Interview: Dave Brown
THIS ARTICLE WAS WRITTEN IN DECEMBER 2010 FOR THE VELVET ONION
“He’s like an old familiar friend to me now. I wish he was coming over for Christmas dinner to be honest. He’s almost a living beast more than a costume. And I’m so aware that seeing and referring to Bollo as a suit ruins the magic of it all. Everyone obviously knows it’s a suit, and it’s more caricatured and humanistic than realistic but still, you can definitely see that 5% of someone’s brain that thinks: ‘Hang on a minute… what the…?’”
Dave Brown is very protective of Bollo, the simian alter-ego for which he is best known after spending the last five years sweating inside its enormous furry costume across award winning television shows, two sell-out stage tours, a promotional trek across America and numerous charity events. As we settle down with coffee in a North London hideaway, Brown is quick to explain his love of maintaining the character’s mystique.
“I’m very particular about people seeing the costume” he reveals. “I try not to let anyone see the mechanics of it, and I hate the very rare occasions that anyone else has been in it. I think that should all be as much a secret as possible. I’ll always try to just go into a room and come out as Bollo, so that some people can wonder why they never see me & Bollo in the same room together. It’s a sort of Clark Kent thing: I run into a very large, wide telephone box… take off my glasses and tadaaah! I’d love to see that.”
“It’s also good to keep the mechanics schtum,” he continues, “because under the skin it looks ridiculous. The first layer I need to put on consists of yellow foam and black netting which makes me look like some kinky burlesque psychedelic bumble bee. Or a fat wasp from Tron.” He stops for a second, and realises he’s on the verge of revealing too much. “I just said I don’t want to ruin the magic, and now I’m ruining the magic! What a dick!”
Far from being a dick, the gorilla magic was more than evident when Bollo took to the trading floors of Deutsche Bank last year to raise money for The Angus Lawson Memorial Trust & AfriKids. “I did some fundraising for people I met whilst raising money for Rebecca,” he explains, referring to his young niece who was tragically paralysed from the neck down following complications to scoliosis surgery five years ago. “I met an amazing guy in Nick Lawson – who runs ALMT in memory of the tragic death of his son. He kindly donated some money towards Rebecca’s garden project, and at the time he had no idea I was in the Boosh. We were both blown away when he coincidentally revealed that the Boosh radio show had helped him through some dark times as you can imagine. He kept quoting bits, especially The Ladder Coins, at me. It’s amazing how these things happen.”
“He then got me in to do the One Day Campaign,” Dave continues, “whereby Deutschbank encourage all of their staff to donate a day of their wages, which is then matched by the bank and given to chosen charities of the year. I helped gently persuade staff to part with their dosh as Bollo, running around trading floors with a couple of other celebs causing havoc. People would get in the lift Bollo was in and I’d go…” – he adopts the gruff Bollo voice – “‘Morning… what floor?’ and act like the porter. Or I’d go in the toilets to do my eye make-up through the mask, and when suited traders would come in I’d simply greet them with: ‘Morning Sir, how’s the Dow Jones doing today?’ I just love being Bollo in public spaces. It’s a really empowering visual and its so interesting to see how normal humans in their everyday life react to it.”
The One Day campaign has been hugely successful, with this year’s benefactors Afrikids and MCS receiving over £700,000 as a result of the latest day of donations, and it was thanks to his involvement with the campaign that Dave began to collaborate with Afrikids directly. The charity works alongside indigenous communities in Ghana to improve the quality of life for rejected and vulnerable children, and his first project with them gave him the opportunity to raise money alongside Kelly Brook and Kevin Spacey on the trading floors of ICAP in London.
“I saw Mr Spacey surrounded by ICAP’s big business guns,” he recalls with a grin, “and decided to run across the room calling his name like an old friend. I gave him a massive hug and then proceeded to give him shit, as Bollo of course, about the size of American Airlines business class seats,” he reveals, referring to Spacey’s adverts for the company. “I asked him to have a word with them about the width of the seats as I can never get my big old monkey butt in them! He went along with it, but I could tell he was slightly confused. Terrified, even… but possibly slightly aroused!”
It becomes clear to me as Brown talks passionately about Afrikids that this is far from your standard celebrity endorsement of a charity campaign. Dave genuinely loves the work they do, and he has clearly learnt so much from his experiences with them. “They’re an amazing charity doing incredibly impressive things in Ghana, and they’re so groundbreaking in the way they think about aid and the future of the beneficiaries.” He’s so passionate about it that he’s recently helped them rebrand and is currently working on several design & communication projects with them. And in a world away from his life as a Mighty Boosh ape, Brown recently travelled with them to Ghana to witness their work first hand, utilising his skills as a photographer and cameraman to document proceedings and gain a better understanding of the charities work in action.
“I went and lived with a family in this tiny little district called Talensi-Nabdam and I was the only white boy in the village,” he explains. “There were about forty to fifty people outside the house every night dancing and singing in celebration of me being there. It was incredible, and you’ll be pleased to know I busted some moves for them and they were very impressed… with my moves, that is – not my stamina. The heat was ridiculous. Once again, I’m moaning about being hot! What’s wrong with me!”
“They gave me a Ghanaian name, Yentotah – which meant ‘a gift from God’. Well, that’s what they told me it meant, although I couldn’t help but wonder why they would all laugh so much when I was introduced. It probably means ‘Sweaty Ginger Bearded Freak Nut’ or something! But they were incredible people. What I came away with most was an amazement at how these communities with relatively nothing; with a lack of food, running water, sanitary conditions, access to medicine etc were all so welcoming, caring, loving and happy. It blew me away to be honest.” he muses. “I cant wait to go back!”
Despite a clear passion to help others – and there are numerous other charities which have received his help in recent years – most of this charity work is done with very little fanfare. Brown is in a rare position: able to help the causes he believes in yet unlike many he tends not to turn to his fan base to ask for their help. “Its nice to do your bit. I’d love to do more if I had the time and was minted. I don’t go on about it to everyone though, because I don’t want to seem worthy. The last thing people need is me polishing my halo and shining it in their eyes. I’d like to think that everyone does their own little bit, though…” He breaks off. “And anyway,” he announces, “it’s not a totally selfless act – I got to go to Ghana! I took some amazing pics, experienced things I’ll remember for the rest of my life and it makes me realise just how lucky I am. It takes the edge off the guilt I have for murdering all those cute kittens!”
He’s joking, I’m sure… “I guess what it does do though is put things into perspective. It makes you think twice before moaning about the fact that your bus was late… for about a week anyway! No, seriously, check ‘em out. They’re amazing.” [[Afrikids website can be reached here.]]
Despite the passion on display, it strikes me how laid back about affairs Brown appears to be. It’s an approach which seems akin to many of the comedians and artists Dave has worked with on The Mighty Boosh and beyond. He puts this down purely to being British and notions towards the Boosh’s pampered promotional tour of the USA last year following the arrival of the tv series on cult American channel Adult Swim. “We were treated like king men over there… like the chosen ones! I mean, the level of preparation in the States, and that obsession and status of celebrity seems very different to here. Literally nothing is unturned for ‘The Talent!’ as they say. Everything is organised to the last minute detail or someone’s head rolls.”
This gives me an ample opportunity to enquire about the oft-rumoured Boosh USA project which Noel Fielding has been babbling about to any journalist within earshot of late, though Dave is quick to point out that all decisions on that front are left entirely down to Noel & comic-partner Julian Barratt. “As frustrating as that can be, that’s the way it should be. Though, I’d love to do a proper U.S tour. Who wouldn’t? And certainly the popularity seems to be there. I guess it’s all down to logistics, timings and lovely comedic things like politics, rights and deals! But, it’d be great to go over there again. The American fans were amazing.”
The Boosh did indeed make a few brief live appearances in the USA last year, which Brown has fond, and typically unusual memories of. “It was great doing a show in New York… or The Big Orange as Mike [Fielding] calls it! That was a childhood dream come true. We played The Bowery Ballroom over there, and then The Roxy in LA. I mean, please…”
That laid back passion is back. “The Roxy for fucks sake! Its not everyday you look up to find Robin Williams in the dressing room doing Crack Fox impressions. You have to pinch yourself. But at the same as internally shouting ‘Aaah Robin Williams! Ahhhhh, Mork And Fuckin’ Mindy! Good Morning Vietnam! Saturday Night Live!…Ahhh!’, I also remember being pretty stressed out trying to write set lists and go through stuff with Noel and Julian before the show started.”
“So after the initial orgasm, I do remember thinking: ‘Yeah, It’s really nice to see you here Robin, I’m really amazed to meet you, but can you stop distracting us and get the fuck out the dressing room? We’re trying to work – we’ll kiss your face after!’ then you immediately hate yourself! Nerves are a strange thing!” He laughs. “That was an incredible gig though. And Robin did come back stage after with some guy called John Paul Jones! You know, I sometimes listen to myself and puke!”
The last round of Boosh appearances are already a fading memory. The last episode of The Mighty Boosh, following three hugely popular series, aired in December 2007. The Future Sailors Tour wound up just over a year later, and the boys have only sporadically appeared together as a unit since – yet barring a surprise appearance at this year’s NME Awards, it’s never quite been as the full five-man ensemble.
During that last blitz of activity, the Boosh fan base was augmented by NME readers and trendy teens going wild about this ‘new’ thing. Could the elongated break from the limelight be damaging? Could the casual fans have moved on before the Boosh return?
“It never ceases to amaze me just how loyal Boosh fans still are,” Dave states, “but decisions aren’t made on how long it’s been since there was last a Boosh show of some sort. The last big thing we did all together was the Future Sailors tour.”
Big is something of an understatement, with the tour taking in around a hundred dates including multiple arena performances. “It was an amazing experience, but it was also very full on and intense so it was only natural that there would be a long gap afterwards. It’s healthy to have breaks and do other projects separately. I can’t say I don’t miss it as they were some of the best days of my life, and I’d jump on a tour bus tomorrow if the opportunity arose but unfortunately, those decisions aren’t made by me!”
Despite outward appearances, however, the Boosh are clearly up to something behind closed doors. “There is stuff happening,” Dave hints, “and that’s one thing people tend not to realize. They don’t happen at the drop of a hat, but there’s new stuff out there growing slowly but surely… like a sea monkey.”
First on the agenda, it seems, is the long mooted Boosh album, filled with new versions of songs from the show, which was planned for the Autumn but has since slipped into 2011 as the boys get it exactly how they want. Dave reveals he recently heard the latest mix, which he describes as incredible and promises that: “When that comes out, it’s going to blow everyone’s head off.”
The songs have been reworked enormously in ways neither we, nor Dave himself could ever dare spoil for you, “You should ask Julian, Noel or Dave Westlake to chat about that,” he says with a glint in his eye, quite rightly unwilling to give too much away. Some evidence of the updated tracks could be heard just a few weeks ago, when The Mighty Boosh Band, augmented by regular collaborator Oliver Ralfe, supported Dweezil Zappa at Camden Roundhouse, as part of a celebration of the works of Dweezil‘s prog-legend father Frank. With only Mike Fielding missing due to illness, this was one of the few chances to have spotted the Boosh together in the UK in the last two years.
The event seemed to be a natural collaboration after the appearance of Diva Zappa in the third series of the show back in 2007, though as is typical for the Boosh, arrangements didn’t go entirely to plan. “I think Noel and Julian were in LA,” he reveals, “when Gail Zappa [Frank’s widow] asked them if they’d do the gig at the Roundhouse with Dweezil to celebrate Frank’s 70th birthday on December 21st. They were obviously very honored and accepted, but they forgot to mention it to the rest of us!” He laughs and breaks out with a grin. “The first I knew about it was seeing the poster from a bus going past the Roundhouse!”
“Rehearsal time was limited too… for some of us more than others. Rich was only around for one day as he was trying to get ready for Fulchfest which was also happening that night,” Dave explains, referring to Rich Fulcher’s monthly comedy night at The Bull & Gate in Kentish Town which plays host to a bevy of TVO subjects each month. “He had to run down the road to do it straight after we came of stage that night! Noel was also up to his eyes in stuff, and Oli [Ralfe] could only do half a day as well.”
“The gig was on a Saturday, so we got together on the Thursday in a tiny little rehearsal room to go through stuff. I think the original plan was to do songs we already knew seeing as time was limited, but in true Boosh style we attempted to rehearse some reworked versions of songs from the album as well as a version of ‘Hello Little Dear’ from the radio show that segued into ‘Willie The Pimp’ by Frank Zappa & Captain Beefheart – all in under 2 days! It’s lucky that Julian [Barratt], [Dave] Westlake and Magnus [Box, replacing the unavailable regular Boosh Band member ‘Reg’) are all such great musicians. They’re the ones who worked it all out. I just shake, slap and hit stuff and scream when I’m told to!”
As if the rehearsal trials were not enough, the Boosh Band further complicated their own dilemma with their usual over-excited vigour. “We also had to get our costumes, props and makeup together and sorted out. It was pretty tight time wise, but it was kind of like the old Hen and Chicken days in that we were doing it all ourselves again. We had a right laugh, and it was great to be performing live again – plus it was an absolute honor to be asked to play at such an event in such an amazing venue.”
Opinions on the night were certainly in the Boosh Band’s favour. Whilst audience members in the seats that circle the giant columns of the Roundhouse were naturally subdued and withdrawn from the action, down on the floor the standing crowd lapped it up. “I think it went down ok,” he opines, “even without a proper sound check or any space on stage! We just tried to drink in the Zappa spirit and embrace the experience.” And what did the Zappa fans make of it? “We were really quite chuffed that they seemed to really enjoy it. We walked on stage and apart from a few pockets of Boosh fans, the room seemed to be mostly filled with sixty-year old men! We did wonder if they’d really appreciate us dressing up as women, wearing makeup and prancing around with a deranged Harlequin, but most of them seemed to… I think?”
The bizarre set was certainly in keeping with the Zappa ethos, which was perhaps to be expected from such huge fans of Frank’s work. “The great thing is that Noel & Julian met over a conversation about Frank Zappa, so there is a little history there. When we were doing Autoboosh [the third pre-radio live tour back in 2000], ‘Help, I’m A Rock’ was one of the last tracks played front of house before we opened the curtains to start the show. That song is really indicative to those moments in Edinburgh, with the three of us behind the closed stage curtain trying to pump ourselves up for the show with some Zappa gold.”
After this recent return to the stage, and the enormous reception to the Boosh Band sets during the last tour, I have to ask a question which is on the lips of every Boosh fan in the land. With the album on the way in the near future, will there be a tour to promote it? Dave‘s response is hopeful, but it seems the fans don’t need to start saving up just yet. “I don’t know to be honest. I think everyone enjoyed the Zappa gig, and there’s been talk of doing some gigs next year,” he hints, “and it could be incredible to do it. But we don’t know just yet. I’d love to, but you’ll have to ask Noel or Julian about all that.”
One of the biggest hurdles, it seems, will be getting everyone in the same room at one time. The last two years have seen the Boosh tackle all kinds of individual projects, with the closest thing to an actual collaboration the public could see the fruits of coming not from Noel and Julian, but from Dave’s work with madcap surrealist Rich Fulcher. Together they co-wrote and directed a show for Fulcher’s Boosh spin-off character, Eleanor the Tour Whore, which then wowed audiences in the UK and Australia, including a brief stint at the Edinburgh Festival.
“Rich came to me and asked if I could help him with his Eleanor show. There wasn’t much time as he was going to Melbourne in a month, but obviously I said yes!” It must be tough coming up with a complete hour length show almost from scratch so quickly. “We sat down in a little room in The Pleasance Theatre off Caledonian Rd to start trying stuff out and rehearsing it. Rich is obviously a genius when it comes to performing live, so once he started getting it on its feet and doing a few preview shows he came up with loads of new stuff.”
Dave is full of praise for his collaborator and friend. “He is one of the funniest men on the planet. I loved working with him, though I think he hated every minute of me hassling and nagging him! In the end I thought it was a really solid show, and there was just so much material in there. The gag count was huge, there were four songs (put together with Dave Westlake) and loads of video stuff. It was a lot of work and very ambitious considering the time we had, but by the end he was nailing it every night.”
Reviews, however, were not always in tandem with audience responses. This is something The Velvet Onion can attest to, having seen the show in Edinburgh on press night, seeing first hand an audience lapping it up in utter hysterics. “I was slightly annoyed,” Dave reveals, “that it didn’t get better reviews than it did. There were some ok ones, and the early reviews were understandable as the show was still in development, but I remember there being a write-up in Edinburgh that was an absolute stinker which I really didn’t understand. I knew a few people in the crowd that night, who said to me Rich had an absolute stormer. Everyone was pissing themselves the whole way through, but the review said: ‘This isn’t funny. There are no jokes. No-one laughed.’ You have wonder if they were in a different room.”
Despite a few grumbles from the press, the show garnered great responses wherever it played. Thankfully, it seems we’ve not heard the last of the gag-hag just yet. “Rich and I have been talking about maybe writing an Eleanor book, a bit like the one in the show,” he reveals, referring to the character’s fictional autobigoraphy that helps structure the live show. “We’re hoping to work on it next year… so she’ll definitely be back!”
We’ve seen that Dave Brown has been very busy during the Mighty Boosh’s hiatus from the public eye. And whilst fellow comedy writers and performers are struggling to garner attention for their projects in a recession hit industry, what do part-time gorillas and graphic designers by trade do with their time outside the ape suit? For Brown, the charity work is only the beginning. Scratch the surface, and you discover a man who simply never seems to stop for a moment.
“I’ve just been doing a lot of work with a musician called James Rhodes,” he states, referring to the critically acclaimed pianist who has recently released his latest album, ‘Bullets & Lullabies’ which features Dave’s design work. “He’s an amazing concert pianist and an incredible guy. I worked on all the graphics for his new Sky Arts TV show with Nige [Coan] and Ivana [Zorn – who both provided the animations for previous Boosh projects]. I’ve also recently done his album artwork, his website and a load of photo shoots with him, and will hopefully be working with James and his manager Denis Blais next year too. They’re really great people to work with,” he infuses, and continues to explain his position as a designer by trade. “I’ll always have my design and photography work to fall back on when I’m not In comedy world. I really do love doing it all, and whilst I’m very lucky to have a pretty versatile life, having your own studio [Ape Inc. Ltd] is also very time-consuming. It’s hard finding the time to do other things like write and direct, for example. I need to be more strict with my time!”
There has also been talk over the past year about public displays of Dave’s visual artistry. A gifted photographer, Brown has been the official archivist for The Mighty Boosh since the early days, and the vast majority of their behind-the-scenes photography, promotional material and package designs all feature his trademark style. This year he also launched his own photoblog, featuring archive Boosh memories, humorous sightings and portraits of everyone from London Zoo’s gorilla Mjukuu to indie musicans Anthony Rossmondo, The Horrors and Alison Mosshart. Though professional constraints have made updates grind to a halt, thankfully, it seems photography is still on his agenda.
“I’ve got loads of ideas for photography books. It’s just getting the publishers on board. I certainly want to do a proper coffee table book of my Boosh stuff. There’s a lot of my photography in the Boosh Book,” he reminds me, referring to 2008’s ‘The Mighty Book Of Boosh’ which was more in keeping with the style of classic Monty Python books than a historical tome, “but I want something that’s just solely about the image. A book more akin to what Mick Rock’s done with Bowie… not that I’m comparing my work to his! I’ve got millions of photographs, many which have never seen the light of day, but it’s just finding the right time to do it, whether that’s on the back of a new tv series or an album, or whatever.”There could, perhaps, be a temptation to leave such projects until the end of The Mighty Boosh as we know it, so as to ensure it’s a definitive piece. “Maybe,” he muses, “but not for me. I’d like to do it tomorrow, but in terms of the publishers, they’ll probably only want it when its all over.”
It seems those publishers will be waiting a long time. Despite what many fans would believe, the Boosh show no signs of going their separate ways just yet. “We still see each other all the time,” Dave tells me, “and we’re all obviously very close. Its just nice to go and do other things with other people sometimes, unless you’re married, then that can be an issue! When we get back together and do stuff it just clicks, like at the Zappa gig.”
One of the main questions The Velvet Onion is repeatedly asked is about how long The Mighty Boosh will continue to exist, and these quiet times have certainly tested the patience of many. Putting some of the more outlandish rumours to Dave, he’s quick to dispel any fears of a big fall out. “There’s no animosity at all, just because you’re not on tv or on a live tour right at this very moment it doesn’t mean you’re not doing stuff. There’s material written, and Noel & Julian are just waiting for the right time. They are great in that respect, in that they don’t bite everyone’s hand off at the first opportunity. Everything the Boosh does is what’s right for Noel & Julian, and the comedy, and then what we all want to do. They’re adamant that any idea for the show should be driven by them, and that’s totally right, and I completely respect them for that. And when they do it,” he promises, “It will be done right.”
Their hard work and determination to go their own way has had a possibly unexpected but welcome knock on effect, building up one of the most loyal fan bases around. “I think that’s entirely down to Noel and Julian for keeping on believing in whatever they were doing,” Dave suggests. “The viewing figures for the first series were pretty awful if I remember correctly, but the show is a grower. Once you’re in, it’s so much harder to get out, and you become completely obsessed with it. The beauty of Boosh fans is you know they’re so loyal. It’s like a secret club. If you get it and somebody else doesn’t, then its more empowering to you. And if people you meet get it, then you immediately know that they’re like minded. I remember at college, I would gauge whether I could be friends with somebody on whether or not they liked the film Withnail And I. It seems harsh but you have to have some kind of system, and that seemed to be a pretty true one to be honest. I remember people saying they didn’t like it and thinking: ‘That’s it. I’m not talking to you!’” He laughs, and adds: “It’s still one of my favourite scripts ever. I’m not as harsh with people these days but still can’t really understand how anyone can watch that film and not think its brilliant.”
I admit I’m in complete agreement on the merits of the cult comedy classic, and reflect that Withnail is perhaps very much like the Boosh itself, in that on first viewing, many people are not quite sure what to make of it, but the more they watch it, the more than buy into its world and fall in love with what they see. Dave partially attributes the successful creation of the Boosh world to the amount of detail his collaborators put into each episode. “Each of those scripts Noel and Julian have written are almost film scripts in themselves. They’re pretty ambitious and epic for half hour episodes – its not like there’s a repetitive formula like some sketch shows with jokes and situations repeated with just a different hat on.”
“That’s why they’re not churning them out,” he insists. “It’s not an easy process. If you look at how many characters there are, the relationships they have with each other, the rhythm of each joke, the detail in the costumes and makeup, the obsession with the visuals and the whole musical element as well. Tell me another show that’s doing all of that?”
That passionate means of expression is back once again, and courting the risk of being branded a sycophant – and of branding Dave as a Jack of All Trades – I ask him if there is anything he has tried and found out he’s absolutely crap at. “Squash.” he retorts. “I tried to play squash once, and I couldn’t hit the ball with that stupid tiny spoon sized racquet, and I was furious, oh and maths, anything numerical, if they invented a games that involved maths and squash I’d struggle big time, but I’m also ridiculously competitive so I’d still beat you!”
One talent of his that took a lot of fans by surprise during the 2008 Future Sailors tour was his singing voice. After years of being mostly known as the man in the monkey suit, the tour gave Brown the chance to let rip a powerful rock roar and a smooth funky drawl that many professional musicians would give their right arm for. Despite outward appearances, this was not an overnight development. “I’ve always loved music and singing,” Brown explains, “My dad was totally obsessed with anyone that could croon, so I grew up on Nat King Cole and Frank Sinatra, so I’ve always been around singing, I’ve always loved karaoke, and I’ve always dreamt of going on ‘Stars In Your Eyes’ as Lenny Kravitz! I also really like doing musical impressions…” he states with a smile. “I could be the modern day Joe Longthorne! Maybe i’ll pitch that show to someone…”
With that, our time is sadly almost at an end. After a brief bit of silly chatter about starting a Chas N Dave tribute act with Noel Fielding and running a pub called The Stockey Cockney [“We‘ll have Chas N Dave, Dennis Waterman & David Essex playing on a Wednesday night!” he suggests], he prepares to return to his enormous workload with his usual vigour and enthusiasm.
But before he vanishes off into the studios of North London, I manage to sneak in one final question. With such a varied working life, is there one aspect of his career he loves more than the rest? If he had to do just one thing from now until the day he dies, what would it be? He ponders for a moment and reflects…
“The one thing I love doing is being creative, and when I’m not I get really frustrated. I’d love to live in a barn in the jungle somewhere and paint all day. I’d make music, take photos and do exhibitions and gigs for tropical animals and tribes, with Bruce Parry on pan pipes!