Is he from the future or the past? Bryan Ferry’s career as a recording artist began nearly 40 years ago, with the release of Roxy Music’s first album in 1972. Even with the proliferation of countless rock subgenres in the intervening years, Roxy Music’s combination of nostalgia and science fiction still seems to point a way forward to pop music that does not yet exist. The year after Roxy’s debut, in addition to two more classic albums of new Ferry songs with Roxy Music, the singer released his first solo LP, These Foolish Things—a collection of covers gorgeously but radically arranged. Roxy Music hasn’t made a new album since 1982’s Avalon, but Ferry’s distinguished solo career now covers four decades. Among the legion of contributors to Ferry’s latest album, Olympia (his thirteenth), are Roxy Music co-founders Brian Eno, Andy Mackay and Phil Manzanera. Ferry answered my questions by email from the road. This interview by Oliver Hall.
You were admitted to the hospital earlier this year. How are you feeling?
I am feeling fine. We have been touring all over Europe this summer playing lots of shows in some very interesting places. All is going really well.
Who are the members of your touring band?
It’s quite a big band, with some familiar faces and some new ones. On this U.S. tour I will have Paul Thompson on drums, Oliver Thompson and Chris Spedding on guitars, Jorja Chalmers on saxophone, Colin Good on piano and Jerry Meehan on bass. We also have four singers and two dancers. But perhaps the star of the show is the big projection screen at the back of the stage which shows films and collages we have made in my studio in London—pictorial images that enhance the mood of each song.
In my last interview for L.A. RECORD, Mayo Thompson of the Red Krayola told me about an opera he’s been working on for years. It’s about Victorine Meurent, the model for Manet’s Olympia. You’ve cast Kate Moss as Olympia on the cover of the new album. What does the Manet painting suggest to you? How is it connected to this collection of songs?
The title Olympia was originally inspired by the Olympia district in West London where my studio is located, and where we made the album. After I had fixed on this title many other associations came to mind. Manet’s painting seemed to tie in perfectly with the mood of the album and was a source of inspiration for the artwork. We looked for a face to be our modern take on ‘Olympia’ and we thought Kate Moss was the ideal choice. Not only is she one of the most beautiful faces of our age, she also is possessed of a mysterious rock ‘n’ roll sensibility, which ties in with the Manet original.
In 2006, it was widely reported that you had entered the studio with original Roxy Music members Phil Manzanera, Andy Mackay and Brian Eno, all of whom appear on Olympia. Did anything from those sessions make it onto Olympia?
I was well down the line with several of the tracks from Olympia when at various times Andy Mackay, Phil Manzanera and Brian Eno came to contribute. Although generally these contributions were small, I was very pleased to have them involved in any way in the project. Most of the work on the album was done by my core team of Oliver Thompson, Andy Newmark, Tara Ferry, Marcus Miller and Nile Rodgers. Many others of course made appearances on the record, some more significant than others.
How, where and when was Olympia recorded?
Olympia was recorded over a long period of time, almost ten years. It was mostly recorded in my studio in West London. Some of the tracks were recorded elsewhere—‘Heartache by Numbers’ was invented in Brooklyn, New York, with the Scissor Sisters. Groove Armada did their contribution in their own studio in London. Both Marcus Miller and Flea did some overdubs in Santa Monica. Dave Stewart worked with me on some of the songs in the early stages in Covent Garden and the south of France. Everything else was done in London.
Your arrangements often bring out dimensions of songs that I would not have suspected were there. Before I heard your version on These Foolish Things, I never would have imagined that ‘A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall’ could be so much fun. How do you approach other people’s songs?
Other people’s songs sometimes hit me in different ways. Sometimes it’s a song I’ve heard for many years and always fancied doing it. If it is meant to happen it tends to happen, and sometimes you forget about a song you really liked and then it suddenly reappears on the radio or something. Then you go, ‘Yes I could do this.’
How do you pass the time on tour?
On a tour like this—in central Europe—there are so many great things to see in each city. Galleries, museums, churches, and especially wonderful restaurants. Good food on tour can be great for group morale. I also try to stay on top of all the projects I am involved in, and have to call my studio everyday for updates. Lately we have been organizing exhibitions of Olympia artwork in Antwerp, Paris, Moscow and Los Angeles. The L.A. show will be a few days after our concert at the Greek Theatre, so our trip there will be doubly exciting for me. Tours are always quite busy, so whenever I do have free time I like to read, currently about Lucian Freud. I also have a penchant for American college football, and try to see it on TV on rare occasions.
Where did you learn about glamour?
Classic Hollywood films and musicals were a source of inspiration to me. All of Fred Astaire, all of Gene Kelly. Cary Grant in Hitchcock. Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor, Grace Kelly. Numerous jazz musicians—Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Billie Holiday, etc … Even the Rat Pack amused me.
What do you remember about Roxy’s meeting with Salvador Dalí?
It was suitably bizarre. We went to take tea with him in his grand suite in the Hotel Meurice in Paris, escorted by the glamorous Amanda Lear, who had appeared on my second Roxy Music album cover. On a later date I had dinner with the great man, who was surrounded by six glamorous blondes. It was a heady start …
As a fan of your music and King Crimson’s, it is hard for me to resist imagining what it would have sounded like if you had joined that band in the early 70s. Can you remember what songs you tried with the band?
I remember trying, appropriately enough, ‘21st Century Schizoid Man.’
Why do you think the music business is in such bad shape?
You tell me. It is a sad state of events. No record stores for me is the main problem.
Whom do you envy?
The diner sitting next to me.
What was your first encounter with rock ‘n’ roll? Did you like it instantly?
I was in the front row for the first rock ‘n’ roll tour of Europe, which was Bill Haley and his Comets. I was 11 years old, and it was a moment.
You’re an admirer of Marcel Duchamp’s art. Have you ever seen his ‘Étant donnés’ in the Philadelphia Museum of Art? For me, something about it has a strange resonance with your work, though perhaps this is only because I spent too many hours staring at Roxy Music album covers as an adolescent.
Yes, I have. And all of his work is of great interest to me. How much he has influenced me I cannot tell.
What do you plan to work on next?
BRYAN FERRY WITH PHENOMENAL HANDCLAP BAND ON SAT., OCT. 15 AT THE GREEK THEATRE, 2700 N. VERMONT AVE., L.A. 7:30 P.M. / $40-$85 / ALL AGES. GREEKTHEATRELA.COM. BRYAN FERRY’S ART SHOW, OLYMPIA, OPENS OCT. 20 AT THE MICHAEL KOHN GALLERY, 8071 BEVERLY BLVD., L.A. KOHNGALLERY.COM. VISIT BRYAN FERRY AT BRYANFERRY.COM.