Q&A: Bill Bailey

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From playing on stage to a horde of heavy metal fans at Sonisphere Festival to having everyone in stitches with his stand-up comedy stints and appearances on various television shows like Black Books and Never Mind The Buzzcocks, Bill Bailey is a man of many talents with a unique take on comedy. In a rare moment off from his manic run of TV and live work, Prog sits down at his London office and tries to make sense of it all, with some interesting results…

Your new live show, Limboland, concentrates on the difference between how we perceive our lives and how they really are. A simple yet quite brilliant concept. How did you come up with that? I was taking a faulty toaster back to the shop and I thought, “How the hell did my life turn out like this?!” But then there was another time when I was waiting on a Tube platform and the driver of the Tube train said, “Bill, come in the cab.” I thought, “What? This is like a dream come true!” So there are good elements of life, but also odd elements. We all have this thought when we’re 18 of what we might do in later life. Then we get there and it’s like, “Oh… I’m doing this.” I had these visions I’d be an astronaut, or I’d be working in NASA, or as a scientist! So how am I here? It’s the journey: the middle bit is what’s interesting. It’s not just in personal life, it’s also about how we thought the world might be. We thought we’d be in hover cars and that there would be world peace. That didn’t happen, did it!?

We’re assuming the usual musical interludes are all still there? I’ve written my own version of Happy Birthday, which is in the style of Kurt Weill, so it’s quite dark. Before I play that I talk about the fact that when I’m at social functions people ask me to play Happy Birthday on the piano, and I always play it in the minor key. It sounds really cool, but it’s quite downbeat. I’ve got a brilliant new Theremin – a Theremini, the little one – which I use in the show, which is just fantastic. I’ve got a Bible that somebody made me in Australia, it’s an old King James Bible, which has been made into a blues guitar!

Prog is music where the imagination takes you.

In 2009, you toured with your Remarkable Guide To The Orchestra show, in which you attempted to break down the perceived barriers between a classical orchestra and the audience, to make it appeal to younger people. How did you find working with an orchestra? Rick Wakeman has some horror stories from the 70s about working with them (although he maintains they’re easy to deal with now), and Keith Emerson had problems at the Barbican last month with the BBC Concert Orchestra… It was fun. I said to them, “This is a double act between me and you, I’m going to be doing the feed lines and you, as an orchestra, will provide the musical punch line.” I said, “You’ll get laughs!” They looked at me like I was ridiculous. But when they did it, honestly, there were beams on their faces, because I think being a professional musician is sometimes a bit of a treadmill. They just play the same old things, go round and round and round, and they’re not featured in any way. When you go from an unconventional approach, it’s great for them, because it breaks up the routine of what they play.

There seems to be a long tradition of comedians and progressive rock. Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer used to follow The Enid around, Stephen Mangan was in a prog band, Julian Rhind-Tutt, Robin Ince, Matt Berry. The list goes on… It’s about pursuing tangential lines of thought, to the sort of logical extreme. You’re not bound by a certain format. For me, comedy is about allowing it to go in any direction and pursuing it in that direction and seeing where it takes you. I see a real parallel with that and prog. Prog is, for me, music where the imagination takes you. It’s not bound by convention, it’s not bound by length of song; there’s no rigid verse, chorus, verse, chorus. It could be minutes long, it could be a whole side of a record, it’s almost like it allows for a greater freedom of expression.

What are your memories of headlining Sonisphere in 2011? I remember thinking that no one would turn up. They’d go and drink some cider, sit under a bush for a bit and wait till Slipknot come on. But there was an enormous crowd, and, honestly, I was shocked. And obviously delighted, but it was the biggest crowd by a country mile I’ve ever played to. To the point that, that date, July 10 2011, is one of the great milestones of my career.

Your speech for Peter Gabriel at last year’s Progressive Music Awards already seems to have attained legendary status… With Peter, I think he wanted me not to take it too seriously, and actually maybe take the piss a little bit. I had a similar thing happen where I got a call from Emma Thompson’s office. They said, “Emma Thompson’s going to be presented with a special award at the British Independent Film Awards, but she wants you to present it because she doesn’t want it to be too stuffy and too serious: she wants it to be funny.” Peter clearly enjoyed it and he very kindly presented me with a log drum, with a personal note saying, “Thanks for the award, from your fellow nose flute player.” It was a really sweet little message. The whole thing was a great experience.

So who is your favourite prog band? Mastodon. They combine brilliant musicianship and musical ambition. They wrote an album based on Moby Dick. You can’t get much more prog than that.

And your favourite prog album? Mastodon’s Crack The Skye is a corker. That, or from my youth it would probably be In The Court Of The Crimson King.

Limboland starts September 29 in Galway, Ireland. See www.billbailey.co.uk for more information.