Tim Minchin Talks Gingers, Religion, Ben Folds, Sperm Banks, Flight of the Concords, and More

Tim Minchin is a rather humble lad. Despite having millions of fans in his homeland of the UK, Australia, and here in the states (not to mention awards up the ying-yang) the 35-year-old piano-playing comedian and musician remains pretty modest about his success.

"I'm lucky to be doing what I'm doing," he says. "I could be doing something terrible, like you know, mining coal or prostituting my body."

It's more than just luck that's caused Minchin's success. Besides an innate skill for banging out piano-pop on the ebonies and ivories, the wild-eyed and wild-haired artist excels at crafting hilariously clever and inventive lyrical whirlwinds laced with satire about contentious subjects like sex ("Inflatable You"), racism ("Predjudice"), and religion ("Pope Song"). The result is a pastiche of Ben Folds and Flight of the Concords (with a little bit of Tom Lehrer mixed in).

Minchin, who will perform at Mesa Arts Center on Friday, recently spoke with Up on the Sun via telephone.

Up on the Sun: Do you consider yourself to be a pianist that makes funny songs or a comedian that plays the piano?

Tim Minchin: I'm a musician really, that's what I told the guys at customs when I came into your fine country this afternoon. As far as I'm concerned I'm just a song writer who is going through a silly phase.

So it's not so much like when Zach Galifinakis gets on a piano and starts doing bits.

Yeah. I saw a gig in Brooklyn a couple of years ago before he exploded where he was doing that, where we shared a table that was pretty funny. Again, that's very old school in a way, especially mine because musical comedies tended to be parodic in the Weird Al sort of thing.

There's always been people doing funny songs, but there's been a lot of parodies like Flight of the Conchords, so I think of geniuses doing that sort of thing are very funny. But my stuff is actually more old school in that it's much like Tom Lehrer. Or it's right back into Vaudeville where there are actually sort of songs for their own sake and then the content happens to be satirical, as opposed to trying to pretend I'm a hip-hop artist or whatever the parody is.

One of your funniest songs is "Prejudice," which is a response to ginger hatred. Why is there so much Ginger hate in the world, does it all stem from that South Park episode?

They're just ugly people, I don't know. I didn't know about the South Park episode, which really annoyed me because the "Ginger-vitis" gag was already taken when I started playing. And also the good thing about the South Park episode was it introduced you guys to the term ["gingers"] because I think it was such a part of your vernacular before that, was it?

Not so much.

Whereas in the UK it was well and truly established. The ginger song, as I'm sure you can sort of tell, was my skirting with the idea of taboo language. And it was finding a way to talk about language to those as close as a white middle class Australian bloke can get to talking about the "N-word" without saying it. Not that that's what it ends up being about once the joke breaks, once the anagram unscrambles and lands on the word "ginger" rather than the ["N-word"] the rest of the song is just stupid.

A ginger friend of mine wants to thank for helping fight ginger oppression.

That's funny actually because it is obviously is a silly song that has been taken very seriously. It's quite weird because I reckon if you went and looked at job interviews of people with equivalent qualifications, you would actually dig up plenty of data to support the idea that Gingers are discriminated against. Did you see the article lately about the sperm bank in Norway or Denmark, a sperm bank turning away Ginger donors?

Yes, I'd heard about that.

It's pretty funny. Apparently no one wants their sperm. Basically if you go and get some sperm from a sperm bank, you have to say whether you want a brunette, blond, redhead. And no one wants it. They've stopped taking the sperm. Apparently they have 70 liters of backup ginger sperm sitting in a vat. Just the thought of 70 liters of any color sperm is a little sickening, but 70 liters of ginger sperm?

That would be a cool band name or the title of your next song.

Yeah, like Russell Crowe's band, 70 Liters of Ginger Sperm. That same article quoted the guy from the Danish sperm bank saying, "In Ireland it sells like hotcakes." I like the image of sperm selling like hotcakes as well, especially ginger sperm.

So people in Ireland want to have ginger nuts dipped in their ginger tea, so to speak?

Yeah, ginger nuts. Ginger nuts are a cookie. You say your mind is filthy, then?

I can't help it, I've been listening to your songs for weeks.

You've become attuned to the petty double entendre.

Which you excel at if you don't mind me saying.

If in doubt, pun.

Have you had a lot of ginger groupies?

No. I'm married to the girl I lost my virginity to. Not sure if it's my Ginger pubic hair she likes or not.

Since we're on the subject of sexual boasts in your songs, what's the story behind your song "Ten Foot Cock and a Few Hundred Virgins"?

That's very much a terrible misreading of the Koran.

So "Ten Foot Cock" deals with the Koran, "Peace Anthem for Palestine" covers Middle East relations. Why do you tackle contentious topics and give them a comic bent?

I just write about what makes me furious, and for some reason religion makes me furious -- or if not furious, then completely befuddled. And religion is at it's worst when its hypocrisies are glowing and they glow most when religion is to justify discriminatory behavior.

I guess making something as complicated as the Israel/Palestine conflict as stupid and simple as pointing out that they are the same religion is funny because it's absurdly simple, it's funny because it's true. But obviously it fails to take a whole lot of other stuff into account. I have Palestinian and Jewish friends and female people who write to me and claim that it has nothing to do with religion but that's just fucking nonsense. "Ten Foot Cock" I wrote years ago and it's mostly good because of the 7/8 time signature.

Do you deliberately seek any form of contention in your music?

I'm just trying to write about things that I find weird and let people laugh at stuff that causes pain a lot of the time. I also do a seven minute long song about cheese in my orchestra show and songs about boobs, although that's really a song about ethical cognitive dissidence as well. I do like to write dark.

Dark, but silly as well. 

Yeah. I try to find silly funny ways to broach big ideas at the risk of sounding like a complete wanker. I don't shy away from controversy because I'm one of the very, very lucky asses in the world who has a really big audience of people who want to come and watch me play. I don't live in a country where my voice is repressed, have a contract with a TV network that says I'm not allowed to say some things, and don't have a mainstream film career to protect. Given a worldwide audience like mine and the opportunity, it's almost an obligation to say something I suppose. Wow, that sounds much more serious. I don't feel that serious about it.

How come?

Let me clarify, to answer that question better, I try not to only write stuff for shock value but saying things that deemed unsayable and then finding ways to put music and arguments around them, in order to justify them. I'm thinking specifically of the "Pope Song." That's one of my favorite songs because it says something contentious and then it traps the audience. If anyone in the audience says, "He's just saying that to be contentious," they're completely trapped by the rest of the song.

Do you feel the piano is one of the most versatile instruments around? I mean, it can be used for epic rock operas, pop, and even classical music.

Yeah, it's certainly dynamically, it's got a really wide range internally. It's called a pianoforte for a reason. Also the reason it's popular in bars it evokes a certain classiness, a certain extravagance. When some of these bars have a shell of a grand piano with a keyboard stuck in it, it still has an aesthetic. That's a big part of it. It's a big part of why I only use real pianos on the stage, because it's a personality, it's a power thing, a status thing. And sitting at a ten foot Steinway playing a song about cheese is very funny. I'm not a multi instrumentalist. I started monkeying around with a piano a long time ago and slowly got better at it and now I can play it a bit.

Have you ever been compared to Ben Folds in any way?

I've been hanging out with Amanda Palmer a bit. She used to be Dresden Dolls and Ben produced her last album, which is her best in my opinion. He's a genius and I'm a huge fan although I stopped listening to him ten years ago. Before I discovered him, he wrote, "Give Me My Money Back You Bitch" [a.k.a. "Song For the Dumped"] and I had a song called "Who's the Fellow This Week Bitch?" and they sounded really, really similar. I'd never heard of him before and got really attracted to his stuff because that was what I wanted to do. I stopped listening to it because I didn't want to get too influenced by him.

Would you like to collaborate with him?

I've thought about it a bit now that I've got a pretty big audience in some parts of the world and I wonder if he'd like to do something because I think it would be really fucking cool. Because I'm a hack pianist, as is Ben, compared to jazz and the classical players in the world. But there's not loads and loads of players who can play like he and I do in terms of being able to trash the shit out of the thing and entertain and look effortless. I mean people like watching people who don't look like they're trying very hard. I think it would be really cool, but I don't think he needs me.

How epic are you performances?

I don't know, I've been touring in the UK with a symphony orchestra. And I've been doing up to 10,000-seaters, so coming here feels like coming home to what my real thing is which is playing by myself in small theaters. But I believe very strongly, it's going to be hard this week because I am sick. I think you should come off stage spent and yeah, I tend to stay on stage for a couple of hours if people let me. And I tend to trash myself a bit. It's epic for cabaret. It's monstrous for cabaret.

I've heard about people in bear suits and breakdancing at your shows. 

As things build up in scale, I do like to make the concerts absurd especially this orchestra tour, it got pretty epic and I tend to big entries because of the nature of my audience over here, the fact that my audiences tend to be already pretty dedicated fans, it's really weird, I've got these pockets of people that are very excited about the shows, so I'm playing them a bit cooler really. I don't have that pressure on me to out do my last show or anything because the first time I've been over I'm little bit more established so I'm not desperate anymore. Which isn't to say the show....I think they're better really because there's less nonsense apart from I really can't afford to do the nonsense over here because I'm not there yet. I don't have the budget.

Who would win in a fight between you and the Flight of the Concords, or even Sammy J for that matter?

Anyone with Sammy J would end in the victory going to the anyone, because he weighs about four kilograms, although it could be pretty angry I reckon. The Concord boys, well, that's an absurd question because they are all such soft pussies you could hardly think of a less aggressive bunch of humans than intimidated musical comedians.

It doesn't necessarily have to be a physical altercation, it could be a rock off.

It would be pretty hard to outdo Bret and Jermaine in a kind of idiot rock off. They're pretty epic. I think I would win any swearing competition or fitting as many words into a short space of time sort of competition. I would win everytime. We've all got our thing. 

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Benjamin Leatherman is a staff writer at Phoenix New Times. He covers local nightlife, music, culture, geekery, and fringe pursuits.