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. 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 the details in part 1 of our exclusive 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.
Look out for part 2 of our exclusive interview when Noel talks about what’s happening with the Boosh, what he makes of twitter, appearing on Buzzcocks, and the state of British comedy. Plus why he might just be the Ambassador of the Freaks.