We Chat to Bill Bailey Before He Brings His Thoughtifier Tour to Nottingham in March

Interview: Andrew Tucker
Monday 26 February 2024
reading time: min, words

With his trademark musical stylings and characteristic wit, Bill Bailey will be bringing his Thoughtifier tour to Nottingham’s Motorpoint Arena on 1 March. We caught up with him to find out more about his comedic timing, the purpose of music, and why wasps desperately need to rebrand their image…

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Music and comedy both rely on a sense of timing. Do you think you've got a good sense of timing?
I tend to sort of show up at the right point.  In terms of performance, if you show up and you’re ready to do it, there’s a natural serendipity to that. There's a great quote from the Icelandic Football Manager, when Iceland beat England in the Euros. He was asked ‘what was it like to beat England?’ and he said, ‘when an opportunity like that comes along, you have to be ready.’ And I think that's true in terms of life. You have to get that timing right, you have to be able to feel that there's some new chapter in your life - it could be a gig, meeting someone for the first time…

Is it instinctive for you? 
Yeah! If you're a performer, any sort of creative person, you have an instinct for these things: ‘I have to really bring the A-game here and up the ante.’ I remember the first time I played Glastonbury, I'd done a lot of TV, like Never Mind The Buzzcocks and Black Books, and there was a lot of expectation - more than I'd imagined, really. I had no way of knowing what the response would be, and I turned up at the comedy tent at Glastonbury and it was full. I mean, it was completely packed out to the gunnels! You think, ‘suddenly, something's happening.’ But then you realise that you've really got to nail this gig, because this is something you’re going to remember.

You’ve come a long way since then. Would you welcome the term ‘national treasure’ now? Or is that too scary?
Well, it feels a little bit like you've sort of become something immovable, like a statue or something, you know, or the Lake District. A few years ago, somebody suggested ‘national treasure’. And I was like, don't put me in that category. But now I just kind of accept it, because it’s a good thing, isn’t it? It's better than being a national pariah, surely. I'll take treasure over disgrace!

And there’s other things I've accepted too - in my shows, there was always an educational element and I was a bit wary of that, because you don't want people to think that it’s a lecture, or finger-wagging. But it's not that - it's about sharing information and wanting to pass that on. And now I've embraced that as part of what I'm about. Sometimes you have to kind of accept what you are, who you are. And immerse yourself in it.

If you were stranded on a desert island like Tom Hanks in Castaway, what instrument would you most like to have with you?
I mean, the thing is, there's lots of practicalities here. If you have a guitar, that's great but if you break a string, now you're really struggling. There’s nothing worse than a guitar with half a string missing. I mean eventually, of course, you can burn it. But you want something that you can play without an amplifier… I’ve got to say an accordion. You can make a lovely sound with an accordion, it’s something I’ve been trying to learn. You could sort of serenade the island birds and walk amongst the trees, like a Parisian cafe entertainer.

A delightful scene. Are there any instruments that are still on your list to try out?
I'm always up for new instruments. I've actually got a set of bagpipes that I'm trying to kind of get a handle on. It's difficult practising the bagpipes, because you can't really half do it, you have to really go for it and make a racket. Yes, and maybe a new stringed instrument, like a violin or a viola…

Sometimes you have to kind of accept what you are, who you are. And immerse yourself in it

Is there a particular piece of music that can always change how your day is going?
I’ve listened to all sorts of things. I try to keep the combinations quite eclectic and broad, because as you get older… I keep reading all these surveys that say that after a while people just listen to the same music over and over again: ‘this is the music of my youth and that's what I feel comfortable with.’ And I've always tried to resist that, because that shuts you out from all this other fantastic music that's being made all the time!

The things that I really love at the moment are powerful Norse metal and folk metal. Those sorts of things really take me out of my mood, they take me out of where I am. Bands like Heilung make what sounds like ancient music, like some kind of ceremonial rite that’s being acted out - ancient and modern, with chanting and drums and electronics. I was in a quarantine situation in New Zealand for two weeks, stuck in a hotel. And I listened to that sort of music on headphones the whole time. It expands your mind, takes you out of where you are - music like that is my go-to at the moment.

So for you, music often has that purpose of being transporting?
Yeah, I think so. Because I think that that's what music should do. I think that one of the great powers of music is to take you backwards or forwards in time -  it has this capacity to access all sorts of memories and emotions. And we are sometimes inured to it because it's always on - you hear it in your gym or wherever you are, but it recedes into the background. And then it’s not really used as music, it’s just sound. Not listening to lyrics and chord changes, it’s ambience.

I’m always listening if I’m walking or cycling. I love the fact that Kraftwerk were into cycling so much that some of their music was all about it, particularly on Tour de France - the album replicates the movements of cycling, the action of cycling. That really interests me, music that has rhythmic synchronicity with an action. Sea shanties were like that, they were about hauling rope, pulling up sails, they were work songs! And there's something about that really intrigues me. In fact, I’ve written a sea shanty for this show.

How far back does that concept go?
I do reckon that the earliest music would have accompanied some kind of tribal ritual, some sort of communal activity. It feels like it's in the DNA of us. Music accesses our ancient selves.

Do you think you're channelling that?
Yeah, definitely. It can be a unifying power, music. It can access people on a subconscious level. Going back to education - I feel that because I've studied music and I love it, that it's great to get to mess around with that knowledge and partially to educate people about what music is, but also to highlight things that people perhaps wouldn't have noticed about certain chords which make you feel a certain way. Here's a song playing in a completely different way on a different instrument, but it still works and it still sounds cool.

It's about celebrating music and celebrating its effect on us. And it's a very ancient thing that we have - maybe we only share it with the whales! There is something about music that’s unique to us in its complexity. And it's something which is universal, it’s global and every culture on the planet has some instruments, some music, some musical heritage. We’re meant to do it as humans. That's what I love about it.

A welcome shoutout for whales there - you’ve supported a lot of conservation work. Which animal do you think needs better PR?
Wasps, I think. They've been maligned for so long. And actually, that’s something I’ll be talking about in the show. Let’s hope that the bees don't go extinct. But if the bees are in strife, then maybe it's time for the wasps to sort of step up. I think that will do a huge amount of good for their image, because they're just annoying, that's all they’ve got really, at the moment, that's their role in the pantheon of nature. But they're pollinators as well. People don’t know that. People need to know more about wasps. They're not just the things hanging around your Fanta.

Bill Bailey will be playing Nottingham’s Motorpoint Arena on 1 March as part of his Thoughtifier tour


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