You don’t need drugs when you have the psychedelic imagination of Noel Fielding, finds Janet Christie
IT’S early so Noel Fielding is dressed down in a mouse T-shirt and skinny jeans, although the snakeskin boots by rock ’n’ roll cobbler Terry de Havilland lift the look to louche lounge lizard.
“I don’t have any clothes that are normal,” says the 41-year-old Never Mind The Buzzcocks team captain, comedian, musician, artist, DJ and actor. “I used to like getting ready to go out, dressing up and playing music and having a glass of champagne. But that’s the best bit. Then you just feel like just staying in.”
He’s using the past tense because these days he spends less time falling out of the Groucho Club with the likes of Pixie Geldof and Courtney Love and more time at home in London’s Highgate with his partner XFM DJ Lliana Bird. With his fluffy hair bleached reassuringly back to black after a blond do that was more Marilyn Monroe than Marilyn Manson, this morning he’s bright-eyed and bushy-tailed as he discusses his forthcoming solo tour, An Evening With Noel Fielding. Supported by his brother Mike, who plays Naboo in The Mighty Boosh, and Tom Meeten, who plays Andy Warhol in Noel Fielding’s Luxury Comedy, the tour takes in 30 venues from Dublin to Dunfermline, and will see him entertaining fans with his mix of stand-up comedy, live animation, music and some of his best known TV characters such as The Moon and Fantasy Man.
“I’m not so bothered about going out at night now,” he says. “I don’t mind staying in. I’m a sucker for telly. Something like Project Runway or Masterchef, you can just come in really tired, sit down and watch,” he says, leaning back on the sofa round at his friend Sergio Pizzorno of Kasabian’s house. He and Pizzorno formed the band Loose Tapestries together, and Fielding joined them onstage at this year’s Glastonbury, proving he hasn’t entirely hung up his spangly bodysuits yet. “Yeah, I still go out partying once in a while. The best way to clear your mind is to go out and get really drunk and relax a bit. Brush away the cobwebs and drink a few drinks and dance.”
Fielding is best known for his groundbreaking TV work, the genre-defying The Mighty Boosh, which he wrote with co-star and comedy partner Julian Barratt, and now Luxury Comedy, a sitcom set in a coffee shop on the edge of a Hawaiian volcano. The psychedelic character-based comedy show written with Nigel Coan and with music from Pizzorno is half filmed, half animated. There’s also his role as the disconcerting Richmond Avenal in The IT Crowd, and more down to earth is his team captaincy on panel show Never Mind The Buzzcocks.
As well as the comedy and music, the art school graduate has also held sell-out shows of his Rousseau/Lichtenstein/Dali-inspired psychedelic visuals at Gallery Maison Bertaux and the Saatchi Gallery, and his crazy doodlings are popular with the likes of Turner Prize winner Keith Tyson and a celebrity following. They also spill out of the pages of his 2011 book The Scribblings Of A Madcap Shambleton.
“I relax a bit when I’m doing art. I don’t when I’m doing comedy. But it’s a bit solitary being a painter. I go to my studio and put music on and can be there for ten hours on my own. Comedy is the absolute opposite, a party all the time. You need a bit of both, I think.”
It’s all about the visuals with Fielding, and his artistic output covers drawing, painting, collage, photography and multimedia installations. On screen his shows blend animation and fantastically costumed characters, from Frida Kahlo to a chocolate biscuit. Off-screen he’s every bit as flamboyant. Jimmy Carr called him “the progeny of Rod Stewart and a raven” and Phill Jupitus “a Gothic George Best”.
“I’m happy with the Rod Stewart thing. I like The Faces. And I like ravens. I think appearance is interesting. My mum was obsessed with Marc Bolan and David Bowie and these people always looked otherworldly to me. If you’re that famous you should be seen out in a cape. That’s how we want to see them. If you see Keith Richards you want him to have things in his hair and look like a pirate. I saw Jarvis Cocker once and he was wearing his brown corduroy suit and that’s how you want to see him. Russell Brand, he’s another one that likes to dress up. It’s depressing when people dress down in woolly hats.”
A self-confessed “shy child”, Fielding was always artistic – a talent he discovered at a young age, spending hours sitting at the kitchen table drawing and painting.
“I could draw and that was my thing. It was chance to shine as a kid. On my second day at school the teacher said we had to draw a bird and I realised everyone was standing behind me looking at it. I thought I’d done something wrong and was very embarrassed. But then the teacher said, right, Noel’s really good at drawing and he’s going to draw everyone’s birds and you will colour them in. That was it really, from then on I was the kid who could draw. And teachers would say you’re going to art school. I thought, what is art school?”
Fielding found out when he went to Croydon Art College then on to Brunel University in Buckinghamshire. He had found his forte in film-making, fine art, painting and finally graphics, which led him into advertising.
“I loved that. It’s problem-solving, coming up with a concept such as how do you sell alcohol if you’re not allowed to say it gets you drunk? I stumbled on advertising and making weird films.”
Art school also led him into comedy and stand-up after an enthusiastically received book presentation in which he chose the Bible and dressed up as Jesus. On the comedy circuit Fielding saw Barratt performing a gig, and Barratt offered him a place to perform.
“We found we could work together, write together and had the same taste. It worked on stage from the first gig. That doesn’t happen very often. The heart of it was our dialogues, the two of us being together and writing, music and stuff. I work better with a partner, bouncing off someone else.”
Fielding and Barratt came up with The Mighty Boosh while working on Stewart Lee’s Edinburgh Fringe show. When they returned with it to the Festival, they carried off the Perrier Award for Best Newcomer in 1998. Two more festivals led to a commission for Radio 4, and The Mighty Boosh moved on to TV in 2004, with three series running until 2007. Fielding and Barratt went their separate ways from 2009, when Fielding began working with Coan on Luxury Comedy.
“Julian and I didn’t want to say we had stopped working together or had split up, because we hadn’t. It was like a marriage and we just needed a break from working. We’d done Boosh for 12 years. We worked all day and weekends, that was all we did.
“We both started doing other things. I did Luxury Comedy and The Buzzcocks, and Julian is writing a film with someone, and he’s got two little boys. We are so close. I live in the next block from him. He can see into my bedroom and I can see into his lounge. He’s got the best deal.”
Talk of a Boosh film has been going on for years, but Fielding is non-committal about it. “I’m sure we’ll do something together in the future,” says Fielding. In fact, The Mighty Boosh team of Fielding, Barratt, Rich Fulcher on keyboards, Dave Brown on percussion, and Fielding’s brother Michael, did get together to guest at a gig by Jack Black’s band, Tenacious D, last October.
“But we don’t want to undo any of The Boosh. We don’t want to tamper with it or do something that damages the TV show. Making a film is a long commitment of three years of your life, so it’s difficult when you’ve got family and need to earn a living. It’s not like when you’re 23 and you don’t care.”
After Boosh, Fielding was keen to make something “experimental and crazy and different” and describes Luxury Comedy as being “like an insect version of the Antiques Roadshow”. Launching the first series, written with Coan and with music by Pizzorno, he said: “I wanted to make something in the spirit of Spike Milligan or The Kenny Everett Show but using modern techniques, blending filmed comedy with animation. Television needs a madman. I want the show to be psychedelic and beautiful but have charm and personality. If Dali made a show, hopefully it would look like this.”
With Boosh being such a cult success Fielding was steeled for the backlash when Luxury Comedy aired in 2012. “People either loved it or hated it,” says Fielding. “It was like a Captain Beefheart album. Boosh had reached a boiling point where we could do no wrong. It was overexposed and I had become one of those celeb people stumbling out of the Groucho. Boosh was massive touring, and we were like the Rolling Stones – in the tabloids and hanging out with Amy Winehouse. We used to drink in the same pub, hang out. She used to come in and play cards with her boyfriend. Then I saw her two years later and she was all sucked in. It’s really sad, horrendous. She sold 12 million albums, reached so many people and was an amazing performer. I keep thinking I’m going to see her. It’s like a dream that she’s not here.
“The tabloids had nothing to write about so they wrote about me, and people felt they knew who I was, but they didn’t really.”
Being the creator of public property can make it difficult to move on, and Fielding was ready for a critical mauling over Luxury Comedy.
“I don’t think a lot of Boosh fans took to Luxury Comedy because it wasn’t Boosh,” he says.
Not that the reviews were bad. In fact, the more august broadsheets liked the show, with AA Gill proclaiming it “comedy communism”. “He was spot-on with that because we treated everything equally: the imagery, the comedy and the music. The costume was as important as the script. It’s the look first, story second and comedy third. And the music’s very important too,” he says.
“With Julian we always did music because he’s very musical, then Sergio and I became friends and it seemed natural to say, ‘Want to help me do the music?’ I say ‘Can you do a song that’s a bit Barry White, a bit unicorn?’ He loves the challenge.”
If Fielding’s world is a surreal one, he denies he’s cut off from reality. With age has come an increase in social awareness, or at least in putting it in his work. “On the Boosh we never wanted to comment on anything massively. But writing the second series of Luxury Comedy Nige and I were 40 and started getting more concerned about things. The riots in London were happening and because of things like that we thought it would be quite good if there was a disaffected youth.”
This being Fielding, his disaffected youth is a fish in a tank who starts an underwater society, and the second series in particular goes back to TV basics. “On the internet people like jumping about and short bursts of things, but with TV they like to sit down and watch, dedicate time to it. The second series was more of a sitcom – a weird one – with a story every week, set in one place. If you’re going to do an out-there show you have to put in place a very simple format and structure. You can’t be too different. You need normal, then the weirdness jumps out. In the first Luxury Comedy there wasn’t enough normal and we tried to reinvent the wheel. It’s a niche market but you can’t be too niche,” he says.
With the second series of Luxury Comedy just aired, a third hasn’t been commissioned. “I’d have to persuade Nige to do another one. He’s got a little boy,” says Fielding.
What about Fielding. Is he thinking about settling down and having kids like Barratt and Coan?
“Yes, I am. All my friends have kids so I’m hanging out with them a lot. They’re amazing. They are funny and make you happy, and furious, fill your life and burst your heart.”
Fielding’s parents were teenagers when he was born, and in their sociable, liberal household, the artistic child thrived.
“My mum and dad lived their lives rather than lived for their jobs. They were weekend people who loved doing stuff with me and my brother. They used to go to lots of gigs – The Rolling Stones, Zappa, Pink Floyd, Bowie, Led Zeppelin – and they always offered to take me but I was a bit scared. And because they were so young, they had to get jobs. My dad worked at the post office and my mum’s had loads of jobs.”
Because his parents were working, Fielding spent a lot of time with his French grandmother. Is this where his love of surrealism came from?
“Maybe. My dad says ‘Your Nan always watches you on the telly’. She comes to see me, and when we won the Perrier she and my grandad came. He said I don’t really understand it, but if the young people like it, it’s good enough for me. But she loved it. She is a very strong woman from the south of France, Toulon. She was there when the Nazis occupied it and lived there with her mum, who would never go in the bomb shelter so they stayed in the house. She met my grandad, who was an English soldier, and came to live with him here. When you have lived through wars, you don’t have time for any fuss.”
For his part Fielding isn’t sure his world view is particularly bizarre and says Barratt felt that even more strongly. “Julian hated the word surreal. He said what is that? He didn’t like it when people say you must have taken drugs to come up with that. Drugs don’t make anything good. They have never helped the process. It’s the worst thing ever. I’ve never needed them, really. Dali never took drugs. He said, ‘I am drugs’. It’s like in Asterix when Obelix is not allowed magic potion because he fell into the cauldron when he was a baby and is super strong already. I fell into the LSD cauldron when I was a baby. If I take drugs I’m really boring. You won’t get anywhere if you don’t treat it like a proper job.”
So the psychedelic world he creates isn’t the result of any drug-induced hallucinations, or even nocturnal dreams he might have that he quickly commits to paper. It’s a much more boring story of hard work and routine.
“Dream it all?” he says, when I suggest the creative process might be a spontaneous outpouring of his subconscious. “I wish I did. But I don’t dream at all at night. I went for therapy for a bit and the therapist said the door to your subconscious is open all the time so you don’t need that bit at night. Julian used to say that I dream in the daytime.
“The fun bit is having the idea, that initial spark, and performing, painting, animation. It’s the writing bit that’s hard,” he says.
“And I’d better get on with it because I’ve only written half of it so far.”
An Evening With Noel Fielding Live Tour, Dunfermline Alhambra, 22 October, 8pm, £25 (01383 740 384. www.ticketmaster.co.uk)