Comedian James Acaster on his musical project, Temps, and its debut album 'Party Gator Purgatory'

Interview Temps: Serious Fun

Comedian James Acaster has made a record - but it’s no joke. Curating his favourite musicians under the project named Temps, ‘Party Gator Purgatory’ is the sound of a music nerd in his element.

“Whenever comedians or actors announce that they’re doing music, I always think, ‘Why would I ever want to hear music from YOU?! This is pointless! This is gonna be shit!’” declares James Acaster, in self-effacing form, as he joins today’s Zoom call to promote his debut album. “My gut instinct is that it’s never going to be good, so I appreciate it if anyone gives it the time of day.”

Despite the reservations of its creator, however, Acaster’s record ‘Party Gator Purgatory’ – on which he serves as the leader of a 40-strong musical collective called Temps – is not actually shit. It’s a swirling and multifaceted record that shifts woozily between grand psychedelic gloom, off-kilter jazz and magnetic left field hip hop. It’s good enough, in fact, to rise above the cynicism that many will inevitably share on the news that a panel show fixture is moving away from comedy and into ‘serious’ musicianship.

But then again, James’ history with music goes deep. He started playing drums at seven years old and formed a procession of bands as a teenager that got progressively stranger. “It started off as nu metal, then hardcore, then post hardcore, then eventually experimental jazz pop,” he recalls. After giving up drums to pursue stand-up comedy at 22, he nevertheless maintained an obsessive love of music. This reached a head when, in order to cope with a mental breakdown in 2017, he purchased hundreds of records released the previous year – convinced that it was the greatest twelve months in the history of music. The practice later formed the basis of a book, Perfect Sound Whatever, and podcast Perfect Sounds.

There was often a sense of silliness to his music career, even before he became a comedian. Band names included The New Hardcore Skiffle Movement, The Capri-Sun Quartet and The Wow! Scenario (in which he performed under the pseudonym Sir William Strawberry). In one project, he formed a jam band with a didgeridoo player and a flautist – both thirty years his senior. In another, Pindrop, the band’s frontman would disregard their setlist at the start of every gig and instead start screaming and flipping people off. So too does Temps have something of a surrealist edge.

The project began life as a mockumentary pilot (later shelved due to the pandemic) in which James was to quit stand-up and become a self-important musician for whom The Party Gator – an enormous stuffed toy he won at a county fair as a child – would be his muse. The album maintains that loose concept, based around the death and resurrection of the toy. Its big, startled face, drawn in highlighter pen, is the album cover. The original gator was unceremoniously dumped in a skip by the school to which James donated it, and so for Temps’ music videos he dons a replica suit (so hot that he suffered heat stroke and labyrinthitis while filming).

“There’s always been something about that toy, but it’s already such a ludicrous figure that when I tried to make some comedy out of him it felt too on the nose,” James says. “But when I was making the mockumentary, in real life I had to pick up my drumkit from my parents’ house and my friends wanted me to pick up the Party Gator from their house, so I thought I’d put them both in the mockumentary and improvise my way around it.”

“It feels intensely personal. Way more than with anything else I’ve done.”

Despite the whimsical aspect to the record, Temps is an entirely serious undertaking. Over lockdown, James got in touch with a number of his favourite musicians, many of whom he’d already spoken to or approached around his Perfect Sound project. One artist would contribute a vocal or instrumental remotely and then James would invite another who he thought might add to it in an interesting manner, smoothing the gaps in post-production with Chris Hamilton.

The result is a record of successive chain reactions. Each contributor was asked to stay loosely within the death / purgatory / resurrection theme, “which provided a lot of different viewpoints, different takes and life experiences that still belonged together,” James says. “The songs become a conversation.” For his own contribution, James improvised on the drums before anything else was recorded, from which he was able to extract various loops to be used as pieces for his collage. “I had to view all my drumming as just the same as anyone else’s contributions,” he says. “The one constant all the way through was that I was curating it and arranging it and producing it, not taking any of the credit when there were other musicians doing things that I couldn’t even wrap my head around. It was nice for it to be egoless.”

Having played the drums only a few times in the last twelve years, James once again embraced happenstance. “I knew I was gonna be rusty, but it would almost be worse to practise for ages because that would be over-thought and stale,” he says. Having laid down the lolloping rhythms that provide the album’s backbone, he also invited Seb Rochford, leader of experimental jazz outfit Polar Bear (“The best drummer in the world, an idol of mine”) to add flourishes over the top. The beats were then sent to Barcelona-based musicians Joana Gomila and Laia Vallès, who fleshed them out with synths and backing vocals, and then again to John Dietrich of Deerhoof.

“I asked him to just play some bass, but he put on more guitars, keys, basically just finished them as instrumentals. He was really, really into it, and that’s what made me think, actually let’s make this a full project. At first I still thought, ‘Let’s just put it on Bandcamp’, but the more artists that I worked with that said I should approach a label, the more I thought, you know, I’ve asked them to give me their time and their talents, I should respect how they want to put it out. Even if a bigger platform makes me feel more vulnerable.”

“There’s so many albums that aren’t comedy albums but still have a sense of humour – that’s part of being a person.”

It's clear that James still feels that pang of exposure as ‘Party Gator Purgatory’ approaches release. “It’s the longest I’ve ever worked on a project without people having heard it,” he says. “With a stand-up show, you’re performing it in front of people the moment you start writing it, because that’s the only way to hone it.” With the musical project having provided something of a crutch during lockdown, “it feels intensely personal. Way more than with anything else I’ve done. I spent every day working on this, walking around the streets near my house listening to whatever stage it was at.”

He's been thinking hard, too, about how to promote it, and where to draw the line between the rambling and charming comedy persona most know him for, and the serious, attentive, thoughtful music-lover on the other end of this Zoom call. On The Jonathan Ross Show, back in 2021 before the project was even announced, he arrived dressed as the Party Gator, provided almost no context, and revelled in the bafflement of Ross and his fellow guests Tom Jones and Paloma Faith. For a follow-up, this time to actually promote the album, he wore a hand puppet Party Gator and explained the story of the record so matter-of-factly that it was more baffling still. “I really can’t emphasise enough how much this is not a joke,” he told Ross. “I really didn’t understand that whole business about the gator,” said a baffled Prue Leith, also appearing that evening.

Whether in his comedy, his podcast work with Perfect Sounds and food-based interview show Off Menu, or a fledgling Hollywood acting career (he’ll take an as-yet-undisclosed role in the next instalment of the Ghostbusters franchise at the end of this year), James has always been particularly adept at shifting between different facets of his personality. “You decide how much you want to put yourself at the forefront, or slip into a certain persona,” he says. “If I’m sat on The Jonathan Ross Show, my audience is Saturday night, ITV, and they are not the target audience for this album; it would be stupid for me to attempt to sell it to those people as something that they might enjoy.

“But I also don’t want to sell this short. For me, the best way to do that was just to be confusing, to say exactly what I mean, but do it in persona; reiterate over and over again that yes, this is a serious project. I’ve just got an alligator puppet on my hand.” He points out, too, that it was OK for humour to creep into the songs themselves. “There’s so many albums that aren’t comedy albums but still have a sense of humour – that’s part of being a person. As soon as you remove any sort of playfulness from an album, it becomes a very sterile experience. I didn’t want it to feel like a machine made this album.”

In releasing ‘Party Gator Purgatory’, James has pulled off something of a coup – a record that’s both serious and silly; a release that proves his chops as a proper producer, yet maintains the accessibility and charm that took him to fame in the first place. For all the different personas he’s employed across his career, the one that most comes across when he speaks about Temps is that of a straight-up lover of alternative music. Making the album “felt surreal”, he says. “Because I’m just a fan, getting a bunch of their favourite musicians together, and through some weird technology I’m able to reach inside the songs and change them somehow. I felt like a fan, more than a producer.”

A follow-up EP recorded with Blanck Mass is due in summer, and beyond that James says he’s already got another musical project in the works – entirely separate to Temps. “It’ll be completely different, it’d be difficult to try and replicate the way everyone was in lockdown, all able to give the time to this project,” he says. “Going forward, if inspiration hits for more music projects, I think each one will be a completely new project. A new title and a new sound.”

'Party Gator Purgatory' is out now via Bella Union.

Tags: Temps, From The Magazine, Features, Interviews

As featured in the May 2023 issue of DIY, out now.

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