He’s the BAFTA award-winning actor, writer and musician. And now he has a new, and rather unusual, covers album up his sleeve… .
Best known as the beardy braggart of television comedies such as Toast Of London, The IT Crowd and House Of Fools, Matt Berry has also forged an impressive music career, occupying a wonderful space between prog, folk and psychedelia. His latest album Television Themes, on which he’s joined by regular compadres The Maypoles, finds him reconfiguring some of the most enduring signature tunes of his youth. Among the cultural delights absorbed by generations of British TV viewers from the 1960s to the 1980s are the themes from shows such as The Good Life, Rainbow, The Liver Birds, Sorry! and, naturally, Doctor Who. Berry explains all to Prog… So how did Television Themes come about?
The label asked if I fancied doing a covers album at some point, which I didn’t, unless there was a concept behind it. So this is the concept. I’ve never been a huge fan of artists doing covers albums that are a bunch of unrelated songs – it seems kind of disparate. Whereas with this, I was only interested in doing one if there was a theme. And TV themes seemed the most obvious to me.
Bearing in mind how familiar most of these themes are to entire generations, how did you set about doing the arrangements for them?
I didn’t mess with them too much because there was nothing really wrong with the original arrangements. And if you start to become too complex with it then the melodies can disappear. So I wanted to be fairly faithful to it, but obviously I don’t have a huge orchestra for those tracks where it’s needed, so it is going to sound like it’s been done by somebody else. At the same time I was very keen to retain the atmosphere of the originals, for the simple reason that you can’t get a lot of those tracks any more, commercially.
I didn’t do it to make a novelty album or to make something that’s funny. It’s not just a pure nostalgic thing, it’s about pieces of music in themselves that are worth showcasing. Creating television themes feels like a forgotten art rather than something frivolous. How did these television themes help to shape you back when you were a kid?
I was born in the early 70s, so there wasn’t much else to look at. Anything that was coming out, visually or through audio, would have an impact, whether it was scary or arresting or rich to listen to. When you’re little you soak all this stuff up, and I was always sensitive to music.
It was an era when TV composers such as Ronnie Hazlehurst would affect your musical education without you even knowing it…
He was part of these things that I and millions of others got access to. And a lot of these things, interestingly, came about due to budget constraints. It was the same with Doctor Who.
Delia Derbyshire was doing these experiments with tape and oscillators before Doctor Who came along, but the fact is that it sounded avant-garde and caused a huge stir because it was put onto a show that was watched by millions of people.
You’ve said that you had the urge to create music from an early age but didn’t know anybody else who felt the same. Did that feed a DIY aesthetic?
Yeah. If you share an interest in something that no one else does then you have to learn everything about it. And the result, in terms of music, was that I had to become an engineer. I had to learn how to use early multitracks because I didn’t have anyone else who could come and play a guitar part or whatever. So it made it a necessity. I was interested in how to manipulate tape and the fact that you could record four live events onto one tape. That blew my head off even then. I can still remember how incredibly exciting that discovery was.
You were also discovering albums for the first time. And prog rock too, right?
There isn’t anything more prog to me than [Mike Oldfield’s] Tubular Bells. I was still interested in two-minute pop songs but I wanted more. So it all began by listening to Tubular Bells, where someone does a song that lasts 23 minutes or whatever. It was like a dream, where you start in a certain position and then experience a whole bunch of other things by the time you get to the end. Tubular Bells was the first example of that for me. Then when I had a few more pennies in my pocket, I got The Dark Side Of The Moon.
What were your first impressions of Pink Floyd and The Dark
Side Of The Moon?
My parents weren’t, and aren’t, interested in music. Most people get a certain education from older relatives or siblings, but I didn’t have that at all. So when I got these albums, like Jesus Christ Superstar, it was just a brown album. Or, in the case of The Dark Side Of The Moon, it was just a black one with a shape on it and I was none the wiser as to who’d made this music, why they’d made it or when. But it had that certain sound to it that I loved – that sort of analogue sound. I still play that album now.
You have a home studio these days. Are you one of those people who can’t resist going in there and tinkering about at all hours of the day?
Oh yeah, there’s always something to work on. I’m doing a show called Year Of The Rabbit [a Victorian-era cop spoof for Channel 4] and I’m doing the score for that at the moment. So that’s kind of interesting because I’ve been looking at photographs of Ennio Morricone when he recorded the spaghetti westerns, looking at how he’d positioned the amps and everything else in the room, which is relevant to what this new show is going to sound like. It looks like he treated the guitar and its amp as another orchestral element, which accounts for why certain instruments sound like they do on those old scores. Atmosphere is everything. We start filming in January, so
Year Of The Rabbit will be out sometime next year.
Television Themes is out on October 5 via Acid Jazz Records. See www.themattberry.co.uk for more information.
“THERE ISN’T ANYTHING MORE PROG TO ME THAN TUBULAR BELLS.”