YES! The Music of Matt Berry - Believer Magazine

Though known in the U.S. since 2019 as Laszlo Cravensworth in the FX show What We Do in the Shadows—based on Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi’s 2014 vampire mockumentary—Matt Berry is a veteran comic actor in the UK, star of some of the oddest TV projects ever greenlit, like Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace (2004), AD/BC: A Rock Opera (2004), and Snuffbox (2006), and has also appeared in supporting roles in The Mighty Boosh (2004–2007) and The IT Crowd (2007–2010). With his rich, announcer-style over-enunciation—pronouncing the “t,” for example, in “ritual,” as he does narrating the faux nature film Wild Love (2015)—Berry is a singular comedic talent, so perhaps inevitably his breakthrough came in quasi-autobiographical form, as actor and voiceover artist Stephen Toast in the Channel 4 series Toast of London (2012–2015), a performance that snagged him a BAFTA. Like most Berry characters, Toast is a bellowing, beefy Britisher, self-regarding, pompous, earnest, devoid of irony or self-awareness. Yet unlike Berry’s more two-dimensional supporting roles, Toast has an inherent likeability; he can be petty and vicious, but he inhabits a world far pettier and more vicious, and you can’t help rooting for him in the face of the innumerable humiliations he suffers.

As one does with certain strongly individual artists, I got a little obsessed, to the point where, around 2017, I found myself dangerously close to exhausting the available store of Matt Berry, up to and including Toast on Toast (2016), which remains the one audiobook I’ve ever purchased. And so it was, with a reluctance overcome by desperation, that I addressed myself to his music. Berry had used his comedy as a vehicle for his music as early as Garth Marenghi, and Toast itself is lushly scored, many episodes breaking into elaborately staged musical sequences. At the time, I wasn’t terribly interested in these interludes, expecting more Flight of the Conchords type hilarity, whereas Toast uses them to throw an expressionistic sidelight on the character’s psyche. But his music began turning up in my YouTube searches, and it was either that or my umpteenth viewing of Wild Love; I finally clicked on “The Pheasant,” because it was accompanied by a funny picture of him dressed as a falconer, but holding an obviously stuffed pheasant.

I’m not sure what I’d been expecting, but it definitely wasn’t this. The song was funny, insofar as declaring a gamebird typically depicted on the ground to be “king of the sky” has to be funny, but it’s an oblique humor, underwritten by the musician’s utter commitment to exploring a turn-of-the-’70s, British, psychedelic, prog-folk idiom. The song’s in no sense a parody, even as it delightfully foregrounds the ridiculousness of the genre as a whole, with its rustic and medieval flourishes. But there were also flourishes unrelated to the style; during the extended theme and variation instrumental, if I’m counting right, a handclap recurs on the “and” between the 1 and the 2, a supremely weird touch that speaks to the meticulous level of production detail. I was so blown away by “The Pheasant” that I began to question whether this really was Matt Berry, despite the picture, which turned out to be the cover of his 2011 album Witchazel. Given that the tracklist of Witchazel features “Take My Hand,” the theme song for Toast of London, it had to be him. But this too was curious, for nothing about “The Pheasant” implies the groovy, Motown-in-London soul of “Take My Hand.” You could more readily picture the Four Tops stomping through “Take My Hand” than you could, say, Comus or Renaissance.

Witchazel is one of those albums that projects its own world, with little interludes between songs to maintain a defiant album-hood at a time when popular music has gone toward the modular and curated. It’s the visionary work of one man—he plays virtually everything on it, and collaborators are few, generally drummers or vocalists—and if his vision is furnished with maypoles and harvest festivals, with romantic evocations of a halcyon peasantry somewhere between John Clare and Thomas Hardy, he remains unbound by the prog-folk he draws on for inspiration. The more overt aspects of that aesthetic are equally vivid on his follow-up Kill the Wolf (2013), but grow more muted with The Small Hours (2016), which nods toward jazz and soul, yet the English countryside and its folk never seem far from his mind. We need only look to the fishing village setting of the video for the soulful gem “Lord Above,” which seems rather at odds with the song’s urbanely jaded narrator. Surely this man would be knocking around some London discotheque in tailored clothes, not disposing of a suspiciously heavy trunk from a rowboat.

To me, Witchazel, Kill the Wolf, and The Small Hours make for as engaging a musical trilogy as any musician released during the past decade, and his music has become as important to me as his comedy, which is no doubt as Berry would have it. My sense is he considers himself a musician foremost, while comedy is an art he happens to excel in that pays the bills. Still, it would be a long wait for the next album of that stature. Prone to side projects—an album of ambient music and a live disc intervene between Kill the Wolf and The Small Hours—Berry next released Television Themes (2018), an album of covers of TV shows he grew up watching. Aside from a rollicking take on “Doctor Who,” there’s not much for the American listener here, but the move was a stroke of genius nonetheless, as the record charted in the UK top 40, helping create an audience for his more serious musical endeavors. His next album of originals, Phantom Birds (2020), climbed even higher, to #31 (#7 in Scotland), without any allusion to his status as an actor.

Phantom Birds and its follow up, The Blue Elephant, released this past May, coincided with the arrival of a collaborator, former Steven Wilson and current Steve Hackett drummer Craig Blundell, whose presence has a galvanizing effect, representing a new period of Berry’s work. This is particularly true of The Blue Elephant, where Blundell’s playing contributes heavily to the shape of the songs themselves, lending a transitional air, at least in retrospect, to Phantom Birds. This might sound like a lot of weight to put on drums, but the lead single for The Blue Elephant, “Summer Sun,” supports such an assessment.

As is clear here and true of the album as a whole, Berry allows the drums way more space among the layers of instrumentation, and Blundell—former drummer in the Royal Marines—fully occupies it, with a blistering snare in particular, even as his pedal work keeps the proceedings fleet and groovy despite the heavy onslaught. The collaboration seems to have opened up new songwriting avenues for Berry. Where the tracks on his prior albums and even Phantom Birds sound like fully-formed compositions you could play solo on piano or acoustic guitar, “Summer Sun” is far more difficult to imagine apart from its realization on the recording.

Despite my best efforts, I was unable to reach Berry for comment on this impression, but I did get a hold of Blundell, who’s in the midst of gearing up to launch a tour with Steve Hackett’s Genesis Revisited in September. The affable drummer shed light on the difference between the two records he’s made with Berry.

“The thing about Phantom Birds,” he says, “[is that] everything on that album was commercially accessible in a ’60s or ’70s sort of vibe. My role was to keep time and do my job, essentially what a Charlie Watts would do.” This is true to an extent, though I’d say the results are more akin to Kenny Buttrey’s low-key busyness on Dylan’s John Wesley Harding (1967) than anything the Stones drummer would lay down. In any case, according to Blundell, some of the difference between Phantom Birds and The Blue Elephant stems from the difference between establishing a rapport in the studio versus already having one.

“I think Matt was trying to figure out how I worked at the time [of Phantom Birds],” he says. “Everything on Blue Elephant was first or second take. I don’t hear anything before I arrive at Matt’s, ever. And when I heard Blue Elephant for the first time, none of it was a completed song; there was hardly any vocals on there. It was sketches. That’s why the takes have that edgy and a little-bit-not-perfect feeling. Essentially what you’re hearing are first takes. I like that edginess in a drum take; it brings excitement, that chaotic spark to a drum track.”

This preference for the spontaneous is in line with Berry’s retro sensibilities as a musician and latter-day English Romantic, even as it’s offset by his perfectionist tendencies.

“So I’ll play and he’ll break his Rickenbacker out and lay down all this great ’70s plectrum stuff,” Blundell says. “And I’ll be like, ‘Ahh, that’s out of time’ or ‘Quantize that,’ and he’s like, ‘No, I don’t want to quantize it; that’s what modern music does.’ Then after I’m gone he’ll re-track the bass so it fits exactly with the kit. If I’m breathing a bit or pushing and pulling, he’ll prefer that to a take that’s right down the line. He said something in an interview recently where I’ll play something and it changes the musicality of a certain note, and he’ll change it. So it keeps him on his toes.”

The effect of such compositional methods is palpable here. As a lyricist, Berry can be an effectively economical and humorous storyteller; the narrative of Witchazel’s “Look in My Book,” about getting kicked out of his house by a ghost, advances by luminous quatrains like “I live in my barn / I don’t give a darn / for the cows and the sheep / as they strain to excrete.” The writing in The Blue Elephant contains comparatively few passages of such obvious quotability, but I don’t mean this as a criticism. Sometimes rock is about howling heeeeyyyyyy yeeeeeaahhhs like he does on “Summer Sun,” or a building up of suggestive little tone poems like “In my home / All alone / Hide my bone / Live alone / Kill my phone / Watch my tone,” from “Like Stone.” I’m not saying that I prefer one writing style to the other; rather, Berry is restlessly expanding his possibilities. The Blue Elephant really sounds jammed into existence rather than written and recorded, even though Blundell estimates he probably spent all of six hours on the sessions, leaving Berry to painstakingly build up the tracks into the finished songs over weeks or even months, whenever he can steal time away from his comedy gigs.

“Literally six months later, he’d send me a message with a track and I’d say, ‘I remember that, I’m sure,’” Blundell laughs. “And he’ll be like, ‘That’s you.’ Because the song would change so much; it had vocals on it, it had all these arrangements, where sometimes I just play to a bassline and keyboards.”

It will be interesting to see whether The Blue Elephant can find an American audience, now that Berry has seen some chart action in the UK and had some U.S. TV success with What We Do in the Shadows. Having become Berry’s go-to studio drummer, Blundell tells me they’ve been working on the music for the long-threatened and finally confirmed follow up series of Stephen Toast adventures in Hollywood, Toast in Tinseltown, which will appear on BBC 1 in the UK and doubtless will have more appeal to the American audience than the original Toast of London. We tend to want one thing from our pop culture figures, so I wonder if there’s room in the collective American psyche for the serious musician alongside the comedic actor. Even Blundell, who could be no more involved in the serious musician side of the equation, was a fan of Toast before he encountered the albums, and still has the occasional flash of amazement that he’s collaborating with that Matt Berry.

“I’m expecting him to do one of his voiceover voices at me in the studio,” he admits, “so when he says ‘YES!’ it makes me smile. I can’t go full on fanboy now because we’re friends and he wouldn’t allow it. He’d ban me from his place.”

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