Tim Minchin: Confessions Of A Rock 'N' Roll Nerd The Australian musical comedian, who rose from obscurity to stardom in just a few years, says he's always loved poking fun at his own emotions.
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Tim Minchin: Confessions Of A Rock 'N' Roll Nerd

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Tim Minchin: Confessions Of A Rock 'N' Roll Nerd

Tim Minchin: Confessions Of A Rock 'N' Roll Nerd

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SCOTT SIMON, host: How do we explain Tim Minchin: A musician, a satirist, comedian; frustrated rocker, an accomplished composer, an outspoken skeptic; a man who loves both children and expletives. Think: a cussing Sir Noel Coward or Tom Lehrer with eyeliner and an Australian accent. In 2005, Tim Minchin won Best Newcomer at the prestigious Edinburgh Fringe Festival and became one of the must successful ever debut acts there. And in just a few years, he's gone from playing small clubs to selling out the Sydney Opera House and the largest arenas in Great Britain. And now, Tim Minchin is coming to the United States. He joins us in Studio 4A.

TIM MINCHIN: Yeah. This is a beautiful studio and this is a beautiful piano.

(SOUNDBITE OF PIANO PLAYING)

MINCHIN: Yeah.

SIMON: How did, how did you get to this point?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MINCHIN: Train.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MINCHIN: Yeah. I started writing songs for youth theater and stuff. And so it's really writing music for the stage that started me out but then I eventually went to music college and did a two-year course in contemporary music, and then just played in endless bands, cover bands, jazz bands. I played in piano bars. I played piano for cabaret stars and stuff and then eventually moved from my hometown of Perth in Western Australia to Melbourne and somewhere in there I decided to book myself a room and do a cabaret show of my own material.

SIMON: What got you hooked into music, though?

MINCHIN: I blame my brother because I did up to grade two sort of...

(SOUNDBITE OF PIANO PLAYING)

MINCHIN: That sort of level of piano when I was a kid and quit at about 11. And I think I probably would've stayed quit, except my brother played guitar and he was much more a music fan than I ever was or ever have been and he always sat there working out the songs, and eventually he got hooked on The Doors and he wanted someone to play the, you know...

(SOUNDBITE OF INTRODUCTION OF SONG, "LIGHT MY FIRE")

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MINCHIN: Oh, I can't play...

(SOUNDBITE OF PIANO PLAYING)

MINCHIN: That intro to "Light My Fire" and he was like, can you work that out? And I had already sort of started fiddling around, working things out by ear. And it was because of him that I've developed the style which a lot of people play with in the modern, which is really...

(SOUNDBITE OF PIANO PLAYING)

MINCHIN: ...the whole thing is, everything is built on chords. So I learned piano a bit more the way a guitarist learns guitar. And so we played in bands together until he sort of got distracted by real life. And I'd always been, you know, an angsty teenage poet and all that sort of thing. But I've found when writing lyrics I couldn't write like Dylan or any of the rock stars. I couldn't write this sparse, non-didactic, open-to-interpretation sort of stuff that you hear most of the time, nor was I particularly found of writing that sort of cliche, you know, I love you (unintelligible)...

SIMON: So in the one hand there wasn't the, you never turned around to see the frown...

MINCHIN: Yeah, that's right.

SIMON: And then there wasn't the...

MINCHIN: It was not the abstract impressionism nor tapestries of ducks. It was I'm very didactic in my lyrics but I've always been drawn to mock my own emotions, and so I write this very lyric-heavy stuff, which suits theater and comedy much more than it suits pop. Which is why I'm here.

SIMON: Yeah. Let's not delay and give people an idea of what we're talking about. Could you do a song, "Rock N' Roll Nerd"?

MINCHIN: Yeah. This is I've been opening shows to this song for a long time. It's disappeared and returned.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ROCK N' ROLL NERD")

SIMON: (Singing) He doesn't have a problem with drugs, he just doesn't get them. He's fine that his mates have tattoos, but he thinks they'll regret them. He likes going to bars, but he hates it when the music's too loud, and he tends not to go to rock concerts, 'cause he can't stand the crowd. But all he's ever wanted to be is a rock star on MTV. But he knows that it's not very likely, he's in his 30s.

MINCHIN: (Singing) He knows that he will always be a rock'n'roll nerd. He'll keep playing gigs but no one knows about, though it sounds absurd. He'll just keep playing, oh yeah. But you see the problem is there's not much depth in what he's singing. He's a victim of his happy middle-class upbringing, so he can't write about the hood, or bling-bling.

(Singing) He has nothing interesting to say so he writes about himself. But he doesn't want to seem self-obsessed so he writes in third person, in an attempt to seem more rock'n'roll, but he suspects it's not working. And deep in his heart he knows he will never be Bono or Bowie, but even if he was quite pretty with small pants like Britney, he knows that he will always be a rock'n'roll nerd.

(Singing) He'll keep writing songs the world will never hear, though they won't be, though they won't be heard. He'll just keep writing, oh yeah. You might not like him, but he won't care 'cause he wants to rock. He will never be deterred, but he'll always be a screwed up little try hard, wannabe rock'n'roll nerd.

SIMON: Thank you very much.

MINCHIN: It's a pleasure.

SIMON: That was very moving.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MINCHIN: Good.

SIMON: I think you bared a soul.

MINCHIN: Thanks. It's one of my spare souls, luckily. The guy in song's obviously pretty much me. If anything, I exaggerate my rock star ambitions 'cause as I sort of mentioned, I did come up through theater and stuff and I was always doing lots of different things. I eventually figured out how to conflate all my interests of acting and composing and writing and comedy and playing the piano and singing.

The only fiction in "Rock N' Roll Nerd" is kind of the idea of a kid who always wanted to be a rock star. In fact, it never crossed my mind that I was allowed to even be a musician for a living till I had already written a whole lot of scores. I'm the son of a surgeon and the grandson of a surgeon. I didn't really sort of, - it wasn't on my radar until, almost after the fact, I kind of looked behind me and went, oh, I've been a musician for a while. I guess this is what I'm doing.

SIMON: Are there places even you won't go? Do you find yourself drawing back? I mean I assume anybody who buys a ticket to come see Tim Minchin knows what they're in for. And I can't imagine that they would find anything objectionable, but...

MINCHIN: I don't think I get many walk-outs anymore because, as you say, as my reputation's grown, people know who I am. I got more walk-outs earlier in my career when I just appeared to be this sort of piano-playing, as you said, maybe Noel Coward or some modern version of Lehrer. But I don't believe that we need to worry too much about censoring anybody's comedy. Having said that, I'm not particularly interested in the comedy of shock for shock's sake.

SIMON: Mm-hmm.

MINCHIN: I've done a bit of it in the past and decided I wanted to pull back from that and make sure that I always have the ability to at least after the fact converse intelligently about intent in the hope that my intent is not just to make people gasp. But your question was whether there's anything I won't touch, and I don't think there's any subject that I won't touch because it's a taboo subject. If you look at my stuff, it tends to be about philosophical gripes and human psychology and stuff about belief and the way we see the world and about ethics.

My show is really actually a show about ethics, ironically. And I don't want to ruin anyone's experience of it but that's what I think it is. And so I think...

SIMON: No, Mr. Minchin, you're not going to pack them in if you say...

MINCHIN: I know. I know. I know.

SIMON: ...this is a show about ethics.

MINCHIN: But this is NPR, right. I'm talking to my audience.

SIMON: Right. Of course. Right. This is it. Yeah.

MINCHIN: I wouldn't be saying this if I was on Fox.

SIMON: Ethics and responsible diet.

MINCHIN: Yeah, that's right. But if you get offended by my song about the Pope, for example, which is not playable on air, but is very, very carefully constructed, I'm fine with that and I can argue it and I can take the anger. But if you got cross with me about one of my earlier songs that I did, for example, called "Fat Children," eventually I went yeah, actually, you guys are right. It's just bullying. So I'm not scared of taboos; I am however, preoccupied with intent. And so if I'm going to talk about a taboo subject I'm going to try and say something interesting about it.

SIMON: Is there a song you could take us out on? I wonder if we could get you to do "White Wine in the Sun."

MINCHIN: Sure. This is one of the songs I play generally as an encore to atone for the sins of the show you've just watched.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHITE WINE IN THE SUN")

MINCHIN: (Singing) I'm looking forward to Christmas. It's sentimental, I know, but I just really like it. I am hardly religious. I'd rather break bread with Dawkins(ph) than Desmond Tutu, to be honest.

(Singing) And yes, I have all of the usual objections to consumerism, to the commercialization of an ancient religion, to the westernization of a dead Palestinian, press-ganged into selling PlayStations and beer. But I still really like it. I really like Christmas.

SIMON: You can hear Tim Minchin singing "Rock N' Roll Nerd" and this entire song, "White Wine in the Sun," on our website, npr.org. Trust me, you want to hear this song in full, "White Wine in the Sun." This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

MINCHIN: (Singing) My brother and sisters, my gran and my mum, they'll be drinking white wine in the sun.

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