The Melbourne International Comedy Festival is underway, and Bon Vivant will be speaking to some of the performers who’ll grace the bars, clubs and theatres of our fair city. Today, Daniel Hedger speaks to Melbourne’s maestro of musical m… m… Daniel Hedger speaks to Alister Newstead.
Hi Al, how are you? How has the preparation for the show gone?
Very well would be the answer to both your questions. I start this Tuesday and I’ve been seeing a bunch of shows in the fest and i’m just itching to perform now.
For the uninitiated, how would you describe your style of comedy?
I always joke that it’s a comedy of distractions, there’s comedy songs, elements of stand-up, impersonations, physical humour, slideshows. It’s a pretty media-heavy and involved hour.
I also joke that I rip-off Bill Bailey, I’m an inner-north, less beardy/balding Bailey. It’s an hour of high-energy musical satire that dissects contemporary popular music. Thus the blanket term, ‘rant’
This is your second MICF show, which you make mention of in the subtitle ‘The difficult second album’. Did you find the writing of this show more of a challenge than when you debuted last year with the highly regarded Al’s Music Rant?
Definitely. The joke of the title was always there, but it ended up becoming a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy. I’d had all my whole life’s experiences and several years of uni revue comedy to put into the first show; and then about six months to come up with the material for the second show. Quite literally, as it had to be ready for Fringe Festival (last November). It was a real struggle, it seems ridiculous to compare myself to the pressures of a globe-trotting band like Coldplay or Arcade Fire having to come up with their own sophomore albums, but I can dream!
Your blog, also titled Al’s Music Rant, is more of a serious critical look at music, though always with a sense of humour. How difficult is it to transpose that to a stage show?
In hindsight I realise that naming the show after the blog was a bit of a misnomer (that’s Latin for ‘bad idea’). Basically the comedy thing has spiralled off into its own entity, while the blog has remained, as you say, a more serious take on music. I like to think that people can understand it as two seperate entities, as two sides of my personality. I think in future one, or both, may be due for a name change.
However, the initial inspirations for the show did come from that online/blog format. It was the key that unlocked the structure of the show. To say ‘hey, there’s a lot of content and it’s pretty manic, so just imagine you’re reading a blog and you’ve clicked a link to reach some new piece of information.’ That ties into the comedy of distractions, of tangents. Once I had that impetus, having such chaotic leaps and segues seemed to be the point rather than the crutch. You can justify going from a nasty quote from Nick Cave to the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and that is the humour. You can do these lists like ‘Top 3 Artists That Sound Like They’re About To Chuck A Tantrum,’ the iPod generation we live in understands that, it’s show from and about someone spawned in the internet culture. There’s just no cat lolz though….
How do you work out where to pitch the material for a show so much about pop culture? Do you assume a certain level of musical knowledge from the audience or are there jokes for even the most pop music inept?
I try not to think about it too much. I’d like to think it’s entertaining regradless of how many of the references you ‘get’. That being said I do test the material with friends, they’ll let me know if my references are more J Dilla than Tracy Chapman, see even that’s probably too much!
Besides, you don’t want to spend time wallowing in exposition, that’s boring for everyone. Take James Hetfield, it’s boring explaining who she is for people who don’t know her and no fun for people that do. Instead, I try to focus the humour elsewhere, you might not know who Hetfield is, but there’s something inherently funny about his singing style and his aggressive stage persona. That’s relatable.
Your previous show featured great audio-visual elements and performance surprises, including some excellent solo choreography. Can we expect more of the same from this show?
Haha, solo choreography, is that a euphemism for the Enya masturbating bit? Yeah, the first show was pretty manic, and a lot of that carries over. The funny thing is, this one feels more cohesive, there’s more of a through-line. There’s still time for a bit of stage wankery (pun intended), and a huge proportion of multimedia content with dancing, impersonations and physical silliness, but there’s meant to be more of a focus on a more personal, critical through-line. If the first show was Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not then this is definitely Your Favourite Worst Nightmare.
You debuted a version of The Difficult Second Album at last year’s Melbourne Fringe Festival. What did that experience teach you? Has the show changed much since then?
Enough to warrant people who’ve already seen it to see it again. It taught me that you can give your audience a bit more credit, there were a lot of sections that felt a bit chatty and angry, that waffled too much. In an arts festival like Fringe, you can get away with that, but for Comedy Fest – people are expecting gags per minute. Well, firstly people are expecting stand-up – which this isn’t. Fringe was like one of those tour edition CDs with the bonus track of remixes, just extra stuff that doesn’t need to be there, for Com Fest. It’s like a lean ten-track album. (alright, enough with the musical analogies)
Last year you also tried your hand at directing, taking the reins of Pat Miller’s show Archibald Wheeler Whets the Whistle. Are you interested in pursuing directing further in the future?
I’ve actually got a small background in directing from my days with the Law Revue, I directed and assistant directed for several years, but Pat’s show was the fist time doing it outside of an ensemble cast. It gave me that Kubrick moment of feeling like a man with a beard making picture gestures with his fingers. He just approached me to do it, and the process taught me a lot.
Pat’s a fantastic performer and character artist, so for me it was about playing to those strengths. I mean, he’s an amazing writer too, but the focus of the show was ‘how do I make this look like something only Pat could do?’ and secondly, giving the show a sense of cohesion and vision.
It was a real tricky task, but I think he was happy with it, and I was happy with it because I didn’t see any catty reviews saying ‘Miller would benefit from a director’ or ‘Miller should fire whoever fucked up his stagecraft.” They might exist, but I didn’t see them.
It’s definitely something I’d love to do in the future, but it’s not something I’d push for singularly. I like writing, developing and performing too much to just sit in the director’s chair. There’s a rewarding glow to the behind-the-scenes stuff, but I can’t deny the kick of being on-stage.
Most overrated musical act ever?
Oooh, a toughie, I don’t want to just go with straight out bad – like Ke$ha or Pitbull – I think will time will tell on those ones. At the risk of losing people coming to my show, I’ve never understood the enduring popularity of Hot Chip, I’d chalk it up to the fact I don’t get it, but when I hear ‘Over and Over’ out and about, I look for an exit.
Just as devious! Curse you Hedger! Well,one of the first ones that springs to mind is British band Oceansize, though they’ve split up so I don’t know if that counts. So I’m going to have to go with the lush Minnesota act Halloween, Alaska and for bonus points, New York’s Arms. Making peerless indie rock since 2004.
You’re also a freelance writer by trade, how does that feed into your comedy?
It’s very important, because it’s basically like a qualification. There is a ‘rant’ element to my show, but I think unlike the angry white stad-up just railing against stuff they hate or ticks them off, I’m coming from a point of passion. All the freelance writing i do for the the likes of triple j, ToneDeaf, Everguide, Beat… whoever, it all ties into that because it’s essentially research. I’m not just having a go at Rebecca Black, I’m actually listening to her latest single on my new $160 pair of headphones… for research. Oh, the irony!
There’s also an element of ‘putting my money where my mouth is.’ I might have a go at artists, saying they can’t write songs, but i’m also up on stage performing songs i’ve written. I’m not being a hypocrite. The whole thing is really meant to be another part of what I do. As well as being a freelance writer, I’m in a videogames podcast called Red Barrel Radio, a fledgling radio presenter, a muso… it’s all just part of this overall, and I hate this expression, ‘public persona.’ The comedy banner of Al’s Music Rant, is part of that – it’s perhaps the most public, but it relies on all those other extra-curricular things too.
What would you recommend seeing at this year’s Comedy Festival?
Well, I’d obviously love people to come along to my show, but if it doesn’t seem your thing then definitely check out anything playing at Tuxedo Cat, a great venue that’s hosting comedy that’s more left-field, but still brilliant. I love the weirder side of stuff, like Claudia O’Doherty or Sam Simmons. Their shows are excellent.