Philling the time
Star of stage and screen Phill Jupitus is heading to Birmingham with his latest project. Dave Woodhall talked to him before he gets here.
Not only is Phill Jupitus a comedian he began his career as a poet, working with Paul Weller, Billy Bragg and the Housemartins as part of the Red Wedge collective that helped the Labour Party to such great electoral success during the eighties. He’s now gone back to his roots in more ways than one as part of the Idiot Bastard Band, who are about to tour the nation with a show exploring the history of that mostly British of musical institutions the comic song. And that’s comic song as in something the Divine Comedy might perform not novelty guff like Black Lace.
He explains how the Idiot Bastard Band came about.
“Four men over 50 who have too much time on their hands and are great fans of comic songs. But there are not just any four men. Neil Innes, former Bonzo Dog, Ade Edmondson, former Young One, Rowland Revron, former Raw Sex and the chunky fellow off the pop quiz met at too many lunches and used to talk about funny songs. We bemoaned the fact that people had stopped writing novelty songs, we decided to do a gig for our own amusement and like most things people do for their own amusement it spiralled out of control and into a job. It’s a hobby that turned into a career.”
How serious is this career becoming. Will you be recording?
“We’ve talked about the possibility, and in the spirit of the thing what’s been mooted is a box set of 78s. The more gigs we play the more of our own material we’re doing. This tour is a six week period where we’ve got time to work together and at the end of it we can make a decision whether we go to the bother of making a CD or not. We’re currently doing about 40% of our own material but that’s growing and by the end of the tour I reckon we’ll be doing 75% of our own songs. We formed the band because we love other people’s songs though, and to wholesale drop that would be a bit disingenuous.”
The art of a great comic song is to write about topics people understand. For example I mentioned the Divine Comedy earlier, their best known work is National Express which everyone can relate to.
“Yes. Look at Jake Thackeray’s songs, they’re very grounded in real life, quirky stuff. Things like Castleford Ladies Magic Circle and a song we cover, Isabel Makes Love upon National Monuments. Songs about the ordinary that have an extraordinary twist to them. The other area of comic songs which is brilliant is what Neil Innes is probably better known for and that’s parody. The stuff he did with the Rutles is extraordinary, to the extent that Northern Songs are still arguing over the provenance of them. We’ve got one, a Coldplay parody in that very kind of laboured way, “I am a Coldplay song. I am ambitious and five minutes too long’.”
Mention of parodying pretentious neo-prog bands leads, inevitably, to those masters of the observational putdown Half Man Half Biscuit.
“You can do any of Nigel (Blackwell)’s songs and do them well. He’s fantastic. To my mind he’s the continuation of the Jake Thackeray thing, that stripping apart the normal which is what he does so well, taking the slight irritations we take for granted and putting them under an unbelievable microscope.”
Such music might be endangered as people stop being so observant and more self-absorbed. Would a modern songwriter even notice the sort of taped-off car park HMHB write about?
“That’s the essence of any kind of art. It’s affected by the culture around it. Modern parody such as Lonely Island is taking a different direction now and it’s almost being made for that YouTube market, thinking in global terms because it’s online. They’re approaching from a different angle so the nature of parodies is changing. What we’re doing does belong to a different time but also reflects now because that’s what culture does.”
Comic sings have a long history. There’s a reference to them in Three Men in a Boat, they go back a long way but they’re also being written for modern life.
“It’s quite a road for a songwriter to take. People like Ian Dury and Madness wrote great songs, you wouldn’t necessarily say they are comic songs but also Morrissey wrote some hilarious lyrics, both intentionally and unintentionally. We’re working on a version of the Arctic Monkeys Don’t Sit Down Cause I’ve moved Your Chair, which is very, very funny and it was interesting to see Alex Turner talking on the John Cooper Clarke documentary. He realised that the humour in Arctic Moneys songs is very deliberate. Alex has an almost Noel Cowardesque eye on things and I think that’s something very British about culture. We’ve always had that self-deprecating streak, it’s not afraid of being a bit daft and I think in terms of British pop culture that’s why Monty Python are so popular and why people think a man putting a dress on is funny.”
Ade Edmondson’s other band the Bad Shepherds are rooted in folk and you began playing with Billy Bragg and Attila the Stockbroker, who have definitely got folk elements in their work. Is there a link there, with these two very British styles of music?
“The ridicule in folk song is something present in our art form. We can’t say we’re part of that, you tack yourself on to it. What I like about the Idiot Bastards is that we’re being very route one – it’s about what makes us laugh. Some songs make me laugh but if the rest don’t like them they’re not in the set. There’s nothing precious about it. It might be different for a song I’ve written, if the rest of the band don’t like it then I could end up fighting for it, but we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it. There’s been no arguments yet because we have so many songs to choose from – have a look on YouTube or i tunes, let’s find another one.”
You’ve also sung with the Blockheads, doing Ian Dury’s songs. He could be regarded as a vaudevillian, one of the last music hall entertainers.
“It’s difficult not to use those terms but when you look how he performed and you see his character, he was Dickensian. He shuffled onto the stage, he had the walking stick, the people he surrounded himself with. He would never shy away from it. And what I love is Jemima, his daughter, asked me to do a bit of blurb for Hello Sausages, the book of his lyrics that’s about to come out. I’m looking forward to getting it because I’ve always wanted to read his words; I’m so used to having them in my pocket, but sometimes it’s so ornate and so beautiful to read words you’ve only known as lyrics.”
Despite being lumped in with new wave Ian owed more to Max Miller than he did to Johnny Rotten.
“Lydon, there’s someone with an esoteric wit. Public Image, there’s a wink in there. I saw them the other night on Jools Holland and he’s always got his tongue in his cheek. But when you’re such an icon as John, you have to live with a lot of things. He doesn’t suffer fools.”
It’s ironic to be talking about the Sex Pistols when you consider that comedy, the original new rock’n’roll, is now in that arena gigs, tours as money-making machines, stage that gave birth to punk.
“Comedy is now very weird. Stand up is about intervention, it’s about being able to see the face of the comic rather than a screen. Unless the theatre is some incredibly designed building you can’t do that properly. But, someone like Lee Evans has totally re-invented stand-up in terms of doing arenas and it’s working for him. I couldn’t see someone in a room that big and I can’t see how it works but again, culture has shifted. Why do people want to be in row 56? Because they want to be part of an event, and then they want to buy the event on DVD to say I was there. Personally, if I’m not in the first ten rows I don’t want to be there and I can’t see how it works. I want to see comedy gigs in some grubby little room.”
The Idiot Bastard Band play Birmingham Town Hall on 3rd November. For tickets visit www.thsh.co.uk
More on the band can be found at www.theidiotbastardband.co.uk
Full tour listings:
THE IDOT BASTARD BAND – UK TOUR
Day Date Town Venue Phone
Thu 1 Nov Buxton Buxton Opera House 0845 127 2190
Fri 2 Nov Derby Assembly Rooms 01332 255 800
Sat 3 Nov Birmingham Town Hall 0121 345 0603
Sun 4 Nov Cardiff Coal Exchange 02920 230 130
Thu 8 Nov Skegness Embassy Theatre 0845 674 0505
Fri 9 Nov Gateshead The Sage 0191 443 4661
Sat 10 Nov Edinburgh The HMV Picture House 0843 221 0100
Sun 11 Nov Glasgow The Old Fruit Market 0141 353 8000
Thu 15 Nov New Brighton Floral Pavilion 0151 666 0000
Fri 16 Nov Swindon Wyvern Theatre 01793 524 481
Sat 17 Nov Llandudno Venue Cymru 01492 872 000
Sun 18 Nov Leeds City Varieties 0113 243 0808
Thu 29 Nov Stroud Subscription Rooms 01453 760 900
Fri 30 Nov St Albans The Alban Arena 01727 844488
Sat 1 Dec Norwich LCR UEA 01603 508050
Sun 2 Dec London Union Chapel 08444 771 000
Thu 6 Dec Bristol Fleece 0117 929 9008
Fri 7 Dec Liskeard Carnglaze Caverns 01579 320 251
Sat 8 Dec Bridport Electric Palace 01308 424 901
Sun 9 Dec Southampton The Brook 023 8055 5366