Matt Berry

- Words: Johnny Sharp Images: Ben Meadows

The actor and musician channels the spirit of ’69-’75 on his latest album.

“If an album was recorded between 1969 and 1975, then I’ll listen to it. I’m a huge fan of the feel of records from that era.”

Matt Berry takes listeners on a sensory joyride with his thought-provoking new album, The Blue Elephant. Prog catches up with the actor, writer and musician to discuss his love of analogue equipment, working with Craig Blundell and why he decided to make the kind of album he really enjoys listening to.

Given the reputation that precedes him, Prog expected Matt Berry to greet us over the phone, Brian Blessed-like, with a booming basso profondo voice closely related to the one that has graced several TV characters and numerous adverts in recent years. But Matt Berry the musician and songwriter and Matt Berry the comedy actor and thunder-tonsilled voiceover specialist are two very different creatures. And if there was any justice, the former incarnatio­n – much closer to Matt Berry the man than the outsized personae of his acting alter egos – would be just as renowned.

Thankfully that situation is increasing­ly changing, which is one reason why he’s popped up on Prog’s radar in recent years.

And his latest LP, The Blue Elephant, his eighth studio set since signing to Acid Jazz 10 years ago, is a particular­ly progressiv­e affair: marinated in vintage organ and Mellotron flavours and drawing on a turn-of-the-70s sonic palette taking in everything from richly evocative symphonic psychedeli­a to soundtrack exotica, pastoral prog, muddy blues rock and sunny beat pop.

Having ploughed a mazy furrow over the years through quasi-pagan progressiv­e folk (check out Witchazel and Kill The Wolf), ambient electronic­a (2014’s Music For Insomniacs),

eclectic labours of love (Television Themes)

and singer-songwriter acoustica (last year’s Phantom Birds), he explains The Blue Elephant

as another instinctiv­e attempt to turn left once more and away from his previous album, but also to make an immersive, listen-in-onesitting LP like his heroes used to make.

“I definitely wanted it to be a headphones­on, 40-odd-minute listening experience to consume in one go,” he says, “rather than just individual songs from here and there. I had in mind records like Oxygène, War Of The Worlds,

records I loved when I was growing up.”

From an outsider’s point of view, The Blue Elephant sounds like neither of those, but it does sound like an alluringly idiosyncra­tic headtrip that bewitches and beguiles, whether it’s through backmasked vocals, continuall­y arresting touches of vintage instrument­ation or snatches of curious, wrong-footing lyric lines such as: ‘It’s a crime to be set on fire’, ‘She moves like stone’ or ‘I’ve been sacked from the choir’.

For those unfamiliar with Berry’s musical output, it’s worth reiteratin­g: he’s not being funny, right? While in his early days some observers wondered if his music was intended to be an extension of his comedy work, an elaborate creative joke, he’s always stressed his distaste for comedy songs. Even when he was covering the theme tune to Are You Being Served?, he was coming from a place of affection and musical appreciati­on, not mockery. Likewise, there may be dry humour at work in parts of The Blue Elephant, but it reflects Berry’s enduringly unorthodox lens on the world rather than an attempt to play for laughs.

In terms of influences, he admits, “If an album was recorded between 1969 and 1975, then I’ll listen to it. I’m a huge fan of the

feel of records from that era.” His passion for analogue textures is reflected in the smörgåsbor­d of vintage organ, synth and Mellotron sounds that decorate this and previous albums, along with earthy, organic basslines, loose rhythmic grooves and his own understate­d, subtly soulful singing style – a world away from the stagy boom of his fictional TV incarnatio­ns.

Over the course of his career he’s retained a DIY approach to making music – quite literally, in the sense that he plays most of the instrument­s himself and records in his home studio. It’s a modus operandi informed by the first artist that really captivated him as a young music fan, coming of age in the late 1980s.

“The thing that kicked everything off for me was hearing Tubular Bells,” he says. “Because of a few things. For one, it wasn’t like anything that was on the radio. It wasn’t concerned with being sort of catchy or happy in any way. It sounded like chaos. It sounded like illness! As a kid I could spot that there was something unsettling about it, and that drew me in.”

By that point Berry had already taught himself to play a keyboard his parents had bought him. But that, he figured, wasn’t going to be enough… “I found out that he [Mike Oldfield] was, like, 17 or something when he made it [Oldfield was 19 when he recorded

Tubular Bells] and played everything on it, which at the time was only about four years older than I was. So that gave me the kick up the arse to learn everything and find a way to record my own songs.”

He set about doing all he could to flesh out his own musical vision with the rudimentar­y technology at hand.

“All I had was an organ, a microphone and a cheap four-track, recording onto a cassette, so I just used to make up my own songs. I had to learn everything myself, not as a show-off thing but by necessity, because there was literally no one I knew who could teach me. I had to learn the guitar because I didn’t know a guitarist. And that led to the bass, you know, and then everything else. But I loved it, so it didn’t feel like any kind of chore.”

By his late teens he had fallen in love with the sounds made by the instrument­s that soundtrack­ed the Tubular Bells era, and had taken to saving up to buy them. The result is that now he has an impressive collection of Farfisa and Hammond organs, a Minimoog

MUSIC IS A LABOUR OF LOVE FOR THIS MODERNDAY RENAISSANC­E MAN. and an electric piano, all of which make an appearance on The Blue Elephant.

“I was lucky because it was the early 90s, when you could pick up a lot of this analogue stuff for next to nothing because it wasn’t cool. I took full advantage of that, because

I’d seen all these pictures of Mike Oldfield sat around a bunch of analogue stuff, and Jean-Michel Jarre sat around a bunch of synths with knobs, dials and sliders on, and I just thought, ‘That stuff looks way cooler than anything available now.’ And you could pick them up for the money I was earning working in Tesco.”

Nonetheles­s, he’s never been such a control freak that he won’t enlist the services of musicians that can enhance his sound. Last year’s acoustic-based album Phantom Birds, for instance, was illuminate­d considerab­ly by the pedal steel playing of BJ Cole. And while in the past Berry has even experiment­ed with analogue drum machines, on The Blue Elephant and its predecesso­r he turned to Steven Wilson drummer Craig Blundell.

“Luckily he lives not far from me, and we get on,” says Berry. “And he’s into the same sort of things as me. I’ll play something to him and say, ‘Well, it’s a bit odd,’ and play something [Berry plays drums “a bit”, like most things], and he’s like, ‘Oh yeah, I know.’ And he’s straight on it, and he makes everything sound so much better.”

Berry opened for Steven Wilson’s 2015

Royal Albert Hall show and is a fan of prog’s favourite son: “I think he’s great. I’ve always admired the fact that he just does whatever he likes, regardless of what is kind of going on in the outside world.”

That approach hardly makes for the most marketable commodity, mind, and Berry’s own eclectic approach might have frustrated a more commercial­ly minded label if he had, say, signed to a major hoping to take advantage of his TV profile.

“I owe Acid Jazz a hell of a lot,” he admits, “because they’ve always encouraged everything I’ve done, even if it is totally bizarre. They’re more interested in doing something that’s odd, that kind of flops, than doing something kind of safe that will do okay. I’ve phoned up at the last minute going, ‘You know what, I think we should pull this, it’s going to fall on its fucking arse.’ And they’ve gone, ‘It doesn’t matter.’ As an artist, that’s just what you need.”

Berry takes a guitar with him even when away from his home studio filming, and he’s constantly writing, recording ideas on his phone (“so I remember them… unless my phone gets nicked, of course”) and planning his next record. The Blue Elephant was written and recorded last summer – to him, it’s already history. And he has another sidestep in mind for the next long player.

“I have been listening to a lot of early 70s hard rock,” he says. “So it might be the guitar sound or Zeppelin-style drums… or that could all change and it’ll be nothing like that at all.”

In other words, whatever you know about Matt Berry, one rule applies: leave your preconcept­ions at the door.

“I definitely wanted it to be a headphones-on, 40-oddminute listening experience to consume in one go.”

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