Matt Berry: ‘I just write from the heart’

Alongside a successful comedy career that has encompassed such TV hits as Toast of London, The IT Crowd and What We Do in the Shadows, Matt Berry also has a long-standing love of music.

Matt Berry. Picture: Ben Meadows
Matt Berry. Picture: Ben Meadows

Phantom Birds is his eighth studio album for Acid Jazz Records, and follows his first top 40 placing in 2018 with Television Themes, on which he reworked signature tunes from the 70s and 80s such as Blankety Blank, Rainbow and Doctor Who. This time the songs are all original.

“I wanted to do a simplified recording project, unlike a lot of albums in the past which have included lots of instruments, lots of overdubs, sometimes experimental song structures,” says the 46-year-old.

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“I just wanted to do very simple verse-chorus-solo-get-out type things with very few instruments.”

A primary influence was Bob Dylan’s back to basics album John Wesley Harding. “It was only about four instruments and they’re all separated in the recording,” he says. “I wanted to do something not sounding like that album but sort of using the production values.”

As far as his interest in Dylan goes, Berry says it’s largely confined to the singer-songwriter’s first decade – “I didn’t keep up after that much” – yet he did admire his recent record, Rough and Rowdy Ways. “I’ve got his latest album, which I think is great,” he says, “but, like most people, it’s really 60s and 70s Dylan.”

In Small Hours, his last album of self-penned songs, Berry reflected on some life-changing events; Phantom Birds picks up the theme. “That’s going to happen if you release an album, say, every three or four years, there’s going to be changes in your life after that time, so they’re going to be reflected,” he explains. “If I was making an album every year they wouldn’t be so poignant or I wouldn’t have as much to grab from. I can only write what I know or what I find interesting, really.”

Berry sounds genuinely surprised that the TV themes album caught on it the way it did. “It began five or six years a joke, it wasn’t done seriously,” he says. “I had a conversation with (Acid Jazz boss) Eddie Pillar, saying, ‘A lot of these themes that I like you can’t get’ and then he said, ‘Why don’t you record them? Then there is a recorded version of something like Sorry or The Good Life. I just did it for myself, to amuse myself, I didn’t think that anybody would be interested let alone buy it, but it got to Number 38 (in the charts).”

Matt Berry. Picture: Ben Meadows

Love and relationships form a consistent theme in Phantom Birds. Berry says: “It’s a response to anything that’s poignant that happened within the last time that I wrote anything. I just write from the heart, from experience, I suppose. I find that more satisfying than a kind of fictitious boy-meets-girl type of thing. I’m never satisfied with anything like that.

“To be honest I’d rather either do something completely surreal using cut-up, that sort of stuff, or something personal. I’m not really interested in in-between.”

As on most of his records, Berry plays almost all of the instruments on Phantom Birds. As a teenager, growing up in Bedfordshire, he harboured ambitions to be the next Mike Oldfield. “That’s where it came from,” he says. “It just so happened that the two artists I was interested in as a young teenager were two men that had solely recorded their albums – one was Mike Oldfield, the other Jean-Michel Jarre. I noticed they were both very young and they played all of the instruments and made the albums themselves, and it was that I think that influenced me to do the same.

“Also the fact that I didn’t have any brothers or sisters that played any instruments, so I kind of had to do it myself. I was the only one in the house that could play anything, so it was also down to necessity: if I needed a bass line on something I couldn’t have asked anyone, I didn’t know anyone that played the bass. I had to do it myself.”

It was while studying contemporary art at Nottingham Trent University in the 1990s that Berry set his heart on an artistic career. “It was during that course that I realised that I didn’t want to do anything apart form the arts,” he says. “The arts was where I felt the most comfortable. it didn’t feel forced, it didn’t feel like a job, it felt very natural and like something I wanted to do every day. That was the most important thing.”

His route into comedy, however, was accidental. Some of his earliest gigs as a budding singer-songwriter were as an opening act for comedians and Berry soon learned to pepper his own sets with a bit of humour. “I had to kind of fit in with the audience,” he says. “The audience were there to see comedy so I couldn’t just do a straight singer-songwriter (act). Or Maybe I could’ve done but I wouldn’t have been comfortable, so I put in surreal things just to make it interesting. I used to do it as if I was a serial killer telling the audience where I’d buried the bodies. I wouldn’t do this now,” he hastens to add, “it was just a different thing to do.

“I used to wear a wig that looked exactly like my own hair. Half way through the gig I would take the wig off, things like that were in keeping with what they were about to see.”

Early roles in Garth Marenghi’s Dark Place and The Mighty Boosh led on to The It Crowd and an association with Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer. His first appearance as the self-important actor Steven Toast in the Channel 4 sitcom Toast of London came in 2012; two further series followed. Last year he played Detective Inspector Eli Rabbit in the Victoria era sitcom Year of the Rabbit. During lockdown he could also be seen in the mockumentary series Squeamist About..., co-written with regular collaborator Arthur Mathews.

Berry says his comedy career is similar to his musical one, in that he’s always followed his instincts. “I’m only interested in doing things that I find funny or that I’m interested to explore,” he says. “I don’t want to be doing something because it’s easy, I’ve no interest in that, I would do a bad job. I’m driven by things that I find exciting.”

The Squeamish mockumentaries, on topics such as entertainments and the countryside, combine archive images with fruity narration. Berry says that rather than spend hours trawling through films beforehand, he and Mathews “write a ridiculous script and then someone finds footage that is then cut to it”.

“We were quite strict in what Arthur and I wanted,” he adds. “We didn’t want anything that was past 1980; it had to be from the 50s until 1979, that was all that we imposed. Then we just wrote the stupidest stuff we could and stuff was eventually found. Unless we had things in mind, which Arthur did a couple of times, there were a few clips that he wrote to, but me personally I just wrote nonsense and then we found images to go with it.”

He’s less wont to speculate on the reasons why Year of the Rabbit was warmly received by critics (with the show duly renewed for a second series) but he recognises he appreciates its working-class humour. “It’s not often that I get to play people more like myself and more like my family,” he says. “A lot of that character was based on my dad, the continuous sarcasm and not taking anything about himself at all seriously, and the way that he talks to his friends as well, my dad, there’s a lot of annihilating each other. I don’t often get to do that, I’m sort of playing bombastic lunatics, so it was good just to do something else.”

A fourth series of Toast of London remains a distinct possibility. The central character, Berry says, was based on actors he had encountered. “It was based on two or three other actors that I’d either worked with or I knew personally. I just took I suppose the worst parts of their character and put them all into one, which is what he is. He’s just the worst part of two or three people that I know.”

Despite satirising the work of voiceover artists in Toast of London, Berry continues to find his distinctive tones much in demand for TV commercials. “I would have thought the phone would’ve stopped ringing for voiceovers as soon as I did Toast, but it didn’t,” he says. “If they want me to do them, providing it’s something that isn’t evil or will upset people or make people ill, then I’ll do it.

“I honestly didn’t think I would be asked again to do any voiceovers, but it wasn’t the case.”

Phantom Birds is out on Friday September 18.