"Classical music has been like a best friend; it has never let me down"

The British pianist will be playing pieces by Bach and Chopin at the Teatro Cervantes in Malaga on Monday night.
The British pianist will be playing pieces by Bach and Chopin at the Teatro Cervantes in Malaga on Monday night. / Richard Ansett
  • Pianist James Rhodes spoke unreservedly about his desire to remove stigmas around both classical music and mental illness ahead of his concert in Malaga on Monday

He doesn't look like he's the sort of person to play classical music. Not the way he dresses in a T-shirt, trainers and messy hair, nor by the way he talks, with one popular swear word repeated several times throughout the interview. He has recently published a book in which he talks about the rapes he suffered from the age of six at the hands of his boxing teacher and the destructive spiral of drugs, alcohol and five suicide attempts that followed as a result.

–At 42, you’re still alive despite everything and you seem happy, despite everything. Do you consider yourself a survivor?

–I think we’re all survivors, aren’t we? I’ve never met anybody who hasn’t been through difficulty. I’m not sure I’m happy; I have moments when I think I’m kind of all right, but I think most people I know do struggle and one of the reasons why something creative is so important, whether it’s writing music, or painting or photography, [is because] we live in a world that’s so fast and full of angst and stress and having something to counterbalance that really helps. So yes, I guess I’m a survivor but I don’t think anymore than anyone else is.

–What role does classical music play in forming the person you are today?

–It’s been everything. It’s been like a best friend. It’s never let me down. It’s something that’s universal, maybe not just classical music but all music. I can’t think of anyone who could conceive of a life without it. It’s one of those things that works for all of us, whether in childhood or those awkward teenage years, it’s like it provides everything we need, it’s like a miracle drug that has no horrible side effects. And of course the best thing is that we live in an age where we can hold a piece of metal in our hand and listen to any style of music and piece of music ever composed in the history of music – I find that unbelievably exciting. So yeah music has been and still is to this day the most important thing.

–After writing and publishing Instrumental: A Memoir of Madness, Medication and Music, have you managed to get over your past or will that never happen?

–I don’t think it will happen. It’s like if you have a bucket of water and sand and you stir up the sand and it’s all swilling around and it takes a long time for it to settle back down and I guess that’s what happened with the book. And then there was the legal case around it, that cost two million euros and it took 18 months to be allowed to publish it. So it wasn’t as cathartic as you might think but it wasn’t unhelpful and it’s been very good to spread the word a bit and to allow things like this to be discussed more openly because it’s really important for people to talk more about this.

–How have you changed since the court allowed you to publish your book?

–I don’t think I’ve changed any more than if the book hadn’t been written, I’m always trying to change for the better and sometimes it’s more successful than other times. I enjoy writing, writing any book to me is really exciting and something I love. It helps me to be creative and it’s also a great thing to do when you’re on a plane which I’m on a lot at the moment. It’s creative so I guess it’s changed me in that regard as it requires discipline and thought and I want to be better at it so the only way to do that is to write more and more. The way it’s really helped me is that it’s perhaps lessened the stigma around rape and it’s got people talking more about things like rape and mental illness, suicide, self-harm. But I don’t think it’s a miserable book, it’s kind of a love story about music, fatherhood.

–You’re working on another book. What’s it about?

–It’s weird – it’s about 80,000 words and I still don’t really know what it’s about! It’s nonfiction again but it’s not a memoir. It’s about me being on tour and trying to deal with the noise we all have in our heads. You know when you’re anxious or depressed, even slightly, sometimes it just seems like it’s such a heroic path just to get out of bed, let alone put your clothes on and feed yourself and get the kids to school and show up to work. It’s a bit about how we function in this world today, how our heads are so fucked up and we’re swimming in a sea of craziness. You only have to open the paper and look at the world we live in and you think we’re just going to implode. So it’s a book about survival, I guess, but it’s not a self-help book. It’s about me on tour and about music and lot about Spain. It’s a bit like a tour diary but hopefully not as self-involved as that.

–Your book’s title, A Memoir of Madness, Medication and Music sounds like a new version of Sex Drugs and Rock ‘n’ Roll don’t you think?

–I’d prefer the sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll to be honest with you. I tried the sex and drugs and I wasn’t very good at it.

–Recently we've heard that 500 children at the Regensburger choir school in Germany had been victims of abuse over five decades. How do you feel hearing this? Does it bring all your pain back?

–Yes, It always does. It doesn’t take much. I only have to watch a commercial on the TV with a kid in it and that’s enough to set me off, let alone a graphic rape scene in a movie. The truth is it’s an epidemic, it’s everywhere - the only thing that surprises me is that people appear surprised and say ‘how could this have happened?’ Even the language we use around it is so soft and weak – we ‘molest’ people, or ‘interfere’ with them or ‘abuse’ them. Abuse is the wrong word. I understand the reasons why because we don’t want to confront what we’re capable of doing but we do need to open our eyes and sadly this is just the tip of the iceberg.

–You know you don’t look like a conventional concert pianist. You look more like an indie musician. Are you tired of seeing so many suits on stage in the classical music world?

–I’ve never understood it. Can you imagine calling Matt Bellamy of Muse and saying we want you to play five nights at the O2 in London but you’ll have to wear a tuxedo? He’d just laugh. There’s no reason for it other than to try and make it some sort of elevated art form and it’s bullshit. The music is the only thing that can never change and that has stood on its own for hundreds of years and will continue to for hundreds of years. We’re probably not going to be listening to Harry Styles in 300 years but we’re sure as shit going to be listening to Chopin and Bach. I’ve always played in what I’m comfortable in, not to make statements but just because I don’t see why you have to be trapped in a suit that makes you sweat like a motherfucker while you’re playing.

–Why don’t more pianists do that?

–It’s much safer to stick with the crowd, and just feel like you’re kind of special and superior to everyone else because you’re wearing a very smart outfit and don’t acknowledge the audience and you scowl at them and then you play and then you scowl at them again and go home. I would feel short-changed – you pay 40 euros for a ticket – I want to know more.

–Is changing an image the first step towards ending the idea of elitism in classical music?

–It doesn’t need a change of image but a change of the people involved, not the audience, but the promoters and the critics, the gatekeepers to the classical music world. They talk about wanting a younger audience but they do fuck all about it – they like the idea of encouraging people who wear a suit and tie and can pronounce the names of the composers and it just makes me so enraged. If Mozart or Beethoven came to a concert today they’d just piss themselves laughing. There’ll always be a very cultured, very wealthy audience sponsored by big corporate institutions and banks and that’s fine, but I’m much more interested in the 99.8%, the rest of the population who don’t really know about classical music but would like to know a bit more, but before you even get through the door to a concert there are already fucking hurdles – when should I clap? What should I wear? What’s a movement? How many movements are there in a sonata? A lot of people just say ‘fuck it’ and buy the 50 best chill out classics ever and that breaks my heart. The Proms does it well, it provides a forum for classical music that’s so open and doesn’t have all of these rules attached to it.

–Do you think that any pop or rock music will be listened to in the future with as much reverence as the great classical classics are today?

–There’s always going to be Bowie and The Beatles, Freddie Mercury, Jimmy Hendrix, but I think it’s too early to tell about the current lot. I’d love to think that Lana del Rey would be up there, or Amy Winehouse, but who knows? It’s one of those weird things while people are alive – you’re not really sure. Schubert was a disaster, hardly anything he wrote was published while he was alive but now he’s up there alongside Beethoven and Bach.

–You say Bach saved your life but you’ve got Rachmaninov tattooed on your arm in Russian Cyrillic script. Why is that?

–Bach for me is like the grandfather of music. There’s a direct link from him right the way through to the music we listen to today. Without him we wouldn’t have Beethoven or Rachmaninov, or Justin Bieber for that matter. Rachmaninov I love because at a time when all the other composers were really pushing harmonic boundaries, he just decided to stick to his guns and write these lush incredibly romantic melodies. People really looked down on him at the time but his music now is just electrifying, I’m impressed that he did that, it would have been so easy to change the way he wanted to compose to try and fit in but he didn’t do that.