"My Manager Said 'Just Write Some Songs You Dickhead'" - Tim Minchin In Conversation
"My comedy career began by me reflecting on the fact I really had nothing much to write about," says Tim Minchin, who you either know as that barefoot piano freak who rips the piss out of religious people, or the multi award-winning composer of Matilda the musical.
"I was too middle-class to have any drama going on in life. I played piano not guitar, I liked The Beatles not the Stones. But since [breakthrough hit] 'Darkside' came out I’ve actually lived a bit. I’ve taken my share of slings and arrows, and now – I think – I have something more to say."
Which is just as well, because Tim Minchin has a proper grown-up studio album coming out.
‘Apart Together’ was composed mostly in the wake of Minchin’s short yet bruising flirtation with the movie business. On the heels of his uncanny ascent from Edinburgh Festival novelty act to sellout arena megastar, Minchin moved his wife and kids over to Hollywood to write and co-direct big budget animated flick Larrikins. Larrikins was slated to star Hugh Jackman and Margot Robbie, but the project was unceremoniously dropped after four years hard work in a brutal studio power move.
It never rains but it pours. Around the same time, Minchin’s big-budget Broadway adaptation of the Bill Murray classic Groundhog Day ran aground at the box office, in spite of widespread critical acclaim, bringing down the curtain after just a few short months.
Fortunately, for us fans anyway, Tim Minchin got straight back on the piano and bashed out an LP’s worth of bangers, fizzing with his trademark acid one-liners, plus a goodly helping of more reflective ballads too.
And lucky old me, I had like an hour to chat to him about all that stuff over Zoom.
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Your new single is called 'Airport Piano' – that’s a weird subject to write a song about. Why?
I’ve developed a strong philosophy over the years, that if you miss a flight, or get delayed or whatever, you should think to yourself ‘what can I do in this time that I will look back on in a month or a year and be like, wow, if I hadn’t got delayed I would never have done… that amazing thing.’ Whatever it is.
So did you actually, and I quote, "write this song on an airport piano?"
No, I did not.
You’re a fraud Minchin, a base charlatan. How do you sleep at night?
I sleep very well, on an extremely expensive mattress paid for by lies.
I imagine so. But ha! In the song you’re extremely mean about rich people. In particular ‘women in SUV Porsches’. What’s your beef?
The observation that women in SUV Porsches always look miserable is a reflection on the fact we spend our time not living in the now, but pursuing the false gods of position and power. Driving in Los Angeles one day I saw three women sat in Porsche SUVs, in a row, and they all looked furious. It’s funny because the capitalist project, the American dream, is that you’re supposed to be happy, right?
One of your earliest comic tunes, ‘Mitsubishi Colt’, details a conversation between a wealthy stockbroker and you, a penniless artist driving a shitty Japanese clunker. What do you drive nowadays, huh Tim?
I also drive an SUV. It’s a BMW, and it’s eight-years old. But yeah. The lyric is about me, course it is – it’s a total mid-life crisis song. I’m reflecting on the fact that nowadays I live among people of wealth. I have a great house with a view of the ocean. And yet I observe no increase in wellbeing. Everybody sort of knows that the constant pursuit of success and stuff doesn’t make you happier, but there’s only one way to really believe that, and it’s to experience it. And I fully expect everyone to say ‘fuck off you’re a cunt’. But when you get there, you’ll see. It’s complicated.
‘So it goes’, the old Kurt Vonnegut aphorism, is right there in the lyric to Airport Piano. Existential crisis much?
‘So it goes’ really is the underlying wisdom of Groundhog Day, and the theme of [his ace new TV series] Upright, and the whole album really. Grappling with time and working out how to lead a good life. And the wisdom, the big theme, is that you need to acquiesce, to accept death. If the album was a book, ‘so it goes’ would most probably be the quote before chapter one.
Are you still sore because of everything that went down with Larrikins?
Again, it’s complicated. I sort of loved living in LA, Sarah [my wife] and I had a great time there. It’s a hell of a thing, committing to an animated film, and I wouldn’t do it again. Really, I was trying to make good decisions for my family – to get off tour, to stop being recognised in the street. So LA seemed like a good move, and I learned so much there. But I’ll always carry contempt for the way Hollywood works, and I copped a pretty hefty load of its psychopathic attitude.
The people who pulled the plug didn’t even judge the movie as no good, they just decided ‘well, we didn’t start that movie, and we’ve taken over the studio now, so we’re writing all that stuff off.’ Just a colossal shitty corporate takeover.
How do you think the movie would’ve gone down with audiences, had the cards fallen differently?
Hans Zimmer was doing the score with me, we had some great tunes, a huge all-star cast. It was a bit different – which is perhaps why Universal were scared of it – but if it had hit, it would’ve really hit hard exactly because of that.
Now, if it had gone really well, and I’d have been nominated for a Best Song Oscar – could’ve happened! – my ego and ambition may well have trapped me in LA forever. And that’s not my place. Just because I’ve done okay in my career doesn’t mean I need to run panting to America. I mean, fuck that place. Not just the art – it’s bonkers, it’s a failed state.
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On your new album there’s a conspicuous absence of what I’d describe as your ‘rationalist’ songs. Tunes like ‘Storm’, or ‘Thank You God’. Why have you abandoned trying to wake people up, during the Trump era indeed?
I am absolutely devastated by the failure of the project of truth, a project that for years I genuinely felt I was contributing to. I despair. I despair deeply, and I was despairing at the cost of my mental health. Two years ago I was probably depressed, and reading far too much news. I’ve also come to understand that the art of polemic is no longer any good, because everybody is a polemicist nowadays. And most of them are shit at it.
But being a good polemicist in a world stewing in its own anger… well, I don’t want to be a part of that any more. I don’t believe anything I can do will change Donald Trump, or America, so why the fuck would I choose to bathe in it? It makes me want to scream.
Social media is a motherfucker eh.
Over these past few months I’ve pretty much stopped using Twitter, and it has absolutely improved my life. I quit reading the news as well. You could accuse me of putting my head in the sand, and you’d be right. I’ve chosen to concentrate on being a happier person for my children, a more positive artist for my fans, and a better husband for my wife.
It sounds like I’m giving up on activism, but it’s more like I’m just learning the limits of my power – despite my profile and having a bit more money nowadays. For a long time I had this incredible, megalomaniacal attitude that I could fix things. That’s nuts. What I’ve really learned is that if you’re lucky and you’re really dedicated you can fix a few things, in your community, and that's worthwhile.
And at least you got to make an album.
Yes, and increasingly I’ve come to understand that the happiness I get from my work actually lasts, because the art is making people happy. I get a huge amount of pride from the fact my work employs people, in this industry, especially through Matilda. But my personality type, maybe, keeps returning to the thought that ‘if I only achieved this or that, then I’d be satisfied.’ Then of course the goal keeps receding. It’s like a pathology, really. my whole career I’ve never once taken my foot off the accelerator. I fucking love my work, but it’s an addiction for sure.
Go on then, tell me about the process of making the record.
I went into this album with the same doubts I’ve always had about myself. I can write in so many different styles – a five-year-old girl for Matilda, or suicidal man for Groundhog Day, or dense comic eviscerations on whatever topic you can name. But I don’t know what my own style is. I don’t have a point of view. There’s no ‘me’.
Anyway, I kept telling my manager, Michael, that I could write a whole funk album if he wanted, or a whole blues record, or a load of modern jazz standards. What should I write? So Michael said ‘just write some songs, you dickhead’.
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We hail an inspirational leader of men.
So I wrote a bunch of songs. A couple of them date back to my London days – ‘Summer Romance’ especially, which I happen to think is a great jogging song because it meanders along, and then it kicks in and you just feel like lengthening your stride. But of the new ones, ‘Apart Together’, the title track, is really interesting I think. It has this really long prologue, then a chorus, then a trumpet solo in the second verse. Because by then I’ve said what I want to say, so let’s just listen to the trumpet for a bit.
‘Talked Too Much And Stayed Too Long,’ is probably my ‘Ballad Of John And Yoko.’ The orchestral arrangement in ‘Absence of You’ is really really good, and sounds amazing when you crank it up. So I feel like the album is ‘me’. It allows me to be quirky and witty, even in the sad songs. I’m not exactly turning off my comedy brain, but at the same time I’m not constantly chasing punchlines.
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The song ‘I’ll Take Lonely Tonight’ returns to a theme you’ve covered before, of you being in a situation where you’re on tour and some sexy lady fan wants a piece of you. As a card-carrying atheist, what is the basis of your ethics? Why not just cheat?
That’s a good question, for a rock magazine. I actually think there is no greater morality, there’s just what sort of person you are. I guess philosophically I’m a Utilitarian, in that I want the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people. But maybe one day, when I’m 70, I’ll regret not seizing those moments. After all, what’s life for but to shag, drink and dance?
I put my wife on a pedestal, and that's my choice. Ultimately I’m not much of a reader of philosophy, I prefer novels, and I’m way more interested in how Vonnegut talks about life than how Nietzche talks about life. It’s funnier, anyway, and quainter.
So having made it big in London and ‘done’ LA for a bit, reckon you’ll stay home in Oz now?
We didn’t come back here [to Australia] as a career move, it was to move home. Just over there [he gestures] is the lake I rode my bike around for eleven years on my way to school. I’ve been lucky in my career, but coming back here is part of a project at re-examining my ambition, and how healthy it is to constantly be pursuing those ever-receding goals.
I want to keep working til I’m dead, but I also want to spend some time out in the bush, building pathways through trees. Or whatever I’m up to these days. The next step isn’t so much about stepping back from my obligations, but it is about stepping back from egotism. Or at least trying.
I love that Serenity Prayer, which basically says ‘god grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.’
So I guess that’s the foundation of your ethics then?
I guess so. A shitty bon mot you’d find on a cheap fridge magnet.
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'Airport Piano' is out today. He’s auctioning the piano in the video for charity.
Words: Andy Hill
Photo Credit: Damian Bennett
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