Tim Minchin – Back With A Vengeance
It took us over three years to pin down Tim Minchin for an interview. When we finally caught up with the comedian, actor, writer, musician, composer, lyricist, and director at his new pad in Coogee he was generous enough to give us nearly three hours of his time. He’s funny, thoughtful, honest and sometimes controversial, but always entertaining and we bloody love him. We hope you enjoy our chat…
Where are you originally from? I am from Perth, Western Australia.
When did you move to the Eastern Suburbs? January 2018. It’s ‘twenty eighteen’; you don’t say ‘two thousand and eighteen’. We didn’t used to say ‘one thousand nine hundred and eighty seven’ now did we? 2018.
But did they say ‘ten eighteen’? What did they say back then? Well, most of them didn’t know what year it was I reckon.
You were actually born in England, weren’t you? Born in Northampton.
Are you a dual citizen? Yeah, I am.
You better renounce that if you ever think of entering politics… Yeah, I’m not allowed to be a dual citizen, am I?
You spent quite a lot of time around the Eastern Suburbs before January 2018 though, didn’t you? I did. I hadn’t spent any time in Sydney really until 2004, which was just before things took off for me. I came up and did a play at the Old Fitz and really liked it here. We also stayed here while I was doing Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, and that was around 2014. That was when we went, “You know what? We could live here.”
That was when you were living in Bronte, wasn’t it? Yeah, for a little while I was living above Café Salina, doing Rosencrantz at night and writing Groundhog Day during the day. Prior to that the fam and I were living down on Wisdom Street in South Coogee in an Airbnb. We always thought we’d move to Australia, and we knew we couldn’t move back to Perth, just for work reasons. We thought, “This feels about right.”
What was it about Coogee that charmed you? Well, we initially bought a house in Bronte, then got screwed by that f*cking prick, what’s his name? Real estate agent dude, drives around in a Ferrari or Lamborghini or something… Alex someone? So Coogee wasn’t actually our first choice but it’s where we ended up.
That said, we love Coogee! The beachside suburbs are all wonderful. I initially couldn’t imagine living in Bondi – it just feels too built-up – but now that I’ve gotten to know it better I totally get the North Bondi thing. We were hoping for Bronte, but then we did have this amazing time living for a couple of months around Coogee. In the end it was the architecture of the house that made us choose Coogee.
We’re actually not very controlling about the big decisions we make in our life. It was more like, “Oh, there’s a house, vaguely something we could buy, let’s go to auction and see if we get it.” And we did. We don’t overthink that stuff, and it’s a pretty good policy in order to have a pretty interesting life.
What do you love about the Eastern Suburbs? Being Western Australian and growing up near the beach, I just didn’t see the point of moving back to Australia and not living near the beach. I just love the ocean. I’m loving the rocky bays here, having grown up in Western Australia where it’s just a strip of sand, thousands of kilometres long.
I do find the Eastern Suburbs a little bit weird actually. It’s more conservative here than I thought. I thought it would be like living in Swanbourne in Perth, although that’s probably pretty conservative too. Maybe because I grew up there I wasn’t so aware of the middle classness of it at the time. It felt to me just like childhood and people, whereas coming back from living overseas – especially after living in London – and moving here was like, “Oh shit, only wealthy people live near the beach.” I thought it was going to be like Tim Winton; sandy feet and skin peeling and Gaytimes and shit.
I’m quite surprised how much I like that it’s actually quite touristy. I love that it comes alive, this beach. Our street gets really busy with tourists, but it’s nice. Walking around on the weekend, there’s plenty of life and I like that. And Mr Whippy comes down the street.
How’s the transition back to life in Australia been? We had a really tough year last year because we moved to a new place and left all our friends behind, again. And our kids went to a new school, again! And my wife’s trying to start a community, again. She doesn’t have a conventional job so she’s just trying to find friends amongst the private school mob.
Do you have any favourite local haunts? Gordon’s café. I love it. I do love going down the pub and stuff but it can get a bit much. I just wear a path between my house, Symétrie gym and Gordon’s café, and that’s it really. And we walk over the hill down to the path and go to the Pav and Sugarcane and Gusto and Woolies as well.
Do you have issues deciding which school to send your kids to? We send our kids to a basically secular co-ed school. I went to an all boys school and I just think it’s weird to do single sex schools now. We’re literally in the middle of a massive movement of f*cking furious women saying, “It sucks to be us.” Definitely don’t segregate by gender then. People pay big money to go to an institution that’s basically old-fashioned, and although they can have very progressive education within that old-fashioned framework, I just think that, taken as a whole, we shouldn’t be doing single-sex education. Maybe, taken as a whole, we shouldn’t be doing private education either, but I don’t know.
I think the main argument for single sex schools is that kids aren’t being distracted by the opposite sex… I know, but then they get spat out into the real world. You’ve got to deal with the opposite sex at some point, surely earlier is better.
You moved around a lot the last couple decades? Yeah, we moved around a lot. Perth to Melbourne to London to LA, New York as well, then here to Sydney.
Are you here to stay for a while now? Yeah, we want to. It’d be nice if this was it, really. It sometimes makes us feel sad that we won’t go back to Perth, but I don’t think we will.
All your family’s over there? My brother and my parents, and Sarah’s two sisters and her parents as well. But my two sisters are in Clovelly, which makes all the difference.
Are your children loving Eastern Suburbs life? Yeah, I reckon.
That’s got to be a good reason to stay put? I think I benefited from utter stability. I’m from a Perth family that’s generations old on both sides. My cousins were there, my grandparents were right up the street, my uncles owned the pub and my other uncle’s a Freo muso and everyone knew us. My dad’s a well-regarded Perth surgeon. It’s just like we belonged. I was hugely lucky in that way, and the sense of belonging travels with me.
Perth is so isolated. Growing up there, it’s hard to really picture the world outside. But it’s more vibrant than its reputation. You could go to theatre every night in Perth, there’s heaps of music – some of the best jazz in the country (I care about jazz, I don’t suppose people care about jazz), it’s a great town. But that stability is the main thing I remember. I just felt safe. I want my kids to feel safe too, so I’d like them to not move school again, ever. I’d like them to stay in one spot for high school. That would be good, right?
You had a bit of a rough trot in the US at the end; did that help make leaving a little easier? Yeah, I think so. I think it was easier for me to leave than it was for Sarah because I was just like, “F*ck this place.”
Can you elaborate on what went down there? Well, we went there so I could co-direct this Australian animated film, written by Harry Cripps. I put most stuff aside to focus on that. It was going to be perhaps the biggest Australian family film ever made. It was proper; Margot Robbie, Hugh Jackman, everyone was in it. Naomi Watts, Ben Mendelsohn, Jackie Weaver, Ewen Leslie, Damon Herriman, me! The greatest Aussie voice cast ever assembled, singing animals, kangaroos, and wrestling and football games. Well, not football games, but kidnap scenarios built on the idea of a football game! Jumping off red dirt cliffs in the Kimberley, just epic. Lion King crossed with Mad Max, but much funnier.
So I went, “Yeah, that’s worth all my time. I’ll say no to everything else for a while.” And then the company got bought and they shut down everything that was in development, even though our movie was in full production. We had fully fledged 3D surfaced, lit, animated sequences, with songs orchestrated by Hans Zimmer.
Wasn’t it a hundred million dollar budget? Yeah, it would have been. We had already spent 50 million I think. But if you’re Universal and you buy a 3.7 billion dollar studio, you’re just thinking about assets and liabilities. You have a column of assets and that includes Madagascar and all the intellectual property that studio has developed, things like How to Train Your Dragon, Madagascar, Shrek, Penguins, Trolls… good stuff, Dreamworks movies are great! That’s why I went to the studio. They have this eccentricity that I love.
So Universal bought the studio mainly to acquire all of that intellectual property, because they’re Universal and all Universal want to do is make sequels – they’ve got this short-term plan to make money. It’s so short-sighted. “You need to be developing new stuff, you f*cking idiots.” Anyway, they look at the 50 million bucks that’s already spent on Larrikins and they think, “We can’t guarantee that this will be a hit because it’s not preexisting IP! It’s new, and it’s Australian and it’s a bit different.” How can they know if that’ll work? “It’s not like anything, it’s new. Well then it’s a risk, right? Yeah. Well if we put that in that column, take it from the potential assets and just write it off as a cost then that’s, like, a 50 million dollar write-off against our purchase.” Or something like that. Either way, they weren’t thinking about the 100 people who had poured their hearts and souls into it for years. They didn’t care about whether it was a good or valuable piece of art. They care only about their careers.
Can you buy it from them? Apparently Netflix wanted to buy it and finish it. I had this meeting with the Universal people who made the decision to kill the film and I said, “Can’t you sell it to someone else? Like, Animal Logic in Australia want to do it and Netflix want to do it and they’ve got the money. Just give it to us. If you don’t want to make it, just give it to us for a fire sale price: 10 million? You make 10 million bucks! Better than nothing.” They’re like, “No.” They said, “We would sell it for what it’s worth – 50 million bucks – plus we would want half of the profit when it’s released.” Which of course means no one will ever buy it. It can not possibly be worth it under those terms. Plus you’d have to buy the software licence off of them, retrain all your animators to use that software, then spend the extra 50 million bucks to finish it off, then not get all the profit.
I said to them, “But no one’s going to buy it like that. Why don’t you just sell it if you don’t want it? It’s in the bin. Just sell it, you get 10 million bucks.” Jimmy Horowitz says, “Schmuck insurance.” What? “Well, if someone else makes it, and it goes well, we’ll look like schmucks. Schmuck insurance.” I told him I thought that was psychopathic. He didn’t like me saying that. And I’m sure they don’t like me telling this story, but f*ck ‘em.
Groundhog Day closed before that, or soon after that? Yeah, around that same time. It opened on Broadway just before Larrikins was shut down, and then within three months we knew Groundhog Day wasn’t going to survive the year. That was more painful than Larrikins, probably.
How come? Well, it was just better than all the other musicals that stayed open. It felt unjust. Still does. But that’s Broadway, baby.
It is coming back though isn’t it? Hmmm, some day. It’s quite a long story actually, and I can’t talk about it without sounding a bit bitter, and without getting sued by a couple of the arseholes who screwed us over. Allegedly!
Musical theatre is big business; if you get a ‘hit’, you get to have a nice house on the beach. For that reason there’s a lot of ruthless behaviour around it. I’ve been the luckiest arsehole in the world but what I’ve learnt is that it doesn’t always go the way Matilda went. You don’t always get to go to the Royal Shakespeare Company with your dear friends and build this beautiful piece of theatre that goes to London and everyone wins. Mostly it’s like a f*cking cage fight of total c*nts… especially if you’re across the pond on Broadway.
Is that a reflection of how America is as a country on the global stage as well? I don’t suppose you can make generalisations about whole countries with any accuracy whatsoever. Especially the US… America might as well be twenty countries. I think they do have a deep – and damaging – cultural belief in their own global superiority. I think every American grows up believing deep down, even if they’re super liberal, that it’s the greatest country in the world. They don’t even question that this statement doesn’t mean anything. But they believe it’s the greatest country in the world and they kind of work from that assumption regardless. And part of that story of the American dream – what makes America ‘great’ – is that it’s the land of opportunity. But that American dream has morphed into, “If you want to work hard, and just really f*cking scramble and stand on people’s heads, then you too can have the American dream.” The middle bit – the scrambling and standing on people’s heads bit – was not what it was meant to be. It was meant to be if you work hard you can have the dream, but of course that philosophy gets distorted because 380 million people are not all going to get to have the American dream.
Will you ever go back and work in the US again? Probably not after this comes out! I’ve got a new song that starts with the lyric, “F*ck America, f*ck its teflon self-esteem, will someone wake me from the nightmare of their American f*cking dream.” But I’m certainly not anti-American – it’s absurd to be anti-American because America is everything. If you’re anti-American, are you anti-Hispanic school teachers? Are you anti-Native American women? I mean, what bit are you talking about? If anything, I’m anti-ruthlessness I think. But I’m ambitious too – I’m a hard-working person that goes hard at a goal myself – so maybe I’m someone else’s ruthless. I don’t think so, because I don’t think I’m ever mean to anyone.
How hard was it to bounce back from the disappointment of what happened in the States? Has there been a silver lining, looking back? A retrospective silver lining? Look, while I was in America I made beautiful friends, I got to be in a big blockbuster (Robin Hood) – which was ridiculous but fun – and since I got back to Australia I have already been involved in writing and producing a new TV show, filmed it, and am now editing it – all in 18 months – and the skills I brought to that in terms of co-writing, script-editing and being involved in directing and producing it, there’s no way I could have done it without Larrikins, without that apprenticeship. It’s a pretty expensive apprenticeship though.
The thing is, with all difficult events – illness or loss or something much less problematic like not having a movie made – is that the further we get away from the event, we’re very good at building narratives that contextualise. In fact, that’s what my TV show is about: how you move past and give context to your mistakes or griefs. And I’m just the luckiest person in the world – I’m hyper, hyper aware of how lucky I am – but that doesn’t mean that losing four years of amazing work doesn’t take a while to get over, especially when it’s self-serving people who are responsible. It’s very hard not to be cross with those people.
But it’s two years on and it’s just better. Time. It’s just fine. Because I’m busy again – I’m touring, I’m making telly, I’m the luckiest guy in the world. My kids are healthy and I live near the beach. I knew in time I’d feel better, but I was not my best version of myself for a good while because I was carrying anger. I was just furious at someone taking my time away. Time is moving very, very fast these days.
Are you a workaholic? No, I really like it though. Can you imagine having my job? It’s wicked.
Can you tell us a little bit about Upright? When is it coming out? Yeah, Chris Taylor had the idea.
Have you worked with him before? No. I barely knew him, I’d only met him a couple times. Chris went to Lingo Pictures with an idea about a guy who was trying to get across Australia with a piano – great idea – and at some point in that conversation my name came up. I don’t know whether Chris had me in mind from the beginning.
Lingo got Kate Mulvany, who is a very old friend of mine and is an incredible actress and playwright. She adapted Ruth Park’s The Harp in the South and Schiller’s Mary Stuart for Sydney Theatre Company. And they got Leon Ford, also a dear friend and an incredible actor/playwright as well. So Lingo and Chris and Kate and Leon developed this idea a bit and then pitched. And then I kind of went, “But I want to write it with you guys!” So we did.
We developed it more, and then I pitched it to Sky Atlantic in the UK and to Foxtel here in Australia, and they both basically signed in the room. We mapped out the episodes, and then we all went away and wrote two episodes each and, yeah, it was f*cking awesome. Then I lost some weight, went to the gym and dyed my hair, and we filmed it. Fifty days across Australia!
We went from basic idea to finished filming in 18 months, which is very, very rare. It’s a lot more complicated, obviously, but that’s what we did.
Where do people see it and when do they see it? Foxtel! You should get Foxtel!
How difficult is it to write a musical? Do you think you’ll write another one? Yeah, I’m planning on starting a new musical in between my two tours. So I go, end of tour, finish my album, three weeks off, start my new musical, then UK tour. That’s my year.
Can you reveal anything about the new musical? No.
No? Writing a musical is hard I reckon, but it depends what you’re into. Mama Mia is the most successful musical on the planet and it’s… well it’s not the world’s greatest piece of theatre. Then there’s things like Hamilton, which is the most popular musical ever made (apart from Mama Mia, but it will take over soon). It’s also one of the most brilliant things ever written. And then there’s things like Groundhog Day, which is quite complex. Musical theatre audiences maybe aren’t looking for something like that. It’s f*cking good, it’s the best thing I’ve ever done. It’s pretty high concept. Sometimes I think too conceptual – maybe we wanked ourselves into a corner! But it’ll come back. I have no doubt in five years it’ll come back. We’ll get it back to London.
You were frustrated because it didn’t go as well as it should have? I’m frustrated because, unfortunately with musicals, when you spend 12 million dollars on a musical if it doesn’t run for two years then it’s a failure; it is, by definition, not a hit – it’s a flop. In musicals you’re either a hit or a flop, and 90 per cent of them flop. But even with those odds it’s worth a crack, because a musical is a piece of intellectual property that no one can steal – you can’t get it online, you can’t share it around – and you can charge 100 bucks a ticket and it can run. Matilda is open in South Africa and South Korea, and it’s in London and on tour, and it’ll come back to Australia in a few years. It goes on and on.
Do you still receive royalties from Matilda every time it plays? Yes. A tiny percentage of profit wherever it runs, forever.
It means you have the freedom now to go off and create whatever the f*ck you want... That’s it. It’s just incredible.
And also you get the freedom to speak your mind… Yeah, although I’m pretty scared of talking these days. But the thing about Matilda is, if you’re going to be an artist and you have a thing you make be your nest egg, which happens to some artists sometimes – a hit song or whatever – how amazing it is that, out of all the things that I’ve done, the thing that’s given my family security is just so wholesome. Such a good thing.
It’s not vulgar money… No! Matilda employs hundreds of people. It is a lovely piece of art. The only bummer is it’s hard for low-income families to see it because musicals are big expensive things, and if our theatres are less than 80 per cent full we start losing money. This is the gamble, right? The margins are tiny but the numbers are big, so it’s very hard to charge less. But we have incredible outreach education programmes around England. The Royal Shakespeare Company goes into schools with these special Matilda packages and they have to write songs like in Matilda and put it on. The good that Matilda does, it’s a beautiful thing.
Why do you think it took a move to the UK to cement your status as a star? You need a big population for your niche market to be big enough to sustain. I’m probably reasonably well-known in the UK, they just f*cking eat comedy over there. It’s a huge industry and really it was just… I was just getting to the point where you’d maybe, kind of want to watch me, and I went to Edinburgh and someone went, “Here’s a DVD deal, here’s a manager, and we’re a production company, we want to tour you, we’ll send you on tour in a nice BMW with your own tour manager and a grand piano.” And I’m like, “Should I go back to Australia and maybe have a meeting with the ABC? Or should I move the f*ck to England?”
Do you think the average Aussie is too stupid to appreciate your sense of humour? No, no, definitely not. I actually think I made my career by not ever condescending to audiences. Comedy hasn’t been my main thing for a long time now so it’s weird talking about myself as a comedian. But in all my work – in Matilda, in Groundhog Day, in Larrikins, in my tours, in Upright – I repeatedly go, “Stop telling me what the audience is; we will make the art that we think is good and the audience will come or it won’t.” That’s the gamble, right? We never condescended to the audience in Matilda. It’s got layers of stuff in it. Some of it goes over some people’s heads, some of it doesn’t. Sometimes you make something that’s too complex or a bit esoteric and it doesn’t find its audience, but I will not ever say, “Do you know what? The audience is a bit dumb, I might dumb it down a bit.”
Your song ‘Prejudice’ is a commentary about the N-word, about the power of words; has anyone ever had a go at you for mocking racism? I like to try to have my cake and eat it too. It’s obviously a very light-hearted song, but I’m absolutely not mocking the idea that only black people should use the N-word – I’m actually fiercely advocating that idea. I don’t know why it’s funny really. A lot of people just think it’s a song about not calling gingers ‘ginger’. I think it’s actually a song where I’m literally just saying, “Language has power; take care with it.” Words have power because of their past use and you’ve got to honour that. Like a lot of my stuff, I’m joking but not joking. It’s such a weird thing that this song is popular. I don’t love it.
A lot of your comedic work deals with religion and it’s empirical flaws; why do you think that this subject matter has formed the basis and inspiration for such a large proportion of your comedic work? My old stuff?
Do you see that as your old stuff? Well, in my twenties I was reading a lot and I was trying to have a career and I started doing these cabaret shows. I read a book by Francis Wheen called How Mumbo-jumbo Conquered the World, then I just sort of went down the rabbit hole of critical thinking, having done some philosophy and logic and stuff. I was interested.
My dad and his dad were surgeons, so I guess we have fairly scientific brains. I’m attracted to arguments and to trying to work out why we believe what we believe, and I really enjoy basic logical philosophy and going, “Why is that argument wrong?” I think it just happened to be what I was reading at the time I was also gathering an audience, and people seemed to like it. Firstly, you’re not really meant to criticise religion too much and, secondly, logical philosophy isn’t very funny. Unless it is. I think I just was super nerdy, people were finding it funny that I was doing stand-up about causal correlations. So I think I just found a form and I found an audience for this weird thing. I was doing lots of different things at that time – I was still playing in my original band and I was still doing theatre and stuff – but the thing that people started coming to see was this thing. So the fact that people seem to think musical comedy involving a little bit of rationalism was something worth watching, I’m like, “Well I’m your guy for that shit! Alright, I’ll do more of that shit.” I really like that. I don’t mind being the nerdy rationalist comedian as long as I can go off and do my other stuff as well.
Once I started touring the south of America I realised it really meant a lot to those people. There are people who come to my shows in America, they cry when they meet me. They’re like, “We’re biology teachers in Kentucky and our family don’t speak to us because we teach evolution.” They’re those people. Me coming to their town was like, “We’re going to fly to see him because he’s…”
The Messiah? Ha! Well, yeah, they were like church services. These people didn’t want to hear anything but the God stuff. They were there to be with a community of people who say, “No, you’re not mad. You’re on the right side.” And I suddenly went, “Okay, so it’s valid as a form of satire.” I sometimes feel there is a problem with being mean about religion, which is that most religious people are the most vulnerable people. They’ve been sold the wrong stuff, but now they need it. I try to make sure that what I’m criticising is where belief meets bigotry – where belief meets hypocrisy – and where flawed religious thinking allows people to justify their bigotry.
Do you think prayer is like writing a list; goal-setting, focusing your energy and stuff like that? I sometimes think it’d be really nice to have that – prayer – in my life. Once when I was a teenager, body boarding out the back at Yallingup, I thought I was going to die. My board got ripped away – the surf was just way too big for me – and I actually called for my mum. You need to call for something. You want to externalise your need. It’s so impulsive. But don’t go telling me we’re going to pray your f*cking disease away. Of course if you cherry pick data you can find correlations between prayer and outcomes, but just don’t claim it’s causal. You have to be very careful of this stuff. There’s actually not much correlation between positive thinking and better outcomes. People say, “You’ve just got to stay positive,” and some poor f*ck who’s just got a tumour taken out of his chest is like, “Oh, so I have to survive this and be positive for you c*nts, do I?”
There is a physiological response though, isn’t there? There does seem to be correlations between depression and negative outcomes. Your body struggles to fight if you’re emotionally really down. But there’s a lot of data on the effect of belief on outcomes and this magic ‘positive thinking’ thing just isn’t there. You can’t think yourself well. You can, however, be as healthy as you can. Getting out of bed, going out and having breakfast and being surrounded by people – it all generates endorphins and all that stuff that your body wants. So if you lie in bed going, “I’m dying,” that’s probably not going to do you the best. But going, “I’m thinking my cancer away,” they’ve shown again and again it’s terrible for patients to feel – on top of their obligations to cope with their incredible challenges – that they’re also meant to be really positive. It’s bad for you psychologically.
Do you think the church, and all religions for that matter, should be paying tax in Australia like any other company? Yes, of course. Anything that even sniffs of, “Because I believe in God I get special treatment,” can f*ck right off.
Do you ever think, “Maybe God is real, I better be careful just in case”? Only to the extent I think, “Maybe that cup’s going to fly away, I’d better duck.” I mean, it’s possible the cup will fly away.
How do you feel about religions brainwashing children in schools? I think it’s pretty strange that we work so hard to try to accurately educate our kids, and then for half an hour once or twice a week we tell them a bunch of stuff that’s not true. It’s pretty weird.
I want to use whatever power and skills I have to promote the idea that young kids should be doing critical thinking. I think education is falling behind technology. Kids can access information about anything they want, anywhere they want, now. We must teach kids how to discern good information from bad information. I think a bed for that should be philosophy of logic, and simple psych. Where are you making an error in your thinking? How can you think better? Unfortunately it’s very hard to get courses like that into schools because many schools have a religious background. And when you’re learning how to discern between good and bad ideas, the first thing to crumble is religious belief.
Do you think religion has a place in modern Australian society at all? I think it does, but it’s a pity that it does. No, I think you wouldn’t want religion to just go away all of a sudden. It is diminishing though. I believe we’re living in the religious end times because of information accessibility. Religious belief has always required restricting information. It’s how it was built. Restricting information is how you keep ideologies intact – always. Because the more you know, the less likely you’re going to be happy with magical beliefs as explanations or a basis for your morals.
Do you think conspiracy theorism is the new religion? As people stop believing in God they start believing in other bullshit… Shit, that’s a very good question.
Do you think people have an inherent need to believe in something that’s not true? I think people have an inherent need to believe something that’s not true, yeah. At least, some people do. I think people really like feeling like they’re special. So being a conspiracy theorist allows you to feel special. “You sheeple! Look! I’ve got this special set of information that you don’t have…” Religion is that as well, right? “I’ve got this special book,” you know? But then, you look at Judaism, most Jews I know don’t really believe in God. What they have is a culture and a set of cultural touchstones – books, lessons, rituals and ceremonies – that give them a sense of community. I know lovely religious people and awful atheists. And I know awful religious people and lovely atheists.
Can we expect more activism from you in the future? You mentioned two of your more recent releases, the homophobia song and the George Pell song; is that your new thing? Are you moving away from slandering God? Well, both those songs are really still about religion. Homophobia and all that is very connected to religion in this country. The whole plebiscite was just driven by that little bunch of f*cking far right Christian backbenchers. Those f*ckers shouldn’t have that much power in this country. We are a secular, multicultural country. If we are being held over a barrel by a bunch of people who think Jesus is magic, that’s when I have a problem with religion.
So many bigoted laws are based in religion… It’s retrogressive. Religion keeps saying it’s kind and progressive, but we secular humanists are always dragging religion along. And every time we drag them a new step they go, “We’re fine with the gays.” I’m like, “No, you tried to keep them in jail in Tasmania just 25 years ago. You same c*nts were trying to keep homosexuality criminalised.” And now they’re like, “It’s not that, it’s just that I think ‘marriage’ should be ‘marriage’.” No, no, you’ve just changed your f*cking tone. You’re fighting the same battle. You’re just bigots. Stop saying, “Oh, we’re really liberal Christians now.” If it was 1993 you would be in Tasmania trying to keep gay people in jail.
A lot of people might not know that all the money raised from ‘Come Home Cardinal Pell’ went towards funding a group of child abuse survivors to go over to the Vatican to watch George Pell’s testimony… That’s right, because he wouldn’t come back. I wrote the song to support Meshel Laurie and Gorgi Coghlan’s GoFundMe page to help fly survivors to watch Pell testify to the Royal Commission. Also, every cent from the sale of the song itself went to the same fundraising effort. In the end there was left-over money, which helped place a counsellor in Ballarat. It was a good thing, I think.
You describe yourself as a failed rock and roll star in the past but you’ve played to a packed Royal Albert Hall with a 50-piece orchestra; surely that is the ultimate in rock stardom? Did you ever watch that whole show start to finish? It opens with a song called ‘I’m in a Cage’ and at the time I thought it was stupid. I just watched it back recently for the first time in years – maybe the first time ever – and it’s really funny.
What was it like playing to a packed Royal Albert Hall? Yeah, pretty good. I wonder now what was going on in my head. I opened that orchestra arena show to 8,000 people in Birmingham the night before Matilda opened in Stratford. And I made up that bit about the Koran and Harry Potter that day. I went to a runner, “Go and get me two copies of the Koran and two copies of Harry Potter.” I had this idea, because I was in the Muslim capital of England, and I thought… I don’t know what I was thinking actually, it’s like I was mad on the adrenaline of that time. Was I normal? Where was I at? It’s nice to have some distance now and go, “You did okay, kid.” Because at the time you’re still going, “Oh shit, my voice is shit, my material is shit, I look shit.”
Do you get massive come downs after big shows? It takes a while to get to bed. My formula is four hours and four wines. The bigger problem is that I can’t always sustain the self-belief at the level I need to sustain it to do my job. But it almost always comes back when I need it. Often I’m backstage feeling like, “I cannot even imagine the person I need to be in five minutes.”
I did the Sydney Opera House steps a couple years ago and I did two hours and every word I said was just off the cuff. In fact I haven’t planned what I’m going to say for my ten-week tour that’s about to start. I’m shitting myself. I’m constantly self-doubting, but not in a dysfunctional way; in a way that makes me work harder, so that’s fine.
Did you ever dream that you’d have a 50-piece orchestra behind you while you played your silly little songs? No, not even f*cking close. Can you imagine what I would have thought at 27 if I’d been able to look at this shit?
You’ve embarked on your latest tour, Back, and I’m guessing maybe you play with your back to the audience or something weird like that? I just had this idea that it should be called Back because I’m coming back and I’m going to have a poster that doesn’t show my face. I’ve done one-off gigs, but this is the first proper tour since my orchestra shows 7 years ago.
Can you tell us about the show? I think what I’m going to do is as the poster promises. It says it’s called Back: old songs, new songs, f*ck you songs. I’m going to play maybe four or so songs from my record, which are quirky but they’re not very punchline-y. I’m going to go all the way back and do a couple of old things, it’s just going to be really f*cking fun. A little bit angry maybe, but my job is to make them feel like they’ve been on a rollercoaster of entertainment!
And plenty of ad-libbed chatting between each? People want an authentic experience, right? I’ve always felt I can be truthful… not so polished that it feels like I’m rolling out a product. I’m not a very good singer, I’m a reasonable pianist, and I’m a pretty good lyricist, but I think my real skill is making people feel like I’m in the room with them and they’re affecting me and I’m affecting them. I think that’s why I want to get back on tour, because actually I’m okay at that. And I feel it, it’s not fake. I don’t fake it. I just get on stage and try to tell the truth – my version of it, anyway.
Would you ever consider going into politics? I can imagine considering going into politics, but I would be very, very surprised if that’s the best use of my time. I think I can effect change better by being an artist and agitating from the outside. I do think it’s a great pity that more intellectually curious, smart leaders are not in politics. I think maybe we need to pay politicians more. And make them pass a general knowledge test before they’re allowed to represent us.
What’s your favourite song you’ve ever written? To play?
Yeah, to play to people? At the moment I’m most excited about playing a couple of my new ones. I have a new song called ‘If This Plane Goes Down’. I like it, I can’t wait for people to hear it. And I think my Christmas song is kind of special.
‘White Wine in the Sun’? Yeah. In terms of me taking an emotion I felt and giving it to people and it just f*cking going “Goosh!” If your job as an artist is to take a glowing piece of emotion and try and throw it down people’s throats, then I think that’s the best I’ve ever done at that.
How many years did it take you to become an overnight success? That’s a good question. I look back at the last 12 years now, it’s pretty weird.
When did financial security first come for you? It was pretty much when I moved to England. I moved to England and I got that DVD deal. Chiggy at PBJ, the woman who wanted to be my manager over there – she is still my manager over there – is a very dear friend of mine. I literally rang her after Edinburgh in 2005 and went, “If I move there, can you guarantee me that we’ll be okay? That we’ll be able to pay the rent?” She said yeah and I went okay.
So, seven months pregnant, we went to London, got a flat that’s way nicer than anything we had ever lived in – tiny but, “Oh my God, we can actually get this flat?!” – and I just started working. And there were corporate gigs to supplement the solo stuff. From that moment I never worried about it again really, which is just incredible.
In an ideal world, what does the future hold for Tim Minchin? I’m addicted to variety. I want to keep making different things in different genres. And I would like to stay healthy. The future mostly holds my death. And it’ll come quite soon because I’m 43. It’s quite quick, don’t you think it’s going quick? You’ve had a different experience because you’ve had a bit of a run-in. But I am like, “Oh, shit. I was just 30 and that means I’ve only got like three more of those.” Decades sort of feel like units now. It’s like I’ve only got three units left. Even if all I do is write musicals, I’ve probably only got six left. They take years.
Measuring your life in the number of musicals… Exactly. I just want to work, and hang out with my family, and then try to die without too much pain I think. Is that alright?