Nine Songs: Matt Berry
Best known for his roles on TV shows like The IT Crowd and Toast of London, Matt Berry is a prolific figure in British comedy. But his enduring creativity extends into the world of music, with his ninth studio album The Blue Elephant about to be released via Acid Jazz Records.
He talks to me down a distant phone line from Canada where he’s shooting the new season of vampiric comedy What We Do in the Shadows. Listening to his Nine Songs selections, they feel less like opportunistic picks from across his life and more like a carefully considered playlist that effortlessly segues from one track to the next. “You have to put thought into these things,” he asserts. “It’s just too important, isn’t it?”
Across his musical career, Berry has focused on different influences, styles and inspirations, always at the helm of his own creative direction and production. His 2014 album Music For Insomniacs was an escape into synthetic electronica, while on 2018’s Television Themes he reimagined a carefully curated selection of small screen classics.
The Blue Elephant is a rich and tantalising trip into proggy psyche, a stark contrast to last year’s singer-songwriter styled Phantom Birds. While the rest of us were refreshing newsfeeds and feeling stifled by the onset of lockdown, Berry took the opportunity to dive back into creativity.
“If I do something a certain way for too long, I’ve got to mix it up. So by the time I was promoting Phantom Birds, and that was about to be released, I’d already started The Blue Elephant,” he explains. “Due to the fact that the pandemic had hit and I wasn’t going to Canada in October as per usual to be a vampire, I had that time instead to basically finish The Blue Elephant, and to mix and to master it. By the time I left the country in January, it was all done.”
The Blue Elephant is a spacious and warm listen that flows and jags from the intricate to the elegant across a playful and melodic journey of jazz-inflected, percussive psychedelia and driving prog-rock. The album is structured to play as two sides, an experience intended for vinyl, and the culture of record collecting feels like an influence in Berry’s musical touchpoints and song choices. “Collecting vinyl is still something that I do, it's something that I’ve done since being a teenager. I won’t be able to stop that, I don’t think,” he says. “The format itself is something that I’ve always loved. I suppose naturally being curious about all kinds of music, I don’t think it’s ever been beat by anything, but also all kinds of production, all kinds of ways that music is recorded, is just as interesting to me.”
One theme across Berry’s Nine Songs choices are artists who are as equally involved in the production of their music as the initial creation, a parallel with his own process. “That could be an accident or that could be a semi-conscious thing,” he explains. “If you are in control of the idea right from the beginning to the end then the chances are it’ll be a purer idea, or an idea at its purest because it hasn’t been diluted by anyone. Sometimes collaborations in music can be great things, but if you think about it in terms of fine art or in terms of painting, to have somebody take control of your painting right at the last minute would be a risky thing, I think in terms of my musical output, I view it the same way. It always has to be my full responsibility.”
His choices are eclectic, reaching across genres, decades and prominence. “They’re songs that have influenced my music and influenced me personally,” he smiles. “I’m sure everyone says this to you, but if you’d have asked me a month before it might have been slightly different, if you’d have asked me yesterday the list might have been slightly different, if you asked me tomorrow… It’s always going to change.”
“It’s not important to me whether a band has just appeared or if they’ve been around since 1968, it just depends on the vibe they create. Tennis instantly have an atmosphere and a songwriting formula that appeals to me. They’re very fond of the “It’s Too Late” Carole King type of vibe.
“They sound great and funnily enough, one of the actresses on the show that I’m working on at the moment, Tennis are renting her house in LA. I’m going to be recording myself at one of the pianos on set, playing one of their songs, probably with fangs in, just to take them by surprise. It is a massive coincidence, and when she said, ‘You won’t have heard of the band who are staying in my house’, and then she said it was Tennis, I then had to show her my phone to prove to her that I had pretty much every album and that I did know exactly who they were.
“I went the wrong way round with them. I heard their latest thing first and then went back and realised that everything was brilliant. I heard “My Emotions Are Blinding” and it really stuck with me because it could have been written forty years ago and would have been a hit. There probably was more of a chance of being a hit forty years ago. It just sounded like a pop song that had always been, and that’s always a tricky thing to do.”
“I think “Wounded Egos” is one of the best songs he’s ever written, and I think it’s one of the best songs ever written. For me, it’s just perfect in every way because it’s kind of got that bittersweet nature to it - there isn’t much that’s joyful about it, yet it appears to be joyful. But it’s using keys and chords that have the sweetness taken away from them and a sort of sadness, and I think that’s always the best place to be. And he’s nailed it with that song. He’s done exactly that with that song, and that’s why I love it so much.
“Everybody that was my age was [a Supergrass fan]. You couldn’t really help it. Because not only were all the pop songs great, they were very likeable and they looked like they were having the best time ever, and when you’re that age, you really respond to that. He still looks like he’s having the best time ever. Good on him.
“I think the Britpop label may not have been the most useful thing for him because he is an amazing singer-songwriter. You’ve only got to listen to his other albums, Matador, and this one especially to confirm that. What he does is very, very good, but he could be slightly hampered with that one song and the scene that went with it. But I don’t think so, not for me personally. I think he’s recognised as his own man, doing his own thing.”
“I’ve always been interested in people that muck around with the form. There’s no reason why he can’t have a song that’s under a minute. There’s no reason why he can’t have a song that doesn’t have any structure or vocals, you know? There’s no rules. In the same way that we’re gonna talk about “In Every Dream Home A Heartache”, which is basically an insane song structure even by The Beatles standards, but that’s what makes it special for me, and this is the same. This keeps it spiky, because you have something which doesn't conform and as a result, it pokes out. I’m always into that.
“I just hope he stops the categories [neoclassical, etc.] that would come after his name, because that’s just too easy. The fact is that what you really want is someone to have listened to it who doesn’t have much experience or knowledge, to just basically like it, just like it for the sake of what it is. Not then very quickly push it to some kind of category because your brain can’t deal with the fact that it doesn’t conform to all these other things.
“You just want someone to go, ‘Well, I like that’, that’s it. It’s as simple as that. But it depends on who you are. If you were brought up with Tubular Bells, then it makes total sense.”
“We’ve worked together and he’s recorded some drums in my studio. He has an amazing approach, he just wants to do things differently and I’ve always been drawn to that. This song is a great example of doing an electronic piece which could be considered by some as being on the edge of being commercial, in that it’s very melodic. But at the same time, because it’s Clark, it isn’t.
“He manages to keep everything from just getting beyond that point. Exactly that [upbeat but dark]. It fools you into being something up tempo but when you actually listen to it, you realise there’s not much optimism about it, or anything particularly feel-good. Which means that it will last for longer, I think.
[On moving into commissions/scoring] “I think that’s a natural thing as well and that’s a thing in most arts. You get to an age where you’re not interested in bouncing around and constantly talking about yourself as you are when you’re a bit younger. So it makes sense that a lot of these experimental electronic musicians would go down those paths.
"I don’t know how dignified it is to still have one arm in the air and half your headphones over your ear when you're on the wrong side of whatever. Do you know what I mean by that? There’s got to come a time when you don’t need to be up all night doing that sort of thing. There comes a point, and I don’t know whether it’s to then become domesticated, but I think it’s certainly in terms of your art to calm things down slightly.
“Oh, he was banging there [on “Future Daniel”]. I love it all to be honest with you. He’s really interested in just the piano now, and all the different tones he can get from that. He’s totally fascinated in the million ways that you can record the piano and I think that that’ll probably fascinate him for the next five years, maybe.”
“I never know what other people think of Roxy Music. Roxy Music are very odd because if I was to mention Roxy Music here in Canada, I think most people wouldn’t know what I was talking about. I might be able to mention the odd song, but it is odd, they are very, very, very British.
"But I just love his approach to songwriting and especially those first two albums, for which they were lucky enough to have Brian Eno in the band, because his sonics and the things that he adds are just what really make it, for me. But not taking away from Bryan Ferry, because he wrote the songs and they’re fantastic.
“You can tell that he can’t read music, that’s really obvious, especially with things like the singles, he just uses sharps. “Virginia Plain”, that’s just sharps, and “In Every Dream Home A Heartache”, it’s just the black keys and that was his thing. “Editions of You”, that’s just the black keys. But this one is a fantastic song, because the lyrics are some of the best lyrics ever written, I think. The imagery is as good as it gets for me, and the tension. He’s done something really dramatic, and there again, when he does something like “Do the Strand” which is just a repeated chorus, that again is a very original thing to do. But with “In Every Dream Home A Heartache” you’ve got something very odd there, very bizarre.
“And if you say it’s one of their most well-known songs, then that’s kind of hilarious because that’s a bunch of people being into a very bizarre, structurally and thematically written song. I mean, it’s about loneliness and the sound of loneliness, the silence of loneliness, I always think. And that thing about spending all of your time thinking about what you want and then you actually get that and then you realise there’s nothing to it. And that’s such a strong theme for me, personally.
“So the song works on every level for me. And he uses a Farfisa organ as its basis and that’s another obsession of mine, anything with an organ. Especially a Farfisa or a Vox, I’m gonna love.”
“He could have titled that ‘Black shoes’ or ‘The Apple Tree’. I mean, it’s kind of Western-y sounding, but if he’d have given it a different title it still would have worked. It’s a fantastic bit of music despite its context, I think. It’s really sad sounding, for me, and again it’s like everything I love, it’s like it’s trying to be happy and it never gets there.
“And it does all the things that Bacharach does, it does all the chord changes that he’s famous for. All the little Bacharach tricks are in that song, which is why I love it. Minor to major, but he’ll do something on top of that, which he does in lots of songs. Like “Walk on By”, what the brass does over the two chords, he’s doing it in this song as well but in a slightly different way, but in a way that you know is Burt Bacharach.”
“It’s one of those ones that’s been sort of haunting me all my life, and it’s only the last ten years that I’ve managed to find out what it was. It’s always been underscoring things that are problems in like TV, or whatever the context, it’s always been played against something that’s unsettling. I’ve always wondered what it was, and there’ve been so many variations. Pretty much the whole of the score to The Talented Mr. Ripley is this song in a way, this piece.
“Loads of people have done variations of this and got the same atmosphere or a similar atmosphere, but they won’t get the same one because he’s done it. It just does that thing that makes me slightly worried when I hear it.
“[Composing for four hands is] something that a lot of composers do. Phillip Glass did that a hell of a lot with organs. He’s still an experimental man, he’s doing things for the effect of sound rather than function. Yeah, you might [be haunted by it now]. Or you’re more likely to hear someone ripping it off.”
“It’s the best pastiche ever written. I don’t think it’s cynical, despite what he says about it. I’ve heard him talk about this song and he’s almost kind of cynical about it. He says things like, ‘I needed a top ten hit on that album, and I did it in ten minutes. I knew exactly what would work and exactly how to hook it, what to do, and I did it’. And I think that’s probably true, but at the same time, he’s not disparaging of this song. I think he loves this song, he’s very pleased with it.
“He has such a knowledge of pop, even back then when he wrote that. He had an amazing knowledge of British pop mostly, that was what he was into, he was into the Beatles and everything. So he’s using that, using those templates to write his ultimate pop song, and I think he did. I think he nailed it. I love everything about it. I love the fact that he did it as an experiment, I love the fact that for other people that are listening to it, they’re just hearing it as a pop song rather than a [Carole King] pastiche. I think it kind of works on every single level. I think it’s a huge success.
“He’s so prolific, but he’s also equally fascinated in production. He’s as fascinated in how records are made as he is the finished product. He’s just as interested in how they’re all put together. And there isn’t an album that he’s been involved with which doesn’t sound much better as a result of him being involved. He’s like Eno in that way. If a band wants to sound ten times better you could do a lot worse than involve Todd Rundgren and Brian Eno.
“I love everything that Rundgren’s done to an extent. Even Bat Out of Hell I think is fantastic, and he’s all over that. There is a lot of Todd Rundgren on that Meat Loaf album. And then the stuff that he did with XTC, even though Partridge can’t stand him and what he did. He made the album far better than it would have been, in my opinion.”
“It’s more of a Crosby song, and it’s just beautiful, lyrically and the sparseness of it. And I still think he's got one of the best voices ever recorded, David Crosby.
"I know that he’s so unpopular with other musicians, which I’ve always found so funny, just the way that he speaks to people and stuff. You can’t not find him funny. I suppose if you were on the end of it, you wouldn’t find it funny. But to not be on the end of it and just to read about it has always made me laugh. Just to hear Graham Nash moan about him, with all his, ‘That son of a bitch Crosby, never gonna fuckin’ talk to him again,’ and all that stuff, it’s just brilliant.
“All music is up for grabs for me and it doesn’t have a dad, or a guilty pleasure type label with it, and this certainly doesn’t. It’s a really simple gesture this one, in ‘Where will I be when I get there?’ It’s just not knowing what the fuck. That’s what it says to me, and it says it really clearly. And it’s a beautiful melody. It’s just got all of those things.
“I love David Crosby, I love Crosby’s voice. He’s the best guy to sing with, he must have been. And I love the sentiment of the song and I love the sparse melody. I think it’s one of those magic moments.”
Maybe you should try and work with him?
“He wouldn’t want to, he would call me every name under the sun. Especially if he found out I like The Doors. If he found out I like The Doors then he wouldn’t even write back. He hates The Doors. He hates The Doors with a passion. If you mention The Doors, apparently he goes fucking mental. So yeah, I couldn’t take the risk.”