Musical comedy powerhouse the Horne Section are set to embark on their biggest UK tour to date this spring. The acclaimed sextet, led by stand-up Alex Horne, have thrilled audiences over the past decade, at the Edinburgh Fringe and with their eponymous Radio 4 show, not to mention a star-studded TV special filmed at the London Palladium and broadcast on Dave last year.
Their mammoth 36-date tour visits Coventry on Thursday 9th May for an evening at Warwick Arts Centre, with other Midlands dates including Nottingham Playhouse on 18th April, Dudley Town Hall on 2nd May, Leamington’s Spa Centre on 7th October and Northampton Deco on 18th October.
Read a syndicated interview with Alex Horne – creator and co-host of the BAFTA- and Emmy-nominated Taskmaster, also broadcast on Dave – below for an insight into what the tour has in store for audiences, as well as more about how the Horne Section were formed, what makes them tick, and all that jazz.
When did you put the Horne Section together?
Alex Horne: It was about ten years ago when my wife was pregnant with our first child. I did a lot of things that year – that’s when Taskmaster started as well. I think I was panicking, really. I was really old friends with two of the band, Joe and Ben, the trumpeter and the drummer: we were born in the same hospital and our mums were friends and we went to the same primary school.
They became jazz musicians and we always hung out and watched each other’s stuff but it never occurred to us to do anything together until Mark, the saxophonist, booked me to do a gig at the jazz club, Ronnie Scott’s. It was just really fun, combining comedy and jazz. Straight away we all thought, ‘We should do more of this.’ They hooked in two more musicians and we booked eight nights at Edinburgh Festival and that was it.
How musical were you before that point?
AH: I had zero music ability before then and I have zero music ability now. I have more confidence now. I suppose I like to think I’m not completely tone deaf. I played the French horn when I was a kid and I went to Chichester Youth Orchestra for one week when I was about eleven but I really wasn’t any good. I got to grade three. I only played it because my surname is Horne.
What would the Horne Section be called if you had a different surname?
AH: I don’t think it would exist. It’s nominative determinism: you know how if you’re called Mr Baker you turn out to be good at baking? It is a good name, I think. But no, the band are very keen to tell me that I am not musical at all. I was very nervous the first year. I hated it, I hated singing. Now I love it. I don’t think I’m any better but I just go for it now.
I think most comedians have a natural sense of rhythm and jazz has a natural sense of improvisation, so the two do go hand in hand. Hopefully they can figure out what I’m doing and I can figure out what they’re doing.
Musical comedy has a rich history from Victoria Wood to Tim Minchin, but it’s been through phases of not being very fashionable. Is it back in fashion now?
AH: I don’t think there’s a musical comedy circuit as such but there are plenty of comedians who use music who you wouldn’t necessarily think of: like Bill Bailey, who was one of my heroes from when I was at school.
Tim Minchin absolutely brought it back to the centre of popularity but I don’t think it’s ever gone away. Tim actually performed with us a lot at the very beginning and gave us some credibility I suppose. He is cool: he doesn’t wear shoes and socks! We are not as cool as him.
How do you describe the act to anyone who doesn’t know you?
AH: It’s nonsense, it’s silly and fun. If I wanted to compare it to anyone I’d say it’s a bit like Harry Hill’s live shows. I wouldn’t dream of saying we’re as good as Harry but his style of shows which are fun and ‘anything goes’.
How much of the show is rehearsed and how much is improvised?
AH: Half the show is very rehearsed, and the other half isn’t. There are five people on the stage all the time with me who the audience can see and if they look bored, the audience will be bored. And the band aren’t very good at acting: if they’re not enjoying it, they will show that they’re not enjoying it. So I have to keep them amused. So half the show is different every night and that keeps us all happy.
How often do you rehearse?
AH: Good question. Not very often. We do meet up every week or two to do our podcast and that serves as a rehearsal, I suppose. But we don’t actually rehearse strictly very much. It’s more about keeping it fresh and keeping new ideas coming. Once we get to the venue and meet up, it’s just about the best fun you can have. I love it.
The podcast has been very successful, hasn’t it?
AH: Yeah, we’re pleased. We’re independent and we’re totally in control of it. That’s nice, not having anyone telling us what to do.
And you’ve done lots of TV, too. Is that something that’s grown quite organically on the back of the podcast?
AH: It has, yes. We’d love to do more. I think people don’t quite know what to do with us because we’re a band and so we did Never Mind The Buzzcocks and [8 Out of 10 Cats Does] Countdown and Last Leg. We’re enjoying that. Hopefully one day we’ll do our own thing.
You’ve already had a two-hour special on Dave…
AH: Yes, which was brilliant. It was quite emotional because all of our mums came along. Joe the trumpeter had had a baby three days before so he was all over the place. It was at the London Palladium which is an amazing venue. It was Ken Dodd’s second home. It felt like the right kind of venue for our stuff.
For people who saw the TV show, does that give them a good idea of what to expect from you on this tour?
AH: It definitely gives you a good flavour and we are playing some old favourites. I guess we’re a band and we do have people asking for their favourite song which is quite different from comedy: you don’t often have people asking for their favourite joke. So it’ll be a mixture of old and new, which will hopefully keep everyone happy, or nobody happy.
What’s the most requested song?
AH: Weirdly it’s a song called ‘Chinese Five Spice’ which we’re not actually playing anymore. We can’t, because it went round our heads every night after playing and drove us all mad. There’s a song called ‘Seasons’ which is quite a tender song. If people ask for them, we’ll play them.
You must have had a lot of feedback about your duet of the Girls Aloud song ‘Promises’ with Nadine Coyle, which was on the Dave show.
AH: I did. I went to a wedding and the mother of the bride made me dance to it with her. I used to think I danced really well until I watched that clip back. I don’t think Strictly Come Dancing are going to come calling, put it that way. My kids love Strictly and they want me to go on it and – not that I’ve been asked – but I genuinely don’t think I could because people on that show are really good. And I see myself dancing awkwardly with Nadine Coyle and think, ‘Oh no.’
You often have guests on your shows. Is it quite common for comedians to be musical?
AH: It is, yes. Katherine Ryan is a brilliant singer, and so is Sara Pascoe. They’re annoyingly talented, some of these people. It’s not always the case: Tim Key is an awful singer. He can’t come in at the right time or get anywhere near the right note. But generally I think comedians have a good sense of rhythm and I really enjoy stand-up with comedy. I think one will always lift the other, even if it’s just music in the background to comedy.
The musical tasks in Taskmaster are always a highlight, aren’t they?
AH: Yeah. Nish Kumar had a great voice, and his song with Mark Watson was brilliant. Bob Mortimer was brilliant. In fact Vic and Bob were a massive influence on me, making silly songs out of nothing, and Bob jumped at the opportunity to write a silly song for Taskmaster. There will be a Taskmaster element to the live shows. We do get people coming who are fans of that so at some point we’ll do a task or two.
Will you have any guests joining you on stage?
AH: We won’t and I think it’s good that people know that actually. We used to have a guest every time but now we know what we’re doing, and when guests come on it can occasionally make more of a dip than a high. So no, it’s just us.
At 36 dates, is it the biggest tour you’ve ever done?
AH: Well we’re used to being on the road a lot and it’s 36 dates spread over 52 weeks so in terms of dates, it’s just what we’ve always done, but it’s bigger venues. We’ve said we don’t want to do any Fridays or weekends and we’ll be driving back after gigs to get back to our families. My wife has to leave the house at 4 in the morning for work so no matter how far away we are, I have to get back before she goes. We’re not a very rock and roll band, really.
You don’t have anything rock and roll on your rider?
AH: We have lager, because musicians drink an incredible amount before playing. But lager and water, and that’s all that’s on our rider.
Can you introduce us to the band?
AH: Sure. So Joe Auckland plays the trumpet and banjo. He is one of my old friends from when I grew up, and he just had a baby. He plays the trumpet with Madness and Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds. One of the reasons we don’t do that many gigs is that he’s off with them for half the year.
Mark Brown plays the saxophone for Robbie Williams. Mark and Joe write for Girls Aloud and they play for other people: I think Mark’s on a George Ezra song. Being friends with them does mean you get to see some good gigs. We had a good night out in Paris with Madness which was amazing. And I went to Wembley to watch Robbie. Although I left before ‘Angels’ came on so I could get home early.
Ben Reynolds is the other friend from school, he just had a baby a few weeks ago. He’s a brilliant jazz musician who has very ambitious ideas for the show which we can never quite do.
Will Collier is the bass player and he has his own Will Collier Septet. They’re a very good band but often there are more of them in the band than in the audience so he keeps it real that way.
Ed Sheldrake, whose name I always forget, he’s our temporary pianist. He doesn’t have kids, he doesn’t do an awful lot. He’s a quiet genius. He mainly stays at home and plays computer games.
How does the dynamic between you all work? Does it help that you are such good friends?
AH: I think so. I trust them and they trust me. I really like it when they interrupt the show. If someone plays something unexpected then the rest of us can pick it up. So for example if someone in the front row takes their jacket off and one of them starts playing some stripper music, I’m happy for them to do that. They can butt in whenever they want.
If one of them makes a mistake I will absolutely stop the show and talk to them about what just happened. And I know they won’t take offence. It’s all part of the fun. We know each other very well and we know what makes each other laugh.
Where do you come up with your ideas?
AH: They just tend to pop into my head when I’m doing something else. We have a WhatsApp group and we send each other messages and voice messages and we all nervously wait for the reaction from the rest of the band. If someone hacked into our WhatsApp group they would find some dreadful, dreadful ideas being bandied about. Things that just aren’t funny. We’ve done songs about bleeding a radiator, cooking an egg in under a minute. No subject is too pedestrian for us.
How important is audience participation for your shows?
AH: Very important. As an audience member I always dread audience participation but I think it’s so important. If you go to a gig, the whole thing is audience participation with people singing along or clapping along or moshing. You don’t go to a gig without participating. So we do make sure people treat it as a music gig as well as comedy gig and that does mean they will have to do stuff. But not in an awkward way. In a fun way. I hope.
Have you noticed a big change in people’s reaction to you over the last year or two, since Taskmaster started being nominated for awards and so on?
AH: It’s been very gradual and really nice. Taskmaster is still quite a cult thing in that not everybody knows about it but if you do know it, you really know it well. So I have noticed people sometimes knowing who I am, but the vast majority of people still don’t. And the reaction has only ever been nice. It’s great. It’s lovely when people come to the Horne Section on the back of Taskmaster. I feel like the numbers have gone up recently because they like that show.
Will any of your celebrity mates be coming along to the tour? Greg Davies, for example?
AH: I don’t think Greg would come along and if he does, he’s not allowed in the front row because six rows behind him will have a terrible view. Comics actually don’t tend to watch other comics much. We prefer it when musicians come along really. The band are genuinely really good so they quite often have musicians following them. Like David Arnold, the guy who wrote all the music to Sherlock. He follows us and he came on the podcast which was amazing. We had Sir Chris Hoy on the podcast. And Ben Shepherd is a fan.
The Horne Section are at Warwick Arts Centre on 9th May (8pm). Tickets are £27 and are available from the Warwick Arts Centre website, or from the venue box office on 024 7652 4524.