards a more humane and compassionate world.
“On the internet I created Brian’s Soapbox, which was a blog before the word blog was invented,” he says. “It became a very good way for me to become involved in campaigns.
“Through that I got involved in saving hedgehogs on the Isle of Uist, in Scotland.”
The hedgehogs, which were introduced to the island in 1974 to kill slugs, had reached record numbers and were being culled to save birds’ eggs. Uist Hedgehog Rescue, which received May’s support, managed to encourage the Uist Wader Project to move the hedgehogs to the mainland rather than kill them.
“I felt I could achieve something,” says May. “At that time the election was coming up, and I realised David Cameron was standing on a platform of bringing back bloodsports. I couldn’t believe it.
“The policy was pushed back as the election came, but I started a campaign to make people realise what they were voting for.
“He didn’t get voted in, but ended up being Prime Minister anyway. We just have to be thankful he didn’t get an overall majority.”
May’s campaign has many leading Conservatives on its side – although he describes the Cabinet as a lost cause.
He is finding the campaign is continually having to protect animals, with a report in the news that day suggesting many animals might lose their protected status in the future.
“There is a ruthlessness about this particular kind of Conservatism,” says May.
“It’s the old arrogant ‘ride roughshod over everything’ philosophy that we are seeing.
“I hope this is the last time we have a Government like this. If you are disabled, at the lower end of the earning spectrum or an animal, then God help you.”
He does see a ray of hope, though, coming from Brighton’s Green MP Caroline Lucas, who led a recent debate against the badger cull.
“She was the most wonderful person to have representing you,” he says.
“If there was a chamber of people like her who were aware, compassionate and articulate, the world would be a better place.”
- The Born Free Tour is at St George’s Church, St George’s Road, Brighton, on Saturday, November 10 and The Hawth, Hawth Avenue, Crawley, on Thursday, November 15. The Brighton show starts at 7pm; the Crawley show starts at 7.30pm. Tickets £39.50, call 0844 758758