Interviewing Ian Brown is a bit of an unnerving prospect. For a start, he’s pretty much a living legend to British music fans. In 1989 he shot to prominence as the lead singer of The Stone Roses, the groundbreaking, psychedelia-influenced band that brought together indie and acid house fans and formed the core of the early ’90s Madchester scene. The band’s self-titled debut, released in 1989, is regularly cited by music press as one of the greatest albums of all time, and Brown’s solo career – which began when the band dissolved in 1996 – has clocked in six albums and eight top 20 hits.
But what’s scarier is Brown’s reputation. His public image is one who doesn’t suffer fools gladly. This is the guy who shouted ‘amateurs’ over the hostess of The Late Show when the power to their equipment failed during a live performance in 1989. This is the guy who did a four-month stretch in prison for allegedly threatening to cut off an air stewardess’s hands with a plastic knife (Brown still denies the threat). This is the guy who asked UK TV presenter Steve Jones if he wanted knocking out after Jones repeatedly interrupted his answers. Yeah. Unnerving.
But when Brown speaks on the phone to us he’s calm, relaxed and open, and when we bring up his gig in Dubai, his voice has an almost childlike enthusiasm. ‘I’ve never played Dubai before,’ he says, ‘I had a couple of shows set up but they fell through. I’m gonna play a few off the new album [My Way] and, because I’ve not been out there before, I’ll just play the best of the rest – I’ve got a good few to choose from now. And probably a couple of Roses tunes, too.’
For a long time, Brown refused to do any Roses covers; what changed? ‘It was a big deal for me not to do these tunes for the first six years of going solo – I wanted to stand on my own two feet,’ he explains. ‘But I got a CD of [former Rose lead guitarist] John Squire doing them solo and he was butchering them. I thought: That’s not right, I’m going to have to do them justice. I’ve doing them less and less each tour, but because I’ve not been to Dubai before, I’ll probably do two or three.’
Brown’s troubled relationship with Squire – the latter left the Roses to start The Seahorses, and in doing so spelled the end of both his old band and his friendship with Brown – has been a long-running obsession of the UK press. They pray for a reunion (The Daily Mirror kicked off a new round of such rumours in March) but Brown’s not interested in looking back. ‘I feel it was my destiny to become solo now, really. I’ve been solo now for the same length of time I was in the Roses, I’ve made three times as many albums and Dubai’ll be the 37th country I’ve played solo. I don’t lose sleep over what could’ve happened with Roses because I’ve had too much excitement since then.’
And if Brown ever does start to consider another pairing with Squire, he’ll have to contend with his kids. Squire’s management sent over a song proposal to Brown a couple of years back, asking if he wanted to work on it. Brown liked the song and considered it until his sons asked why he would work with the man who killed The Stone Roses. ‘Yeah, I always listen to my kids,’ he chuckes. ‘They know what time of day it is, kids.’
Not that he needs Squire’s help anyway. His new single, ‘Stellify’, is a prime slice of catchy, beat-driven, piano-led simplistic brilliance – and he says the rest of My Way follows suit. ‘We used Thriller as a blueprint,’ he says. ‘Every song on that album’s a single. There’s no flab; it’s all good, catchy beats. If we made a song for My Way that didn’t sound like a hit, we threw it out and went on to the next one. With the advent of the iPod and all, people’s attention spans have gone right down. So I thought it should be all singles, like a greatest hits collection. Like Thriller.’
While Brown’s admiration for Michael Jackson’s work is no surprise – he’s been doing covers of ‘Billie Jean’, ‘Thriller’ and the like for years – he wasn’t one of the millions howling over the singer’s recent death. ‘He kind of died for me back in ’93 when I heard all the Jordan Chandler [sexual abuse] allegations,’ he says, sadly. ‘I wasn’t expecting him to come up with anything musically and I was sad that he went, but I had mixed feelings; he was no longer really a hero of mine.’
We change the subject back to Dubai and he fills back up with enthusiasm. ‘I’ve seen photos on the internet – in 1964 it was desert and now it’s one of the biggest cities in the world. I’m dying to see it. I love architecture – it’ll be amazing. It’s all brand new, innit?’
Architecture and history might seem like odd interests for an indie legend, but Brown’s voracious appetite for knowledge is well known. His hit single ‘F.E.A.R’ was inspired by Martin Luther King’s writings on etymology, and his interest in spiritualism and religious stories has fed into numerous songs. When we ask what he’s been reading lately, he runs off a dizzying series of facts about the slave trade and how Britain’s financial success is tied directly to human misery. ‘To this day, there’s a statue in of one of the main slave shipbuilders in the middle of Bristol,’ he says. ‘None of that is taught in schools. Why aren’t we taught who we are, where we’re from and what the country is all about? That’s the story of the working classes – it got cut out of history all the way down the line.’
The idea of authorities shaping the public’s perception raises its head again when we mention Brown’s last album, The World Is Yours, which criticised the Iraq War and the Catholic church. ‘You say it’s “political”, but I say it’s social commentary,’ he says. ‘To me it’s a social thing that a kid can join the army and six weeks later he can have his legs blown off in Afghanistan. [The authorities] say it’s politics to make it more boring so you don’t bother with it and don’t have an opinion on it.’
This mistrust of authority is a throwback to the politically-charged ’80s that The Stone Roses emerged from, and Brown acknowledges that he’s a rare breed these days. ‘There’s been a lack of working-class acts in the last few years,’ he says. ‘Most of the great late-80s, early-90s bands came off the [welfare] culture [because of high unemployment levels] but now you can’t sign on [for welfare] between 16 and 18 and most kids have to go to university because everyone else is going. But I always believe that whatever’s happening, there’s always four kids out there working on some tunes that are going to change the world. I always believe that.’