Matt Berry talks new LP, taping ‘What We Do in the Shadows’ & how Joy Division are like The DoorsBill PearisPublished: May 13, 2021
Matt Berry is a very funny guy. He's starred in and/or written for such influential series What We Do in the Shadows, Toast of London, The IT Crowd, Snuff Box, and Garth Marenghi's Darkplace, not to mention his appearaces in The Mighty Boosh, Saxondale, Aqua Teen Hunger Force, Disenchantment, and more. But he's very serious about music, and has been releasing albums for as long as he's been doing comedy. An early obsession with Mike Oldfield's 1973 classic Tubular Bells is a touchstone for Berry, and most of his own music feels like it could've been released alongside it. He calls the early '70s "my sweet spot period" and you can hear the era on everything from his baroque prog-folk albums Witchazel and Kill the Wolf to the Jean-Michel Jarre-esque Music for Insomniacs to his 2018 album where he meticulously recreated TV theme songs from his childhood. His songs have featured prominently in his TV shows, too — if you've watched Toast of London or Snuff Box you've heard Matt's music whether you realized it or not.
Following last year's terrific Phantom Birds, an album inspired by Bob Dylan's Nashville period that featured legendary pedal steel player B.J. Cole, Berry is back with a very different record, The Blue Elephant, a trip into heavy psychedelia that's plays out as sidelong collages where songs melt into one another. Berry plays every instrument on The Blue Elephant apart from drums (Steven Wilson collaborator Craig Blundell is behind the kit) and is more than capable, delivering some seriously groovy basslines and mind-altering vibes courtesy of an impressive arsenal of vintage analog synthesizers he's been collecting for two decades. With lockdown postponing What We Do in the Shadows' production, Berry had a little more time than usual to work on this one and it shows — it's an impressive production that sounds like a lost acid casualty artifact of the era.
During some downtime from shooting What We Do in the Shadows' third season, which wrapped up filming in Toronto last month, Matt talked to us about The Blue Elephant, synthesizer collecting, The Doors' influence on post-punk, his continued obsession with Tubular Bells, separating his comedy from his music, and finding time for making albums while being more in demand than ever as an actor, plus a little bit on What We Do in the Shadows and the soon-to-start-filming Toast of Tinseltown. Read our conversation below.
The Blue Elephant, this album number eight for you? Is that the official count?
I don't know myself. Something around there, yeah.
With What We Do in the Shadows, your profile in America has certainly gone up from being known by people who are more into British comedy and cult comedy and stuff like that, into a more mainstream audience. Do you feel like more people know that you do music now?
No, I don't think it's made any difference. I don't notice. I'm not on social media, so I wouldn't be aware of this kind of thing firsthand. So I don't really notice anything like that. I'm only really interested in being able to continue to do it, that's only ever been my main concern with it. I'm very lucky to be able to do both.
There have been themes on a lot of your records – Phantom Birds was country rock a la Dylan, and obviously TV Themes was a theme, as was Music for Insomniacs. I feel like there is some sort of theme going on with Blue Elephant, the way the songs all segue together on the sides, can you tell me a little bit more about what's going on and if I'm right?
You are right to an extent. What it is, a lot of Blue Elephant is a reaction to recording Phantom Birds, which was very traditional in its song structure, song lengths, presentation to a point. I gave it a very mid to late '60s production, where I had the drums panned hard on one side and the vocal on the other, and that sort of thing. So when I came to do The Blue Elephant, I wanted to do the opposite of everything that I'd just done. Because I'm like that with all art, whether it's comedy or whether it's music. I just wanted to go in a completely different kind of direction with a completely different set of rules for The Blue Elephant. As a result, you have songs that aren't traditional song structures, and a lot of the time there's no vocal at all. If there is a vocal, it won't appear until halfway through. Doing things differently to the traditional way.
This is much more psychedelic in a "groovy" sort of way.
With this album, yet again, there was a production style going up, sort of 70s, early 70s production, which is my sweet spot period — I think they sounded the best around 1974. The technology was as good as it… I wanted that vibe about it, that kind of production, that kind of atmosphere.
The thing that kept going through my mind was Dudley Moore and Peter Cook's Bedazzled. I could imagine this being the soundtrack at the club the Devil hung out it.
Maybe, I mean it isn't at all, because that's a comedy film with pastiche. This isn't. It probably sounds like that to you because of the accent and whatever. But I think that's where the comparisons probably end, I mean… pastiche, it would be a lot of effort make that album for one joke, if that makes sense. Anything very British always sounds slightly jokey, and whether it's folk, or whether it's this kind of thing. But that wasn't the intention. I've got an outlet for that.
Right, for sure, though I think like you Dudley Moore was a comedian whose musical skills were no joke. But I also hear those early-'70s library musicians like Alan Hawkshaw or Keith Mansfield.
I'm very familiar with those, and very influenced by how they play. Mainly someone like Herbie Flowers, who is a lively bass player as well as doing the bass on "Walk on the Wild Side" and a lot of David Bowie albums. Yeah, I've always been influenced by him and his rhythm section. You're right, those early '70s, KPM releases. They are a big influence.
I love all the bass lines on The Blue Elephant, so bravo to you for that. You basically play everything on the album except the drums, right?
That's right. Thank you, yeah.
The array of keyboards and synthesizers on this — in addition to maybe the rhythm section — that is what really stands out for me on this record.
Good. I think that's partly due to the fact that they're all the real thing. I bought a lot of these keyboards and instruments in the early '90s, while working in a supermarket, when all of those things were actually very, very cheap. You could pick up a good analog synthesizer back then, in the early '90s, for £100, which would now cost you something like £6,000. So nobody wanted that stuff back then, especially if it had any wood on it. It just wasn't what people wanted, but I did because I was into the kind of music that was made using those things, so for me that stuff looked incredibly cool, but to everybody else, well for most people, it really didn't.
It was just you and Stereolab buying all that stuff in 1992.
And I know, you've said that Tubular Bells is an extremely formative record for you. Was there a keyboard on that album that you had to buy, after hearing that record that started you down the path?
Well synth isn't very highly featured on that album, it's a guitar record first and foremost. But there was a photograph of him taken a year or so after that album came out, of him sat in a studio basically surrounded by a bunch of instruments, and that was a huge influence for me. I had to be in that situation. I didn't know how I was going to do it, I didn't have any money back then. But I just knew that I needed to be in that situation, where I was in my own studio with my own equipment working at my own speed. I thought that that was the goal, life's goal. Back then.
And now you've done it.
Well, I mean when you're 14, you don't have much to compare things to, so yeah.
So that was probably the mid to late 80s — were any of your other friends into the music that you were into?
Absolutely not. No. They couldn't understand my fascination with Tubular Bells. Mainly because each song, as they would have called it, lasted like 23 minutes. That, to most people, especially my contemporaries, at the time, would have just been too much to deal with. And it's a very chaotic and unsettling album. Young people don't really need that kind of thing, I don't think. I don't know why I was drawn to it, but I was. No, I had the odd friend that liked Jimi Hendrix, which was good. And a few people liked The Doors, but apart from that there wasn't that many people that were listening to the same kind of thing, at all.
When you were in your early 20s in the '90s — when you said you were buying the keyboards — that was when I guess shoegaze and acid house and Britpop was starting to happen in the UK. Were you into that at all?
Absolutely, yeah. It was a bleak time in music in the UK for me until Nirvana happened, and then that seemed to change everything, then things became a lot more interesting. Not just with guitar music, with electronic music too. And then everyone knows what happened afterwards. The Britpop thing was very big here. Lots of personality about all those bands, which I liked, and it had a very quirky British sound. That was a really good time for lots of things, including music. I look back at the '90s, I would imagine like quite a lot of people my age, with complete fondness.
Not unlike the sleeve for Tubular Bells, on the back of your record, you list all the instruments that you're playing. Is there any one from that list that you're most proud to have featured on this record?
Do you know what? I'm proud of the fact that I own any of them. That, to me, is the achievement, just the fact that I've managed to buy any of them is an honor and privilege.
How big of a factor was lockdown on this record?
It was a big factor, because I was supposed to be in Canada doing this series, starting in October. But obviously that got shifted to the beginning of the next year, so I had those three months spare, which was fantastic for me because it meant that I could properly finish the album, and I could pour over the details, production details, the timing details, the playing details, all of these things that I wouldn't have necessarily had the same time for if I'd have buggered off to Canada. It sounds awful when anyone says that they got anything positive out of lockdown, because I know so many people basically suffered. But if there was anything positive, for me it just bought me that extra time just to spend on getting the album right, that I normally wouldn't have had.
You have your own studio, I assume.
Is it all analog or do you let computers into things at all?
It's basically half and half, this sounds odd but it's worked for me. Everything is recorded through an analog desk, so it has valves going through it, whether that be the drums, the bass, whatever, the whole things goes through an analog desk. That then goes to the computer, the computer then goes to a reel to reel tape machine, you add tape compression and tape characteristics. That then gets put back onto the computer. It's an arse about face way of doing things, but it seems to work for me.
Are you your own engineer too?
Well, I've always had to be because there wasn't anybody to help when I was young, so I learnt it then and still am learning it now. But I really enjoy it, so it doesn't feel like it's learning anything, or any kind of chore. I would do it anyway.
Phantom Birds was one of my favorite records of last year, and I'm a big fan of B.J. Cole, so it was really cool to hear him on a whole record like that.
It was as much of a thrill for me, because I knew that I wanted the pedal steel sound. And the best guy that anybody can think of is B.J. Cole, so I said to the label, I said, "Can we find somebody like B.J. Cole to do the pedal steel?" Because I can't play pedal steel, you've got to be brilliant, it isn't something that you can basically wing. To Acid Jazz's credit, they said, "Why don't I just ask him?" And then within an hour, he was involved. And added such an… atmosphere of that whole album, I think.
For sure. There's a haunting quality to that record that I think is almost entirely the pedal steel on it.
It's like people say, if you can't afford a string section, then get a pedal steel, and it's true. It has very similar dynamics.
I'm sure it must have also been a thrill to pick his brain and ask him about records that he played on, "Tiny Dancer," "Right Down the Line," etc.
I did all that, yeah. I did. He is fantastic, and he's just as enthusiastic to talk about it as I am to ask, so yeah. He was really into the project. He didn't know what kind of thing it was initially, originally thinking it was more country, and then when he got it, he realized, "This is something else." But he was really into it, though.
Your music figures prominently in many of your shows, like Toast of London and Snuff Box. You've gotten a couple songs in What We Do in the Shadows too…
Yeah, there's "Gather Up" and there's a song that eventually became a song on Phantom Birds, so there's two compositions, they're very good like that. They seem to incorporate a lot of scenes of me sat at a grand piano, yeah. They're very good at picking up what the cast do in their spare time, and incorporate it into… Not spare time. Their other jobs. And incorporate it into the show, in some way.
Is there more to come in Season 3?
Yeah, there is. There's lots. There's two or three new songs.
Excellent. As far as the new record, I think my favorite song on the album is "Blues Inside Me." That's an interesting one because it's almost two songs in one. Can you tell me a little bit about what's going on there?
Yeah, well again what I wanted to do there was mess around with the traditional song structure, so I wanted it to feel like a dream that had drastically changed gear, so one minute you're in one part of the world, the next minute you go through a door and you're the other side of the world, type thing. That was the main intention, just basically having a song which plonks you in two different places during the course of one song. I suppose much like Fleetwood Mac's "The Chain," where you've got the folk part which the turns into the 4/4 rock part. That kind of thing.
I also really like "Life Unknown," I just like the general super psychedelic… I don't know what effects are on the keyboards on that, but it sounds really great on headphones.
It's all effects from the time, so all of the delays are 1960s delays. Everything is fairly authentic, just to basically give you that kind of atmosphere of the time. And that stuff sounds better, because it's got loads of faults. It's not amazing technology, so things are always a bit uneven and I like that kind of characteristic.
There are also little moments on this album that remind me of Ennio Morricone. I know you did music for Saxondale — have you thought about doing more score work that's not something you're directly involved with as an actor? You'd be really good at it.
That's very kind. Yeah, I would do, it's just a time thing. I've barely got enough time to make my own records in between doing these shows, so that would always come first. It's like all these things. It's always about having enough time.
Do you know the director Peter Strickland? You'd fit right into his cinematic universe.
I'd love that, Jesus. Yeah, I mean that would be something else. It's quite funny because a lot of the darker electronic musicians that I grew up with, a lot of them have now gone into soundtracks, more so than the musicians that were in bands. And I find that quite interesting.
Who are you thinking of especially?
Well there's Clark, who made quite dark electronic music during the noughties, and now he's gone into soundtracks and it just makes total sense. It's like a lot of these people were making atmospheres beforehand. And I try to convince Jean-Michel Jarre to do the same thing. I think he will eventually, I understand why he doesn't because it's obviously what his father did. But I think he'd be fantastic at it.
Speaking of people like that, I had never seen before last night, and I was just doing some research on YouTube and stuff, I had never seen your impersonation of Vangelis before, and I came across that.
Oh god. (Laughs) Yeah, I mean it's hardly an impression, it was just…
It's literally a one note impression. You play one note as an answer to every question asked
Yeah. Well I always think, don't force stuff down people's throats. Come off earlier rather than later. I've always thought that, and I'll always stick to that. Never hang around.
Have you thought about what your next album will be?
Yeah I have. It's difficult to shake off the psychedelic folk. I may still be in that mindset, I don't know how much but I think there might be something else. I'm quite interested as well in early heavy rock, Black Sabbath type things. I don't know. I'm just, yeah… I'm just putting together some ideas at the moment. Who knows?
One thing, when I first heard Witchazel 10 years ago, I knew you first from Garth Marenghi and IT Crowd et cetera where you speak with a deep, throaty bravado style and I was not expecting your singing voice to as different from that as it was. Have you ever considered using that deeper voice for an album, you know go full Scott Walker?
Not really, it's difficult because that's not how I would naturally sing. I would do it if I was wanting to do an impression of Jim Morrison maybe, but I don't know what I'd gain from that. But no, that's just how I sing. That's how I sound, it's easier for me to sing like that to get the notes that I want to get, rather than sing like that. Actually funnily enough, I was listening to Joy Division again, I always go through these phases. And I spent a week just listening to Joy Division and absolutely nothing else, and he was really influenced by Jim Morrison. There are so many characteristics that I didn't really pick up on before. Is your bathroom so cold, and all that kind of stuff. And he's a guy from up north, I just love the fact that The Doors penetrated Joy Division in the way that they did, and yet there's a lot of people who love Joy Division who couldn't stand the Doors, I'd imagine.
I think that you're absolutely right, and I think that that's probably why the comparison doesn't get made that much because people don't want to admit that that maybe is the case.
Exactly, yeah. They don't want to dilute the one with the other. I think a few more people are coming forward now to being into The Doors. It isn't like it was 10 years ago, where you just couldn't mention them. People would laugh at you. I think that's gone, I think people are okay now saying that they're into The Doors again, which is a good thing. I can understand what puts people off, and there's elements that put me off and look a little dated now, but sonically I've always been into them.
I'm an '80s/'90s indie music snob, and I definitely went through a long period of time where I actively hated The Doors, whether I actually hated The Doors or not.
No, of course. Yeah. I can understand that. When Beach House came out, what did you make of Beach House?
I like Beach House a lot. There was an air of mystery, like their shows were always so dimly lit that you couldn't… I don't know, I never thought about comparing The Doors to Beach House, despite all the organ and stuff.
Well it's just that kind of atmosphere, it's that half time slowed down… She has a deep voice that kind of sits above what he's doing. Yeah, there isn't really a comparison, it's just that on the indie side, when I first heard them they made me feel the same way that the longer Doors song did — the more atmospheric, "End of the Night," that sort of stuff. Rather than the stupid "Touch Me" and that kind of thing. The darker stuff, at the time I just thought that it had elements of that. I like them, I still like them. I like the fact that they're doing a very similar thing that they did in 2009. I think, fair enough.
Their last record sort of sounded like Cocteau Twins at times, so…
Yeah, they've always had an element of that, the distant lead vocal.
I think that'll just about do it. How far are you into production are you for the new season of Shadows?
We're mostly done, we've only got a week left. We've been here all year.
And then you've got Toast of Tinseltown coming up. What's the plan for that?
Yeah, so I'm going into pre-production pretty much straight after this. So it's back to London, and then putting that show together. And then when that's done, I'm back here doing the next season of this, if all goes to plan. So the music will have to do its thing without me.
When was the last time that you and your band played live?
Oh god, two years ago. Too long, to be honest. I miss it. Everyone does, though.
You've never played a US show with your band The Maypoles, have you?
No. I's all dependent on time, and whether I would have the time to get it all together. But I will do it, because I've always wanted to play in the States. I want to play at Largo, I want to play at all of these kinds of places. I will do it.
Is there anything else we should know about The Blue Elephant?
I don't think so, just listen to it with headphones, that's the best way of listening to this because that's what it was made for. And enjoy it, don't get hung up on what it's doing, what it's meaning, this, that and the other, just get out of it what you want to get out of it.