Ian Brown: Turn on, tune in, chill out

Despite the end of The Stone Roses, a jail term and a dislike of making money, Ian Brown has prospered, finds Andy Gill
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The Independent Culture

In a quiet suite of a swish hotel round the corner from his west-London home, Ian Brown lets out a chuckle: a gurgling, infectious vocal tickle that, like the man himself, seems entirely free of malice and artifice. We're talking about the previous night's BBC3 documentary about the business tribulations of his former band, The Stone Roses.

In a quiet suite of a swish hotel round the corner from his west-London home, Ian Brown lets out a chuckle: a gurgling, infectious vocal tickle that, like the man himself, seems entirely free of malice and artifice. We're talking about the previous night's BBC3 documentary about the business tribulations of his former band, The Stone Roses.

You wouldn't have thought there'd be much for him to laugh about in such a catalogue of catastrophic disorganisation and financial disaster, but Brown can't help it when he recalls the appearance of the band's former manager Gareth Evans, a local hairdresser who steered the Roses into their disastrous contracts with the Jive and Geffen labels, then sued them for his one-third share of their gross earnings when they sacked him. Evans's performance is hilarious, an outrageous cartoon of managerial hyperbole in which he takes credit for the band's success, their style, their sound, their ideas, the guitarist John Squire's Pollock-esque cover paintings - just about everything, in fact, short of actually writing and recording the songs.

"When it came on, I thought I was gonna be, like, blazing by the end of it, but I was laughing," says Brown with a smile. "After all these years, there's no animosity, it's just really funny. I mean, in the first place, we got him in because he had the front, the bottle. He wasn't frightened of no one; he was full of himself - the perfect manager. He just got out of his depth when we got to a certain level. It was like he was able to get us there, but once we were there, he didn't know what to do."

The programme ends with Evans holding court at the golf course that he built with the proceeds of his time with the Roses, a fittingly banal conclusion for a career blessed, according to the band, with no discernible grasp of contemporary musical tastes or youth culture. "I've always said those first nine holes are mine, whenever I drive past it," chuckles Brown. "I thought about pouring barrels of oil on the putting greens, but then I thought, is it worth doing the time for? And no, he's not. So I haven't. But y'know, what goes around comes around, so he'll get his. I still feel that."

The faith in karmic payback is characteristic of a singer whose loved-up placidity formed the spiritual counterbalance to Shaun Ryder's untrammelled hedonism at the heart of the late-Eighties "Madchester" dance-rock boom. Brown's high cheekbones and angelic countenance made him the pin-up of the scene, but his gentle attitude proved ill equipped to deal with both the band's disastrous business side and the internal ructions that split the group asunder after the poor second album, The Second Coming.

Brown and Squire, the creative heart of the Stone Roses, haven't spoken in eight years. At the time, the widespread opinion was that Squire, a gifted guitarist, would have no problem developing a new career, while Brown, the non-musician who couldn't play a note and often struggled to sing in tune, would end up on the rock'n'roll scrapheap.

"In those days, I couldn't play anything," Brown admits. "Reni [the Roses' drummer] bought me an acoustic guitar in 1994, and I got the Marley songbook and a blues songbook and started teaching myself. I used to work out the vocal melodies on a little Bontempi organ - that's why they all sound sort of hymn-like, because everything sounded like 'Fight the Good Fight' on this little Bontempi organ! Now, I can play a bit of keyboards, and a bit of bass and guitar, but I only really use it as a songwriting tool. I've played a little bit on my solo albums, but I'm not good enough to play and sing at the same time. It's more fun anyway if I work something out and then get my pals to come and play it for me."

The result has been a quartet of intriguing albums, through which Brown has progressively refined his dub-rock groove style to the organic, infectious pitch reached on Solarized. By contrast, Squire's post-Roses output has been uniformly poor, his guitar-playing displaying none of its former panache. "That was the saddest thing for me," says Brown, shaking his head. "The kid's the best of his generation, and that solo stuff was just average pub rock."

Now, Brown is relishing the prospect of playing a couple of nights each at large venues in Manchester, Glasgow and Brixton, with an 11-piece band. His situation is probably more stable now than ever before. When Polydor, the parent company of his label, Fiction, dropped 90 acts from its roster during last year's takeover by Seagrams, Brown's run of gold and platinum albums ensured he made the cut. He has, though, been told: "We've got to make some money now."

Money has never figured that highly in Brown's worldview. "If you chase a dollar, it'll blow away," he maintains. "If you do your own thing, it might come. At Spike Island [the Roses' big 1990 gig], we made sure tickets were £13, which meant we were only breaking even - we did so many things like that, where we weren't chasing the dollars. So it's our own fault, because we didn't look out for ourselves. Maybe I'd have regrets if that had been it for me, but I've been able to keep working."

It could all so easily have gone wrong for Ian Brown - and nearly did when he was charged over an alleged in-flight fracas, winding up in HM Prison Strangeways. His sentence was three months, but he was let out early for good behaviour. He still maintains that he was innocent of the charges. "I didn't even cuss that woman on the plane," he claims, "and I wasn't drinking. They say I beat on the cockpit door - but if I had, why wasn't I charged with endangering lives?"

Unlike REM's Peter Buck, charged with similar offences, Brown didn't get a big London barrister to defend him or St Bono to testify on his behalf - he was advised: "They'll think you're being flash" - and he suffered the consequences. In Strangeways, Brown's celebrity proved a problem for the authorities. "My lawyer told me I was the only man who was category D - meaning unlikely to harm myself or anyone else - that served his full sentence in a category-A prison," he says. "I was in with lads doing sevens and 10s and 12 years, armed robbers aged 24 who were Big Men, but just young lads. I got loads of attention in there. I'd have, like, 50 kids outside my cell wanting to meet me, and the authorities got pissed off with that and kept moving me from wing to wing. They didn't know what to do with me."

"It wasn't too pleasant," he says of his incarceration. "You spend all your time in prison starving hungry - the food's just mush, like boiled potatoes in water, and the pies, you just don't know what's in them."

Brown was threatened only once, and suddenly found himself surrounded by a group of inmates who offered to sort out the offender in question. "They'd say: 'I don't mind doing an extra 21 days for you,'" he says. "I was touched by the way kids looked after me inside - they'd give me coffee and sugar and newspapers and apples and tobacco and phonecards."

Like many an intelligent lad who left school too soon, he has become an autodidact, devouring books about colonialism, such as Guns, Germs & Steel and The Scramble for Africa, and the biography of the black nationalist Marcus Garvey ("amazing, 22 years old and he's trying to unite Africans worldwide", he marvels). He views Tony Blair with contempt, seeing dark echoes of previous crusades in his description of Iraq as the "crucible" of the conflict between notional good and evil. "They've drawn every crazy in the Middle East to that area," he says. "How smart are al-Qa'ida, to get America out of their own country and get them on their turf?"

Brown remains a spiritual man, though on his own terms. "The organised churches have hijacked religion off all of us; they've stolen God from us, they've put the priest next to God," he believes. "Yet the priest might be abusing kids, while the guy digging roads might have a bigger spirit. I believe in the spirit - when I sang 'I Am the Resurrection' (from the first Stone Roses album), I didn't mean it in the sense of 'I'm the Messiah'; it was more that we've all got that in us. We all have that human spirit."

With his gentle, spiritual nature, his love of weed, his belief in karma, his individualism and his refusal to be swayed by money, Brown is an oddity in today's bland, homogenised and ruthlessly commercial pop culture, a throwback to an earlier era of peace and love. Isn't he, I suggest, just a hippie born out of time?

"I think there's a bit of hippie in all of us who believe in peace and love," he admits, "but I don't believe the hippie thing about copping out of society. I believe in getting in the middle of society and trying to change it. That's why I'm on a major label. I don't want to be a hippie out in my own little commune, I want to be part of what's going on, and try to change it."

'Solarized' is out now. 'Reign', a collaboration with Unkle, is out on 8 November. Brown plays at Leeds University Union on Wednesday; Manchester Apollo, 18 & 19 October; and Brixton Academy, London SW9, 21 & 22 October

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