❉ We chat with cult actor and musician Matt Berry about his recording career as celebrated by ‘Gather Up’.
Musician, actor and comedian Matt Berry has been releasing great albums over the last decade. His face and voice are maybe more well known for his acting work in the hilarious Toast of London, The IT Crowd and many more but music has been his one consistent love. Recent albums such as TV Themes and The Blue Elephant have been critically raved about and his new album Gather Up on Acid Jazz collects fifty-five album tracks, singles, demos and outtakes from this period. He has also recently been involved in the release of the Fiftieth Anniversary edition of the Rice/Lloyd Webber Jesus Christ Superstar album. We Are Cult spoke to Matt over the phone whilst he was in Canada filming vampire series What We Do in the Shadows.
So, the excellent Gather Up spans your 10 years with Acid Jazz. Did you want this album to be a retrospective of everything up to this point?
Well, it was the label’s idea to be honest. I hadn’t noticed that it had been ten years. I’m not very nostalgic when it comes to my own thing…yeah I didn’t really know that it was ten years. Then Acid Jazz kind of pointed it out. Being a vinyl record label it’s good to celebrate certain anniversaries.
The variety over the span of this collection is impressive. You obviously enjoy recording, don’t you?
Yeah, I mean it’s what I first started to do… sort of record by myself and I’ve always done that throughout the years. It’s just a progression of that. Everything on Gather Up is stuff that has been recorded at home. The various homes that I’ve lived in over the last 10 to 15 years. Yeah, it’s all home-made stuff.
It also sounds like you really enjoy yourself on the live stuff with the Maypoles that is included on Gather Up.
It’s always good fun. Playing live is always worth doing. It keeps your interest in the songs. There’s just that sort of contact. They’re “alive” once they’ve been played live if you see what I mean. Otherwise, everything is just sort of studio projects and I never really wanted that. I always wanted to bring the songs to life as it were!
I love Solstice. Both the live and the recorded version seems to bring all your prog influences in. The live version of Snuffbox sounds great as well. What instrument were you playing on the live version where you reference Gary Numan and Abba “riffs”?
Just an analogue synth. A Korg MS10 to be technical.
And you play all the instruments yourself. Were you self-taught? Mike Oldfield did the same thing years ago didn’t he?
Yeah, I’m completely self -taught. Played everything. Yeah, Mike Oldfield was a big influence in terms of someone who did it all himself. I thought … Well if he can do it I can do it too. That was the thinking behind it.
You recorded the album Opium before you signed to Acid Jazz?
Oh, I did that while I was at university… Years before. It was the same process on much cheaper kinds of equipment. Everything else since was exactly the same though. It’s all homemade. I record everything myself except drums. So, everything has that home-grown, kind of home-made vibe. Acid Jazz don’t really interfere with content. They kind of trust what I’m doing I think.
So the first album you made for them was Witchazel? Do you have a theme as to how each album is going to sound generally?
Yeah, because I know what I want it to be, and I know what I want to do sort of sonically with it. They’re all in the same sort of area. I’m not jumping far out of the circle you know? There would be production techniques from years ago that I’d have always wanted to try out and that can bring you an inspiration for some of it. It’s just doing something a bit different and finding out how things are done.
I recently interviewed the famous arranger John Cameron and he used jazz musicians to play music with a folky feel on the soundtrack to ‘Kes’. That’s sort of the sound you get, isn’t it?
Folk is the base to it all really. It just depends on how much I implement the rhythm section and crank it up or …you know… how many electrical instruments will be placed on top? Folk is always the basis and then it’s what you want to put with that.
Your album Phantom Birds was a bit more Dylan-esque wasn’t it? A bit more acoustic especially the tracks included here.
Well yeah, because I wanted it to be the least amount of instruments and to find out if I could play the same sort of thing but without 14 guitars for example.
The first album I heard of yours a few years ago was the impressive ‘TV Themes’ album and then I worked backwards from that to your other work. What was the inspiration behind that album? I saw on your recent Word in your Attic interview that you were saying that you can’t get this stuff. You can’t get the recordings as they’re not really readily available?
Well, that was it. Acid Jazz were going to do a TV themes thing and that was the same time they asked me if I would do a covers album. I said I would only do it (the covers album) if it had a theme to it. So, we said.. Well, why don’t we just kill two birds with one stone! So again, what we did was try to find the originals…you know, get licences from people. But you know you just can’t because they don’t exist. The theme from Sorry was never released commercially. World in Action was never released commercially… Blankety Blank… The Good Life! All these things that people assumed were released. They weren’t and they never appeared on the same compilations and that was the main point of doing it. And of course, with Are you Being Served?, it was the film version that I was doing and that version was also never released so it became more a point of people who liked these things from back then could have them in one place. I tried to make them as authentic as I could. I put a bit of a spin on them in the middle but largely I tried to nail them as they were intended.
A lot of them were very short as well? By definition I suppose?
Yes, they were kind of just written for each show, so they were originally no more than 10 or 15 seconds long. You’ve got to expand them. Otherwise, that album would have been about 12 minutes long. In order for it to be a decent length I had to beef them up a bit.
Going back to Gather Up – you’ve included lots of extra tracks on there such as an alternative introduction to Witchazel?
Yeah, there’s a whole load of other extras. A whole load of stuff for Witchazel that never made it onto the album, The story of the dog killing the fella for example! I didn’t put any of that on. I had a lot of ideas for that album. You just whittle things down to bare essentials in the end.
I wanted to talk to you about the Fiftieth anniversary release of Jesus Christ Superstar that you were involved in…
Yeah, that would have come out at the right time if it hadn’t been for COVID which put us back a year. Otherwise, that would have come out in 2020 which is 50 years after the album originally came out in 1970. That came about after a conversation with Tim Rice. I just said, “Look I’ve got this Beatles album. The Sgt Pepper box set…” They’d gone to great lengths on this, and it looked fantastic. I said,”Why don’t we do something like this to Superstar?”. Tim was like, “sounds a great idea yeah” Then him and his son Donald kind of got the ball rolling. Some of the stuff that’s in the booklet is from my collection. I’ve got a load of singles that were released as a result of that album in 1969 and 1970. They’ve photographed these for the book which is quite nice. It’s just one of those things if you want it as a fan and if there’s anyway you can make that happen then you do, and I wanted it as a fan. Just sort of mentioning it to Tim and him saying that’s not a bad idea and then the whole thing was off and running!
It sounds great and the musicians they had on it like the Grease Band (Joe Cocker’s band) and Henry McCullough sound great and obviously you’ve got Gillan and Murray Head there too.
They’re all proper musicians. It’s not synthetic rock and not sort of musical theatre rock. It’s not thin. Proper rhythm sections and amazing guitarists. When I first heard it originally, I’d no idea this was a musical and that it was linked with all that stuff. I just heard it as a piece of music. It’s a prog concept album. You don’t have these other ideas which came along with it. That’s how I’ve kind of always listened to it and thought of it as… A scary, rich and different sounding album.
There’s a great variety of songs.
Well there’s loads of ideas. You’ve never had so many ideas per square foot on a project. You’ve got folk, jazz… there’s experimental stuff. Prokofiev, all these things. Really interesting stuff and he (Lloyd Webber) never really did that again after.
I’m not a fan of musical theatre generally but it still sounds good and fresh.
Well, I’m not but that album seems to transcend all that. Like I said it’s like a radio play with music and that’s how I’ve always thought of it. Like Jeff Wayne’s The War of the Worlds, it’s got a story that you can follow to the end. If something’s made in the late ’60s, early ’70s it’s going to sound better in my opinion anyway. Analogue. It was all done on tape. It was all done using transmitters and valves. To me it sounds better.
Albums from 1969 to 1971 tend to sound great.
Well to me it doesn’t get any better than that. Not that I’m stuck there but in terms of production it was a real sort of zenith period I think.
Have you got any upcoming projects that you can talk about?
There are a couple of things. I’m doing an album with a female singer, so it won’t be my voice the whole way through, and I haven’t done that yet. I really want to do that. The other thing is I really want to do another folk album which will go from one extreme to another. Very minimal folk which will go into very heavy rock. When I say that I mean Zeppelin 70’s rock not 80’s perm rock. So, they’re the things that I’m sort of playing with at the moment.
I know you’ve been influenced by Jean Michel Jarre and Mike Oldfield but what are your other influences? For example, I can hear a bit of Joe Meek on Gather Up?
Yeah, Jean Michel Jarre was someone who influenced me as a kid but they’re really wide influences. All sorts of areas. From minimal Erik Satie piano stuff to the Beatles, Mike Oldfield, Forest and a whole bunch of stuff. Abba in terms of song writing. Nirvana were as big an influence as anything. The problem I had was from when I became musically aware and could buy my own singles mid-eighties guitars were never load enough and that was a beef that I had! I didn’t understand I guess that in 1984 they had been really loud and I loved how they sounded and now they were a really thin sound. It really pissed me off. And then Nirvana happened and Oasis some time afterwards. When Nirvana happened it was like Thank f*ck someone had turned their guitars up!
❉ ‘Matt Berry – Gather Up’ (Ten Years On Acid Jazz) released 26 November 2021 via Acid Jazz Records, in the following formats:
❉ Limited Edition 5LP Boxset: Pre-Order – £100.00
❉ Limited Edition 4CD Hardback Book Box w/ 24 Page Booklet: Pre-Order – £25.00
❉ Double Gatefold Red LP: Pre-Order – £25.00
❉ Standard CD: Pre-Order – £12.00
❉ James Collingwood is based in West Yorkshire and has been writing for a number of years. He currently also writes for the Bradford Review magazine for which he has conducted more than 30 interviews and has covered music, film and theatre. His Twitter is @JamesCollingwo1
Matt Berry images courtesy of Scream Promotions.