Tim Minchin: “I’m compelled to write whimsical shit”

The musical comedian and polymath has arrived with his debut studio album – 20 years after his career began, at a moment of midlife crisis

Tim Minchin is giving me ocean views on Zoom. As this writer withered in Melbourne’s strict Stage 4 lockdown in late September, the self-proclaimed rock’n’roll nerd was in an Airbnb in Cottesloe, Perth’s beachy western suburb.

The natural light spilling into Minchin’s living room accentuates his signature gothic eyeliner and shock of ginger hair that makes him look like Robert Smith’s sun-tanned cousin. During our chat, Minchin works on signing an estimated 2,000 album inserts for his forthcoming studio debut ‘Apart Together’ before a courier arrives to pick them up.

He’s not too successful. “I just get too animated while talking,” Minchin says.

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Ostensibly, Minchin is in Perth to film a music video for ‘Airport Piano’, the most recent single from ‘Apart Together’, in which he trashes the titular instrument with a sharpie. Minchin arrived from Sydney to quarantine in a family friend’s “beautiful” home, rather than a hotel. This led The West Australian newspaper to doorknock the musician while with his wife Sarah and their two daughters, as well as his sister and her own family. Minchin says they were looking to catch him “cheating” the border permit system, using his “connections” to get in – but the truth was that the Minchin siblings were there on compassionate grounds, because their mother had recently been diagnosed with leukemia.

“That pissed me off, because we’d had a stressful few days,” Minchin says. “[The situation] is shit. It’s really shit. I have to leave tomorrow and I don’t know when I’m going to get back.”

All of Minchin’s new material was written long before the events of this year. But ‘Apart Together’, his TV show Upright and his present situation in WA have triangulated to form an odd mirror. Upright, written three years prior, follows the story of Lucky Flynn, a man trying to return a family piano to his ill mother in Perth before it’s too late. ‘Apart Together’ is another serious turn – one that in large part drops the jokes Minchin has made his name on – and takes stock of how fast life has gone over the last 15 years.

“I feel weirdly prepared” for everything, Minchin says. “In that sort of art imitating life way, this album does feel a bit mid-lifey.

“I am super ignorant about music. I don’t know shit”

“When you’re feeling time accelerate and you’re watching your daughter suddenly be 13, especially because of how busy I’ve been over the last 15 years and how we’ve lived all over the place, it’s just a fuckin’ blur. [‘Apart Together’] is not just a recommitment to Sarah but an attempt to stop and look and take stock.

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“And I’m always writing about Sarah because I don’t have any torrid affairs to write about.”

But the same Minchin that wrote ‘Ten Foot Cock And A Few Hundred Virgins’ isn’t totally gone on ‘Apart Together’. On ‘Airport Piano’, he rags on “women in SUV Porsches”; ‘Leaving LA’ punches up at tinseltown phonies; and even on the morbid hypothetical ‘If This Plane Goes Down’, Minchin wants to “be smiling / Happily Hades-bound”.

“I am compelled to write whimsical shit,” he says.

Tim Minchin
Credit: Damian Bennett

“For me, this album is about creating songs that belong on an album, as opposed to songs that belong live. And with all the punchline stuff – fuck putting that on a studio album. That’s not for an album, that’s for live. And the cutoff is – how can I make this sonically interesting so that if you’re sitting in your living room listening you’re like, ‘This is great’?”

Minchin chose Daniel Denholm, a composer and polymathic producer, to help make that jump to “sonically interesting”. Denholm is responsible for many Australian rock acts’ dabbling with orchestral arrangements over the last two decades – see The Whitlams, Megan Washington, Powderfinger, Silverchair – and Minchin wanted to “let him off the leash” with the album’s orchestration and production.

“He’d send demos to me, and I’d give feedback. He’d want it to go angular and I’d want to keep it a bit pop, usually,” Minchin says.

Which tracks, as throughout the press cycle for ‘Apart Together’, Minchin has been describing the album as “bent pop”. But what music informs the invented genre? Minchin doesn’t know.

“I don’t think too much about other people. I’m sure I have influences, but I try not to examine them. Because you spend your time trying to avoid or go towards them,” he says.

“I’m utterly convinced this album will sell very few units compared to my comedy shows or Matilda

“I am super ignorant about music,” he claims. “I don’t know shit. You take me to a quiz night, and ask me to name a song, a band or a year, I have no idea. I don’t listen to the radio, I sometimes put some jazz on in the background… I am just not engaged with music in that way, it’s always been a storytelling medium for me.”

From a listener’s perspective, the album’s instrumentals retain the thespian’s desire for ceaseless variety – twisting through camp disco (‘Airport Piano’), acid jazz (‘Talked Too Much, Stayed Too Long’), Elton John glam (‘Beautiful Head’), and plain balladeering. Most songs inherit the rambling structure of the stage too, all pushing the four minute mark; Minchin refused to make radio edits for any of the songs, because he didn’t believe it worked to condense them.

Before the pandemic, Minchin also told his record company he didn’t want to tour the record – “My tours will keep being my tours, they’re really entertaining, there is a bit of comedy and I’ll just leach this record into it,” he says – another frustration for BMG, who especially wanted to crack ‘Apart Together’ in America. The compromise was a record launch at Splendour In The Grass, an unusually youthful setting for Minchin, though the pandemic scuttled those plans.

Minchin’s refusal to flog ‘Apart Together’ to his label’s liking comes from where the album sits in the Minchin-verse, a realm that spans comedy, theatre, TV and film: a studio album was simply his “last proper empty box” on his career bucket list.

“It is all part of the project of trying to be an artist in as many ways as I can – almost a fetish, to see if I can have the weirdest, broadest career ever,” Minchin says.

“This [album] is not an attempt to get bigger, in fact I’m utterly convinced it will sell very few units compared to my comedy shows or Matilda.”

Although he wants to write another studio album in the next two years, Minchin says he needs to get “back around and make another musical and write another TV show”. In the same breath, he also pledges to direct a film, write a song-free play and a book of essays. “I’ve thrown all the balls in the air that I can possibly keep there,” he laughs.

Minchin does have the ability to say no: he recently rejected a pitch for a semi-autobiographical sitcom starring Minchin as a musical comedian moving from London to LA, finding little success à la Seinfeld.

“I don’t wanna be known as me,” he explains.

Tim Minchin
Credit: Damian Bennett

“Right at the beginning when people started saying be a presenter and host a show, a panel show, I went ‘I think I still want to be an actor’… I love stories, and so I said no to anything that puts me as a sort of celebrity, or a personality at the forefront. My comedy guy is kind of a character. My music guy is a musician, my composer guy is just me and my private life and no one knows who that is.”

Minchin narrativises his public life from early music days in Perth onwards on ‘Talked Too Much, Stayed Too Long’, which is something of a rap origin story yarn. It encompasses his bad reviews at his breakout Edinburgh Comedy Festival run, his headline-grabbing dig at Cardinal Pell, his sojourn in LA, and the insults frequently levelled at him (“I been smug and ugly / I’m a long-haired lefty joker and a smoker of bongs”). The only one of those jabs he will confess to is talking too much and staying too long.

“Even this interview: like, what the fuck are you going to do with this chat? Why did I need to tell you so much? It’s crazy. I’ve got a fuckin’ problem, I think.”

Tim Minchin’s ‘Apart Together’ is out now on BMG

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