"People have done strange stuff and everyone’s a bit weird"
Each night before his Re: Birth stand-up tour, Russell Brand asks the audience to fill in a questionnaire detailing their most mortifying moments. As he talks to NME before a gig in Reading, he flicks through tonight’s catalogue of cringe. Crowd member Josh “got so drunk in front of my family that I ended up giving one of them a lapdance.” In the second row, Liz says “one of my grown-up sons recently gave me a black towel to match my bathroom. He told me he and his girlfriend had found it very useful to have period sex on.” Hannah bristles that on day one of university, she was given 15 free condoms – and used them all in one night. John is ashamed he was kicked out of a friend’s house for rifling through his sister’s knicker-drawer….
“People admit to sometimes really sweet, strange things, but a lot of the time it’s really shocking,” laughs Brand.
Throughout his career – as a stand-up, broadcaster, actor, author, podcaster, columnist, political commentator and a mental health and drug rehabilitation activist – Brand has been equally unflinching in his honesty. He recently published his fourth book, Recovery: Freedom From Our Addictions, a self-help book based on the 12-step programme used by Alcoholics Anonymous and related groups, from the experience of someone who’s been held hostage to his own addictions – to heroin, alcohol, sex, fame, and food. Having last used drugs in 2002, it’s clear he’s sincere in his hope to help others plot a road-map to recovery. “I didn’t know back then that people could get clean from drugs,” he says. “I wasn’t even aware of the cliché of the reformed rock star or any of those ideas.”
Now, in a far cry from his ‘Shagger of the Year’ days, he’s married with a baby, and lives with two cats, a dog and 10 chickens. As he prepares to celebrate the book’s publication with a special combined book reading event and stand-up set at London’s Hammersmith Apollo on November 1, the 42-year-old opens up to NME about addiction, his friendship with Noel Gallagher and Morrissey, and Corbynmania.
Have any of the confessions in your audience survey shocked you, Russell?
“Quite a lot of them. That’s part of the reason I do it. When you’re in a crowd, like the same as when you’re in traffic, you don’t really think of people as anything other than a crowd. But people have done strange stuff and everyone’s a bit weird. Basically, we’re not what we pretend to be. Everyone puts on a mask to go out into the world. The point is that people are nuanced and unusual, so it’s a good way of drilling past the façade, getting some cheap jokes out of the mad things people admit to. But it’s also exposing that I think a lot of people feel lonely and inadequate and not good enough; but we’re also strange and similar.”
Is the conversation around addiction changing? Look back a decade and the demons faced by the likes of your friend Amy Winehouse and Pete Doherty were treated as punchlines…
“That’s right. They were. In a way, it was very glamorised or demonised, but never understood. Even though most people know someone that’s a drug addict or an alcoholic or bulimic or got a gambling issue or mentally ill. It’s weird. We impose a story on top of it and, of course, it costs some people. I think failure to address what was happening with Amy Winehouse’s disease – not by anybody in particular but through not going ‘This person is very, very sick’ – is why we lost her.”
Are attitudes shifting?
“Yeah, I think it’s changing. I think the idea of recovery is starting to make sense; I think people recognise it. People look at addiction in lots of different ways and recognise that obsessive compulsive behaviour has lots of different forms. I’ve got friends – and I’m sure you do too – that can take drugs and it’s not a big deal. But there are some people who are doing it to hold their lives together, and they’re trying to medicate themselves. It’s an important difference.”
On hearing you were writing another book, your friend Noel Gallagher quipped, ‘What’s it going to be called this time? The Revolution That Never Took Place?’
“I love him. There’s a handful of people that I met when I first became well-known that I gravitated towards ‘cos there was something recognisable about them and made me feel, ‘Ah, there will be things in this entirely unfamiliar world that are going to be familiar’. And Noel was one of them. Even though I was a fan of Oasis – and walked past Supernova Heights, it was near where I went to drama school – he was one of those people who talked to me like a normal person and put me at ease. He’s always taken the piss but I think that’s how English people communicate. When I lived in America for a while and came back, everyone was so rude. I was like, ‘Fucking hell, everyone’s out of order’. Then I remembered this is just how the English speak.”
What are your favourite memories of Noel?
“I like that his missus didn’t want him to have a room in his house to do music. When he was trying to get a new house, he [Noel] was going, ‘I just need a room to do music in’. Sara [MacDonald, Noel’s wife] says, ‘Why?’. He goes, ‘Well I do music, don’t I?’. She says, ‘I’ve never seen you do anything’. He says, ‘You do know that I do it though? How do you think we’re getting all of this stuff?’. I like that. (Laughs) I used to have good fucking stories on him that I would use to attack him in public whenever I needed to, but nowadays I don’t hold on to that stuff so much. When did I last see him? I went to his 50th birthday and did a little speech at that. Intro-d Bono, can you imagine? Unbelievable. There were so many famous people there. I said, ‘It’s like Madame Tussauds here. Everyone’s famous but culturally irrelevant’. (Laughs) Good joke, innit?”
What’s your relationship with Morrissey like? Can you be yourself around him?
“Not really. I try to be, but in a way meeting Morrissey is like meeting the avatar to my adolescent self. I’m not saying he’s adolescent, but he was the first person that made me feel like, ‘Oh it’s alright to be strange’. If he was sat next to me now, my voice would change. Noel Gallagher is Fucking Noel Gallagher, but Morrissey has a kind of…eminence. He is other-worldly, I think. I’ve got a good story about Morrissey. Check this out. I was in this really posh hotel and someone said, ‘Morrissey’s in this hotel’, and I was excited. I didn’t know him very well. And I got a phone call and it was like [He does a pitch-perfect impersonation of Moz’s lugubrious voice], ‘Hello, is that Russell Brand?’. And it was Morrissey of course. And I’d been running a bath – it was a really massive, stupid, luxurious bath, in the hotel room. But we were talking so I couldn’t say nothing, right? Thinking ‘Oh fuck, Morrissey is on the phone but I’ve left the bath running’. But eventually there’s a bit of a gap so I go, ‘Morrissey I’ve left the bath running, do you mind if I just go and turn it off?’ He goes, [adopts Moz voice] ‘Oh, don’t be ridiculous! They have a special vacuum cleaner at this hotel that sucks up water. It doesn’t even matter if it overflows.’ And I went, ‘Oh okay’. I stayed on the phone for ages and when I went to the bathroom, it had overflowed really badly. I phoned up reception and goes, ‘Can you bring up that special vacuum cleaner that hoovers up the water please?’. (Laughs) And they went, ‘WHAT? There ain’t no such thing as that’. I told Morrissey and he went [harrumphs] ‘Oh well’, and brushed it off. The whole bloody bathroom was flooded…Why wouldn’t you go, ‘ Alright just turn it off then come back’? It only would have took 20 seconds! He dismissed it out of hand.”
You endorsed Corbyn in the last general election. Given the increased youth engagement, does this feel like an exciting time in politics to you?
“I think it is. I think Corbyn is an anomaly. He became leader of the Labour party because they didn’t anticipate membership votes meaning that he could win. Then he survived several attempted coups and he got to a [general] election and, despite of constant negative press, over-performed. It is an exciting time. And showed that if there is someone who prepared to be honest and speak on behalf of ordinary people, they will get traction. He’s unique and authentic – you can’t fake that. You know that Jeremy Corbyn is not going to turn up after he’s finished in politics – hopefully having been a prime minister – doing half a million pound speeches or taking a job at GlaxoSmithKline. He’s for real people, and somehow that’s a shimmering, unique, pure orb of consciousness in this time. Like most people, I still have concerns about the potential for democracy in its current form to deliver, particularly with the power possessed by non-political corporate bodies, especially at an international level, but to have someone [Corbyn] potentially in a position of power with his views and commitment is really heartening.”
We’re in the middle of the Weinstein scandal and the ‘#MeToo’ campaign. You’ve appeared in myriad films. Did Hollywood seem sexist to you?
“I think the world is sexist and I didn’t notice it especially, but I’m a male. But I think it’s good that people are talking openly about things that have previously made them feel ashamed.”
Have you noticed a change in your fanbase? Do people now come to you for advice?
“Yeah – but I noticed it before. It changed the more I talked about politics and with The Trews [his political YouTube show], people started coming to feel part of something and that they’re participating in this authentic conversation. What I think is happening is people have lost the means and tools to talk about spirituality. It’s gone into decline because religion has become synonymous with bigotry and hatred and all the positive things have been lost: community, connection, surrender, service, kindness and need. I think it’s interesting to me as an entertainer to address the way people feel. People drink and take drugs and buy stuff because they don’t feel very good and they’re trying to make themselves feel better. That’s the conversation I’m interested in now. For instance, at the Hammersmith Apollo, doors will be at 6pm and at 6.30pm I’m reading from the book and doing a question and answer session on addiction and related subjects, and then I’m doing the stand-up set at 8pm.”
Recovery: Freedom From Our Addictions is published through Bluebird. For a full list of Re: Birth tour dates, visit russellbrand.com