Matt Berry: The Blue Elephant interview with a slice of Toast!

Matt Berry is not a name to be sniffed at. From his humble beginnings on Snuff Box, his journey into the weird as fuck Mighty Boosh, his mad capers on The IT Crowd and the excellent BAFTA winning Toast Of London. For Nosferatu’s sake he’s even portrayed a comedy vampire in What We Do In The Shadows. Yet underneath all this he’s been writing some excellent music that covers folk, prog, psychedelia and the rest. His new album The Blue Elephant hits the streets this week and it’s a journey though time and space that could be a soundtrack to a Vietnam War film. Wayne AF Carey has the pleasure of interviewing the polymath behind the MUSIC…

LTW: “Congratulations on your new album”

MB: “Well thank you very much. Glad you like it!”

LTW: “Excellent stuff. I’m not going to talk about your comedy except for maybe one question at the end. Can you give us a bit of background on the creation of The Blue Elephant?”

MB: “I suppose it was a reaction against the album that I’d done before which was Phantom Birds, which was very stripped down as they were all acoustic written songs and I kind of wanted to present them in that way. They weren’t sort of cluttered with that many instruments and the way that the Dylan / Nash albums were with a rhythm section to the left. I’d spent a year doing that and afterwards you do all the press for it, so because I’d been doing it for over a year actually by the time I’d done all the press I was ready to do something else. That’s why Blue Elephant is basically in the opposite direction to that album. It’s an excuse for me to use lots of instruments and not to stick to sort of traditional songs. Blue Elephant does away with all that Phantom Bird stuff and the songs are structured in a far more experimental way. There might not be a chorus in one the songs or there might be a really long verse. I was a lot more interested in doing that. Just breaking away from what I’d just done”

LTW: “I’ve notice you’re a multi instrumentalist. You play nineteen different instruments on this. What’s the background on that?”

MB: “I suppose I kind of grew up not knowing many people that were my age who sort of played anything or were particularly interested, so as a result of that, if I wanted a bass guitar part on a song I was doing on my cheap little four track I had to do it because I didn’t have anyone else to do it. I also discovered from that I loved doing it and I got as much pleasure out of doing the bass part as I did doing the guitar part or the vocal part. I loved doing everything and that kind of led to me teaching myself bass guitar, lead guitar, rhythm guitar, the piano. Just because I loved it all. The effect that you got on your song on a four track was much richer as a result”

LTW: “I’ve noticed on the inner sleeve of the album your music room. I can picture you running around the place tinkering on different stuff. Is that the sort of image I’m getting?”

MB: “That’s pretty much it yeah. There isn’t an engineer there. I’m the engineer as well. There isn’t anyone that’s kind of sat at the desk. I sit at the desk, I press record and I have to run over and do whatever. But I’ve always worked like that”

LTW: “I just love the way it looks ramshackle. Like you’ve just sort of said “I’ll run to that bit, then run to that bit”

MB: “Yeah, that’s it. Exactly”

LTW: “I notice that most of your previous albums you’re on the front cover. This time you’ve done like an Elephant Man theme. Why the artwork on this one?”

MB: “Because I got fed up with being on the front. I’d done that enough. This is a lot more open to interpretation. I didn’t wanna curb that by sticking my face on it, so if it’s an image then people can make of this album what they like. If they find it kind of frightening that’s fine. If they don’t like it at all that’s fine. All of these things, it’s up to the listener now”

LTW: “How did you get involved with Acid Jazz? You’ve been with them ten years now over seven albums”

MB: “That came about due to when MySpace was still going. I had an album on there and my mate said to me “You should probably take that down because I know a guy that might be interested in one of the songs as a possible single.” Then I found out he was talking about Eddie Piller. I knew Acid Jazz because as a student I used to get their compilations because they had stuff that there was no way I could have found. I always loved the label, so when I went to see Eddie I played him the album and all I expected was for him to say “Well that ones alright, we’ll just do that single and see how it goes” Anyway, we got to the end and he said “Right. We’re gonna do the whole thing” I was like “Shit! OK” and that was that. I haven’t sort of left his side metaphorically since then. It’s been such a great label for me because if I want to do something bizarre they never at any point try to steer me away from it. Any bizarre idea I have they’re always encouraging me. They also understand the dangers of fashion and it’s always best to let someone do what they love doing as opposed to second guessing what’s cool right now. That’s always been the thing with Acid Jazz. They don’t care whether something isn’t cool you know. Not at all”

LTW: “You’ve got a prog rock drummer on this. Craig Blundell from the band Frost on drum duties again. He compliments your sound totally. Is this an ongoing thing?”

MB: “Well there’s not many as good as him and he’s into what I’m into, so when I play him the demos and stuff he knows what I mean. He knows the kind of effect I’m going for. He’s into the same sort of bands. I don’t have to explain anything. The best thing about it is he’ll do something I didn’t expect and it’s always a bonus”

LTW: “How do you find juggle acting with music and comedy. How does your mind cope? Is it difficult?”

MB: “Not really. It isn’t something I’ve always done. I just kind of drifted into comedy and I love doing both. I get a release. If I know that I’ve got some time off in between doing another show that’s when I’ll do music because I don’t know what sort of time I’m gonna have after it, so hopefully I can finish it in that time. If not I’ll come back to it. The best thing is which is a cruel thing to say, but because of the pandemic a lot of the stuff I was meant to do last year was pushed to this year, which meant I had a lot longer to spend on The Blue Elephant. I could kind of finesse it and I wouldn’t have normally be able to do that.

LTW: “You’ve used loads of old psych equipment on this album including the Mellotron. I’ve always seen this driftng through your music as you’ve evolved. Have you always been into that sound?”

MB: “Yeah, I’ve always been into early electronic synths in terms of music, stuff that kind of stands on it’s own and cuts through. I just like the vibe that those things give off. The Mellotron has always had this kind of creepy vibe and the strings always sound scary even when they’re not meant to be. They just have this vibe I really like, it’s the same with the synths. If you use them the right way you can get the effect that you’re after.”

LTW: “I’m surprised you didn’t use a theremin in there”

MB: “Something like that is quite a strong kind of flavour. If you’re doing it with a theremin it becomes a theremin song”

LTW: “You’ve evolved massively since the debut for Acid Jazz; Witchazel. You roots are still prog psych folk with an ironic twist in the lyrics. Was this psychedelic sixties sound intended?”

MB: I didn’t go out of my way. It wasn’t really a sort of plan as much of these things are. I’ve always loved that kind of production. Witchazel was more of a folk horror kind of album. I’ve always been interested in that too, but I’d done it with that album. I wanted to move into a more British psychedelic thing, rock I suppose. Early hard rock. If you are a musician who loves to record then you do end up sounding like the things you love, even if you don’t kind of mean to. Does that make sense? Sort of consciously”.

LTW: “If you found a time machine and went back to the sixties, this album would just fit in bang on like a classic, yet sounds so modern”

MB: “Oh good, well yeah, it’s a crazy thing innit”

LTW: “There’s a big psych revival at the moment. Have you heard of bands like King Gizzard”

MB: “Yeah I have. I don’t know much about them. A revival. When you say that do you mean in terms of record collectors?”

LTW: “I mean about music coming in cycles. All these people who were into your average indie bands are now getting into the psych sound. Bands like The Coral with their fairground organ themes are just hitting everyone”

MB: “I like The Coral. Take Tame Impala ten years ago with Innerspeaker. Setting the standard.Bloody ‘ell!”

LTW: “What bands would you recommend to the kids and adults these days?”

MB: “Well, I don’t know. I don’t know what people are into. Do you mean like new bands?”

LTW: “New and old bands. I was introduced to Steve Wilson the other day and was quite surprised I’d not heard of him”

MB: “I supported him at The Royal Albert Hall. He’s a good lad. If it was a young person I’d suggest Roxy Music or The Doors. Something that’s gonna be a bit different”

LTW: “There’s a big Doors element to your album I notice”

MB: “Well the thing about The Doors I admired was the fact that the organ was the lead instrument and there weren’t many bands that did that and they got away with it even though there was a guitarist. The organ musically was the instrument people paid most attention to. Obviously they paid the most attention to Jim Morrison at the time, yet musically it’s the organ isn’t it which was kind of rare for a band. The thing about Ray Manzarek was when he wasn’t giving Jim Morrison a kind of soundbite he never really rated himself as a particularly good organ player which I found staggering, because for me I thought he was great”

LTW: “A bit like Dave Greenfield from The Stranglers bringing that sound to a punk audience. It was alien”

MB: “I think he’d have been just as happy in Genesis”

LTW: “Any plans on touring the album?”

MB: “That would completely depend on time. I would love too. Because of the pandemic everything I was meant to do in 2020 was moved so I’d have to do those things first. There are lots of positives at the moment whereas it was fucking terrible this time last year. People thought they were never gonna tour again. That’s not the way now. Things are starting to open. In Australia and New Zealand they’re completely back to normal. The bands are doing gigs. It’s as if nothing ever happened. With any luck we’ll be at that point pretty soon I hope. Let’s not mention a third wave!”

LTW: “A last question for your comedy fans who are gonna want to know about Toast In Tinseltown. Give us a hint.”

MB: “He basically finds himself in Los Angeles and it doesn’t go as well as he hopes, put it that way. He’s a character who shouldn’t have anything good happen. If you’re expecting him to finally hit the jackpot you’ll be disappointed. He doesn’t hit any jackpot. He’ll still be doing his voice overs every week.”

LTW: “Is Clem Fandango going be there?”

MB: “Oh yeah, he’ll be there alright.”

LTW: “Your arch nemesis!”

MB: “My arch nemesis. He’ll be there.”

And it ends. A nice interview with a guy that can be serious about music one moment then have us laughing with his bizarre characters on the screen. He even plans to come up North at one point he informs me. The Toast of Psychedelia indeed…

Album review here.

Acid Jazz

Available here 14th May

Words by Wayne Carey, Reviews Editor for Louder Than War. His author profile is here

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"I'm a 50 year old man, and I like it!" A music nut from North Manchester. If it's good I'm on it. Most genres covered but mainly alternative post punk indie with a dash of hip hop stylee.

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