Matt Berry is a busy man. Between singing and voice-over gigs, Berry happens to be one of the most in-demand comedy performers of his generation, so it’s no surprise that we find the man preparing himself for the fourth series of What We Do In The Shadows. He’s filming in America, I’m calling from a damp Irish flat, but if there’s anything “showbizzy” about the artist (and he’s most definitely an artist), it doesn’t come up in the interview. Quite the opposite, in fact, as he’s quick to remind me how lucky he has been in life. “I’m so grateful to be able to do both,” he says, “To make my albums, and to act as a fool. And if you do something long enough, people realise that it isn’t a joke. I mean, there’s a record label involved, it would be unfair on them to bring them into a long, drawn out joke.”
Unlike his more boisterous creation, Steven Toast, Berry is affable, humble, and prone to fits of giggles as he answers some of the questions posed to him. He knows Pugwash founder Thomas Walsh well (he refers to the songwriter as ‘Tommy’ during the call) and seems happy to collaborate with fellow musicians, no matter whether it’s appearing in their promotional video or singing with them. He begins to talk about one particular collaboration but ultimately chooses not to go down that route; “It will be a lot of trouble for my label,” he says.
Instead, he feels more comfortable discussing Gather Up, a sprawling decade-long record that collates many of his more famous hits, as well as some of his more idiosyncratic and absurd. ‘So Low’, perhaps his best-loved song, holds a foot in both camps, and somewhere between the barrelling piano riffs and soaring vocals comes the sound of a lowly acoustic guitar, pirouetting, as if awaiting to bring listeners onto the next mystical adventure. But while it may appear like something from a prog album (Steve Hackett comes to mind), Berry is less convinced by the comparison. “I’m not sure that it’s prog, or that it’s Genesis, but it’s definitely the records of the sixties and seventies that excite me most. As in, ‘how things are done’, and the record production side of things. There was less of the live performance in the eighties, and it’s obvious how that music was done. It was plugged straight into the desk, and there was more of a use of drum machines. There was more of a performance angle in the sixties and seventies.”
The video for ‘So Long’ pays tribute to that era, positing the many musicians in one enormous circle, each man seated by their instrument in an earnest effort to appear presentable towards the camera. In what proves a delicious pastiche of/homage to Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells, the musicians seem more interested in performing to each other than to the people watching from home. “I’d forgotten about that video,” Berry cackles. “That was years ago! Benedict Wong is in that video, as is John Simm. Tommy is there, and he also appears on Kill The Wolf.”
He does concede that Mike Oldfield – admittedly a staple of seventies prog – helped to influence his approach to album craft. “I read when I was a teenager that Mike Oldfield and another musician, Jean-Michel Jarre, would record by themselves. Otherwise, I thought I’d have to go to some studio, whereas they didn’t. It suits me to record on my own in my home studio, because I can work at my own pace. Basically, all of my albums are me, except for the drums. I’m an okay drummer, but it’s better to have someone else
“I was eleven when I learned organ,” he continues, “And I started on guitar shortly after that. Then it was onto bass guitar, which was an instrument I loved, and then onto twelve string, which was another I loved. Basically, that’s the way with all the instruments [chortles].”
Highlights of the compilation include the rapid-fire assault of ‘Medicine’, the yearning of ‘Summer Sun’, not forgetting the out and out wackiness of the title track, a decidedly hyper-kinetic composition that flits between autumnal folk fable and Saturday night glam shoo-in. Far Out readers will probably be familiar with ‘Take My Hand’, given that it’s nominally played over the closing credits of Toast of London, but the song dates back even further than that. “It started because I wanted to write a piano riff that sounded like Elton John,” he admits. “It was for a show I was on called Snuff Box, and I had to come up with something that immediately sounded like Elton John. So, the song started from there, and I couldn’t let it go.”
What about the funky track he wrote for Snuff Box, complete with a jaunty bass? “It was a thing I had written a few years ago, and it was one of the catchiest things I had written up that point.” He’s intriguingly vague about his imprints and even suggests that it’s up to other people to piece together who typifies his music. However, the turbocharged riff that opens ‘So Low’ wasn’t inspired by The Beatles’ fiery number ‘Hey Bulldog’, as I had suspected: “That was something I wrote on someone else’s guitar,” Berry explains. “I wouldn’t think it was inspired by [‘Hey Bulldog’]. But doing something on someone else’s guitar gives you a fresh way of doing things. It’s all completely new.”
Berry considers Kill The Wolf and The Blue Elephant as his most fully realised efforts but concedes that he’s happy to have all of his work out in the world. “When I sing, it’s the first thing that comes out of my mouth,” he says. “It’s up to other people to spot. Boring answer, I’m afraid [chuckles].”
One man who could never be considered boring is Neil Hannon, the dandily dressed Portora Royal School alumnus and writer of such smouldering, symphonic numbers as ‘Becoming More Like Alfie’. What was he like to work with? “Well, when I worked with him, I did my bit in London, and sent it on to him. Hannon did some stuff for Toast, because his voice is distinctive, and very different to mine. I’ve worked more with Tommy, but you’re probably not as interested in that stuff.”
Au contraire, I love Pugwash, and feel they fill in a void left to them by XTC. Much of their work – polished and brimming with repartée – feels like it’s on a level with the works of Roy Wood and Jeff Lynne. “Yes, absolutely. I completely agree,” Berry admits. “His time will come, don’t worry. The thing about him, is if we give his songs to Liam Gallagher, that would give him great exposure. Liam’s singing and Tommy’s songwriting, that could work. We’ve talked a bit about that, and I can definitely see Liam singing them.” Would Berry work with the former Oasis frontman? “If it’s with Tommy, yeah.”
Back to the songwriter of topic: How does Berry come up with the lyrics to his songs? Is it a separate process from the melody? “That depends on the melody,” he stoically replies. “It might be together for some songs. It depends on the sounds. If it’s in a minor key, then that creates a certain atmosphere that I carry on. But there’s no fixed rule. Well, not for me, that might not apply to other people.”
Another songwriter I’ve interviewed is Imelda May. She mentioned that one of the most enjoyable processes of recording is mixing, as it helps to shape the finished project. “She’s dead on about that,” Berry says. “You take a load of stuff away, and you can re-shape a track. I’m working on something at the moment that I’m going to go back to when I get home.”
But until he does so, it’s back to What We Do In The Shadows. There’s no rest for the wicked, and neither-it would seem-is it for the prolific!
Gather Up will be released on November 26th via Acid Jazz Records.