Matt Berry Interview
He may be best known for his comedy roles in the Channel Four hit series The IT Crowd, Garth Marenghi's Dark Place, Snuff Box and The Mighty Boosh, but Matt Berry is also an accomplished musician. On the release of his third album, Contact Music caught up with the man himself on a sunny afternoon in a Soho pub in order to gain a first-hand insight into his blossoming music career.
Many a comedian fancies themselves as a rock star: comedy has for some time been billed as the new rock and roll, and there is clearly a vogue for combining the two. Matt was quick to distance himself from this trend, however. 'That's my problem with it; you get a lot of comics who want to be musicians but don't actually have any ability there'. In the past he has said he can't take music too seriously, but in fact the music he produces is extremely professional. 'I'm serious when I'm doing it' he explains 'but I couldn't have been an earnest pop star, I'd have to have taken the p*ss. I can't not take the p*ss with things.that would have been my downfall!' Despite this, it was the music that came first in his career and when he was at art school he was in a number of bands (one of them signed). 'Acting was never really my plan. I get bored, so if I was in a band and hadn't done any sort of comedy, by now I'd be really bored'.
In fact throughout his career, Matt has had many musical projects-they're just not as well recognised as his on-screen comedic roles, 'I've always done music at the same time as doing this,' he insists. He has composed the music for a number of TV shows including all the incidental music for Steve Coogan's Saxondale, a show for which his musical involvement was his main contribution. A project particularly close to his heart was the 2004 production AD/BC: A Rock Opera, for which he composed and performed all the music. It is a hilarious and musically dextrous take on the Nativity through the eyes of the Inn Keeper and it has hardly any spoken dialogue. Matt himself plays the innkeeper, showcasing the powerful baritone that we have come to know on his albums, and the programme (shown on BBC 3) boasts a stellar cast of now well-known comedians including; Noel Fielding and Julian Barratt from the Mighty Boosh, Richard Ayoade, Matt Lucas and Night Night's Julia Davies.
Contact Music was keen to find out Matt's musical inspirations. 'There's no one thing' he insists. 'It's a bit of everything and it can be something really small like someone's bass-line or what two flutes are doing in a song, I don't care about genres or what's current'.
So it seems he takes inspiration from everywhere, even using the music recognition feature on his phone to capture a potential influence '.I don't care what it says or who it's by or whatever, it's just the music'.
These diverse influences were evident in his next big musical undertaking, the dark BBC 3 comedy Snuff Box, which was written by and starred Matt and fellow comedian Rich Fulcher (The Mighty Boosh). The sketch show centres on a gentleman's club for hangmen and music features heavily throughout the series. Matt wrote the music for the show, played the majority of the instruments and provided the main vocals. Snuff Box developed a cult following and this led to an increase in the popularity of Matt's second album, Opium, from which the title track of the show was taken. So, why did he use material from his solo album for a TV project? 'Well, I just took stuff over because I couldn't be a*sed to write anything!' he jokes. 'No, it wasn't because I couldn't be a*sed at all; it was because I didn't think anyone would ever hear Opium. I thought, that's not a bad song, I may as well get some use out of it. So I just took that one song, Love Is A Fool and just re-did it as the Snuff Box thing, I honesty didn't think anyone would hear the original'. But plenty of people did and Opium too picked up quite a following.
As a result Matt's new album, Witchazel was eagerly awaited by many, and it was something of a surprise that he released it as a free download. Contact Music quizzed him about his motivation. 'When I did Opium, a lot of people couldn't afford to buy the CD and come to the gig and I could completely understand that. When I was a student, I couldn't afford anything'. So, was this Matt Berry's attempt to make the credit crunch a little easier to bear? 'I just wanted people to have it, and its only people who looked for it that would download it. And I think anyone who takes the time to look for it should have it for nothing'. However, the free download is limited because it is expensive to keep that bandwidth running, and Matt plans to release it commercially in the near future. He had planned to release it on his own label, as with Opium, but says '.there is interest, bigger interest that I need to think about', so watch this space!
And what about the album itself? Unlike Opium, which was extremely dark and was based around the 'horrors of the city'-covering subjects such as decadence and debauchery, drugs and sex-Witchazel, although still dark, is about the horrors of the country. 'But it's not just horrors, its kind of melancholic horrors of the country' he explains. In fact he described it on 6 Music as sounding like 'folk from 1978', and the inspiration for the album came from a childhood experience. 'One of the most memorable and frightening things when I was four or five was Kate Bush doing Wuthering Heights. She did it outside, in a forest and she did this thing where she looked straight into the camera and it's the most frightening thing for a kid to see, but it just stuck in my head'. He adds 'I thought the countryside was full of sexy witches like that, and that's what I wanted to base it on'!
It is not only the themes that differ. Unlike Opium there is very little spoken word on Witchazel; what there is is expertly timed for maximum effect, a technique Matt compares to one used in Time on Pink Floyd's Dark Side Of The Moon album. In fact the album does have a certain prog feel to it, no more so than in his 8 minute 41second track, The Pheasant. When Contact Music described it as an 'epic prog-rock work of genius' that trademark laugh ensued, but he also seemed most animated when discussing the intricacies of his music. 'It was going to be more ridiculous than that! That was me really kind of calming it down'. He describes how it was originally going to be a series of guitar solos morphing into each other, resulting in an 8 minute guitar solo, but felt that people would think it excessive. 'Well, they'd think I was crazy, so I just condensed it. And it's still 8 minutes long, but it was going to be a lot longer than that!' He also hopes that the song will form the basis of a new project: 'I want to do an animation.that was what that (The Pheasant) was always for'. He says it will be like Watership Down, an animation for both children and adults using all the music from the song. 'Like the journey of a young pheasant on boxing day, being knocked up into the sky by the beaters and whether it gets to the other side of the field without being shot. That's the basic story.' With different instruments portraying different themes, the track would lend itself well to animation.
It's that diversity that makes Matt's music really interesting. On Witchazel the songs differ hugely from folk to prog-rock and the instruments featured include acoustic and electric guitars, piano, organ, woodwind instruments, various synths and percussion. Despite this, the album doesn't sound disjointed-which seems to be a relief. Smiling broadly, he comments 'that was a really big fear of mine.they probably don't sound disjointed because they are using the same instruments and they are recorded in the same way, so they all have the same sort of colour'. It may also help that the main song, Take My Hand, is repeated in parts throughout the album, a trick Matt also used on Opium. 'It just keeps things interesting, like in musicals and it's the same principle with call-backs to a joke, you feel included.it kind of uniforms everything'.
This versatility and commitment to quality would seem to have been noticed, because he has had the pleasure of working with soul legend Geno Washington, who now sings Snuff Box as part of his set. Matt has seen him do this live and talks about with a real glint in his eye! 'Yeah, yeah, and it's the most weirdest thing! Because he does all these Motown standards and kind of soul stuff and then he does Snuff Box'. He hopes to work with Washington again in the future and has written the song So Low for him. It is clear that with both his TV and music careers, he is a very busy man. Does he ever sleep? 'Well, not really! There just aren't enough hours in the day, I've got a lot of things that I want to do and those that I can do, I'm going to make sure that I do do!' he laughs.
With that in mind, what does the future hold for Matt Berry, the musician? He is performing live at The Scala on 22nd April and will be showcasing songs from Witchazel as well as singing some of his older material. He'll be accompanied by Jonas 3, the Brighton-based band who played with him while he was touring his Opium album in 2007. Although he would like to tour the new album, he has a lot of other commitments this year, and is also keen to see the response to the new material first. 'We'll just see how it goes, they might not work live you know, in which case it's all f*cked isn't it?!' he laughs.
Matt's lucky fans will also be receiving another free gift in the future. 'The next thing I'm going to do is going to be totally free' he says, and he has already started working on it. 'Its finished title is 'Music For Insomniacs' and it's an album for people to basically go to sleep to'. It's an interesting concept and producing his albums is clearly something he enjoys. 'They're a big pleasure for me to do, not wanting to be naff but art for arts sake in that way.nobody asks for them and nobody expects anything from them'. That enjoyment certainly comes through in the music and it will be reassuring for his growing fan base to know that he has no plans to stop at a third album. 'There's no kind of pressure to make the albums, so therefore I'll always make them, or keep making them.'
And with that he was off to meet yet another appointment for that trademark fruity voice. A charming man, who's enthusiasm is infectious. He is committed to making interesting music for its own sake, to the highest standards possible. It seems it's much more important to him to remain true to what he wants to produce than it is to achieve mainstream acceptance. 'Yeah, it's the same with the comedy; I'm not going to do anything that I don't think is very funny, even if it's a lot of money or massive exposure. It sounds w*nk but I'm just in it to do the best work I can'.
Born To Be Blue
Stripped Sessions 7 (Lights Change/Bright Lights Bigger City & I Need A Dollar)
Stripped Sessions 3 (Protect Me/You Know I'm No Good)
Inocente Pobre Amigo
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