Perhaps best known for his television work, Matt Berry’s true love has always been music and the analogue instruments he uses to make it.
Matt Berry may be one of Britain’s best‑known comedy actors (Toast Of London, The IT Crowd), but ask him whether his heart truly lies in his other creative life as a musician, songwriter and producer, and he gives a very telling response.
“Well, I’ve never dreamt about comedy,” he says. “I don’t dream about jokes and things. Whereas I have dreamt about guitars and equipment [laughs]. I think that answers it.
“I mean, I’m very lucky to be able to do both,” he adds. “I get satisfaction out of comedy when it goes right and you feel like you’ve said what it is that you wanted to say. But, y’know, there’s something kind of magical about doing music, and music in general. It’s much more of an immediate artform than comedy for me — much as I love doing both, and I’m very, very grateful for what comedy has let me do.”
Berry’s music down the years has seen him veer between various different genres, from authentic‑sounding ’60s Northern soul to the British pastoral folk and ’70s psychedelic pop of his 2011 album Witchazel, to the Bob Dylan circa John Wesley Harding‑inspired sounds of his latest record, Phantom Birds. One common thread running throughout all of his productions, however, is that (aside from drumming contributions) Matt Berry generally works alone and works fast.
Stressing that he never does “90 takes” of anything, he admits that there’s a real speed and impulsiveness to his recording process.
“Absolutely,” he says. “And that’s the same with comedy. If you have to do it that many times, then I think there might be something slightly up with the idea itself. Everyone works in different ways, but I’m only interested for a certain amount of time. And if I don’t say it after one or two takes, then it’s probably not a great idea and I should do something else.
“But the thing is, the comedy and the music are kind of linked in the form of timing. That’s the thing that knits them both together for me. The main similarity between the two for me is that timing is everything with both of them.”
Out Of Beds
Growing up in Bedfordshire, Matt Berry’s initial inspirational figure around the age of 12 was Mike Oldfield, who attracted him to the idea of being a musician who plays virtually every instrument on their recordings.
“The first thing that caught my imagination would have been Tubular Bells,” he remembers. “I bought that album and it was like nothing else because it was long‑form. I hadn’t listened to any classical music at that point, so I didn’t know that you could have an album that was one track for all of one side. That was fascinating.
“Then the fact that he was 18, 19 when he recorded it, and 17 when he wrote it, that was intriguing. But, more importantly, when you turned the record over and you looked at the back there was a list of all the instruments that he played. I didn’t think you could do that — be in literally two places at once. So, then that got me sort of interested in how you record.”
Further remote instruction from Oldfield came when the multi‑instrumentalist appeared on Blue Peter in 1979, in a section filmed showing him multi‑layering, on 24‑track tape, his version of the show’s theme tune. “To then see him on Blue Peter,” Berry says, “where you actually saw him build it track‑by‑track, I had more of an understanding.”
Berry’s sole instrument at the time was a domestic Hammond organ, which his parents had bought him. To emulate Oldfield, he bought a Tascam 424 Portastudio and began layering up his own recordings, using the Hammond’s basic beatbox and feeding its various flute, strings and oboe sounds through cheap guitar effects pedals.
“They weren’t even Boss,” Berry points out. “They were Orion, and I had a stereo delay and a flanger. By that point I was obsessed with Oxygène by Jean‑Michel Jarre — mainly that string sound that I know now is a phased string sound. I thought that was an expensive keyboard that could make that sound. I didn’t realise it was a string synthesizer that was effected by a cheap guitar pedal. If I’d have found that out a lot earlier, my search would’ve been complete at age 14 or whatever.”
Not knowing any other musicians, Berry progressed to guitar, and was further animated by the fact that Mike Oldfield had written Tubular Bells at 17. Aged 14, he decided he’d better get a move on. “That is exactly what I thought,” he laughs. “I thought, ‘If he can do that, then I have no fucking excuse whatsoever.’ So, I just got on with it.”
The comedy and the music are kind of linked in the form of timing. That’s the thing that knits them both together for me... Timing is everything with both of them.
Later, in the ’90s, when Matt Berry studied Contemporary Arts at Nottingham Trent University, he joined various bands, playing keyboards and guitar and singing. “One was called Igneous, as in the rock,” he carefully reveals, “which is the least embarrassing. No, that is pretty embarrassing. It sounds like it’s taking itself very seriously. There’s no way I’ll tell you what the others were called…”
He says, however, that these experiences taught him key lessons about what he wanted to achieve in music. “Well, I learned that I loved it and at the same time I wanted to control what the overall sound would be. So, as well as loving the experience of having the kind of flavours of different people adding to your song that you’ve written, I ultimately wanted to produce it. I wouldn’t have known that word at that point, but that’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to engineer the whole thing and produce it.”
To this end, he self‑recorded tracks for what would become Jackpot, his first album, recorded from ’95 onwards (and self‑released in 2000), at his home studio, Barns, located in his parents’ house.
“Barns Studio was my bedroom,” he laughs. “My mum and dad bought a very cheap, run‑down animal food barn and turned it into a house over time, and I had a room in this converted thing and that was my studio. My setup then had progressed slightly. I worked at Tesco, so I had a few quid. When I say a few quid… enough to spend on gear. I only spent my money on booze and musical equipment.”
Berry’s studio by this point was based around a Fostex R8 eight‑track reel‑to‑reel recorder. “I mean, looking back, the reel‑to‑reel was a pain in the arsehole,” he says, “but I didn’t know any different at the time and I loved how it sounded. It kind of sounded a lot more confident than the four‑track tape. Things like drums, when I used the R8, it kind of sounded like the real thing. I didn’t have enough room for the full kit. It was my cousin’s kit and we’d set up half of it.”
Effects‑wise, at the time, like most low‑budget home studio owners, Berry had an Alesis MIDIVerb. He was also given an AKG BX5, which ‑ incredibly, given its current status as a classic unit — he was warned wasn’t very good. “I was told it was spring and it was a load of shit, so you might not want to use it,” he explains. “So, I had this spring rackmount reverb that I was slightly embarrassed by at the time. It’s now one of my most prized possessions in my studio.”
Around the same time, Berry began collecting then‑unfashionable analogue synths, picking them up incredibly cheaply through classified ads. “I got a [Yamaha] CS‑60 for 200 quid,” he marvels. “I got a CS‑10 and a load of analogue synths. What was always quite funny was that there’d be things like ‘Jupiter‑8. Will swap for a DX7’. You think, ‘Well, you fucking wouldn’t do that now.’
“But for me it was amazing. I wanted analogue synths because I’d seen Jean‑Michel Jarre surrounded by these keyboards that had loads of knobs, dials and sliders. That was the coolest sound. I didn’t think there was anything cool about a DX7.”
The artwork of Berry’s Jackpot debut album featured a declaration: “No samples or computer witchcraft were necessary.” So, was he quite anti‑sampling and digital recording tech?
“I didn’t want to use it,” he says. “I wanted it to be analogue tape and analogue gear because that was the sound that I loved. I was anti‑digital synths, I was anti‑digital anything. Any effects that had the word ‘digital’ would always kind of put me off. And it still does to this day.”
Throughout the ’00s, Matt Berry began making moves into comedy, and in 2006, combined his two interests by creating the rare‑groove‑styled theme song for his dark sitcom Snuff Box, featuring a distinctive vocoder introduction.
“That was weirdly influenced by David Gray’s White Ladder,” he explains. “It was a girlfriend at the time that had the album, otherwise I wouldn’t have known about it. There’s a song called ‘White Ladder’ and during the chorus there’s this sort of rhythmic vocoder thing and I was like, ‘What the fuck is that? And how has he done that?’
“Then I read somewhere [possibly our interview with White Ladder co‑producer Lestyn Polson; see http://sosm.ag/white-ladder — Ed.] that he just basically put a drum machine through a vocoder in order to get that kind of rhythmic thing, and that’s what I used at the beginning of the Snuff Box theme. I was just in love with that technique that he used. I did it on everything for about a year. I had a cheap Zoom rackmount that had a vocoder patch on it. It was sort of triggered by a microphone, so I just put the drum machine into the microphone.”
Berry had in the ’90s also collected similarly unfashionable drum machines. “One of the first things that I wanted was a Korg Mini Pops  because of Jean‑Michel Jarre,” he recalls. “And I got two of those, for like, 100 quid. And I got a [Roland] CR‑78 [CompuRhythm] for, I think, £250. ’Cause back then no one wanted that. It was this big sort of wooden box, it wasn’t portable and it kind of looked like a microwave, I suppose, compared to small drum machines then.” The appeal for him of these beatboxes, he says, was the warmth of the sounds. “Yeah, they’ve got natural compression and stuff. You don’t need to add a lot. They kind of have all their warmth.”
Matt Berry went on to create a second version of the Snuff Box theme that sounded like a lost Northern soul classic and featured illustrious US singer Geno Washington. “I’m looking for authenticity,” Berry says. “I’m obsessed with the details of those things. You have to use a real xylophone and a piccolo on the top line in order to get that sort of atmosphere.
“These things have to go through the right reverb. You can fuck the whole thing up completely even if you get everything else right — y’know, using an old amp, an old guitar, a Farfisa organ, all this kind of stuff. But then you stick it through digital compressors and reverbs and it’s like pouring ketchup on a painting. You’ve ruined it in terms of what I would be looking for. Like, for it to sound like it was recorded at RAK in the early ’70s or whatever.
“It’s just those kinds of tiny details that I have to get right,” he adds. “The right amount of pre‑delay on the spring reverb is everything.
“Geno was one of these guys that doesn’t stay still for long, so we didn’t have that many goes with him [laughs]. But the cool thing was he was into it, so that’s all that really mattered. I think we had two goes with him and that was it.”
Berry’s second album, the 2008‑released Opium, showcased twisty, proggy structures that were all the more impressive due to the fact that they were recorded with Berry keeping the complicated arrangements in his head while committing them to his Fostex R8. “I’m kind of making notes, but they’re the kind of notes that only I understand,” he says. “They’re sort of code words for a kind of shorthand. So just a bunch of what would look like nonsense to anyone else.”
For that album’s successor, Witchazel in 2011, Berry furthered his music conceptually, with its atmospheric prog folk and library music funk that sounded like a dusty old 1970s LP discovered in a second‑hand record shop. “I wanted it to sound like it was recorded in the early ’70s,” he explains, “in either a local village hall or the woods.”
In fact, Witchazel was recorded in Berry’s two‑roomed flat in London and found him exploring a DAW for the first time in the shape of GarageBand. “I enjoyed recording that more than most of the albums,” he says. “It was such a sort of magical experience because of what you could do technically with GarageBand. The speed of it obviously suited me because I’m impatient.
“But I still had that sensibility of tape where you must be bold and stick to your guns. Tape was expensive if you didn’t have any money, so you had to make use of the tape. And I kind of applied that to GarageBand even though I didn’t need to. If I started a song, I had to finish it, or at least kind of mark it to be used later on or something. I didn’t waste time and effort.”
Berry played almost all of the instruments on Witchazel, apart from the drums, played by James Stapleton, and recorded in the living room, using a pair of ADK condenser mics.
“Facing the drum kit, I just had one at head height right, and one at head height left, either side of his kit,” he recalls. “I kept it as basic as possible. I’d try and nail whole takes. I still do that now because of feel, and you want it to sound like it was sort of one idea. I would always push to get one take where everything kind of kicked off in the right place.”
Key to the sound of the album was GForce’s M‑Tron plug‑in, modelled on the Mellotron. “It was just the best, because I can’t play brass instruments and I didn’t have a vibraphone. But I didn’t want sampled brass or vibraphone. I wanted it to sound authentic, which is where the Mellotron comes in. It has its own atmosphere. So, if there’s an instrument that I can’t play, like a flute or something, I would never go for a preset or a sample, I would go for the Mellotron.”
The Long Form
Later, with ‘Solstice’ from his 2013 album Kill The Wolf, Berry fulfilled his Mike Oldfield ambitions on the nine‑and‑a half‑minute‑long, unashamedly prog rock track.
“I’m fond of the long form and an idea that has sort of more than one part to it,” he says. “I’ve been doing that while it’s been hideously unfashionable, and then slightly fashionable [laughs]. Actually, it’s never been fashionable to do that, but I haven’t cared. I’ve always been interested in music that has a bunch of ideas in it and isn’t self‑conscious of its own length.”
These days, based in his studio just outside London, Matt Berry uses Logic as his DAW, having made the move from GarageBand during the sessions for Kill The Wolf.
“Pro Tools just kind of sounds like a professional project, and that to me kills some of the magic,” says Berry. “I don’t want to be in a professional sort of situation. I want it to be fun and full of experimentation and doing something different.”
On the album Music For Insomniacs, released in 2014, Matt Berry changed stylistic gear again, with an album that put his ever‑growing collection of analogue synths to full use. In spite of its circular, arpeggio‑based arrangements, though, he says he rarely uses sequencers.
“Well, only if there’s a sequencer within the analogue synth that I’m using,” he points out. “I’ll use it there. But not software sequencers. I would rather have an analogue sequencer that was triggered by an analogue drum machine.”
Among Berry’s workhorse synths are his Minimoogs, Korg MS‑20, Prophet 6, ARP Odyssey and Solina, and Roland Jupiter‑4. Meanwhile, in the newer analogue synth department, he’s the proud owner of both Korg’s ARP 2600 FS and KMR’s Antonus 2600, along with the Arturia MatrixBrute. His latest acquisition is a Roland Jupiter‑X, which he clearly loves.
“It’s gorgeous,” he enthuses. “I’ve got a Juno‑6 and I thought, ‘There’s no way this thing is going to be able to do that stuff and the kind of Jupiter‑8 stuff.’ But it honestly does. I can’t tell the difference. It is basically like having all those early Junos and Jupiters in one synth. I know that sounds like some cod advertising speak, but it is… and that’s what I wanted.”
Berry’s studio features a massive Midas Verona 640 analogue mixing desk, which he uses solely for routing. “It’s just for putting everything through,” he says. “All the synths, all the drums go through the Midas. So, everything goes through a mixing desk but I don’t use it at the latter half of the mix. I do all that in Logic.”
In addition, all of Berry’s other keyboards, such as his Wurlitzer electric piano and his Hammond and Farfisa organs are typically fed through guitar amps before going into the Midas. “There’s a load of [Shure] SM57s pointed at Orange and Fender speakers,” he says. “Just so you get that kind of sound. There’s things in here that I don’t want to DI. I want those to have the air around them.”
For preamps, Berry uses a Neve 1073DPA and a Joe Meek VC1Q Studio Channel, along with his UA Apollo. For his main microphones, he generally chooses between a Neumann U87 and a Rode K2.
“I think the Rode mics are as good as any tube mics if you want that sort of grittier tube sound. The K2, they’re only 500 quid, but they sound the knackers. For most things I use a Neumann U87, because it’s very versatile. Plus, I do a lot of voiceovers here, so it has to be the same one that they have in all the facilities in Soho.”
Only for one album, 2016’s The Small Hours, has Matt Berry ventured outside of his own recording setup, tracking the album at Rimshot Studios in Kent using the facility’s 1966‑built 10‑channel Decca desk and Studer A827 two‑inch 24‑track.
“I just wanted to do something different for different’s sake,” he says. “It was worth it for the experience of going to a studio with your songs, but I don’t know whether I’d do that again. I enjoy controlling the whole thing in my own time. I did it just to see what it would be like, and it was worth it ’cause I got a relationship going with [studio owner] Mike Thorne. He’s got fantastic ears and he masters all of my stuff.”
Variation On A Theme
In 2018, Matt Berry released perhaps his most unusual record yet, Television Themes, meticulously recreating and enhancing TV theme tunes from the ’60s to the ’80s, including those for Are You Being Served?, The Good Life and Rainbow. The project may have sounded kitsch, but in fact underlined the similarities in the work of TV theme composer Ronnie Hazlehurst and Serge Gainsbourg, some of whose recordings featured the same musicians.
“[Bass‑player] Dave Richmond might have done The Two Ronnies on the Tuesday and Melody Nelson on the Thursday,” Berry points out. “So, you were having the same people applying their skills. They’re just being used for different kinds of things. The playing on that stuff is always very, very good and inventive and in‑the‑room. It just so happens it’s used for TV themes.”
Berry’s own versions presented different challenges. “Blankety Blank was odd,” he says, “because I had to totally make up a middle section for that. It didn’t have anything apart from just that repeated thing on the kettle drum. So, I had to come up with something to make that last more than five seconds. They were all good fun.
“I looked into the lead theme of Doctor Who and there’s two or three lines going on. There’s a kind of high oscillator theme as well as the main theme. So, I recreated that as Delia Derbyshire did it. Everything else I did myself, so I put on like a sort of early ’70s session bass player doing the ‘voon‑doon‑doon’ and put some sweet early ’70s drums over it.”
In stark contrast, Berry’s latest record, Phantom Birds, stripped away all of his intricate arrangements for a more straight‑ahead guitar‑based production.
“I wanted to do something that didn’t rely on 48 tracks per song,” he says, “and to say what I wanted to say very quickly with the minimum amount of instruments and time spent. The inspiration in terms of production was albums like John Wesley Harding, where the drums are panned hard right and the acoustic guitar is hard left and his voice is in the middle.”
Guitars‑wise, Berry tends to return to his Rickenbacker bass, late ’70s Fender Stratocaster and his Gibson Flying V. “I don’t care what the Flying V looks like,” he chuckles. “It sounds amazing. It just has that really immediate sound that I love. The Rickenbacker I just use for absolutely everything, cause it has that kind of twang. It’s DI’ed through the Midas and then goes into the Neve to give it that oldie sound.”
Never one to slow down, Matt Berry has already started making his next album, which he describes as being “more of a psychedelic, loose affair”. Still working quickly and spontaneously, he tends not to spend long periods of time over‑labouring his mixes.
“It’s not a long time in any spurt,” he says. “I will do a mix and then go back and sort of refine it over the course of the weeks that I’m doing something. I’m totally not one of those people that sort of go, ‘Wednesday will be the vocal day,’ or ‘Tuesday will be the mixing day.’ I don’t have any rules like that. It’s just whatever takes my fancy on the day.”
One of the most surprising developments for Matt Berry during the course of his now decades‑long music career is that he’s had the opportunity to hang out with his childhood hero, Jean‑Michel Jarre. In 2018, he travelled to Jarre’s studio on the outskirts of Paris to interview him for a podcast celebrating the electronic pioneer’s 50 years in the music industry.
“It was one of the best things ever,” a still‑buzzed Berry remembers. “His storeroom is the biggest sort of thrill. He’s got a guy that brings things in and out for him when he needs them and it’s just the coolest way of doing it.
“We talked about how he got the string sound with Oxygène. It was an Eminent [310 Unique] organ that went through an Electro‑Harmonix Small Stone pedal. It couldn’t be more cheap and lo‑fi than that, but that’s how he got the sound. In the podcast, while he was talking, he brought out this original early ’70s Small Stone pedal and said, ‘This is one of the ones that I used for Oxygène.’ So, of course my mouth was just open. There it was, the thing that he’d made that sound with.
“Anyway, I come home, like, two weeks later and there’s a box in the post and it’s that effects pedal. He sent it to me.”
Of course, if you could somehow go back and tell that story to the teenage Matt Berry, he would never believe you.