“WE SPENT THE BULK of 2011 overseas,” Jordan Raskopoulos says. “In fact, we’ve spent the last 18 months overseas.”
The ‘we’ to whom Jordan refers are Axis of Awesome, the musical comedy trio he fronts, with Lee Naimo on lead guitar and rock goddery and Benny Davis on keyboards and diminutive stature. They write and perform songs that are both hilarious and clever, the most well-known of which is an impossibly long medley – of far too many songs that share the same chord progression – called ‘4 Chords’. How well known is it? Well known enough, as Jordan tells us on the eve of Axis of Awesome’s fifth anniversary, for them to have entertained troops in Egypt, lived the rock’n’roll dream touring American colleges out of a van for five months, and topping it all off by playing Germany, Sweden and Amsterdam. And although it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, seeing as how well loved they are in Australia, but Europe “really loves” Axis of Awesome
“Sweden is crazy for us. So is Germany. It was great playing a room of 500 people in Amsterdam who all knew the words to ‘Birdplane’.” ‘Birdplane’ is a parody version of the Five for Fighting song ‘Superman’, and despite English being their second language, Dutch fans were able to sing along. Which made Jordan’s tour, let alone his night.
“It was the first time, as a musical performer, I stopped singing and pointed the microphone at the audience so they could sing the rest of the song!”
This, he says, is “pretty crazy” for a comedy act. Fans of musicians get to know a song well. Fans of musical comedians have less opportunity to know parody songs off-by-heart since, once you know the punch line, you stop laughing. That’s why novelty songs that were very well loved initially can sometimes end up being loathed so vehemently once the novelty wears off. (Whisper it: ‘Shaddap You Face’). Yet fans love ‘Birdplane’. Indeed, fans – from all over the world – love all of Axis of Awesome songs. And not just their songs: also their renditions of other people’s songs. In Germany, their second encore was heavy metal band Rammstein’s ‘Du Hast’. “Although it’s not our song, we really, really enjoy singing German heavy metal,” Jordan insists. “That’s my favourite thing that we’ve ever done.”
It’s kind of – let’s face it, ‘awesome’ is the best word – that Axis of Awesome have pretty much conquered Germany – a nation at the centre of the last ‘Axis’ hell-bent on world domination – as well as the rest of the parts of the world that they’ve visited.
How does it feel?
“Pretty good. I mean, as any conqueror will tell you, it’s tough-going and there are plenty of sleepless nights on the road, but it’s been great and we’ve had plenty of fun.”
Antecedents of Axis
Comedy fans with good memories and/or a decent DVD collection will know Jordan from his time on The Ronnie Johns Half Hour – or, to give it it’s full name (because I can), The Ronnie Johns Good Times Campfire Jamboree Half Hour Show (Now On Televison) – where we remember Jordan as Paulie the Consumer Watchclock (of “gnocchi is potatoes, not pastas” infamy) and the Underground Guy. The more dedicated comedy nerd, however, will know that Ronnie Johns grew out of a couple of live comedy festival shows that compiled the best performers and sketches from various university revues: 2004’s The 3rd Degree: Generation HECS and, the following year, the 3rd Degree show Eskimos with Polaroids. Jordan joined the cast for the second show.
Benny Davis likewise featured in a comedy festival show some years later – alongside Jordan’s brother Steen, as it happens. The show was The Delusionists. However, Jordan, Lee and Benny all knew each other from Sydney’s improv scene – playing Theatresports and the like.
“Lee was looking for a side project for the two of us to do,” Jordan says. When they decided it would be a musical project, they “got Benny on board because he was always the musical improviser for Theatresports.”
I do find it interesting that Jordan’s Ronnie Johns material was mostly sketch based, rarely dealing directly with musical parody. And yet Jordan’s so naturally ‘the front guy in a band’. He says that he was “writing musical stuff” while doing Ronnie Johns, but, apart from a couple of times, they “never really fit in the format”. Those times were pretty special, though, like ‘The Dominant Claw’ song.
Point is, Jordan had a bunch of “half-developed song ideas” so when Lee said “let’s do something musical” Jordan was able to bring a heap of stuff to the band. Then, somehow, this ‘side project’ “started to gain traction” after the trio appeared in a couple of satirical election clips.
Directed for Fairfax Media by 3rd Degree/Ronnie Johns alumnus Dan Ilic (you know him from Hungry Beast), the Election ’07 Rap Battle saw Jordan appear as R. U. Double-D, Lee as Ray Martin and Benny as Peter Costello… Ello… Ello… Ay… Ay…. Jordan and Benny reprised their roles while Lee played Ausralia in the follow-up, It’s Time To Go For Growth.
While there were a couple more Fairfax Media clips – “we did one about APEC, and I think we did one about the Olympics” – it was the success of the election clips that led the Axis on the road to Awesome. They applied to the Melbourne International Comedy Festival for a Brian McCarthy Memorial Moosehead Award (‘Moosehead’ for short) – a grant issued to comics seeking to present new work at the Festival. Their application proved successful. “We figured the best way to do our first show was to do it as a ‘comeback’ show,” Jordan explains, with The Axis of Awesome Comeback Spectacular featuring at the 2008 Melbourne International Comedy Festival. “Then we got an offer to do Edinburgh. We did Edinburgh and just kept going and going.”
4 Chords, How Many Songs?
In much the same way as Axis of Awesome have kept going and going, ‘4 Chords’ just keeps going and going. Literally (each song in the medley gives way to the next; ‘beginning’ and ‘end’ points are decided by the band) and figuratively (fans continue to discover Axis of Awesome via ‘4 Chords’).
The first time the song and the band ‘went viral’ was when it was played on BBC Radio 1 in 2009. “We woke up the next day and had a whole heap of MySpace friend requests – we had no idea where it came from. That got us maybe a million hits on YouTube.”
But when Ashton Kutcher tweeted a link to the YouTube clip of a live version from the 2010 Melbourne International Comedy Festival Gala, “it got 5 million hits in a week and it went crazy”. And then the invite-only Montreal Just For Laughs Comedy Festival called, with Axis of Awesome’s invitation; the trio landed US management off the back of it. Oh, and, wasn’t it about this time they got to play in China?
“We had a booking but it fell through,” Jordan says. “We’re still holding out for China; we’ve not done it yet. But we’re still talking; hopefully some time this year we’ll be visiting China.”
I’d love to see the list of the songs that have made it to ‘4 Chords’. According to Jordan, the list – compiled by Benny – includes “well over 200 songs”. But it’s not like they’ve ever featured in a single, mega-mix performance. In fact, there’s no ‘definitive’ rendition of ‘4 Chords’, seeing as Axis of Awesome have recorded three different studio versions and the basic core itself changes from territory to territory when they play it live. “In the UK there are Australian songs that don’t necessarily hit the mark; same with the US. We try to tailor the songs to the market that we’re playing in.”
In fact, it often changes from one night to the next irrespective of where they are. “Benny will go, ‘I heard something on the radio, let’s throw it in’ and in a panic we’ll re-order the song and make sure we don’t forget it.” Often the changes are short-lived, the new inclusions proving “a bit obscure, or flash-in-the-pan things that were on the radio for a couple of weeks and then disappeared”. The cutest ones are the songs nobody knows, that were never contenders – songs from new bands wanting to fast-track their rise to fame by sending letters to the Axis of Awesome saying, “Hey, we’ve just written a four-chord song, can you please add it to your ‘Four Chord Song’ so that we can be more popular?”
Finger Lickin’ Hoods
A little while ago some photos did the rounds depicting Lee, Jordan and Benny in the ‘Southern Gentleman’ clobber unmistakable as the uniform of a certain Colonel Harland Sanders, founder of Kentucky Friend Chicken. Turns out it’s for the clip to an excellent song, ‘Ode to KFC’. Unveiling it – as far as their home crowd was concerned – as the encore to triumphant homecoming gigs at the Sydney Opera House, this hip hop paean to fast food saw them literally singing the praises of the so-called ‘dirty bird’, AKA ‘Kentucky Frizzle Chizzle’.
The back story to the song is familiar territory to anyone who has spent some time not just at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival, but has been at the late-night HiFi Bar until chucking-out time. It’s the “wee hours of the morning”, as Jordan explains, when there’s “usually a desire for some greasy food”. And there aren’t many options in Melbourne’s CBD at that time. There’s the 24-hour ‘Golden Towers’ (known fondly to comics as ‘Golden Showers’), the finest kebabs you will ever have at Stalactytes, or KFC. Frequently finding himself at KFC with his bandmates and sundry comics, Jordan would yell all sorts of faux-hip hop nonsense in “drunken revelry”, such as “gotta Zinger Burger Meal get your hands up!”. But the song wasn’t as inevitable as you might expect:
“We have, in our office, a great big whiteboard with all our song ideas and I wrote ‘The KFC Song’ up there. Lee and Benny thought it was stupid. It was on the board for a year before we actually developed it for the show.”
It’s proven popular enough to warrant a video clip – which, fittingly, was directed by Dan Ilic. “We got dressed up as Colonel Sanders and travelled around the city.”
My Life, Take A Look At Old Man
Another song that always stands out is ‘Song for the Elderly’, about finding an old man in your house. It demonstrates a particular talent for which Aussie comics – and Aussie musical comics in particular – are so adept: pathos. Humour tinged with sadness.
“To be honest,” Jordan says of the ballad that punctuates live shows somewhere towards the end, “I was really down and just wanted to write a really depressing song… and also something that was funny. The concept of coming home and finding an old, lost man in your loungeroom was something that sprung to mind. It’s not something that’s ever happened to me – the story would be much more interesting if it had.”
Most experienced comics will tell you: when you’re doing an hour show, somewhere around the 40-minute mark is where you need to give the audience some kind of break before bringing it home with the big, all-guns-blazing show-stopping ending. “You need a song that’s not really joke-heavy that’s still funny but a bit slower. It’s just that change-of-pace-song that fits really well for us.”
And that’s the other thing about Axis of Awesome doing a show: it is a show – it’s not just a bunch of funny songs by a band that can do ‘funny’ as well as they do ‘songs’. Jordan explains it better:
“Rather than ‘concerts’, what we do, essentially, is a comedy play about a concert. We’re trying to put a show and we’re bickering. It’s a little bit ‘Muppet Show’: people get an idea of the relationship between us and the backstage antics and how the show has come together and arguments on stage. ‘Very much The Muppets’ is a good analogy.”
Which suggest to me that, given the sketch work and the cool clips that have accompanied every stage of Axis of Awesome’s career, a television show can’t be far off.
“We’ve been pitching a show,” Jordan confirms. “When we were in the States we pitched some show ideas to different networks and we’re still crossing fingers and waiting to hear back from them. As the act has developed over the years, the characters are very much a part of it. That’s one of the things the online audience misses out on: when they just watch the clips, they don’t see the ‘band of brothers’ who are always fighting, always picking on each other, but still need each other to get over the line.”
5 Year Anniversary Sow
Five years on, the band of brothers are still getting over the line. Hence their 5 Year Anniversary Sow, taking place Friday 20 January at the Factory Theatre.
There’s a reason why it’s a ‘Sow’ and not a ‘Show’: back when they were celebrating their First Anniversary with a First Anniversary Show, Lee mistyped the title on the emails he sent out, inviting Axis of Awesome friends and fans to “come to our Anniversary Sow”. It’s become a running gag as each year they perform an Anniversary Sow advertised with pictures of pigs.
The 5 year Anniversary Sow launches Axis of Awesome’s 2012 Festival Season with gigs following at Adelaide Fringe, Sydney, Melbourne, New Zealand and – well, pretty much everywhere (check upcoming dates). It also marks the release of their brand-spanking new album, Animal Vehicle. Yeah, I know it’s been available since July – but did you? Consider this a launch as well as the triumphant return home of Axis of Awesome. Get the album. And get to a show. Fingers crossed for a second encore of Rammstein’s ‘Du Hast’!