It started off, as many great creative undertakings do, as a joke. A few years ago, James Acaster’s parents gave him an ultimatum: collect your old dust-lagged drum kit from our house or we’ll throw it out. Not long before, Louis Theroux’s company had contacted the comedian to ask if he had any documentary ideas. Acaster, who spent his youth playing in bands before becoming a comedian, had a brainwave: how about, instead of a straight-faced doc, he made a mockumentary about himself pivoting “very pompously” from celebrated standup to Serious Musician?
The film would begin with the Kettering native swearing off comedy at his “last gig ever” before driving home to pick up his drums. Then he would start on his magnum opus, laying down some beats in the studio while staring down a gigantic cuddly alligator in a pink top hat (more on him later) as his worried manager, played by comedian John Kearns, looked on. Eventually, deciding his work wasn’t up to scratch, he would call in esteemed drummer Seb Rochford to play over the recording, allowing the comedian to pass it off as his own.
Sadly for fans of Acaster’s comedy – an artfully offbeat, narratively ambitious and breathtakingly clever brand of standup, which shrouds brutal confessionals in tongue-partly-in-cheek anecdotes – the mockumentary was swiftly abandoned. Weeks after filming a taster tape, the UK went into lockdown. “I found myself with nothing to do like everyone else, but with a four-hour recording of me playing with my hero,” recalls the 38-year-old, sitting outside a cafe near his east London home on a freezing March afternoon. “I would listen to it while I was doing my daily exercise: hula-hooping in the living room because I’d learned it for a TV show.”
After a week, he decided to make the tracks into a real, relatively serious, album. He asked musicians he knew to add vocals or instruments to the drum tracks and, from their virtual contributions, painstakingly compiled the 10-track Party Gator Purgatory, a genre-melding, densely layered and pretty out-there rush of jazz, rap, synthpop and indie-rock that traces the death, afterlife and rebirth of that toy alligator. It is credited to Temps, the 40-strong collective that provided Acaster with his material.
It’s probably worth explaining how the comedian was able to persuade so many musicians to furnish his lockdown passion project with their talents. In 2017, Acaster had a breakdown and, in order to cope, decided to listen to every album released during the previous year, eventually proclaiming 2016 the greatest ever year for music in Perfect Sound Whatever, his memoir-slash-criticism collection (also a podcast). Acaster interviewed many of the artists who would later appear on the Temps album: producer Xenia Rubinos, Why?’s Yoni Wolf, Mallorcan musician Joana Gomila and Deerhoof guitarist John Dieterich, among others.
Acaster had recorded albums before but never alone, never as producer and certainly never via this cherry-picking of other artists’ work. “Every project I’ve ever done, I doubt myself – even comedy,” he says. “There’s always a point where you go: ‘I shouldn’t be doing this, I’m out of my depth.’” With Temps, however, Acaster was “leaning into my naivety from the start. I saw it as a strength that I didn’t know what I was doing. I could be braver because I don’t know the things I should avoid. But the project started out with me deliberately doing stuff I knew I shouldn’t do – not tuning the drums, not playing along to a click track, improvising – and that worked. You end up with little amateurish qualities that sound quite nice.”
Party Gator Purgatory is experimental and eclectic. That’s partly down to the albums-of-2016 binge, which overhauled its maker’s music taste. Before then, Acaster would “just lazily listen to any sort of quirky indie rock”, but by the end he was increasingly drawn to “very harsh experimental rap, very difficult electronic music and albums that had drums that were deliberately lagging”.
He goes on: “If, for reasons unbeknown to anyone but yourself, you’ve decided to listen to every single album that came out in 2016, you’re going to start getting excited by albums that don’t sound anything like anything else. But the core of what I like – music that’s both accessible and innovative – has always been the same.”
In this regard, you can easily join the dots between Temps and Acaster’s comedy, which is also ambitiously odd – he has done shows pretending to be an undercover cop and in witness protection – but also obviously funny, winning him fame and mainstream plaudits. He is a five-time Edinburgh comedy award nominee and was shortlisted for a Critics’ Choice prize last year. He is also host of one of the UK’s most popular podcasts, Off Menu. Yet despite the continuity, Acaster is hyper-aware of the pitfalls of transitioning between art forms. Although he claims he doesn’t care if people presume he has just randomly alighted on music, he is clearly wary of seeming too keen to be taken seriously (“which is what I was going to send up originally”) but also of making it “too goofy, and then they can’t enjoy it as music”.
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That’s where the Party Gator has been crucial. It’s a representation of the idea that: “We’re not trying to be funny but we’re not trying to be serious either.” Acaster won the toy at a fair as a child, but left it at a friend’s house after an ex-girlfriend refused to have it in their flat. He went to collect it at the same time as his old drum kit, and decided that the mockumentary music would be inspired by its resurrection – an idea he carried over into the real album.
For the Temps music videos, Acaster commissioned a mascot-style costume version of the toy to wear – he thought appearing as himself might seem too earnest – while ensuring aesthetic and tonal consistency. It was also a way to give himself heatstroke, labyrinthitis and a “fucked-up” ankle during filming. Acaster has since ditched the suit: the next two videos will star a glove puppet instead. “Unless I sprain my wrist glove-puppetting too hard, I think I’m OK.”
Unlike his mockumentary persona, Acaster has not quit standup for good. He did decide to take an inordinately well-timed break at the end of 2019, but is now about to embark on a fresh run of his new show, Hecklers Welcome, in which, never one to rest on his laurels, the comedian allows audience members to override his preplanned routine with their own thoughts – something he was previously dead against. “My response now is more ‘Yes and …’, and not slamming them. I don’t try and shut them up, I don’t try and win. It’s an exercise in getting better at dealing with certain things that I’ve found difficult.”
At its core, Hecklers Welcome is an autobiographical meditation on Acaster’s relationship with performing and audiences. With that in mind, does he now consider his comedy – podcasts, books, live shows, TV appearances – and Temps to all be part of the same oeuvre? “Well I definitely wouldn’t use the word ‘oeuvre’,” he grins, “because then I am becoming that character from the mockumentary. But I’m still being me making something – and I like this just as much as any comedy show I’ve ever done.”