Bill Murray and a chamber trio led by his friend, cellist Jan Vogler, are travelling the world sharing their love of words and music with New Worlds, a celebration of positive American values. The Hollywood star talks to Janet Christie ahead of their Edinburgh show
Back in 2013 Bill Murray was about to board a flight from Berlin to New York and noticed another passenger carrying a large box. Or as the star of numerous blockbusters from Ghostbusters to Groundhog Day tells it, “Uh, I saw this fella carrying an oddly shaped box, and I said ‘are you going to fit that thing in the overhead locker?’ And he looked at me like I was braindead, and said ‘it has its own seat’. And not only does it have its own seat, but it has its own seat in first class. And it has the window seat.” He laughs. “Just another thing I don’t know anything about – how you travel around with a Stradivarius cello.”
The fella was Jan Vogler, internationally renowned German musician, the cello was a 1707 Stradivarius and the trio hit it off on the flight. Back home in New York they became friends, mixing it up in New York’s cultural melée. “He heard me play Bach, I heard him read Whitman,” says Vogler. Then Murray invited Vogler on an organised poetry walk across the Brooklyn Bridge and the idea for the show, New Worlds, which they perform in Edinburgh on Monday, was born.
Billed as an encounter between the great music and literature that showcases American values and builds cultural bridges between the US and Europe, it features works by Twain, Hemingway, Whitman, Bach, Bernstein, Gershwin, Van Morrison and Tom Waits. Murray handles the vocals, songs and poems, with music, from Vogler on cello, his Chinese wife Mira Wang on violin and Venezuelan Vanessa Perez on piano.
It’s a little left-field, something unexpected, unpredictable, exactly what you’d expect from Murray who has long segued happily from comedy classics like Ghostbusters and The Royal Tenenbaums to co-writing and starring in a Somerset Maugham adaptation (The Razor’s Edge in 1984) or singing Roxy Music’s More Than This in a Tokyo karaoke bar in Lost in Translation. He even turned up washing dishes at a student party in St Andrews after a celebrity golf tournament. Maybe Bill Murray performing The Bonnie Banks o’ Loch Lomond with a classical trio is exactly what you’d expect him to be doing on a Monday night in Edinburgh.
Curiosity and openness is a facet of Murray’s character, who, now 67, is the antithesis of the celebrity who avoids eye contact and shuffles past with a minder. And as he tells the story of how he met Vogler, 54, you can imagine him sizing up the other passengers and their bags. He’s clubbable, interested in people, and as if to underscore that point, he has Vogler there with him on the phone from London as the pair talk about New Worlds. The cello, is presumably stashed somewhere safe for the moment.
“For Jan it’s like a child – you have to think about it, protect it, carry it gently and give it all the love you can. It’s like having a miracle child on the stage, sort of like when those Jacksons realised that Michael could really sing, let’s push this thing out in front!”
What’s Murray’s equivalent, the most precious object in his life?
“It’s funny,” he says, “I hate to sound like a corny guy, but there’s no thing in my life I’m not so scared to break… but I have some sons, you know, those are my favourite things. But I don’t travel with them from venue to venue!” Twice married and divorced Murray has six sons, Homer and Luke with his first wife, and Jackson, Cal, Cooper and Lincoln with his second.
Interviewing two people at once always reveals the dynamics of their relationship and Murray and Vogler complement each other in conversation, easy in each others’ company, inviting the other to answer, deferring to the other’s expertise when we talk about their show: Bill Murray, Jan Vogler and Friends: New Worlds. Murray speaks about the performance of the words, Vogler the music. Murray is all-American, ‘Oh boy! Oh man! Goll-leee!,’ while Vogler’s German accented English is correct and precise.
Vogler explains how the artists the pair have chosen build bridges across the Atlantic, and why they chose the music and literature they did.
“There’s a positive attitude in America, every day it’s a new day and I think that came from the settlers, who had to fight so many obstacles. I like that spirit!
“And I was always a big fan of transatlantic life and connections because Germany was so much influenced by America after the Second World War. America liberated a big part of Germany from fascism so that made a big impression on me as a child. And also, many of my musical ancestors immigrated to America because they were Jewish or had to flee because their artwork was too progressive, so when I came to America I was fascinated to find Europe in America, in the intellectual life.
“The bridge is real. Gershwin was a Jewish composer who composed a piece about a black couple in America in the 1930s [Porgy and Bess] and Bernstein comes to America and composes the most successful Broadway piece ever, about Puerto Ricans in New York [West Side Story]. Ravel composed his violin sonatas after hearing the jazz and blues in the US and Hemingway wrote about Paris. It’s an immigrant country and I feel an immigrant there.”
For his part, Murray says his roots are Irish, according to his parents, but he’s happy to think there’s a Scottish link too.
“Every Scots Murray says I’m Scottish, so I claim all the Murrays. Andy Murray is my cousin, so when he won Wimbledon I was carried around on people’s shoulders. I made them.”
Going back to New Worlds Murray thinks that experiencing something as an outsider or newcomer gives a clarity that sparks creativity.
“The ocean is a telescope that allows you to see the other side more clearly, more objectively. There’s a consciousness that’s raised when you travel, just walking down a street because the buildings are different, the foliage is different, so our senses are heightened and alive.”
“I think they’re are less prejudiced in America,” says Vogler. “It comes from the mix of people and the youth of the country. Gustav Mahler said that ‘keeping traditions is not worshipping the ashes, it’s keeping the fire alive’. And there is fire there, even naivety. A key piece in our show is a scene from Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, where a child in the 1830s does the right thing by helping a slave escape. I think that’s the American spirit, to do something and think of others.”
Given the daily outpourings from some of America’s political and showbiz leaders, the likes of Trump, Kanye and the Kardashians, do the pair feel the time is ripe for a re-iteration of their take on American values?
“I’m not sure there’s any time that it’s more important that you promote positive values,” says Murray, “but it would seem like a brightening would be appreciated by our allies and friends who don’t know what America is at this moment. And I would say there are a lot of Americans too that aren’t quite sure at this moment.
“What Kanye says is going to have absolutely no effect on Walt Whitman or Hemingway and it’s not going to change the melodies. Because there’s a constancy about those values that are maintained in the material. We’re walking round with a briefcase full of good news here, the best parts of American decency and what democracy was.”
Murray’s use of the past tense is telling.
Born in a suburb of Chicago, Murray is the fifth of nine children, who after school joined his brother in a comedy troupe. This led to the radio show National Lampoon Hour with Dan Aykroyd, Gilda Radner and John Belushi, then TV with Saturday Night Live, and the big screen with 1979 hit Meatballs.
His 40-year-film career displays his ability to capture the complexities of character, a skill that has won him awards – Emmys for Saturday Night Live and more recently the HBO miniseries Olive Kitteridge with Frances McDormand, and a Golden Globe, BAFTA, and Oscar nomination for Lost in Translation. There was Rushmore and What about Bob?, Stripes, a turn as Franklin D Roosevelt, in Hyde Park on Hudson, comedy with a kick in St Vincent with Melissa McCarthy, and more recently the reboot of Ghostbusters in 2016 and this year’s Isle of Dogs.
I tell him my favourite film of his is Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation alongside Scarlett Johansson, and not just for his version of Elvis Costello’s (What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace Love and Understanding?
“Oh well, that’s a good one,” he agrees. “I like ‘em all, they’re really like your children, you’re not supposed to have a favourite. But I always root for the ones people didn’t see as much of. Jan’s saying he likes What About Bob? [the 1991 black comedy starring Murray and Richard Dreyfuss] and Rushmore. But I was thinking today about The City of Ember, a movie I made in Belfast. That’s a really unusually good movie that no-one even saw. The company producing it went broke the week it was supposed to be out. It had a great director, Saoirse Ronan was a child actor in it, so wonderful... It should have been a very successful film, but it was just one of those where the studio fumbles a drop kick and messes up.”
With so many films in his CV, it’s hard to know which of Murray’s films to focus on, but with time running out we can’t not mention Ghostbusters, and push him for his take on the Girlbusters remake, which he also starred in. So what did he really think about it?
“Well, I think it’s an extraordinary accomplishment, but it’s hard to remake a movie, very, very hard. The first cut is the deepest as Cat Stevens said. The second one to me was not as charming as the first, but it had moments.
“I thought those girls were really funny, really funny. I could listen to those four all day long, all with unremitting ammo and they just kept shooting. I had worked with Melissa McCarthy and she’s wonderful and funny and Kristen Wiig, just kills me. It was so much fun to be there on the set.
“My only complaint was their uniforms should have been better, more fun. They looked like garbage collectors. They could have gone more wild, high fashion, more empowering, like armour, with those. But the girls were real funny, yeah.”
Another notable feature of his career has been his long collaboration with Wes Anderson, who used Murray in The Royal Tenenbaums, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, The Darjeeling Limited, Fantastic Mr Fox, Moonrise Kingdom and The Grand Budapest Hotel. Does he think he’ll work with him again?
“Sure, I just assume that I’ll work with him. It’s such a delight. We work well together.” But he doesn’t think his value to Anderson is all down to his acting skills.
“I’m kind of a lieutenant in that I help in various ways. I’m DGA. I can cross the lines, you know,” he says. “If you’re in the Directors Guild of America you can do any job on any movie, so if we’ve only got 15 minutes to get a shot and you have to move all of this equipment from one side of the room to another and because of union rules only certain guys are supposed to touch the cables, or stands, and they’re not there, well I’m allowed to pick anything up. So if we’ve gotta move fast, I’m not gonna laze back and sit. This is a moment where you automatically jump in and help to push, you know, like if you see some people trying to push start a car. You join in.”
That’ll be the positive, American can-do spirit that Vogler was talking about. Although he probably doesn’t go as far as letting Murray move his Stradivarius around the set.
Bill Murray, Jan Vogler and Friends: New Worlds, is at the Festival Theatre Edinburgh, on Monday, 7:30pm, tickets from www.capitaltheatres.com and LiveNation.co.uk