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Queen Guitarist Brian May On Writing Anthems And Studying Astrophysics


This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli in for Terry Gross.


QUEEN: (Singing) Another one bites the dust. Another one bites the dust. And another one gone, and another one gone. Another one bites the dust.

BIANCULLI: That's the band Queen, the subject of the new movie "Bohemian Rhapsody" starring Rami Malek as Queen's lead singer, Freddie Mercury. Brian May, a founding member and the band's lead guitarist, spoke with Terry Gross in 2010. Back then, he was concerned with a different kind of dust. In 2007, he submitted his doctoral thesis in astrophysics on the subject "A Survey of Radial Velocities In The Zodiacal Dust Cloud." He is now Dr. May and served as chancellor of Liverpool John Moores University from 2008 until 2013.

But that's not the only twist in his career that might surprise Queen fans. In 2009, he co-wrote a book - "A Village Lost And Found" - that features stereoscopic photos from the 1850s. To see these very early 3-D photos, you have to assemble and look through a viewer that Brian May designed which comes with the book. Last year, he published a 3-D book about Queen. An updated version was released last month.

In May's life as a member of Queen, he's famous for some of his guitar solos and for writing one of the band's biggest hits, "We Will Rock You." That's the song they're developing in this clip from "Bohemian Rhapsody." The band is waiting for Mercury, who's played by Rami Malek, to show up at a recording session. Brian May, played by Gwilym Lee, is teaching the drummer and the bass player the stomp, stomp, clap for "We Will Rock You." Then Mercury walks in.


GWILYM LEE: (As Brian May) Stomp to this beat. Come on.


LEE: (As Brian May) Now I want you to clap on the third beat.


RAMI MALEK: (As Freddie Mercury) What's going on? You know if you're on time.

LEE: (As Brian May) I want to give the audience a song that they can perform.

MALEK: (As Freddie Mercury) So what can they do?


LEE: (As Brian May) Imagine thousands of people doing this in unison.

MALEK: (As Freddie Mercury) What's the lyric?

(As Freddie Mercury, singing) We will, we will rock you.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As audience, singing) We will, we will rock you.

TERRY GROSS, BYLINE: Brian May, what a pleasure to have you here. Welcome to FRESH AIR.

BRIAN MAY: Thank you, Terry.

GROSS: So I have to tell you, in preparation for this interview, I was listening back to a lot of Queen recordings and thinking about how much fun some of them are and how dramatic some of them are and how they mix, you know, like hard rock and music theater and opera. And I thought we'd start this part of the interview with the most famous song that you wrote, which is "We Will Rock You." So let's hear a little bit of it, then we'll talk.



QUEEN: (Singing) Buddy, you're a boy, make a big noise playing in the street, going to be a big man someday. You got mud on your face, you big disgrace, kicking your can all over the place, singing - we will, we will rock you. We will, we will rock you. Buddy, you're a young man, hard man shouting in the street, going to take on the world someday. You got blood on your face, you big disgrace, waving your banner all over the place. We will, we will rock you. Sing it out. We will, we will rock you. Buddy, you're an old man, poor man...

GROSS: That's Queen's "We Will Rock You," which was written by my guest, Brian May, who was the lead guitarist for the band. So what inspired that song? I mean, it's been played at so many sports stadiums over the decades. What were you thinking about when you wrote it? Were you thinking of it as a sports anthem?

MAY: No, not really. I was thinking of it more as a rock anthem, I suppose, and a means of uniting an audience or taking advantage - you know, enjoying the fact that an audience is united. And I didn't realize that it would transfer to sports games, so this is quite an amazing thing. It's wonderful for me to see what "We Will Rock You" has done. You know, "We Will Rock You" and "We Are The Champions," of course, have kind of transcended the normal framework of where music is listened to and appreciated. They've become part of public life, which I feel wonderful about. It's fantastic to me if I go to a, you know, a football game or a soccer game or basketball or whatever, any place all around the world, and there it is. And I think, like, most people don't even realize that I wrote it. Most people don't realize that it was written. It's sort of become...

GROSS: (Laughter) That's right.

MAY: ...One of those things that people think was always there. You know, it sort of goes back into prehistory. So in a way, that's the best compliment you could have for a song.

GROSS: Well, I think, you know, that's - if people don't even realize it was written, it's in part because it almost sounds like an old-school cheerleader cheer, you know...

MAY: Yeah. It's become a part of the fabric of life.

GROSS: ....Because of that stomp, stomp, clap thing and because it's a chant.

MAY: That's right. Well, the stomp, stomp, clap thing - yeah, people think it was always there, but actually, it wasn't. And I don't know how it got into my head. All I can tell you is we played a gig - sort of middle of our career in a place called Bingley Hall near Birmingham. Now, Birmingham is the sort of home of heavy metal, as you probably know. You know, Sabbath and a slate of people come from there. And it was a great night. People just - the audience were just responding hugely. And they were singing along with everything we did.

Now, in the beginning, we didn't relate to that. We were the kind of band who'd like to be listened to and taken seriously and all that stuff. You know, so people singing along wasn't part of our agenda. Having said that and then having experienced this wave of participation of the audience, particularly in that gig in Birmingham, we almost to a man, sort of reassessed our situation. I remember talking to Freddie about it and saying, look; you know, obviously, we can no longer fight this. This has to become something which is part of our show. And we have to embrace it, the fact that people want to participate. And really, everything becomes a two-way process now. And we sort of looked at each other and went, how interesting.

And he went away that night, and to the best of my knowledge, wrote "We Are The Champions" with that in mind. I went away and woke up the next morning with this (vocalizing) in my mind somehow. Because I was thinking to myself, what could you give an audience that they could do while they're standing there and they're all crushed together? They can stamp. And they can clap. And they can sing some kind of chant. So for some reason, it just came straight into my head, "We Will Rock You."

GROSS: So how did you record the stomp, stomp, clap so it would sound grand and reverberating, as opposed to three people, four people stomping their feet and clapping?

MAY: Well, I'm a physicist, you see.


MAY: So I had this idea if we did it enough times and we didn't use any reverb or anything that I could build a sound which would work. We were very lucky. We were working in an old disused church in North London. And it already had a nice sound, not an echoey sound, but a nice big, crisp sound to it. And there were some old boards lying around. I don't know what they were, but they just seemed ideal to stomp on. So we kind of piled them up and started stomping. And they sounded great anyway.

But being a physicist, I thought, well, supposing there were a thousand people doing this, what would be happening? And I thought, well, you would be hearing them stomping. You would also be hearing a little bit of an effect which is due to the distance that they are from you. So I put lots of individual repeats on them, not an echo but a single repeat and at varying distances. And the distances were all prime numbers. Now, much later on, people designed a machine to do this. And I think it was cool Prime Time or something.

But that's what we did. As we recorded each track, we put a delay of a certain length on it. And none of the delays were sort of harmonically related. So what you get is there's no echo on it whatsoever, but the claps sound as though they spread around the stereo, but they're also kind of spread as regards distance from you. So you just feel like you're in the middle of a large number of people stomping on boards and clapping and also singing.

GROSS: That's amazing. Now, here's another really interesting thing to me about "We Will Rock You." It's the most famous song that you've written. It's a largely a cappella song. You come in for your guitar solo at the very end. So until like the very, very end, like, you're not even playing on it. And it's just kind of amazing that you, as the guitarist, would write a song that you're barely featured on.

MAY: Well, I'm featured stomping and clapping, you see.

GROSS: Well, yes. And you're very good at that.


MAY: Yeah. Well, you see, songs aren't about guitars to me. Songs are about truthfully, a song is about a singer, in my opinion. And if the singer gets the idea across, then you're almost home and dry. You know, you can make the most beautiful piece of production - and I love production. You know, production is a big, big part of my life. But I'm always aware that if you don't have the right singer, and he doesn't have the right feeling, you're wasting your time. So a song is a song to me. And it doesn't matter what song. It could be a piano or an accordion on it, you know. If it's the right song and the right singer, and you feel passion, that's what it's about.

The guitars - yeah, I didn't want us to be standard. I didn't want it to be like, oh, here's a guitar solo, and then we sing another verse. I wanted it to be something stark and different. So it was very deliberate that I left the guitar solo to the end just because that was a final statement and a different statement - taking it off in a completely different direction. It changes key into that piece too, you know. So it's a whole different kind of trip. It was not a standard pop song.

GROSS: OK. So let's just hear the end of "We Will Rock You." And we'll hear that guitar solo at the end. Let's do it.


QUEEN: (Singing) We will - we will rock you. Everybody, we will - we will rock you. We will - we will rock you. All right.

GROSS: So that's the end of "We Will Rock You," written by my guest guitarist and singer-songwriter Brian May, who was one of the founding members of Queen. So...

MAY: Actually can I comment on the end of that?

GROSS: Yeah, please.

MAY: Interesting that you played the end of the song - you can hear the guitar waiting in the wings. That was - you can hear this feedback note. It's always present although it's not taking center stage all through the last choruses and then finally bursts upon the scene. And you notice Freddy goes all right, which means he's kind of handing over to the guitar. And we're in a different universe once the guitar starts. And that was the intention. And it's very sort of informal.

And you may notice - there's a lot of things to notice. You may notice that the last piece - the very last little riffs are repeated. And they're not just repeated by me playing them again. They're repeated by cutting the tape and splicing it on again and again. So - and that's deliberate too it's a way of getting a sort of - a thing that makes you sit up towards the end. And then it stops. There is nothing after it, which I really enjoy. There's no big ending. It just stops and leaves you in midair thinking, well, what happened there.

BIANCULLI: Brian May speaking to Terry Gross in 2010 - more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's 2010 interview with Queen guitarist and astrophysicist Brian May. The group, in which he was a founding member, is the subject of the new movie "Bohemian Rhapsody," starring Rami Malek as lead singer Freddie Mercury.


GROSS: So you know, Queen is such an unusual mix of hard rock, music theater and also an opera into that. And when you consider your average hard rock fan of the '70s and '80s, I would say most of them would be totally not caring about music theater or opera. And it's amazing - it's surprising that you that you were all able to mix that together in a way that really just went over so big with hard rock fans.

MAY: Hmm.

GROSS: I mean, do you agree that that's an unusual mix?

MAY: It is an unusual mix. Again, it wasn't really deliberate. It wasn't planned. We were just sort of letting out all the stuff that's inside us. I think as kids we were exposed to all kinds of stuff. You know, my parents were into classical music. And I heard a lot of that around me as I was growing up. And radio when we were kids was incredibly different from what it was - from what it is today. I think our favorite program was Uncle Mac's "Children's Favourites."

Now, a lot of English people will tell you about this. The kids would write in and request their music. But it wasn't rock music. It wasn't pop music because it sort of didn't exist in those days. So people would write in and ask for something like the "Thunder And Lightning Polka," "The Laughing Policemen" or some kind of New Orleans jazz thing - you know, all sorts of stuff was mixing when we were kids. And we just lapped it all up. Mantovani - now, you probably don't know who Mantovani is.

GROSS: Oh, yes, I do (laughter).

MAY: Oh, you do? OK. He had the singing strings you know. And it would be a vast sort of panoply of violins and cellos and violas, et cetera. And that was all influential on us. I know for a fact this all comes out in our music. So on the one hand, we're spurred on by hearing the beginnings of rock music. Buddy Holly - bless his heart. You know, thank God for Buddy Holly. The Crickets, that's just what moved my body into wanting to do this. And - but on the other hand, there's all this stuff which we've been absorbing as kids, and it all sort of creeps back into our music.

GROSS: Now, when you teamed up with Freddie Mercury, who was, of course, the lead singer of - the late lead singer of Queen, did he nevertheless push you in directions or, you know, nudge you in directions that you didn't expect to head in - musically, theatrically, costumes?

MAY: Well, definitely costumes, yeah, I think. You know, Freddie was - I remember when Freddie first saw us play before he was in our band, as it were. we were called Smile. And he came along, and he said it's great. It's wonderful. It's incredible. Your music's great. But, you know, you don't dress right, you know. And you don't have enough lights. And you don't - you're not dramatic. You should be doing a show. You know, so Freddie was very influential in moving us across into being something much more theatrical, much more designed to connect with an audience. And it was a great thing. Yeah, Freddie brought a lot of things to us, which I'm sure otherwise we never would have considered.

GROSS: So let me ask you about the name of the band Queen. How did you feel about giving it that name? Freddie Mercury...

MAY: You've gone back a long way now, Terry.

GROSS: But let me just ask you the question. Freddie Mercury was either gay or bisexual. I'm not sure how he would have described himself. But he didn't really talk about that.

MAY: He would have said, I'm gay as a daffodil, darling (laughter).

GROSS: Would he have said that?

MAY: He did say that.

GROSS: Would he have said that in public?

MAY: He did say that in public. Freddie was not one to mince his words.

GROSS: (Laughter) So - but the name of the band - like, there's so many homophobic hard rock fans - there were in the '70s and '80s.

MAY: How did they feel about Freddie? Well, you know, it's strange. I think it was a sort of an undiscussed thing for such a long time, you know. And really, you know, the truth of the matter is nobody should care. Why should anybody care what sort of sexual persuasion people have? You know, he never hid the fact that he was turned on by men instead of by women. But strangely enough, I don't think it was always the case because I used to - you know, in the early days, we used to share a room. So I know who Freddie slept with in the early days, and they weren't men (laughter). So - but I think it sort of gradually changed. And I have no idea how these things work. But it wasn't really anybody's business but his, you know. And we never talked about it as if it was anything important. Why should it be important? We just made music together.

As for the fans, I don't know. You know, it was never really discussed. But I remember doing a promo tour for this song that we did which was called "I Want To Break Free." Now we made a video for that which was a pastiche of an English soap called "Coronation Street." And we dressed up as the characters in that soap. And there were female characters, so we were dressing up as girls, as women. And we had a fantastic laugh doing it. It was hilarious to do it. And all around the world, people laughed. And they got the joke, and they sort of understood it. I remember being on the promo tour in the Midwest of America and people's faces turning ashen. And they would say, no, we can't play this. We can't possibly play this. You know, it looks homosexual. And I went, so?


MAY: But it was a huge deal. And I know that it really damaged our sort of whole relationship with certainly radio in this country and probably the public as well.

GROSS: Oh, really?

MAY: And that's probably one of the reasons why this sort of hole developed between us and the states, which was really a tragedy because so many of our hits would have been - would have fitted very well into the life of the States. But we didn't really get back in there until "The Show Must Go On" and "These Are The Days Of Our Lives." And even those weren't the hits that they were around the rest of the world. These were some number one records around every civilized country.

BIANCULLI: Brian May speaking to Terry Gross in 2010. Queen, the rock group featuring him as lead guitarist, is the subject of the new movie "Bohemian Rhapsody," starring Rami Malek as Freddie Mercury. After a break, we'll continue their conversation. And film critic Justin Chang will review the new Coen brothers' film, a Western anthology collection called "The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs." I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.


QUEEN: (Singing) This thing called love, I just can't handle it. This thing called love, I must get round to it. I ain't ready - this crazy little thing called love. This thing called love, it cries like a baby in a cradle all night. It swings. It jives. It shakes all over like a jelly fish. I kind of like it - crazy little thing called love.

There goes my baby. She knows how to rock 'n' roll. She drives me crazy. She gives me hot and cold fever, then she leaves me in a cool, cool sweat. I got to get cool, relax, get hip and get back on my tracks. Take a back seat, hitchhike and take a long ride on my motorbike until I'm ready - crazy little thing called love.

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli in for Terry Gross, back with more of Terry's 2010 interview with Brian May. He's a founding member and lead guitarist of the band Queen, whose lead singer was the very theatrical Freddie Mercury who died in 1991. The band Queen is the subject of a new movie called "Bohemian Rhapsody," starring Rami Malek as Freddie Mercury. The title of the film also is the name of one of Queen's most famous songs.


GROSS: I think we should play here "Bohemian Rhapsody," which is perhaps, like, the most theatrical (laughter) piece...

MAY: A little "Bohemian Rhapsody."

GROSS: Yeah - of Queen.

MAY: It is very theatrical, isn't it? Yes (laughter). Yeah, this is Freddie's great baby. And yes we all contributed to the way it developed in the studio. But really it was so much constructed in his head before he ever stepped in there.

GROSS: How did he demo the song for you before the band started performing it?

MAY: He sat down at the piano and went de-de-de-de-de-de-de, de-de-de-de-de. And he said, and here's a bit where everything stops, and there's an acapella bit, and then we come back in again. He had it all mapped out. And that's the way it was done. The backing track was piano, bass and drums. And I was sitting in the studio, and it sounded great and intriguing and crisp and lively and challenging.

And then as the days went on and the weeks went on, we started overdubbing all the different vocal parts. And as you probably know, you know, there's many of us on there. We would do each part a number of times until it was right and then go to another part and multi-track everything. In those days, you're working on 24-track tapes, so you run out of tracks quite quickly. So when you've put down, say, half a dozen tracks, you have to bounce them. You have to combine them into one track and then move on, which is a dicey process because you're losing information at that point. You're also losing generations.

And we did it so often on "Bohemian Rhapsody." The legend says - and it's true (laughter) - that the tape wore out. We suddenly realized we were losing top on the vocals. They were getting a bit dull. We held the tape up to the light, and you could see through it. So we - there was hardly any oxide left on it. So at that point, we swiftly had to make good copy and carry on. So it was a very different way of recording to the way you would do it now because there was no going back.

GROSS: Now, you mentioned that this started as, you know, piano and then piano, bass and drums. But you do have a guitar solo, a very well-known one.

MAY: Oh, yeah. Well, that's added after. Yes.

GROSS: Yeah. And it kind of bridges two sections of the song. And...

MAY: Yes.

GROSS: So I thought we'd hear an excerpt of the song and hear your guitar solo bridging (laughter) those two sections. So here's Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody" with my guest, Brian May, on guitar and also doing some of the voices.


QUEEN: (Singing) Mama, ooh, I don't want to die. I sometimes wish I'd never been born at all. I see a little silhouetto of a man. Scaramouche, Scaramouche, will you do the Fandango? Thunderbolt and lightning, very, very frightening me. Galileo, Galileo, Galileo, Galileo, Galileo figaro, magnifico. I'm just a poor boy, nobody loves me. He's just a poor boy from a poor family. Spare him his life from this monstrosity. Easy come, easy go, will you let me go? Bismillah, no, we will not let you go. Let him go. Bismillah, we will not let you go. Let him go. Bismillah, we will not let you go, will not let you go, will not let you go, never let me go, oh. No, no, no, no, no, no, no. Oh, mama mia, mama mia, mama mia, let me go. Beelzebub has a devil put aside for me, for me, for me.

QUEEN: So that's Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody" with - featuring my guest, Brian May, on guitar. And how many voices did you do on that?

MAY: I'd have to go back and check, but a lot.

GROSS: A lot.

MAY: I suppose, you know, a few dozen. Yeah, a lot of voices on there because we're singing - normally, there's three of us. Me and Freddie and Roger would sing, John wouldn't. And we would sing one line until we felt it was right. It had the right spontaneity, had the right passion, and it was in tune and it was in time. Then we'd move on and double track it and double track it again.

So you got three times three voices at that point for one part, so you got nine voices for each part. Then in some cases, there were, I suppose, between six and nine parts on the record. So you multiply that together and you get, you know, well, you know, about 80 tracks, something like that, I suppose. But there - by the time you've got 80 tracks, they've all been bounced down. And the information is contained on much fewer tracks.

GROSS: Could you explain to me what the mama mia/Galileo/Scaramouche part is about?

MAY: No...


MAY: ...Of course not (laughter) because I didn't write it.

GROSS: Could Freddie Mercury have explained it to you?

MAY: You should've asked Freddie. Oh, well, you don't have to ask him - wouldn't you? Yeah.

GROSS: Did...

MAY: I would never ask him.

GROSS: Why wouldn't you have asked him, what am I singing about? Why am I singing this?

MAY: You know, it's a funny thing. I think about it quite a lot. We never discussed what our songs meant. It was a sort of unwritten law that there was something in the songs which was very personal. And if somebody brought it in, you wouldn't get into it. You would just assume that they knew what they were doing. And it's odd, isn't it?

I mean, later on, it changed. I remember starting to write "The Show Must Go On," and Freddie came and sat down beside me. And I said, I want you to participate. I want us to do this together. And we absolutely discussed every single word and what it meant and what we were trying to do. But in the early days, it never ever happened. We just assumed that the writer of the song knew what he was doing.

GROSS: So let me just play you one thing that I'm sure you're familiar with. Here it comes.


MIKE MYERS: (As Wayne) I think we'll go with a little "Bohemian Rhapsody," gentleman.

DANA CARVEY: (As Garth) Good call.

MAY: The delightful "Wayne's World," yes, yes.

GROSS: Yes, Mike Myers...


GROSS: ...For the movie "Wayne's World."

MAY: I have to thank Mike Myers for introducing us to a whole new generation at that time. It was amazing what it did.

GROSS: What did it do for Queen?

MAY: Oh, it completely translated us to the new generation. And Freddie was already not well by that time, but I took it 'round to him. Mike Myers phoned me up and sent me the copy and said, you know, you make sure Freddie hears it - you know, could you? And I said, yeah. So I took it 'round to him, and Freddie loved it. He laughed and thought it was great. And he went - actually, what he said was slightly unprintable, but you can bleep it if you'd like (laughter).

He said - you know, we had a strange thing about America because America's where we grew up, you know? And it really made us as a group, all that touring. We used to tour every year about nine months, and most of it was in the States in those early days. So it really formed us as a band. And we absolutely had a love affair with America. There came a point when it all kind of went wrong in America, and we were like the biggest group in the world every place except the states. And I don't need to go into it, you know, the reason or whatever. It doesn't really matter.

But it was very difficult for us to sort of get back. And there's a whole kind of gap in Queen history if you view it from America. And Freddie was very aware of that. And we never really came back and toured the way we should've done. You know, every place else in the world, we played football stadiums. But it never happened in the States. And Freddie, when I played him this thing, said - (laughter) well, he said, you know, it might do for us what nothing else would do, and he was dead right.

You know, it's amazing that even the fact that Freddie died didn't make that much of a difference. But the fact that "Wayne's World" put it in their film did make a difference. And I suppose the quote that I'm steering clear of is that Freddie, at one point, said to me, you know, I suppose I'll have to [expletive] die before we ever get big in America again.


MAY: And it's a strange quote, but it sort of came true in a very strange way. But "Wayne's World" was the vehicle through which young people discovered Queen - you know, a whole new set of young people. And it was great for us, you know and I guess still is.

GROSS: Have you heard the Muppets version (laughter) of "Bohemian Rhapsody"?

MAY: Yes, of course, of course, yeah. Well, it...

GROSS: It's really fun. Can I play that for our listeners?

MAY: Yeah, you can. Well, we had a - we'd had to have heard it because it's us on the record. You know, they asked us if they could do it. And they said, look; we can sing this, and we can perform it. But we can't really play it. So can we use your actual track? So...

GROSS: Oh, I see. I see.

MAY: Generally we say - generally we don't let anybody do that. But in this case, because it's the venerable Muppets, we said, yes, we'll do that with you. So yes, we produced it with them.

GROSS: It's so much fun. So here's part of it.


THE MUPPETS: (Singing) I see a little silhouetto of a clam. Scaramouche, Scaramouche, will you do the fandango? Thunderbolt and lightning - very, very frightening me. Mimimimi (ph), Galileo, mimimimi, Galileo, mimimimi - Galileo figaro. I'm just a poor boy. Nobody loves me. He's just a poor boy from a poor family. Spare him his life from this monstrosity. Easy come, easy go. Will you let me go? Manamana (ph), doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo. Let me throw - manamana. They we will not let you throw. Let me blow. Manamana - they will not let you blow. Let me joke - do not like your jokes. Let me joke - do not like your jokes. Let me joke (laughter) - no, no, no, no, no, no, no. Furnigui (ph), furnigui - mamma mia, let me go. Does anyone know if there is a part for me, for me, for me?

BIANCULLI: We'll hear more of our interview with Brian May, who played lead guitar with the band Queen, after a break. The new film about the band, "Bohemian Rhapsody," is now in theaters. This is FRESH AIR.


BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's 2010 interview with Queen guitarist Brian May. The group, in which he was a founding member, is the subject of the new movie "Bohemian Rhapsody" starring Rami Malek as lead singer Freddie Mercury.


GROSS: Let me get to some more recent developments in your life. Just a few years ago, you got your Ph.D. in a subject that you had been pursuing before Queen, and that's astrophysics. You have an astrophysics...

MAY: That's right.

GROSS: ...Book that you co-wrote recently, and...

MAY: It's called "Bang!"...

GROSS: Yeah.

MAY: ..."A Complete History Of The Universe."

GROSS: So...

MAY: An unassuming little title, I feel.

GROSS: It's interesting for me to think about you going back to the university after you'd become such a star. Of course when you're getting your Ph.D., it's not like you're sitting in a large lecture class with people, but...

MAY: Oh, yes, well, basically it is, you know? Yeah, I didn't do that many lectures, but basically you're abandoning your status outside. And you're going back, and you're being a student. It was tough, I have to say.

GROSS: Yeah. What was hard about that?

MAY: Well, it's tough because you're having to be very much subservient to the system again, you know? And you forget how hard that is after you've left school and university, you know, to go back into that system where you're constantly judged and you're assessed as you go along. And you do a piece of work which you're proud of, and then somebody goes, well, yeah, but can you go back and do it again and do this and this and this? It's frustrating and difficult.

And it was tough, I'd say, but I didn't want to be treated any different from any other student. I wanted this Ph.D. to be real, and it was. You know, they didn't make it easy on me, and I never wanted that. So it was tough. And I did it for a year. And I really had to ditch the rest of my life to do it, but it was worth it. I'm happy that I got the Ph.D.

GROSS: You wrote your thesis on a survey of radical velocities in the zodiacal dust cloud. I don't really know...

MAY: Yeah, radial, radial...

GROSS: ...What any of that means.


MAY: It's a survey of radial velocities in the zodiacal dust cloud, yeah.

GROSS: Oh, radial. I wrote it as radical velocities. I still don't know what it means.

MAY: It could be radical (laughter).

GROSS: We - can you give a very layperson's description of what you were studying in that, of what you were...

MAY: Yes, I can.

GROSS: Yeah.

MAY: I'm just - it's a study of dust - as simple as that. It's dust - in this case, in the solar system. So we're actually surrounded by it. The Earth moves through a cloud of dust constantly, and a lot of it comes down to Earth. And my experiment was to try and find out the motions of that dust, trying to figure out where it's going, what it's doing, where it came from and what it means in terms of the creation of the solar system.

Now, to be honest, it was quite a - it became something which people moved on from. It became a bit of a backwater in the 30 years in which I was absent from the subject because people were into, really, cosmology, the largest-scale study of the universe. And our little local solar system was not so interesting for many people. But luckily for me, about the time that I returned to it, we were discovering exoplanets. That's planets in other solar systems in orbit around other suns. So it was discovered at that time that they, too, had dust clouds. So if we're going to study dust, why don't we study the dust on our own doorstep, in our own solar system?

So my subject became quite trendy again, quite important for people. The way I studied them was through Doppler shifts, and a Doppler shift is a shift of frequency that you experience due to motion. The best way - the best analogy you can give is a police siren. If you're listening to a police car coming towards you, it goes (imitating siren). But as it goes past you, it goes (imitating siren). It goes down.

GROSS: Yeah, that's true, isn't it?

MAY: And that's a Doppler shift. Yeah, that's because the waves are stretching out as this police car passes you, and it changes from coming towards you to going away from you. Now, the same kind of thing happens with light. So I was looking at Doppler shifts in light due to the motions of the dust.

GROSS: So...

MAY: And from that, you can infer how they're moving.

GROSS: So - yeah, so what were the larger implications of what you were looking at?

MAY: A-ha, that's a good question. The larger implications are, where did it come from, and was it part of the creation of the universe, or is it being created now?

GROSS: The dust.

MAY: The dust, yeah. And in fact, all of the above is true. You know, a certain amount of dust is created in every event in the universe and particularly in supernovae. A lot of dust is put out. And we human beings and all animals and all plants and everything on the Earth are made of the dust that has come out of supernovae. Now, that's not something that I discovered, but that's a fact. So when Joni Mitchell said, we are stardust; we are golden, she was right. We are stardust. And I find that quite an amazing thing to think about. The material of our body did come from the insides of stars. It was made in the insides of stars.

GROSS: Well, Brian May, it's been such a pleasure to have you. Thank you so much for talking with us.

MAY: Thank you. It was a pleasure, Terry.

GROSS: I really appreciate it.

BIANCULLI: Brian May speaking to Terry Gross in 2010. Queen, the rock group featuring May as lead guitarist, is the subject of the new movie "Bohemian Rhapsody," starring Rami Malek as Freddie Mercury.


QUEEN: (Singing) Can anybody find me somebody to love? Each morning I get up, I die a little, can barely stand on my feet. Take a look at yourself. Take a look in the mirror and cry - and I cry. Lord, what are you doing to me? I have spent all my years in believing in you. But I just can't get no relief, Lord. Somebody, somebody, somebody, somebody - can anybody find me somebody to love? Yeah. I work hard. He works hard. Every day of my life, I work till I ache my bones. At the end - at the end of the day, I take home my hard-earned pay all on my own. And I get down on my knees, and I start to pray till the tears run down from my eyes. Somebody, somebody, somebody - can anybody find me somebody to love? He works hard every day - every day. I try, I try, I try...

BIANCULLI: Coming up, film critic Justin Chang reviews the new Coen brothers' film, an anthology Western called "The Ballad of Buster Scruggs." This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DAVE MCKENNA'S "SWINGING ON A STAR") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.