chat room

James Acaster Isn’t Sure If His New Album Is Serious or Funny

Photo: James Veysey/Shutterstock

James Acaster knows he’s just the latest in a long line of comedians making a (semi-)serious turn toward music, from Eddie Murphy’s attempt at R&B in the ‘80s to Steve Martin’s recent banjo work to Hannibal Buress’ current rapper alter ego Eshu Tune. So Acaster won’t blame you for initially writing off his new album, Party Gator Purgatory. “I do that when people do similar projects,” he says. “I don’t listen to them straight away unless people tell me, ‘By the way, William Shatner’s album with Ben Folds is actually amazing and you should check it out.’ And then you check it out and it is.”

Acaster hopes you’ll eventually feel the same about Purgatory, the debut project by Temps, a collective of over 40 musicians led by the English comic. The album has roots in comedy, as part of a pilot for a mockumentary that Acaster, a former drummer, was making about recording an album as a costumed alligator. When the series wasn’t picked up, it left him with a number of tracks by the jazz drummer Seb Rochford. So Acaster began contacting other musicians to build them out — first instrumentalists, like Deerhoof’s John Dieterich, and then singers and rappers, like Open Mike Eagle, Shamir, and Quelle Chris (some of whom Acaster already knew from his music podcast, Perfect Sounds). As producer, Acaster wanted to approach the music like a fan, rather than a comedian. “It was like buying an album that you could interact with,” he says. “Your favorite musicians have all made this together, but you’re somehow able to reach in and take out something or put something in or make the song shorter or longer.”

Not to say Party Gator Purgatory is fully serious — it’s still inspired by the death, afterlife, and rebirth of the Party Gator character. But it’s also surprisingly polished, dynamic, and at times poignant. “It just lives or dies by its own merit and how good it actually is and that’s it, and I’m comfortable with that,” Acaster says.

Were you surprised by the reception you got from other musicians when you first asked them to be on the album?
I think it really helped that Seb had put his drums down initially. I was asking people if they wanted to contribute, thinking in my head, Are they going to say no because it’s this stand-up comedian asking them? Forgetting that these amazing musicians were already on it who had done such an incredible job.

What sort of direction were you giving the contributors?
It depended. Certain people, they didn’t want to know anything. They were just like, “Send me the track and I’ll do whatever.” Other people were like, “You need to tell me specifically what you want me to do, where you want me to perform and what kind of thing you’re after.” As much as I could, I’d give no direction. Say I wanted a sax solo somewhere. We could say to the sax player, “Play along to the whole thing and improvise, and do that three, four, five times, and then just send that to me and I’ll mess around with it and get what I want out of that.” In my head, I thought that was less demanding than saying, “I want you to write something specific for this bit.” But for some people, it’s easier sometimes to say, “I want you to do exactly this and sing about this.”

I was surprised at how seriously the musicians took it. The last song on the album, “slowreturn,” with Shamir and Yoni Wolf, is pretty emotional.
I think everyone would just respond to what the people before them had done. By the time it got to Yoni and Shamir, that song had a full instrumental, and it felt very emotionally heavy. That was really down to Joanna Gomila and Laia Vallès’ improvisations over the top of it. Originally, the drums on their own sound like a metal song, and they completely changed it to sound like this emotionally heavy song. Yoni was messaging me while he was writing for it, like, “Sorry I haven’t gotten it back to you yet, but I really want to match the emotions here.”

I never told anyone, “This isn’t a comedy project.” I never said, “This is really serious.” I probably said, “This is neither of those things, just whatever you want it to be. It’s not a comedy album, it’s not a super-serious album, it’s just a project. This is something we’re making and it’ll be whatever it is.” I probably told some of them, “I will be dressing as an alligator for a lot of the videos, but don’t let that influence how you write or make you think this has got to be a joke.”

Have you thought about if there’s a possibility to tour this or do a show?
Yeah, we’re talking about it. It would be so hard to organize a live show, but if there was a demand for it, then I would try and figure that out. I think it would have to be a residency somewhere. I have tentatively asked a few people who were on the album if they would be up for it. They have said yes, but they have had to say if their schedule permits, which, you’re looking at a lot of schedules.

You’ll be performing your stand-up again this summer on the return of your “Hecklers Welcome” tour, where the audience can respond pretty much however they want. What did the first shows teach you?
By the end, the main thing it taught me was to approach my live shows — and this’ll sound like a negative, but it’s actually been very positive — as what they are, as my job. I’m going to work, and this is my job, so let’s go out there and work hard and do the job properly. Rather than how I used to be, which is, I would tell myself, This is going to be fun. That meant that I would then get blindsided if it was a bit of a quieter audience, or if it was a rowdy audience, or if it wasn’t exactly how I had in my head of what my idea of fun is. Letting the audience just do whatever they want and focusing on what I can control, which is me, has made it much easier. There’s probably still some more lessons to learn, I imagine.

Was there a worst show of the run?
No, not yet. The thing with the format of it and the whole idea is that there can’t be a bad show. It’d only be a bad show if I went back on my own rules and started complaining onstage. I had a show where I just wasn’t enjoying it. I was like, I do feel quite anxious up here actually, but because I’ve taken away from myself the option of blaming the audience, that meant I was forced to actually address, Well, what is going on? Why do I feel like this? Because they’re actually quite a nice audience. They’re laughing, I can see their faces, they’re not grimacing at me. I’m doing the material the way that it’s meant to be done. So why don’t I like this? And then I was like, Oh, before I went on, I drank a shit-ton of caffeine. I just feel anxious now, because that’s how my body reacts to caffeine. And sometimes it’s something that simple, that I wouldn’t have learned if I had let myself complain onstage and tell the audience it was rubbish. Because I didn’t say that, I had to come off and go, Okay, well it wasn’t that, so what was it? And I got to the dressing room, saw the massive, super-deluxe Diet Coke can that I could only get in America and not back home. I was like, You drank two of those in the dressing room before you went on.

When you were working on the Temps project, it sounds like stand-up and comedy were more back of mind for you. But I wonder, now that you’re actively working on both of those things, if you see any feedback between the two.
Definitely — it all feeds into each other. Before I did comedy, I was in bands, and we were very very uncompromising, like not even thinking about the audience. Well, actually, we were thinking about the audience, but it was assuming the audience would think we were geniuses and love us, but not meeting them halfway. That made things very difficult. So when I started stand-up, I learned from that experience and was like, No, if you’re going to perform in front of an audience, you should consider them. Then when I did Temps and I could work on the project without an audience in front of me and just do it myself, I still tried to take that thing from stand-up and go, Remember, don’t get too self-centered. This is about other people listening to it. But also, I was still taking a few more risks than maybe I would take early on when working on a stand-up show.

Also, I didn’t have any assurance that it was going to be released or anything was going to happen, and I just felt complete creative freedom doing that. When you’re not doing stand-up, you spend a lot of your time trying to get other projects off the ground. Most of them never do, even though you believe in them. So making something independently without anyone’s permission and seeing it all the way through to completion, then taking it to record labels, made me realize properly, for the first time, that this is how you should do things: Don’t spend too much time constantly trying to get other people to give you the thumbs-up. Just do a project. Because on paper, I’ve got no business making an album at all, but I did it anyway and it worked.

James Acaster Isn’t Sure If His Album Is Serious or Funny