A bit like the Patience Hodgson interview, this was a challenge insofar as I had to interview someone very well known for one thing about something else. I really enjoyed that aspect of it, however – Paul was a wonderful guy to interview. He’s someone that I grew up watching, so it was borderline surreal to be able to speak one-on-one with someone I’d come to love and respect over fifteen years. Another feature where I genuinely think it’s one of the better ones I’ve done.
– DJY, October 2014
If there’s two things you can instantly remember about Paul McDermott – his ultimate distinguishing features, if you will – it’s that he’s one of Australia’s all-time great funnymen and he’s got a tremendous set of pipes. After roughly thirty years of focusing primarily on the former, McDermott’s new stage show, simply titled Paul Sings, brings attention to the latter in its first proper outing. For the first time ever, Paul has put together a show of all-original material, ranging from the confessional “Bottle” to the love-lorn “Slow Ride Home.” With all of this in mind, one would think that singing had been a part of McDermott’s life from the very beginning. He is, however, quick to point out that it was never really a part of his life until he formed the infamous Doug Anthony All-Stars alongside Tim Ferguson and Richard Fidler.
“I’ve always sung to myself,” he says, on the line from Melbourne in the middle of a busy week at the Comedy Festival. “As a kid, I remember just singing to myself and singing at church with my mother. There was nothing at school, though – I wasn’t part of the choir, I never learned an instrument. I didn’t really start singing publicly until I joined up with the All-Stars, and we started busking. I never thought singing as a career was a reality in any way, so it was quite a weird set of circumstances that lead to it.”
The rest, as they say, is history. After 10 years with the All-Stars, McDermott moved onto hosting Good News Week in both its original 90s run and its 2000s revival; as well as Triple J breakfast hosting alongside longtime collaborator Mikey Robins. He formed GUD alongside notable Australian musicians Mick Moriaty (The Gadflys) and Cameron Bruce (Paul Kelly, Washington, Club Luna Band); who had a substantial run at festivals and the like throughout the first half of the 2000s. On the ABC, he also hosted The Sideshow, a variety/cabaret program which ran for one season in 2007 before unfortunately being cancelled. One thing that did come from The Sideshow of particular note was a slab of original songs, written and performed by McDermott near the end of the episode. With this in mind, it’s easy to imagine the daunting task of putting together the setlist for these shows, narrowing down a myriad of material over the years down to just 90 minutes’ worth.
“It’s been an interest process,” he admits. “With this show, we’ve just been trying to narrow it down to the sweet songs. We used to do this thing in the All-Stars when about three-quarters of the way through the show, we’d do a song like “[Heard It Through the] Grapevine,” “Throw Your Arms Around Me” or “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood.” They were always used as a counterpoint to the more visceral, grotesque comedy that we were doing. They affected people in a different way. This show is like a collection of those ideas, but they’re all original songs – songs that came from the end of The Sideshow, songs that were occasionally put in Good News Week or GNW Night Lite, or even songs that were in the [Comedy Festival] Debates. It’s taken us awhile to collect them, and we’ve only really found about half of them!”
Given that Paul Sings is a notably more sincere and – dare it be said – “serious” show in comparison to previous McDermott productions, the question must be asked: Is it difficult for people to keep a straight face at a comedy festival show? “The reaction has been quite phenomenal, really,” says Paul in response. “The reaction to the songs has been great. I do get to chat a bit with the audience between the songs – I guess that could be considered comedy. I think we strike a good balance, overall. People have been very complimentary about this show, which is really nice.”
Despite the title of Paul Sings, McDermott is also very quick to point out that he’s definitely not alone on this venture. Joining him will be a four-piece backing band, of whom he cannot speak high enough praises. On bass is Thirsty Merc alumni Phil Stack, who Paul describes as “the missing piece – his vocals are just perfect, and he has such great ideas.” On drums is Evan Mannell (“I’ve been calling him the Bison – he hits those skins like he hates them!”); and the two are joined by guitarist Patch Brown (“I don’t know why he isn’t the biggest thing in the world yet – he’s a superstar!”) and keyboard/accordion player Stu Hunter (“He’s done such wonderful things with these arrangements, what a brilliant musician!”).
There’s an overwhelming sense of pride in McDermott’s tone when he discusses how Paul Sings has come together – it’s already received rave reviews at the Fringe in Paul’s hometown of Adelaide, as well as the Melbourne International Comedy Festival. In two weeks, the show will come to the Sydney Comedy Festival for two nights only, at The Concourse in Chatswood and the Enmore Theatre in Newtown. McDermott himself is particularly fond of the latter – “Oh, I haven’t played there in a thousand years!” he reminisces. “What a beautiful venue. We can’t wait to come and play.”
Oh, one last thing, Paul: Any chance of an encore of “I Fuck Dogs”?
“People are ALWAYS after that particular classic,” he says with a laugh.