The Interview: Boy George

Published on 27 January 2014

[L]ast week we caught up with a boy who recently released his first album in 18 years, but since we are not talking about any old boy but Boy George himself, these years have been everything but a hiatus. As the leader of the 80s Grammy Award winning band Culture Club, the first band since The Beatles to have three Top Ten hits in America from a debut album, Boy George’s impact on culture has been ever present, even during his multifaceted solo career.

The iconic and androgynous performer behind the drag queen make up and countless colourful hats has come a long way to prove that what he does best is entertain. In fact, “This Is What I Do” is the title of his latest album, a little gem that serves as a reminder that this is an artist who always has made us hit the dance floor, and probably always will. Boy George is one of a handful of 80s artists still relevant in today’s music industry and has survived not just the changes ion music but also drug addiction and arrests. But as David Bowie, one of his biggest inspirations used to sing, “boys keep swinging, boys always work it out” and here Boy George tells Hunger TV what it feels like being the “King Of Everything” now that he has finally found a balance in his life and musical reign. In a music business where “pop stars don’t want to bake their own pies anymore”, the perpetual chameleon is ready to reveal all the projects he’s keeping under his hat, including a long-awaited Culture Club reunion and a new version of the stage musical Taboo, inspired by the work of performance artist Leigh Bowery.

“THIS IS WHAT I DO” IS YOUR FIRST OFFICIAL ALBUM IN 18 YEARS BUT YOU HAVE BEEN KEEPING BUSY WITH COLLABORATIONS, DJ SETS, GIGS AND A MUSICAL. WHAT ARE YOU MOST PROUD OF?

I think probably Taboo, the musical, because I was writing and staging my life and those of the people who influenced me and were part of my growing up. I have just rewritten “Taboo” again with the original writer; we spent the last year working on a new script. I think it’s a braver and bolder version of Taboo. I’ve always thought that the best bits of the show were the bravest bits and that Taboo ahead of its time so we’ve put a lot more truth into it and taken more risks. Theatre is one of those things where you can go back; you can’t redo an album or a painting, although you can do it with a painting if you are Banksy! Weirdly there is a performance of Taboo happening in New York in February, a two night’s celebration of the musical and it sold out in an hour which is amazing. Unfortunately the critics in America hated it but on the other hand the Broadway community loved the show and this is the reason why the shows are happening next month, it’s very sweet to me. I think I’ve answered your question but let me also say that when I wrote Taboo, I had that great kind of praise in terms of reviews that I’ve never had in my career. I got possibly one of the greatest write ups about my writing so I’ve always been very proud of this piece of work.

YOU SAID THAT MAKING THIS ALBUM WAS THE “MOST STRESS-FREE RECORDING EXPERIENCE EVER”. IS YOUR CREATIVE PROCESS ANY DIFFERENT WHEN WORKING IN THIS STATE OF MIND?

I think that what you do is reflect on your condition, whether it is physical, spiritual, emotional, or mental because all of those things play a big part in what you do creatively. Being a little crazy works when you’re 19 but as you get older, people want different things from you and you want different things for yourself. We forgive young beautiful people a lot don’t we? Your ambitions change, your reasons for doing what you do change. Music is a hobby for me, I make my living from DJing and that is my career, music is my passion and something I have to do whether it sells or not, whether it’s popular or unpopular, I just can’t live without it. With this record I didn’t want to sound like I was trying too hard. Classic things really work for me at the moment, classic sounds and…classic tailoring!

THE VIDEO FOR “MY GOD!” IS QUITE ECLECTIC, HOW DID IT COME TOGETHER?

I did the video with Dean Stockings at my house, putting on some backdrops and just literally did it on a shoestring because we spent all the money on the first video for “King of Everything”! So we had to kind of do it ourselves but it was real fun. We messed around with different looks, wigs, hats, and had as much fun as possible which I think really come across in the video.

WE ALSO GET TO SEE YOU WITHOUT A HAT…

Yes and I have been wearing a lot of old things too lately, things I’ve had for thirty years in the cupboard that fit me again! So I have been discovering little gems here and there, I am so glad I kept them because they still work and seem fresh somehow. As for the hat I get a lot of the big ones from A Child of the Jago in Shoreditch, he’s a son of Vivienne Westwood and they do great hats.

IN “BIGGER THAN WAR” YOU SING THAT NO ONE IS BIGGER THAN YOKO ONO AND YOU ALSO COVER HER SONG, “DEATH OF SAMANTHA”. WHAT DO YOU ADMIRE ABOUT YOKO?

She’s a great character and as a woman she’s quite formidable. She has always been very true to herself, and put up with a lot of abuses over the years, but she has always been quite dignified. I love her music most of all, I am a big Yoko fan and that song is beautiful with some great lyrics. When people say she doesn’t sing and that she only screams I would say to them to listen to this song and they’re always surprised. Her version is really beautiful.

A LINE FROM THE SONG SAYS “SOMETHING INSIDE ME DIED THAT DAY”. METAPHORICALLY SPEAKING, IS THERE ANY PART OF YOURSELF DIED THAT YOU ARE HAPPY ABOUT?

That is quite extreme! In a way the easiest answer would be my desire and appetite for self-destruction. I look at myself now and the way I do things and I can’t imagine ever being any other way. I can’t imagine being that kind of neurotic, highly drunk that I was in the past and I think, Oh God how did I live like that? How did I have a career?” When you are in the moment you’re just in it and it feels normal to be like that, it is only when you have something to kind of balance it that your perception changes. In a way we are all a work in progress, I don’t think you get older and wiser just because you’re getting older; you have to kind of change. The longer you stick around the smarter you get, you have to change things and say to yourself this is not working anymore”.

IN WHICH WAY WOULD YOU SAY THAT BUDDHISM IS WORKING FOR YOU?

It is a real, basic common sense kind of practice I suppose. The question you ask yourself as a Buddhist is what are you going to do about it?” As a practice it is something you have to do like when someone tells you “I love you” for example. It sounds very nice but you kind of need evidence as well. Buddhism is evidence based so there is a practice you do daily and it changes the energy around you; they refer to the chanting as “polishing your mirror” because you get a more clear vision of what you want to say or be, and chanting Nam Myōhō Renge Kyō is basically saying “I believe in the law of cause and effect” so, everything I do, say, think, and the way I behave makes a difference. In that respect it is a verb, Buddhism is a verb, like love.

“IT’S EASY” IS QUITE A SAD SONG ON YOUR ALBUM ABOUT LOVE. WHAT IS YOUR PERSONAL UNDERSTANDING OF LOVE NOW?

I’m not in a relationship right now but it doesn’t mean I am lonely because usually when you say that you are not in a relationship everybody goes “Oooh”. At this point I am not somebody who has to be in a relationship, I want quality not quantity. For someone to come along and interrupt my schedule… Well they have to be pretty damn spectacular! As you get older it becomes harder because you are much more set in your ways and less flexible, when you are 20 you want to change people around and you have the energy for that but right now, oh fuck off! I am kind of relieved that I don’t have that kind of panic that I used to have about finding a boyfriend. In this day and age there may be a lot of ways to find a boyfriend but finding a good quality one is still as hard as it ever was.

WHAT WOULD YOU BRING BACK FROM THE 80S THAT IN YOUR OPINION WOULD BENEFIT TODAY’S MUSIC SCENE?

First of all, in this country we have this kind of attitude that if you are over a certain age you can’t get played on the radio. Everything is like a formula and I want to be able to hear everything, even things that I don’t like! That’s why I love the 70s because it was the craziest decade in music, you had punk, rock, disco, Cliff Richards, and reggae all going on at the same time. Nowadays if you are not 16 and you don’t sound like everybody else they won’t play your record. The downside of technology is that everyone can make a record in their bedroom but nobody is really making anything particularly interesting. I mean there is always great music being made but usually it is from guitar bands. I am more interested in rock bands because pop music is such a formula, even someone like Lady Gaga. What she does is still EDM and if you listen to the new Beyoncé album it is EDM as well so basically everybody wants a piece of the same pie. Nobody wants to bake their own pies anymore! The instinct is still there but I think that what is happening right now is that the industry is run by radio programmers and the artists don’t dictate the art form anymore, they do only in the alternative scene. There are definite rules about how you have to sound in the pop world and I hear lots of people saying oh she’s the new Adele or the new whoever” when she hasn’t even been around for a year and I say, “Hellooo, why do you want a new one already?!” It is a funny time for music, I think the most interesting thing you can be is yourself and you have to work out how you are going to do something without falling into that trap of “I must make a record like this”, or “I must work with this person and dress like this”. Ultimately you just have to do your own thing and as Tom Waits once said, it’s like with prostitutes and monuments, if you stick around long enough you’ll get respected! I love that; I should have that put on my bed in neon lights!

IN A DOCUMENTARY ON YOUR LIFE YOU RECALLED BEING TOLD YOU WERE A ‘FAG’ AT THE AGE OF SIX. WHAT WOULD YOU SAY TO KIDS WHO ARE STILL GOING THROUGH THE SAME THING?

I think it is not that you want to hear anything. I think as an older man I realize that when you are a kid, almost everything about you is a target like the way you wear glasses or maybe you are a bit fat or not really pretty. Being any kind of kid is very difficult, you hear certain things like “fag” or “puff” and you imagine that you are the only one being called names. I remember kids at school were so vile but a lot of that comes from families. If you grow up in a family where you hear that kind of language then you’re going to repeat it. Kids don’t know what they are saying or meaning so it’s adults’ responsibility to say that something is not acceptable, in the same way they do with racist language for example. We need the same kind of attitude towards any kind of bullying and we just need to be kinder, there is a lot of work to be done and attacking is never the answer. Attacking Putin and making T-shirts with his face wearing makeup on it doesn’t really help, it is a kind of media reaction. I like Ben Cohen’s anti-bullying campaigns, what he’s doing is brilliant. We need more people like him and straight people to stand up and say “you know what? What is your problem?” that is where the change is going to come from. Gays have been through a huge evolution, we have had AIDS and so many other things to deal with that we are kind of empowered and in the end of the day this is not our problem, it’s their fucking problem! There is nothing wrong with me and I don’t need to adopt or mimic your lifestyle, I don’t need to get married or to be like you, because there is nothing wrong with me anyway. The other thing that I try to explain to people is that being gay takes up about two or three hours of my week, on a good week if I’m lucky! My “gayness” only covers that amount of time in my life because like any other gay person I have other things to do like working and paying bills. Do people think that all we do is just sex? This is the problem with lots of homophobic people; they only focus on the sexual aspect of what gay people do.

IS CULTURE CLUB REALLY HAPPENING IN 2014? WHAT ARE WE TO EXPECT IN THE NEW YEAR?

We’ll start writing together soon but until we’ll get the music right we can’t really decide on how we’re going to do things. Obviously I am concentrating on my record now; it’s coming out in Europe so I will promote but we are also doing a dub version of the album, hopefully it will be ready in June for my birthday, it’s a slightly more indulgent version of “This Is What I Do” called “This Is What I Dub”. I am also doing some shows in April; all of the songs really work live so it’s a pleasure to play them.

WHAT CROSSES YOUR MIND WHEN YOU LOOK IN THE MIRROR WIPING OFF YOUR MAKE UP AFTER A GIG?

How have I got it all off?! It’s because when you wake up in the morning there is always this bit of black on your eyes, it gets stuck so I try to make sure I’ve done a really good job when I wipe it off. There is nothing worse than going for a coffee at Starbucks and having everyone staring at me. The great thing about makeup is that when I’m not wearing it I can be anonymous and people say “is that him? I don’t know!”  This is why I make sure I get it all off properly.

WHAT ARE YOU HUNGRY FOR?

Tolerance is something I’m hungry for. Compassion and humor as well. It is incredible how much intolerance there is in the world, it is 2014 and we are still having the same kind of conversations… And food of course! Food is really important, we can’t exist without it and I would probably say that I am almost obsessed with food. I dream about what I’m going to eat next! A raw cheesecake, or bread! But only when I am in Italy though; when I’m there I always think, “He brought me bread so I have to eat it!”

 “My God” the second single from “This is What I Do” is released on the 26th of January and it features a cover of Lana Del Rey’s “Video Games”

Info and Tickets for the upcoming UK Tour on www.boygeorgeuk.com