He’s the cheeky demagogue who’s stoking the new anti-politics mood. And now he’s found God. Esquire Weekly goes head to head with the comedian who wants to change everything
Russell Brand, with his Made In America teeth and staggering charisma, is an unlikely political pin-up. And yet last October, as guest editor of the New Statesman, he wrote a long essay in which he concluded: “I will never vote and I don’t think you should either.” Given Brand’s celebrity status, urging people not to vote is a big deal. He is, after all, a tabloid fixture with nearly 8.5 million followers on Twitter, where he regularly posts his YouTube news programme The Trews (a portmanteau of True News; more lamentable a title even than My Booky Wook).
Brand, 39, is certainly not alone in his disillusion with politicians: although Jeremy Paxman pushed Brand on Newsnight, saying “If you can’t be arsed to vote, why should we be arsed to listen to your political point of view?”, he later admitted he too had recently abstained from voting. Emma Thompson, a seasoned climate change campaigner, also backs Brand’s “don’t vote” campaign.
Yet plenty still think Brand is out of his depth and, well, talking rubbish. Robert Webb, of Peep Show fame, was furious; he suggested, a little pompously, that Brand should read “some fucking Orwell”. I don’t suppose Webb will be reading Revolution, Brand’s new book on how to “establish a personal and global utopia”. Revolution doesn’t pretend to be Marx’s Communist Manifesto redux; rather it’s Brand’s personal journey from comic, movie star, erstwhile husband of KATY PERRY and author of two volumes of best-selling memoirs, to gobby campaigner.
In West Ham tracksuit bottoms, a hoodie, an expensive leather jacket, a beanie and box-fresh trainers, Russell Brand doesn’t look much like an anarchist. I meet him in the lobby of a Shoreditch hotel that appears to have flown hipsters straight in from Williamsburg. He offers a surprisingly limp handshake, fixes me with that famous maniacal, alpha male stare of his, gives me the once over and says, “Great hair.”
“DEMOCRACY IS POINTLESS. IT DOESN’T WORK. AND THEY’VE GONE, ‘SH*T, HE’S TELLING THE TRUTH! HOW DO WE MAKE IT ABOUT THAT IRRESPONSIBLE GUY RUSSELL BRAND INSTEAD?’”
And, once we’re sitting on the terrace of a hotel room rented out for the interview, he doesn’t stop his stream of consciousness narrative until, after 45 minutes, he’s suddenly had enough. He randomly assumes an Ashtanga yoga position and then wanders off to look at the London skyline, pointing out the high rise where he was offered his first threesome (intimidated, he turned it down).
Much of what you write about in Revolution makes sense — of course we need to worry about climate change, rampant capitalism and affordable housing — but urging people not to vote is surely a dangerous game to play?
I was just pointing out that the debate isn’t about whether we have Nigel Farage or fucking Ed Milliband. Fuck ’em all! Democracy is fucking pointless. It doesn’t work. And they’ve gone, “Shit, he’s telling the truth! How do we make this not about democracy being pointless? How do we make it about that irresponsible guy, Russell Brand? What about the suffragettes?” But, you know, it’s not like I’m going round door to door, convincing people not to vote: “Hey, I’m Russell Brand, do you want to believe in my system ’cause you might be fucked otherwise?”
If it was an option, would you at least put a cross in a box saying “I don’t like any of the above”?What’s the point? I have a visceral objection to any version of “Do what you’re told”. People have a lot of opinions on how you should use your voice. As a recovering drug addict, for example, I’m supposed to tell kids they shouldn’t take drugs. That’s not my job.
It’s all very well pointing out the problems in the world, but do you have any answers?
OK. What are the three major things that need to change?
Take control of your own destiny. Don’t outsource control of your own life. Disobey. Become active. If something worries you, communicate with others. Communicate, activise, organise.
Do you expect people to take you seriously when, if you look under “b” in the index of Revolution, “Balls, Ed” is preceded by “Babestation”?
Ha-ha! Having an index makes me feel like I’ve written a book. I love it. It’s the happiest I’ve been.
Did the book come out fully formed because you’d been thinking about it so much?
That’s exactly what happened. Until I sat down, I didn’t really know what the book was. I didn’t really have any idea. I didn’t even have a title. I hope this doesn’t sound pretentious, but I undertook it as a devotional act. I prayed every day before I wrote. I lived quite monastically. I ran, did yoga, meditated, prayed and wrote 2,000 words a day.
There’s a lot of Jesus in Revolution. The index confirms 18 mentions, but it feels like more. Weren’t you an atheist for a long time?
I didn’t believe in anything. But I don’t think the world as experienced through the realm of the five senses is all there is. I don’t think the way we see inter-connectivity is the only way there is inter-connectivity. I don’t think the way we see time is the only way that time exists. As I put in the book, discoveries in the subatomic world indicate that the way we regard reality is spurious. It’s up for question. For me, that there is God: we don’t really know what’s happening.
It’s not unusual for a recovering addict to fill the space left by drugs and/or alcohol with God. Is that what you’ve done?
Yes. I’ve found God, but so what?
I’m not judging, simply clarifying…
Don’t you sometimes pull back into wide focus on your life and think, “Oh shit, that death thing is actually real? Am I going to sit here and chat like I’ve got all the time in the world or am I going to acknowledge that here comes the chopper?” While I’m here on Earth, I’m thinking, “What’s the most interesting thing I can do?” It seems to me that I should look at where need is and get stuck into it.
“DON’T YOU SOMETIMES PULL BACK INTO WIDE FOCUS ON YOUR LIFE AND THINK, OH SHIT, THAT DEATH THING IS ACTUALLY REAL?”
Do you say things to provoke a response or do you believe everything you say, both in life and specifically in the book?
Both of those things. I believe in every word I’ve written, but I’m aware that I’m learning so there are going to be some ideas that are incomplete. I saw the book somewhat as a compilation. When I first talked to [localism/green activist] Helena Norberg-Hodge, I thought, “This is how this book is going to work, ’cause what do I know about globalisation and localised agriculture?” I’d have to spend ten years of my life to write a book on that and she’s already given her life to it. I tried to write the book from a position of fallibility: this is just my opinion, my voice. I talked to people who know more than me about stuff that resonated with me. So I feel it’s from an authentic perspective. I’m not formally educated and I don’t claim to be. But I’m happy with what I’ve written. And if you don’t read a word of my book, read Naomi Klein’s new book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate. It basically says that capitalism is going to destroy the planet if we don’t get active.
Do you mind pissing people off by sticking your head above the parapet? I’m guessing you quite liked being written off as “leftwing commie scum” with “fake intelligence” by Fox News?
It’s great to piss off Fox News as they become ever more absurd. Generally? I don’t care. Well, it’s not total zen indifference. I’d be upset if I thought I’d pissed off somebody that I admired or respected. I try and have a relationship with a voice inside myself. I’m always checking in. There’s a voice that I have to frequently regulate ’cause I’m obviously still capable of being self- interested, self-aggrandising, conceited, vain, arrogant. When that guy has taken over the reins then I don’t really have much of a defence.
Did you have to regulate that voice when you recently supported Focus E15, the young single mothers who were fighting to save their homes on the Carpenter estate in Stratford?
Absolutely. I had to ask myself why I was involved. Do I like to present myself on some level as a messianic, heroic figure? Yes, I do a bit. OK, fair enough. Am I using this in a way that is positive and that I can back up? Yes. Yes I can. All right, well carry on then. Whenever I’ve spoken to people who are devotional about my egotism, they’ve told me to use it for God. The answer isn’t get rid of the ego. Just do something that’s worthwhile rather than using it to get bigger houses and sparklier trousers.
Do you like yourself more since finding God and activism?
Yeah. Much more. I can be funny and nice. I have lower impulses too. I accept them. Hello jealousy; welcome to lust, it’s you again. I’ve just come from a meeting for drug addicts and the thing is to stay present. Done in an orthodox manner, it would require the end of craving, desire, attachment. How is that possible, with those buttons being constantly pressed, with those frequencies constantly stimulated? So we’ve got to go easy on ourselves and accept we make mistakes.
As you head for 40, you sound more at peace with yourself, but are you scared of the future?
No. I pray, I meditate, I believe in God. A few times a day I pull back and think, “This planet is in infinite space. It doesn’t really matter if Earth implodes.”