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Bryan Ferry talks to Dieter Meier

Roxy Music’s Bryan Ferry is one of the most iconic singers in the history of pop music and the picture of sartorial elegance. For Electronic Beats Magazine, Yello frontman and raconteur Dieter Meier visited Ferry in his London studio to talk about—what else?—the finer things in life.

Dieter Meier: Bryan, you have a marvellous studio.

Bryan Ferry: Yeah, I’ve recorded a whole slew of my albums here. It took me more than twenty years to build it though. It actually consisted of six different spaces, and I had to buy section after section from various owners until I finally had the whole complex together.

DM: Who lived and worked here before?

BF: The actual studio space in the cellar used to be the workshop of a theater costume designer. I remember coming here to check the place out, and I was quite impressed, that she had made the Batman costume for Tim Burton’s version in 1989. You know, some of these things are done in England, not in America . . . probably because Tim Burton has lived in London for some time. Anyways, when I went through her studio, I recognized so many costumes from films, that I’d seen over the years.

DM: It’s really cozy—do you also hang out here when you’re not working, or do you try to spend as much time as possible in the countryside?

BF: Occasionally I’ll spend my free time in the studio — I mean, it’s in central London. But I love quiet country life, too. It’s just the opposite of all the hectic and stress involved in touring or recording.

DM: Do you do any gardening?

BF: Oh, no! I’m not like you — all I have is a small apple orchard. But it’s not enough apples to sell commercially or anything.

DM: Isn’t one of your sons into farming and gardening?

BF: No, Otis hunts foxes. He’s become a master of foxhounds at the South Shropshire Hunt on the Welsh border. They’re beautiful, the Welsh mountains. Otis kind of lives in the eighteenth century — it’s a lovely life.

DM: But how has he been able to continue after the new law against fox hunting?

BF: Basically, they don’t kill the foxes they hunt. But sometimes accidents happen. The whole thing has become much more popular since the ban — it’s suddenly become cool, because nobody wants to be told what to do. Especially not country folk.

DM: Fox hunting can be quite dangerous, right?

BF: In Ireland it can be quite wild. That’s actually where he learned to hunt.

DM: When did he become interested?

BF: He went to live in Ireland after school with this old guy who was a horse trader. Otis cultivated an almost gipsy lifestyle, very romantic stuff. He loved nature from a very young age—birds and animals and trees . . . Unlike me, he doesn’t like cities. Isaac, my second son, likes the country, but he’s very much into the world we live in. He’s quite a good filmmaker too. He worked together with Mario Testino for three years. Mario’s a good teacher—he always has a huge team of young English apprentices.

DM: Your recording studio is quite old-fashioned . . . lots of analogue gear.

BF: Yeah, I’ve had this lovely old mixing desk for some time. We also have computers now, which is both good and bad.

DM: We used to own one of these sixty-four track consoles too, but my partner Boris always wants to work with the most advanced digital technology available, so we got rid of it. Now we’re working with a mixing desk that fits in a suitcase. It’s a laptop, actually.

BF: Everything is getting so tiny these days.

DM: It’s not good to spend your entire life in the studio. Whenever I can, I try to see the world. I do odd things, too. For example, I play polo—hopelessly but nevertheless. It’s starting to become more enjoyable since I figured out how not to fall from the horse anymore. The last time I played, there was a lovely lady who tried hard to make me into a proper polo player. She used to yell at me like a sergeant from an Oliver Stone movie.

BF: I think I might know her . . .

DM: As you know, I farm in Argentina, and I bought a few acres of land down south in Patagonia. I have a lot of friends there who all play polo, but none of them are capable of teaching me even the most remedial rules or skills. If you want to play with them, you have to learn it elsewhere . . .

BF: So, playing polo—that’s what you do these days?

DM: I wanted to ask you the same question . . .

BF: This year, I’ve played seventy-five shows, so far. That’s quite a lot for me.

DM: That’s a lot for anybody, I guess. We’ve barely done any shows with Yello—only a handful over the years . . .

BF: It’s not a lot for some of the blues guys, though . . . Look at B.B. King: He plays more than two hundred shows a year, and he’s far older than me. But he sits down when he plays. That makes it a lot easier, I suppose . .

DM: Where did you tour?

BF: We started in Miami and then traveled along the East Coast up to New York, passing through Atlanta and Washington DC. Then we went to Cleveland and Chicago. Of all the North American cities, I probably love Chicago most—a beautiful place with so many impressive buildings. And the museums especially are worth visiting. Chicago is real America to me. From there we went west to finish the tour in San Francisco and Los Angeles.

DM: Do you still get a kick out of playing so many shows back to back?

BF: Yeah. Some nights kick more than others, of course. But that’s natural. As a singer it’s sometimes hard, because your body is the instrument. Some days the instrument is better than others, you know? Occasionally I suffer from sore throats. But apart from that, I love being on the road and I really enjoyed last year. We’ve been touring with a big show and a cinema screen behind us. We’ve created visuals—films and collages and stuff—which we project onto the screen. These cinematographic snippets help to bring the mood of each song across, and they also help take some of the pressure off of me. In my opinion, they’re certainly more interesting than what I’m doing—I’m only the singer! The films are my visual input into the show. Don’t forget: I studied art. Of course, I didn’t put the films together by myself—I have brilliant people around me to help with the technical aspects.

DM: You’re constantly changing your set-lists every night. Not only do you play different songs, you also play them in a different order. How do you manage to improvise on such a sophisticated level of production?

BF: Everybody hates me for that. My people always have these two hours between sound-check and the start of the show to reprogram everything according to the new set-list. It’s pretty tough for them to adjust to the changes in time. But as far as I’m concerned, it’s good to keep it different each night. I’d say Bob Dylan has been kind of a role model with his ever-changing set-lists. Financially, though, it wasn’t the greatest idea. I mean, we play mid-sized theaters of three to four thousand people . . . sometimes only two thousand. The biggest shows we did were the Greek Theater in L.A. and the Beacon in New York. But we have to take thirty people with us on the road, which is really expensive. But artistically speaking, it’s a great show—certainly as good as I could possibly present. We’ve got dancers and singers, some older musicians and some young ones too. One of my guitar players is only 21 years old! The other guitarist, Chris Spedding, is a real veteran. He’s seen it all. And the saxophone player is a girl, very glamorous. It’s great to have women in the band—we’ve got seven in total.

DM: I envy you a bit for that. I love playing live, but my partner Boris won’t let me do Yello shows on my own.

BF: How unfair!

DM: He’s a very hardheaded guy. But don’t get me wrong: I like him for that. As a result, I started to do my own Dieter Meier shows with a guitar player and a violinist. I love being on the road with such a stripped-down set-up. I travel light—I can improvise with the songs.

BF: But you still have to stick to some kind of pattern, don’t you? Something that repeats every sixteen or thirty-two bars? Otherwise, your violinist and guitar player get lost.

DM: Of course, but with less people, we’re always able to immediately react to the audience. It’s just easier.

BF: You’re a man who likes to entertain a crowd. You’re a natural raconteur, unlike myself. You seem to have plenty of stories to tell. What I do is almost the opposite. My show isn’t acoustic—it’s a big production. Maybe I could do an acoustic thing after I’ve taken it all over the world. But I’d really have to be ready for it, because the audience knows when you’re left to your own devices, when you are improvising. That’s when you can hit or miss.

DM: Indeed. You’re pretty naked on stage with an accoustic set-up.

BF: The thought is scary to me. The closest I ever came to doing something acoustic was playing together with a huge symphonic orchestra.

DM: You should give it a try someday—you’ll get used to it sooner than you think.

BF: Maybe . . . For me it’s interesting enough to see how the interaction with the audience can lead to different concerts night after night. In my opinion, the audience is fifty percent of the show.

DM: The audience is like the chorus in the Greek tragedy . . . who, of course, plays an incredibly important role. These days I’m much more disciplined, compared to when I was doing improvised Fluxus-like art performances, screaming at the audience . . . That’s when every night really was totally different. It’s a huge thrill not to know what the outcome of a performance will be, at least for me. Do you like to talk to your audiences?

BF: No, I don’t really. First, I’m not skilled enough. Second, what should I say? “Hello Berlin! I’ve had a great day at the Bode Museum. How are you?” It doesn’t make any sense to me. And still, in some countries, people seem to expect it from you. I’ve always felt uncomfortable doing that. I like the music to speak for itself.

DM: I always tell stories. For me, it’s an impromptu sharing experience. Sometimes I’ll talk a whole five minutes to the audience before starting the next song.

BF: I would certainly spoil the magic of the moment if I would start talking in between songs. I can see it now: twelve musicians onstage bored to death as I tell the same story to the audience over and over again, night after night. Of course, everything changes as soon as I’m offstage talking to people after the show. Then I’m relaxed. Somehow I just don’t feel comfortable talking to a larger audience.

DM: I know what you mean. I’ve played gigs with Yello at huge raves in major sports arenas where I felt really alone on stage, really disconnected. Everybody felt so far away. The first time we did this, it was actually quite shocking.

BF: Where was that?

DM: It was in Dortmund in the Westfalenhalle. I went on stage and everything was so calm. I couldn’t believe it—I could make mistakes and nobody would notice. It was frighteningly anonymous. But when you’re singing with a piano player in a bar, it can be tough.

BF: The standout show of my current tour was in Vienna. We played at the opera house . . .

DM: I would say that’s somewhere in between the two extremes.

BF: I felt so proud performing in that historical venue. Opera houses seem to really affect people. I like it when audiences are quiet when they should be quiet.

DM: I used to live in Vienna.

BF: Did you study there?

DM: Actually, I was a professional gambler.

BF: Of course!

DM: It’s a great place to gamble.

BF: Why?

DM: Because the Jewish-Austro-Hungarian gambling tradition is still very alive there, you know?

BF: I suppose people dress the part too?

DM: Unfortunately, they don’t. They actually gamble quite casually.

BF: That’s the pity about gambling nowadays. I like the idea of wearing a black bow tie and a tuxedo when playing cards.

DM: I was never a casino gambler. I was more into poker and semi-legal private gambling.

BF: What else did you like about Vienna?

DM: Certainly the fact that the working class also goes to the opera. In Vienna, opera isn’t at all an elitist thing for the super-rich or super-educated. That impressed me a lot. They have standing areas high up where tickets don’t cost much. But you’re on your feet the whole, say, three hours—like at the Scala in Milan or Teatro di San Carlo in Naples.

BF: You have cheap general admission sections high up at the Royal Albert Hall in London as well. Every venue should have areas like that.

DM: Are pop concerts a normal event for the Vienna opera house?

BF: It was a Sunday night. I think that’s the opera’s day off in Vienna. And if they don’t find anything better, they put people like me on the bill. I think during the week I wouldn’t have had a chance. Also, we played there in July.

DM: Fantastic.

BF: The night before, we played in Waterford in Ireland. And the night before that in Tel Aviv.

DM: What a crazy itinerary! Did you have breaks in between?

BF: A day or two, maybe. But Dieter—you have to attend the exhibition of the photographs we did for the Olympia album. It’ll be held at the .HBC in Berlin and will feature all the photos we did with Kate Moss, as well as the vintage Roxy Music photos, of course.

DM: So I’m guessing there will be photos by Anton Corbijn too, right? He’s actually an old friend of mine. When he was young, he called himself “Ze Famouz”. He was a big fan of Yello and would always travel to wherever we happened to be shooting a video. Unlike me, Anton’s a very systematic guy. When I shoot a video, I always have a very basic idea of what I want to do, but the rest was always improvised. Anton, who always documented the shoots, used to say over and over again: “Dieter, this is total chaos!”

BF: That sounds just like him. He left London a while ago and now lives in La Hague. In the meantime he’s become a successful director, hasn’t he. I thought The American with George Clooney was very good. And Control, too. It’s not that easy to have mainstream success from scratch.

DM: He’s a real character.

BF: Absolutely. He engages me—he makes me laugh. Some photographers say, “Please laugh”, and I tell you there’s nothing more difficult than doing it on command! But with Anton, it’s different. He would stand on one leg and continue a conversation as if this was the most normal way to communicate. Of course, he always gets a reaction—and that’s what he wants. It’s always a pleasure to work with him. Currently, he’s doing portraits of major artists and painters from all over the world. It’s an archival approach as well as an artistic one, I guess.

DM: So, what’s your next project?

BF: As I said, I’d like to continue this tour to wherever it will lead us. Sometimes it happens that we do private shows in countries like Azerbaijan or Kazakhstan—or somewhere in the Caribbean. Usually, it’s rich people who invite us to these kinds of private gigs. Of course, this means that a lot of people can’t attend. But accepting such invitations is what allows us to play bigger shows for less money in more far out cities. I think these are some of the most interesting places a tour can go.

DM: I just had an exhibition in a museum in Tbilisi, Georgia, which was the follow-up to one I did at the Deichtorhallen in Hamburg. It was mostly my films and some of the performances.

BF: Would you have gone there without the invitation?

DM: Definitely not. But it’s an incredible place. Everything is totally falling apart, especially in the city center. The funniest thing was that my exhibition was held in a big hall where they usually hang big Georgian painters. I had to hang my pieces on the same nails—meaning that the order of pictures didn’t make any sense at all. It was like trying to orient yourself in London with the map of Rome. This wouldn’t happen to you in any other city on the planet, I imagine. In the end, I liked hanging my pictures in a completely unrelated order . . . on nails intended for other pictures.

BF: I wonder how it would have been in Baku, because there there’s such big money involved. On my tour, though, I liked Budapest most. It reminded me a bit of Prague and Vienna: elegantly run-down. It had an imperfectness that I always seem to chase.

DM: That’s central Europe for you . . .

BF: Absolutely. In America you couldn’t find places like Baku or Budapest. Even in the UK every city has been destroyed by all the franchises that make cities look the same.

DM: I once was looking to buy a house in Ireland, but all I could find were old houses that had been terribly rebuilt by the British. Didn’t you once own a house in Ireland? Maybe I’m wrong but . . .

BF: My ex-wife’s mother used to own a beautiful house on the west coast. We used an image from there for the cover of the album Avalon—a gorgeous sunrise on a lake. I love Ireland, and especially Dublin and Cork. The people there are so poetic. They love words. But they certainly aren’t very good architects.

DM: Do you still like to go out, when you’re on tour?

BF: No—I’m simply not that age anymore. I’m happy, if I can get to sleep after a gig.

DM: Of all the cities in the world, I like the Berlin nightlife most. It’s a very late-night affair, with a swinging art scene and so many great bars. I don’t know any other city in the world where you can get lost in the night life that easily . . .

BF: That’s exactly why we’re doing the exhibition there.

DM: Did you ever live in Berlin?

BF: Me? No! But I wish I’d made a record there.

DM: So, you still believe in making records?

BF: At the moment, I’m out of contract. I have to decide now what to do. But of course, I grew up with the idea that the album is the proper format for a recording artist to release music. I certainly can’t complain at all about the way EMI has marketed my back catalogue over the years. They are very good at doing new things — box sets and all that kind of stuff. Creatively, I never gave up control. I guess that’s pretty important when working together with a label. But I understand that we’re living in times of change. It’s not only that the format of the album is being replaced by endless iPod playlists. Lots of artists nowadays fancy the idea of managing themselves and even founding their own labels. But they seem to forget that it’s a lot of work, too. To be even more precise, it’s a kind of work that has nothing at all to do with the creative process of making music. I think it’s always better to delegate everything that isn’t part of the music to other people. You wouldn’t be able to do your farming or to learn polo if you had to run your own record company.

DM: That’s true.

BF: Life wouldn’t be that rich anymore.

DM: I agree.

BF: Have you ever done a clothing line? It would fit you perfectly.

DM: No. Have you?

BF: Oh, I don’t do that kind of thing. But you seem to be more of a businessman than I am.

DM: I only do business when I happen to meet the right people. It’s not like I have a business idea and then go searching for investors. But when I’m sure I have met the right people, I’d do everything—from Swiss watches to farming in Argentina.

BF: So you’re not interested in starting a men’s clothing line?

DM: If I did it would have to cover the most basic things—the stuff that’s usually the hardest to find—pajamas and such. But why don’t you do a clothing line? With your name attached to it, it would be an instant success. You’d just have to make copies of what you already wear.

BF: Well, I do like to design.

DM: You do design your own clothes — come on, be honest!

BF: I wear suits all the time. But giving my tailor hints about little details — I wouldn’t call that designing. In the end, it’s still just a suit.

Photos: ©Frank Bauer, ©Karl Stoecker

Published December 07, 2011.