Russell Brand is back and he’s questioning everything, from politics to fame to fatherhood. Kevin EG Perry meets a man who once thought he could change the world with his ego, but now just wants to understand it a bit better
Russell Brand has been many things in his 41 years: stand-up comedian, heroin addict, movie star, Andrew-Sachs-offending national disgrace, reality TV host and three-time winner of The Sun’s ‘Shagger of the Year’, to name but six. And just when it looked like he was set to spend the rest of his days fopping around Hollywood as the token English eccentric, he recast himself as a real-life revolutionary.
In October 2013, Brand used a Newsnight interview to call for “a socialist egalitarian system based on the massive redistribution of wealth, heavy taxation of corporations and massive responsibility for energy companies and any companies exploiting the environment”. It was a far cry from making k**b gags on a Big Brother spin-off, but it struck a chord with a public who at the time could only tell the difference between the three major political parties by looking at what colour tie their leader had on. Brand threw himself into activism, writing a book called Revolution, launching his YouTube channel The Trews and getting involved in the successful campaign to save the New Era housing estate in Hackney from redevelopment.
The media, however, largely focused on just one aspect of the original interview: the fact he’d told Jeremy Paxman that he didn’t think people should vote. Then, on the eve of the 2015 election, Brand changed his mind and urged people to vote for Labour’s Ed Miliband – who promptly lost resoundingly, and resigned.
In the wake of the election, Brand retreated from public view. He enrolled in a degree while the tabloids mocked his decision to move to a £3.3m house near Henley-on-Thames with his fiancée Laura Gallacher, who last year gave birth to a daughter they gave the deliberately un-celebrified name Mabel.
Having licked his wounds, Brand is resurrecting himself with a stand-up tour, Re:Birth, and a new show on Radio X. We meet him in the luxurious gardens of Danesfield House, a fancy hotel near his home that’s so decidedly un-insurrectionist that George Clooney had his wedding after-party here. He’s watching his “recalcitrant hound”, a German Shepherd named Bear, lollop through the gardens. The dog, he says, has “self-control issues… I don’t know where he’s picked that up from.”
While he can’t resist that knowing joke at his own expense, Brand in person now cuts a calm, sage figure. Wearing a Trews T-shirt and gym gear, hair tied up in a bun, beard flecked with grey, he’s more Zen yoga enthusiast than marauding sex pirate. He may be less vocal with his righteous ire, but he still believes, despite mounting evidence to the contrary, that society need not be so venal. He even recently filmed himself registering to vote for the first time, meaning Britain’s most notorious non-voter could be about to cast his first ballot. Which raises the question…
So, who are you going to vote for?
“I don’t know, really. I don’t know.”
Do you have a message for people at this election?
“It’s hard to get worked up about it to be honest, mate. After what I’ve been through.”
Do you feel burned by what happened last time?
“It’s something I’m circumspect about. I now know how the media works. That’s why when you asked me who I’m going to vote for, I said, ‘I don’t know.’ Not that I think of you as some sort of mendacious reptilian, any more than I am, but I know the news cycle. It will get picked up and there’ll be people turning up at my house going: ‘But you live in a nice house!’ And I’ll feel like, ‘Oh right, here we are again.’”
Your “nice house” is in a safe Tory constituency, so you could argue it’s unlikely your vote will have much impact anyway.
“My opinion on voting is evolving. We might be witnessing the end of democracy, although it may be hard to observe in the timeframe of one human life. It makes you question whether any real change can be delivered. Having said that, if you listen to the pledges that the Labour Party are making, they are talking about collecting corporate taxes, cancelling tuition fees, getting rid of zero-hour contracts. Which is weird, because it was only two years ago that there were two centrist parties.”
The 2015 election feels like a hundred lifetimes ago politically. You said in your Paxman interview that there was “definitely” going to be a revolution and in a way there was, but it was the revolution of Brexit and Trump.
“There has been a revolution, but I don’t think it’s over. What happens next, when people go, ‘This anti-immigration thing is not working out for us. This shift to the right hasn’t been hugely beneficial’?”
Do you see it as your role to use the attention you get as a celebrity to bring new ideas to the public?
“Like a sort of charisma prostitute? I’m still trying to work it out, to be honest. Having experienced what happens when you’re shoulder-barging the gates of the establishment with all your egoic might, I now know that’s not the way to do it. Now I repose and reflect and think and learn.”
When you talked to Paxman about systemic revolution it felt like you were saying something that’s normally outside the spectrum of acceptable opinion.
“Have you seen that Noam Chomsky and Andrew Marr interview? Andrew Marr says, ‘Do you think I’m censoring myself now?’ and Chomsky says, ‘No, you don’t need to. Otherwise you wouldn’t be sitting in that chair.’ I love the point he’s making. The system is self-correcting. I don’t think change is something that can be managed through enthusiasm and egotism. If you want to be involved in that, it’s a real discipline. I really respect Jeremy Corbyn, who’s been in politics for 40 years or whatever. I’ve seen what his house looks like. He’s not doing it for fellatio and grandiosity.”
Is that why you’re going to uni, to learn if there are long-term answers out there?
“There are answers. Remember, we’re not competing with perfection [but] with a system that is pretty atrocious. We want systemic change. I think it’s to do with the nature of consciousness and the nature of self. That kind of s**t is pretty hard to introduce into a ‘who do you vote for if you live in this constituency?’ type of conversation, because it’s more to do with shamanic interdimensional travel and love.”
Russell Brand’s emergence as a rabble-rouser may have surprised people, but he’s always wanted to change the world. When he first moved to London from Grays in Essex, long before he was a celebrity, he made a low-budget TV show called GADAFI which used a series of pranks to fight the selling off of Spitalfields Market. But it was stand-up – inspired by the likes of Bill Hicks, who Brand describes as having a “beautiful rage” – that gave him the most direct route to launch his ideas into the world. While Hollywood may have elevated him to the echelons of the super-famous, he says it was always a detour.
If you were flicking channels and saw Get Him To The Greek was on, how would you react?
“It feels like another lifetime. About a year ago, Forgetting Sarah Marshall was on so I watched it for a bit. I feel very sentimentally attached to it because, while I didn’t fully appreciate it at the time, it was kind of the realisation of a long-held dream.”
Did the dream sour?
“Have you read David Foster Wallace’s review of that cruise ship he went on? He says it feels like you’re suspended in ‘amniotic perfection’. The problem with luxury is that all of your needs are fulfilled as soon as you have them, forcing you to realise that you cannot be fulfilled in that way. Being a celebrity is like that. It’s bewildering. All of that fame and glamour and being in newspapers and flown around in jets, you think it’s about you, but that’s just the symptoms of someone else making money from you.”
Did you feel that you had become the product?
“Yeah, but you don’t realise that because your ego goes: ‘I am brilliant, I’ve always thought that!’ Don’t all con tricks work on the basis that that’s what we want to believe? When I first went to Hollywood, they’d be going, ‘You’re great! We love you! You’re f**king wonderful!’ In the car after about five of these meetings I turned to my manager and went, ‘It’s weird, because everyone says people in Hollywood are manipulative liars, but they’re actually really nice and honest!’ I didn’t realise until afterwards. ‘Hold on a minute!’ When you interface with someone on the level of their ego, there’s no limit to what you can get them to do. It’s not easy to realise when you’re in the midst of that because it’s too brilliant. I mean ‘brilliant’ in the sense of blinding bright lights.”
You’re back on live radio for the first time since Sachsgate. You’ve been described as a ‘high-wire’ radio act, but part of the appeal of that act is that you might see them fall off. Do you worry that will happen again?
“I don’t want to fall off. I’ve got responsibilities now. I do like flirting with danger, but I’d prefer not to fall.”
Your new stand-up show is called Re:Birth. Has becoming a father satisfied something in you that you’d previously tried to placate with fame, with sex and with drugs?
“Yeah, it has. The corollary of each of those things is transcendence of self. Fame means a version of you exists that is not you. Drugs take you out of yourself. Sex takes you out of yourself. They’re all sort of transcendent. Fatherhood, literally another person comes out of you and is of you. What it makes you realise, and this is the opposite of the con trick because you don’t want to believe this is true, but you can’t be happy if all you do is spend your time trying to make yourself happy.”
While fatherhood may have transformed Brand’s soul, it’s done nothing to blunt his comic edge or delight at linguistic acrobatics. When I see him play Woking, he uses the story of watching the birth of his daughter to riff on the interconnectedness of humans (“vagina coming out of vagina. Russian dolls of vaginas”), with a glorious digression about the Sistine Chapel (“Took Michelangelo four years to paint that ceiling; I had these tiles done in three weeks. Who’s the real genius?”). At the start of the show, he interviews audience members about their sexual escapades. His point is that if you scratch the surface of any ordinary town you’ll find far filthier goings-on than anything that landed him in the tabloids. It works the other way too. He’s been many different things in his time on earth, but Russell Brand is still one of us.
Russell Brand Re:Birth tours the country until July 2018. For tickets and info, visit russellbrand.com