Step inside the creation of Abandoman's magical, musical, comedy tour 'Pirate Radio'
Abandoman (AKA Rob Broderick) is currently touring his show Pirate Radio across the UK. Described as "Flight of the Conchords meets 8 Mile" by Chortle, Abandoman's show combines comedy with hip hop in a unique and exciting way that has to be seen to be believed. Here Abandoman talks us through creating the show, what audiences can expect to see – and offer! – along with some advice to creatives wanting to find their own voice.
Rob, tell us a little bit about how you got involved in music first and then how that became your show Abandoman.
I’m Rob Broderick and I tour under the name Abandoman. For me, the journey was a little bit of hip hop and a little bit of stand up comedy. When I started performing, I had an eye on both worlds. I loved hip hop. I'd been rapping since I was a kid.
I finished university in the early 2000s. I did communications, and wrote a little hip hop musical - very, very short - as part of my final thesis. There wasn't a huge hip hop community in Ireland at the time, and it didn't feel like that was going to bounce to the next step, so I moved over to England.
I'd tried to get a job as a radio producer in Ireland but just could not find a job so I moved to England with the idea that I'd do open mic standup comedy, then move back home. Because Dublin and Ireland are small I figured that if I was going to have shows that were disasters, I better do them in a country or in a city where I know no-one. So I went to England, started doing stand up and it went well. It was half decent. At the start, one show was great and literally the next night could be disastrous. Being new, I had no idea why. Now I know there are so many factors ranging from audience expectations to audience numbers, your own energy. Is the light on? Is the mic clear? There are so many things that I now know but only really learnt through doing a couple of hundred gigs a year. I was also good as a compere. I'd hosted a lot of comedy shows and built up towards that.
The rap thing was something I did privately. Around 2007-8, my day job was as a PA and I got an email – and I don’t even know why I was on this list – for a hip hop theatre workshop run by Jonzi D who is a rapper well known since the late ‘80s in the UK and now runs Breakin’ Convention, which is the biggest breakdancing experience in the UK. Jonzi was doing a workshop, and he invited people who were interested in any aspect of hip hop culture to come in for five nights, leading up to a showcase of what we’d worked on at the Bernie Grant Arts Centre.
So I went in, in my little suit, and thought “yeah, okay. Let’s see where this goes…” I didn’t have loads of experience rapping with people who were confident rappers, and literally the first thing Jonzi had us do was stand in a circle and freestyle. When it came round to me, I’d eaten a doughnut in the lobby, and I came up with a verse about a very tasty doughnut. And it got good laughs, which wasn’t intended.
Over the next five nights I started doing what I was doing in standup, which was improvising. I put the two together, and at the end of that experience I did a 15-minute spot and it was just my favourite thing I’ve ever done. It was in front of a crowd that was very much there for hip hop, not comedy.
I did a written piece, breaking down the statistical likelihood of my relationship working out and another, improvised piece, as an idiot god character where I allowed people to ask questions about their future and I would freestyle back the responses.
Over the course of the next 18 months, I ended up working with Jonzi a lot and then ended up touring the UK with a show called Markus the Sadist that was written in a couple of weeks through freestyle. Jonzi, Soweto Kinch and Bashy...a lot of very good rappers.
I was lucky on that tour because I was allowed to just keep on freestyling every night and I knew the beats I had to hit. At the end of that tour, at some point in ‘08, I just thought “man, this is it”. I left that tour and went back to the standup circuit and thought “I don’t want to be just telling jokes”. So I tried riffing and at the end of it put a song in based on what I’d spoken about. Out of that, blossomed Abandoman. It blossomed in a clumsy manner and didn’t really take shape until after about a year and a half of doing shows.
I still separated comedy and music, and at some shows people said “you should do freestyle” and others said “I don't know if these should be done together.” I still saw rap as something to be done in music clubs and comedy as something to be done in standup clubs. Finally, I decided these worlds could collide. Reggie Watts was someone I saw doing brilliant music, fully improvised in comedy clubs and that made me go “Oh this stuff has life”.
It was a clumsy and lucky development that definitely involved some lovely people helping me develop it. All of that got my confidence much higher, and it was hugely important to almost kind of say “this could be a thing”.
You now have your new show Pirate Radio on tour at the moment. Could you tell us a little bit about it, how it differs from your last tour and how you go about prepping for an ad-libbed show like this?
Basically the whole show is flicking through a number of radio stations. People in the crowd are treated as callers phoning in to tell me little bits of their stories, like talkRADIO. As the character of the DJ, I say “we’re gonna play this song that’s huge in Ibiza and written by an amazing person, Maggie, who has gone through this experience…”
The framework is the radio station, and the meat and bones is the back and forth between the crowd giving me stories and asking questions that are very open ended. Two nights ago, somebody lost an M&S, navy cashmere cardigan at T in the Park during The Killers. I said “this is a very special record by a navy cardigan who never got to say goodbye to its owner,” and it became this Drake autotune song. I’ve got a whole lighting rig behind me that’s tied into my music software and I wear this thing on my chest with only 16 buttons but it’s got access to about 512 commands so it’s sending out midi commands to music software, a lighting rig and to a vocal processor with a touch.
It’s lovely. The audience get quite behind other audience members sharing little things. Somebody’s minor aversions – someone buying feta when they meant to buy halloumi – can be the best track.
The show is very versatile when it comes to music style, so as well as there being a lot of classic hip hop, there’s a lot of electronica, modern r&b, modern rap and vocal processing.
It’s beautiful, just really fun to create that atmosphere and go from, “hello, we’re having a chat!” to Rage Against the Machine. I love the oscillation from one to the other.
It sounds absolutely amazing. We’ve seen your YouTube videos, where you have collaborated with other musicians. Is this the first time you’ve gone out solely on your own?
It’s the first tour that I’ve done solo, though I’ve done four week runs in Australia over the years. It started as a solo project, then it became a collaborative project with my friend James Hancox, then a guy who used to drum for us, Sam Wilson, stepped in, and he had a tonne of skills (keys, singing, looping).
About two and a half years ago, Sam was working on an album and we knew there would be a tour with that album, so I thought “will I work with another magician, or will I do it solo?” Truth be told technology is a beautiful thing, and Ableton Live is how I control every aspect of the show. It’s now so beautifully easy and weirdly gives me a bit more versatility. I can whip through songs and flip them up really easily. I still work with a lot of producers, producers of loads of beats, but then the live show is me DJing my own beats.
Comedy clubs are not stadium gigs, but I’m trying to make it feel like a big musical experience.
When it comes to a show that relies on audience participation, is there such a thing as a bad audience?
There’s no definite answer to that question. With improv, there are bits that are more difficult, but the one thing we do have is it’s very malleable. It’s like water in a vase. It takes the shape it needs to take.
It’s not often you hit a bad crowd. It’s very rare, but once or twice, every now and then you go to an audience and something doesn’t click.
As I said, after years you can figure out the things. The one thing I need is a good soundtrack, as if the vocals aren’t clear the audience don’t connect with the music and then the show never has a chance to lift off. It’s rare that you walk out and go “these are terrible people. They have no interest in anything - but every now and then something doesn’t quite click”. An example would be when tech doesn’t work, and then you can find out if they support you or look just quite grumpy. I’m lucky in that I try not to put myself in environments where there will be a terrible crowd. There are one or two things that I will just steer clear of if I know it won’t be a fun night. If I’m doing a Saturday night club, there are certain clubs that I will be excited to play and certain clubs that I will give it a bit of a steer, but that will be more of a crowd control gig, rather than a gig where I have fun.
Your tour is on until November 29 and finishes in your own town?
Yeah. The Dublin Sugarclub. Love that club.
What you’ve done is something so unique, that’s literally you. What advice would you have for people trying to find their own voice for a show?
When you start out you have an idea of yourself as a performer, and that may not be the reality. When I started out, my aspirations were to be very political and Bill Hicks-esque, but the reality was that when I got that on stage I was much closer to someone like Jason Byrne who I adore, and is a brilliant improviser. And that surprised me. The head version was going one direction, but in reality different things occurred.
With that in mind, the best advice I can ever give anybody, no matter where they’re based, is write down every open mic night in the city. You don’t need to be on three times a week, but you need to turn up three times a week. You might not get on that quickly, but just go. Let the person who runs the night know you want to perform.
Get to know the standard. When we start out, everyone we’re influenced by is probably 7-10 years deep into doing what they do. You need to watch other people at a beginner level. Allow your brain to forgive yourself for not being brilliant instantly.
The other thing to remember is that we’re really forgiving of other performers when they are not brilliant, but we think that we need to be amazing. Work on allowing yourself to be as forgiving as possible, as it won’t match your expectations for quite some time. But that doesn’t mean it’s not going in a great direction.
My first six months as a standup were exhilarating, until I clicked into the Abandoman stuff that had its own trajectory. Those six months were fascinating, and who I was on stage would change drastically. At one point, I was trying to get political and then, very horribly, the 7/7 bombing happened, and I knew I wasn’t a good enough comedian to talk about this huge event in a comedic manner.
So the biggest advice I can give is just to do 50 gigs before you have to be funny. Just be on stage. You will get better. There’s no way that you won’t start to improve. You’ll also get more confident and you’ll stop overthinking things. I definitely had a couple of years after university where I was overthinking everything and I was almost disappointed by how the whole system worked. I did my first gig and it was only OK. I’d built it up so much in my head and thought it would be more dramatic.
Also, the open mic circuit is great because you’re not getting paid. You don’t really owe anybody anything and so it can be that space where you’re performing what you want to do.
The last thing I’ll say is that the industry gets very excited about people who are doing something different. When I started out doing standup, I desired to be akin to the people I saw doing standup on television. I realised, much later in my comedy career, that people in the industry have seen those versions of standup so many times and that they are excited about seeing something fresh.
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