Led by the eccentric genius of charismatic frontman Freddie Mercury, the British band Queen scored a string of hits with an inventive mix of heavy rock, opera, and vaudeville, ranging from the jock-rock anthem "We Will Rock You" to the six-minute epic "Bohemian Rhapsody," one of the most complex songs in the rock canon. The band's popularity in America waned after its early-'80s heyday, and it spent the next decades focused on the rest of the world. For the first time in nearly 25 years, Queen is touring America, with an unlikely replacement for Mercury (who died of AIDS in 1991) in the far more bluesy Paul Rodgers of Bad Company fame. The A.V. Club's Adri Mehra caught up with guitarist Brian May just before he left for the States. This interview first appeared in The A.V. Club's Twin Cities print edition.

The A.V. Club: Queen hasn't toured the U.S. since 1982. Any anxiety about this tour?

Brian May:
It is a big unknown. It has been a long, long, long, long time! It's a pretty massive show in lights and sound, and of course there are a lot more toys we can call upon now than in the old days. It's an incredibly exciting opportunity—I never thought we'd be doing this again. I really thought that part of my life was over, and I didn't realize we'd have the chance to do it at this level ever again.

AVC: Any special challenges about coming back to America?

There are an awful lot of hits that happened for us between 1980 and the present day that happened in most of the rest of the world, but didn't in America. So, if we play something like "I Want It All," "Headlong," "The Show Must Go On" or "These Are the Days Of Our Lives"— in almost any other country, these songs will elicit a response, because they've been in people's lives intimately. Whereas in the States, they weren't in people's ears on the radio. We don't have those essential points of contact. That's what I'm conscious of. How much do we play just to be ourselves, and how much do we play what people might want to hear?

AVC: Are there any mixed feelings? The last time you toured the U.S., Queen had just released a disco record [1982's Hot Space] at a time when people were publicly burning their disco records. The popularity of the band never recovered here, not until after Freddie Mercury died. Is it all water under the bridge now?

BM: I don't think about it much, to be honest with you. What I do think about is all the ground for us to make up, because of all that stuff that happened, and all the misunderstandings. I don't know if I'm really communicating it to you, but I feel a great responsibility to deliver a million percent on this tour—because of all of the ground that's been lost, I suppose.

AVC: How are you preparing for the tour?

I've got to get physically fit—that's what I've got to do! [Laughs.] I really did get taken off guard the last time we were out [in Europe and Japan]. I didn't do enough. It's such a huge shock to your system when you're not used to that kind of thing. We do two and a half hours onstage, as you know, and it's not standing there and being cool—it's rushing around, and pretty intense. It almost killed me last time, so I'm determined that I'm going to be prepared this time.

AVC: How's the Red Special [May's homemade guitar, which he built with his father in the early 1960s] holding up? Are you still playing the original guitar for every show?

BM: Absolutely. The old lady's fine—had a nice bit of TLC. We've taken her apart and done a few things, particularly the zero fret, which we've sorted. I didn't do anything to the zero fret for the last 30 years—finally we have, and it's made a big difference. She's a part of me. [Laughs.]

AVC: You've often said that you feel like you play your best guitar on other people's songs.

Yes, I think so. I always found Freddie's stuff very inspiring. Things like "Killer Queen" and "Bohemian Rhapsody." If I was hearing him rehearsing a song on piano, I would already have some ideas in my head. In fact, I found it easier to have ideas for his stuff than for mine, in terms of soloing. Maybe I felt freer. With your own stuff, there's a bit of worry in the back of your mind—you know, "Am I being true to the song?" But with someone else's song, you're really liberated, because you just feel what you feel, and if the person doesn't want it, he's going to tell you. [Laughs.]

AVC: What was your collaboration like when you worked on guitar parts with Freddie for his songs? Did he bring you melodies that he wanted you to play by singing them or playing them on the piano, or did he give you creative control right from the beginning?

Normally I was already bursting with something I wanted to do, and that's the way we worked with each other. We didn't usually ask. We usually would play a template or sing to each other, but almost in every case there was an immediate response. So—usually he wouldn't sing me anything, in that sense. Normally I would be saying, "How's this?" [Laughs.]

AVC: Would that go not just for the solos but also for the riffs throughout the song?

It depended on the song, but Freddie would write some of the riffs. He wrote the "Ogre Battle" riff on acoustic guitar, in all its detail. He had a very kind of feverish, frenetic quality about him when he was playing. Everything was very, very fast, and with great ferocity, and with all downstrokes. It's hard to describe. People don't realize what a good player he was. He had a lot of dexterity.

AVC: How are the fans responding to Paul Rodgers?

He's a real frontman. He always was. You can see him at the Isle of Wight concert [from 1970] with his three mics taped together, and he was a giant, even in those days. It just works like a dream, and I know he's enjoying it, having that kind of power and cohesiveness behind him. We've blended. It's pretty thrilling, I must say.

AVC: There are certainly some Queen songs with bluesy riffs that seem like they would fit Paul's singing style—particularly "Now I'm Here," "Headlong," or "One Vision"—but those may not be as well-known to American audiences. Have you considered including those songs in your setlist?

We talk about it all the time. We're juggling ideas at the moment. I'm intrigued by what happens between Paul and us when we go into those areas, because he's such an interpretive singer. He doesn't just reproduce anything—he performs it only if he's absorbed it, and speaks with his own voice and his own feelings. I love that, and I think that there are some great opportunities. At the same time, you have to consider that it's a one-off opportunity for a show, and you have to play off familiarity to a certain extent, or people will not be getting the full force of it. So—it's a compromise, I think. We'll try to play as many of the things that are very radio-exposed in the States, but also we'll try to tread some areas that are a little bit more exploratory.

AVC: Given that Queen hasn't had much of a presence on U.S. radio for some time, many people in America know the band's songs only through pop-culture references in films, commercials, and even cartoons. How does this make you feel?

I do regard it all as a compliment, that people actually want to use our music—whether it's for sport, or for advertising, or whatever. It does bring the songs into public consciousness, and in a way that's more powerful than it being just a radio hit. It's something more pervasive. So in general, I feel happy, but I always have a reservation about advertising, because I think at base, it's something quite evil a lot of the time, you know. So, we're a little careful about what we give permission to, but generally I think it's a healthy thing, if it's fairly innocent. It's good not to be too precious about your material, because things come to mean something to people in unusual ways.

AVC: So you're not too worried about the music being taken less seriously because it's coming through these other avenues of pop culture?

Not really—I think it finds its own level. I think people hear things, and the music comes through, even if it is in an odd situation. Because I know that's happened to me, you know—I've heard tracks in strange situations, and thought, "Oh, what is that?" and then you get back to the source, and you're in touch with the way it was originally meant to be. I do know what you're saying—there are some things that I think get a little bit trashed in TV advertising. But really, when you make a piece of music, you do give it to the world. You can't really hang onto it. It's like letting your babies into the world—you can protect them for so long, and afterwards you've got to say, "Okay, you've got to go now." [Laughs.] And you stand or fall in the world on your own merits.