Matt Berry, star of The IT Crowd, isn’t your usual actor-turned-singer. For almost a decade, the comedian with the larger-than-life voice — it’s hard not to look at him and hear Douglas Reynholm booming “Jen!” — has been quietly releasing albums that indulge a decidedly uncommercial obsession with British folk rock and ’70s horror. His fifth, Kill the Wolf, is a beautiful, bewitching set that sounds as gloriously authentic as anything released pre-1974, about “the eternal struggle between good and evil in all of us,” no less. Berry wrote and recorded it at home in London, playing most of the instruments himself. He might not be able to resist wearing a furry hoof on the cover, but his music-making clearly comes from a serious place.
Matt Berry dropped by eMusic’s London offices to talk to Amber Cowan about everything from English folk to Tubular Bells.
People who only know you from shows like The IT Crowd or Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace might assume Kill The Wolf is a comedy album, because, well, you have a hoof instead of a hand on the cover. Do you find it hard to do something completely “straight”?
I think people look at anything I do and think that comedy is at the heart of it, because I do comedy most of the time. But where music’s concerned, it’s really not. I didn’t mean the cover to be funny: It’s supposed to be a man who’s turning into a devil, and the hand is the only sign. I think it only looks funny because you go “Oh, it’s the guy from that show.”
So do you approach music and comedy differently?
I wouldn’t describe anything I do as serious. I love music, but I’m not precious about it. I don’t expect people to listen to a whole album as a body of work or anything. I suppose both music and comedy begin with ideas that wake me up in the middle of the night. The track “Knock Knock” was something I started a while ago, but didn’t have a verse for, and I was forced out of bed one night because I realized some words I had could fit it. So there’s always something in the back room working. Usually the ideas finish themselves.
Why does the late ’60s, early ’70s period have so much resonance for you?
I think it’s because of all the wood involved. All the synthesizers were based in wood, the guitars I like were wood and the tape recorders were based in wood. There’s just a wooden feel about the whole era, so it sounds very natural. I like microphones pointing at amps and a bit of air and atmosphere. When recording techniques altered, things became less interesting for me.
Is it also because it was the music you heard when you were a child?
Maybe there is something in that, but then it wasn’t the case with my parents’ generation. My mum and dad hate the music that they were brought up on. I think it’s more to do with the fact that, even as a kid, you know a good tune from a bad one.
Your music is rooted in the pastoral folk tradition. Did you have an English village upbringing?
I did. I grew up in a village called Bromham in Bedfordshire. We had a harvest festival and a maypole, and my sister was the May Queen once. I just try to write about what I know. So there’s no point me trying to write a song about the desert or Joshua Tree — I just couldn’t.
Where do the witchcraft references come from? The Wicker Man-style opening track “Gather Up” could be shopping list for spells: henbane, mandrake, nightshade…
It’s just from being born in a small country village. And witchcraft isn’t all about crones being burnt at the stake. There was a lot of positivity to it, if you think about things like herbal medicine.
You weren’t exposed to actual witchcraft though, surely?
My oldest friend’s grandmother used to make herbal remedies for everything, and we just thought it was cool. But no, I haven’t experienced real witchcraft, at least I don’t think I have.
Kill The Wolf is a concept album. Can you explain?
It’s about the eternal struggle between good and evil in each one of us. On a grown-up level, it’s about the fact that the older you get, the more you can control how nice or horrible you are. But it also came from an experience that really freaked me out. After a big night, I was with my girlfriend back at my flat when I asked her a question. She ignored me, then after a few minutes, she turned to me and in a voice that sounded like a World War Two veteran she said, “Get out now before the light comes up.” I have never been so terrified in my life. I got up to leave, then turned back and saw she was asleep. She had no memory of saying anything. It unnerved me for a good few days. Before then I was sure there was no such thing as ghosts or the supernatural.
The album’s centerpiece is a nine-minute prog epic called “Solstice.” How does that fit in with the diabolical theme?
I just wanted to write a song that explored journey from the shortest day to the longest day, and then back again. There are no hidden depths to it. It’s like the track “Bonfire,” which is just about the joy of a bunch of people going to a bonfire. Those are straight celebrations of simple things. That’s it.
Is authenticity important when you’re recording? Do you use a lot of vintage gear?
I’m less concerned with authenticity than I am with making sure it sounds like it was made with love. You don’t want to listen back to something and cringe because you didn’t spend enough time on it or do it right.
Why did you record the album on your own?
I just didn’t want to bother anyone else with it. So I did everything myself, apart from some of the drums and flute and fiddle. It’s the way I’ve always worked because I might carry on until 2:30 a.m. and no one else wants to do that, so it’s best if I learn how to do everything myself. It’s proved to be one of the best things I ever did, because I can just get on with things. Otherwise I probably wouldn’t have had enough time to make this album.
You’ve said Mike Oldfield is an influence. Really?
Yes, he always will be. I remember getting Tubular Bells, loving it, then turning it over and seeing that he played everything on it. That was just as much of a thrill to me as the music. I thought, that’s it, that’s exactly what I need to do, because he’s in control of it all, and it seemed like the perfect way. He’s basically shaped my whole career.
Have you got a “Moonlight Shadow” in you?
See, that’s when I fell out of love with Oldfield. The first three albums are the ones I’ll always go back to, but I can’t really forgive him for all that ’80s stuff. He needed the money, I guess. But that’s when it was all over for me.