Interview: Robin Ince

Robin Ince, stand-up for over 20 years and co-host of The Infinite Monkey Cage on Radio 4 with Professor Brian Cox has said that his current tour will be his last. Before his recent show at The Broadway Cinema, I was lucky enough to be able to interview him. We had a good talk about the present, the future and science in Nottingham…


So, Robin, how’s the tour been going?

The tour’s been never ending in one way, except that now it actually ends, which is peculiar. Unlike Bob Dylan, I came to a conclusion. This tour has kind of bled straight in from the previous tour, which bled straight in from the tour before that and what does happen is that I can’t remember what I started talking about during the first tour and what developed in the second tour. So it becomes very confused towards the end, especially when I’m returning to a city. Generally, I would say the last year; I’ve been out in Australia a couple of months ago, America with Brian Cox separately, doing the Monkey Cage and all of them have been artistically successful but increasingly on the cusp of insanity. I think I’ve just reached that point where I’ve now got to stop for a bit.

Which is odd because I follow you on Twitter and on you previous tours there’s been a lot of intermission rants about 10 minute introductions that lasted for the entire first half and going off on unplanned tangents whereas there seems to have been less of that in this leg of the tour.

I scrutinise too much and I was talking about that with Grace (Petrie) My mind is listing out about three different things, one of which is me going off on tangents and creating things and sometimes going, “don’t fucking do that now, you’ve got to stop”. And then there’s another part of it which is obsessing about different noises in the audience. And then there’s the part also which is the bit actually dealing with talking to the audience and creating the show. I think I’m far too, I notice a lack of laughter when it’s not there. I sometimes walk off and I used to finish shows and go, “oh, that was a bit of a disaster, I’m really sorry” and I’d get so many replies from people saying, “I don’t know what you’re talking about”. I then went through a period a few years ago where I had this weekend where, three nights in a row, I was like, “oh my god, what’s going on with the show? This is a disaster”. And each night when I walked up to clear the stuff I’d left on the stage, the tech person went, “that was great mate” and I went, “what?!” I said, “no, what are you talking about?”. One in Darlington, he said, “there’s loads of people waiting in the bar for you. People really liked it”. I found out that there was something going on which was meaning I was constantly finding failure even where failure wasn’t. Obviously it is a precarious act, this kind of solo performance where you have the narcissism and self-regard that you believe you can be standing there and going through these ideas. But that is then combined with a strange level of self-loathing and that’s a peculiar mix

And self-doubt?

And self-doubt, yes. And also because I, with each tour, I personally believe that there may be aberration, but overall each tour that I’ve done is better than the last and comes closer to fulfilling what I want the show to be. Even though very rarely, being what I imagined and yet, that has also had the pressure of, “I really want it to be great” and I don’t want people to be disappointed. I worry a lot, one, that I want the audience to enjoy themselves and two, I have the problem that I can’t go in any direction that I want. Also, there are very specific things that I want to talk about and there are very specific things that I want to create and so there’s a lot of different things. I think my desire to create as good a show as possible is what leads to insomnia. That’s what leads to the fear that an audience will leave. I was talking to another comic about this recently where sometimes in the front row, there’s some person sitting there and they’re so angry. You can tell it’s the worst night that they’ve had in their lives and you look down towards the end and see their face and they’ve been smiling and laughing along and they come up and they want to buy some DVDs but you’ve drawn on these faces of fury and derision and despondency. That’s not to say that sometimes, without me drawing them on, there may be people filled with fury and derision during a show.

You’ve talked there about the idea that this tour is better than the last one. So, is this one of the reasons that you’re stopping touring? Have you taken the show as far as you can in this format?

No, one of the reasons is, there are various things. I get asked for my opinions on a lot of things – local radio or magazines or whatever it is because I suppose I’m in a niche area, I do science-y things, stuff like that. And I’ve increasingly become wary. For a year, for over a year, I wrote a blog post every single day. Then I reached the point where I was going, “why am I writing this?”, I now have enough doubt about what my opinions are. After the Charlie Hebdo murders happened, a magazine contacted me and asked me to write something. I said, “I don’t know if I can” because I couldn’t find anything to offer apart from the blindingly obvious, which is no society should have people killed for their satire or cartoons. All I can write is what is probably already in the thoughts, I would like other people to write something which can approach it in a way that is maybe more enlightening that what I consider to be the equivalent of art-house pub-talk. It was things like that, that made me go, “right, I’m going to take time off”. I’m going to read a lot and do a lot of things, hopefully get an allotment, grow some cauliflowers, and do those kind of things. Whatever I do next in terms of live performance, if I do another live performance show, I want to have seven hours of stuff but I want each idea to be the fullest that I’ve managed to achieve in terms of on-stage. So, that’s one of the things, I want to take a break to create what may be an absolute disaster.

So, it’s definitely going to be a break? It’s not going to be like the Ben Goldacre-created Robin Ince Tweet-bot?

Yeah, what a bastard he is! What is it about epidemiologists? It might be longer. I’ve been a stand-up for 23/24 years, more than half my life and I’ve done nothing else really, apart from the odd shop job. I might find out that I’m tremendously content without a primal scream every single night in various different towns around Britain and beyond. So, I might go, “oh, I should never have done this in the first place, I’m going to go and work in a bookshop now”. I’m going to finally start my cinema/café-bar/second-hand bookshop that I’ve been meaning to start in a small seaside town.

And what would this be called?

Oh, I don’t know what it’s going to be called. I would go with one of the great traditional names. I would like it to be The Cameo or The ABC, one of these grand traditions because The Cameo is also one of my favourite cinemas, in Edinburgh. It would show a lot of film noir and James Whale movies from the 1930s and there would be lots of seasons of various, different kinds of east-coast misanthropists from the ’90s.

On Twitter, just after the election, you said that you thought this was the right time to take a bit of a break from touring. One of my first thoughts when I heard that was, actually if feels like we need more intelligent voices out there rather than fewer.

Well, I think also that we need to work out what the fuck we’re going to do. A few days after the election I was with Grace and Alan Moore, we do a series of shows together, and we were all talking about what can the arts do? What can we do? When I was growing up in the 80s, there were a lot of alternative voices, some of which were almost mainstream voices, but they were art-house directors and strange musicians and whatever. Despite the lack of channels, there seemed to be a greater opportunity for them to appear. Or maybe there was just more people creating those things. I think now, we need to find a way to make sure that alterative opinion and alternative art and those things that are not the mainstream, that are not made for an ice skating arena, or other things, to find the right way for them to be voiced. In some ways, although I might not be live on stage, there is a possibility I might start producing shows because there are lots of people that I know that are brilliant. That’s the great thing about touring with Grace is, and I’m not just saying that because she’s here, but I am saying that because she’s quite narcissistic, and if she doesn’t get mentioned, she gets very cross. I love Grace’s music and it’s wonderful. Phil Jeays is a musician who I toured with before, who does not get nearly enough coverage. He’s a brilliant kind of Jacques Brel style torch singer with a remarkable performance style. Then there’s lots of other kind of film makers and poets and artists that I think, “why don’t more people know them?” We’re told all the time that if people want it; they get what they want. Of course they don’t get what they want. When you find out that the average, and this has probably gone down, the average independent radio station plays 83 different songs in a month. 83! That’s all. You think of how many songs are released in a week and you think of, you know, say for instance Scott Walker’s last album, which won’t get airplay anywhere. How do people know what they like if you’re not even giving them a chance? That was one of the reasons that I loved John Peel so much. You would listen to the John Peel show and at times you would go, “oh John, what were you thinking? This is awful” and then of course there would be something remarkable. Some bizarre kind of band from Bosnia who were just using bits of found sheet metal, sort of banging away, screaming poetry, whatever it might be. That was what was beautiful, it wasn’t just a low hum of basically supermarket music. It wasn’t a low hum of call waiting music. It was; here’s things that you are going to feel very strongly about and some of them you will go, “that’s the worst fucking track, he’s ever played” and some you’ll go, “right, I now have to find out everything about this person”. Because we have this huge social media and we have the internet, and yet, it’s this bizarre thing to have so much access, to have so many channels and yet things seem to get more funnelled to just a smaller and smaller variety.

As you say that sort of stuff elicits a response whereas a lot of modern music now is very “meh”, there’s no response

We had this very depressing car journey where we were on the way back from a gig on Sunday afternoon and I said, “hey let’s listen to the chart show, I haven’t listened to that for years”. It’s nice being with Grace because she’s young and so I have a barometer to find out whether my reaction is because I’m a middle aged man or because the songs being played are appalling. And Grace has a very broad taste; she owns three different Fleetwood Mac albums. We were listening to all these songs and going, “wow!” The chart show only exists to sell more songs, they’re going, “you can change the chart, remember you can change it now! Download! Download!” So, each song is a song which has to have a reaction – “oh I like that” *download* and never listen to again 48 hours later. I think I’m being overly opinionated now. What am I going to do when I’m on stage?

Post-tour, I see that you’ve got a new volume of Dead Funny coming out

Dead Funny 2, I’m just beginning to chase up, hopefully, obviously, there are people who fall by the wayside who go, I didn’t realise that I wouldn’t make the deadline but we should have a new story from Stewart Lee and Rufus Hound, who were both in the first volume. I’ll probably write another one and then we have Bridgette Christie, Natalie Haynes, Josie Long, Mark Watson, Jason Manford, John Robertson, who’s a very interesting new Australian act as well. There’s quite a, Ellis James, and there are more people that I’m going to add as well, I hope.

And then what? More Monkey Cage coming up?

We’ve got more Monkey Cage; the summer series starts in late June, four of which we recorded in America when we were touring out there. And then we’ll be doing another Christmas special and another autumn/winter series as well.

How did you actually meet Brian Cox initially? What was it that made you realise that you dovetailed together so nicely?

Well I first knew him because one of my best friends got me into wig making and I used to work on Brian’s hair for television. Because before he used to look like Jim Al-Khalili and he found out that the Jim Al-Khalili bald physicist angle was already covered. So, we created the beautiful, luxuriant hair that’s his. And the orphans of Eastern Europe that make such beautiful hair. We met years and years ago and we had a chat about some stuff and nothing really came of it and then we ended up doing some, I was putting on some live shows with scientists and we had a little chat around there. Then I ended up being in a pilot for a show that was never made for Radio 4, a science show. Then, I was trying to pitch another science show and they kept telling me, “oh, we can’t do a science show because some of the people that you’re suggesting are also this show that we’re developing”.  And I kept saying, “who? Can you tell me who? Is it Ben Goldacre?” And they’d say, “no, it’s not Ben Goldacre” and various other people. Eventually, I found out that it was me! But no-one had told me and they’d say, “it’s you, it’s because you’re in it” and I’d say, “well no-one’s ever told me I’m in it, that’s why I’ve been pitching another bloody show”. So basically Brian and I and the producer, Sash, we were given this chance to just slowly develop this show. In the early stages, the first two series, I’m not particularly cock-a-hoop about. We had to have sketches, they were very funny sketches but it was an odd thing, you know, the fear of just half-an-hour of people talking and it being entertaining. Then we had Matt Parker, stand-up mathematician, in the second series as a stand-up break and again, great stuff but you’d be halfway through a conversation and then have to have that awkward segue; well that’s one way of looking at it but I wonder what an Australian mathematician makes of Schrodinger’s cat? Matt? And so, I think from about the third or fourth series was when we had the reasonable freedom to create what we wanted.

And of course you were quite lucky in the fact that you weren’t just replaced by Dara O’Briain as a presenter

Yeah, Dara doesn’t really like radio. I’m relieved that fortunately, he’s busy enough not to, but your never know, there may well be an accident. Dara’s so great and I think the thing with Dara, the handy thing for the radio show is that you need an idiot that doesn’t understand anything and Dara does actually understand quite a lot. Sometimes I can see his pain on some of the shows where he thinks, “I don’t want to ask that, I know that” and I don’t so it’s fortunate that idiocy can end up being a career enhancer.

A bit longer term, you talked about production, is this going to be like The Beatles, who famously produced their best work after they stopped touring?

Well, let’s find out what I create. I’m really excited to find out what happens but no-one believes that I’m going to manage it and even then, about two weeks after I’m officially stopped, I got asked to do a Samuel Beckett festival in Northern Ireland so I’m not going to say no to that. Then someone said would you like to come and do a conference in Helsinki. Why wouldn’t I want to go to Finland? I’ve never been to Finland. And everyone knows that I’m not touring so I get asked to do even more benefits than usual. So, there’s things like that but I got very close yesterday to saying yes to a bunch of things and I suddenly went no, I’m not doing lots of things. I am going to, at least for the first few months, stick to sitting around the house, annoying my family.

What do your family think to that?

Well, I think my son’s reasonably happy. I think my wife, who’s never really seen much of me. I think there’s that fear that between 6:30 and 9:00 at night you have this enormous amount of adrenaline which has constantly been in use for 23 years and what am I going to do now? Just play the pots and pans in the kitchen?

Finally, in Nottingham we’re very lucky. We have a lot of monthly science talks – SciBar, Skeptics in the Pub, Café Scientifique and PubhD was invented here. Plus we have an annual free science festival; Science In The Park. But what do you think is the best way to engage the public with science?

The best way to engage them is to just do exactly that – create as many different ways that people can go into an environment in which they’re comfortable and in which they can see that science does not have to merely exist within the academic world, or within a laboratory or miles underground somewhere, with particle accelerators. It is around us all the time and so to create things in parks and in pubs and in cafes and also for scientists to realise that they don’t have to behave like entertainers. With some of the shows that I’ve put on, I’ve often had scientists going, “but I don’t know any jokes” and I’d go, “it’s fine, there are lots of people who know jokes, the people who do the jokes will do the jokes, you merely have the pressure to be fascinating”. Fortunately, we have a lot of scientists who are very good at expressing their ideas and are very excited about expressing their ideas. There is less, I’m sure there are still scientists who hate popular science stuff and hate Monkey Cage and whatever it might be and all the other things. But there are also a lot who realise that we are at a point in our society where there is the possibility of jeopardy based on dogma and profit and being misled by whatever if might be in kind of mass media outlets or by governments with specific financial interest. Therefore it’s very, very important to try and get out as much evidence based thinking as possible.

And finally, final question – we’re in a cinema; what’s the best film that you’ve seen in the past two weeks?

In the last two weeks it would be A Pigeon Sat On A Branch Reflecting On Existence which I saw last Thursday and I though was fantastic.

Well, thank you very much

Right I better work out what I’m going to say…

Interview by Gav Squires

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