Tom Hodgkinson visits the multi-talented podcaster, comedian, artist, parodist, actor and writer to talk about his new book
TOM HODGKINSON I remember around five years ago you came to do an Idler gig in London. I asked you what you were up to and you said: “Nothing much, just looking after my dad.”
ADAM BUXTON Yeah, it was 2015. He was living here and I was at a loose end creatively. Actually I was working on a pilot for a sitcom and it just didn’t come together. When I started to realise it wasn’t going to happen I wanted to do something else. I’d been thinking of doing a podcast for a while but I was really nervous to do it because me and Joe had had some success being on the radio and it’d gone really well. It’d been one of the most enjoyable things we’d done together. It felt like it was on an even field because previously there’d always been a bit of wrangling in the power dynamics between us.
“The BBC just chucked a load of money at me.”
TH During the Adam and Joe Show period?
AB Yeah we were very competitive and – like most double acts are, I think – insecure. You tend to worry that your contribution isn’t as significant as the other person’s. I always thought Joe was the funny one and I was trying too hard. So after we stopped doing the podcast on 6 Music, Joe was off doing his film [Attack the Block], which was what really put the kibosh on that. I was really sad about it finishing and it didn’t seem like an option to carry on doing things on my own. It would be like Andrew Ridgeley going solo, you know what I mean? But then enough time had gone by that I just thought: “Fuck it.” So I recorded some stuff with Louis [Theroux] in his garage in Los Angeles when I went out there on a trip and I thought: “Well, I’ll just put this out, people love Louis Theroux.” So I recorded that in 2014, didn’t put it out for ages, played around with jingles. Originally I was thinking: “I don’t want to do another one of these interview things,” because there were loads of those. I wanted to do something really dense, a sound collage, with little sketches or a bit of found audio here and there.
TH There is still an element of that though because you have the sounds of the countryside and your Buxtonian songs too.
AB Yeah, I did want to do the jingles. That’s something I felt unequivocally happy with on the 6 Music show and the podcast. It didn’t get too much abuse from people.
TH What about your YouTube videos, like Richard and Judy? Did you just put them up yourself?
AB Yeah just for fun. Country Man was the only thing that was commissioned. There was something happening with digital, and the BBC just chucked a load of money at me. I don’t know if they do that any more.
TH So you caught them at a good moment.
AB Oh yeah, I lucked out massively. I ended up posting a few things I’d made for other programmes as well, but most of the clips that were used on shows since were made for no reason, just for fun. It was footage I didn’t own that I was re-voicing or re-editing so it wasn’t stuff I could get paid for.
TH You’re a great Idler hero. You’re doing the things today that you were doing at 14, things you would be doing whether you were paid or not: that’s a massive success in life. You won’t ever retire, you’ll carry on doing things you want to forever.
AB That is something that cheers me up when I’m feeling blue. There’s always something to worry about and I suppose you can worry that you’ll be so jaundiced as a person that you’ll no longer have anything to communicate that anyone wants to hear.
TH The internet’s been good for you. You’ve been able to do the things you want without waiting for commissions. Someone can be sacked and another person can come in and not like you and you can be cast out. But with the podcast and YouTube the control is all yours.
AB But I was really hoping that something “proper” would come along! My dream was always that someone would turn up and say: “I think you need to be in this film or this TV show, and give me a career.”
TH But that doesn’t happen.
TH You’re competing against people who are much more pushy and single-minded as well.
AB And also better looking and more talented. All the other factors that come into play. It took me a while to realise I wasn’t one of those people. Those people who just have things handed to them because they’re handsome and brilliant. You bump into those people every now and again, I remember meeting Russell Brand in his junkie MTV presenter days and realising: “This guy’s going to make it.”
TH So doing the podcast is like doing a fanzine, in a way. You do what you want.
“I’ve never made a penny off YouTube.”
AB In theory, but there’s still always the chance that people just stop listening or I don’t get sponsors. Then I can’t treat it like my main occupation any more. I am lucky in that I can always find ways of making money if I need to. My dad always struggled with money so much that it’s one thing I can’t take for granted.
TH How long did it take to get to the point where podcasts started bringing in cash?
AB I signed up with [podcasting agency] Acast after about 10 episodes.
TH You were ahead of your time because podcasting wasn’t such a big thing then as it is now.
AB It’s just got bigger and bigger. Joe and I were first there in 2006, I think. Each time I’ve thought: “This is as big as it can get and the bubble will burst,” but it just keeps getting bigger. The bubble will burst, certainly, and the field will start to thin out. But it is a genuinely valuable medium which has its own strengths. It’s not just a flash in the pan. It does fulfil a need for long-form conversation which isn’t met by other mediums – maybe YouTube.
TH But you’re still under the Silicon Valley overlords with YouTube. I know you have Acast but it’s not the same.
AB I’ve never made a penny off YouTube. As a sustainable business model the podcast is good. And having no visual element as well – audio is amazing because it really does allow you to get as close as you can to something vaguely natural which represents the rhythms of a real conversation. I don’t understand why people would want to film their podcast conversations.
TH Which guests get the best figures?
AB The numbers definitely spike when it’s someone from TV or film. The most excited I got was meeting Brian Eno, because I was sure the whole fucking world would blow up – but it didn’t. People like Charlie Brooker are always going to be popular. It used to worry me and I thought I had to plan more carefully and do the metrics and engage more on social media and the other things you’re told to do, but then I just thought: “Fuck it. Even if the podcast dropped out of the top 100 and never went back in, I’d still plod on.”
TH Maybe the listeners would start to drop if it became an overly professional chat show.
“I don’t need to have a busier life.”
AB Yes because you do sacrifice something. Famous people who I’d love to speak to are often dangled in front of me but it’s part of a junket and it comes with a load of stipulations about what you can talk about. What people respond to most with podcasts is that it captures that friendly dynamic in a conversation. People keep saying: “It’s like hanging out with my mates at the pub.” That’s what you want. Sometimes I do straight interviews where I don’t say very much at all and I’m just listening to the person doing their pitch, but generally the most fun ones are the ones who ask you questions and are interested in you.
TH But in some of the ones with Louis Theroux you get a sense that there’s a creative process going on. You’re actually listening to people making shit up live.
AB That’s nice because it’s really not my strength. I’m quite slow and frequently inarticulate and not quick on my feet. So I benefit from editing the conversations because I can keep in the bits where I am quick-witted. That’s the difference between me and someone like Joe Rogan or whoever. They can talk for three hours unedited and it’s all pretty good.
TH Surely most podcasts should be edited?
AB You’d be surprised. The model seems to be long and often to maximise engagement and get sponsors. I was thinking about awards. I’m curious as to whether I’ve achieved enlightenment or if I’m fooling myself. I felt like I reached enlightenment when one day I just thought: why should you care, what is the end game, why would you want to win an award? I can see that the legitimate side of awards is to give exposure to something that is marginalised. OK, fair enough. But then the idea that it’s any indication of what is good in that field is totally bogus. Why would I care? I don’t need more exposure or to make more money or have a busier life. You fantasise that you’d get to the point where no one would refuse you. You could say to Bjork: “Do you want to come and walk the dog?” And she’d say: “Absolutely, when do you want to do it?”
This is an extract from a longer interview in Idler #74, September/October 2020
Single copies of Issue 74 are available here