In Conversation: Matt Berry

The comedic actor on his refreshing new album...

Matt Berry is a National Institution, a beloved comedic actor whose sharp turn of phrase and astute use of melodrama has turned him into a bona fide star.

Whether you know him from The IT Crowd or What We Do In The Shadows, the English actor has developed a unique style, one that makes him instantly recognisable.

Running alongside this, though, is a deep and abiding love of music. Together with Acid Jazz Records, he's built a catalogue that sits quite apart from his acting, one with a fanbase all of its own.

Whether it's the prog-folk opus 'Witchazel' or his 'Television Themes' compilation, Matt Berry approaches music with the same verse and imagination as his acting work, but in an entirely way.

New album 'Phantom Birds' is out now and it finds Matt Berry stripping his sound right down, augmented only by drummer Craig Blundell and legendary pedal steel guitarist BJ Cole.

Singing straight from the heart, it's a genuinely lovely record, one inspired by Dylan's Nashville work and shifts in Matt Berry's own life.

Clash spoke to the acting hero and songwriter about how it all came together.

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How do you feel about the release? Is that tingle still there?

It does, it’s the same in all artforms. I’d say that since signing to the label ten years ago, it feels slightly different when there’s a label putting it out as opposed to you putting it out yourself. Mainly because there’s expectations, not only from anyone who wants to hear it but also from the label. So it’s not altogether a project that you’ve done wholly yourself; there’s other people involved.

But yeah, it’s the same feeling, it doesn’t get any easier because it’s the one thing you’ve not in any kind of control of, the reviews and things. But you know, I don’t really give a monkey’s as much as I probably would’ve done a few years ago now. Because I’d do it anyway, I’d record this stuff anyway, I’d put it out anyway, whether it was reviewed or not.

It feels as though you've now got a distinct fanbase for your music – some of these fans would never have watched the IT Crowd, for example.

No you're right, that’s pretty accurate. The stuff is liked or perceived in its own right now which is important to me because the thing has been to make the distinction between it and the other work, and they don’t really have anything in common.

I mean, they do in certain ways because it’s an aspect of my life, so it’s going to sort of bleed through. But it’s that whole thing I’ve been saying for years: there’s no comedy involved. If I was doing all this as a joke it would be a very time-consuming one.

You name Dylan's work in Nashville as a key influence on the record, and there's a definite taste of it. What drew you to this reference point?

What it was, is that it’s a big influence in terms of production, just because in the past I’ve been quite flamboyant in terms of production and how many tracks I’ve used and solos and instrumental bits – all this kind of stuff.

I’ve been keen on the complex side of composition, whereas with this I wanted to do the opposite thing, I wanted to run in the opposite direction really, in terms of there being three instruments at once that you ever hear on this album. And the drums are panned hard right, with the acoustic [guitar] hard left, and then the vocals straight down the middle, which was the technique that was used for ‘John Wesley Harding’ and a couple of others.

It’s a very naïve way of recording, panning things hard right. I mean the Beatles used to do it too, but I’ve always liked it. Some people hate it, you know just having all of the drums on one side, and the bass right the other side or whatever. But I’ve always liked it because it’s different, so that’s what I wanted to do. I just wanted to strip it all back; that was the main aim.

It's a lot more stripped back than 'Witchazel' for example – the prog-folk sound has subsided.

I mean I’m still very fond of prog-folk as the kind of vibe of that album. But I just wanted to do something different. It’s the same as in comedy; I don’t like doing the same thing for any length of time, I just want to do something different. It just seemed the natural thing with these songs to not bugger about with them and go into four minute solos halfway through them.

You must have huge demands on your time. Do you have to be ultra-organised to focus on music, or is songwriting done on the hoof?

Well they do, I mean I’m not organised enough to have a diary that says I’m going to be composing and recording for three weeks straight. If I have an idea then I’ve got to record it there and then.

So the demos for ‘Phantom Birds’ were done this time last year, and then I had to go off to Canada to film so I couldn’t finish it. So when I got back, that was when I kind of recorded it proper so to speak. That’s why it’s coming out this year. The other work does kind of dictate when I can do stuff, but I don’t ever set aside any time because I might not have an idea, do you know what I mean? It’s all got to be when I’ve got an idea.

It sounds quite challenging!

Yeah but I love doing it, you know? So it just feels like I should be doing it and I’ve got to do it while I can, while my hands can work like a young-ish man’s type hands.

I know that sounds crazy but there comes a time when you’re not physically able to do all of these things. So while I am, it’s important I do as much as I can, as when the ideas come, they have to be recorded straight away – whether it’s in demo form or it ends up being the finished piece, which it can be sometimes.

'Something In My Eye' is a very heart on sleeve way to open the album – mental health amongst men is still all-too-rarely spoken about.

With blokes my sort of age it still is, I think maybe less so with the younger generations. I think they’re more confident in owning up when it’s all gone tits up or you know they don’t feel great about something.

Whereas with my generation that was never encouraged or… it was just never seen! You never had a sportsman admit that he suffers from depression and breaks down and all this kind of stuff. It just was never done, you never heard anything like that. So that’s what it’s about; it’s about the difference in my generation and the younger generations I suppose.

But then something like 'Hail To The King' tackles a much larger topic, doesn't it?

I’m sort of commenting on Christianity, and I’m not going particularly deep with it. But it’s a story that I heard, and I’ve done my best to make it interesting and short and concise in song form. But it was something that I heard, somebody went with… I mean I don’t… [chuckles] ‘cause it’s pretty graphic stuff. Yeah it’s just a comment on organised religion I suppose.

It's a very pastoral record – you can picture these countryside idylls while listening to it…

Yeah, I live in the country now. I don’t live full time in London anymore. I get to see the moon, whereas I didn’t for twenty years or for however long it was I lived in London. So all those things that people that do live in the country don’t find a novelty, I did when I moved back.

If you're away filming, it must make those moments all the more precious.

It does, but I always ask them to provide me with an acoustic guitar if they can. So if I’m staying in rented accommodation, if I’m away, then I’ve always got an acoustic guitar. The laptop’s got Logic on it, so I can record anything. I can make pretty comprehensive demos that way.

And it doesn’t matter where I am because I have to have my mic with me for voice-overs. So I’ve usually got stuff with me so I can always work. I don’t have the full studio as such but I can get back to it.

It's a record that feels very honest, was that your intention from the outset?

I just found that that just lasts better for me. I can write fictitious story type songs, but I don’t find them satisfying. The ones where it’s something personal – even if I cover it in imagery – if it is personal then I know what it was when I look back at it, so then for me it’s more of a satisfying piece of art, if that makes any sense?

It does, yes! And that focus on the art and craft must make each project really enjoyable.

It absolutely does, yes. There isn’t anybody that’s directing anything that I’ve done. Even making any suggestions to be honest. I kind of tell the label what it is I want to do and then they just sort of nod their heads and then I get on with it. I don’t second guess anything or anyone, I don’t really have to do that. I’m not aiming at the Top Ten, so the beauty of that is that you can do whatever you like. And because it’s niche stuff you get that freedom.

Lockdown has left us all with time on our hands – can you envisage a quicker follow up to this record?

Yeah, and I’ve already started it! It’s going to be a psychedelic affair.

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'Phantom Birds' is out now on Acid Jazz Records.

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