Bill Bailey is unarguably one of the top comics from the UK. Musical comedy acts have been catching steam the past few years in the Unites States, but Bailey is someone who has been doing it since "It wasn't cool." Aside from the most decorated comedy shows and festivals in the UK, Bailey has also appeared on Conan and the Late Late Show in the US. I actually turned on the TV just after recording the interview to see Bailey on a new episode of the Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson. Bill knows music extremely well, as he taught himself to play many instruments at a young age. What makes his act incredibly special is his ability to fuse his music with hilarious jokes and mockeries of popular bands. You can catch Bailey play at the House of Blues in Chicago at 8 pm this Sunday (September 18th). Doors open at 7 pm. GET TICKETS
How did you first come to love music and when did you learn to play instruments?
I've loved music probably as long as I could remember being able to process information, probably before that even. We grew up in a house where there was a lot of music. My mother sang songs. I played the piano from the age of four. We had a piano in the house, I just kind of bashed away and taught myself tunes. I realized I could pick out the pitch of things. It's sort of a gift that some people have. Quite a lot of people have exactly, called "perfect pitch," where you're able to pick the note of something, you hear something, like a vacuum cleaner or a car or a siren, and you're able to know the pitch of the note. I was able to do that. So I did that from an early age then I taught myself guitar and then that was it, I was into rock and never looked back. But the "perfect pitch" is weird, it's annoying actually. Because you keep hearing the pitch of things and you can't switch it off.
After you taught yourself to play piano was it easy to learn other instruments?
Yeah that's it. The piano means that you know how to read music. That's what the piano does for you. The notation of piano music is the basis of all instruments, of all music. It's kind of handy. Since then I've taught myself a lot of other things, the Theremin and electric guitars, organs, and Middle Eastern instruments and old instruments, horns and synthesizers, I've played most things.
How did you first get the idea to fuse your music with jokes?
When I was growing up, there was a British comedian, a guy called Les Dawson, he died a long time ago, but he would play the piano, and then play it badly, deliberately badly. I was like seven or eight years, that's hilarious. A grown man, deliberately playing the piano badly. He could play really well, that's the thing, he would play really well, then he would make some mistakes. And I remember copying one of his routines when I was seven or eight years old. I was at a funeral, an elderly aunt had died and everyone was very somber in the house, and I played this routine where I played a bit of Tchaikovsky then got it wrong. And it got this massive laugh, my dad just exploded with laughter and spat out his tea all over some eighty-five year old woman. And my mother dropped a cup and swore, I never heard her swear in my life. I was like, "Wow, this is powerful stuff! Music and comedy." Essentially what I do now, the essence of it is the same. Comedy can be cerebral, it can be quite sort of basic, it can be observational, it can be all those things, but it takes a while for the brain to process the information. Like if you're listening to a routine you want to hear, it takes a little while. It can be a slow burn. But music and comedy, music kind of gets you on a gut level, it's a more visceral thing, dynamically it's a different thing.
In America, more and more comics have been doing an act similar to yours in the last couple years. Do you get any satisfaction in knowing that you were one of artists to do that first?
I suppose so. Starting out, I remember there was actually quite a lot of resistance to it when I started doing it. It was not cool. It wasn't a cool thing, it was like, "This isn't the pure form." "Yeah you're using instruments, it's just like a prop." I was always kind of offended, I was always kind of hurt by that. It's not really, it's not just a big dopey thing. There's a kind of point to it, it's musical-observational comedy. It's the same principle as observational comedy. It's identifying the stakeout music in Starsky and Hutch, "Oh yeah, I know that." It has a thought to it, an art to it. I kind of just thought it up. And now, like you said, it's become very popular. It's almost become cool again. There's a bit of me that's sort of proud to say, "Yeah I was doing it when it wasn't cool."
Back in 95' you took your one man show "Cosmic Jam" to Edinburgh. Can you talk about the risk you were taking with such a big opportunity and how it paid off?
95 was kind of a seminal year for me because I had been doing comedy for a while and you get to a certain point, certainly in the UK and I imagine America as well, you become a successful club comic. You can play clubs, you can make a good living doing that if you want. There comes a point where you start thinking, "I want more than this. I want to be more ambitious." And so what I did was I wrote a show and Edinburgh is a very competitive place, it's also a place where all the media, all the press will congregate just for three weeks and you can get a lot of attention in that time and it's a good time to really step up and do something a bit more ambitious, a bit more evolved, and that's what I did. I invested a lot of money into it. It costs a lot of money to put on a show in Edinburgh. You need like thousands of pounds to rent the venue and I had spent a lot of money on the show. It was a big risk really. It was a kind of gamble, you can lose a lot of money up there. So I put everything into this show and it was a tiny little venue. It held like eighty, ninety people. And I looked out, I remember after doing a couple weeks of the show, and there'd be like other comics, famous comics, agents and all this stuff, and suddenly I realized there's some kind of buzz about this show. And what I realized was, I had taken that risk and it sort of paid off, I got a deal out of it. I got a DVD deal and I got a tour and then that was it. It's been foot down to the metal and nonstop since. It taught me that lesson that occasionally, you have to get out of your comfort zone and take a risk.
In 2002 you were on Conan's Christmas Special, what was that experience like for you?
It was great, I loved that. It was the most produced, talked about bit of comedy that I had ever done prior to that point. One of the things I really admired about that show and it seems counter-intuitive as to what comedy should be, but it was really worked out, I worked out exactly what I was going to do. I had like a three-way conference call with the producer. This would never happen in the UK. It would just never happen. It would be so casual. There would be no thought about it, it would just be, "Yeah, show up and do the bit." And what that would lead to is, the brief times I did TV in the UK is, some of them would be okay, or "Ah, I didn't quite get that bit right." But what I loved about it (Conan) was the discipline and the thought process in the show. I kind of liked that, it was new to me. And I really relished the idea of focusing and being quite disciplined. In fact, it changed the way I did comedy after that stint in New York. I did three months in New York, I did the Conan show, and I went back with a different attitude towards comedy, thinking more about it, being more sort of focused. Also, there was a much younger audience in Conan, and they really responded to the stuff. And this thing about American comedy/Brisitish comedy, that they won't get it, it's a myth, it's a total myth. Funny is funny, it's universal.
There's a famous clip of you and Robin Williams on Youtube (see above video). Can you give us the background story to it?
It was Prince Charles' 60th birthday, and ITV, which is one of the networks in the UK, was planning on a TV special to commemorate his birthday. And I saw that they were interested in me doing it. Up to that point I've ignored everything to do with the Royals, but every year is the Royal Variety Show, which is kind of an annual fest where they get all kinds of dancers and impressionists and the local sponsors and all this kind of crap, and the Queen just sits there bored out of her mind. And I was asked to do this every year for about fifteen years and I said no every time. And I never wanted anything to do with the Royals, I'm not a Royalist by any means. And so I was thinking, "Oh no no no, not Prince Charles, oh Christ." So I was going to not do it, I didn't want to do it. And then, the same day I got a call from Robin Williams' manager saying, "Robin wants to do something with you at this gig." So then I'm thinking, "You know what, maybe I'll go do it." You know, that doesn't happen everyday. Next thing I'm with Robin in his hotel and we just kind of riffed and improvised for an afternoon. And we had a blast. We came up with a lot of stuff that was never never going to make it on the TV, but we had a lot of fun. One of the things was you know Charlton Heston, "From my cold, dead hands..." We were going to do an impression of the Queen letting Charles have the crown... "From my cold, dead hands." We thought, "Probably not, we can't do that." I wrote a (song), we made up some words, and it was such, such fun. It had a bit of spontaneity about it because we only played it like once or twice before that, and it had that sort of spark about it. It was great fun, it was a great experience.
You can go experience Bill Bailey at the House of Blues this Sunday night.