From comedy king to experimental jazz pioneer – James Acaster tells us how he built his own supergroup for the most creative record of the year
James Acaster first fell in love with music because he thought it was funny. If it made him laugh, even for reasons his young mind couldn’t quite articulate, he was excited by it. “’Land Down Under’, ‘Centerfold’, ‘Rockin’ All Over The World’ and ‘Hi Ho Silver Lining’ – I thought they were all amazing when I was probably five or six, and I thought they were all funny as well,” he remembers. “I was always drawn to stuff that made me laugh or that I thought had a sense of humor to it.”
If you’re familiar at all with the stand-up comedy scene, you already know who James Acaster is. The 38-year-old began his stand-up career in 2008, and since then he’s won the Edinburgh Comedy Award a record-breaking five times, had hit specials on Netflix and Vimeo, written three best-selling books, co-hosted the podcasts Hypothetical and Off Menu, and become ubiquitous on comedy panel shows. The man is very good at being hilarious. But with his new musical project, Temps – a collaboration with 39 other musicians and vocalists, including Open Mike Eagle, Nnamdï, Yoni Wolf and other heroes of the underground music scene – he’s trying out a new kind of creativity.
The project’s debut album, PARTY GATOR PURGATORY, recalls all the absurdism and wackiness of Acaster’s comedy, but the kind of laughter it invites is more that of amazement at how its intricate, maximalist, madcap experimentation comes together. It’s an amalgam of free jazz and hip-hop, and among its chaotic twists and turns, be it frenetic drums, rapidfire vocals or breakaway saxophone excursions, the overwhelming feeling is one of total creative freedom and glee.
Temps arose from an idea Acaster had for a mockumentary sitcom. He’d play a fictionalised version of himself, who decided to quit comedy and begin a serious career as a musician despite having no background or talent in it. The real Acaster differs there; he first started playing the drums aged seven, and through his teens he played in punk bands (“The Capri-Sun Quartet”, as any fan of Off Menu already knows…) around his hometown of Kettering, Northamptonshire. He took it seriously, but eventually he got burnt out and quit, deciding to pursue comedy instead. “I think that I probably got a little bit like that kid in Whiplash, where you kinda lose sight of why you do it in the first place,” he remembers.
Since then, he’s barely touched his drumset, but he’s always been a music fanatic. In his late teens, after a few years listening to strictly punk and metal, he started to make deliberate attempts to connect with every kind of music he could find. “I was trying quite actively to broaden my horizons, ‘cause I got a little bit bored and embarrassed at how few genres I’d been paying attention to,” he says. In 2019, he released the book Perfect Sound Whatever, which documented his project of listening to over 500 albums released in the year 2016 (which he crowned “the best year for music ever”).
So, back to the mockumentary. In what was supposed to be a joke for the show, Acaster pulled his drumset out of storage for the first time in years, and recorded himself improvising for two days straight. Then, he cut them into loops and sent them to legendary jazz drummer Seb Rochford, who recorded his own parts over the top of them. When the pandemic hit, the show was scrapped, but Acaster still had the drum parts. Out of curiosity, he emailed them to some musician friends, who laid down instruments however they saw fit. When Acaster heard them, it blew his mind. “It became all I did every single day. I couldn’t tear myself away from it. I’ve never really been as obsessed with anything creative before,” he says.
He reached out to a bunch of his favorite artists, from various genres and backgrounds, asking them to be a part of it. All of them took their own approach and brought their own ideas to the collaboration, leading to a sound that showcases and elevates each of their individual quirks. “It’s been nice for everyone involved to not look at it as any one thing, and just look at it as a world that they can all coexist in and play around with each other inside,” Acaster says. For his part, he was the mastermind and producer who stitched it all together. “I felt a little bit trapped behind the drums sometimes [in previous bands]. With this project I felt like this was my real, pure connection to music.”
Though Acaster isn’t a virtuoso musician or a wizard producer by any means, he says, he stayed true to the course of the album by following the same creative instincts he does in his comedy work, no matter whether they seem silly or nonsensical on paper. “I didn’t wanna be the character that I was gonna play in the mockumentary – this pompous, deluded, naive guy who is sidestepping from comedy to music and wants to be taken super seriously. I wanted this album to do what anything I do is meant to do — to just express myself and where I am in my life. I definitely was like, ‘Yeah, if you get in the way of yourself here, and try and stop yourself from being who you are, it will definitely be sh*t. So just let yourself be who you are. It’s an album made by you.’ Luckily for me, it’s also made by 39 other people who are incredible.”
It also taught him to embrace the DIY, independent spirit that fuels much of the music he loves in more aspects of his professional life. “During the lockdowns, I was trying to pitch TV or film ideas to studios and TV channels, and it was very, very difficult. You start to doubt your own ideas. But in the meantime, I was making this album which in theory I’ve got absolutely no business doing, without asking for anyone’s permission. If I’d pitched this to someone, I probably would have been turned down. But I just made it and it worked, and maybe that’s the way to go with more projects moving forward.”
Ultimately, Temps is a project on which the joy of totally unbridled creativity is palpable. There were no expectations, just mutual excitement and respect between likeminded artists, and that turned PARTY GATOR PURGATORY into one of the most fun and mind-blowing albums you’ll hear this year. Acaster agrees, as a fan as much as anything else. “If you are gonna collaborate with people, then the end result – if it’s any good – will be something that none of you could have imagined by yourself, and you should feel amazed by it,” he says. “I’m maybe more excited about this than anything else I’ve ever done.”
“I don’t think we’ll be able to record another album again; I don’t think the circumstances will ever be the same again,” he adds. “It was unplanned and doing it deliberately might not work. But you can never say never.
“I’ve wanted to release an album since I was seven, so I’m not gonna plan too far into the future just yet. I’m just gonna enjoy this.”
Main image by Willow Shields
PARTY GATOR PURGATORY is out on 19 May, available to buy and stream here.