What We Do in the Shadows’ Matt Berry Will Have a Guinness for LunchNovember 06, 2020
You might know Matt Berry better by names like Michael Squeamish, Laszlo Cravensworth, or Rodney Von Donkensteiger. For a man with such a nondescript name, the British comedic actor is an enormous on-screen presence.
Known for over-the-top character roles in The IT Crowd, Toast of London, and What We Do in the Shadows, Berry’s true self is often obscured by layers of garrulous cussing and Victorian wardrobe. To know him in any real way, you have to listen to his music.
In late September, Berry dropped his new record, Phantom Birds, the tenth album in his 25-year music career. The record provides an honest glance at the man behind the Bedfordshire accent. Berry is notoriously guarded about his personal life, but on songs like “You Danced All Night” and “That Yellow Bird,” his real-life heartache is unassailable. Berry’s reluctant to divulge the specific events or people behind his lyrics, but after a little beer, the truth starts flowing.
Berry is currently waiting out quarantine in his home outside London, waiting for What We Do in the Shadows to resume filming in January. In the meantime, he’s writing new episodes of Toast of London and toying around in his home studio. We stole a little bit of his time to talk about playing pompous jerks on TV, his productive quarantine, and how Guinness can make for an ideal lunch.
With your acting, you improvise a lot, and you’ve said you rarely look back at the stuff you've already shot. Is that your approach to creating music as well?
Once the album is out and reviewed and everything, I don't tend to look back at it, no. If it's out, and it's done OK, and I didn't fuck it up in any way, then I've done my job. And that's it. I can move on to the next thing.
If you are a solo artist, then you're all over the final stages. You're all over the mixing, and you're all over the mastering. And that is a situation where you have to hear all of your ten, 12 songs a hundred times each. By the time it comes out, you don't really want to be listening to it for quite a while.
Phantom Birds is inspired by the three records that Bob Dylan recorded in Nashville. What is it about those records that you tried to pull into your music?
They’re very simply done. The drums are panned hard right, the vocal is dead center, and the acoustic guitar hard left. Everything else in the middle. I've always really liked that production, though a lot of people don't. The Beatles used to do it, and it's one of the things I love about John Wesley Harding. There's hardly anything going on. My recordings on my own are usually packed with overdubs, because that's what you do when you record on your own. You do too many tracks, normally. This was a reaction against that.
There’s a lot of heartbreak and lost love on the record. Is that something that you’re borrowing from Nashville Skyline? Or is this rooted in your real life?
They're in my real life. I don't storytell in songs. I've done it a long, long time ago, but I just don't find it satisfying. I have to write about personal things because, when I look back, I know what those songs are about. It's the only form of diary that I'll keep. I might shroud it in imagery, but it's mostly told as is.
You're not very open about your personal life, and the songwriting here is couched in idioms and refrains. It is simply written, but there's still a level of decoding that needs to happen.
I don't really want to lift the curtain at all, but you have to. In terms of music, it's probably the only time I do.
I am interested in people who are incredibly pompous. They're the kind of people that I've always found the funniest.”
I want to ask you specifically about "Man of Doom." Can you kind of tell me what the root of that song is?
That's one of the two songs on the album that are cutups. Everything else has a theme or is about a situation that either occurred to me or I witnessed or a celebration of things that I love, where "Man of Doom" and the final track, I used cutups. I made a list of all the different "man of" phrases and then just put them together in order and scrawled them around and then tried to make them relevant. So something like "house of fools," I was in a show called House of Fools, then that had something to do with the next one. So, there is a link. They're not all put there carelessly. They're put there for different reasons: imagery, sound effect, all sorts of things.
With that song, I also wanted to have two melodies being performed at the same time. That was something that I'd heard other people done and never got around to doing myself. "Man of Doom" was a great experiment for doing that.
The other song that I want to ask about is "Covered in Clowns." That’s a song where your acting work really merges with your music. Also, I need to hear the John Landis story that's referenced in the lyrics.
I was asked to audition for him. This is over ten years ago, when I first started in the industry. I was asked to audition for John Landis for a film called Burke & Hare. I did, and I met him, and I did what he wanted me to do. He said, “That's great. Do you want to do it?” So I said, “Yeah, obviously.”
I left the audition in high spirits. It was the first film audition that I'd ever done, and not only that, I’d been offered the part. It wasn't a huge part, but I'd still been offered the part by John Landis, right? It was a big deal. I called up my agent immediately and said, “He just offered me this,” and he was as excited as I was. Anyway, time went by, and I phoned up the agent two, three weeks later, and I said, “What’s happened with that Burke & Hare film?” He checked, and then he checked, and then he got back to me like an hour later and said, “John Landis has no recollection of you.”
By putting it in a song, it sounds like it's bothered me for years, but that isn’t the truth. I have no beef with John Landis. It just sounded good. It makes you think, “Just what the hell is that about?” I should have probably thought about that, because this is the thing that I've been asked about the most.
You tend to get a lot of roles that have this spooky, Victorian milieu, and I know you worked in the London Dungeon. Is this like something that you're naturally drawn to? Do you have an interest in the dark roles?
No, I am interested in people who are incredibly pompous. They're the kind of people that I've always found the funniest. Anyone who doesn't have enough humor is the best kind of target, because there isn't anywhere for them to go.
It probably seems very British to an American audience. With something like Shadows, I did say to [creator Jermain Clement], “Where do you want this guy to be from? Eastern European? American?” Jermaine said, “No, no, no, no, no, no, no, you’ve gotta sound like you.” So, even when I tried to step away and do something else, I didn’t have a chance.
You have really great on-screen chemistry with co-star Natasia Demetriou. What is your relationship like with her off screen?
She's the real deal. She's as funny off screen as she is on screen. There's nothing false about her. She doesn't play up to any of the stereotypes that one would throw into this kind of profession. She’s totally genuine, and she always makes me laugh.
She's one of the crudest individuals I’ve ever met, and that is always such a joy to work against. Whenever I try to take it down that road, she always trumps it with something even more disgusting or despicable,which is great. You can't really ask us more than that.
Guinness, not only is it a really pleasant drink, it also fulfills a function, which is fantastic for any alcoholic beverage.”
You’ve played plenty of roles that involve a lot of drinking, like in Year of the Rabbit. Are you much of a drinker in real life?
I’ve been quite an enthusiastic beer drinker in my adult life, and even slightly before that. Yes. The only difference is I can't recover as I used to. I've had to cut back considerably, which is no fun, but it's essential.
I was reading an interview with you and Mark Morris, and in it he said that you have the “constitution of an ox”.
I did. I don't so much these days, but I did when Mark and I were at our most potent.
Right? You can only trade so many nights for so many days.
The fact is I can’t afford to spend a day in bed recovering now, because that’s a day I haven’t done something that I’m meant to do. I feel just too irresponsible with a hangover.
When you are drinking, and what is your drink of choice?
I’ll drink anything. I’m keen on lager. I’m keen on Guinness. I’m keen on dirty martinis. I’m not that fussy. I do love Guinness. If I haven’t had a chance to eat anything, it’s a good excuse to tell myself that this is dinner or this is lunch. Guinness, not only is it a really pleasant drink, it also fulfills a function, which is fantastic for any alcoholic beverage.
It was really sold as a meal replacement.
Absolutely. It was sold as sort of medicinal, which is total bullshit, but it’s very funny.
Now that you're in quarantine, how has that affected your drinking habits? I find myself having a beer just to mark the end of the work day.
I haven’t done that, thankfully. I haven’t kept hardly any alcohol in the house. I’ve heard lots of worrying stories about people who don’t really drink that much, because of boredom, having one to sort of mark the day at 6 in the evening, and that creeps back up 5 o’clock, then 4 o’clock. Any earlier than that, you’re in a bit of trouble. Especially for someone who likes to drink.
You seem like the kind of person who’s always working on something—either writing or recording in the studio.
Yeah, I’m constantly doing both, one or the other. I don’t really want to talk about it like it’s “work,” because I’m very, very fortunate to be able to have a career where I can do the things that I love. I never think of it like going to work. If I have an idea, I’ll sit down, and then I look at my watch, and it’s nine hours later. With any art, I don’t make it for anyone, or any audience.