Matt Berry

Looking back, Matt Berry wouldn't have had it any other way. If his highly successful career as an actor/comedian/radio DJ hadn't sent him on a different trajectory, he wouldn't be where he is today, sitting in an East End pub discussing his extraordinary new album 'Witchazel'.

Recorded almost entirely in his front room, it's a collection of thirteen songs which will touch a central nerve with anyone with a fondness for British psychedelia  and/or '70's folk. For Matt, it's a labour of love, pure and simple.

"I guess the main objective is for it not to be seen as a vanity project" he explains. "Unfortunately, in this country there's this idea that you're not really allowed to do more than one thing.  I'm acutely aware people might think I'm not serious. But I've always been in bands, making music is what I love doing."

Rewind. A pop fan ever since his mum turned him on to Adam And The Ants, Matt's first real epiphany came during an encounter with the teenage Kate Bush. "I saw her on Top Of The Pops in 1978 and it was one of the most terrifying things of my childhood. She was doing Wuthering Heights and she looked straight down the camera. When you're a little kid that's pretty terrifying. She confused me, because she was terrifying to look at, but also quite sexy -a sexy witch.  That still does my head in. I became a huge fan, I was obsessed by those first three albums."

Having been thwarted in his attempts to form a band at school ("no one there was really into it"), Matt joined a succession of groups on graduation from college in Nottingham. "I was really into the Doors and I could play the organ, and I knew exactly what I wanted to do. But it never happened. Then I ended up doing Darkplace and life took a different turn."

Having starred as eccentric explorer Dixon Bainbridge in The Mighty Boosh and Douglas Reynholm in The IT Crowd  and co-written his own musical parody AD/BC: A Rock Opera with Richard Ayoade, Matt's own BBC3 comedy show Snuff Box (with Rich Fulcher) was, as they say, "well received". His position as one of the U.K's most compelling comedy talents duly confirmed with a nomination as Best Male Newcomer at the 2007 Comedy Awards. But we're not here to blow those particular trumpets. Rather, strum a more melancholy mandolin.

Inspired partly by Richard Adams' Watership Down 'Witchazel' (Matt's first album 'proper' following limited releases 'Jackpot' and 'Opium') is a voyage into the heart of the countryside, where strange things happen and barn doors go creak in the night.

Veering between spooked folk laments ('Accident At A Harvest Festival'), space rock tapestries (eight minute epic 'The Pheasant') and Donovan-esque pop ('Look In My Book'), it's quite simply a stunning record;  the sort of woodland fantasia Fleet Foxes would make had they grown up in within earshot of the M25. To these ears, it already sounds like the best album of 2011. Which isn't bad considering this is being written in November 2010. If  the massed mellotrons, fruity Hammond and prog-rock inflections (check out 'From The Manger To the Mortuary') makes it feel like a lost classic you've found in the racks of your favourite second hand record shop, it's deliberate. "I've always been into production" explains Matt. "I really wanted to get that warm, analogue sound. I already played keyboard and guitars, so I had to learn drums and bass in order to make the record I had in my head -which was British rustic folk, from1978." 

Anyone  still  thinking 'Witchazel' has a whiff of indulgence, meanwhile, should be directed to  the brilliant, Todd Rundgren-ish 'Take My Hand'. Is there anyone out there making complex pop as smart and heartfelt as this?

"This is the music I love" explains Matt in conclusion. "There's nothing deliberately weird about it. The songs are largely about things which happen in the countryside, but they're not meant to be comedic or scary. That's why the album's called 'Witchazel', there's a double meaning to it."Time to go. But not before a final thought. "Really, I just hope people listen to the record on its own merits" says Matt. "I love doing all the other stuff, but in the end music is what gets me horny."

Time to dust off that Barbour. Matt will see you in the speakers.

Paul Moody,
London 2010.