Interview: Russell Brand
“I’m just driving past the Good Mixer pub in Camden, one of Amy’s haunts and also past the hostel next door where I used to buy heroin. I used to score there, so I’m in the scene of my addiction and also the scene of her demise,” he says. “Yeah, it’s f***ing tragic… she would have done more great stuff… same with Kurt Cobain, but the culture devoured them.”
He pauses, is silent for a while as the memories unfold beyond the window, then he’s back, explaining his book on addiction and why he thinks the system is to blame for our constant need to consume.
“Of course there’s biochemical individual pathology, but there’s also the culture that overstimulates us, makes us believe we can be fulfilled materially through purchase or consumption and addiction is just the amplification of the idea. Heroin is just the natural conclusion of the idea of need, a distillation of all your myriad needs into ‘I want this thing’. Before that, at the myriad needs level, that’s just another way of describing capitalism.”
These days Brand lives outside the capital in a rural idyll far removed from his former Camden/Shoreditch stamping grounds having also left behind his former incarnations of drug addict, serial shagger, Hollywood wannabe and prime-time political pundit.
“It’s the countryside, sort of outside of London, god what is it, Oxfordshire? Buckinghamshire? Some sort of weird axes of those things. It’s certainly rural. It’s not far, an hour and a half, but I’m in London at the moment because of the promo of the book and bloody ‘ell, it speeds up everyfink. It’s nicer in the country with the chickens and the dog and the bees,” he says.
Monogamy and fatherhood have made for a happier, more mellow Brand at 42. He married 30-year-old lifestyle blogger and designer Laura, sister of television presenter Kirsty Gallacher and daughter of Scottish golfing legend Bernard in Henley-on-Thames in August. And no, he’s “not good at golf at all, even crazy golf, can’t get the height”.
Despite his new life in the country he hasn’t lost his charisma and he sparks with ideas and references as he explains why he has taken on the subject of addiction in Recovery. The stand-up, actor, presenter turned activist is also out there with his YouTube web series The Trews and more recently podcasts, Under the Skin With Russell Brand, which see him interview guests from the world of academia, popular culture and the arts. Recent interviewees include Ruby Wax discussing meditation and mental health, Yanis Varoufakis, former Greek Minister of Finance and academic and Marxist geographer David Harvey.
But how does he have time, with a show to get together and a new baby, a dog, chickens and bees, even to read all of David Harvey’s Marx, Capital and the Madness of Economic Reason, in preparation for the podcast?
“Well, I didn’t!” he laughs. Brand’s schtick is to get them on, engage them in discussion and let them speak for themselves. “David Harvey was excellent, and you’ll like the next one,” he tells me, “Carne Ross, he’s brilliant, the former Foreign Office diplomat that became an anarchist. It’s a really good one.”
But back to the book, his fourth (the profits of 2014’s Revolution were used to set up the Trew Era Café in Hackney in 2015, a not-for-profit cafe which is run by recovering addicts). This one offers freedom from addictions using the contained 12-step programme, something Brand himself used and continues to endorse, watching for old behaviours and remembering the point of life is to help others.
“I wrote the book because I’m beginning to understand that addiction can be used as an allegory for all forms of attachment, and that the 12-step programme is a solution to substance dependency that can be applied to other forms of attachments, it’s a universal tool.”
You name it, Brand has been addicted to it. As he puts it in the book, “chocolate, heroin, showing off, masturbation, becoming famous, money, crack, getting into exciting relationships, getting into politics, self-harm, puking up, rage and frankly Mr Shankly it’s been a carousel of absolute bollocks”.
He may well have abstained from drug use since 2002, but there were plenty of other opiates available to Brand to dispel his continued feelings of emptiness, dissatisfaction and worthlessness.
With fatherhood and maturity, Brand now feels he has the distance to understand addiction and help others, that he’s at a place in his life where he understands it better.
“Before that I didn’t know... it can take time. I keep seeing this figure of 15 years, you know there are types of theatre, Chinese, where they won’t let you put a bloody mop down until you’ve done that long. So now I do understand it, that my own addiction is not about chemicals, it’s not even about subtler forms of addiction such as sex or food-related stuff, it’s just about the feelings that happen inside of me.”
Brand talks about the yearning for contentment, excitement, distraction that we may all attempt to satisfy with our drug of choice – the perfect partner/job/gadget. According to him, these efforts are doomed to failure but the yearning can be satisfied ultimately by attuning to a different aspect of your own consciousness.
“Yeah, this is outside the 12-step philosophy I suppose, but I think that what is interpreted as a malign yearning is actually in itself positive and beneficial, because it’s trying to lead you towards spiritual connection and relinquishing the idea of self-fulfilment as the determinant of your satisfaction in life. If you follow the programme you end up thinking, ‘Oh God, what I want is not important, as long as I feel connected and laughing, and in reaching that conclusion, you become liberated, and happy.”
But what was it that caused the yearning in Brand, born in Essex in 1975 and raised by his single parent mother after his parents split up when he was six months old?
With a mother who suffered ill health and an absent father, he felt worthless and developed eating disorders, moving onto drug use as a teenager. Alcohol, sex and fame were subsequent fixes, with political engagement leading to appearances on Question Time and that interview with Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight in 2013, when Brand encouraged voters not to bother.
Was the yearning caused by worrying about his mother, the abuse he suffered from a tutor, feelings of worthlessness?
“Possibly all of those things – I think that people of our age have a tendency to look for a psychoanalytic narrative. But as I get older I’m more inclined to look at archetypal narratives, as opposed to how my own myth sits within that. I like to think an addict is just someone who needs… I’m torn between saying connection and God. An addict is someone who just needs “God” real bad in their life, but by God I mean you, me and super-material transcendent connectedness. I don’t mean something that happens in an allocated building at an allocated time in an allocated costume. Religion is not about the texts, it’s about the ritual, the incantations, the togetherness, the transcendence. Forget what’s written down... That’s where the problems start!” He laughs.
For Brand, who is studying for an MA in Religion in Global Politics, daily meditation and yoga are his way of staying connected to his new perspective.
“Eventually when thinking abates, I recognise that there is more to me than my thoughts. Stripped of biographical data there’s a form of consciousness that’s quite beautiful and serene and anybody can have access to it. I think that’s the point of a lot of religion, to get you to that place. And to create moral and ethical conditions where it’s likely that more people live like that. To not live according to biochemical drives and the social systems derived from those drives – greed-based, desire-based, fear-based systems.
“The point of recovery is to get back on the intended journey. What would you have been without the wound? Who were you before the trauma, without the shame, without the drugs or the bad relationships or the stupid, dumb belief systems that have been downloaded into your ‘ead? So now I’m in the moment and present with my baby, and present with my wife and doing my work in a way I enjoy. People dealing with serious addicts say they need additional help and I’m not qualified to disagree but once people have dealt with the big bang of their condition, this is a good life philosophy that works.”
After school Brand only lasted a year at the Italia Conti Academy in London but his acting career took off anyway, leading from The Bill to Hollywood with films including Get Him To The Greek and Forgetting Sarah Marshall. A private life lived in the public eye saw a very showbiz marriage to Katy Perry in 2010, that ended in divorce two years later, followed by a relationship with Jemima Khan, on top of other countless encounters. Controversies include being sacked from his BBC Radio 2 Show after leaving prank calls for Andrew Sachs along with Jonathan Ross, and saying it wasn’t worth voting in the 2015 General Election, before U-turning and telling people to vote Labour.
“What I said was true which was why it created such a strong reaction. Last time I voted for Jeremy Corbyn because it wasn’t pointless, because Jeremy Corbyn is about getting for the many, not the few, getting power to the people, like sort of meaningful government.”
Brand manages to subvert charges of pomposity by making a joke of his public persona of fame-hungry narcissist and political popinjay, skewering himself while at the same time still managing to be at the centre of the show. As well as sending up his headline-grabbing former self, he also talks about the experience of childbirth.
“I talk about the birth itself and how it’s sort of like some divine explosion, but I also talk about how I’ve been reborn as a result of it. And I do a lot of spontaneous audience interaction stuff. I’m really proud of it as a show. Because of the audience stuff it’s one of the craziest shows I’ve been involved with, but it’s still underscored by the same message that WE create our reality and our consciousness, so be careful what you’re doing there.”
Brand dedicates the last chapter of his book to becoming a father, so how does he think it has changed him?
“I think it would have been impossible to be a father if I hadn’t made the changes that this programme has brought about,” he says. “But also, I suppose it’s materialised something I only previously theoretically understood – that I’m not the most important thing in the world!”
Mabel is a year old now – if Brand had had his way rather than the baby’s mother, she’d have been named Kenneth, after the comedian Kenneth Williams. It’s a name he’s hoping to use for future offspring regardless of gender. As you might predict, he’s a liberal father.
“I do find myself mostly advocating for freedom in these early months,” he says, “I find myself saying to Laura, no, let her do that, let’s see what happens. I don’t think that’s dangerous. I think it just looks bad, but we’re watching her. I like to let her just wander around and stuff. She’s a force this kid, so it’s very much let her do what she wants until it becomes dangerous. She can’t talk or anything but she can certainly make herself heard and she’s completely dominating us. It’s unbelievable!”
As for when Mabel grows up and realises that her father has a public, at times controversial persona outwith the one she knows, Brand has no fears.
“I’m not really worried about it because I feel by the time she’s in a position to watch the kind of stuff I’ve done, I will have been able to give her sufficient context.”
A former life played out in the media is not something Brand regrets, and now that his need for publicity has abated, he still has no problem being open and honest.
“Curiously, the deeper you go into yourself, which one would imagine would be a kind of individualism or egotism, is actually where we access the universal. I don’t imagine Francis Bacon was going ‘I’m going to try and paint what other people’s anxiety looks like’ he was just painting his anxiety and because he did it so truthfully, people connect with it, to the truth. With any artistic endeavour, you’re trying to communicate your experience of being alive.”
And as someone who was told nearly 15 years ago, if he continued using as he was, in six months he’d either be in prison, an asylum or dead, that’s an experience worth communicating.
Recovery: Freedom From Our Addictions, by Russell Brand, is published by Bluebird at £20;
Re:birth, Playhouse, Edinburgh, 10 April; SEC Armadillo, Glasgow, 11 April; Perth Concert Hall, 12 April; His Majesty’s Theatre, Aberdeen, 26 April 2018, see www.russellbrand.com for tickets