INTERVIEW: Henry Phillips

Published in The Music (WA) | 08.01.14 | Issue # 20



LA-based musician/comedian Henry Phillips is funny enough and has the right connections to make it big. Instead, he’s staying true to himself. With the release of his new record, Let’s Get Suicidal, he tellsDaniel Cribb why it’s worth it and what’s wrong with the entertainment industry today.

In 1997, LA-based comedian Henry Phillips released his first record, On The Shoulders Of Freaks, and much to his surprise, an Australian fan sent him a tape of their radio show in which they discussed the album. “They were talking about my first CD, and the way they were talking about it, it just seemed like they really got it,” Phillips begins. “Sometimes I feel like my humour’s not for everybody, so I like it when somebody enjoys it.”

As far as comedy goes, Phillips dabbles in an unusual realm; it’s not in-your-face humour with an overly pronounced punchline – you need patience and a certain sensibility to really understand and enjoy his blend of sardonic folk comedy. Since his debut record he’s released three more albums, written, produced and starred in award-winning semi-biographical film Punching The Clown, made appearances on Comedy Central Presents and Jimmy Kimmel, worked on numerous web series and is constantly touring the US and collaborating on various other projects.

If none of the above works sound familiar, you may have heard a musical number he recently worked on. “I’m friends with some of the funniest people in the world. My favourite guy, and he’s a good friend who is apparently really famous there, is Arj Barker. He’s always been one of my favourites. In fact, he was doing an opening number for one of his shows and I recorded the music for him and we wrote the song together. It was an opening and closing number called Go Time. He basically sang it into my phone and then I just did all the music for it then I recorded it for him so he could take it down there.”

His self-produced web series, Henry’s Kitchen, in which he tries and fails to show viewers how to cook various foods, encapsulates the sad, lonely and self-deprecating humour that the comic has become known for. “I think we all experience varying levels of emotions and that one to me is just very funny – the sad, sad guy. It’s certainly not the way I am in real life, but we all get that way.”

The soundtrack for the series has been released as a record, Let’s Get Suicidal, under Phillips’ alter-ego, Jose Suicido. Fourteen tunes that confuse the listener into laugher and feature a string section backing up lyrics such as, “Guacamole me, guacamole you/I just got busted for drugs”. It’s an odd contrast with the videos, and it’s only after four straight-up comedy records that Phillips feels comfortable releasing something so obscure.

“It was a problem in the beginning and I fought it for a long time,” Phillips says on trying to get people to understand his humour. “But recently I decided I was just going to go with it, because at some point you have to. When I started my act was extremely subtle, and I would do a thing where I would pretend like I was a real singer-songwriter failing and it would create such an uncomfortable feeling in the audience for the first minute that it was almost impossible for me to dig out of it and start making everybody laugh.

“With this new CD, I want to go back to that more subtle approach, because this new CD, there’s no jokes on it, it’s just the album itself is a joke,” he laughs. “It’s just 14 of the most over-the-top, depressing songs I could think of… it’s a little bit closer to what I actually wanted to be doing this whole time.”

In between tours and writing music, Phillips has been working on a follow-up to the hit film Punching The Clown. With a script ready, it’s just a matter of funding the project. Phillips certainly won’t be signing away his creative freedom for funding, though.

“It used to be that you wanted to make a movie that was good – that’s the only thing people thought about, now there’s so many other things people think about before they think about whether it’s good: ‘Is this marketable? Are young people going to like it? Is it going to be offensive to anybody?’.

“Nobody is ever saying, ‘Is this going to be a good movie?’, and you see a lot of movies these days that look like they were made by a computer… we gave the script to the first movie to a few people to have them read and they would come back and say, ‘I don’t like it’, and we were like, ‘Oh, you don’t? Well that’s okay because we’re going to make it anyway’.”

Daniel Cribb