“I’m an arsehole!” exclaims Tim Minchin, interjecting to round off a thought as I’m a few words into a fresh question. “There’s your headline”. In reality of course, he's far from it - he’s just managed to draw a discussion about his extensive schedule of charity gigs and the list of good causes that his work often benefits to a thoroughly illogical conclusion, a playful and self-aware joke from a man whose canon largely revolves around ideas of ‘reason’ and ‘logic’.
His career as internationally renowned funny-man, a songwriter that employs comedy (his rock-star caricature guise now almost unmistakeable) as a vehicle to examine our morals, ethics and “hypocrisy” is a relatively new development in the grand scheme of things, but already he’s selling out arenas in both his native Australia and over here in the UK. It’s his most recent spate of performances that has put him on the phone with me today – the two sell out shows at the Royal Albert Hall as part of his tour with the 55-piece Heritage Orchestra this summer having been filmed and released to his adoring public. When I ask Minchin for something of a self-critique of the gigs his answer seems restrained by a subtle modesty, but he’s clearly proud of the performances nonetheless:
"I think it went really well … I mean the reaction seemed really good. I don’t really read reviews and stuff, but as far as I know it was really well received. ... My shows have always been quite theatrical and quite razzle-dazzle, but I think the orchestra shows were funny, and sometimes just kind of crazy, and sometimes quite quiet and moving. It did what it intended to do: it didn’t say, “I am stand-up comedian with an orchestra”, it didn’t say, “this is a rock show”. It didn’t claim to be anything but a show that was trying to make musical comedy kind of awesome and massive and interesting, and take it musically to an extent that it might not have been taken, and I think we succeeded in that. I’m kind of proud of it."
He's not wrong - the shows were almost unanimously well-recieved. His role as arena-filling performer (or "megastar", as he later quips, drolly implying an incongruity to the label) is hardly the only aspect of his career, though. I’m keen to ask Minchin about his other projects – just within the last couple of years alone he’s written a stage musical adaptation of beloved Roald Dahl story ‘Matilda’ (produced by the Royal Shakespeare Company), created a YouTube sensation with his animated 10-minute beat poem ‘Storm’, racked up a formidable list of TV credits, and hosted the very first BBC Comedy Prom. It’s something he clearly considers important (“I love, I love that I’ve got such a varied career”), but he soon begins to talk a little about the frequency with which people ask him where he’d like his career to finally focus itself, an end-goal that Minchin maintains he’s not necessarily interested in:
"You know people often ask ‘what do you want to end up doing?’ and I’m like ‘err, I’m doing it! I want to end up doing what I’m doing, I want to end up doing some acting, directing something, making a movie, writing songs for theatre, performing, performing in a non-comedy way, whatever’. It’s incredibly exciting to me, and that’s how you stay motivated and how you stay challenged, and all that sort of thing."
He quickly goes on to address the question in terms of the sustainability of his predominant role as a comedian.
"I think comedy is a zeitgeist, a bit. So what happens is a comedian becomes popular, and then culturally, his or her voice becomes familiar. You know what I mean? Their worldview, and the way they make their jokes, and their and angle becomes familiar and suddenly it’s not fresh anymore - comedy is about newness. So I’ll keep trying to write stuff that challenges – I mean I’m still on music comedy, so I’m hoping that I’ll get better, but I don’t want to be doing gigs beyond when I’m inspired to write comedy, or even worse, beyond when my audience starts to – you know, I don’t want to perform forever. I’ll think I’ll be able to, but I don’t want to thrash out another arena tour when people no longer want to hear it. I don’t want to be pushing and pushing and pushing and saying “LISTEN TO ME, I’M STILL FUNNY”. I just want to control my own career, so having other things is incredibly important, so you don’t get stuck."
Further to this, I wonder how cemented Minchin is in his role as a comedian – I had seen him play earlier in the year to a Thursday night crowd at this year’s salubriously middle-class Green Man festival, where he had closed out his set with an entirely straightforward rendition of Leonard Cohen’s exhausted classic Hallelujah. In honesty, I had (in my then limited knowledge of Minchin and his work) expected at the time for the song to develop into a sort of parody – but it turned out that it was simply a musician seizing the opportunity to play a well-worn masterpiece to a tent crammed to bursting. So we will ever see any material from Minchin strictly as a musician, stripping away the comedian facet altogether?
"Well I think I’ll always write songs that have quirkiness in them, I am – I mean I have been for years – trying to find time to write a studio album, you know, sit down and write a bunch of songs that are just songs motivated by whatever comes into my head that aren’t aiming for laughs, and record it, and maybe do some gigs with a band or whatever. So I thought the thing to do would be to get a band and give it a name, so that it’s clearly a side project. Because I don’t want to say to people [mock English accent] “I’m Tim Minchin, and you came to my show last year, now come to this new show, which is me doing covers of Whitney Houston…” You know, I don’t want to sort of trick my audience into – I want it to be a side project, but yeah, very, very interested in that, and I don’t think I’m being too much of a megalomaniac to suggest that – you know, I can play piano a bit, and I can sing a bit, and I can write songs a bit so I don’t think anyone will be surprised. So yeah, very keen."
Of course, the Green Man festival isn’t the only of these sorts of gigs that Minchin’s played. He also made appearances at the likes of Tennessee's Bonnaroo this year - he's just begun to make a tangible impression on US audiences over the past 12 months (with a helpful jump-start in January in the form of an appearance on late-night regular ‘Conan’). I ask quite vaguely “how it’s going” over in the States:
"It’s good man. I mean I’ve had a tour around, played some theatres, you know, usually 500 or 1000 people turn up – seems to just work wherever I go, it’s amazing. … In Australia and here people come to my shows because they kind of, I’ve been around for a bit now and they’ve seen me on this or that, but in the US it’s because it’s all built on YouTube, and it’s a lot of people that like ‘Storm’ and ‘The Pope Song’ and stuff. … But I’m not trying to be Russell Brand or anything, I’m not trying to be a movie star – I’m very interested in Broadway as well obviously, as a theatre maker I want to work with people in New York, but I’m not trying to ‘break it’, just trying to satisfy the market."
I start to think about possible reactions to Minchin’s material – he’s not shy about his atheism – and what sort of reception he’s been getting in those religiously-orientated areas of the States that we might stereotype as being hypersensitive to that sort of thing – but he seems slightly perturbed by the idea of his shows being met with hostility:
"Well the thing is, people – I mean fundamentalist Christians are not going to come to my shows, they’re not going to be tricked into coming to my shows, I’ve played in Dallas, Texas, and you know, Dallas was about the most responsive audience I had on the whole tour, because they live in a place where people pray for their football games and their governor Rick Perry prayed for rain at a public prayer meeting, and they are justifiably furious because they’re surrounded by fucking weirdos, and they come to my show and they go apeshit."
I feel as if he’s got a bit more to say on the matter, so I essentially rearticulate the same question about hostile reactions to see what comes back.
"No, far, far from it. The point is, if you’re an atheist in Texas then my show’s going to be like… wicked [laughs]. Because you’re hearing your problems, the things that frustrate you articulated with [silly voice] my songs! So yeah, it’s fine so far, but you know, if some right-wing conservative Christian group heard about me they might start picketing my shows or whatever, and I wouldn’t like that very much. I’m not trying to create fights; I’m just doing comedy about what I think about really."
Of course if anyone ever did start picketing Minchin’s shows, you'd logically assume that those people were concerned that his material had the ability to influence opinion, or at least that it was attempting to. I wonder how often Minchin considers his songs in terms of their ability to challenge attitudes and beliefs, in tandem with their ability to make people laugh. Initially, he seems to want to distance himself from this idea, referring to his material as “very didactic, and preachy and stuff”, but ultimately insisting that he’s not “setting out to change people, it’s just because it’s what [he] thinks about.” After a bit of consideration, though, he starts to talk about some of the responsibilities he inevitably has to face:
"Having said that, young people listen to my material, and if they’re questioning their faith their parents brought them up with or, looking for ways to articulate their ideas, I understand that people like me can have an impact, and I get a lot of emails to suggest that’s the case. I’ve come to terms with the fact that I’m not living in a vacuum, and I’m not performing into a vacuum, it’s interesting and in fact I have much older people – especially in America – fans who, really interesting people who are going through changes in their lives or – being an atheist in America’s a big deal, you know they’re looking for solace and they’re looking for clarification of what they think and they’re looking at me and thinking “oh, it’s okay to be angry” and you can be angry and moral – because my show’s very much about ethics and having a heart, and you know, ideally people listen to the encore and feel teary and – or the end of Storm is about appreciating the beauty in this life and not the magic, and… so you know, I feel alright about it."
He goes on to confirm something I suspected when I earlier quizzed him on hostile reactions:
"I’m not necessarily emotionally hardy enough to deal with people hating me, so I don’t want everyone to – I’m not trying to get my material out to people who are then going to come and burn my car or whatever, I just want to support people who are looking to kind of clarify their view of the world."
A little later, I begin to ask about musical influences and what Minchin listens to on his downtime. Minchin (very politely – something that’s characterised this interview from the go when he kindly apologised for calling all of six minutes late) interrupts to tell me he’s got people gesturing at him to wrap things up – apparently he has to shoot off for a radio appearance. Quickly then, I ask about something I read in an interview elsewhere in which he said that he 'doesn’t really listen to music anymore'. I describe it as a “genuinely frightening idea”, at which point Minchin begins asking me about my own tastes and listening habits. At this point, I’m a little concerned to find that the interview’s flipped on its axis so that I’m the one answering questions from an interviewee who's just told me he’s “got about one more minute”. Thankfully, it’s not too long before he offers something more substantial:
"Yeah – see because I – it’s my experience that about half the people I know who are composers don’t listen to much music. But I just – it’s hard to explain – I get tired ears basically, and I – if I turn on the radio there’s just some fucker talking or there’s a song that’s inane and annoying, or it’s a song that’s brilliant and it makes me feel jealous. But I’m not – I should be listening to amazing music – I must, if I’m going to write my record. But I’ve just got out of the habit – and I never was, I never had loads of rock stars on my walls or, I never owned – apart from the Beatles – I’ve never owned all of the albums of any one band. I’m not a fan – I’ve been to about five big concerts in my life, and you know, you can count the times I’ve been to a gig in a pub on my fingers and toes – they’re just noisy, and the sound’s never good and, you know, it’s… I think it’s just that I’m irritated enough by music – I don’t have a casual relationship with it, and I’m irritated enough by bad music and bad sound that I allowed myself to get out of the habit, when of course what I should have done is pursued good music and good sounds. I’ll get back, maybe. But at the moment I just go home and just want everyone to shut up."
I laugh at Minchin’s seeming confusion about his own listening habits, before he wryly comments – “…that’s a positive end. “I want everyone to shut up”. There’s another headline.”
Tim Minchin's third live DVD show is out now (also available on BluRay). Get yourself a copy now at: http://amzn.to/pYSYlC.