Interview: Bryn Phillips
Inside the mind of the My Private Life singer
The fop, as a species, is in danger of extinction: Jarvis Cocker is calling himself Darren Spooner, David Bowie is offering us the bland Reality of the self-satisfied, Neil Hannon has gone AWOL after going indie, Brett Anderson has lost his demon, and now Bryan Ferry has been dumped by his girlfriend. For those that are left, there is no haven to be found in a music press that celebrates a breed of rock’n’roll that may be edgy, but is certainly not very sharp. Just when all seems lost . . . Enter the So Suave Crew: My Private Life, a superbly talented musical collective led by swaggering fop, Mr Phillips.
After opening the Strange Fruit Festival at Bush Hall (‘Which we’ve renamed the “We hate George Bush Hall”‘), I spoke to him with a view to understanding a little more about his private (and public) life. What followed was the strangest interview I have ever conducted: he talked so quickly, going off at tangents, asking himself questions and supplying the answers. My questions were formulated on the basis that I was going to speak to Mr Phillips, the dandiacal man I had seen on-stage, instead I got his creator: the real Bryn Phillips. After talking to him for a short while, I realised that Bryn is the Dr Jekyll to the Mr Hyde of Mr Phillips. The latter being a distillation of all the evil and beauty; wit and pain; rejection and passion contained within.
‘I don’t really know how to tell the truth, so I talk a lot. My way of telling the truth is through lyrics and music . . . without which I’d probably be dead. Literally, I’m not joking. The amount of suicide attempts I had when I was younger is unreal.’
Mr Phillips is a persona in the Latin sense, it is a mask behind which Bryn hides. About his on-stage character he notes:
‘People can say whatever they like about that person. Off-stage, I tend to hide. I don’t want people to say “ooh, well done, I enjoyed that.” I don’t know what to say to that because it’s not me anymore. I spend six hours building up for those twenty minutes, then automatically it’s switched off. The character on stage is very important to me because he allows me to do things that I couldn’t do in my daily life.’
Bryn started playing music at Church:
‘When I was 7 years old, I used to go to Sunday school where I learnt to play the piano and the organ. I didn’t like the church very much. The Vicar used to look at me as if I had something of Satan about me – he used to wince away when he saw me. Perhaps he was on to something.’
Indeed . . .
‘I was suspended numerous times from school. I rewrote the lyrics to ‘God Bless Ye Merry Gentleman’ to include the words Satan and Sodomy.’
Talking of sodomy . . .
‘I came out at the age of thirteen. Although, I’ve recently renounced calling myself gay because I find it disempowering. Being gay these days you have to buy an identity – certain pubs, clothes, magazines, and so on. I’m not a “gay” (sorry, I hate making quotes like that) person. I just want to love, I want to fuck . . . I’m more willing just to be myself. It’s as though, because the constant search to be yourself is so tiring, people grab the first identity they find.’
We talk about the idea, suggested to me recently, that everyone – homo or hetero – would be like the sluts on the Gaydar website if they could get away with it.
‘I find Gaydar horrific. A fuck is pointless to me. I suffer quite badly from post-coital depression. I feel wracked with guilt. I don’t really know if I like sex . . . “was it worth it after all, after the cups, the marmalade, the tea . . .”’ he says, quoting T.S. Eliot’s ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’.
‘That said, love between two men is still slightly strange to me, slightly wrong. Not morally, but the first time I saw two men kiss I felt revolted. And yet it’s what I want to do. I’ve had boyfriends, long-term relationships and a lot of cheap and meaningless sex. I find it all very uncomfortable, and I wonder why. I’ve always been encouraged to be myself, but Wales is still a very bigoted place. Where I come from [a village in Pembrokeshire] the people accepted a lesbian in the community by calling her mad. She wasn’t mad, but as long as it was called madness then it was fine for her to be a lesbian. I don’t want to be tolerated.’
My Private Life are one of the few bands prepared to put themselves on the line for their art, welcoming the ridicule of the bland and narrow-minded, undaunted by the shallowness of the pop scene. They sound like a cross between Roxy Music, Noel Coward and The Smiths, using a parody of pre-war Englishness to savage contemporary complacency. The irony has been lost on some:
‘For Simon Price, and my other critics, what I do is romanticizing Englishness,’ says Bryn in his lilting Welsh accent. ‘But it’s not: it’s taking the piss! I find it funny from someone who is Welsh but can’t speak Welsh to accuse me of being English!’
“All art is quite useless,” quotes Bryn vituperatively at the beginning of future single, ‘So Suave’. Is he interested in the aestheticism of Wilde?
‘Oh no! For most of his life Wilde was as much a spoilt little brat as Bosie . . . then he went to Reading Gaol and he started being someone who really cared, because he understood an image of suffering. And there you have it: if you can’t understand suffering then how can you do anything?’
But how can a pop singer incorporate politics?
‘Well, the lyrics are political, but I veil it. The best way to express these things is to do it in people’s own language. Pop music is a control procedure, part of the commodification of art. It is used to make people docile. Don’t you have a duty to slip something in through the back-door?’
But you’re called My Private Life . . .
‘Yes, well, everything I write is about me and my experiences, but it’s incredibly self-indulgent to talk about yourself blah, blah, I am so lonely, blah, so I write through characters and stories. My Private Life is a voyeuristic thing, looking through the net curtains. Seeing what happens when the doors are closed. What I mean is Your Private Life. I don’t want to write songs that exclude anybody. All I want to do is help people . I look at most bands and I think – why are you doing it? Pop music is crap, isn’t it? It’s nothing to do with art! It makes me fucking mad!’
It should be noted that the insecurities evident in this interview are the result of brute experience. There are the drugs:
‘Speed, heroin (never injected), ketamine, ecstasy, trips, cannabis, diazepam. I’m lucky not to be dead. I wanted to just forget everything when I was a teenager.’
‘I had the skin sandpapered off my hands. I was stripped to my pants on the bus once, it was so humiliating.’
‘We were recently evicted from our flat.’
My Dad walked out on me when I was 18 months old. It somehow must have affected me. I can’t sleep at night. If I’m on my own I can’t sleep. I’m tortured by things like that.’
If he is a fop on-stage, then it is the a reaction against who he is and has been. A person’s life doesn’t justify their art, but it certainly adds another dimension to it. Take the verse lyrics to ‘Where Has All The Time Gone’:
Peter’s sane. He sees inside the workings of my brain Right into me. I’m such a perfect opportunity To build his perfect life, A doting wife and children on the hearth rug, Oh what a life to lead.
Inspired by Margaret Atwood (his all-time literary heroine), this tale of a woman trapped by circumstance relates back to his own life of being a teenager trapped inside a world of council estates, bullying, drugs and madness.
As my photographer coaxes Bryn onto the scrapheap at the back of Bush Hall, I think about the fop, realising that foppish superficiality is often the result of dark nights of the soul. It takes bravery to face up to insecurities and confess, as people are encouraged to do in our society, but it is braver still to distil them into high art. My Private Life, Mr Phillips and Bryn: I salute you all.
Ten Essential Questions
BRYN PHILLIPS from MY PRIVATE LIFE
1. Who are you?
2. No, really, who are you?
The voice of Reg the lovely giraffe, in the radio show 'Vile Lynn', no really I am. I am short and sometimes angry. I have recently had my heart broken by a boxer who enjoyed hitting me. This could give you a clue. I take 150 mils of Dothiepin at night, and have given up smoking to improve my singing voice. I am not a dogmatist, although I identify with Marxism to some extent, although I am a pacifist which rather rules out bloody proletariat war for now. I like sleeping with men, although this is seemingly a rare phenomenon these days. I am twenty-five.
3. What are you up to at the moment?
At the moment I am homeless again in Brighton, this happens every year at the end of the summer to rather a lot of us, who end up sleeping on either Lucille Beard or Jean-Lois' sofa. This time I have lost both my pianos and two settees, which wounded me, although I managed to save my collection of Dr. Who DVDs and all my books, which is the only good side to it all. In three weeks it is highly likely that I shall relocate to London where the streets are paved with gold... I am writing a book about a girl who kills her neighbours sow, called 'The Artiodactyl and Me'. I started it two years ago and am nearly finished.
4. What three rules would make up your manifesto?
Never lie to your mother or your friends, never steal (although I used to steal Smiths albums and the like from HMV), and never be violent.
5. If you were the dictator of a modern industrial country, what would you abolish? What laws would you implement?
The act of union. I suspect I might create a law that instigates the return of the stolen wealth of the Celtic people and abolish the armed forces whose 25 billion pound budget rather stinks when people still have to pick winkles from the rocks in Pembrokeshire in order to survive. Every school child would be taught that America has throughout its' history bombed one in
eleven countries on earth, in fact I'll lie to the children since I am a dictator, and say the statistic is actually every country. I would have them know that coca-cola also rots your soul. I would ban any killing of animals and eating meat.
6. What are your lyrics about?
Me and Vile Lynn. God, she's horrible.
7. What is your opinion on the contemporary music scene? What do you like/dislike?
I don't have a positive one, as I believe I told you once before on a scrapheap. I have not bought a music paper since I was 18, I don't listen to the radio, other than woman's hour if I am awake in time, or radio three as I go to sleep. I have heard names bandied about such as, The Libertines and Franz Ferdinand, however I don't know them at all. I am excited about Bernard and Brett's new band and album, and thought Stephen's latest record rather wonderful. especially the song about Latino Street gangs. My Private Life are mighty fine though, best thing since emulsifiers were introduced to sliced bread.
8. What distinguishes you from your peers?
I have quite honestly never had any peers, although I once spent some time with the constitutional expert Lord St. John of Fawsley at an orgy in Cambridge at Emmanuel College in 1995. If anything distinguishes me from my contemporaries it is the fact that I am a transsexual lady who is happy with a penis.
9. Where do you see yourself in five years time?
Cashing a giro and homeless at the end of each summer. Unless my ex-lover will take me back who works for a bank...
10. Any regrets?
What a silly question! My life is a series of regrets.