Thursday, May 12, 2011

The Boston Comedy Interview: Neil Innes

Neil Innes plays the Regent Theatre
in Arlington tonight at 8PM.
Neil Innes is a serious-minded silly man. He helped create the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band while still in art school in England, followed Eric Idle’s Sir Robin the Chicken-Hearted around singing about having his elbows broken, and played Ron Nasty, the John Lennon character in The Rutles. He’s an accomplished musician and satirist who sings songs like “I’m the Urban Spaceman” and “Slaves of Freedom.” Death Cab for Cutie took their name from one of his creations, and he’s friends with Yo La Tengo.

If that’s not an eclectic enough CV for you, Innes is also a self-proclaimed “Ego Warrior,” and is toying with the idea of branding himself a “Fame Slut.” That’s one of many things we spoke about last week by phone when Innes first arrived Stateside. He tours regularly, but doesn’t get over to America too often, so tonight’s show at the Regent Theatre in Arlington is a fairly rare chance to catch him in action. The last time he was this close to Boston was 2004 – he played the Regent then, too, a fantastic night of absurdity and music. Or musical absurdity. And duck hats.

Innes is working on several new projects, including a book that may not turn out to be a book, podcasting, and finding inspiration through the Garage Band home recording program. Which means even more Innes to enjoy, all of which you can find at his Web site,

I don’t have an ending for this introduction. So here’s the questions.

Are you touring to promote the Anthology?

The Rutles I’ve put to one side now. I mean, they’re thirty years old. Although on the Web site,, you can still see the final Rutles song, which is called “Imitation Song.” And there’s a couple of videos, one done by Bonnie Rose, an animation thing. And then one done by Ed Bertinshaw.

So that’s available, but what I’ve been doing recently is, I’ve revisited four half-hour radio programs I did for the BBC Radio Four called Innes Own World. And forgotten, it was a lot of work. I did all the voices in a soap opera. Four episodes. And I did a kind of Current Affairs/24/7 news thing called The Breakfast Things. Because personally, I’m absolutely fed up with 24/7 news. It just drives you mad. Because it isn’t really news, it’s 24/7 conjecture, or the very worst, emotional engineering. What’s the most shrill thing, what’s the most panic we can cause? So I’ve had enough.

So this Breakfast Things was featuring Dick Headline, anchorman, talking to his breakfast things. Like a tea pot and a beverage container and an egg cup. And the headlines are, a child’s small Wellington boot was found in the garden at long last. That sort of thing, with all the dramatic music. And silly adverts.

I started playing around with Garage Band and being able to edit things myself by trial and error. But it felt more like when I was a painter and I was in art school. You’ve got control over it. You’re not saying to someone, go forward a bit, go back a bit. You actually do it. So I started editing the thing, and I found you could ply in all these other things from Garage Band, lewd music, loops and things you can put in.

So I put all that together and took them to a friend who’s got all the singing/dancing Pro Tools and whatnot and we made it sound really, really good. That’s basically what we’re traveling with this time around, Innes Own World, Best Bits Part I and Best Bits Part II. People have been very positive in the feedback. But it’s not mainstream recording. I joke. I say they’re the first recordings that have ever been recorded in 2D. It’s different because you’ve got highly-produced comedy with stuff you can listen to more and more and hear again and again.

Is what people see on this tour going to be more audio sketch comedy or music?

No. What I learned with the Bonzos is, you can’t make faces on records. You have to do something else. What I’m doing this time around is, it’s going to vary, Nick. Some places just want me to do ninety minutes in one go, which I kind of hate. I don’t think anybody should be alone onstage for more than forty-five minutes in one go. I will modify things. But what I’m happiest doing is making this two parts, kind of two part, People’s Guide To World Domination. And just laughing at the absurdities of life and featuring immature themes like blowing raspberries and cocking snoots, if you know what that it.

No, I don’t.

Oh. It’s when you thumb your nose. I just feel more and more that because of the 24/7, the way the media is now, in your face all the time, and even the great Randy Newman has said that fear is color-coded now. I think it’s time that people celebrated their individuality, really, and just stepped aside from the herd. It’s plain to see. It’s like people farming. I think they treat battery chickens better. You know what I mean by battery chickens? Intensive farming where they put animals in cages. Television’s almost doing that to people, sort of shaking them upside down for whatever disposable income they’ve got. And it’s relentless. So that’s what the movement Ego Warriors is about, and what the show’s about, really. To sort of sidestep from it, to say, hang on, hang on, it’s all pretty silly.

That seems to be part and parcel of what the Bonzos were about, as well.

Yeah, I think so. I don’t think you change your spots. I’m sixty-seven now. But I think I’ve never grown older than six. My naivety is six. My sense of fair play is a six-year-old’s.

What I was referring to was the Back Catalogue on Amazon, not the Anthology. Amazon had that as released July of last year.

That’s right. It’s taken a while to find out how to do these things. But last year, I got my catalog back, and now I can actually make it available, so people can go and get what they want from it, if they like. The age of the record is almost done. Some people still like to have CDs, which is nice. But I’m actually moving forward since finding out about Garage Band. I want to do this podcasting called Radio Noir. Because you can put things on a shuffle, you know. It’s quite interesting. I’ve done a few experiments with it. And I’m also working on a book, which I don’t particularly want to put into book form. I might narrate it and have those put into the mix on Radio Noir. I’m thinking of calling How Sweet To Be An Idiot: The Extraordinary Life and Times of Neil Innes: Ego Warrior and Style Guru. Something like that. Nothing like a long title.

Ego Warrior and style guru go together quite well.

I think so. I have toyed with the idea of adding “Fame Slut,” but I think people wouldn’t believe me.

Well, then you wouldn’t get carried in Wal*Mart. I know that’d be important to you.

Absolutely. One day people will get what I do. But I don’t mind. I’m not in any hurry.

Do you feel like people don’t?

Oh, the ones that do, do. But the vast majority probably don’t. I don’t know, maybe my irony’s a bit rusty. No, but it’s counter, if you like, to the idea of getting in a big crowd and whooping at some flashing lights.

Although, you know, that can be fun, too.

Of course, of course. Somebody’s got to do that job.

We don’t want to exclude anything.

I may be part of the human immune system. You never know. That would be awful, if all the human race was there for was there for was to sort of make the planet mutate from putting plastic in the oceans. That’s our achievement, that’s our legacy.

I would love to see you tour with just the flashing lights and encourage people to come and whoop, and see if that becomes successful. That’s at least two of the seals broken.

No, but I have written a song called “Stadium Love,” which is on the Bonzos very final album that we did in 2007. And I have been onstage with a smoke machine. And one or two twinkling, flickering rope lights, which I used for a kind of an Elton John song. But no, after forty years at the cold face of satire, I think all I’ve achieved is a graceful state of futility. Somebody’s got to do it.

Well, an achievement is an achievement.

Yes, of course it is. Anyway I don’t understand this obsession with fame. I can understand wanting money because, as Groucho said, it can’t buy happiness, but it’s a good down payment. But the fame thing, you’re not supposed to be famous unless you’ve done something that you were doing anyway that happened to be good. Or considered, yeah, that’s useful.

People are seeking recognition for existing.

Yeah. Or being loud and vulgar on television. It’s depressing.

Which they consider a skill, as well.

Yes, they consider it skillful. I think every now and again you just have to turn back and marvel at how many godless, brainless, talented, and rich people there are.

Was the reunion a few years ago of the Bonzos the last?

It certainly is as far as I’m concerned. I thought just the one show, A Night To Remember the Bonzos: The 40th Anniversary, I thought, well, I can bear that. Lovely people, actually, Stephen Fry, Adrian Edmonson, Phil Jupitus, and Paul Merton came along. And I thought that was going to be it. And then I got a phone call saying, “Do you fancy doing some more,” and I said, “No, I thought that was it.” They said the others would like to do it, and I said let them do it. They said, no, no, it’s not the band, it’s the guests. The guests want to do more.

So we did twelve really big two, three thousand seaters and a really ridiculous tour. We had two buses, one for us, one for the crew. And articulated lorry with all this stuff. We did this tour. And Adrian and Phil were on the tour all the way through. And that was a really, really happy bubble to be in. Then we made an album in 2007 and then I felt, we should really leave it alone now, because the only band I want to be part of is the Bonzo Dog Gaga Band. It was good fun, but I think it’s run its course. Now, of course, Adrian and Phil are full Bonzo members, being the last phase of the Bonzos.

People probably don’t realize there were about four or five phase of it. The first one was fourteen or eighteen people at the Royal College of Art, playing this terrible old twenties and thirties English jazz on a Tuesday evening at the canteen. And then there were nine of us that went out to the pubs. And then it became eight, and then six, and that’s when the Bonzos packed in, around 1970, ’71. Something like that. And then the new version was obviously this century. Odd! Odd to think the Bonzos have spanned two centuries.

I was hoping it would reach out to the States when I heard about it.

No, I don’t think so. The Bonzos are similar to me, really. They’ve got their adherents, but… let’s put it this way, we’re not halftime at the Super Bowl.

Although that would be great to see.

It would be, wouldn’t it? And now, hold up the game, we’re going to play, “I’m Going To Bring A Watermelon To My Girl Tonight.” You wouldn’t be able to print this or say this, but it would be called “What the Fuck?”


Anonymous said...

That interview was so extensive and more real than I expected. Funny too. Good stuff.

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