This interview was originally written for Revolver so it’s some years old. I present it here to promote Gary’s appearances at the Laugh Garage this week. Although I’ll tweet a link back here when he’s playing elsewhere, down the track, no doubt.
It’s a funky eleven piece band that builds itself up into a frenzy. A kind of voodoo pimp takes the stage. He is wearing a red felt hat, a leather waistcoat, a black shirt with white polka dots, tight leather pants. He carries a hefty club – one that would bust the mightiest of heads – which bears a human skull halfway up it, and at the top, the kind of old-fashioned radio microphone so loved by the velvet-throated vocalists of yesteryear. He is the Rev. Slitherin’ Lizard, and the band is Big Toy. They open with ‘Just a Gigolo/I Ain’t Got Nobody’ and do all manner of funky covers as well as original compositions. Soon, a gorgeous chanteuse takes the stage: the voodoo pimp’s irresistible courtesan, no doubt, clad in the tightest of dresses that betrays no visible panty lines, as well as a most wicked pair of follow-me-home-and-fuck-me boots, shaking every inch of her ‘thang’ as she and the band deliver a wild show. It is no surprise that Big Toy has garnered a loyal following at their residency at the Bondi Icebergs. The joint, as they say in jazz circles, is jumpin’.
By this stage, it is easy to forget why I’m actually here: to interview the tenor saxophonist who, in another incarnation, is Gary Bradbury, stand-up comic. As it turns out, he was a musician before he was ever a comedian, and while there are other band members I’d rather be dragging off for a ‘quickie’ backstage, when Big Toy take their customary ‘short break’ between sets, it is my only opportunity to drag Gary away for an interview. Before we can begin, another bandmate steps up and undoes his trousers to display the underwear beneath. “Are these are your jocks?” he asks.
“Yeah,” Gary replies, unfazed by the fact that they now hug another man’s crotch.
“Sorry,” the guy apologises.
“Why?” Gary says. “You’re the one who’s wearing them.”
Ah, life on the road!
“I grew up riding horses on a goat farm, with cows and chickens, about forty-five minutes outside of Adelaide,” Gary tells me. “It was a fairly isolated sort of place. As soon as I turned eighteen I wanted to get out of there and the army gave me the opportunity to travel. So I went and pretended to be a soldier for a few years.”
Prior to marching up and down the square, Gary Bradbury actually attended college, straight out of school, in pursuit of a jazz certificate on tenor sax. “I was a little bit out of my depth musically; everyone else doing the course was a professional jazz musician from Adelaide. I eventually got sick of travelling: it took me an hour to get into college from home every morning, and I didn’t feel I was capable of competing on an even level in the course. I could read music okay so I decided to join the army. I thought I would do that for a while and make some money and see where it took me.”
After basic training, it took Gary to the Sydney Army Band at Victoria Barracks. And after eight years of having to have his hair cut every two weeks and having to shave every day, it took Gary out of the service altogether. However, although Gary had always “harboured desires” for trying comedy, he did not get to it directly.
“I grew up on British comedy on television,” Gary explains. My family is British and we grew up in the country, so we had the ABC on a lot. I guess my whole family gained a deal of comic timing from the reactions of the people on those shows.”
It was at age eighteen, seeing Eddie Murphy’s film Delirious that made Bradbury aware of the world of stand-up comedy. “It really stood out to me that a guy could stand up there and talk about things he’d done or was aware of and make people laugh, and that people would go and see that. I had a few thoughts about trying it then. I went and studied acting in Los Angeles for six months and while I was there I saw a few stand-ups. I thought that when I got back to Australia I’d try it. I went down to the original Comedy Store on Cleveland Street and I was going to go in an open mic night then – I’d rung up and asked about it – but I chickened out.”
It wasn’t until 1993, having resumed life as a civilian in Adelaide, that Gary decided to have a go. He’d stopped playing his sax – “the army had kind of zapped my soul of the love of music; I just left it” – and was working as a mobile DJ. At a gig at Football Park, Gary finally saw the light. “I met a comedian who was there to do a comedy spot for half an hour. It seemed to me that he had it pretty easy because he just walked in, used the microphone that I provided with all the electrical equipment, stood there for half and hour, made more money than me and then walked out. That had to be easier than lugging the DJ equipment around, so I had a chat to him. He had a club called The Comics’ Comedy Cellar in Adelaide and I tried out there with a couple of other guys.” Every Friday and Saturday night thereafter, Gary was having a go, “building up the minutes” as he puts it, for the next two and a half years. At the same time, he was working at another venue, ‘Bob’s Cafe’. “I teamed up with about six to eight comedians who were the mainstay of Adelaide comedy for a while.”
However, as all talented people eventually had to back then, the mainstay of Adelaide comedy left Adelaide for fame and fortune interstate. Most of Gary’s contemporaries went to Melbourne. Gary returned to Sydney, having lived here a while already. By this stage, Gary was playing the sax again. “I started busking to supplement my… my vast comedy income… rather than get the dole.” In Sydney, Gary met up with former army band buddies who had formed the funky big band, Big Toy. Of course, Gary still busks. More importantly, he now takes his saxophone onstage with him when doing comedy.
“When I started doing stand-up I never even told anyone I played the sax for three and a half years. I just did the comedy. And then someone suggested I ought to try playing it in the act. Now it’s good. When I’m doing a corporate gig and I get through all my clean material I can play them a song.”
Although Bradbury has made an independent album – more a demo, showcasing his music as well as the material that he says he was going to stop doing – he has a greater ambition to record quite an interesting concept album.
“I want to get a few of my comedian buddies to do some sketches with me, and some of my muso friends to do some music with me and basically put together a decent length album of old jazz standards treated in a decent way, looking back at the 20th Century.”
Gary’s concept album is yet to eventuate. Big Toy are still going strong as a corporate big band, although Gary doesn’t play in their horn section any longer. Meanwhile, Gary’s comedy is going stronger than ever!