The IT Crowd’s Matt Berry tells Brian Boyd about his prog-folk predilection,
No one seems sure what to make of Matt Berry’s new psychedelic prog-folk album inspired by the terrors of the countryside. It’s not all some joke, he tells Brian Boyd
IS IT A BIRD? Is it a plane? A post-ironic prank or a heartfelt musical tribute? No seems to know quite what to make of Matt Berry’s Witchazel album – except that it’s a psychedelic prog-folk affair. And you don’t get many psychedelic prog-folk albums to the dozen these days. All questioning aside, Berry has produced a rara avis with Witchazel – an album that so intoxicated Paul McCartney when he heard a rough version that he readily agreed to do a guest vocal slot on it.
Or did he? If you think Matt Berry’s face is familiar that’s because for his day job he’s a well-known comedic actor. He plays the explorer Dixon Bainbridge in The Mighty Boosh; is a character on the IT Crowd and is all over Garth Marenghi’s work.
“I was singing before I did comedic acting,” says Berry. “I did all the indie band stuff. I went to art school and was in various bands then. I’ve been writing songs for as long as I can remember. This would be my first real release – although there was a sort of spoken word album, Opium a few years ago.”
Witchazel has a theme – as most psychedelic pro-folk albums do. “It’s all about the terrors of the countryside,” he says. “On Opium I had looked at the terrors of city life, but this was inspired by some very formative experiences I had when I was growing up. The first one was the book Watership Down which absolutely terrified me – so much so that I still think of the countryside as being full of rabbits killing each other. The other experience I had was all to do with Kate Bush.” As Berry points out the first appearance of Kate Bush doing Wuthering Heights on Top of the Pops had the same seismic effect that a previous generation felt when seeing David Bowie singing Starman on the same programme.
“Kate Bush frightened the life out of me,” he says. “I found myself torn between two extremes – really fancying her and also thinking she was a witch who lived in a scary forest. There was something about the way she stared directly into the camera with those big, glaring eyes.”
With song titles such as Accident at Harvest Festival and The Badger’s Wake on the album, you’re never quite sure which way to take Berry’s work. “A few people have wondered about what level I’m releasing this album on,” he says. “I’m not taking the piss. This isn’t some massive Chris Morris’ style stunt. I’m not interested in comedy enough to have a joke that would last over an entire album.
“But the other thing is that I can’t really do anything completely seriously but really with this, it’s all coming from the heart. I’m a big fan of prog music and always have been. When I perform to a prog audience they can see what I’m really trying to achieve with this.”
Very well received so far, Witchazel has been described as a “woodland fantasia Fleet Foxes could have made” and the Guardian reviewed it as: “enchanting, awash with delicate, twinkling melodies – its soaring trumpets, pastel sweeps of guitar and oboe and crafty soul-funk inflections sound genuinely impressive.” For what it’s worth, this sprawling baroque rock album was recorded in Berry’s front room and he plays all the instruments on it.
He’s doing a short Irish tour next week with dates in Dublin, Cork and Galway – the excursion across the Irish sea explained by the fact that, as he puts it – “I’ve always gone down really well in Ireland and have done quite a few shows there over the years. Also, it’s always really great to get out of the UK for gigs.”
He’s hoping, that in its own small way, Witchazel will bring a “lightness to the normally superearnest and ponderous prog-rock world. “There is a humourlessness associated with prog and while this isn’t a “funny album I’m hoping the prog audience will get what I’m trying to do,” he says. “Prog can be a bit overblown at times and fans can treat it with the same
“A few people have wondered about what level I’m releasing this album on ... I’m not taking the piss”
sort of reverence that is normally associated with classical music or some parts of the jazz world. But I don’t think we should be precious about prog.”
The Paul McCartney guest vocal on the Rain Came Down track is puzzling in more ways than one. “I had a list of four people who I really wanted
to be on the album and he was on it,” says Berry. “I sent it off to him and one day I got this e-mail from him which contained his vocal contribution. It was something I really didn’t expect,” he says.
On Rain Came Down McCartney sings that animals should “set a good example to us human beings/and stop behaving like Japanese/There are a lot of apples on trees, there are many fishes in the sea/We should all just get along/if we keep eating each other the world’s going to be a very lonely place.”
UK national papers have reviewed this as being McCartney but in my opinion it’s not. “Some people think it’s an impressionist,” is all Berry will say when asked. And some people think it’s an actor/comedian from Liverpool with a funny surname.
Either way, it neither adds or detracts from what is quite definitely the strangest album of the year.
Part Ummagumma, part Jethro Tull – and with a whole lot of Matt Berry – Witchazel is a beguiling curiosity piece.
Matt Berry plays Whelan’s Dublin on July 29; Cyprus Avenue, Cork on July 30 and the Róisín Dubh, Galway on July 31
BUSH SCARY KATE