Sananda Maitreya: ‘I hypnotised myself into believing I was a genius’

<span>‘I’m just in this magnum-opus period in terms of writing’ … Sananda Maitreya. </span><span>Photograph: (no credit)</span>
‘I’m just in this magnum-opus period in terms of writing’ … Sananda Maitreya. Photograph: (no credit)

Do you stand by your claim that [debut album] Introducing the Hardline … is as significant as Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band? VerulamiumParkRanger
I said a lot of shit, but Muhammad Ali was one of my heroes, and I similarly realised that if you say outrageous things, it gets attention. As a young artist, you’ve got to get your work heard and to a degree I hypnotised myself into believing I was a genius. It worked like a charm, but I didn’t understand the degree I’d have to pay for that. However, I had the sense to idolise the Beatles and the Stones, and listen to Duke Ellington, Stevie Wonder and Brian Wilson’s productions. So why would my taste abandon me when I was creating? I’m proud of that album and all my albums. We need people to be rock stars! When Oasis came out and Liam said the stuff he did, they grabbed the brass ring. I’ll forever have respect for that because I felt I did the same thing.

When I saw you in London in 1987 [when you were performing as Terence Trent D’Arby] you were a real breath of musical fresh air. Who inspired you then and now? 1Love1Heart
Buddy Holly and Sam Cooke wrote the foundations of what became pop music, and I idolised Jackie Wilson, the Who and all the other people I just mentioned, but I didn’t want to be a revival of something. I saw Rod Stewart as the more socially acceptable version of the vision of Sam Cooke, and actually told Rod that he was able to continue where Sam’s music was going, into rock. So at a certain age, listening to Rod – mixing a soulful voice with guitars and rock – I knew that was my shit and that I could take that forward.

Sony recently reissued your first album as Introducing The Hardline According to Sananda Maitreya, and Martyn Ware worked with you on it. What was that process like? AOliver
CBS signed me from my demos and I was adamant that I would produce my own album. But they told me I knew nothing about engineers, studios or which musicians, so they’d find me someone who did. Martyn was second on the list. I knew him with the Human League and Heaven 17 and had heard his work with Tina Turner and Jimmy Ruffin, so trusted his tastes. When he said: “I know exactly the record you want to make and I’m here to protect you while you make it”, I immediately knew he was my guy. I’m very happy that the reissue allowed us to connect professionally again. The relationship dynamic is the same and whatever I’ve done since, he’s still my first and only producer.

What was it like to have been briefly been the biggest thing around (the “next Prince”, I seem to recall)? JForbes
It was exactly as I had expected because I had seen it in several dreams. Of course success changes your circumstance and puts you in a place you wanted to be, but the greater impact is on the people around you. They haven’t earned the foundations that you put into your success, so when they start becoming wobbly, your own foundation becomes threatened. There are also political considerations, because the system itself hasn’t had a chance to vet you. The culture dictates what is acceptable behaviour – consumerism, patriotism or whatever. They will support the image of the rebel because that archetype sells well, but actual rebellion is not acceptable.

Also, Michael Jackson grabbed hold of the Beatles’ catalogue, which gave him a lot more leverage in Sony. As much as I adored Michael, he wasn’t my biggest fan and he wasn’t too comfortable with them transferring promotional efforts from him to me.

Do you think it’s about time [second album, from 1989] Neither Fish nor Flesh was given its proper due? I always thought it was great. Paul_the_K
During the second album, CBS became part of Sony. Suddenly I was working with new people and the ethos had become a lot more conservative. I wasn’t about to surrender my creative will to executives who might not be there in six months. I created something I knew would be explosive, but I assumed people would get it in the same way they had the first. The president of the record company said: “This is the work of either a true genius or a madman, and I don’t know which yet.” The legendary A&R man Muff Winwood said something to the effect of: “This is the record James Brown would have made at 25 if he’d been living today.”

The press and public reaction was as extreme as the first, but in the opposite direction – a third got it and two-thirds handed my ass to me. A year later I was licking my wounds and a suit salesman in Beverly Hills told me his partner’s favourite song had been Billy Don’t Fall from Neither Fish nor Flesh. It had been “their song” while he was ill and they’d listened to it together as he died. I was so overcome I had to leave the store. When we talk about success as an artist, those kind of things are your true purpose.

When I went to audition for my first band, they said: You’d better be a hell of a singer

In the video for This Side of Love [on Neither Fish nor Flesh], you appear to be playing a modified Rickenbacker guitar. Was it custom made and do you still have it? travistastic
I was a massive Beatles fan, so when I got to London I went to their bootmakers, Anello & Davide, and got Chelsea boots made. I wore anything associated with my heroes. You cover yourself in those pelts and hope they will imbue something as talismanic symbols. The Rickenbacker is a custom version of the model John Lennon played. I think it’s currently in a museum in Orlando or Las Vegas.

Why did you change your name? TopTramp
I had to create a new identity that wasn’t traumatised by the “fall from grace”. That dude was toast. Also, the “company” back then made certain that I understood that they – and not I – owned everything associated with the former name. After much deliberation and meditation, creating a new identity was the only viable way forward.

You had a very successful amateur boxing career. How far do you think you could’ve got in the pros? Who would your dream opponent have been? And what song would you have used for your ring walk? Mr_202
Going into boxing and later joining the army were both part of the warrior training I got the benefits from as an artist. It transformed my confidence and aura, and I believe I could have gone far because I was a natural. One of my last fights was with a young man and the more I hit him, the more I heard his mother cheering him on. I was emotionally moved, had an epiphany in that moment and realised I was not on this earth to punch other people’s sons in the face. I knocked the kid out to end her misery but it bothered me. In those days, guys spitting and yelling at me was the music, but I’d have loved Montagues and Capulets by Prokofiev. My hero was Ali and a picture of him holding up my album is one of my most cherished possessions. My perfect opponent would have been anyone I thought I could beat!

You lived in Germany for a while when you were in the army. How did you like it there? riyousha
I was born in Harlem but mainly grew up in the south. There was a lot of racism, but I knew in my heart that all white people aren’t like that. The 1% control the 99% by dividing us. When I moved to Germany I was positively stunned to find it an incredibly welcoming environment. I’d been a child prodigy in music, and given it up because it was a lot of pressure, but one day in the barracks I had a sudden urge to get a bass guitar. In the music shop, I overheard this guy telling the owner his band [funk act Touch], needed a singer and guitar player. I said: “I’m your guy.” When I went to audition, they asked where my guitar was and I confessed I didn’t have one. They said: “Well you’d better be a hell of a singer.” I was with that band for three years. We rehearsed in a converted wartime bunker which still carried the words “Juden raus!” – “Jews out”. The irony wasn’t lost on me.

After the death of Michael Hutchence, you fronted INXS for a one-off performance, celebrating the opening of 2000 Olympics venue Stadium Australia in Sydney. What’s the story behind this collaboration? VerulamiumParkRanger
I kept hearing this rumour that I was joining INXS. Then INXS called me because they’d heard the same rumour. I don’t know if we were being manipulated. Anyway, that prompted them to ask me to do this one-off concert. I didn’t realise they were ultimately looking for me to join the band, but I spent a week rehearsing to do justice to those amazing songs and had a white leather suit made for the occasion. Unbeknown to me, they had choreographed 200-300 school kids all dressed in white, so when I walked out I matched everyone else! At that point I started thinking there was definitely some spiritual involvement. I wouldn’t have done it if I hadn’t felt Michael was OK with it. I was very fond of him and it was an honour to take his place.

Pegasus and the Swan has more than 40 tracks. Your previous album had nearly 30. What motivates you to create such long albums? Sandvvich
My wife has twice heard me say, “Next time, just 16 songs man”, and because this was the 13th project of original material it was supposed to have 13 songs. But I’m just in this magnum-opus period in terms of writing. I’m not a song machine; you have to give yourself challenges to continue moving. I don’t know how much longer I’ll be prolific and I’m not the kind of person who wants to sit on a bunch of stuff and have people fighting over it when I’m gone. But also, people digest music differently than they did when I first came out. It’s a proper framing of my vision – not some bloated carcass of material – but I’m not expecting people to sit down and listen all at once.

What is the biggest misconception about you? OopsMe
For three years there was a rumour in LA that I was dating Charlize Theron. I’m a gentleman and you don’t need people knowing everything that’s going on in your life, but I’d never met her. So many people asked me about it that eventually I realised it wasn’t the worst rumour in the world, so whenever people would ask “How is Charlize?” I’d say, “Oh, she’s fine.” I’ve still never met her. The worst part is when stuff circulates in the industry when things aren’t going well for you. They think you’re strung out on drugs or depressed, which damages your reputation, and it takes a long time to come back.

Your performance at this summer’s Love Supreme festival will be your first show in the UK in 22 years. Why such a long absence? tabbycatty
My identity as an artist was born in the UK. It was an unbelievable high when the country presented itself to me as a womb, but then when the situation turns around and the mother eats its young it’s very traumatising. For a long time, I had to process my bitterness and anger, even while suppressing what had been wonderful about the experience before that. Now I feel I have enough psychological armour that I can put my foot back in those waters. The summer concert is a sneak preview of what to expect later in the year.

• Sananda Maitreya’s new album The Pegasus Project: Pegasus & the Swan is released via TreeHouse Publishing on 11 May. He performs at Love Supreme on 6 July