Harry & Chris Save the World: an interview with Harry Baker

London Calling

After 10 years of playing together in various forms, Harry and Chris debuted at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2016. They've since become regulars on The Russell Howard Hour and were made BBC Radio 2’s resident musical act for the Edinburgh Festival Fringe this August. We caught up with Harry to chat about their current tour, ‘Harry & Chris Save The World’ 

Culture Calling: You’re described variously as Flight Of The Conchords-esque, musical comedy, rap-comedy-jazz... How do you describe what you do?
Harry Baker: The first show we did we called a fusion of jazz and poetry, and I think people had the wrong idea and expected us to turn up all in black wearing berets. So I think comedy-rap-jazz was what we settled on; hopefully it gets across the tongue-in-cheek, fun nature of it. Me and Chris went to school together so a large part of our act is built off a kind of best friendship and bromance. Chris is an amazing musician and he brings it to life, and then I have a background in poetry so there’s a lot of word play and thoughtful lyrics in there. And then somewhere in the mix is trying to find a three-word phrase you can put on a poster to convince people to come!
CC: Do you think you could ever go down the serious or mock-serious jazz-poetry route?
HB: Oh yeah – I mean we’ve both thought about it. The thing is, we both come from those worlds and have a real love for them, so we don’t want it to feel like we’re taking the Mickey. Similarly with rap, I think the danger is giving the impression you’re doing a parody of the whole art form, when – again – we have a really deep love for it. I would love to pay homage to the spoken word scene, and Chris could do some jazz – but ideally without alienating all our friends from those worlds!
CC: Tell us about the new tour, what’s it like?
HB: We have gone up to Edinburgh Fringe Festival for the last three years and absolutely loved it – you get to do the same show every day for a month and really refine it. Then in the tour we get to do a show with two halves, so the second half is new material and in the first half we do our old songs. And we've found that, because it’s a mix of comedy and music, people come along and make requests for their favourite songs. It would be weird if you were seeing a stand-up and shouted requests for jokes but what’s nice about tour is that people can hear stuff they know and like, as well as having a brand new hour of things. That’s been really fun. Also, having two halves, there’s more space to play with it and go off script, and get to know the audience a bit.
CC: It seems like you can get away with addressing some quite heavy topics, without losing the playfulness of the comedy?
HB: With a background in poetry, I always loved having some underlying message. But we do have a song which is just changing all the words in a One Direction song and making them about Monopoly. And I thought that didn’t have enough weight to it to include in the show, but actually it’s now one of our favourites and people do a nice little singalong. So it’s come full circle on trying to write songs that are fun and funny and uplift people, but then trying to apply that to more serious topics, which again feels like it does them justice. We’ve now got a song about the environment and the climate of fear that we’re in, and it’s trying to make light of those things in a way that still takes them seriously. Music is an amazing way to do that because you can go from having a nice fun singalong chorus to a more thoughtful moment in a verse, and back again. So I like the freedom of that format.
CC: Has that made ‘normal’ music seem a bit boring to you now?
HB: Growing up I fell in love with hip-hop music because of how dense the lyrics are and there’s so many layers of word play and references, and in amongst that there are punchlines. There are these really serious hip-hop songs that are really funny at the same time. Whenever I listen to music, the lyrics are what jumps out to me, whether that’s Outkast or Ed Sheeran. If anything, performing music has made me appreciate it more. Going to a gig and watching someone perform their songs, even though they’re not performing stand-up, it’s still very much a performance. You can really frame a song by how you introduce it to the crowd, and the difference between hearing it on a CD and in a venue has made me appreciate the craft of it. I would never have called myself a musician before – Chris is the one who can play the guitar and do all of the impressive stuff, and I just rap alongside him. But actually, in terms of songwriting and performing, I’m getting a glimpse of that world. Yeah, if anything it’s made me appreciate music more.
CC: What topics have inspired you recently?
HB: Well, we’ve just written an attempt at a Eurovision song! But it was sadly rejected for being too political. I think – in the world of comedy and beyond – we are increasingly frustrated at how divided people feel, and how reluctant people are to interact with one another, whether that’s because someone is from a different place to you or has different political views to you. So on one level, in a very broad sense, we’re just trying to write stuff that anyone can get something from. Whether that’s Monopoly or pandas, random topics like that, or having a tongue-in-cheek think about those bigger issues, and how we do have more in common than that which divides us. So Chris has song idea based on the premise that we’ve all come out of a womb… If you are focussing on heavier topics you need to do it in a way that doesn’t make people turn off, so I like having these left-field approaches.
CC: How do you deal with being put on the spot to deliver a joke?
HB: If Chris has his guitar with him, he’s more than happy to get it out and sing a song. I’ve had it before from being in rap battles, which is weird because people will almost start trying to try and rap battle with you in the street, which isn’t such a pleasant ordeal! If I were put on the spot it’d be a bit tricky because our songs take about three or four minutes… but hopefully we could make something up and get away with it!
CC: You’re a mathematician – does that help with your poetry at all?
HB: I’ve always insisted the two are separate, but one of my first poems that people got hold of is a love poem about prime numbers, so that’s a very literal connection, but I think for me, poetry and maths are both about trying to figure stuff out and searching for answers, and using what you know to make sense of what you don’t. The way I write, the rhythm and rhyme are very methodical, and there’s an element of the words slotting into place that I recognise from solving an equation. That’s not to say there’s a formula for writing things, but I do think in that sense I’ve loved doing music because there is that verse-chorus structure, and you have to fit it all in this condensed space. So I like the patterns you can find – and then working on breaking them. For me, telling jokes and making people laugh is about orchestrating those patterns and breaking them, so that a punchline is something surprising.
CC: How about Chris – what’s his secret power?
HB: Chris studied philosophy and theology, which I really enjoy because now and then he’ll drop these knowledge bombs into the songs, which sit really nicely in amongst other random topics. He is a brilliant musician and busked for a couple of years on the London Underground, so he got used to – in theory – performing for thousands of people, but only a few at a time, usually with no response. He says people would avoid eye contact, so for him to get up on stage and have people listening and laughing, is quite an opposite experience. So that’s made him appreciative of the audience.
CC: Any places you can recommend to us, as a well-travelled UK-touring performer?
HB: We used to live in Elephant and Castle, and you can walk from there to the Thames via the Vaults, which are full of incredible graffiti, and there’s a venue in there with comedy and theatre, that would be one of my top tips. They do a festival. My wife used to live in Holloway, and so I walked between there and Kings Cross for a while and saw them building Coal Drops Yard, which I thought was going to be like an awful shopping centre type thing, but actually it links to the canal and is beautiful. In Edinburgh, we used to get breakfast at Kilimanjaro, who do a great coffee and brunch to see you through!

WIN two tickets to see Harry & Chris at London's Leicester Square Theatre here.

For more information and to book tickets, visit Harry & Chris' website.

Tour dates:
16 November - Maidstone, Hazlitt Theatre
20 November - Edinburgh, The Stand Comedy Club
21 November - Glasgow, The Stand Comedy Club
22 November - Hull, City Hall
23 November - Teesdale, Barnard Castle
26 November - Cambridge Junction
28 November - Great Torrington, The George Hotel
30 November - Great Torrington, The Plough
05 December - London, Leicester Square Theatre
06 December - Colchester Arts Centre
07 December - Maidenhead, Norden Farm Centre for the Arts
12 December - Thundersley, Congregational Church
13 December - Stafford Gatehouse Theatre
14 December - Fareham, Ashcroft Arts Centre
15 December - Brighton, Brighthelm Centre
22 December - London, Leicester Square Theatre


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