Boy George's Comeback and New Sound: 'My Balls Have Finally Dropped' (Q&A)

Dean Stockings

With his first album of new music in 20 years, the flamboyant ‘80s star is feeling like a new person.

With This Is What I Do, Boy George’s first album of new music in 20 years, distributed by Kobalt Label Services, but on his own indie label, the one-time ‘80s star is back, this time with a beard, a sllmmed-down physique and a much huskier voice than the blue-eyed soul tenor that marked such indelible hits as “Do You Really Want to Hurt Me?” and “Karma Chameleon.” Currently touring with a nine-piece band that touched down in L.A. this week for shows at the Belasco and Mayan Theaters, George is back to his buoyant, optimistic self, his signature ska- and reggae-inflected sound now buttressed with an acknowledged nod to his own ‘70s influences on songs like “My God” and “King of Everything.” Always a garrulous, opinionated interview, George has come a long way from the androgynous waif he portrayed in the ‘80s, capped by a Best New Artist Award at the ’84 Grammys for his band Culture Club, with whom he’s started writing and recording again. With a David Bowie tattoo on one arm and the image of T. Rex’s Marc Bolan on the other, he looks fit and healthy, having been sober for six years. He sat down with shortly before taking the stage at the Belasco before an adoring throng of fans, both old and new.

It seems like the times have caught up with your flamboyant attitude, in artists like Lady Gaga and Miley Cyrus.

I don’t know if I agree with you. If you go back to the ‘80s, you had a whole plethora of artists, everyone from Madonna and Cyndi Lauper to Prince. God bless Lady Gaga for doing her thing, but she’s kind of a lone peacock now. If anything, we have a much more conservative kind of pop world. It’s not necessarily about individuality. It’s hard to compare what we did to what’s going on now. It’s almost impossible for me to even make any kind of comment. I feel kind of detached from the pop world. What I’m doing now is going back to all the things I loved when I was growing up in the ‘70s. That was my stomping grounds for discovering the things I love now. At this point, I have the great luxury of not having to compete with these young kids. I wouldn’t know where to start. I simply get on with doing what I do. And it’s nice to see there’s an audience still there, both people who’ve grown up with you, and those discovering you for the first time. My audience here in America is so eclectic. It’s a real mix of people, which is great. Like what I was doing with Culture Club -- world music, multiculturalism -- not defining everything in terms of sexuality or color. It was about everyone coming together and being part of something. It’s great to look out into the audience and see that mix … gay, straight, old, young.

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You’ve been involved in DJ culture over the past two-plus decades.

I still am. That’s my job. It’s what I do the most. At the moment, I’m promoting my record, touring, and I’m going to record with Culture Club later this year.  DJ’ing is what’s held things together for me over the past 25 years. That’s how I met Mikey [Craig] from Culture Club and started the band.  He came to see me DJ and was taken with the way I looked. And the rest is history. I went back to DJ’ing in 1987 and it’s been an incredible second career for me. Plus, it’s almost a parallel universe. If you don’t go to underground clubs, you wouldn’t know what I do or who I am. So there’s been a whole new audience of people that don’t even know I’m that Boy George, the one their mother used to like. It’s been an interesting journey for me on all counts.

What inspired you into making new music? You’ve been sober now more than six years. Did that play into it?

Certainly being sober clears things up, it gets rid of all the cobwebs in the clouds and you start to think about things in a more professional, functional manner. It’s more a question of following my instincts. As an artist, you just follow what you feel, and it felt like the right time. I just decided it was time to move on. I like familiarity; I’ve worked with people in this band for many years.  But it just got to the point a few years ago where I decided the need to start again. I’ve been saying every night onstage: “I’m Boy George, an emerging British artist.” It feels like going back to square one, a new start. These gigs are pretty small. It’s an old-fashioned tour in every way.

The album has some familiar elements and some new directions. There’s even a country song, “It’s Easy.”

I’ve never shied away from country. “Karma Chameleon” verges on country. Reggae and country are very closely linked. If you go to Jamaica, you hear a lot of country music. There’s a correlation. Culture Club didn’t sound like a typical ‘80s band.  We were very eclectic. What I’m doing now is a continuation of that, as a kind of older, slightly wiser, well-traveled human being, bringing my now perspective to what I do.

You’ve got a beard now, and your vocals are in a lower range.

My balls have finally dropped, what can I say?  I’m almost 53, so, as an artist, I can only be as I am now. Do I really want to talk about my beard? There’s nothing to discuss. There’s no deep spiritual reason for it. If people tell me not to do something, it’s probably more likely I will do it. So I’m not going to shave. I like looking like this at the moment. It suits me.

You pushed a lot of buttons with your appearance back then.

There’s a whole string of people who inspired me.  In the ‘80s, we were all Bowie kids, very much influenced by him. The kind of freedoms that he allowed in the ‘70s let us take it even further. I look at it like a daisy chain that goes back to Oscar Wilde and Quentin Crisp. Each person who puts him or herself on the style chopping block makes it easier for the next generation. Myself, Madonna and Prince allowed for Lady Gaga.  Those are great and powerful references. In the same way that Bowie was a touchstone for me, Madonna was for Lady Gaga. And now that’s something to be proud of. I don’t see anybody at the moment who’s doing me. I’m still doing me.

There was no thought to calling yourself “Man George”?

I didn’t want to confuse people by becoming The Artist Formerly Known as. Boy George is a brand that I created and is familiar to people. Heaven knows they’ve had enough confusion. I’m not deluded. I know I’m an older man, but I’m a boy at heart. Life is about learning to be yourself, and I think I’ve gone in this interesting full circle. In spirit, I’m very much back to the person I was when I first started my career. There’s a lightness about me; a certain kind of reflectiveness and humor I’ve attained and have been hard won. I’ve very much like I was back then, in terms of how I feel about what I do. I consider myself very blessed to be doing this, to have a new beginning. The thing that’s really been amazing to me, over the last 10 years, is how much good will there is for me. People are genuinely happy to see me in a good place, and that’s a wonderful thing. Especially here in America, where there is this kind of retributive quality. On this tour, it’s been wonderful to encounter such genuine warmth. It’s been very palpable.  Especially since I’m sober because you can really take it on board.

You will be working with Jon Moss again.

I would never do Culture Club without him. We’re sufficiently mature enough now to do it. We’ve been writing this year and it’s been very enjoyable. My relationship with Jon is like a mythical beast. We’re really past all that. Jon’s been married; he’s got children. When people say we’ve had a relationship, it’s kind of mad.  [Laughs] I know what we did, but let’s pretend we didn’t. With a lot of my ex-partners, I’ve been able to become much better friends than I was as a partner. Some of the people you do have relationships with -- men and women -- if you’re lucky, you end up being much better friends, and much kinder to each other. I have a lot of ex-partners I’m very close to, and there’s no issue. Not now, or in the future.

“King of Everything” seems a nice way to announce the return of Boy George, with the video’s boxing motif.

It’s a song, first and foremost, even though a lot has been read into it.  I wrote it very much in a filmic way. It’s about a guy singing to his wife, who’s holding his child, so that’s definitely not me. I wanted to write a song about recovery and redemption, but not do it in an overly self-pitying fashion. So, I created this chaotic movie scene, with sirens going off. The song is actually about being a successful person, not about being a star, or reclaiming the crown in terms of that. The most important thing you can ever be is a successful person, and everything else stems from that.  You want to be someone who wakes up in the morning and is grateful for what they’ve got. Some people have taken it a little too literally.

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“My God” is your take on religion and faith, a very personal song.

That’s a celebration of faith ... to be respectful to other people’s beliefs. If you have differing spiritual ideas from someone else, it can make for very awkward dinner conversation, when you start talking about what you believe.  It’s a dangerous subject, even in the best of times. The song is about an incident that actually happened to me in New York. I was in a bar, kind of drunk, partying, and this guy walked up to me and handed me this Jesus pamphlet.  So, it’s a literal story. I went up to him and asked, “Why me? Why did you pick on me?” It kind of stuck with me. I forgot about it, but when I was writing this record, I remembered it. And maybe he was sent from someone. It’s about falling apart and picking yourself back up. “Here in the darkness I became the light.” It’s again, about redemption, and even more personal than “King of Everything.” People should be allowed to interpret it the way they want, though. And they often have the most bizarre ideas about what songs are about. You have to let people do what they want with them, though.

The new album sounds like you’re more open to love.

I have a slightly more breezy attitude towards relationships now as an older man.  I have less ridiculous expectations. I don’t have a long list of requirements you need to be part of my life. It’s more, let’s just see what you bring. In that way, I’ve changed a lot. I’ve chilled out. I’m not currently in a relationship, nor am I particularly looking for one. What’s that Joan Armatrading song? I’m not in love, but I’m open to persuasion. It’s always good to be willing to meet the one. At the moment, though, I am really, really busy. I’ve got so much going on with work, and it’s such an exciting thing to be doing all this, having someone live among my pot plants doesn’t seem all that appealing.

Do you miss the sense of community in the ‘80s new wave?

It’s much better now. When I bump into, say, Duran Duran, there’s a lot more friendship. Famous people don’t all hang out with each other ... except maybe in the hip-hop world. I do know people from back then, and I think my relationships with them are much more respectful, and a little bit nicer.  When you’re 19-20, everyone’s the enemy. There was a lot of success in the ‘80s for a lot of bands; you can get caught up in that, and it can become the driving force in what you do. Now, there’s a different kind of fluidity about what we do. In a way, all those old rules about how you make and sell albums, or tour, don’t exist anymore. We’re all looking for new ways to do what we do, and I think it adds a bit of fun to it. In the future, I’d quite like to play around with some of the ideas about how you release music. There are lots of great things that can happen in the future, which don’t require the regular rules and regulations. I don’t think we’ve even fully realized what the Internet can do.

There are still plenty of instances of ska, toasting, dub and even some hip-hop on the new album.

Those are my ‘70s influences. It’s more British Grimes-style rapping. I’ve used rap in stuff before; it’s more Jamaican style. I grew up in London, which is rich in Jamaican culture. There’s reggae music everywhere you go. Culture Club embraced that, too.

Do you miss being at the center of the pop music world?

Is there anybody at the center these days? It’s a funny time now. I don’t miss the past, because I feel so immersed in the future. I’ve been DJ’ing, which is a progressive industry -- I’m more involved in underground house music than EDM -- so I’ve had no relationship with nostalgia at all, because I haven’t had to live in it. I feel like I have a quite affectionate relationship with the past. It baffles me that people show up at the concerts and hold up pictures of me 20 years ago. It’s an odd thing. Do they do that for other bands? Yeah, great. I remember looking like that. But I would never want to be that person again. There’s no comparison. I don’t even have any idea who I was back then, even 10 years ago. I’m much more comfortable in my skin. It’s kind of bonkers. Those records are like these weird talismans, artifacts of another time.  Maybe we should show them more respect. 

You’ve reinvented yourself.

It takes time. You have to see things differently. If I was to give anyone advice, I’d say, the hardest thing to change is the way you look at things. Change the way you feel emotionally. It starts with, what should I be concerned about? What’s the best way to react to this situation? If anything, right now, I’m more on top of what I do than I’ve ever been in my life because I have to be. I’m running the show. I put this record out myself. It’s on my label, even though I’m working with Kobalt. Bottom line, I’m doing this on my own. I’m still learning stuff every night onstage. It’s exciting.

The two covers on the deluxe edition, Adele’s version of Bob Dylan’s “Make You Feel My Love,” and Lana Del Rey’s “Video Games,” are both terrific.

I gave Lana Del Rey an award at a GQ event in England. I met the guy who wrote the song with her. She loved it, and was quite surprised I’d done it. It really reminded me of “The Crying Game” in its structure. It’s a very unorthodox song in that it’s not bombastic. It has this kind of ethereal quality. I love her voice. I find it a mix between Marilyn Monroe and Roy Orbison. There’s a beautiful androgyny to it. I was looking at a picture of Miley Cyrus in Elle, and she has that thing going on as well. She’s a beautiful girl, but she could also be a beautiful boy. She had this cat suit on, and it was very Ziggy Stardust. She’s sure and confident. Like Justin Bieber, who has this girly, beautiful thing about him. People like stars who are a bit of both. I don’t know if they’re conscious of it. Even Prince has this kind of femininity.  Madonna has a toughness about her, like she’s one of the guys, but glamorous. That’s very appealing in pop.

And the Adele song?

I was actually doing the Dylan version. I’m a big Dylan fan, though I have to say, until I had the Adele version, I didn’t know the song that well. I’m more a traditional Blood on the Tracks/Desire fan. Dylan is a brilliant songwriter. What he’s great at is those subtle melodies and very powerful words. When you hear other people sing them, they take on a whole new life. Like Joni Mitchell.

And now you’re a raw vegan.

I’m in L.A., which is heaven for me. I couldn’t wait to get here. I’ve eaten so much today; it’s been great. You have that great store Erehwon, which is like raw heaven. Obviously, traveling around on tour, it’s difficult finding places to eat. Eating like this is something I’ve been playing around with for a few years, on and off. And I just decided to stick with it, which is difficult when you’re traveling because everyone hates you if you won’t eat what they do. 

You like to go incognito, which would’ve been inconceivable back in the day.

I enjoy my own company. As I’ve gotten older, I like being on my own. I’m not a miserable git, but I do like quiet time, which was impossible when I was younger. It was a different world then. I don’t think people engage in quite the same way today. People interact now through social networking. You seem to have stronger relationships with people online than you do in the real world. I have almost 500,000 Facebook followers and over a quarter million on Twitter. And you wonder, who are these people? What do you want? Why are you following me? They seem to be more interested in what you’re eating or wearing than they are in your music.  Still, on the whole, I’m amazed at how nice people are. But I don’t use it for anything personal. I post once a day; on Twitter, more than that. And a lot of it’s about food. People are interested in the raw vegan thing. They don’t know about a lot of stuff. I discovered this raw restaurant in Chicago called Currents, and I recommended that. There’s no excuse for anyone not to be healthy in L.A. I had raw chocolates today. They were f---ing amazing. I was dancing around. But it isn’t cheap, which is a shame. It intrigues people, and it infuriates people. I get a lot of, “Oh, eat a cow!”