Bringing It Home: Temps’ James Acaster Interviewed

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“Music is very addictive, which I regrettably can’t always say about comedy…”

James Acaster used to believe his music career was over. “Music is what I originally wanted to do,” he explains. “It definitely felt like something that I had resigned myself to…”

Before becoming the household comedian he is today, Acaster had grown up drumming in numerous bands. He’d even left sixth form to record an album as The Wow! Scenario with a friend, but the music never quite worked out. A series of traumatic car crashes prompted a mid-life crisis at the tender age of eighteen; Acaster decided to work his way through a bucket list and gave stand-up a go. 

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We know what comes next. With his unpredictable, absurdist humour, James Acaster grafted relentlessly through gigs, festivals, and panel shows to become a darling of the comedy circuit and British culture at large. He’s still eye-wateringly industrious: his schedule is currently stuffed with recording his weekly Off Menu podcast, a true(ish) crime podcast, and a mysterious upcoming role in the next Ghostbusters film. 

But today we are on Zoom to talk about his new musical project, Temps. For years, Acaster had tentatively approached music-making. In 2017, he coped with a breakup by obsessively collecting over 500 records exclusively from 2016. That spawned the book Perfect Sound Whatever (2019) and its accompanying podcast, where he waxes lyrical with fellow comedians about his favourite artists, interviewing many along the way. 

True to all-consuming form, Acaster recruited a Bandcamp user’s wet dream of forty underground musicians to release Temps’ debut album, ‘Party Gator Purgatory’. Many were part of the ‘Perfect Sounds’ cohort, and they’ve come together to create a perfect storm of experimental jazz-hip-hop-psychedelia. 

I can tell Acaster is absolutely serious about it by his cadence: he’s startlingly conversational, completely opposite from his usual squawky persona. This is entirely intentional as he’s found the prospect of not having to be funny “really liberating”.

“I don’t want to overthink the ‘comedian-making-an-album’” he says. “There’s been a few albums where they’ve either gone, ‘I need to make this not funny so people know it’s serious’ or ‘I need to keep this funny because I’m a comedian’. Both feel a bit forced.”

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It all started as an abandoned project with Louis Theroux at the helm. Ordered to collect a dusty drum kit from his parent’s house, Acaster pitched him a mockumentary to chronicle his journey from comedian to overly earnest musician. He would use an old toy, the ‘Party Gator’, as a mascot for the project to further decenter himself. The pandemic struck and the project was abandoned, but Acaster found himself taking the music seriously. 

“It was very addictive,” he recalls. “I just wanted to go back to my computer and work on the songs, which I regrettably can’t always say with comedy.”

Initially, Acaster laid down some drum beats for the mockumentary; it had been twelve long years since he had regularly played, so he asked his idol Seb Rochford (Polar Bear) to play on top. With Rochford’s recordings and the early support of Deerhoof’s John Dietrich, Acaster was determined to work with as many of his revered artists as he could. 

“Everyone who I thought, ‘it has to be this person’: they all said yes”, he beams. “All of them are invaluable and they’ve all shaped the sound of the record in a way that I couldn’t have imagined myself.”  

Acaster sketched a loose narrative of the Party Gator’s death, purgatory, and resurrection. He left the writers to interpret the themes as they saw fit and received their recordings, occasionally cutting them up and rearranging them until it sounded right. 

“Every musician wanted to work differently,” he says. “Sometimes they wanted me to tell them exactly what I wanted them to do. Sometimes they wanted complete freedom. I would always go for the chance option first, probably ‘cause I’m lazy. 

“Leaving it to chance a bit more sometimes made it feel more alive, more like people in a room together. Without wanting to get too pretentious, trying to make everyone sound like they’re together during the pandemic was quite a nice feeling.” Acaster quickly found the album was also a solace to the musicians: “People were really going for it and seeing it as a space where they could do something different.”

Working primarily over email afforded Acaster an advantage to musicians he didn’t share a mutual language with. Gaston Bandimic hails from Senegal and raps in Wolof; they would exchange emails with Acaster translating into French. “Gaston is extremely prolific,” he raves. “I’d email him about a song and he would have it back to me within a day – and he would have done extra bits every time as well. 

“He really loves the creative process. He loves getting to dig into weird time signatures. Both the beats he sings on the album are two of the most difficult beats to rap over. He really relishes that kind of challenge.”

Unsurprisingly, Acaster found the pandemic inspired much of Temps’ writing. Whilst there’s room for some goofy Acasterian outbursts (see the fantastic ‘kept’), everyone took the project seriously, and their personal lives often bled into the project. Though Acaster rarely makes an appearance, he speaks through the many vocalists on the album. Yoni Wolf, who Acaster had idolised since his teens, bellows on the closer ‘slowreturn’: “mental illness is a beatdowwwwwn”. It’s hard not to read into the collective trauma of Covid – as well as Acaster’s own personal history

“I was really honoured when certain people like Yoni went as personal as they did,” Acaster says, clearly touched. “There were some of his lyrics that I really connected to and some of them which were so beautifully about his experience.”

Once restrictions eased, Acaster was able to get in the studio, glimpsing into the working process of musicians such as Londoner Law Holt. She would isolate herself and listen to the track repeatedly until she wrote something she liked; only then would she have a break. “She would quite comically shout: ‘Get me a Nando’s!’ She was joking… but I did get her a Nando’s,” he chuckles. Holt would laboriously rework the recording until it was exactly as she wanted, never to touch it again. 

Acaster might have thought he was rusty on the drums, but many came away impressed with his musicianship. Detroit rapper and producer Quelle Chris (billy woods, Earl Sweatshirt) enthusiastically began his 800-word email to CLASH: “I fuck with James any day”. 

“It takes someone with real guts to decide the eye of the pandemic was a good time to orchestrate a bi-coastal, cross-country, multi-continent album,” he wrote. “James was the perfect person. Pulling that off, minus the pandemic, takes a certain level of organization, skill and, most importantly, vision.” This vision, he said, consisted of prompts ranging from “a courteous goodbye” and “a half-hearted apology” to “remembering a past life like you’re Jason Bourne”.

It was his faith in every artist that spurred the project, Quelle continues: “You could feel the mutual respect between him and all the artists. He bugged up everyone to the point that I felt like I already knew everyone involved. There was a lot of love – especially for an album with such, at times, blue-hearted pieces and topics.” 

Quelle wasn’t the only one. Acaster offered to pay every artist for their contribution, but flautist Elizavete Balčus invited him to drum on her song ‘Narcissism Purgatory’ instead. He even tells me that making ‘Party Gator Purgatory’ influenced his own personal heroes, but he coyly refuses to reveal who: “There’s some people who’ve said it made them think differently about the next album that they’re about to do, which was pretty mind-blowing.” 

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In fact, working as part of Temps encouraged James to resurrect The Wow! Scenario. Listening back to snippets, Temps sounds like a refinement of The Wow! Scenario and its mission to create experimental jazz-pop; it’s clear he’s rediscovering not just his drumming skills, but a much more ancient part of Acaster’s personality. “When I started doing this, I did feel like I still had that musical voice intact from before I did comedy. It was really nice to rediscover how to speak through that voice again and to find it as natural as I did.”

Once self-described as “a very, very long and hard listen”, Acaster is now gathering new vocalists and shaving the album down from its original 17 tracks to 11. “There was a time in my life where I was just thinking: this is completely about me doing what I want to do. Now, I don’t feel that way. It’s nice to return to those songs and think about the audience. Temps has really helped with that”.

“There’s always got to be somewhere for the audience to jump on board,” he continues. “You can’t just make it for yourself, otherwise why have you released it? It’s so other people can listen to it. If it’s going to be successful in that regard, you’ve got to find that shared experience.”

Where do you go with an album as unique as ‘Party Gator Purgatory’? Reportedly, Quelle was eager to tour it, but Acaster is skeptical it will come to fruition. “It would be a near impossible task – there’s a lot of us and the bandleader would be a comedian! But if enough people wanted to do it and watch it, I’d look into filming the whole thing. If it goes wrong, at least you’ve got a funny documentary about us all trying and failing.” 

But even if that tour doesn’t happen, Acaster is perfectly content to leave his music career as is. 

“It does feel like everything I ever wanted to achieve with music,” he says proudly. “All I ever wanted to do was make an album that I felt was exactly what I love about music. It’s not going to be the case for everyone who listens to it, but to actually have achieved that for myself? It’s something that I didn’t think I’d be able to do.”

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‘PARTY GATOR PUGATORY’ is out now.

Words: Alex Rigotti // @alex_rigatoni
Photo Credit: Willow Shields