Bill Bailey Interview

The comic genius that is Bill Bailey, with his trademark beard, long hair and baffled demeanour is returning to Australia. Geoff Bartlett reports.

Describing what Bill Bailey does is not easy. That he is currently one of the best comedians in the world, there is no dispute – but his style defies classification. His songs, with such titles as ‘The leg of time’ and ‘Hats off to the Zebras’ give some clue that we’re talking about a guy with a very different outlook on life.

Bailey is only too aware of the ‘alternative’ perception that his fans have of him, saying ‘The impression people have of me is that I live in a thatched barn off the motorway somewhere and write my jokes on a bit of bark and clop up to gigs pulled by huskies.’

Bailey originally hails from the West of England, just outside of Bristol. That part of the world, according to Bailey has ‘two main exports: cider and boredom’.

It is music that makes up a large contingent not only of Bailey’s performance but his life as well. He makes no secret of his teenage dream of becoming a rock star. ‘I joined various local bands but it didn’t really come to anything. We did tours of Devon – that was a big rock and roll experience – eating Cornish pasties and sleeping on pool tables. Back then I had “Human League” style floppy hair. We were an early 80’s, synth-pop-power-punk hybrid with a lot of standing around and posing.’

After a spell at the London College of Music, Bailey scored a gig playing piano in hotel lobbies. An experience, he recalls, that nearly turned him off music for good. ‘The piano was physically built into the bar, so there were always all these pissed guys leaning on it. People were always getting maudlin and tearful and asking me to “play something by Elton John.” It was very difficult to stay sane.’

It wasn’t until 1994 that Bailey began, as he describes it, ‘Peddling my own brand of musical whimsy. I went to see some stand up in London and it was brilliant.’

Bailey’s first attempt at a comedy routine is something he remembers as ‘“pretty scary.” You come up with one half-decent remark and then you try to hang your whole act on it. That proved to be rather difficult. I found I had to move onto a second remark.’

This is Bailey’s sixth trip to Australia in as many years and he has been pleasantly surprised by Australian audiences ‘I thought Australians would be much more lairy and “in your face”. They’re actually very polite. They’re more like a theatre audience. Australia is a very laid back place. I like the idea of the climate affecting the whole national characteristic. The English have been worn down over the centuries by bad weather and imperial-colonial baggage that Australians don’t have.’

Being both musician and comedian, Bailey agrees that timing is everything, particularly when it comes to merchandising which, Bailey says, plays a key role in a comedian’s career. ‘You want to be just well-enough known so that people will buy the T-shirt because they know it’s you, rather than they just needed a black T-shirt. But you also want to be not so well-known that people start to think “Oh look at the bastard! Has he not got enough money? Now he’s trying to flog me a big drinks coaster.” But I think I’ve pitched it about right.’

Fame and fortune may be finding Bill Bailey but he says he still has a large percentage of the population to win over. ‘They used to say that Comedy was the new Rock and Roll but truth be told, comedians have a slightly lower social status than Badgers. In England, you can legally run over a comedian and not stop.’

Overall though, life for Bailey is pretty good. When asked for a downside to travelling the globe, making people cry with laughter, Bailey admits he could do without having to lug loads of music equipment with him. ‘Somebody gave me an ocarina while I was in Indonesia. It’s beautifully made and makes a lovely little haunting, whistling noise. And it fits in your pocket. I thought “God, if I could do an hour with this, it’d be a joy.” But, knowing me, I’d have to get a full back-up with modular assistance. And it’d have to be a midi-ocarina from Bang and Olufsen – and then I’d have to get a microphone and pack for it – so I’m better off sticking with what I know.’

This piece first appeared in Drum Media in  2002.

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