Ricky Gervais: Trailblazer
As Ricky Gervais prepares for the last David Brent & Foregone Conclusion show of 2016 this evening in Brighton, we ask him why it's right to bring Brent back now; and how it really feels to turn a semi-successful tampon rep into a genuine rock god.
“I do try and stress that this is an artist album, but the artist is fictional. That’s important. If they think it’s me trying to be a rock star living vicariously through Brent, it’s odd,” opens Gervais, putting his feet up on his office desk. No cuban heels this time, sadly.
We’re talking about Life on the Road, of course, the epic David Brent comeback project (album, movie, and songbook combo) which has, even in Gervais’ humble opinion, spiralled wildly out of control and into the ‘fucking hell’ popularity bracket.
“It’s mental to think [Brent’s band] Foregone Conclusion are actually one of the biggest bands in Britain at the moment,” Gervais smiles. “And the thing is, they’re all written as ‘real songs’, as if it wasn’t a fictional character. Although they’re tongue in cheek, it’s still important they were done well; melody and song structure was very important. I didn’t want the joke to be that it wasn’t good, just that he wasn’t relevant. So they’re not comedy songs like Monty Python, and you’re not laughing at the song, per se, you’re laughing at the back story.”
Brent’s back story speaks for itself, of course, though it isn’t a million miles away from Gervais’, either: Gervais worked in an office for 10 years, he too was an aspiring pop star, and he even managed the band Suede for a brief time. So music has always been in the blood, then?
“Oh, definitely. But that was very fast. I was at college, in a duo, and we were signed over as quickly as we started; that’s the picture they find on chat shows: me at 20 with eyeliner! But after that, and before Suede, I then tried again with rock bands; there was another few years of me trying to get that second bite of the cherry, which never happened.
“The biggest mistake I ever made is that I wanted to be a rock star, and I should have wanted to be a musician; and when I came to be a comedian, I brought that with me. I love the creative process, and I am probably a much better writer or comedian than I ever was a musician, because it was life experience. As a pop star, you’ve only got a couple of years to learn everything, but the life expectancy of a director is 80 years old, so in theory, you should get better.”
We start to chat about Life on the Road the album, and how I myself end up playing it on repeat in the motor, and know all the words already. That’s bonkers, isn’t it?
“[laughs] Okay, but if you take Freelove Freeway, there’s nothing funny about it; it’s a rock and roll song about picking up chicks. But when you realise it’s written by a 55 year old tampon rep who’s never been to America, you get the parody almost of one of these guys that thinks they can go on The X Factor, or con an A&R man,” Gervais says. “They don’t realise it’s the whole package in pop music; people want to wear you as a badge. You could have two equally great records, but who’s singing it is important to people, so you use all your skills as a real songwriter or musician to enable the project. That was very important, that we did everything like it was real.”
ROCK & ROLLERCOASTER
Unlike, for example, Bill Bailey, who uses a little bit of music in his stand-up show, Gervais, through Brent, is putting on a real rock and roll show, with a bit of stand up thrown in.
“[nods] Yep, and it had to be done like that for it to work. And I am in character the whole time - no-one screams, ‘Ricky!’, as they’re all in on the joke. It is odd that David Brent can sell out the Hammersmith Apollo in six minutes, but they know they’re seeing a fictional character off the telly. [smiles] If you go to the theatre, you don’t sit and watch Shakespeare and go, ‘Why is a Danish prince in Slough?’ It’s an act, and they know that.”
The fact that “Brent doesn’t hear the screams” at his live shows, and that Gervais gets into the character so much, is kind of how the whole idea of Life on the Road the film came about:
“I first brought Brent back for a Comic Relief sketch on the 10 year anniversary of The Office. I made him a tampon rep, and he was managing a young rapper [Dom, AKA Doc Brown], and we did Equality Street. I realised I had quite a few songs: three from The Office - Freelove Freeway, Spaceman, and Paris Nights - this one, and a couple more, so I thought we’d do some gigs, for a laugh. So we did the Bloomsbury [Theatre], and again, that sold out in no time; we had 110,000 ticket requests for a 500-seater!
“And I started thinking, ‘Hold on, why has Brent got this amazing band, and everyone’s coming to see him?’ And I thought, ‘Oh, he’s paid for it!’ So I’ve built that into the narrative [of the film]. And on stage, Brent will say, ‘I’m not making any money out of tonight, because this lot have charged me a lot more.’ And that was the seed of the idea for the film: to justify why David Brent was a success, so to speak, but he wasn’t...”
Bringing Brent back was a big call, which clearly Gervais has done brilliantly well, but if it hadn’t been for the power of the Internet, he might never have truly understood the impact Brent had, and continues to have, on the world.
“Before social media, I wasn’t aware of how it all gets into the common consciousness, but on Twitter, a couple of people asked me who does my tampons, and I was like, ‘Why are they asking me – oh, okay,’” Gervais recalls. “And those little Brent phrases, not even phrases, words... like, ‘fact’. It’s all very nice.
“So I tried to do the film for the fans, but also for people that had never watched The Office. It’s funny, as it’s life imitating art, and vice versa, because in the film, I put in that some people don’t remember Brent from the documentary, The Office, and in a scene with Brent and a DJ at a local radio station, he says some people weren’t even alive when Brent was on TV, and that he himself had forgotten Brent, and all that – but there, they’re forgetting a guy in a real docusoap. Also, I was conscious of people that didn’t know The Office – the 16, 17, 18 year olds.”
As with Gervais’ TV series, the more I play the Brent record, the more I notice bits I hadn’t clocked on the first listen. I tell him this.
“Ah, that’s nice. And yeah, there’s always one little ‘in joke’ within the songs: ‘70 miles an hour, but no more,’ it’s where Brent goes [in The Office], ‘70 miles an hour, tops’, where he realises he’s being filmed,” Gervais reveals. “But yeah, with the songwriting, you have to remember it’s a comedy song; and if there is literally no comedy, you think, ‘hold on, this doesn’t make sense, why would Brent do this? It’s a good song!’ There has to be a little nod to him not being quite right. Again, with Ooh La La, the in joke is that he picks up a girl, and she is gutted he is leaving her – it’s still adolescent fantasy: ‘Sure, she cried, but then I was gone.’ A middle-aged man thinking he’s cool and sexy is enough to do a back story for a catchy song.
“I suppose the odd one out [on the album] is Lady Gypsy, where there is almost a comedy piece in it where he’s arguing with the girl. But I like the fact that again he put in the admin, he is talking about losing his virginity, but he included the argument over paying for a bit of heather. The same on Thank Fuck it’s Friday - why bring up the fact that he goes to the dry cleaners on a Sunday? It’s just not rock and roll, but he thinks it’s important.”
Such was the demand for tickets, Brent and Foregone Conclusion could have sold out The O2 for a week, if they’d really wanted to. But that’s not Gervais’ style.
“If you do too many live shows, half the people there you’ve had to prise in. I do it to myself, when I play arenas; I know half of them came along with someone else, or they’ve seen me in Derek or Extras or on Graham Norton; and when they get there, they go, [adopts squeaky voice] ‘why is he making these awful jokes about paedophilia?’ You know what I mean? It’s not quite their thing,” he smiles. “I’m too famous for the things I talk about. I should be a cult comedian, I shouldn’t be playing arenas. They get there and they go, ‘Fuck me, he was so happy and funny on Sesame Street.’ So if you just sell out one venue fast, everyone gets everything, as they’re the hardcore fans. The more you sell, the more people at the back are like, ‘Jeeeesus, this is a bit heavy for me.’
With this in mind, I assume there won’t be a Brent tour, as such. Keep it intimate, make the shows special, and create ‘moments’?
“Do you know what, we do want to keep it special; we’ve played four Hammersmiths,
we did Bristol, and after [tonight's show in] Brighton, I’ve promised the next one will be more northern. I think maybe half a dozen, total; and again, I don’t want to be a cabaret, where some of them don’t get it. We might play six big ones for real fans, then leave it a while; I don’t want to milk it. You don’t want it to be embarrassing to be at that show. ‘I saw the sex pistols at the 100 Club’, you know? We want that to be the case."
As our conversation comes to a close, I ask Gervais if, in this 15-year whirlwind, there has been a favourite moment, or a career high, even – or is that a daft question?
“[leans back in chair, eyes to the ceiling] Okay, okay... Erm, let’s see... [pauses] I’ll tell you, I laughed and broke the fourth wall at the Hammersmith shows when 3,000 people sang along to ‘head on a pillow’ [from Please Don’t Make Fun Of The Disableds],” he says. I fail to keep my own laughter in at this point, not for the rst time in this interview.“I actually thought, ‘this is madness.’ The album had been out a couple of weeks, and even the song titles got cheers, as if we were a real rock band. ‘This one’s called Life on the Road [imitates cheering].’ It’s like I’d said, ‘This one’s called Bohemian Rhapsody.’ It was fucking mental. And I defy anyone – even though it’s tongue in cheek, and it’s not real - when 3,000 people roar and sing along to a lyric, it feels fucking amazing. You have to pinch yourself.
“So the Brent gigs after the film was out was probably the most fun thing I’ve ever done in my career. I’ve done a lot of amazing things, but I got addicted immediately – I can see why rock stars can never let it go; it’s an amazing feeling, and it’s such a compliment. You can do a joke, and you can’t do it again for them, but with music, they want to hear exactly what they’ve just heard – it’s really weird, and such a different format. Imagine telling a story twice! But if you do an encore, they go mental, and want it twice. I have to confess, that was the highlight.”
So forget the aspiring pop star who never quite made the grade; Gervais, through Brent, is officially a true rock and roll star.
“[smiles] I know... It’s funny, isn’t it? But Brent is 10 times the rock star that I ever was!”
Inspired, I make my way back down Hampstead High Street, and breathe a deep sigh of relief in the realisation that the old adage that you should never meet your heroes is, thankfully, a load of old bollocks.