Singers, songwriters and part of two of Australia’s greatest musical comedy trios, Paul McDermott and Steven Gates (perhaps better known as Gatesy), have been friends for 18 years, and singing in private for five years. Til Knowles spoke to Gatesy about where their Melbourne International Comedy Festival show, ‘Paul McDermott & Gatesy Go Solo’, started, creative baths, and dream collaborations.
Take us back to that night 18 years ago – how did you two first meet?
Met at the 1999 Arias – Paul was hosting the night for tele and we (Tripod) were attempting to entertain the entire music industry during the ad-breaks. We won them over right at the end and Paul came backstage and we thought he was going to congratulate us. What he said: well, you just gotta come to the show to find out. Hah!
You’ve been singing together in private for five years. What led to the decision to do a show together?
A mutual friend, who was very dear to both of us, had passed away. It was devastating for everyone who knew her. She was too young. We all were. That was back in 2008. In 2013, Paul was asked to perform at The Shelf, a room comedian Justin Hamilton put together. Paul had written this song about Nerija and asked me to perform it with him on the night. It was extraordinarily powerful and from that moment on, we started thinking long and hard about doing more things together.
This was originally a one-off event for the Ballarat Cabaret Festival. Why did you decide to continue it?
Thinking long and hard is one thing, but DOING something about it is another. When the curator of the 2017 BCF, Fiona Scott Norman, found out we were ‘thinking’ about doing something she said “I want it for my festival! Do it!” Nothing like a deadline to get you fired up. Paul and I live in different cities. We put the show together over Skype- which is why we’re out of sync sometimes- BOOM! We had to continue it; it was too much fun.
What are the differences in the writing process for writing comedic songs and ‘serious’ songs? What comes first – a theme, a lyric, a melody?
Obviously comedy songs need to be ‘about something’ in order for them to land. For me, usually the idea is discussed, things make you laugh, and a song leaps forward from the idea. They’re also more mechanical. Timing is hard to get write in a song; you gotta be ahead of the audience but arrange the music to leave space for laughs. A small change of a word can bring a whole new level of laughter and a group can argue for hours over these small changes.
‘Serious’ songs or ‘normal music’ – as my parents would say – come from a more ethereal plain. Again, I can only speak for myself, but just strumming or humming a tune can evoke all kinds of emotions and lyrical ideas; these songs can be more open-ended. The audience is more passive. I have a great deal of respect for both forms and my favourite thing is to put the audience into a position where they don’t know where a song will take them.
Has it been difficult moving from songs that are a bit more aloof, because of their comedy, to things that play on more vulnerable emotions? Is it scary, to have less comedy to hide behind?
I just find it exciting. I want the audience to find it exciting as well. It all depends on the context. If we’re in a Comedy Festival, we put a lot of pressure on ourselves to bring the laughs, but not at the expense of heavier ideas. We’re well beyond wanting to prove ourselves either way. We want our shows to have it all. We made an EP of pretty songs and called ourselves ‘Bloody Lovelies’ to divert the expectations that are attached to DAAS and Tripod. It’s fun to have different masks.
In a previous interview, Paul said that the two of you have written hundreds of songs already. What’s that process like? How do you choose which ones end up on stage?
Paul is a generator. He can’t stop creating. I gotta make time – light candles, draw a bath. Not true: I don’t have a bath.
Have any of the songs in the show made the audience laugh and cry? Are there any songs that make you laugh and cry?
That’s the idea: crying from laughter and crying from crying.
You both have very distinctive onstage personas in your comedic performances, how does this carry over (or not) in slightly less comedic settings?
I think my persona is much different when I work with Paul: it’s those masks again. I’m a bit of a gormless himbo in Tripod, or at least I like to play that role. With Paul, I’m more the nice guy to Paul’s nasty-pastie. I wanna protect the audience while Paul wants to attack.
What’s the easiest part of working together?
What’s the most frustrating part of working together?
If you had to collaborate with someone else, someone you hadn’t worked with before, who would it be (musician and/or comedian) and why?
Comedians: Maria Bamford or Tig Notaro. I have no idea what we’d do; they’re just my favourites and they’re great people too. Musicians: there are too many- Ben Folds. Tim Rogers. Guy Garvey but to be honest, I think I want someone to teach me a new skill- something that has nothing to do with the Arts. It’s weird when the thing you love most becomes your job. I love my guitar, I do; I just can’t be stuffed carrying it around anymore.
Paul McDermott and Gatesy go solo at the Melbourne Recital Centre on Saturday 13 April at 2pm and 8pm. Tickets start from $39+bf – get them from the Melbourne Recital Centre website.