Entertainment

The Weekly interview: Ex-Roxy Music frontman Bryan Ferry

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In addition to his groundbreaking work with Roxy Music, Bryan Ferry has released more than a dozen albums as a solo artist.
Annie Zaleski

At 68, Bryan Ferry has (nearly) done it all, first as the dapper frontman for glam pioneers Roxy Music and then as a solo artist. In the latter role, Ferry has stretched his interpretive skills on some well-chosen covers, while also dabbling in electronic music, jazz, classical and debonair pop. But on this current tour, he says, he’s eschewing such detours and sticking to the many highlights of his own career. Calling from Vancouver, the ageless crooner talked about his new bandmates, working with modern electronic artists and what to expect from a forthcoming album.

Tell me a little bit about this tour. It’s like a rock show. Last year, I did this quite unusual tour, with quite a big band. There were some jazz musicians in the band, because I did this album called The Jazz Age. This year it’s back to a kind of rock format. We’re playing all kinds of material from my career, basically, from the first Roxy Music album through to now. There’s a lot of material to choose from, and [I’ve been] trying to do events like a retrospective show, in the various things I do.

I was going to ask how you even begin to choose what to play. I would think it would be very daunting. It is a bit, but [it’s not as bad] when you break it down and [look at] which things you think the audience will know and want you to play, and other stuff you’d like to play which is a bit more unusual and hasn’t been played so much live before. With this band, it’s great because we’re doing some songs I haven’t done for a very long time. I’m looking forward to the mixture. There’s so many different albums I’ve done, slightly different styles of play on each one. I tell you what is sounding good: It’s the early stuff; it always seems to sound good with these young players.

What are the new guys bringing to your sound? What really appealed to you about adding them to your band? The lead player is really good, very talented. His name is Jacob Quistgaard, and he’s Danish. I’ve never worked with any kind of European player before. The rhythm guitarist is Irish, Steve Jones; he’s a terrific rhythm player. The combination is really exciting me, of the two guys. With the guitar being an important part of any rock band, it’s great to have good guitarists in the band. They basically play the things as they’ve been already recorded. These guys are doing a great job of recreating it and bringing a young freshness to it as well, enthusiasm.

We have two girl singers as well. There are four girls in the band and four guys. It’s a good gender balance. (laughs)

You recently sang on a cover of Robert Palmer’s “Johnny & Mary” done by Norwegian DJ/producer Todd Terje. How did you get on his radar? What did you like about this song? He’s really talented; he’s a very good musician and producer as well as a dance-music specialist. I met him through my son, who works with me, who is very into dance music. Over the last few years, he’s arranged a lot of really good dance remixes of my songs, my records. Todd did a couple of those; he did “Love Is the Drug” and “Don’t Stop the Dance.” He did very well with those.

I met him at a show I did in Norway, and then he came to my studio. I said, “Well, why don’t we do this song, ‘Johnny & Mary’?” Throughout my career, I’ve done lots of covers of other people’s songs, which I find pretty interesting to do. It’s a nice change from writing my own things. That particular song, I think, is beautiful; I’ve always found it haunting, and I thought one day I must do a version of this. So it came about with Todd. I like the way it’s turned out. It’s quite open, very different from the original.

In Todd’s remixes of Roxy Music, he plays up very different nuances of the music. He’s very evocative as a producer. He’s very, very musical and a brilliant pianist. Although on the “Johnny & Mary” track I play the piano. (laughs)

Between working with Terje, touring with the Phenomenal Handclap Band and all the remixes of “Don’t Stop the Dance” you released last year, you’ve worked with a lot of interesting electronic groups. What do you like most about how these groups are interpreting your music? It’s always fun to listen to how they take it in a particular direction. It’s always different from the way you’d do it yourself. It’s quite fun. It’s good to hear different versions of things. As a lifelong jazz fan—since the age of 10 or something—I was used to hearing the same song done by lots of different people in different jazz styles. It’s something I like, to hear different ways of doing things. Fundamentally, that’s why I’ve always enjoyed doing covers of other songs from different artists I admire, different songs I love, and try to bring something of myself, too.

Are there any particular artists or eras you haven’t covered yet you’d like to? I’ve never done a blues album (laughs). And I’ve never done a folk album. There’s a few bases I haven’t really touched on that much. I’ve done the odd thing here and there. I once did an old Irish folk song called “Carrickfergus” many years ago—that’s always been a popular thing to do. I’m not doing it on this tour; this is not that kind of tour.

Are you doing any covers on this tour, or is it going to be all originals? You know, I think they’re just about all originals. I’m not sure if we are actually doing any covers. I wasn’t intending to; I think they’ve all been eased out. There might be one or two [that] creep in as the tour develops, I don’t know. We’ll see.

You have an event coming up with the Leipziger Symphony Orchestra. Is preparing for something like that different than preparing a show with the Bryan Ferry Orchestra? What kind of preparation goes into that? It’s going to be quite the serious venue with a serious orchestra, so it’s something I hope is going to go really well. We’re going to have the band there as well, of course, which is something I like, the combination of both. It’s fantastic having a huge string section, for instance; I love strings. One of my favorite albums is Charlie Parker With Strings. On the few occasions I’ve managed to have an orchestra onstage with me, it’s been beautiful to hear them all playing my stuff. We have arrangements for a lot of the songs already done, and the band will be there to augment what the orchestra plays. We’re doing two shows in Leipzig, and then I think two in Dublin. Maybe we’ll do more in the end in other places with other orchestras.

How did that show come about initially? I think we were approached by the Leipzig Symphony Orchestra, and we thought, “Well yeah, we’d love to do that.” Last year we did the last night of the Proms in England in London; they had an open-air night on the last night. We sort of headlined that with the BBC Orchestra. That went very, very well.

Are you working on any other studio work? Oh yes. We have not been idle. The [new] album’s nearly completed; it hasn’t been mixed yet, and there are a couple of songs that need to be finished off, but most of it is there. We’re supposed to get back into the studio in May and June and finish it, and hopefully it’ll be out in late September. That’s the plan.

What’s it sounding like? It’s my songs, written over the last few years. It’s hard to say what the style of it is, really. But it’s kind of a rock album; it’s not a jazz album. It’s something I’m so far really pleased with.

Is your current band on the record? It’s different people. Not the very new guys in my band; they haven’t even heard the stuff yet. But there’s some great people playing on it. Nile Rodgers, of course, who I’ve worked with on and off for many years. Flea from the Chili Peppers [is on there]. Oh, Johnny Marr—he plays guitar on it. He is fantastic, and he has such a great energy about him. His new band is really good, too.

After releasing The Jazz Age, what did you learn from the process? Is there anything you would go back and change, now that the record has been out a few years? I like some of the slower tracks best, the ones that were more arranged. Some of them are more up-tempo and fun and a lot of improvisation going on, and they were okay, too. The moodier, slower things I thought came out really well, the ones which were done in a more Duke Ellington/Cotton Club kind of feel. They were quite beautiful, some of those arrangements, with clarinets and so on. Very moody, and it suited my songs, I think. It’s something I’ve always fancied doing, an instrumental album of my songs, so I thought it was a cool idea to do it in kind of a ’20s style. People loved it on tour when we did the shows last year; it was a very big band to carry around, but it was a great triumph, and something I’m very glad I did.

The cover of Roxy Music’s For Your Pleasure is the Vegas strip. Why did you choose that? We wanted something that was very kind of futuristic. It had a science fiction kind of quality to it. It was such a good picture, and we had the cover girl Amanda Lear with the black panther on a lead—it turned out to be a very strong image that people liked. Vegas has always been kind of a dream city, really. I always love the history of Vegas—Sinatra and all those great entertainers there.

Is there anything you want to see when you visit the city? Oh, just cruise up and down looking at all the signs. It’s a great place to look at. It’s a great look.

Bryan Ferry with Dawn Landes. April 12, 8 p.m., $49-$99. The Pearl, 942-7777.

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