Matt Berry on Fame, Songwriting, ABBA, and His New Album | Under the Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
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Matt Berry on Fame, Songwriting, ABBA, and His New Album

Expressions

May 13, 2021 Web Exclusive
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When seen in one light, actor and musician Matt Berry could be thought of as a Shakespearean performer. His big, booming British-accented voice could easily fit atop the dialogue in Macbeth or Othello. Yet, Berry doesn’t limit himself to these traditionally prestigious roles. He is a comedian, at heart, able to give monologues that both compel and bust your sides. But even more than that, Berry is also a musician of great facility, capable of writing a stripped-down folk song as much as he is performing acid jazz.

Berry currently stars as vampire Laszlo Cravensworth in FX’s acclaimed mockumentary horror comedy What We Do in the Shadows, based on the 2014 New Zealand film of the same name. Before that he was a fixture of quirky British comedy shows, such as Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace, The Mighty Boosh, The IT Crowd, and Toast of London. But his music career goes back even further, with Berry’s debut album, Jackpot, being self-released in 1995.

Berry’s newest LP, The Blue Elephant, is out this Friday on Acid Jazz. The record is the sounds of the day drunk sun shining its swiveling golden rays down on a grinning Berry, shades atop his knowing eyes. We caught up with Berry to ask him about his relationship to music, what he loves about it most, and how his acting career connects to his love of song.

Matt Berry: Hello there!

Jake Uitti (Under the Radar): How are you, sir?

I’m good, how are you?

I’m well, thank you. I’m sure I’m your only call for the day, so we can have a nice, leisurely conversation?

Ha!

Okay, let’s start here: when did music enter your world in a significant way as a young person?

Yeah, well, I think that’s all predetermined. I think you’re either sensitive to that sort of thing, or you’re not. I mean, I’ve stood next to somebody and heard the same piece of music and been moved by it while someone’s just looked at their phone. So, I think there’s nothing you can do right from the beginning.

When did you notice that sensitivity in yourself?

I think just from hearing songs in the car. My parents only had a couple of tapes—well, they really didn’t have any music at all. But one was ABBA and that had a huge affect because I couldn’t’ understand that it was happy pop music but at the same time it was sad. I found it very sad. That, as a kid, was intriguing. I didn’t know why it was making me feel like that when I thought that it should make me joyful. When in fact it was having an opposite effect. It was making me joyful but in a melancholic way. I think that was probably when I knew that there was more to songs on the radio than just something to fill time with.

You must have noticed more in yourself then, too. In the way that it takes nuance to notice nuance?

Yeah.

Why did you decide to invest in playing music and making it, rather than just remain a listener of it?

Well, because I wanted to have something to show for the work I’d done. I was never into computer games as a kid because there was nothing at the end of it. And I wasn’t really into playing much sports for the same reason. You were left with nothing. You might have won but there was nothing tangible. I wanted to record stuff. Like with painting, I wanted it to have the same affect as that. If I worked all afternoon on something, I wanted to be able to look back on it. It’s the same with music, if I’m going to spend this time and if it’s going to effect me in such a way, then there really has to be something to show for it.

How did you get better and eventually become a multi-instrumentalist? Was it just hours in your bedroom plucking a guitar?

Yeah, sure. It’s like anything. If you’re really into something and it isn’t like you’re noticing the time go by, you’d be doing this anyway, then that’s when you know that you’re doing something that you should be doing. So, I probably would have got better at it without actually knowing or being conscious of it because it was what I wanted to be doing.

As a songwriter, you have a great deal of range. What do you enjoy about writing songs, as opposed to being just an instrumentalist?

The whole reason for the songwriting is that I can’t read music. Therefore, I had to write my own because I couldn’t read music or play anyone else’s songs. I had to come up with my own so that’s where that started. Plus I love doing it because I could be the master of it. I could be the master of how long the song would last, what key it would be in, what it would sound like.

What was the genesis of your new record?

Well, the new record came about as a reaction to the one just before it. So, the one just before it, I was eager to basically take away all of the massive multi-tracking that I normally do and just say what I needed to say with barely three instruments. So, that was the manifesto for the last album, Phantom Birds. By the time I finished that and had done press for it and spoken about it at length, I was more than ready to go in the opposite direction and go back to filling songs with 100 multi-tracks.

Was there a favorite song or discovery for you along the way?

Yeah, there was. And it’s all due to the experimenting I was doing on Phantom Birds. I finally got the drum sounds that I really wanted on The Blue Elephant because I’d spent all that time trying to get them for Phantom Birds. By the time I got to Blue Elephant, I knew exactly what I wanted and I was pleased with how they sounded. Very pleased, in fact. And it didn’t harm the fact that there’s an amazing drummer playing.

The drumming on the record really provides a sharp skeleton for the more elastic, stretched out surrealism that the music offers. Did you think about that juxtaposition at all and what do you like about this idea of surrealism?

Well, again, that was another reaction to the album that had come before because [those songs] were very formulaic and [there were] accepted song structures for Phantom Birds. What I wanted to do with this album was do the opposite and do some songs where they have either a long verse and one chorus, no chorus, no verse—all of these things that you’re not meant to do. That was the main inspiration for it, I’d say.

Are music and acting connected for you or are they different beasts altogether?

No, they’re the same things. They’re both expressions. It’s like, I get the comedy out of my system when I do that and I get the other form of creativity when I do the music. So, I love doing them both. I wouldn’t want to give either up because I get a huge sense of satisfaction from doing comedy—if it goes well. Not so much if I’ve fucked it up. But and the same with the other discipline. You get a different kind of satisfaction from both.

It strikes me as interesting that you’re rather famous today. There are some outlets like Vulture that seem to write about you daily. But as an artist, it seems like your fame is the result of a concerted building upon the things you’ve done, step-by-step. So, with that in mind, what does the idea of fame mean to you?

Well, it’s of no use, to be honest with you. All I’m interested in is having the freedom to be able to do these two things. That’s all I care about. I know it’s kind of irritating when people who are on the TV say that sort of thing, but I am saying it very sincerely. That’s not anything that will help what I do. Just to be able to do this stuff and get money from it so I can keep doing it, that’s all that I care about.

What do you love most about music?

I love everything. It’s a magic that you can’t explain and there’s no right or wrong answer. There’s no right or wrong way of doing anything and that is very rare in terms of professions.

www.themattberry.co.uk

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