HUGH LAURIE INTERVIEW: A BIT OF BLUES AND LAURIE
Hugh Laurie will return to Australia for the first time in more than 30 years, joined by the Copper Bottom Band to deliver a tour featuring blues, tango, southern and South American music. The talented actor and comedian recently turned his attention to music, which has seen the former star of House record two acclaimed albums Let Them Talk and Didn’t It Rain.
Your upcoming Australian tour will be your first visit to Australia since 1981. Do you have any fond memories from that comedy tour of 33 years ago?
Plenty of fond memories – which doesn’t mean they’re accurate ones. But in my head, we ate like princes, drank like kings, dressed like idiots and laughed all the time. With the mad arrogance of youth, we also assumed that this was what life would be like forever.
For the Australian shows, will you concentrate on material from the two albums, or do you like to incorporate covers, which you might never record, as well as songs that might make future albums?
I always want to play shows, pieces of theatre, rather than just recitals – so we have all sorts of odd things creeping into the show now, some of which we might record one day. Our sound checks are almost the best part of the day, when we get to simply mess about. But it’s not just to amuse ourselves – I really want people to love these songs as much as I do. In fact, I’d settle for half as much, because that’s still a lot. I also want people to laugh and dance and cry and forget their troubles. A good show, basically.
Will the full seven-piece Copper Bottom Band join you on this tour? And can you tell us a bit about what it’s like for you to play music with this band in front of audiences?
I’ve somehow managed to get a 12-piece band for the price of seven. Vincent Henry can play anything with a reed in it – he could make a drinking straw sound good – and Mark Goldenberg, a Chicago blues guitarist, also has a whole music shop of stuff around him. Gaby Moreno plays guitar and ukulele as well as singing like an angel. Honestly, this band is so good; they can make me weep for joy.
Have you got plans for new recordings in mind? And will Joe Henry be involved with future recordings?
No immediate plans. I realise now that I was pretty quick with a second album – the conventional wisdom is you leave two or three years between releases, but I just couldn’t wait. I’m going to try and be cooler this time, cultivate some mystique. And I would be mad to venture out without Joe Henry’s steady hand on the tiller. He has been an incredible partner and friend – everything I hoped for when I listened to his records and then more still. I owe him the whole shop.
Can you explain the process of choosing the songs to record and the styles to cover?
It’s almost the best part of the whole process. Joe and I spend months swapping lists of songs, perhaps a hundred or more, and gradually we whittle them down. Then we just let the band try them on for size. The tricky thing is, like buying clothes for a model, almost everything looks good on them.
For the immediate future, is music your primary creative focus?
I don’t know about creative focus. But it’s certainly my greatest pleasure, and has been for a long time. I know very well how lucky I am to have this chance to play with people of this calibre and I’m determined to savour every note.
Stephen Fry said in a NY Times article that he had given up on the idea that you would come out about your music and that he thought it was wonderful when you agreed to do an album. Has recording and touring been a liberating experience for you?
Absolutely. Or maybe the decision to do it at all was the liberation, and everything since has been flags, parades and throwing hats in the air.
Before agreeing to record Let Them Talk, was the idea of recording an album always in the back of your mind? And do you regret not embarking on a recording/touring career earlier?
It’s something I’d always dreamed of, although not in a scheming, this-might-happen way. I dreamed of it the way a child dreams of being invisible. I don’t regret not starting earlier because, well, I try not to regret things too much. I’m just so lucky to be doing it now.
Are there plans to record original blues music?
Yes. Highly secret ones.
Before recording your first album you said you would only count it a success if you encourage people to rediscover the likes of Lead Belly, Allen Toussaint and Willie Dixon. Have you received feedback from fans that have discovered these artists because of your music?
I honestly don’t remember saying that – or even thinking how I, or anyone else, might judge it. I only knew that it had to be sincere. The fact that young fans might have become aware of Big Bill Broonzy as a result of songs we’ve played is just a pure bonus. And a great honour, too.
You’ve collaborated with some wonderful artists. Does one stand out for you more than any other as a truly special experience?
Every one of them was a thrill. Every one. But I suppose Dr John was the biggest moment because he’s a piano player, the greatest there is, and he’s been my hero since the first day I heard him. After he left, I got into my car and actually cried, it was so overwhelming.
Do you think of yourself a blues artist or a fan? Or both?
I don’t really think about the blues as a category. To me, they’re just songs – great, great songs. In fact I always try and avoid using the word because I feel it makes people think oh yes, I know what that is. But every song is different, every musician is different, every time we play feels different.
You discovered the blues aged 11 or 12 when you heard Willie Dixon. Most music people love at that age they don’t love 40 years later. What is it about the blues that has held this four-decade long love? And do you still discover old (and maybe new) blues artists as well as styles?
I honestly don’t know why it has this power over me. But I knew the first time I heard it that this was the music for me and I would never stray. And yes, I find new artists all the time. I’d never heard of Lil Green until a year ago. A toweringly brilliant singer – it’s like discovering a whole continent. Which I’ve never done, by the way, but I imagine it must be a bit of a moment.
Aside from next year’s film Tomorrowland, are there some upcoming projects that you can share with us?
I’m not even allowed to talk about Tomorrowland, under pain of excommunication. Except to say it was fantastically enjoyable to do and George Clooney is a mensch. There are some other things floating around, but I don’t want to jinx them by shooting my mouth off.
Hugh Laurie and the Copper Bottom Band
Thursday, April 24
©David Knight - The Adelaide review