“We’ve become a family”: Adam Lambert on Queen, his solo career and how Simon Cowell got woke
“How would you feel if you lost a job? You’d say anything”
No-one could ever replace legendary Queen frontman Freddie Mercury, but fans have taken warmly to singer Adam Lambert since he began performing with the band in 2011. Adam found fame on American Idol, where he first auditioned with ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, and eventually caught the attention of original Queen members Brian May and Roger Taylor – dream come true stuff. This is a big year for Queen fans, with a massive North American tour coming up in September and the upcoming Freddie biopic, Bohemian Rhapsody, due for release in October. The film has not been without its controversies; director Bryan Singer and star Sacha Baron Cohen both left mid-production, having been respectively replaced by Dexter Fletcher and Remi Malek, and its recently released trailer has been accused of whitewashing Mercury’s homosexuality.
We caught up with Adam to talk about his forthcoming solo album, Queen, and the movie.
Your shows with Queen just get bigger and bigger and bigger. If you went in now at the level the shows are currently, do you think it would be too overwhelming?
“Well, the first full-length set I did with them was completely overwhelming. It was for a quarter of a million people in the Ukraine! I was completely terrified. I had nine days of rehearsal to do a two-hour show. I was way in over my head; I was terrified. I think I’ve become stronger, better and more confident because of Queen. In the six years I’ve toured with them, the show has grown and so have I.”
Were there any songs that you couldn’t get on with when you were trying to perform it, that you came round to?
“There were some that were hard to learn. ‘Don’t Stop Me Now’ – there’s a lot of fucking words. The thing about a lot of the songs is that Freddie did stuff with the phrasing, where he would slide in and out of notes. When you’re trying to learn one of his songs, listening to the recording, sometimes you’re like, ‘What’s he doing? I don’t wanna mimic him, but what’s the fucking melody?’”
You’ve talked about the fact that we now live in a world that’s less hostile to open gay celebrities. It’s true, though, isn’t it, that openly gay A-list actors remain something of a rarity?
“TV is more progressive, for some reason. I think it’s because it’s all financially driven. With a film, you’ve got to get out your house and buy a ticket. It’s more of a sale. People have already subscribed to cable or a streaming service. They’ve already sort of signed up. Maybe it’s TV’s moral obligation to educate the masses and introduce them to characters from all different walks of life, that identify as all different types of things – including queer or trans and bi-racial. All these issues we’re looking at right now, I think TV has been pushing in a good way.”
“‘Don’t Stop Me Now’ was hard to learn – there’s a lot of fucking words!”
You found fame on American Idol. Did you ever have a conversation with yourself where you thought about whether you might suppress certain parts of your personality?
“No, not at all. I don’t think I suppressed anything.”
No, that’s what I mean – but did you have that conversation with yourself?
“Up until that point, it wasn’t a conscious thought. I realise, now that up until my season, anytime someone came on the show that was perceived to be gay or it was obvious enough that they were gay, they were a joke. They were made fun of. Simon [Cowell] would make fun of them. That was the comic relief. ‘You couldn’t possibly have a career as a recording artist; you’re too effeminate.’ To be fair, some of them weren’t great singers, but there were a couple of really good singers that came on. And they weren’t taken seriously. One went on to Drag Race eventually. You know Adore Delano? He competed as Danni on American Idol years before he was on Drag Race and he’s a good singer.”
But he was made a joke on American Idol?
“Simon gave him a real hard time. He wasn’t the only one; there were a few. To me, the idea of being a music artist seemed like a pipe dream. There’s no way I’m going to be a solo music artist – they’re not looking for people like me. Before all that I never thought I’d be on the show; I was just a fan. Going into it I definitely thought, ‘Am going to be another one of these people that are made into a joke?’ It was only in the back of my head, but I kept going. Every time I would go through to the next progression and then the next progression, I was like, ‘Oh, they like me, this is working.’”
Do you ever see Simon Cowell around nowadays?
“I bumped into him when I did The X Factor. I did the finale the year before last, and it was the first time I had seen him in 10 years. He was sweet. He said, ‘Good to see you – good job.’”
All that stuff about how he would joke about queer contestants seems so alien in 2018…
“I think even he changed. He sort of wised up on that angle and he realised quickly that is not acceptable anymore.”
Yeah, it’s amazing how culture moves on
“The thing that is interesting on Idol is that once you become part of the top 12 or 13, you don’t talk to the press. They sequestered you, and made you delete your Facebook. We didn’t even have Twitter yet. Some pictures had come off my Facebook page of me kissing my ex-boyfriend, all dressed-up and glammed-up with make-up. [The press] were like, ‘Is this you?’ I was like, ‘Yeah! That’s me.’ And then that was it; the cat was out of the bag. I finally finished the show and I was like, ‘Oh, finally, I can respond to this shit.’ We decided to take advantage and respond on the cover of Rolling Stone, which was kind of fabulous.”
That must have been such a bizarre time for you
“It was interesting because there were members of the gay community saying, ‘Why aren’t you out? I thought, ‘I am out!’ I didn’t realise when you’re in the public eye you’ve got to declare it. It was interesting to be learning as it was happening. “Oh this is what it is to be a queer celebrity.” I didn’t have many examples so I didn’t know what to do or the right way to do something.”
You’ve said you experienced resistance from the music industry when you kissed a man at the American Music Awards. Did that make you more determined to be as outspoken as you are?
“It was definitely a reaction, definitely to prove a point. Then quickly I realised it could potentially take my chance away, and that was a difficult position to be in. My principles were very firm, and I was very clear on what I believe, and I’m always one to be kind of contrary and to debate and to prove a point. But I also didn’t want to lose my shot. I wanted to have a career that was all of a sudden available to me, so that was a bit of a conflict for me. I didn’t know exactly what to do and I was scared. I backed off a little bit and I had some success. When I went on tour after that album [his debut, 2009’s ‘For Your Entertaiment’] coming out, I was definitely all about it. I was kissing a musician every night on stage just to prove that point.”
It’s interesting what you said about being exposed to middle America, because Queen were massively camp in a time when it was more taboo to be out and gay. You wonder how this incredibly camp, pretty obviously gay music connected with such a mainstream audience in the late ‘70s
“Well, yeah, but it was almost in fashion to be [sexually] ambiguous in the ’70s. It was cool to be effeminate, androgynous. Is he? Isn’t he? That was all very rock ‘n’ roll. Bowie was doing it. Freddie, Mick Jagger. It was a product of the time. People were post-free-love’60s. There was a lot of partying going on, a lot of sex, a lot of rock ‘n’ roll. Then the Reagan administration came in. Everything was every conservative, with reforms like The War On Drugs. And then AIDS hit; everyone freaked the fuck out. It made all of that very dangerous and very wrong. Everyone clammed up quite a lot. Look at George Michael – he was fighting it his whole career.”
Bowie and the Stones felt countercultural in a way that Queen didn’t, though
“With Queen in particular I think there was something very coy and clever about it. Freddie was flirting with the taboo of [his sexuality]. It was taboo in the media; they were a little scared of it. A rock fan didn’t even want to face it, didn’t want to question it. There were songs that were whimsical and silly and flamboyant, but [the band] would balance it with a hard-rock banger.”
“Freddie was flirting with the taboo of [his sexuality]. The media were a little scared of it.”
Have you seen the upcoming Freddie biopic, Bohemian Rhapsody?
“No, though I saw the trailer and it looks great. He [Remi Malek, the actor who stepped in to play Freddie] looks just like [Freddie]. I like the music in the trailer and they way they have blended all the songs together – I’ve heard there’s a lot in the movie about how the songs were created.
What did you think about the controversy around Sasha Baron Cohen’s departure from the project? He claimed the band were too involved, and had tried to manipulate the narrative
“I mean, how would you feel if you’d lost a job? [Cackles] You’re bound to say all sorts of things.”
He said they wanted Freddie to die halfway through, and then the movie would be about how they continued to thrive without him
“I don’t know, I wasn’t there. I don’t how it went down. Again, how would you feel if you lost a job? You’re bound to say anything.”
Some people have claimed that the trailer is guilty of ‘heterosexual-washing’ Freddie…
“The trailer? How can a trailer…?”
… And playing down his sexuality. We don’t really see Freddie with a man, for example
“I saw him with a man. At the piano.”
The official Fox office synopsis says it’s about him dealing with a “life threatening illness”, but shies away from saying that that life-threatening illness was AIDS
“I haven’t seen it, and it’s not my film. I would like to wait and see the film until I have an opinion on that. Not a trailer. It’s a little bit jumping to conclusions, isn’t it?”
Let’s talk again when you’ve seen the movie. Easier question: your favourite Queen song?
“I love ‘Another One Bites the Dust’, I love the bassline. I also love ‘Somebody to Love’, I love singing that one, I love the words in that song. I relate to the words. I’m like, ‘Please, just let it happen’. I love so many of them, but for different reasons. To sing ‘Who Wants To Live Forever’ is, like, it’s so intense. There’s so much release in it. Brian wrote it about his father, but singing it now, when I hear it, that song is obviously very much something that I think about Freddie.”
“When I sing ‘Somebody To Love’, I think about Freddie”
There’s going to be new solo material this year. What we expect? And when will we hear the record?
“I’m not sure yet. I am well along the way making it and have been taking my time to create something that I love. It’s hard to describe because it’s not genre specific. I have just been writing what I feel like writing. I’m excited about it! I’ve been influence by everything going on around me, and I wanted to make a record exploring all my influences from years gone by to now, so that’s what I have done. I’ll be back in the studio as soon when the [Queen] tour finishes.”
You’ve talked about the fact that it’s easy sometimes to get co-opted into musical trends. How have you found your unique place in 2018?
“I think I have found it more than ever before. I’m really just listening to myself and what I want to do, and I think that’s working for me. I’m being influenced by what I love from years gone by and from now, rather than the trends. I do feel more confident in doing my own thing more than ever before, so it’s about really following that.”
Finally: how would you sum up Brian May?
“He’s a thinker and a feeler. He likes to tune into the heart of things whether it’s emotional or scientific. He’s hyper focussed on the feeling he wants to achieve. He takes a minute. He’s not impulsive. Roger’s fiery and impulsive. He’s a drummer; he’s flashy and glam. He’s very rock n’ roll that way. They compliment each other really well. They were the original founding members before Freddie. They have been so open for me and warm. We’ve become a family and we trust each other.”