Interview: Waen Shepherd
THIS ARTICLE WAS WRITTEN IN FEBRUARY 2013 FOR THE VELVET ONION
Pop is ridiculous. A bold statement, perhaps, but at its heart, the very best pop music has a level of frivolity, and the early 80s wave of New Romantics is a perfect example. The era of silly lyrics, big hair and stupendous outfits is facing a critical reappraisal thirty years on, as a new generation of artists hark back to the music they grew up with. The 1980s are suddenly cool, and at just the right time for the return of Gary Le Strange.
Le Strange was the creation of TVO regular Waen Shepherd, whose debut solo live show, Polaroid Suitcase, won the 2003 Perrier Comedy Award for Best Newcomer at the Edinburgh Festival. The accompanying album – previously sold only on tour – has just been reissued digitally to commemorate its tenth anniversary. Despite being created almost entirely via MTV Music Generator for the Playstation2, the results are a surprisingly accurate homage to a bygone era that refuses to date, and belies its low-fi production. A decade on, Waen is delighted to discover the project has held up so well.
“Like a lot of things,” he tells TVO, from the comfort of his Greenwich apartment, “It’s very difficult to view it objectively, because I’m that close to it. For several years, I became completely numbed to it, having worked on it for so long. At the time, I knew I had substandard equipment, and was pushing it to the limit, but it was important to make it sound as close as possible to the things I was doing a pastiche of. Now I’ve dug it out, I’ve actually really enjoyed it.”
The character’s origins are intrinsically linked with the birth of the officially unnamed scene we’ve affectionately dubbed Booshdom, for want of a better term. Shepherd had been at university with Paul Foot, in fact – and throughout the late 90s, he frequently collaborated with Tim Hope, such as on the seminal animated short The Wolf Man. Waen also appeared with Hope and Julian Barratt in editions of surrealist cyberspoof The Pod, but it was in 2000 when a chance shared bill led Waen into his first double act, thanks to another TVO duo.
“I met Steve Oram & Tom Meeten at one of my first professional gigs,” explains Waen. “They had just started doing their double act together. It was through them that I met Simon Farnaby, and I ended up in a duo with him.” That duo with became Peterford Golf Club, and it was here that Le Strange first appeared. Waen also became one of the cast at regular comedy night Ealing Live, alongside Alice Lowe, Lucy Montgomery, Richard Glover, James Bachman and many more. The rest, as they say, is history.
“I was at the Bafta building recently,” he reveals, “and Alice & Jacqueline [Wright] were showing their films. I was there with Rich Glover, and Alice was saying that a lot of it started with Ealing Live, and she’s right. I already knew Steve, Tom & Simon, but we all sort of came together for that. I only did the first run, directed by Paul King, and then I ended up getting too busy with Gary Le Strange to do it again. But that’s where Alice got to know Steve, even though I didn’t really get to know her until a few years later when we started doing Club Fantastico. It’s always been something to do with Ealing Live that’s created this little family. It is like family – we’ll go out drinking together and meet up every few weeks.”
“And it grows all the time,” he continues. “More people come in because they like working with each other, and then we always help one another at being creative.” As we speak, he is deep into scoring short film The Baron – starring Tom Meeten alongside Barunka O’Shaughnessy and Stephen Evans, which is directed by Gareth Tunley, and he stresses that music and sound are his first love. It was this passion which became one of the key inspirations of his creative career, culminating in Gary Le Strange. A standard spoof of 80s pop-stars has been done to death a thousand times over: the difference with Le Strange is that, as with Alice Lowe’s various alter-egos (Kitty Litta, Val Hallah, Ukranian Flightpath and Maggie Moss), Shepherd’s love for the period and attention to detail bring a level of accuracy and warmth that so few seem to get right.
Waen hit his teens as Duran Duran assaulted the charts, and has always retained affection for the period. “It often gets dismissed as crap pop,” he opines, “but a lot of it tackles very interesting themes, and it can get very surreal. With my own work, I‘ve always liked doing big brash things, making a tit of myself in silly clothes and make-up, but it’s usually stuff that’s also quite subtle and nuanced. It struck me that New Romantic pop was much the same. They‘d all write silly songs about giant records eating the solar system, then they‘d be really down to earth in interviews… and a bit boring!”
Shepherd also drew on his enormous love for Doctor Who which he shares with a number of TVO regulars [and our editor!], and waxes lyrical about the influence of way that the show’s 80s incarnations summarise the period. “I’m just in the middle of rewatching all the old Doctor Who episodes in order,” he explains, “and have landed in the middle of Colin Baker’s run. What’s really striking about it, is that its infused with the sensibilities of the nation watching this show. It’s not just the gaudy colours and brashness. The violence of it is really striking, especially for 5.20pm on a Saturday evening. I think that suggests a lot about the 80s – it wasn’t just big hair and bright colours. Entertainment was surprisingly gritty and downbeat, despite outward appearances.”
This was the vibe he tried to capture within Polaroid Suitcase – with Le Strange becoming a downtrodden, failed pop-star who still hoped one day he would be on Top Of The Pops with his fantastical songs. These included Adam Ant style singalong ‘Prince Charles’, the Human League esque ‘Individuals’, and the Gary Numan inspired paranoia of ‘Is My Toaster Sentient?’. The latter – an ode to self aware household objects – became the stand-out track for many, and Waen found himself in the bizarre position of having a “hit” of sorts, which he fast got bored of performing. “People always find artists who refuse to do their biggest hit so ungracious,” he suggests. “At least with ‘…Toaster’, I know how that feels!”
Indeed, Shepherd was soon in demand, and the pressure was on to develop a second Gary Le Strange show, Fame Academy. “The main thing in my head,” Waen explains, “was that it worked, so I should do it again. But I got so much other work out of it, that it became harder to devote time to creating it. Plus, the more people are watching you, the harder it is to experiment, and I instantly found that new songs wouldn’t go down as well, because they just weren’t ready yet. That was a hard lesson to learn.”
“Also, it was very much an act of zeitgeist,” he adds. “People were very interested in it for that particular moment, but it didn’t seem to have any kind of immediate shelf life. I took it upon myself to evolve the character into whatever I wanted it to evolve into, which wasn’t necessarily what everyone else wanted.”
After this stumble, Waen gave the character a residency at seminal comedy venue Lowdown At The Albany – with Club Le Strange fusing his musical stylings with comedy from some of his regular collaborators. He also recorded a set of music videos for ITV’s Comedy Cuts series, directed by none other than Stewart Lee. Finally, it seemed, Le Strange had found his audience. Yet following a final Edinburgh show and third album, Beef Scarecrow, it was time for Gary to disappear.
“I got a bit fed up with what I was writing,” Waen reveals. “I felt that any changes I made to the act took it further away from what people had liked about it in the past. Other work was coming in, so I moved on.” Waen was one of the few Ealing Live regulars to not get involved with The Mighty Boosh in any way, which he puts down to his hectic schedule as Le Strange. That schedule even forced him to take a back seat in the long gestating tv version of his old stand-up show with Simon Farnaby – Peterfold Golf Club. “I was too busy working on Beef Scarecrow to finish writing it with Simon, so he got Rich Fulcher in.”
The result was pilot show Golf War, featuring Waen in a small role – the show dominated by the trio of central performances by Farnaby, Fulcher and Matt Berry. Whilst a great pilot with a lot of potential, the results felt more like an off-shoot of Snuffbox, than they did the work of Waen & Simon. “I was still in it,” Shepherd adds, “but it naturally ended up being very different. The version I started working on with Simon had a completely different plot. It was all about Stuart Olgilvy trying to get some gypsies off his land. It was all really good fun, but I was so busy doing Gary Le Strange that I didn’t have the time to actually work with my mates anymore.”
And so, Gary Le Strange was retired for a number of years. Waen continued working as an actor – including an infamous role in E4 smash The Inbetweeners – and making regular appearances on the live circuit. A return for the character was always a possibility, yet in 2010, Waen’s life took an unexpected route when he was diagnosed with hypothyroidism, with surgery to remove cancerous cells taking place the following year. This reminder of his own mortality came at a time when he had begun to lose interest in performing life, and his steady recovery is truly uplifting.
“I look back on it now,” he tells TVO, “and realise I was obviously ill for some time. It meant that everything in my life completely slowed down. I had a lot of personal stuff to get through myself, but once I’d had the operation, and got the right medication, everything started improving. I got a new lease of life, creatively, because suddenly I wanted to do it all again.”
His return to live performances, fittingly, came with his agreement to appear at The Velvet Onion Live in May 2012, with a show-stopping mini-set that tore the metaphorical roof off The Vandella. Around the same time, he also appeared with Oram & Meeten once again at Club Fantastico in the same venue. Waen… and Gary, in fact, were back!
Further gigs followed throughout the second half of the year, and it seems it won’t be long until Le Strange returns to the stage once more. “So far,” Waen explains, “almost all of the shows I’ve done since I came back have been gloriously successful, so why not carry on? The Velvet Onion gig sort of coincided with people starting to ask me about the character again. People wanted to get hold of the songs, because I’d stopped selling the albums some time ago, and had never put them on iTunes or anything. I’d always meant to do that, and when you asked me to do that gig, for once I said yes, rather than no. Then once you say yes to one, other people ask you, and it’s all been a total surprise!”
Waen’s attention is now turned to a batch of half-written ideas he’s had for Gary over the years, as he begins the lengthy process of crafting a potential fourth album. “I’m taking it one step at a time,” he assures TVO, “I’ve got to wait and see how I feel about each stage. But I’m determined to put this material out, then take it from there. I’m very superstitious about things I haven’t done yet, just in case I never get to finish them. Maybe a new live show, but all I can make are tentative plans, and see where I end up.”