Noel Fielding is busy. He’s just released a book of his art, Scribblings of a Madcap Shambleton, he’s got a new radio project in the pipeline and he’s got tons of ideas about what to do next zinging through his head. But what’s taking up most of his time at the moment is finishing off his new TV show, Noel Fielding’s Luxury Comedy, which airs on E4 in January.
Furthermore, Noel told us what’s really going on with the Boosh, what he thinks about the current state of British comedy, and what he makes of twitter. In the midst of all this activity Noel very kindly found the time to talk to us about what he’s been getting up to. Velveteer Mog brings you all the details in our exclusive interview.
Here for posterity, is the complete interview:
Noel Fielding tells a great anecdote about how he once alarmed Noel Gallagher by wearing a cape on a Tuesday, of all days. It would appear that Wednesday is also cape day; I’m greeted by an off-duty Fielding that looks exactly the same as the on-camera version, from the cherry red-edged felt cape right down to the silver boots. There’s something reassuring about it: This is who he is.
As an interviewee he’s candid, funny, passionate about lots of things and softly-spoken. He also comes across as one of the most considerate people I’ve ever met – considerate about the people he works with, considerate about his fans and even about the people who aren’t really his cup of tea. In fact the only complaint I could level at him is that he’s impossible to pin down to a particular topic of conversation. In the end I give up and go with the flow, which is much more entertaining anyway.
“A comedian, I guess…I don’t know…an absurdist? A surrealist?” Noel is struggling to define what he’d like to be known as. We’re discussing his book of paintings and I ask him why he feels so uncomfortable thinking of himself as a ‘serious artist’. “Well I’m not really. I mean I paint all the time – but I just do it because that’s what I do, I started off doing paintings. My paintings trigger me to write and my writing triggers me to paint, so it’s like a circle. I’ll always do it.”
Anyone who’s already got a copy of his book, Scribblings of a Madcap Shambleleton, will vouch for Noel’s obvious artistic talent. The ingenuity of his ideas and the brush strokes that bring life to them are a delight to the eye and mind. He’s been the subject of two exhibitions at Gallery Maison Bertaux, exhibited his work at the Saatchi Gallery and can list serious collectors and Turner nominees amongst his fans. To most people that sounds a lot like being a serious artist. However, the traits Noel seems to hold most dear are being funny, not being elitist, being spontaneous and being shambolic, and these don’t sit well with his idea of a ‘serious artist’ (although they’re probably the reasons he’s liked by so many people).
“Graham Norton said to me the other day that if he’d seen this book and it hadn’t been by me he would have taken it more seriously, because it’s amazing. But a lot of what it is comes from me being a comedian,” Noel pauses, “It’s difficult, the lines are really blurred. But I can’t pretend I’m just an artist – I’m also in the Boosh and I’m known as a character and a bit of a celebrity.”
I ask him who he thinks will buy the book. “Policemen?…Children?…I don’t know really!” Noel bursts into a one of the distinctive peals of laughter that regularly punctuate his conversation. “I know a lot of my fans are really young, so I didn’t want to make an expensive coffee table book for them. I always try to think of the fans – I loved The Libertines for the fact that they would always think of their fans: they would play gigs at their homes and make stuff cheap, free gigs and things. I think a lot of people are out of touch with who likes them and supports them, who funds them. If it wasn’t for the fans we wouldn’t be able to do anything. So I thought it can’t be too expensive.”
The book is more than a collection of paintings, however: the pictures are meshed together with charmingly meandering stories and random sentences. “I write a lot of freeform weird shit when I’m painting that doesn’t mean anything, so I thought I’d put some of that in there. I like that a lot of the writing was written out in one go and it’s probably got loads of spelling mistakes in it. There’s virtually no grammar to speak of, none. I have a thought and I scratch it down in my sketchbook, so we tried to keep that vibe rather than typing it up and putting it into proper English.” He points to a page full of rounded scrawl, blocked out in red, “I mean that’s scribbled out and it doesn’t really make sense, it’s just a bit out of a story, but I liked the way it looked so I put it in. We just tried to keep it really fresh, as long as it’s legible.”
By ‘we’ Noel means himself and the designer and photographer of the book, Dave Brown. He’s full of praise for Dave’s artistic input and his ability to edit the content. “Dave’s such a good designer he’s made it a thing of beauty whereas someone else could have made a right mess of it. I give him stuff and he makes it look really beautiful. It’s nice working with him because I hadn’t worked with him for a while and sometimes when you’re so busy the only way you get to see your friends is if you work with them.”
I ask him about some of the paintings in the book, such as the section dedicated to images of Elvis Presley (pages 157-176). “I get obsessed with people. I like the mutated Elvis – the more you draw him the more mutated he becomes. When you do lots of drawings of someone, as a whole they look like the person but individually they don’t.” He points out one of the Elvis paintings where he has the eyes of Muhammad Ali (page 169) and another where he’s clearly channelling Morrissey (page 166).
‘Floppy Hump’ (pages 118-119), a personal favourite of TVO, comes under scrutiny: “At Woburn Abbey Safari Park it occurred to me that a lot of camels have floppy humps, where their second hump folds over like an empty hot water bottle. Camels are quite amazing-looking so I thought I would give this camel some style by giving him a top hat and some little skates. Floppy hump is just a nice word. In fact a lot of what we did with the Boosh was about the sound of the words.”
We also discuss Monkey Edwards (page 271), a freakish character that will be familiar to anyone who’s seen Noel’s stand-up during the past 18 months. “What I like about Monkey Edwards that you can describe him in any way you want. You can endlessly describe him: a bit old-fashioned, a bit medieval, a bit like a monkey, a bit like Ronnie Wood, a bit like porcelain, but in a tunic…it just goes on and on. But he’s a horrific character, and then I out-horrific him by jumping through a window and all my skin comes off, and he’s absolutely mortified. The idea of that bit of stand-up was to accidentally out-shock someone who is really frightening. I had a fantasy about a monster turning up and then you do something so horrible that the monster goes ‘You’re mental. You should be ashamed of yourself.’” He laughs again.
If Noel’s book offers an insight into his artistic mind over the past decade and beyond (there’s a clear symbolism to the front and back views of his head on the outside covers), his latest project, Luxury Comedy, brings it bang up to date. Featuring Noel along with a host of other Booshniverse artists and music by Serge from Kasabian, it’s as if director, Nigel Coan, has inserted a camera into the centre of Noel’s brain and filmed what’s popping around in there between the synapses. Silly, funny and visually inventive, the preview clips we’ve seen defy description. The person who described it as making the Boosh looks like Eastenders was on the right track. Luxury Comedy is also what Noel’s currently focusing much of his energy on.
As part of the Boosh, Noel’s creative output has always been notable for the thought and effort that’s gone into it. From the musical soundscape of the series to imaginatively-hidden DVD extras and belt buckles in box sets, the Boosh have always been known for the multi-sensory richness of what they created. It’s an approach that Noel brings to his new show too, but it’s one that takes time: “The reason Luxury Comedy has taken so long is because I wanted it to be a complete world, like the Boosh. I didn’t want it to be just a sketch show. We wanted it to have a place, regular characters and a storyline – a sitcom element as well as sketches, music, animation. So it’s quite a big undertaking. I didn’t want to disappoint the fans, I wanted to do something as good as the Boosh but in a different way.”
“There are no budgets any more to make a really crafted show which has animation and music; everything’s so disposable at the moment. People don’t care, they go ‘I just like that show about posh people in Chelsea’. And those probably cost nothing to make and probably get really good ratings, so it’s difficult.” Sadly, he’s right – but it’s reassuring to know that Noel Fielding is a long, long way from selling out himself.
Given the intensity of the input required for a show like this, I ask him how he knows when it’s finished. He laughs, “Never! Me and Julian have said before that creating something is like the rings of a tree. You get closer and closer to the middle but you don’t know if you’ve actually over-worked it or not. When you make a painting you take out as much as you put in, with white paint. And you have to do the same with a TV show in the edit. Nigel is an animator so he has to be concise. If he manages to make a three minute scene a minute and a half it’s two weeks less work for him, so he’s very good at finding the best bits. He’s very good at editing and I need that because I’m very rambly – I’ll just keep going.”
Noel’s working relationship on Luxury Comedy with Nigel Coan echoes the one he shared with Dave Brown on his recent book. Like Dave, Nigel also went to art college with Noel, they shared a student house and worked together on the Boosh (Nigel’s responsible for animating the Moon). Noel’s professional admiration and personal affection for Nigel is obvious: “This is the first time someone’s been able to put the things I think completely on screen – it’s like being able to write for the first time with almost complete freedom. It’s more me, a slightly more direct vision because it’s much more free, I think, than the Boosh. The Boosh is more filmic, because Julian and Paul King are interested in films and narratives. This is more loose and psychedelic.”
Noel’s continued references to the Boosh suggest that he’s well aware of the inevitable comparisons between the two shows. He likens the experience to when someone in a band that people like goes off to do a solo album. Regardless of how good it is, fans of the band just don’t like it. “It might be difficult for Boosh fans to take it at first,” he says, “But there are some people who have pulled it off!”
Noel displays a mixture of palpable excitement and pride about Luxury Comedy (as it nears its final stages of post-production) and an understandable hint of trepidation about how it’s going to be received. It’s a massive investment for him, both emotionally and in terms of his time. With talk of a possible second series and even a live show, Luxury Comedy could occupy him for the foreseeable future.
That alone will be enough to start some people wondering ‘But what does it mean for the Boosh?’ One can only hope that Noel’s supporters are prepared to look forwards and embrace his new endeavours and don’t simply hark back to the past.
I wasn’t planning to ask Noel Fielding about The Mighty Boosh. But then the conversation drifted towards the twitter-based petitions to ‘bring back the Boosh’ which are currently doing the rounds (which Noel was unaware of and, mercifully, we’ve finally stopped being spammed about!). He seems both touched and a little confused by the continued strength of feeling the series elicits from fans. “I’m surprised and shocked at how many people still come up to me about the Boosh going ‘Oh my god, I love the Boosh – it’s amazing!’. I love it, but it’s odd. I’m so chuffed that it’s been this timeless thing that doesn’t seem to have dated. I guess we tried to make it so it wouldn’t date, it’s not full of modern references and it’s not disposable. I guess it could have been from the 50s or it could have been from the future.”
When Noel talks about the Boosh and his partnership with Julian Barratt there’s a sense that he appreciates it was, and indeed is, something special: “I love the Boosh and I’ll always love the Boosh. I’m really proud of it. Julian’s one of the best performers around.”
But his unique attachment to it also means it’s not something he can take lightly – it’s too important for that. Everything has to be right for them to work together, and it wasn’t quite there when the two of them started to write a film last year. “When we came together to write a film we’d just written so much stuff together we just couldn’t face sitting in a room for another year writing. We both had to have a break…but we could easily write a film quite quickly. I think we will end up doing something together again – we’ve left it so long now we should probably leave it a bit longer and then come back and do something good. I don’t think we should try and hurry into it.” This need to keep the work that the two of them do together a cut above is also evident when Noel talks about the decision not to use Julian in Luxury Comedy, something which they both agreed on. “What me and Julian have is really special, so if I’d put him in it in a lesser way…” his voice trails off, then he adds emphatically, “He’s too good for that.”
Noel’s also aware that the two of them have different priorities now, with Julian understandably wanting to spend more time with his family. “He doesn’t want to be out on the road for hundred date tours, whereas it’s fine for me because I love that. But I think if you’ve got kids that’s the last thing you want to be doing.” Live gigs are something Noel relishes, and he refers to the joys of performing in front of a live audience several times during our interview: “It’s much more direct and immediate. You have an idea and you just do it, you have a thought and you can just say it. It’s happening there and then and it becomes special to that crowd because it’s just happening for that night. On the Boosh tour we improvised it to the point it couldn’t be stretched any more. By a hundred dates we literally didn’t know what else we could do!” I tell him that some of the more hardcore fans went to so many shows on the last tour that spotting the ad libs each night became something of a game. He finds this a hoot.
So how does Noel feel now about the world of the Boosh, the world that has occupied so much of his adult life? He speaks slightly hesitantly, as if realising his words will be poured over by fans eager to read that a new series is just around the corner, “I love the Boosh, but now when I think of Old Gregg or the Hitcher they’re like people I don’t hang around with any more, or like my friends from five years ago. I think ‘I like those guys but I haven’t really been in touch with them for a while – I need to ring Old Gregg.’ But I can’t – because what I think about now is Fantasy Man and New York Cop, my new characters (from Luxury Comedy).”
We talk about the enduring popularity of the Boosh characters that he and Julian created, and their more recent role as must-have Halloween costumes. “I think the fans and the public own them a bit more than we do now.” He says, “But they’re still special to us and they remind me of Julian and all the stuff we did together, which is really nice.” Then before anyone arrives at the wrong conclusion that their friendship is in the past, he jumps in to reassure, “We’re still mates. We live in the same block – I can see into his front room and he can see into my bedroom; I think he’s got a better deal!”
Noel recounts some heartwarming stories about the balcony-to-balcony communication they enjoy; the way he describes their living arrangement sounds a little like a modern-day Morcambe & Wise. He tells a wonderfully revealing story about a recent encounter they had while he was getting ready to go out: “It’s weird, I’ve been getting into jazz….and I’m not allowed to really. But I was listening to jazz and I saw Julian coming up the path where we live. I’m getting ready in my bedroom, dancing, thinking ‘He can’t ever know that I’m dancing to Miles Davies!’” Noel bursts into his distinctive laugh, perhaps tickled by the significance of this admission. “Aaah, The Jazz…” he sighs, ever so slightly Vince-like, “It gets all of us; you can run but you can’t hide.”
Although much-loved by fans, one of the downsides of the mainstream popularity of the Boosh is how it ultimately impacted on Noel’s ability to develop new material; audiences loved everything he did, regardless of what he did. He explains, “It makes it very hard to write stand-up because the people who know me from the Boosh laugh at everything, and they just want you to do Boosh stuff. You never get the chance to hone your stand-up because it never really gets put through the mill. Whereas comedians who aren’t known will tell a joke and people say ‘Yeah, that’s quite funny mate, but you might want to top that with another four jokes’. I started getting into that position with the Boosh where I couldn’t write anything, because as soon as I came out of a concert people would go ‘That’s amazing!’ and I’d think ‘Well, no. That’s not amazing’. It makes it very hard to write – it’s nicer if an audience gives you a fair review.”
This leads to a discussion about the set of challenges facing comedians who don’t have a public profile. He cites Paul Foot as a case in point (who Noel is a huge fan of, having worked with Foot on his 2010 Edinburgh Show, Ash in the Attic). “Paul Foot doesn’t compromise. He’s in the zone, so when he gets there it’ll be on his own terms. Exposure from telly would mean that he can do bigger gigs and more people would find out about him though.”
This is a topic that Noel has strong views about: “The problem is nowadays if you don’t do telly shows it’s hard to do proper live shows; there’s no way of penetrating the system any more – unfortunately that’s the way it is. It’s always the same people on these big, glossy stand-up shows and you just go ‘Are these the only people alive?’ No offence to any of these people, they’re all good comics but they’re very mainstream. Occasionally someone weird will get on and everyone watching it gets really upset. You need to have both – you want people who are doing really interesting stuff to be on television too, and yet there’s no forum for them at the moment, nowhere – it’s madness!” Noel suddenly catches himself getting on a soapbox and grins, “It’s not like I’m some ambassador for the struggling freaks! The problem is I get excited about these things, and then I just don’t have time to do anything about it.”
That said, he’s been toying with the beginnings of an idea for a TV series, along the lines of an alternative Michael McIntyre’s Roadshow. “I would possibly host it, and it would have all the freaks on it. It’d be very home-made and DIY, and in a small theatre.” The idea of Fielding as a kind of Michael McIntyre for the Dark Side sounds too good to be true – fans of interesting comedy can only hope it happens!
Noel is canny enough to appreciate that his media profile could provide a helpful platform for less well-known comics. The relatively mainstream awareness he enjoys comes in part from his three series as team captain on Never Mind the Buzzcocks, alongside Phill Jupitus. “Buzzcocks is a bit odd because it’s not my show. Phill’s really good to work with and I have a good laugh. I think my skill as a comedian is being able to work with a lot of different people, like Paul Foot, or Julian, or Phill Jupitus, or Russell Brand. I’m pretty good like that, socially, with people. I can get along with anyone and I can get the best out of people, I think.”
It’s one of the reasons why Noel’s keen to direct at some point, suggesting that he’d like to, “Write and direct a really insane film, but a funny one as well…like The Holy Mountain.” He’d also like to release a stand-up album. One can’t help but wonder when he’s going to find the time to get round to all of these things.
First, however, he’d like to take some time out to recharge his creative batteries, “After Luxury Comedy I might just run a way for three months somewhere – to try to get inspired again. When you make stuff you can’t just keep making stuff in Soho or in your house. You need a few months to just go around looking at horses or whatever, just flying kites. Do life stuff so you get some new ideas. Otherwise it’s all the same.” He smiles at the appealing, yet alien, notion of taking time off. Let’s hope he manages to get round to it one day.
With our interview nearing an end, I throw in a few quick-fire questions to wring every last drop of information out of our conversation:
If you were a pub what would you be called? “Floppy Hump.” he replies without pausing, referring to the title of one of his paintings. He toys with the idea of changing it to ‘Floppy Pump’, but then says “I’m terrible at puns, I don’t really understand how they work.” Floppy Hump it is then.
Do you have any other twitter accounts besides @noelfielding11? “No. I wish people would stop pretending to be me in a really unfunny way. It’s the worst thing for a comedian: the people who don’t like what you do anyway just hate you even more, and you’re thinking ‘It wasn’t even me.’” Noel has something of a love/hate relationship with twitter; he likes the speed and immediacy of it, and sees its potential as an interesting source of material: “People say really funny things. When I write a story I get 20 tweets for every line I write. It’s a bit like a party game, it’s really good fun if you just use it for that.”
What he struggles with, however, is how judgemental people can sometimes be online: “It’s insane, I said thank you to the people who came to one of the book signings and then all the people who couldn’t come got annoyed. It’s like saying thanks to someone who opens the door for you and then also having to say ‘Thanks to everyone who didn’t open the door because I know you’re really good people as well’. I can’t thank everyone. People said ‘But we’re you fans too’ and I thought ‘I know, but I’m just thanking the people who came to a book signing.’ It’s bizarre.”
And with that our conversation finally draws to a close. After a flurry of thank you’s Noel returns to the windowless edit suite next door to continue nurturing his latest creative baby, Luxury Comedy. Based on what we’ve seen of the show, what he’s said about it, and what his plans are beyond the series, fans of Noel’s work can look forwards to a busy, bountiful and quite possibly rather beautiful 2012.
A seriously big Velvet Onion thank you to Noel for finding the time in his busy schedule to talk to us.