05 June 2011

The great ape Dave Brown (Bollo)

An interview with Dave Brown, AKA The Mighty Boosh's Ape 'Bollo'

One spectacularly sunny lunchtime, ShellsuitZombie managed to hunt down a rare Gorilla only common to Clerkenwell London. Dave Brown, most famous for his role as Bollo in The Mighty Boosh, spends most of his time as a designer and photographer producing (alongside Boosh work like 2008s spectacularly successful ‘The Mighty Book of Boosh’) beautiful printed stuff for clients like Universal and the BBC, as well as of course the odd performance to tens of thousands on arena tours around the country. It’s safe to say we were feeling pretty smug about trapping him in a pub in Clerkenwell (which happens to be just below his studio) for a pint and a chat about Design, the future of Boosh, Noel’s new book and photographing Julian Barrett and villagers in Ghana.

SSZ: So Dave/Bollo, what would you consider to be your main job?

Dave: I guess I consider myself to be a creative, the Boosh started as something I did with my mates as a laugh and it blew up into something huge. I’ve always had to juggle the worlds of Comedy and Design, quite often for me they overlap, obviously when you’re out on tour it’s all consuming but even then I’ve been known to be sat in my hotel room on a squeezing the odd freelance job in.

So you’ve always been freelance?

I couldn’t be full time, in the early days I needed the freedom to be able to drop everything and get involved in a Boosh project at the drop of a hat, so freelance was perfect, then just before the first live Boosh tour in 2006 I did something I’d always wanted to do and set up my own agency, aptly named Ape, with a mind to be more of a collective of creatives rather then just a sole trader. It allows me to get all the amazing creatives I’ve had the pleasure of meeting and working with over the years involved as and when I can on all kinds of creative projects.

It’s been pretty full on since to be honest, so full on in fact that I haven’t even had time to launch the website! It always gets pushed to the bottom of the to do list when I’m busy and then when I find the time to get back to it I’ve gone off everything I’ve done and start again. There’s a holding page up at the moment that says ‘Gorillas can use up to 52 different tools. They’re currently using those tools to build this site’. Well they’re obviously rubbish at using them because it’s taking them bloody ages to finish!

Would you say Boosh has helped the rest of your career?

I guess so, although you could also say it’s got in the way. I am doing a lot of books now as a result of the Boosh book but many of my clients haven’t a clue who I am. I’ve done work for Fearne Cotton, Ben Brooks, James Rhodes, Nick Cave and recently comedian Tim Key as a result of the book and Boosh work in general. BBC books actually just rang and asked me if I’d be interested in designing this years Top Gear guide to Christmas book! They’ve approached me because they said they loved the Boosh book and would like my take on things. Will be great if that’s true but I’m not counting my chickens just yet. I recently did an interview with Radio 4 where I went on a massive rant about Jeremy Clarkson’s stonewashed pumpkin arse not fitting into my Morris Minor so if they get wind of that it could be off ! (Ed.- Since doing this interview Dave has stepped away from the Top Gear job due to, shall we say, creative differences.)

It sounds like books are your bread and butter. How do you go about designing a successful book like ‘TMBOB’?

I don’t have a process, I approach everything from an idea, every brief is obviously different and I design to that, so it’s a bit worrying when people say ‘I love the Boosh book, can you do that for me?’ - I interpret that as can you adopt a similar way of approaching the brief rather than making it look exactly like the Book of Boosh. The Boosh book was designed around the characters really, the style and feel of each page born from an idea in the writing and from the vibrancy and diversity of the show, a 4 column grid with a consistent type style was obviously never going to work!

The Boosh book sold incredibly well, largely due to the popularity of the show, but we were also very keen to not just make it a standard off the shelf spin off shitty annual like most TV show books. Like all Boosh product, we’re very hands on, mostly doing it ourselves and we dedicate time and effort to make sure the final product is worthy of the show. That’s pretty unique to be honest. I think this attention to detail and quality control is what makes our fans so insanely loyal. We haven’t done anything new in ages but the books and DVD’s are still selling, purely down to the quality of the design of course!

Surely not everyone just wants you for your Boosh?

No, like I said, I have a fair few clients that don’t know I’m in the Boosh, in fact, a while ago when I was still freelancing, one client left me in charge of their studio before getting on a flight to New York, on the flight they watched a Boosh ep and saw me playing Joey Moose in the first series. They were like ‘Is that the guy we just…what the fuck?’

Bollo has played to some huge crowds…

Yeah the last tour we did was insane, Wembley Arena, multiple nights at Brixton, selling out the 02 two nights on the trot, it’s been a crazy time and I’m so lucky to have had those experiences, it is hard after a touring sitting back at a computer designing but I get my kicks out of the creative and I still keep a toe in show business with a bit of directing, writing and the odd gig here and there. To be honest it’s hard trying to keep it all up and sometimes I wish I just had one job to do. Design isn’t exactly a part time job is it! and I’ve also just had a baby girl, so lets just say I’m pretty tired and exhausted at the moment, I’m smiling though, honest.

What are you up to at the moment?

At the moment I’m working on a book with Noel called The Scribblings of a Madcap Shambleton, not Boosh related, it’s basically a book about Noels art and writing and I’m design and compiling it. There’s also a lot of my photography in it. It’s a visual bombardment of Noel’s mind really, paintings, sketchbooks, scribblings, it’s looking amazing. He’s pretty prolific, such a huge body of work. He’s been painting for years, unlike some famous freaks who get a set of colouring pencils for Christmas and decide through boredom that they’re now an artist. Noel can actually paint his tits off and does so every moment he gets and has done for years so at the moment I’m trying to get 530 pages down to 320! What’s really interesting about the work when you see it all together is that you can see how he writes to inspire his painting and he paints to inspire his writing, I know I’m biased but I love his stuff, if you haven’t seen it think Basquiat, Haring, DeBuffet, Magritte, Hockney, Aubrey Beardsley…

So are there any plans in the pipeline for the Boosh?

Well everyone’s working on separate things at the moment. Noel is busy doing his own show ‘Noel Fielding’s Luxury Comedy’ and Julian is doing a Russian play at the Young Vic ‘Government Inspector’. Those two have pretty much become Howard and Vince.

The last thing we were working on was the album. I was told when I last heard it about 3 months ago that it was 90% done and it sounded immense then so no idea what’s going on! It has all the tracks from the show reworked, longer and better as well as new ones written for characters, I reckon they all stand up in their own right, even if you’d never seen the Boosh I still reckon you could get into it, the new Crack Fox track is incredible! It’s a great album, people should have it in their ear holes right now.

People always ask if The Boosh have split up, I guess its inevitable when nothing new has happened in a while but we haven’t and stuff will again, Noel and Julian do things when they’re ready, they’ve produced so much material over the years, they’re just having a break at the mo. There’s still loads of stuff on the table that’s never seen the light of day, but they’ll do it when they’re ready and when they do it will be great. They just need to find out where that table is…

Is the passion still there?

Yeah of course, always will be, for them and for me. You always come back stronger after a holiday, just maybe a little sunburnt, haha.

So I hear you’re involved in some charity work. Fancy talking about that for a bit?

Yes, I love talking about it! I have just become an ambassador for afrikids.org, A freaking ambassador! AfriKids is a charity focusing on child rights in Northern Africa - They’ve been an absolute joy to work with, I’ve done some fundraising for them as Bollo, I’ve rebranded them, not as Bollo, and I even got the opportunity to spend some time in Ghana last year seeing their projects first hand. I was filming and taking stills for their library, it was an incredible experience - it sounds clichéd and worthy saying it was life changing but it was. The Upper East region of Ghana is an amazing place, the people are beautiful, many of them have next to nothing and yet they’re so welcoming, so happy, so positive and an absolute joy to photograph. From a portraiture point of view it was incredible. You expect a certain amount of shyness or self awareness from someone when you stick a big camera in their face but everyone there was so natural and un-effected. They would just look right down the lens without a hint of embarrassment or effect. I couldn’t stop taking pictures. I need to go back, there’s a chance I will be involved in an ambulance convoy driving donated medical vehicles and equipment from Southampton to Bolgatanga in Northern Ghana next year, imagine the photographic opportunity there! There’s a book in that… If I could do anything I’d be travelling the world taking pictures

How does that compare to shooting backstage on tour?

Worlds apart in terns of there being more more booze, hairspray and … erm … humous but actually not that different from a photographic point of view, its still about getting yourself in the right place, sensing when to be anonymous and when to get in amongst it. I’m lucky with the Boosh obviously because I’m an insider, it means everyone acts as if there wasn’t a camera around, except Rich of course who turns into a complete psycho, nutjob, showoff whenever any recording equipment appears. He’s a shy intravert mouse normally!

The trouble with me taking all the backstage Boosh shots is that I’m never in any of them, but then when we get photographers out on tour to shoot us I always feel for them because they usually get nothing! Especially when they’re big personalities and act all crazy and hyper like that’s what we react to! I always smile to myself and think ‘you’re not going to get anything here mate, especially from Julian’ He rarely gives me anything photographically let alone a strange cool cat called Moses in his silly hat and mad trainers wondering why in every shot he has of Julian he’s talking or eating!

I can imagine him being a pain in the arse

Not at all, well, maybe just a little every now and then but aren’t we all? He’s also the most truthful loyal down the line no shit guy you’ll ever meet, he’s also fucking hilarious and one of the best comic actors out there.

How did you meet?

Me, Noel and Nige (Boosh animator and co creator of Noels new show) went to see Julian do standup at uni - he was fucking amazing. Noel had wanted to go in for an award which Julian had won the year before, the daily telegraph open mic award, so thats why we saw him … I think … but then they met in Edinburgh and both got signed to the same management company and started writing together. Then they did three years in Edinburgh before the radio and TV shows. Being there from the off means I have photography all the way back to the source, I plan to do an exhibition and book some day of the lot, maybe next year, I think its 10 years since the first series? I may be wrong, my mind is mash, too much humous on tour.

OK We have some questions from ShellsuitZombie readers. Graeme asks: Where are you Keeping the severed head of the honey monster?

Ha, I don’t know where that is. It’s probably behind a bin backstage somewhere in a Scottish theatre. The last gig on our last tour was in Aberdeen, I don’t know whose fucking idea that was. It was a great gig and the people were amazing but we it did feel a bit of anti climax, although the journey back to London was ridiculous, it felt like it was half an hour! The honey monster head, I don’t know, it’s probably in Peter Kay’s bed, discuss. Holly asks: Do you find yourself grunting and acting like a primate after being onstage?

It’s the most powerful thing to be in that costume, and acting it – especially in real life situations, I’ve found that out when I’ve been doing charity work, fundraising in banks and stuff, getting in lifts and acting nonchalant amongst business men and women. Some people react well and have a laugh, embrace it, others desperately try to ignore the fact that they’re standing in a lift with Gorilla, others have massive heart attacks and die at my primate feet. It’s weird for kids because they either run up and cuddle you or freeze, have meltdowns and are forever scared.

A friend recently did a film with John Landis [Director of American Werewolf in London and Thriller] who is apparently obsessed with monkey impersonators. He has a room in his house dedicated to all the monkey actors of the world and reckons he can tell who is in any monkey suit in any film anywhere. So he asked my mate for a signed photo of Bollo and I had to send him a strange signed shot like those ones you see in New York dry cleaners. Still, now I know I’m in John Landis’s monkey room I sleep better at night.

John asks: In the Bollo Cadburys ad parody is it you in the suit?

Of course it is, how very dare you suggest otherwise…

Which is your favourite episode?

Milky Joe is awesome, I love Nannageddon and Old Gregg and in series 3 it’s got to be Eels. Its tough to pick a favourite, I genuinely piss myself at most of them even when I watch them back now.

Is anything ad-libbed?

Yeah, have you met Rich? Ever tried to get him to say the same line twice! It’s always where the best stuff comes from, harder in TV land but on tour its encouraged and is always where the gold comes from, also keeps you alive, when you’re doing 6 shows a week for four or so months you need to keep it fresh.

In fact, there was one thing that Bollo had to do in the live show, rolling a big prop offstage. One day the caster caught and I stacked it, incidentally ripping my leg open in the process. It got the biggest laugh of the night so I carried on doing it for the rest of the tour!

Thanks Dave, it’s been sweet.

No worries, nice to meet you.

And with that, like an ape in the woods, he was gone.

This article was originally posted in ShellsuitZombie magazine issue 2 back in 2011, which you can see here. It’s the first of a few interviews and articles from the last few years that will appear on this site.

Incidentally Dave’s website, Ape Inc., is ace. Go do a looky.