"Mate, I used to get a pig’s head and cut it up. Tear up copies of the Koran. I’d get dead rats and birds and smash them up with a hammer and throw them at the audience!”
I’m sitting with Russell Brand in the rooftop garden restaurant in Soho House, Los Angeles. It’s a beautiful spot at the best of times, but especially now, in the hushed lull of mid-morning, with not a sound in the air but the trickle of fountains and the distant woosh of miniature cars on Sunset Boulevard below.
And yet, here we are with rat entrails flying all over the shop. It’s my fault for bringing up his early days as a comic working the London circuit, long before the fame and the sobriety — before he became the Brand we know, the strutting dandy sex pirate from West Ham with the eyeliner and the undone shirt.
“Now, all right, you could go two ways with it. One: I was too lazy to write material so I’d just go up and do things that were shocking. But the smart-arse way of saying it is that at the time I was fascinated by people like [hardcore punk] GG Allin, you know, who would defecate on stage and harm himself? I’d think, ‘I can do anything in this space.’”
He looks down. “It breaks my heart to see it on film, I was so off my head. Sometimes I’d get beaten up. But I remember going, ‘It’s just a cluster of atoms this rat! It’s already dead! I’m only rearranging the atoms!’”
Brand has fought many urges over the years — smack, draw, booze, nookie, you name it — but this is one of the most formidable: the urge to rearrange atoms; to upend the equilibrium just to see what happens.
It’s the devil on his shoulder, telling him to jump when he’s on a precipice, or cause an international incident when he’s handed the microphone for the closing ceremony of the Olympics.
He described it to The Observer as “The thing that says there’s only this, there’s only now, there’s nothing else, so fuck everything.” He doesn’t heed that voice any more — “Nothing good ever come from it, Sanjiv, that’s what I’ve learned.” But that voice is one of the reasons why he’s been such a vortex of controversy over the years.
“Look at that mate!” He points over my shoulder. A hummingbird has flown into the restaurant, way up on the umpteenth floor. It hovers over us a minute and then zips off into the sky again like a sprite. Brand starts talking very quickly now.
“How fascinating it is to us that a hummingbird would come in here, because temporarily it disrupts the delicate, elegant balance of the situation. That’s why I like to change and disrupt contexts. People are looking for kicks, they’re looking for extremes, they’re going on skiing holidays, they’re doing crack. But right on your front door, there is homelessness. That’s extreme. You’re just programmed to tune it out of your life. But how can you be shocked by one person smashing up a rat and then walk past homeless people on your way home?”
He’s excited now, sitting up.
“So me doing that is like a detonation. Reality can become anything. It’s only the result of the ideas of people like you. Catholicism is only an idea. Wednesday is only an idea. None of these things are real! So at any point, we can go — this is what reality is. And, surely, when we’re looking for principles for formulating reality, one of the founding ones has got to be equality and love.”
Suddenly he falls silent. “Huh.” And for a moment, I suspect we’re both thinking the same thing. That he wasn’t sure where that soliloquy would end, since he was going so fast, but now we know — he just went from dead rats to love, hurtling from thought to thought, each one forming a microsecond behind the words. Articulacy as an adrenalin sport.
“So that’s why I smashed up rats with a hammer on stage in Shoreditch on heroin. Also, I think I wanted some attention.”
He still wants attention. And he’s still a keen rearranger of atoms, just not with hammers so much anymore. As he told Conan O’Brien last year: “I want to do things that are disruptive, unusual, but ultimately underscored by love.”
As always, he’s firing on several cylinders at once. His chat show Brand X is doing well — a return to the kinds of stunts and pranks that worked so well for him in the UK, until they didn’t.
There’s a documentary about him coming soon, made by Oliver Stone no less. It covers his last five years, in which he got married and divorced, to the pop star Katy Perry, and became increasingly obsessed with spiritual things.
Then there are the movies — a Diablo Cody film called Paradise, which comes out just as soon as he’s finished shooting another project.
But what energises him most is his stand-up. To this day, he feels the same exhilaration he felt with the dead rat in his hands: “I can do anything in this space.”
“Stand-up is not a frivolous thing. It’s not a dangling appendage of my celebrity. It’s my absolute core,” he says.
“You know the slightly saccharine, bilious and indulgent reverence to the craft that Judy Garland has: ‘It’s the only place I feel alive!’ Well, you could say that about Morrissey. I know that the only place he’s alive is on stage. The rest of the time he’s in his coffin, waiting for the lid to be nailed down. And it’s the same for me. I’ve been distracted, I’ve done other things when I shouldn’t have bothered. Ponderland was kind of good, some of the films were kind of good. But really the only thing that actually makes me raw is stand-up. When I’m doing it, it’s beautiful. And I don’t mean at the O2 where it’s crafted and refined, I mean when there’s 500 people and I’m improvising.”
He writes nothing down. Thoughts churn all day and all week and then he puts himself in front of a crowd. It’s a high-wire act.
"I’m working on material now that I’m really proud of. It’s getting good,” he says. “It’s about Jesus, Gandhi, Malcolm X and Che Guevara, and what things they have done that are inconvenient to the myth.”
But the stand-up’s different this time. Not long ago, he did a gig in West Hollywood and his agent called him afterwards to ask if he was all right. Because lately, Brand can’t help but get all spiritual wherever he goes.
He’s on a mission. He’s a teetotal vegetarian ex-addict with Hindu tattoos on his arms, and he loves nothing more than to shoot off on a cosmic tangent about things like “truth”, “human” and “divine oneness”. Today’s no exception.
“In the past I would have been like, ‘Oh, I’ve got to meet some journalist, from Esquire — have they said anything negative about me?’ But now I think, ‘I’m meeting a human being, who was born like me and he’s going to die like me. If I’m beautiful to that person then that will be good. If I’m negative to that person that will not be good.’”
And so it is for every situation. He reminds himself to be beautiful to waiters (and especially waitresses); to other drivers; to not only Jimmy Kimmel, but to all the people at the show when he’s invited on.
As soon as he wakes up, the routines begin. He meditates twice a day, using the Transcendental Meditation, techniques that The Beatles were so fond of. There’s Kundalini yoga for core energy and hot yoga for stretching.
And he contemplates things like how we’ve been conditioned to accept Third World poverty, or how our culture rewards the few but not the many, and how he’s still so flawed, so attached to material things, that he actually panicked the day he left his precious boots at yoga.
“When you say that stuff, people equate it with depression,” he says. “But I’m happier than I’ve ever been. I’m just thinking about reality. It’s not just, ‘Woo-hoo! West Ham beat West Brom! And I’m getting my dick sucked!’ I’m aware that none of those things really matter.”
This is not insignificant. After all, the Brand libido is a thing of legend. In 2005, he managed to tuck it in a drawer for two months of “winky nick” (sex rehab) in Pennsylvania, but there was no containing it upon his release.
He won The Sun’s coveted Shagger of the Year award for the next three years (they renamed the award after him). It’s no surprise really that the biggest scandal of his career should have stemmed in part from his sex life.
The almighty furore over the answer machine message he and Jonathan Ross left for the actor Andrew Sachs as part of Brand’s Radio 2 show — all because Ross blurted out “he fucked your granddaughter” — would never have happened if it wasn’t true.
But as Brand said in his stand-up feature Scandalous, it was “a statistical inevitability” that he would sleep with some sitcom star’s granddaughter eventually. In his best selling memoir of 2007, My Booky Wook, he writes,
“I just like girls, all different ones, in an unsophisticated, unevolved way, like a Sun reader or a yobbo at a bus stop in Basildon.”
Now, though, things may have changed. He came to the US, fell in love with Katy Perry and they got married in Rajasthan, India, in October 2010. But the divorce came 14 months later. And divorce can rattle a man.
ESQUIRE: I’m guessing it was a culture shock coming to the US.
RUSSELL BRAND: Fucking massive. Not first of all because I moved over with a load of mates and we all lived in a house — my mate Danny from Romford who does my security; Nicola who does my hair and make up, she’s from Rainham in Essex; Nick my manager, from Manchester; Matt Morgan who was writing with me; a couple of other people. There was whole loads of new birds, I was having an amazing time.
ESQ: It sounds like Entourage.
RB: It was a bit like that. But I like it. Humans are tribal animals I think.
ESQ: So what was the culture shock?
RB: It was when I met Katy, fell in love and moved in with her. That was like, “Oh fuck, where are my mates?” That was mental. I’d not lived with a woman for a long time.
ESQ: What went wrong?
RB: Some of it’s the fame, but I think getting married is — you’ve got a whole other person that you’ve got to make as important as you!
ESQ: Was it the monogamy?
RB: Obviously, when I’m in a relationship I’m diligently monogamous and stick to the principles agreed on within that relationship. You’ve got to, I think. But it’s going to be hard if I go into a monogamous relationship. I live a life where I have a lot of freedom, so if I meet someone and I go, “Right let’s be monogamous,” that’s a fucking change. But I tried it and I loved it, I really think she’s a lovely beautiful person. It’s just hard, isn’t it? She’s got a lot of options, I’ve got a lot of options, so you’ve got to really, really want it.
ESQ: Do you live on your own now?
RB: I live with Nicola and my friend Sadie. And Morrissey the cat. But I’m not in a relationship.
ESQ: What about sex, though? Your life sounds kind of monkish now, what with trying to keep all your addictions in check.
RB: It’s hard because we live in a culture that takes every opportunity to stimulate your primal desires. Sexual imagery is everywhere. Maybe the second or third time I met Morrissey, it was like six years ago, and he came to see me do a stand-up show in Hollywood. And at the end, in this humble backstage area with a concrete floor and plastic garden chairs, we’re both sitting there — his people are standing around, my people are standing around — and he goes: “Well, how do you do it?” And this is the realisation of a childhood dream — my hero, the great artist Morrissey, affirming and praising my work. But while he’s saying that, a girl with big tits walks past in the background, and I immediately look at her. It’s not even a decision — it’s more like “breathe”, or “kidneys separate urine from water”. It’s happening on such a deep level, that stuff.
ESQ: Now that you’re sober, is sex your only release?
RB: Well, there’s performing... But yeah, girls. I love it. I do love women very much. I mean, I like people, but however well you and me get on, there’s never going to be a bit where we go, “Let’s cum!” And just the possibility that that can happen is so exciting, it’s almost overwhelming.
ESQ: And yet you’re not going for it like you used to. Why?
RB: Are you married?
ESQ: Nine years.
RB: Well, because I’ve always had an intrepid fascination with novelty, the first price you pay is I can’t have a wife like you do. I’ve always been like, “You’re lovely... but she’s also lovely”. It’s like when I get into a new football management game — if something’s good, I just do it all the time. I’ve given over too much of my life to its pursuit. And I’ve probably harmed other people, by being selfish. And really, I’d like to be married. I’m just not transmitting that frequency of “Soulmate! Soulmate!” I’m transmitting the frequency of “Mmm!” [He rubs his hands and licks his lips.]
ESQ: Divorce didn’t put you off the idea of marrying again?
RB: No, I loved it. I definitely want to do it again. I don’t think it’s just social conditioning the reason people pair off, I think humans like it.
ESQ: But what’s wrong with new girls all the time?
RB: It is really nice, but it’s a little circle — you know, like we go on these carousels? And I want to go on a long journey with someone. I watched the Godfather films lately, and Michael and Vito Corleone, they’re both family men. But Fredo and the Senator when they’re out in Havana, they’re off chasing skirt.
ESQ: How would you know if you met the right person?
RB: If she said, “Right you, that’s enough of that, you’re coming with me and this is how things are going to be.” If she has that kind of strength and she laughs at my jokes, that’s it, I’m done. I’ll be like, “Brilliant, I’ve been waiting for you.”
ESQ: Any candidates so far?
RB: Not yet. But until then...
It’s hard not to psychoanalyse Brand. He’s so open about his life and issues, in his work, in conversation, that he practically invites it. His roaring libido, for instance, seems contradictory in such a camp stage persona, so admittedly bad at sports.
Is it about outdoing his father, Ron, a more manly figure, and apparently a talented footballer?
Or is his constant sexual yearning a reaction to his early abandonment — first by his father at six months, and then figuratively by his mother, Barbara, who had to fight three separate battles with cancer, during which time he was sent to live with various relatives.
How perfect is it that the future sex addict was left alone with his father’s porn collection, listening to him have it away next door? Or that he was abused by his tutor at the age of seven? Or that his father later took him, at 17, on a sex tour of the Far East?
Brand grew up in Grays, Essex, which was more or less as it sounds. His mum was a secretary who worked all kinds of odd jobs to keep them afloat. And Russell was all over the place — an unhappy kid, bulimic by 11, and once drugs entered the picture, that was it, game over.
He’s an evangelist for addiction therapies now — it’s his favorite topic, even ahead of the spiritual stuff. But he still misses the anaesthesis of heroin. “If you’ve got heroin, nothing matters,” he says. “It gives you constancy in a forever changing world.”
Performance filled the hole. Acting in the school play at 15 was, he says, “an incredible relief. In the words of Madonna, ‘I didn’t know how lost I was until I found you.’”
He pursued it to the Italia Conti stage school, mustering the courage for auditions in bottles of the cheapest vodka. And though he was expelled for drugs, he did make it into the prestigious Central St Martins Drama Centre.
But he was kicked out of there, too, for what he describes as “emotional difficulties and drunkenness and drug abuse and tantrums”.
But along the way he discovered that he was a stand-up. “It was the slow recognition that everything else — costume, other actors, lines — were all unnecessary obstacles to what I wanted to do. It was one of the crazier times in my life when I was waking up with refugees, getting arrested, and trying to steal stuff from hospitals — and when I’d talk to people about it, I’d get on a thread and people would start laughing.”
It was a turbulent ascent from there. There was some rat smashing. A gig as an MTV VJ which he lost after introducing his crack dealer to Kylie Minogue and dressing up as Osama Bin Laden the day after 9/11.
When it looked for a moment as though his career was crumbling, his agent John Noel marched him to rehab — not a fancy celebrity one either. And it worked.
“My ambition is the most powerful force in me,” he writes in My Booky Wook. He then spent three years at Big Brother’s Big Mouth, before landing a chat show at MTV called 1 Leicester Square, and all kinds of other gigs — presenting awards shows, a BBC Four series, a Radio 2 show that went out with an almighty bang.
But before the whole Sachs business, Brand was extraordinarily prolific and popular. There was a period in 2006, when he was hosting four different TV shows and two weekly radio shows, he had a Guardian column, and a DVD of his live show on sale.
He’d also just shot Forgetting Sarah Marshall with Judd Apatow, a clear illustration of how shrewd and ambitious Team Brand were at that time.
“My manager Nick actually said, ‘Let’s do 1 Leicester Square because they’ll get good guests’, which they fucking did — Tom Cruise, Adam Sandler, everyone. I think Americans don’t know that about MTV in England, no fucker watches it. And Nick was like, ‘If they meet you, someone will put you in a movie.’”
That someone was Adam Sandler. His agent put him in touch with LA people and now look — he lives there.
But it was an answer machine message that put him on the plane. Even in LA, people are vaguely aware that Brand left England under some terrible cloud.
ESQUIRE: It looked like the shit hit the fan and you fled.
RUSSELL BRAND: But I’d already made Sarah Marshall. I’d already booked The Tempest with Helen Mirren. No, the reason I left was it went all serious. And what people don’t realise is that that show was about me and my mate Matt Morgan, and he had already fucked off. We had an argument about something a couple of months before, and so I was just carrying on out of pride. It would have ended anyway.
ESQ: But why move to LA?
RB: That was already in place. I was booked to do a Comedy Central thing. I was moving out here anyway. I would have carried on doing the radio show if Matt wanted to do it — we did it from here before for six months. All that changed was I resigned.
ESQ: The whole fuss that followed, what do you make of it all now, five years later?
RB: When I think about it, I was disrespectful to that girl, Georgina [Baillie], and it was disrespectful to Andrew Sachs. But it wasn’t deliberate. Of course it’s wrong to just call someone and say, “I fucked your granddaughter,” and then hang up. But that’s not what happened. It was a sequence of events. What we did was wrong, too, but a different kind of wrong. Of course the show was pre-recorded, so we could have not put it in, but I was like, it’s funny, because we kept calling back and apologising — it’s like that bit in Swingers with Jon Favreau.
ESQ: The more it escalates, the funnier it gets.
RB: Exactly. And there’s a bit where a man is in a hallway listening to an answer machine message, and I apologise for my part in that. I’ve apologised to him and to planet Earth — it’s not like an oil spill! But everything else was phenomena, fabrication, confection, and it was about the destruction of the BBC. It was a moral crusade by a right-wing militant newspaper, and they don’t like Jonathan or me, and primarily they don’t like the BBC, because it’s fantastic and it’s publicly owned. So it was bullshit.
It’s never easy for an English comic to “crack America”. Eddie Izzard became a huge stand-up star, but not so much with the movies. Steve Coogan’s genius never quite translated. Ricky Gervais scored large, though he may have peaked at this point.
So in the scheme of things, Brand is doing just fine — five years in and ascending nicely.
But they still don’t really get him here. How could they? The first they’d heard of him was as Aldous Snow, the rock star character in Sarah Marshall. And that’s all lazy Hollywood writers know to do with English people — rock stars, butlers, villains, Victorians.
Back home, however, he’s cherished. We’ve seen his whole riotous evolution from a crackhead MTV presenter to this quintessentially English persona — the camp dandy with the Essex vowels, who’s incredibly well read and intelligent but doesn’t take it too seriously.
And we know that he’s naked up there. He has always revealed himself to a degree that would make most of us squirm. The sex, the drugs, the neuroses and confessions.
And yet as vulnerable as he seems, he assures us as he goes that he’s keeping plenty in reserve — he hasn’t plundered his privacy after all. It’s just a semblance of nakedness.
When he was talking about smashing rats earlier, he said, “I think I wanted attention.” But he has always wanted attention, and he has always admitted it. It’s the Brand brand — self-exposure matched by ruthless self-analysis.
While not all stand-ups embrace the performance aspect of their job, Brand loves to show off and display himself. He wants to be loved — he’ll tell us as much — and the sheer energy of his efforts in that direction, combined with his sensitivity, his prodigious literacy, always underpinned by a genuine kindness, have made him one of the UK’s most intriguing and original funnymen.
Then there’s his speech, his unique way of going from Oscar Wilde to Essex in a sentence. He’ll swoop in from a high-flown, Keats-quoting stream of thought, to the juddering halt of “the things what them people done”. And the whole thing’s peppered with baby talk about winkies and dinkles.
Not surprisingly, he has an explanation, a rich one. “Some artists like Noel Gallagher write about things in a very accessible way, with no grandiosity, or artifice, or needless splendour,” he says.
“Me, I love that stuff. I like ornate language and particularity. But, at the same time, if you look at A Clockwork Orange, and Shakespeare, amending language isn’t just possible, it’s cool. Some of the most articulate people I know are working-class people. It’s not just words like mellifluous and recalcitrant. There’s other things — ‘I’ll iron you out’. Or, ‘He’s got a bird wrapped around him’. That language is also beautiful. And if you can use both, you’re talking to a lot of people.”
These subtleties are lost on Americans. It’s one of the challenges for English comics out here. Brand makes great play in his comedy of shared references, especially those from childhood. When Margaret Thatcher died, he wrote a piece in The Guardian that was for many a revelation — resonant, wise and with a poetic eye for detail.
But this is what he’s best at — evoking a period, a memory, a feeling. Before he left that answer machine message for Andrew Sachs, he’d offended the guy who played Zippy on Rainbow, and he and Matt Morgan had given Grotbags a call, asking her the very pertinent question: “Why are you so interested in getting Emu anyway?”
I ask him if he has any plans to go back to England, and he pulls out his phone and plays me a YouTube video. It’s a nostalgic song for children of the Eighties, who grew up with Roobarb and Custard, Bod and “N-n-n-n-nineteen”.
We both feel a pang when Bagpuss is mentioned.
“Mate, that’s the most beautiful thing. I can’t watch that fucking thing now without crying.” He leans forward and does the voice. “And when Bagpuss goes to sleep, all his friends go to sleep. Professor Yaffle was just a bookend. The mice were just ornaments on a church organ. Even Bagpuss himself was just an old stuffed cat, a bit ragged and loose at the seams. But Emily loved him.”
Billy Connolly lives here in California too, another roaring stage presence with a difficult childhood, a noisy working class philosopher who has mined his own life for his material.
He once said that comedy works “not because you’ve said something terribly funny; it’s because you’ve reminded them of something very bright in their lives, because you’re so passionate about telling them this tiny thing.”
Brand isn’t so different. We sit watching his iPhone, in Soho House, so far from home — two Englishmen, hearts swelling.
“You know what — there’s a line in a Howard Barker play,” he says. “‘In the end the only place to go is where you’re from.’ So once you’ve been around the world and tried everything, where are you going to end up?”
He puts his phone back in his pocket, sits up, eyes full of laughter. “Grays!”
Brand X with Russell Brand returns to Sky Atlantic HD in October. Thank you to The Standard Downtown LA hotel and Spin Galactic ping-pong club.