UNCUT INTERVIEW: Stewart Lee | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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Ahead of his latest tour, A Room With A Stew, reaching Durham’s Gala Theatre on 14th May and Newcastle’s City Hall on 4th and 5th June, we got to put a few questions to Stewart Lee. Read below for the full transcript…

The current tour is intended as a live run-through of new material for the next Comedy Vehicle series. For any readers who have not seen previous tours like this, how do they differ from your more typical shows? Does it affect the way you perform the material?

Tour shows like Carpet Remnant World, 41st Best Stand Up Ever, and If You Prefer A Milder Comedian all have a narrative through line of sorts running through their two-hour length, some have a set design that connects to the themes involved. They have beginnings, middles and ends. There may be room for improvisations within them but the essential shape and content of the show will stay the same for the twelve-eighteen months it is being performed, until it is ditched. There will be pacing issues, dramatic ebbs and flows, appropriate to its length and structure. Tour shows with titles like Room With A Stew, Much A-Stew About Nothing and Vegetable Stew were all tour shows where I was working out new material for different series of Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle, and tickets were priced a few pounds less accordingly.

They differ from the other shows in that I will be trying to generate six or seven distinct half hour blocks of material for the TV, and will introduce the shows as such, and will chop and change the material over the twelve-eighteen months I am performing shows of that title, until I have the three/three-and-a-half hours I need. I will perform probably not more than two hours per night, time allowing, so the shows draw from a work-in-progress content databank, as and when material is available, or requires finessing. When a bit is working it will be out to bed and replaced with worse material.

Also, in the shows which are stories I can destroy the character of me at the end if I want, but he has to be ready to run again for the next thirty minute section in these, so they are rarely as self-destructively extreme.

You’re also playing (in Newcastle at least) larger venues than on previous tours. Does this affect aspects of the performance and material, e.g. the splitting of the audience?

I have tried to play larger venues to meet the demand. I really liked the Tyne Theatre, which is one of those well designed Victorian spaces where no-one feels very far away. I haven’t done this Newcastle venue before. I hope it is ok. The main problem is that the bigger rooms tend to be marketed to the sort of people who go and see TV comedians, and these people aren’t used to having to concentrate on comedy and they wander around and slam doors. This doesn’t matter too much as the character of me on stage expects to be disappointed by the public, but there are already a few bigger ones for this tour that I have decided not to return to.

Is there a difficulty in keeping the material you’ve been performing on tour fresh and up-to-date for recording and broadcast? Does this change the kind of material you write in the run-up to a new series?

No. It’s like spinning plates. I move it around so it’s peaking when we come to record. Mainly it improves it, as long as there’s room to improvise built in.

For several years, you’ve put positive and negative quotes about your act together in your publicity material. Is there a sense of delineating an us vs them element to your act in this, e.g. the people who might see a Stewart Lee show vs. the UKIPs of this world?

No. I just don’t want to be blamed for wasting someone’s night, especially if they have paid for a babysitter, and want to give people fair warning that they might not like the show. If they hate it, it isn’t my fault. It is what it is.

On a similar note – does it affect your relationship with the audience if they are clearly opposed or not on board with certain viewpoints expressed by yourself or the on-stage character?

The comedian Stewart Lee thinks all audiences are beneath him, and would always find a way of being disappointed in them. I miss being hated more, to be honest.

stewartlee_steve_ullathorne-2011

“The comedian Stewart Lee thinks all audiences are beneath him, and would always find a way of being disappointed in them”

One noticeable shift across the series of Comedy Vehicle is in the look and tone of the sketches, especially the art house, dialogue-free style of the last series. How did this develop, and has there been much consideration yet of how this might develop in the next series?

There were already a lot of words in the series. In the second series, there was a sketch where an Adrian Chiles faced jug of urine was ceremonially paraded through a stately home, which had no words in it, and I realised this was the way to go for series three, at last, and it worked much better as a contrast to all the talk. It also allows director Tim Kirkby and his team to really express themselves which is nice.

The upcoming fourth series of Comedy Vehicle is the last one you are currently contracted for. Has there been any thought (from yourself to put to you) about any further series, or television work in a different format?

I don’t want to do anything on TV except stand-up. I don’t know if they will re-commission Comedy Vehicle. It is up for a BAFTA again. Who knows?

You’ve also developed a prolific side-line as an occasional columnist for The Guardian. How does the generation of material for the page and for performance overlap and/or differ? Are you keen to pursue writing more as part of your work?

I write the columns in character as the sort of person who imagines he should write for The Guardian. And they feel very written. I generate the stand-up for someone who is a stand-up comedian. It is supposed to feel spoken. There’s not much crossover, but I think I cracked how to do these columns (for me) about two years ago and I really enjoy it now. I sort of took myself out of it and imagined someone else was doing it, some columnist bloke.

I also noticed you appear on the new Shirley Collins tribute album alongside the likes of Will Oldham, Trembling Bells, Lee Ranaldo… How did you first come across her work, and how did you become involved in this record?

I saw a Shirley Collins album second hand in the nineties and bought it because it was on Topic like Nic Jones, Dick Gaughan and June Tabor, all of whom I already liked. It was brilliant. I interviewed her about fifteen years ago when Fledgling and David Tibet started reissuing her stuff and we got on well. I attended a symposium at St Edmund Hall, Oxford, about ballads that she spoke at last year, and attendees were required to sing a folk song. I only knew one, so I did it with Stuart Estell on concertina, with no rehearsal. It was Polly On The Shore. The bloke from the fundraising record was there and asked to put it on the record, and Shirley agreed.

As this is a) for a magazine that primarily covers music, and b) you’re noted as a supporter of acts like Richard Dawson and Sleaford Mods, I would be remiss in not asking what your current listening consists of, old or new…

Here is a list of all the records I have listened to this year so far. Just because I listened to them doesn’t mean I liked them. The ones I really liked are in bold.

NEW RECORDS – 2015

Darren Hayman – Chants For Socialists
The Wolfhounds – Middle Aged Freaks ****
The Waterboys – Modern Blues
The Primevals – Tales Of Endless Bliss
Mark Kozelek – Sings Christmas Carols
Cedell Davis – Last Man Standing
Bob Dylan – Shadows In The Night
Pat Todd & The Rank Outsiders – 14th & Nowhere ****
White Hills – Walks For Motorists
Ricked Wicky – I Sell The Circus
Nick Pynn – new album
Chris Forsyth – Intensity Ghost
Sonny Simmons & Moksha Samnyasin – Nomadic ***
Songhoy Blues – Music In Exile
Moon Duo – Shadow Of The Sun
Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds – Chasing Yesterday
Steve Earle – Terraplane
Damon & Naomi – Fortune
Echo & The Bunnymen – Meteorites
The Wave Pictures – Great Big Flamingo Burning Moon ****
The Fall – Sub-Lingual Tablet ***
Trash Kit – Confidence ****
Ryley Walker – Primrose Green
Blue Pills – Live Freak Valley Festival
Richard James – All The New Highways ****
Jennifer Walshe – Historical Documents of the Irish Avant-Garde *****

REISSUES, NEW OLD LIVE RECORDINGS, AND COMP’S – 2015

Julian Cope – Trip Advizer ****
021- compilation
Rhodri Davies –Pedwar ****
V/A – Punk 45 Extermination Nights In The Big City, Cleveland 75-82
V/A – Punk 45 Burn Rubber City Burn, Akron Ohio 75-80
REM – Dreaming In Paradise, Live 1983 ****
The Sound – Box Set 1984-87 ****
Derek Bailey, Joelle Leander, Grge Lewis, Evan Parker – 28 Rue Dunois
Steel Pulse – Handsworth Revolution w radio sessions *****
Simple Minds – Sparkle In The Rain

OLD OLD RECORDS

The Fall – Hex Enduction Hour
The Dream Syndicate – The Days Of Wine & Roses
The Dream Syndicate – The Day Before Wine & Roses
Tangerine Dream – Electronic Meditation
Tangerine Dream – Alpha Centauri
Tangerine Dream – Zeit
Sonny Rollins – Freedom Suite
Sonny Rollins – East Broadway Rundown
Paul Kossof – Back Street Crawler
Fleetwood Mac – Men Of The World (68-70 singles, outtakes)
The Flesh Eaters – Dragstrip Riot
John Coltrane – My Favorite Things
John Coltrane – My Favorite Things, Live At Newport
John Coltrane – Last Performance At Newport
Julian Cope – Revolutionary Suicide (2013)
Richard And Thomas Frost
Ash Ra Tempel – Ash Ra Temple (1971)
Aphrodite’s Child – End Of The World
Steeleye Span – Below The Salt (1972)
Mountain – Nanucket Sleighride (1971)
The Go-Betweens – Liberty Belle & Black Diamond Express
The Go-Betweens – Tallulah
Kim Salmon – Hey Believer
Dark – Dark Round The Edges
Fleetwood Mac – Boston (1970)
McCoy Tyner – Sahara (1972)
Echo & The Bunnymen – Evergreen
Cream – Disraeli Gears
Can – Tago Mago
The Backbeat Band – Backbeat
Stiff Little Fingers – Inflammable Material
Black Crows & Jimmy Page – Live At The Greek (2000)
Andrew Hill – Change
Matt Walker & Ashley Davis – S/T (2005)
Dave Graney – You Wanna Be There But …. (2004)
Big Star – Best Of Big Star
Black Sabbath – Master Of Reality
Black Sabbath – Paranoid
Amigos de Maria – Rock (1968)
The Saints – Howling (1996)
Canned Heat – Live At Topanga Coral (1970)
Morrissey – I Am The Quarry
Derek Bailey – Guitar, Drums and Bass
Link Wray – Great Guitar Hits (1972)
Led Zeppelin – Led Zeppelin
Led Zeppelin – 2
Led Zeppelin – 3
Led Zeppelin – 4
Led Zeppelin – Houses Of The Holy
Led Zeppelin – Physical Graffiti
Led Zeppelin – Presence
Meat Puppets – Meat Puppets II
Led Zeppelin – In Through The Out Door
Led Zeppelin – Coda
Uriah Heap – Salisbury
Buffy Sainte-Marie – Little Wheel Spin And Spin (1966)
The Chameleons – Script of The Bridge

Stewart Lee performs at the Gala Theatre, Durham on Thursday 14th May and Newcastle City Hall on Thursday 4th and Friday 5th June.

 

Photo Credits: Steve Ullathorne and Colin Hutton.

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