James Acaster finds his way back to music

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James Acaster finds his way back to music
James Acaster in London, May 20, 2023. As a teenager, Acaster played in several bands. After becoming disenchanted with the music industry, he found success in comedy. (Tom Jamieson/The New York Time

by Desiree Ibekwe

LONDON.- British comedian James Acaster can remember the moment he fell in love with music at 6 years old. At a party held by a member of the congregation of the “hippie-ish” church his parents attended in Kettering, a town in central England, he heard a compilation album featuring songs like Men at Work’s “Down Under” and “Centerfold” by The J. Geils Band.

“I just couldn’t believe how good every single song was — it was blowing my mind,” Acaster said in a recent video interview. Music became “a pretty immediate obsession.”

By the time he was a teenager, Acaster was playing in several bands. He left school at 17, without taking his final exams, and didn’t go to college, so he could focus on building a career in music.

At 22, though, he didn’t have a record deal, and when his experimental jazz group split, Acaster started focusing on comedy instead. He had been dabbling in stand-up as a side project since he was 18, and it felt like a welcome break from the pressures of trying to make it in music.

“It was nice to do it and not care about it,” he said. “Whereas every time I was onstage with a band, I really cared and wanted it to go well.”

Today, Acaster, 38, is one of Britain’s most popular comedians, and he has finally released a debut album of sorts: “Party Gator Purgatory,” a 10-track experimental record featuring Acaster’s drumming and made with the 40-artist collective he founded called Temps.

In comedy, Acaster has had critical and mainstream success. A fixture on British comedy panel shows, in recent years he’s also found success in podcasting with “Off Menu,” a show about dream meals he co-hosts with comedian Ed Gamble.

On the talent-filled British comedy circuit, Acaster has carved out a singular voice: a mixture of whimsy and vulnerability, surrealism and biting commentary, as seen in his stand-up special “Cold Lasagna Hate Myself 1999,” in which he explored a difficult period in his personal life with both candor and his signature frenetic performance style.

This balance is what has connected with people, said Matthew Crosby, a British comedian and friend, who praised Acaster’s “genuine authenticity” in a recent phone interview.

Acaster looms so large on the British comedy scene that others have begun to emulate him. “Anyone who’s got a really distinctive unique style, whether wittingly or unwittingly, gets aped by the circuit — Eddie Izzard and Harry Hill are the people who immediately spring to mind,” Crosby said. “And you see it now with lots of people doing James.”

As comedy, once his low-pressure creative pursuit, transformed into a full-fledged career, Acaster disengaged from both listening to and making music. Then, in 2017 he had a mental health crisis precipitated by breakups with his girlfriend and his agent, and he began collecting albums released in the previous year, ultimately purchasing 500 releases from 2016 alone, he said.

“When things got a bit rough, that was my most recent thing that had brought me a lot of comfort so I carried on doing that,” he said. “I just sort of reacquainted myself or renegotiated my relationship with music as a fan.”

He codified the personal project in “Perfect Sound Whatever,” a 2019 book in which he claims that 2016 was the best ever year for music, and explains why.

In 2020, he started making music again, and the result is “Party Gator Purgatory,” an experimental, hip-hop-inflected and drum-heavy record, which follows the death, purgatory and resurrection of a life-size toy alligator Acaster won at a fair when he was 7.

The album’s high concept is typical of Acaster’s creative process, and the way he works his way out from a single idea. “You’re just running with whatever hunch you’ve got that this might be fun,” he said. This approach is clear across Acaster’s books, podcasts and stand-up. On the album, the idea is the travails of a stuffed toy; in one special in his Netflix stand-up series “Repertoire,” Acaster began with the idea of his being an undercover cop, “and by the end you’ve got a show that is about a breakup you’ve had,” he said.

“He’s not afraid of being incredibly niche,” Crosby said. “He doesn’t sort of sit down at the start of each day and go, ‘What can I do that’s going to make me a load of money?’ He goes, ‘What am I really interested in?’”

This penchant for niche ideas is evident in an album that is dense and genre-defying. “Party Gator” is largely inspired by “What Now?” a 2016 album from experimental musician Jon Bap, in which the drums feel deliberately out of sync.

“He’s just a freak and he likes weird music, and I think we both like a lot of weird stuff,” NNAMD¤, a Chicago-based musician who raps on the album, said in a video interview.

Making the album was a labor of love, an all-consuming project that stretched over two years. On the album Acaster plays drums, served as a producer and curated a 40-strong roster of collaborators, including singer-songwriter Xenia Rubinos and rapper Open Mike Eagle. He would listen to a drum track he’d created, figure out who he wanted on it and reach out. Acaster had interviewed some of the musicians he wanted to work with for his book, “Perfect Sound,” and around half of them he cold emailed. “I just got very very lucky that people would say yes,” he said.

Taking place mostly during Britain’s pandemic lockdowns, the collaborations happened over email and Zoom, through which Acaster was able to foster an environment of experimentation. “For the majority of it, he just told me to do whatever I felt like doing,” NNAMD¤ said. “He kind of took what I did and manipulated it. It is still what I did, but he added his own little textures to it and chopped up some things and kind of freaked it, made it cool.”

With an album that may not appeal to mainstream audiences, Acaster is levelheaded about what its reception could look like. “I really hope that it finds its audience, and the people who would like it discover it and get into it,” he said.

In many ways, the making of the album is a mark of success for Acaster.

“I love it all and I love it as much as any of my stand-up shows, anything I’ve done,” he said.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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