By Nick Milligan
The view through the restaurant’s glass wall is a pristine sunny postcard: Sydney Harbour Bridge buffers the brilliant blue of both water and sky, ferries bob against their moorings, tourists ebb and flow through Circular Quay and, of course, those iconic bone sails of the Opera House jut upward in all their jagged glory.
This panoramic is all too familiar to the distinctive chap sitting opposite. Bill Bailey is a regular to our shores. The London-based comedian is a true Renaissance Man; a master of high-concept absurdist humour whose meta jokes and classical music training have ensured regular appearances on stage, film and TV. Bailey’s lightning wit made him a favourite on shows Never Mind the Buzzcocks and QI, and stole many a scene in cult sitcoms Black Books and Spaced. Now he’s turning his attention to writing. The wildlife lover has just finished a book on British birds.
Bailey has dropped into Australia for a whirlwind 48-hour media visit, spreading the word about impending tour Larks in Transit, before he’s off to New Zealand. After entertaining the Kiwis he’ll be back here, straight into another long run of Australian performances.
Bailey’s in the middle of a 12-hour day of interviews across print, radio and TV. He was on Triple J this morning. He was on The Project last night.
But, ever the true professional, he’s hanging in there. We’re sitting in Hacienda, the luxe restaurant and bar nestled in the five-star Pullman Quay Grand, sipping lime and sodas. The décor is inspired by Cuba and 1950s Miami and the bar snacks presented to us by a smiling waitress are too exotic to immediately identify.
“It’s like some kind of Indonesian prawn cracker,” remarks Bailey, after an initial taste test.
The cordial comic is staying here at the Quay Grand.
NM: What are the tea and coffee-making facilities like at this hotel?
BB: Very good. You can’t fault them. There’s a kettle and a coffee maker, so all bases are covered.
You’re obviously a regular to Australia – is there anything you look forward to the most about returning here?
Yeah… I mean (gesturing through the glass), this is a cracking view. I like being able to travel around Australia. Obviously I like to see a bit of the countryside and get out of the city. Hopefully I’ll be able to do a bit of that [on this tour]. There’s a couple of new places on the tour this time that I haven’t performed before, the Gold Coast and Geelong.
I’ve been to Newcastle a few times and really enjoyed it. It’s such a huge country and I’ve been coming here for so long but I keep finding out new bits about it every time. I see new bits of wildlife. Last time I managed to knock off a thing on my list of life things to do, which was dive the Barrier Reef. I also went bird watching at a sewerage farm in Melbourne.
Sydney’s great, I live in London so I feel at home in cities. But Australia, for me, is a unique landscape, which I try and explore if I can. There’s nothing like this really, for a European, there’s no huge open spaces. There’s no deserts, there’s no areas where there’s hardly any people. It’s such an overcrowded continent. So the opportunity to [explore], if I get that, I take it. Because that’s, to me, the real Australia. It’s this vast country. All kinds of different topography, landscapes and incredible wildlife.
It just makes me think [Trump’s] this very lonely, odd, strange character that’s trying on a persona. It’s a fascinating performance piece, from an objective level. On a real level it’s terrifying.”
I wanted to ask you about the process of putting together a show. Do you return home after a global tour like this with a blank slate? Or does the material bleed into the next show from tour to tour?
The shows just morph into each other. I was doing this show two years ago, Limboland, and I then took it into the West End in London. I had a residency there for a while. During that time the show just transformed into something else. Stories came in, new things went out. New music came in, music came out. Gradually the show changed into something else, which formed the basis of what this [new] show is. Completely new ideas, shows, things that have occurred to me over the last year and a half. Plus a lot of [Larks in Transit] is very new. Things that I’ve hardly performed. So it’s a bit of an experiment this show. It’s a bit different from other shows. Trying out stories and trying to reconnect them – to have a sort of narrative thread. So it’s going to take shape over the next few weeks.
And the show contains some anecdotes too? Stories from the road?
Sure, yeah. A bit of that. That was a jumping off point. That seemed to be a good starting point and it leads into lots of other stories. It’s a way into lots of different subjects.
So if you were to put the first and last show of your tour side by side, they’d look very different?
Yeah. When you’re putting it together there’s a vague structure, but within that I like to keep it fairly loose. There’s a lot of audience involvement in this show. People have to turn up and sing.
When you’re putting a show together, where are you the most productive? Do you have a space at home?
Yeah, I have a little office at the bottom of the garden and I go and work in that. But I work everywhere. Everywhere you get the opportunity. If I’m out and about, I’ll write notes down on my phone. Or I’ll record something. If I think up an idea I’ll try and record it before I forget. There’s a writing period and then there’s a sort of cogitative period where you think about it and how it might fit together. Often the only way to really get it to work is to say it out loud. Often you’ll say something and then you transfer that to speech and it doesn’t quite flow. You have to paraphrase what you’ve written to make it sound more coherent. It seems awkward when you say these lines and you only get to know it when you say it in front of a crowd.
So you’re roadtesting material on the audience?
Totally. A lot of the time I write material on stage, in the moment.
Are there jokes that, on paper, should work but they just don’t?
Yeah. Sure. It’s such an odd thing, comedy. It’s so perverse. It doesn’t follow any rules. Things that don’t seem to work on paper come alive when you say them live. Similarly, you think ‘Oh, this is a great joke, I’ll say this…’ and it comes out and it doesn’t translate. It’s weird. It’s why I find [comedy] so fascinating, it’s still a mystery.
Because these are metal heads. If they don’t like you… I had these visions of me being thrown into a moshpit and devoured.”
Music’s always been a big part of your stand-up shows. Has the way you use music in your shows evolved a lot since the beginning? And has new technology been a part of that evolution?
Yeah, definitely. In fact there’s something in this show that I’ve been wanting to do for years. I was hampered by the technology, and that was to sample live an audience singing. I tried it years ago but it was really primitive compared to today’s technology. It was a floppy disk, it was so slow and there was no memory space. But now with digital sampling I can finally do this thing I’ve wanted to do. It doesn’t change that much. The keyboards, I like to keep them fairly low-tech. If they get too high-tech there’s too much going on. I used a keyboard once at a show that had a touch screen and, in the moment, the adrenaline’s pumping and I went to touch – it should have been like an iPhone, where you just gently touch it. But when you’re pumped up, you go like that [makes a sharp pressing motion]. I press and hold and then I’m in a totally different mode. I’m in record mode. I had to sack it.
Natural history and the animal kingdom are often features of your show. Did you develop a love of the natural world as a child?
I grew up in a rural part of the west of England and we were surrounded by countryside. I’d go out on cycling trips as a kid. Mum and dad were very keen on that. We’d go to bird sanctuaries and wildlife reserves as a regular family day out. It’s something that’s stuck with me over the years. It seems like a natural thing to do. I like to know the names of things. My granddad was quite good with plants and birds. I was always really impressed with that. I want to know the countryside. You feel a bit inadequate if you don’t.
You touch on politics in your performances too. With the planet in such a strange place at the moment, perhaps even balancing on the precipice of something terrible, is it harder or easier to find humour in the world?
Honestly, there’s parts of the American election campaign which are beyond satire. There’s no way around it. What is happening is surreal and strange and odd and funny on an objective level. It’s a challenge for a comic. You have to find a way around – to make fun of other things. Pick it apart. Say, for example, Trump’s conversations that were recorded about women. He wanted to grab ‘em and kiss ‘em. He says it’s “locker room talk”. And I just say, this is like no locker room talk I’ve ever heard! I know blokes, I’ve been in locker rooms. They don’t talk about women, grabbin’ them and kissin’ them. They just don’t. Blokes talk about sheds, and cars… and lockers! Shoes, equipment. Blokes are obsessed with stuff. They won’t be going [creepy voice] “Yeah, I got this woman, right…” They just won’t.
It just makes me think [Trump’s] this very lonely, odd, strange character that’s trying on a persona. It’s a fascinating performance piece, from an objective level. On a real level it’s terrifying, the possibilities of him winning. But I also wonder what might happen if he loses. There’s any amount of material. Politics always throws up stories. At the moment it’s overload. There’s too much news, I can’t cope with it.
And Brexit too.
It’s chaos. Total chaos. We’re sailing into fog and we don’t know what the hell we’re doing. Nobody’s got a plan. I’ve never known Britain to be this divided. I’ve never known it to be this theoretically divisive, mobile state. It’s unprecedented.
When you visit Australia you occasionally turn the microscope back on us…
Sometimes, yeah (chuckles).
What’s your outsider’s perspective on Australia at the moment?
Generally, I’ve got to know a little bit about Australian politics. I do follow it, having an interest in the country. Every time I come here there’s a different prime minister. That tells me something (laughs). Something’s gone on. I’m quite envious of that. If you don’t like someone, you just chuck ‘em out! You just throw them out. Unceremoniously dumped. We just can’t do that in Britain. It doesn’t happen like that. You’re stuck with them for five years. So I’m slightly envious of that. There’s a practical sense of… “nope, you’re no good. Out!” I quite like that.
Because of the music in yours shows, you’ve crossed over into playing musical festivals in recent years. Was that a surprise turn in your career?
Not so much, I think comedy has been a presence at festivals for a long time now. There’s always a comedy tent. What was a new development was when I played at Sonisphere a few years ago, which is a metal festival. It’s predominantly metal. I was headlining one of the stages, which was a really nerve-wracking prospect. Because these are metal heads. If they don’t like you… I had these visions of me being thrown into a moshpit and devoured. Nothing would be left. Also, the pressure was on because I had to do a set and it had to be finished on time because after me was Slipknot. I didn’t want to upset the Slipknot fans. It was fantastic fun. It was an absolutely brilliant experience. I’d love to do it again.
You also got to jam with Deep Purple at a fundraiser. What songs did you do?
I got to play ‘Smoke on the Water’… with Deep Purple. It was just one of those things. ‘Oh well, tick that one off.’ They said, ‘don’t just play guitar, that would be too predictable’, so I jammed along with them with the tuned alpine cowbells. I’ve got the cowbells in the [new] show, actually. As a tribute to that. I do the Bells of Rock.
How many instruments do you own?
Do I own? Oh, lord. I don’t know. Probably too many.
Hundreds. Yeah. Lots of guitars, lots of stringed instruments, lots of traditional, old-fashioned folk things: like mandolas, sitars, mandolins, bouzoukis, banjos, saz, oud. Things like that. I’ve got a lot of keyboards, from way back, old vintage ‘80s synths, Sequential Circuits, Pro Ones, Prophets, all sorts of strange things made of wood. I do collect instruments, yeah.
Do you go looking for them when you’re on tour?
Yeah. In fact I’m often steered away from them by my tour manager, otherwise we’ll end up carting them around and all the way back home.
You’ve achieved so much in your career so far, across stage, TV and film. But is there anything on your creative bucket list that you still need to cross off?
Yes, I would like to write more. I’ve just written a book on British birds. But I’d like to do more writing. I enjoy the process of it. I’d like to collect my thoughts into a book at some stage. I think that would be a good process anyway, it’s a good discipline to do that. I’m in the process of writing a sitcom for the BBC, when I get back [to England]. So that’s the next thing. We’ll see where that goes. More writing, maybe take a break from touring for a couple of years and focus on writing.
You’ve toured consistently for many years.
It’s been solid for a while now. I’m due some R’n’R.
Don’t miss Bill Bailey at Newcastle Entertainment Centre on Monday, December 5. Tickets selling fast through Ticketek.