Interview: Rob Broderick from Abandoman before comedy gig at The Stand

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Ireland’s top comedy hip-hop improv team and Edinburgh Fringe sell-out favourites Abandoman are bringing their “raucous, expansive and relentlessly hilarious” show on a tour of the UK. Watch as they create brand-new songs and narratives based entirely on the audience’s suggestions. Abandoman are fresh from appearing as the house band on Alan Carr’s Friday Night TV show Happy Hour, headlining comedy stages around the globe and a sell-out tour of Australia.

For new show Life + Rhymes, Abandoman perform a fictional biopic. This imaginary retrospective spans twenty years and sees the duo’s attempt to “make it” as a band in the early 90s.

From the get-go, Abandoman (AKA rapper/comedian Rob Broderick and musician/vocalist Sam Wilson) have won a string of awards. They also supported multi-platinum artist Ed Sheeran on his UK tour, performed across The USA, Canada, Australia and Asia.

We phoned Rob Broderick for a chat.

What was it like moving from Ireland to London, was it a bit of a culture shock?

The truth is I moved over here with the specific decision that I wanted to be anonymous. I moved over here mid-2000s because I wanted to be a stand-up. I tried to do stand-up comedy open mics in Dublin, and even though I wouldn’t tell anyone I was doing it, inevitably, Dublin is small and I’d be there with my mic and a couple of people in the crowd would know me.

It never felt like a comfortable space to be terrible. Particularly stand-up, you need to know if you’re terrible, this won’t haunt you. I moved over here one September and I remember first gig I did, so nervous, but there was something quite relaxing knowing I literally knew nobody in London.

I had one guy I knew from school over here, but I just knew I can be a newbie at my job and learn how to be a stand-up in a country. The funny thing with stand-up is nobody remembers you unless you’re literally the worst or you’re the best. They’re the two people you remember.

Was it a conscious move, then, to try to perfect that skill of improv and thinking on your feet, reactions?

Well, at first I just wrote material. Weirdly the world of stand-up and then the world of Abandoman are three years apart, even though I was rapping from a very young age. In stand-up I wrote all my material for my first show and it didn’t work.

What I thought was five minutes material, I think I did in 90 seconds. I was that nervous. I was new to this. My talent is still so unpolished. But I found there was a way to get big laughs. Riffing and engagement in the room so I went out and did lots of improvisation with the crowd.

I wanted to be a stand-up comedian. I like my jokes and they’re my jokes. Then suddenly when I went up on stage that’s not what happened. I just fecked around. Yeah, yeah. It definitely wasn’t a conscious decision

When did the musical aspect come to the fore?

I was doing a hip-hop musical when I was 20. I would’ve been writing hip-hop stuff for years. In Ireland when I was young it was a little bit like the guy who’s playing tennis against the wall if you were in to hip hop. There wasn’t a huge amount of people doing what I was doing. You had no real sparring partners.

You had no idea if you’re any good. I was into hip-hop in a very solitary manner throughout my teenage years, then moved over here, was doing stand-up. Did an audition for a hip-hop theatre show that was going to be written by free styling.

There was about eight of us in the cast and we would freestyle. Some of them were MOBO Award winners. We wrote the whole play in about an hour and a half through improv. That went on tour on and off for about a year and a half, and over the course of that I spent a huge amount of time rapping with people who were objectively very good rappers.

It felt like I could hold my own. I was going okay, this is me free styling. Particularly I was very, very comfortably in that environment. I finished that tour, then I made a very conscious decision. I’m not doing straight stand-up anymore. I’m going to do a hip-hop show and see where it goes. That was kind of the turning point. I felt like having to work with some incredible rappers changed my confidence. I got confident in a way I definitely hadn’t been beforehand. I was like, this is me. I’m very happy doing this.

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So it was more finding your medium, rather than finding a way to stand out from the crowd?

Before I was always improvising but I never had a destination. I’d kind of riff some people, see where it goes. Then I’d go “grand, we’re done”. Next person. Then as soon as I started doing freestyle songs, it almost gave a structure to what I’d already been doing. I was always working with the crowd, always chatting with them. Then I realised, these interactions can all smash in and become songs.

In terms of the dynamic of the show, do you have certain points that you have planned? Or do you improvise all the way?

Every single song is improvised. Every idea of the song is improvised. We’ve got a narrative structure. So this show, Life + Rhymes, it’s set in the 90’s and it’s basically a fictional biopic. It’s Straight Out of Compton, Walk the Line, the Johnny Cash story. It has similar narrative beats to that. A musician starts off from humble beginnings, becomes huge, loses all the people they love… All the kind of classic beats in a musical biopic. It has that.

It’s set in the 90’s, and the crowd make up all the people. We ask them, we chat to them, but we infer that they all existed with us in Ireland in the 1990’s, and that they used to be our former manager. One person might be a manager. Some people might be members of a Wu Tang Clan-esque group that inspired us. It’s a kind of fictional world, and then lyrically every word is created on spot.

Coming to Edinburgh Festival seems to be a key part of this perfecting what a comedy show is really all about. Do you think that putting it into that kind of crucible was a good experience?

It’s the most intense thing. The amount of summers I have given to that festival … because it’s not just August. You spend pretty much of May onwards trying to make sure your show is ready for August.

It’s such a big festival. A lot of the other comedy festivals like Adelaide, it’s got a chill vibe. Edinburgh has no chill. Edinburgh is hectic. I think it’s a great way to force yourself to move on to a new show.

It’s also a really good way to become a better stand-up act. In the early days I think I did my first Irish show stand-up in 2007, and Abandoman in 2008 was where I had a one man show. You leave Edinburgh knowing so much more about your show, and your show is tighter. The crowds are not the same as your regular … It’s a better calibre of crowd, because they’ve seen three shows that day. In the real world, people might see three stand-up shows a year. So they expected a bit more.

They definitely expect a bit more. They want to have a show, but there’s very few times you can gig to that many people every night for 25 nights in a row. So it is hyper-pressured, but it’s also the best place to get better as a comedian, to get your show stronger, to really live in your show. Same venue, the only thing that changes is the audience and what you changed, and just trying to make sure over the course of 25 nights you leave with the show. The show is never finished when you arrive up there. You get the best show you can by the time you finish.

I wonder about the time you spent on tour with Ed Sheeran, that’s playing to a different type of crowd as well. Was there moments when your inner hip-hop teen from Dublin would take over?

There definitely were some funny moments on that tour. We were going from comedy clubs which are 200 seaters to Ed Sheeran crowds. That was a tough time. That was number one. First album it was about 5,000 a night. 5,000 loud, young music fans. The first album, it popped off among teenagers or early 20s. Now it’s the world. Now people of whatever age know Ed Sheeran.

Back then, the main demographic would have been between 16 and 20, roughly. You walk out to those crowds and that volume, the noise is different. In comedy clubs you’re told if you shout you’ll be thrown out. In those music clubs, there is a wildness. There’s a wild energy. It’s really fun to feed off that. There definitely was an energy comedown when we went back to stand-up comedy clubs. Just because you go why aren’t people screaming every time I do a punch line? Why are they just laughing? This is bullshit [laughs]. You genuinely go, ugh, this is the real world. It felt a little bit like the Ed Sheeran tour was just a little bit of wild.

You know the thing that was funny is the standard question in comedy clubs is what do you do for a living? When we first started supporting Ed, there was just loads of people who were still in school. So I’d go what do you do for a living? They’re all students or school kids, so we ended up dropping a song that’s built on people’s jobs, and that left a little hole in our set.

We called up Hasbro who made Connect Four, and we asked them to ship us a giant Connect Four for the tour after the first night. Only for that tour, we had a bit in the show where we’d be like does anybody here battle? Does anybody here MC battle? And there’d always be two or three that would be, like, “I’ll battle”. So we’d bring them to the stage, and then we’d get everyone hyped up. Are you ready for the greatest battle you’ve ever seen? Now, bring out the battle apparatus. Ed’s touring team had the giant Connect Four strapped to one of those huge rolling cases you bring amps in.

So we’d roll around the Connect Four onto the stage and me and the audience member would battle each other while we played Connect Four, which is literally my favourite. In Brixton Academy, playing Connect Four when you were planning to battle the dude? That made me so happy. It was so silly.

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Would you consider reverting back to writing a show rather than improv?

Edinburgh this year, I did a show under my own name and it’s about 50-60% written. It’s the first time I did that. I got really inspired by the likes of Lin Manuel Miranda who wrote Hamilton. Interestingly, he was a freestyle rapper who did Edinburgh in 2005 on Chamber Street. He had a group called Freestyle Love Supreme.

The joy of improv is it can take you anywhere. Sometimes the frustration can be you’ve got a great idea, you’ve got an idea you’re passionate about, but you don’t know how to bring it into a comedy set because it’s all improvised.

So this year I did a show that was partly written and animated. I learned animation over the last year, and that world has gotten a lot easier as technology improves. I found it much harder.

I’m very functional as a freestyler. I think the ability to remember lyrics is something I’ve always struggled with. I’ve got an idea that in a couple years time I want to build up to writing a comedy hip-hop musical for the Edinburgh Fringe. Something I’m gradually building towards, but at the same time I really like improvising. I love freestyle. I’d never move away from that.

Abandoman perform at The Stand Comedy Club at 8.30pm on Monday 9th October.

The Stand
333 Woodlands Road
Glasgow
Lanarkshire
G3 6NG

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