‘Snowflake/Tornado’: Stewart Lee Interview

❉ James Collingwood talks with Stewart Lee about his current tour, his stand-up career and ‘King Rocker’.

A year on from when We Are Cult‘s James Collingwood last caught up with the writer and performer to discuss his new film, ‘King Rocker: A Film about Robert Lloyd and the Nightingales’, Stewart Lee returns to talk about his superb, COVID-delayed two-hour show called ‘Snowflake/Tornado’, which resumed in January and tours venues around the country in the coming months. Famously not on social media, Stewart’s recent newsletter caused quite a stir on Twitter with its lists of people he liked and people he didn’t like in 2021 (NB: This interview contains no references to pedal bins) and more recently, it was reported that Lee had removed his stand-up albums from Spotify in protest of COVID misinformation being spread on Joe Rogan’s podcast.

Stewart Lee: image © Idil Sukan.

Hi Stewart. I wanted to talk to you about the current tour. So obviously you are on tour right now aren’t you?  You’re currently playing Leicester Square?

I am on tour yes. I’m finishing at Leicester Square on Thursday and then go off around the country from July. It’s the tour which was abandoned before. One half of it (Tornado) is a story about a night in the theatre. That half hasn’t changed much though it has come into focus. A lot of it was about being on the same bill as Dave Chapelle and 2 years ago he wasn’t really that well known to be honest with you but he is now because of that special for Netflix.

The other half of the show (Snowflake) was sort of about what is euphemistically known as the culture war. Before lockdown that was ticking over. I think with Black Lives Matter etc people now know more about what we are talking about and it’s kind of better. Some things in the second half kind of fell by the wayside. There were 10 or 15 minutes about a sort of woke James Bond and what type of James Bond film that would be like. That film has kind of happened now really! Actually I think it’s made it (the material) better. It’s made me think that may be the way to do a show in the future! Write it – do it for a month- and then take two years off to think about it (Laughs).

So is the show at the end of the year, named Basic Lee, going to be a separate themed tour?

Most of the dates on the current tour have been rescheduled. I’d normally have to do a certain amount of dates in a certain amount of time and I had everything blocked around my kids GCSEs and stuff and that’s kind of gone wrong by losing a year. So I’m trying to get another new tour in at the end of this one.

I saw on your website that you like doing the merch and Q & A thing at the end of your gigs. Are you able to do that at the moment or is it still restricted?

Not really because I think the theatres want to get people in and out. For me that is all part of the show – that you can do 12 hours of being a belligerent arsehole and then you run a nice little shop at the end. Also having got into alternative comedy and music at the back end of punk I think it takes the curse off the idea of stardom. Anyone can ask you anything. At the end of a Russell Brand gig you get people screaming at the backstage door but if you are there running a shop it’s different. I like getting the feedback off people. I’m gratified that the same faces come back and then they come back with their kids or their parents as well. There’s normally one problem a night with one person who’s got some issue. James who I tour with and who does the tapes stuff is normally good at sort of spotting it and defusing it but it’s a small price to pay. Plus the other thing is you can sort of control the sales. It’s nicer than doing it through Amazon.

You’re playing some nice theatres on this tour.

Yeah, I am. Because I’ve got hearing issues as well. The Victorian theatres where they’re crescent-shaped with good acoustics – usually designed by Frank Matcham – are really good for me, whereas the post 1950’s long flat rooms with square angled sides really give my ears a battering. I find them quite hard. When I can afford to relax a little bit in the next 15 or 20 years I’m going to take a pay cut and just do rooms that I like.

I lived in Birmingham for a time in the ‘80s and I read you saying somewhere that in the late ‘80s when you were starting there weren’t that many gigs available in Birmingham for comedy?

Well everyone went to London didn’t they? There were about sixty clubs in London. In Birmingham there were about two. The Bearwood Tavern and the Hare and Hounds in Kings Heath.

Stewart Lee: Content Provider. Palace Theatre Southend. Photo by Steve Ullathorne.

So you had to go to London?

Well, Manchester was the first place that had a scene of it’s own outside London. If you came to London in the ’80s there were 50 to 60 clubs. There were only a few people doing comedy. Everyone got paid a 40 quid door split so after a couple of nights your rent was covered for the week. It seemed really do-able. When I started I had seen people play at the MAC (Midlands Art Centre) to about 200 people and I thought, imagine if you could get to the level were you could do a tour of 30 dates of about 200 people each! Which is sort of more than anyone else in alternative comedy had done at that point. I thought that would be really great.

I remember myself seeing people such as John Hegley at the time (who I also saw at the MAC in the Brown Paper Bag Brothers double act) and he was great.     

Yeah, John Hegley was one of the sort of people I used to aspire to be like. Hegley was a big deal to me in lots of ways. When I was starting out he was one of the alternative comedians that you would hear on Peel. About 15 years ago when I was having real trouble working out how to do this because I was with a big company called Avalon where you would always seem to lose money whatever you did with them. John Hegley said something like ‘Well, you just need 5000 people to give you £8 a year each’. And I thought, yeah if you cut out the middleman it’s really simple. Of course what the internet has done with bands I used to like as a teenager is put them in touch with exactly that market. They can all just keep turning over because of that contact with the audience.

I loved John Hegley.

Yeah and his band the Popticians’ first single was produced by Robyn Hitchcock!

When you started doing stand-up in the late ‘80s who else were you gigging with?

Well my first major paid gig was in September 1989 at the Banana Cabaret in Acton and the bill was me, David Baddiel, Alistair McGowan etc. On Monday nights I used to do a new material night which was set up by a guy called James Macabre (Jim Miller) who died last year. He realised in 1989 that alternative comedy wasn’t going to go away. He saw that eventually people would need more than the 20 minutes that they’d been doing and would have to write new sets(laughs). So, he set up a new material night. I was the last person to be brought in on it. It was Mr Nasty, who you won’t remember, Jeff Green (who has since gone to Australia), Mark Lamarr, Eddie Izzard, Patrick Marber, Hattie Hayridge. Also Simon Munnery ..the best comedian that the public don’t know. Oh, and Sean Lock as well. Sean Lock did stuff at the new material night and then abandoned it. I would always ask him “what happened to that routine?”. He would say “I can’t do that in public.” It would be what I thought was the best stuff. One that he did (Stewart recounts a hilarious but unprintable Sean Lock bit involving excrement!)   was one of the best and he never did it again. It was insane. A lot of people when they decide to become panel show comedians that sort of ruins them really. It didn’t him. He kept his stand up side in a separate box somehow.

Stewart Lee: Content Provider. Palace Theatre Southend. Photo by Steve Ullathorne.

What will be the structure of the Basic Lee show that you are doing from July?

It won’t have a big prop in it or a big set or anything like that and I’ll try to put it together in such a way as if there is a major news change like someone resigns or whatever…. I’m going to try and do something that isn’t dependent on what’s happening.

I relistened to the great Children Of The Stones documentary that you did about ten years ago that’s still available on 4 Extra. You were talking to people like Julian Cope.

Yeah well it wasn’t my idea, the documentary – it was the producer’s idea but I thought he did a really good job on it.

Obviously there was a great response to King Rocker last year. Anything else coming up with that? I believe there’s a DVD with lots of extras?

Yeah, there is. Another 90 minutes at least of film. Michael (Cumming) basically did a completely other cut of the same story. The DVD’s out in March I think.

Stewart Lee’s Snowflake/Tornado is touring until June 2022 and his new show Basic Lee opens in London in September 2022.  For schedule and booking see www.stewartlee.co.uk

 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

Header image © Idil Sukan.

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