M meets… Boy George

Boy George hardly needs an introduction. Born George O’Dowd in South-East London, the singer became one of the most famous faces of the 1980s as the lead singer of Culture Club and as a successful solo artist. Millions of record sales later, George made a successful career as a top club DJ while maintaining his interests in music, setting up his own record label More Protein and continuing to record.

Latest album Ordinary Alien is out now, with a new reggae mix of the single Turn 2 Dust available on 5 December 2011.

M was lucky enough to catch up with Boy George ahead of the launch of a stunning luxury coffee-table book featuring never-before-seen photos, insights and memorabilia. Limited to 999 numbered copies, King Of Queens goes on sale on 12 December from www.kitchensinkpublishing.com.

What do you remember from Culture Club’s first gig?
I remember it really well and I remember swearing a lot. I used to have a foul mouth and I remember singing with my back to the audience a lot too as I was not confident – I did a few gigs like that.

I remember someone’s mother wrote a letter to us, saying: ‘I took my daughter to see your concert and all you did was swear!’.  I felt really bad because I used such bad language, so I stopped. I said ‘I can’t do this anymore’. It was because I grew up in the clubs and I did these club gigs instead of proper concerts and I hadn’t reigned in my swearing so I had to work on that.

That was our first proper gig and I remember Depeche Mode came and we were really excited by that. They had just had that hit with I Just Can’t Get Enough, which I’d bought – it was one of my favourite records – that so it was just great.

If you’re just starting out and someone famous comes to see your gig, you think ‘maybe there’s something here’. We’d released White Boy and we were just about to release a track called I’m Afraid Of Me. The first big single was Do You You Really Want To Hurt Me in 1982.

On new album Ordinary Alien you have collaborated again with Kinky Roland. How do you work together?
Roland does the music and I deal with the song, the melody and the lyrics – the story if you like. That’s kind of what I do, but I also get involved in the music, if I don’t like something I’ll ‘say try this’. We reference things. I always collaborate, I always work with other people because I think that you get quite single-minded if you do things on your own and it’s good to bounce things off other people.

What is new single Turn 2 Dust about?
The reggae version single of Turn 2 Dust comes out on 5 December. I wouldn’t want to be restricted to one style of music but reggae is something I’m known for and I love. The message of the song is important too. I was living in New York and I heard this Ragga record that was basically saying ‘Set fire to gay clubs’. It was ‘Don’t go to chi chi man bar, spread fire on the dancefloor’. I was furious – it was getting played on the radio. Chi chi man is a derogatory Jamaican term for gay people.

So I kept hearing this word so I thought ‘right, I’m going to reclaim it’ so that’s why I keep saying Chi chi man in the song. The whole thing is about being tolerant. The interesting thing for me is that thirty years on my message hasn’t changed. I’m still talking about tolerance and prejudice and all those things that drove me when I started Culture Club at 20 years old. Things haven’t changed in some ways, there’s still work to be done.

Did you just decide to do things on your own terms after going through the 80s pop success?
To hold on to a career for a long time you have to kind of sacrifice everything that’s individual about yourself. If you’re always worried about being trendy or ‘relevant’ you kind of have to work with the right producers and make the right videos and it all becomes a bit of a formula. So if you want to be individual and you want to follow your own rules you have to forget about commercial success. You have to forget about that. Pop music for the last few years has been aimed at children, it’s not like it was when I was growing up and records don’t stay around for very long now. It’s all kind of throwaway. So you just have to find new ways of doing what you do and I’m very lucky to be paid to do what I love , which is being creative – whether it’s DJing or singing or producing clothing. I get to do that on my own terms and I get to make a good living out of it, so there’s not a lot for me to complain about.

Is it interesting seeing things from both the label-owner and artist side of things?

People still have really unrealistic expectations these days. We did when we first started out – we were very unrealistic because we didn’t know what we were doing. Really, you can’t tell someone starting out anything – it’s a bit like your mum telling you ‘Don’t go out with her, she’s bad news’. You know you’re going to it. And it’s a bit like when you’re starting, part of the excitement of being a new artist is being belligerent and thinking you know it all. Because otherwise you don’t learn, you have to learn through your own mistakes. You can guide people to a certain extent but people have to find out for themselves.

Do you think your songwriting has changed?
Not really, I’ve always been passionate about lyrics and the story has always been important to me. I’m not sure I can do a throwaway ‘let’s party down the club, raise your hands in the air’ thing, that’s not my thing. I use songwriting as a way of explaining stuff to myself or trying to understand things or to make a point.

There will be times when I sit down with a track or put it on and listen and listen and come up with an idea. I push myself more than I used to, to not do obvious things, not do what I always do. I listen to lots of other people’s work and get influenced by that.

I don’t think what I do is about writing hits. In Culture Club we weren’t sitting around going ‘Oh, this’ll be a hit!’. You write what’s naturally coming out of you and I think that’s all you can ever do. The records that are special and stay around are kind of naïve.

Do you sometimes think that you don’t get enough credit for your songwriting?
I think if you’re past 30 in this country you’re not considered relevant. Not by the public, but by the industry. By radio stations. Not people, people are fine – they’re always saying ‘When are you going to put another record out?’ and I reply ‘Well, I have actually’. But you don’t hear a record over 30 years old on the radio unless it’s a nostalgia station. I think we have a terrible lack of respect for home-grown British talent and that’s a bad thing but you learn to work around it. You’ve got amazing things like the web and social networking. The rules have changed so there’s always ways to reach an audience, just do it differently.

Has DJing influenced your music?
No, I’ve always been pretty eclectic, I like all types of music. I love dance music and DJing, it’s been an amazing second career for me and one of the best decisions I ever made was to buy a pair of decks. It really started out as a bit of fun and 20 years on I’m still doing it.

What music is exciting you at the moment?
I really love that band Empire Of The Sun, their record We Are The People is really emotional and my favourite record of the last ten years. I love the house producers David Penn and John Dahlbäck, so many things. They all influence what I do.