‘Oh, you’re f—ing joking.” Russell Brand, astonished, down the phone from California. Up until this point, our conversation has been conducted with a certain trepidation on my part and, on Brand’s, the spacey serenity of a recovering substance abuser who does a lot of yoga and is lying on his bed with a cat called Morrissey.
The news that I’d been listening to a 2007 radio interview he did with now spectacularly disgraced media personality Sir Jimmy Savile has a galvanising effect on one of the world’s most profligately gifted, notoriously volatile comedians. I swear I can hear Brand stop stroking Morrissey – “He’s facing away from me. Deliberately” – and snap to attention.
“You’re joking,” he insists. No. That’s his job. “We gotta find that!” He’d forgotten about the encounter, for BBC Radio 2. Brand rang an Indian takeaway. The owner said, “Jimmy Savile’s in the corner.” Brand requested a chat. “Did I go, ‘Mate, you was weird, when I was a kid, on the telly?’” he wonders. Actually, Brand was very polite. He can be at his most lethal while maintaining a facade of exquisite manners.
That interview turned to department-store Santas. “I never trusted those Father Christmases … I’ve always thought of you as a sort of Father Christmas figure,” Brand told an oblivious Savile. A meeting was proposed. Savile asked if he had a sister. Brand mentioned his attractive assistant. What should she wear? “I’d prefer her to wear nothing,” said Savile baldly. This reminder has Brand launching his Jimmy Savile impression, with trademark disturbing yodel, down the phone: “‘Nekkid! Send her along in the nude! Oogle oogle,’” he goes. “F—ing hell. He was never off duty, was he, Jimmy Savile? In a way it’s an illness.”
The scandal has generated archaeological layers of soul searching. “With this coming out, everyone in England just went, ‘Well, we knew something was f– ing up. Because he’s not a normal guy. Look how he talks,’” muses Brand. “Then I think, ‘Oh no. Look at me.’ Because I’m kind of crazy. I just thank God for my vanilla heterosexuality on a daily basis.”
At 17, Brand romanced prostitutes while he was on holiday in Thailand with his dad. He’s been thrice voted Shagger of the Year; he was famously treated for sex addiction. Is “vanilla” quite the word? “It is, really,” he insists. “I just like women that are fully grown, adult women. Just like the best sexuality to have. I don’t know, it might be good to be gay. But it’s just very straightforward.”
There is, of course, nothing remotely straightforward about Russell Brand. But his interview with Savile has proved, as allegations of Savile’s brazen preying on children continue to rock the BBC, quite spooky. “There was a time when you were the defining voice of the BBC,” Brand told Savile at the time. “I still am,” Savile replied. “You are now,” said Brand.
Brand is a singular man. And a single one (his natural state, you suspect) since the split with Katy Perry. His look, unchanging give or take some alarming backcombing, is retro, romantic, alien. He could star in a steampunk zombie movie about the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Anarchy on stalks. Language is his great genius. His veers effortlessly from The Only Way Is Essex to Dickens and the Shakespearean. “There seems to be some administrative complications due to the nature of my conduct,” he told Piers Morgan, of his American citizenship status. He titled his memoir, My Booky Wook, in homage to the sinister, childish argot (“eggyweg”) of A Clockwork Orange. Once he treated CNN’s Larry King to some of his more baroque perorations. “I think I understand that,” quavered King. Brand leaned in close. “It’s English,” he said.
As an interviewee he’s unpredictable; sometimes unbroadcastable. There’s a clip of his abortive chat with Australian presenter Fifi Box. It was bedlam from the first introductions. Brand ends up straddling her, threatening to impregnate her with his “spores”. “Ah yes, Fifi ,” he sighs, like a Victorian roué. He’s a bit scary. “It’s just my Rasputin charisma,” he purrs. A recidivist personal-space invader, he plays on people’s discomfort with close proximity to erratic strangers. “Is that what you think it is? I’m very happy with the human beings. I love people very much.” He seems to like to control the situation. “Well, the truth is the situation is not controlled at all,” he says, of the chaotic business of being Russell Brand. “I just accept that more easily than most people.”
The situation is not controlled. Brand’s people cancel at the last moment, twice. He’s a hard man to get hold of, figuratively and actually. “You mean, like, I’m mercurial and difficult to understand and then, physically, I’ve just had a strange week of cancelling things?” Precisely. “I apologise for both and I assure you it’s the former that causes me most problems,” he says, adding, mercurially, “Do you have a pet?” My answer earns Brand Brownie points. “I can tell you’re an intelligent person already from the nature of your questions and from the fact that you’ve got that cat that you love so much,” he says winningly. Though this leads down a dangerous path.
“Every communication you have is just a refragmented aspect of your own consciousness, which is in itself the original consciousness of God, the unified energy, the unified creative force from which all matter, all energy, comes …” he declares, off on a mad, fitfully brilliant riff on life, the universe and everything: “the arbitrary perception of one species on one rock in infinite space cannot rightly be called reality. It’s just Neighbours or Home and Away. It’s just some TV show.” It’s a short interview. I’m hearing the clock ticking. He’s hearing the music of the spheres.
It must be said. Brand can make sidesplitting jokes about Moors murderer Ian Brady and child killer Rosemary West. “Hmm. Good. The dark corners are where we need to let the light in. Of course, in my own life there are things I don’t want to laugh about because I’m a human being with feelings. But as a comedian, you have an obligation to strive for the parameters of what is considered morally or ethically correct.”
He has so striven, mightily. There was that BBC Radio 2 fracas. Brand and Jonathan Ross left ill-advised messages on the phone of Andrew Sachs (Fawlty Towers’ Manuel) about Sachs’s granddaughter, a member of a band called the Satanic Sluts. “I watched some of it again recently and thought it was a very silly bit of high jinks, wasn’t it? It was certainly a very impolite piece of conduct. But in the context of a late-night radio show with two daft comedians, well, it’s the sort of thing that’s going to happen. It’s certainly not like British TV presenters on kids’ TV having sex with children, which has somewhat more legitimacy as a scandal.”
Transgression is an occupational hazard. “Stand-up comedy is what I love best because I can just say what I want. And obviously I get in trouble for it sometimes. And I apologise when I make a mistake.” Sort of. “Ninety to 100% of the controversies I’ve been involved in are people wilfully and deliberately saying, ‘Russell Brand said X Y Z. What a bastard.’ When they know I was being funny. I know I was being funny. It’s a deliberate piece of conjuring to cause more stupidity on the planet,” he explains. “More stupidity on a planet that suffers from endemic stupidity.”
Yet, thanks to movies like Arthur and Get Him to the Greek, he is almost vanilla these days. Brand superbly embodied the lunacy that was the Olympics closing ceremony, singing I Am the Walrus – “I think it’s a f—ing beautiful piece of English surrealist poetry” – dressed as Willy Wonka, on top of a psychedelic bus. That unlikely episode – he tore his pants moments before performing – is traversed in his New Zealand show: “What happened on the journey encompasses performing with the Dalai Lama, meeting the Spice Girls and David Beckham, reflections on Mike Tyson, considering whether or not the whole Olympics is a satanic ritual …” Something for everyone, then.
He possibly won’t be talking about that trip to Thailand with his dad. The mind boggles, Russell. “Well, he’d lost his own father when he was very young,” he says, of his dad, who left when Brand was little. “So I suppose, in a way, it was kind of like what a little kid would do or a teenager would do for another teenager. Like, ‘Yeah, eat as much chocolate as you want. Yeah, f— as many women as you want.’” Not your normal father/son relationship. “I suppose in a traditional sense it was not.
I must say, at the time it was very good fun.” He sounds a little forlorn. He has long since swapped drugs and booze for meditation and yoga. How is his relationship with his demons these days? “The demons are all right. Keep your friends close and your enemies closer. I’ve sort of come to love those little horny devils.” Certainly, they’ve served him well in one sense. “What sense do you mean? Fulfilling my sexual appetites?” Good Lord, no. Well, that. But he wouldn’t have done what he’s done without the struggle and the carnage. “Yeah, that’s true and I’m happy with what I’ve done so far. I’d like to think of it as a tiny portion of what we can achieve here,” he threatens.
As for his wild, brilliant improvisations, they also come, in a way, from the universe. “Let your mind shut and then it all just falls through your face. It all just falls through your head in a rush, if you can get out of the way. This is what people don’t understand: it’s all already there.” Sounds good. Must give it a try. “Clear your mind,” he urges. “It’s all there.” “Seventy per cent of the known universe is intangible dark matter,” Brand informs me.
The same might be said of him. What can you say? He’s nice, smart, wicked, fun. He’s also rich and famous. What’s left to want? “Well, I’m hoping to increasingly make jokes about pertinent subjects. This is a time when the world is changing and consciousness is changing and I feel like I’m exactly where I ought to be,” he says, back in cosmic mode. “I don’t need to worry about anything,” he says. “I think it’s all just going to happen.” Why not? So far, it always has.
Though Planet Brand sometimes looks like a lonely place. Lost in space. Still, he’s got Morrissey – “Sometimes I have a little moment when I think, ‘God, he’s looking right in me.’” And the work. “I’ve got some sort of Sunset Boulevard, Gloria Swanson love of that limelight out there,” he says, breezily invoking one of cinema’s most solitary, deluded divas. Performance remains his drug of choice. “I’d do it for zero dollars, 365 nights a year,” he says, of stand-up. “I’ve never thought about anything other than the feeling of being up there. It’s who I am.”
RUSSELL BRAND: I AM A WALRUS, Hamilton, November 26; Auckland, November 28; Wellington, December 13.