Bill Bailey tells Jo Reynolds that making people laugh is his life’s work.
How long have you lived in the area?
Since 1987. 27 years.
As a native of Bath, what brought you to London?
I came to study English and Drama at Westfield College (London University). After I left, I bought a houseboat moored between The Dove and The Rutland. I lived there for three years. The winter cold was tomb-like. I spent most of the time stoking a pot-bellied stove.
What’s your favourite thing about W6?
I like the mix: the theatre, cinema, river, market stalls, the history…
You’ve described yourself as a “roadie who’s a bit up himself”. Do you see yourself more as a funny musician or a musical comedian?
I trained to be a musician – at the London College of Music – but then I started telling jokes at a gig in Bath. It was fun. I got the bug.
Why did you pursue both music and comedy rather than focusing on one?
Music acts at a gut level. It’s abstract and mercurial. But I also love the spoken word. The combination is a double whammy. People like to feel a bit clever, to get the double recognition of something like Kraftwerk performing ‘The Hokey Cokey’. What sealed it was a balloon debate, you know, when you have to make the case not to be thrown out of a balloon. With the arrogance of youth, I chose the poems of W. H. Auden, an arcane subject I know, but I won the debate and was suddenly struck by the power of words.
Your comedy gigs feature all styles of music: classical, jazz, heavy metal, prog rock, folk, “Hindi Indie”, rap, electro. If you could be in one band, which would it be?
Talking Heads. David Byrne is a genius. His music is mesmeric – it feels ancient like a campfire drone or chant. And his lyrics are poetic. And so prophetic. “How did I get here?” (From ‘Once in a Life Time’ – as featured in Wall Street) Look what happened to Charlie Sheen.
Would you want Chris de Burgh and James Blunt to be in the band?
Not Chris de Burgh but I’ve warmed to James Blunt. In his recent response to the trolls, he’s revealed himself to have some wit. Chris de Burgh doesn’t have an ounce of it.
Like Mike Oldfield you’ve mastered many instruments, including the cowbells and Theremin. Is there any instrument you’ve never played but want to?
I’d always shied from strings, now I now long to play. I love the sound of the cello. My son plays cello.
Do you practice every day?
If I can. If I have a show, I practice for hours. Every day I attempt ‘Flight of the Bumblebee’.
As a one-man band, how did you feel performing with the BBC’s Concert Orchestra in your ‘Remarkable Guide to the Orchestra’?
It was extra daunting. It was a lifetime’s ambition to play in the Albert Hall, but I had to convince the orchestra to take me seriously. It took a while to earn their respect. I think they thought I wanted them to play with a teapot on their heads but when they realized it was all about the music for me and that I could play okay… It was the most disciplined I’ve ever had to be. Usually with my shows, I just roll with it but I’ve never concentrated so much in my whole life.
You dislike the national anthem. What would you prefer?
It’s so ponderous and stiff. We’re such an eccentric and unexpectedly poetic nation. I’d choose Jerusalem. At least it flows and replicates our landscape.
You’ve described the Queen as an “unelected sponger” and her Corgis as “trained killers”. In an earlier age, would you have been a court jester?
I probably would. A gig’s a gig.
Having long hair, a beard, and an apparently relaxed attitude to cannabis, are you a hippie?
In the eyes of a lazy media. The hair’s a distraction, but that’s my era. Now, I guess it’s a badge of honour, a sign of willful nonconformity.
In today’s obsession with branding, what three values describe the Bill Bailey brand?
British, no, English; eccentric; approachable.
You called one of your tours ‘Dandelion Mind’. What blows your mind?
These days, great art. Interpreting art is my next project. I’m not the expert so I can have my say – with music.
Do you have a tattoo?
No, I have far too much hair.
Do you test your material on anyone or do you just wing it?
I usually run it past my wife, a harsh but accurate critic. These days, especially at a big gig, I tend to be willfully reckless and trust in an instinctive sense of comic potential. The best gigs are when the audience becomes part of the show.
How many gigs have you done?
A couple of thousand? At least. A tour’s a couple of hundred.
How do you avoid repeating yourself, reusing the same material?
You have to come up with new stuff. One of the advantages of recording a DVD is that you’re setting it down. It’s a really good discipline. You have to let things go. After all, they’re only jokes.
How confessional are your routines? Do you really eat Revels with a bucket over your head so you can’t see what flavour’s next?
I may have done that.
What’s a typical day when you’re not on tour?
General day-to-day stuff, housekeeping. More so these days I like to keep in touch with friends and relatives. Tours are so full tilt I’m too exhausted.
And on tour?
Getting a good breakfast, dealing with the press, sorting out the next show, and technical rehearsals. There’s a lot of kit, but these days I try to be more streamlined. The terrible curse of living in hotel rooms is you’re tempted to stay in all day and drink tea but I’m now a keen birdwatcher. Sometimes, the whole crew goes to the forest to look for birds. I’ve turned many people on tour into twitchers. Everywhere in the world you go there are birds, particularly Scotland. It’s great. You get some fresh air, immerse yourself in nature. Spectacular.
It has been said that women fancy a man with a sense of humour. Do you have many groupies?
No. I’m very lucky in that they’re a respectful bunch. I get the odd letter – offers of marriage.
Is that how you met your wife?
No, but we did meet at a gig. We were together for about ten years before we got married. We went on this adventure to Indonesia. We were sailing in the Banda Islands, once the world’s only source of nutmeg, they’re the original Spice Islands, and we turned to each other and said, “Let’s get married.”
You dedicate your DVDs to your son, Dax. Does he think you’re funny?
I think so. He does laugh. The other day I was driving him to football practice. He was in the back with his mate and I overheard him say, “Have you seen my dad’s DVDs? You should check them out.” It’s great.
What was the biggest day of your life, getting married, becoming a father or playing Wembley for the first time?
They’re all milestones.
Has being a father changed your comedy?
My shows have always been family-friendly. I suppose I don’t talk about drugs much now. My attitude has changed. It’s a subtle shift. Before it was all about the art. Now, I need good stuff because I have a family to provide for.
You’re the son of a GP and went to an independent school yet often mock middleclass obsessions. Do you consider yourself middle class?
No. I’m still at a loss to understand these classifications. Middle class? Working class? Both my parents worked. So do I.
Are you competitive, desperate to sell more DVDs than Peter Kay and Michael McIntyre?
I’m not hung up on competition. These days I’m inured to it. I’m quite happy with what I do. I try to avoid the clichés. I try to be me.
Which comedian would you pay to see?
Recently, Louis C.K., superb American comic.
As a feminist, would you say women are as funny as men?
Certainly. It takes something to go up on stage and men are perhaps more foolhardy but, yes, no question.
Can someone learn to be funny?
Who would you like to play you in a biopic of Bill Bailey?
A young Bill Bailey. Someone blonde and blue eyed. Yeah, Dolph Lundgren.
You’ve said that you tend to over-analyse everything, that it’s “hard to play the spoons of self-awareness”. How would you analyse someone who’s spent their life trying to make people laugh?
It’s my life’s work. And it continues.
You often name-check philosophers in your routines. Can a comedian have the last
I hope so. I joke, therefore I am.
What are you working on now?
I have a big gig coming up at Kew and I’m touring Europe in May.
Thank you, Bill Bailey. It was a pleasure to meet you.
To learn more about Bill Bailey, visit his website www.billbailey.co.uk
Bill Bailey headlines at ‘Kew the music’ on Sunday 20 July. Tickets: 0844 873 7352 or www.kew.org/music