Serious about prog: Matt Berry turns it on again

Berry’s fifth album pays homage to Tubular Bells and other prog-rock classics. People are slowly accepting him as being more than an actor and comedian, he says

He is well-known for his sense of humour, so when Matt Berry casually mentions how he has been "rediscovering Hawkwind" of late, there is a pause as you wait for the punchline. It doesn't come. Oh. Hawkwind? Really? "I didn't take them that seriously when I was younger, but there's the odd pearl within the nonsense," he says. "No, really. There is."

Berry's admiration for the spacey 1970s prog-rockers makes more sense if you have ever heard his own music. He has just released his fifth album. His third album, 2009's Witchazel, set out his stall as someone who treated music as more than a self-indulgent side-project. Its combination of folk, prog and psych-rock even enticed Paul McCartney to provide backing vocals on one track.

His face will be recognisable to fans of surrealist comedy series such as Garth Marenghi's Darkplace, The IT Crowd, The Mighty Boosh and Snuff Box, but music has held a steadfast grip on Berry's creative outlook for a much longer period of time. He has been "continuously" making music since he was 14, he says, when his parents bought him an "old grandad's organ" and a four-track recorder. He has no formal training but has winged it quite successfully ever since.

“I’ve fooled everyone,” he says, chuckling. “I couldn’t read or play anyone else’s music, so I had to write my own. I thought I was at a disadvantage at the time because I couldn’t play what was on the radio, but it turned out that that’s what kept my enthusiasm going, because I approached it from an ‘ideas’ angle that has never really left me.”


His early musical obsessions included artists such as Mike Oldfield and Jean Michel Jarre, which he admits made him the class oddball when most of his peers were into "whatever dreadful dance song was high in the charts – Yazz and that kind of s**t. I couldn't afford any records or CDs, so it was just what was on Radio 1 – and during the latter half of the 1980s, that wasn't great," he smirks.

Chaos and upset

"Every song was two minutes long, and I got bored with that quite quickly. Then I got given a copy of Tubular Bells, where the songs were 23 minutes long. I listened to it thousands and thousands of times on my own in my bedroom. I'd never heard anything sound like chaos and upset like that, and it made a huge impact.

"And from there, I became interested in other long-form pieces, such as [Jean Michel Jarre's] Oxygène. They're very different, but both have a sort of melancholic atmosphere that I instantly took to. But yeah, I dared not say to anyone, 'You should listen to this', because God knows what that would have caused for me."

He has finally had an opportunity to pay homage to Tubular Bells with his new album. Music for Insomniacs, his fifth release, comprises two 20-minute-plus passages that take in intense, nightmarish climaxes, new-age peaks and snippets of unintelligible dialogue and barking dogs. As its title suggests, it was inspired by a long, frustrating bout of sleeplessness several years ago and was recorded in his home studio before 2013's Kill the Wolf was even conceived.

To salve insomnia

“I couldn’t find anything that was working for me,” he says of his decision to create music to salve his insomnia, rather than rely on his music collection.

“Even my favourite albums weren’t working, because they were either too familiar, too hectic or too non-eventful. I just wanted to make something that wasn’t just some ambient sort of thing. I’d sent off for some actual music for insomniacs, but they just send you these whale noises and panpipes. That was when I made the decision to compose and record something that would help, and that I would find interesting if I wasn’t making music.

"And because of the concentrated nature of that time of night – where you're not going to be interrupted by anyone, because it's 3am – I found that I could get quite a lot done, and I was more focused than I would be during the day. So Music for Insomniacs was done quite quickly, and then on the advice of the record company I sat on it – because if I'd put that out after Witchazel, it would have looked like I'd gone insane."

It was necessary to make the album mostly instrumental because “it can’t have had too much of my personality. Because that will dictate what you think about, dream about, or what kind of direction it takes. So I had to be pretty anonymous during the whole thing. That was an important decision to make, because everyone knows what my voice sounds like and what it represents for them, so to get rid of that was an important thing; to just concentrate on the sounds that I’ve found.”

Upcoming projects

With his creative juices now flowing freely again, upcoming projects include a second series of Toast of London, the (Bafta-nominated, as he points out) comedy series that he stars in and co-writes with Arthur Mathews, as well as another series of House of Fools, the Reeves and Mortimer-penned BBC sitcom. An Irish tour is tentatively planned for around October.

He says that when you are so recognisable from the characters you play – be it the flamboyant, baritone-voiced Dr Lucien Sanchez from Darkplace, Dixon Bainbridge from The Mighty Boosh or The IT Crowd's quasi-libertine Douglas Reynholm – it can make establishing yourself as a serious musician an onerous task.

“Yes, but you can’t rally against that,” he says, shrugging. “It’s kind of pointless, because then it looks like you’re taking yourself too seriously, which I don’t. It’s a sort of product of [Britain], though, where it’s difficult for people to swallow someone who does more than one thing. They think ‘Hang on, that’s the comedy guy – what’s this?’, whereas in any other European country they’re far more accepting of actors making albums, or whatever.

"It may have been an issue initially, but after Witchazel and especially after Kill the Wolf, I think it's got better. But there's still absolutely nothing you can do about it. It doesn't matter if you say, 'Well, I'm a serious musician', because they'll still write, 'Best-known for The IT Crowd, Matt Berry releases . . .' " he chuckles.

"It's getting better because now I'm being hailed as 'comedian and musician Matt Berry, blah blah blah'. But I don't mind any of it, to be fair. It beats working."

Music for Insomniacs is out now on Acid Jazz Records