Comedian and author of A History Of Heavy Metal talks to Astral Noize about metal, magick and future plans.
Andrew O’Neill is the metalhead’s comedian. This is immediately apparent at any one of his shows: patched denim jackets covered with illegible band logos appear in a much higher density than one would expect at Comedy Roadshow. O’Neill has performed at all of the UK’s noted rock festivals: including Bloodstock, Download and Sonisphere, has written a book called A History of Heavy Metal, and performed a stand-up show of the same name with a live backing band.
Tonight however, O’Neill is not dressed in his own patched jacket – the look he’s gone for screams ‘metal’ even louder. He’s topless, and covered in white paint, exposing his tattoos of Satan (across his back) and Cthulhu (all down his right arm.) This bold choice of attire has nothing to do with music directly – tonight’s show is named Black Magick Fun Hour, after another of O’Neill’s chief interests. See, we told you he was metal.
Meeting us backstage at the Key Club in Leeds, we speak about the early days of his career. O’Neill started doing stand-up in 2002 while stuck working a dead-end job in a university shop and playing in a struggling Converge-esque hardcore band called SunStarvedDay – these days he is guitarist for metallic punk outfit The Men That Will Not Be Blamed for Nothing. SunStarvedDay were part of the same scene that produced Palehorse and Million Dead, but never got anywhere or recorded anything because “everyone else in the band had significant mental health problems. So we had this rotating line-up and never got anywhere cause we were just always teaching new people the stuff.”
He’d long been a fan of sketch comedy and going to local stand-up nights, “really tiny open mic nights where there’s more comedians in the room than there is audience, and I started thinking ‘I’m funnier than these guys,’ and that turned out to be true. I asked advice from a guy I’d seen a few times and there were a few good tips I’ve always passed on: first he said ‘write five minutes of material, then scrap it and write a better five minutes of material.’ Then I was told to do two or three gigs at the start, cause if you do one and it’s really shit, you’ll never do it again.”
“The first gig was really good, I did a joke about how zebras couldn’t get jobs in supermarkets cause every time they scanned something they scanned themselves. I can’t remember what else, there was a lot of shouting. It did really well, I got laughs, and then I didn’t do any preparation between then and the second gig, which was really bad. I was on second and the first one did my zebra joke. That was a really important lesson, that you’ve got to go further for originality. It was a total coincidence, but zebras look like they’re a barcode and at some point someone’s gonna do a zebra-barcode joke.” He slowly built up a following when he took over a weekly comedy night at the Troy Club, a “tiny little Soho drinking den, a proper fire safety nightmare place. It was a free gig and I got £25 off them to run the comedy, so I’d flyer all the students that I was selling fags and newspapers to. We had Paul Foot, Russell Brand did it – really good acts in this packed out little room. So for years I just did that, doing the open mic circuit without any ambition, still selling sweets and fags to annoyingly posh students with no social skills or politeness.”
One of his biggest influences came from Eddie Izzard, who O’Neill says “changed his life” not only because of his style of performing sketch comedy as stand-up, but also because like O’Neill, he’s a heterosexual transvestite. I ask him if early on, it was daunting being such a niche performer – his later shows have focused on his love of metal, the occult and also androgyny and gender dysphoria. It’s clear that none of this was something he even paid much thought to, being “so blinkered in my notion of wanting to be a really good comic that the other stuff didn’t occur to me that much. I wasn’t an occultist back then, and for the first few years I never cross-dressed on stage because I didn’t want an extra barrier between me and the audience. It’s night and day between now and then, it was so much harder to be public about cross dressing or gender stuff in general.”
Besides his 2016 BBC radio show Pharmacist Baffler, a two-part show focused tightly around dysphoria, cross dressing and other gender issues, O’Neill says that the topics his comedy tackles or the aspects of his identity that he talks about are always “completely secondary to the notion of ‘if I say this, will it be funny?’ If you raise the bar of how funny you are you can punch through pretty much any objection the audience might have. If you’re doing really offbeat stuff with a load of guys talking about their wives, if you’re really funny you’ll overcome their ‘what the fuck is this guy doing?’ reaction, cause funny bypasses the defences. Then I wanted the freedom to cross dress on stage, cause I did it day to day anyway, so I wrote jokes about it which gave me the ability to dress up on stage.” I ask him if he’s now at the stage where he can cross dress on stage and feel able to not mention it at all. “Yeah, but I’ll always have to mention it at a mainstream gig. I do one where I’ll pick an alpha male in the front row and go ‘what the fuck are you wearing, weirdo?’ Even that’s lost currency as gender stuff has become more accepted in the mainstream. When I first started doing that line it was a belter, now they’re like ‘oh, I see what you mean.’”
In 2017 O’Neill released A History of Heavy Metal, a full-length book adaptation of his show of the same name, which surprisingly had its genesis when folk rock singer Frank Turner, a former member of the same early 2000s London hardcore scene as O’Neill, brought his own publisher to one of Andrew’s shows. The book takes a roughly chronological scene-by-scene account of metal, charting the key bands and records in each stage of the genre’s development. At times it’s much less like a well-researched history – of which there are already many – and more like someone excitedly pitching the genre as a whole to a non-believer. “Writing the book was really really fucking difficult, partly because I’ve got ADHD, partly because no one’s laughing when you’re sat in a room typing. Being self-employed, my days are chaotic and what I have to do on any given day is always different, but the absolute focus of getting up and going ‘today I have to write 2000 words’ was really nice, once I got into the rhythm of it. But then that’d be interrupted by going away for a weekend and doing a club, and I’d come back on the Monday and it’d take me pretty much until Wednesday to get back into the cycle of getting up on time, sitting down and hammering it out.”
Of course, O’Neill has fairly alternative ways of dealing with writer’s block. “I did invocations of Thoth, Hermes and Mercury who are gods of writing, and it really helped, sometimes I was writing so fast I couldn’t keep up with my thoughts. I invoked Mercury a few weeks ago and it was like being on speed for the whole day, it was fucking exhausting and incredible. I hold my beliefs really loosely, and whether Mercury is an entity that exists outside of the human mind, or whether he’s a handy avatar that allows you to tap into an aspect of the wiring of our minds doesn’t matter, the effect is the same. I’m inclined to believe that when human beings die all the gods die, but I’ve had a few experiences that made me go ‘these things are really outside of me’. It’s now my method for writing shows, to go up the Qabalistic Tree of Life, so this is the Mercury show, the last show I did was Venus, the next one’s gonna be Sol. The Venus invocation was really radically different from the Mercury invocation, cause Mercury’s all about words, so you get loads of ideas, Venus is all about feelings, so you just get a more abstract inspiration rather than ‘why don’t you do it like this? Maybe you should say that?’”
O’Neill first got into magick after interviewing a personal hero of his, comic book writer Alan Moore, who described it as a way of “fucking with the model of the universe that exists in your own head.” O’Neill followed Moore’s advice to simply read as much as he could about magick, and develop his own sense of discrimination because “most of it is bullshit.”
“It took me fucking ages to get my head around what magick is and what it’s for,” he says. “It’s such a fucking huge area that it’s like a lifetime’s work to get your head round it and genuinely to get good at it. Then you have someone like Crowley, who had the resources to devote his entire life to it, and even he didn’t develop his willpower enough to get himself off smack, and ended up in an old folks home in Hastings selling his spunk to overseas O.T.O. members to make a living. You realise the limitations of the use of magick when you see stuff like that.”
“I’ve had two really big waves of it, the first one was about four or five years ago, maybe longer, when everything started becoming really significant and magickal and there were synchronicities everywhere and my life became unrealistic and I got really freaked out by it, so I took a step back and it stopped straight away. Then I realised that was something I needed to punch through to ascend to the next level, an initiation step. So this show is about the last time I went ‘right, I’m fucking punching through’. Magick is probably now much more incorporated into my everyday life than it ever has been. The Lesser Banishing Ritual of the Pentagram is really fucking useful and really good, I do it all the time. It’s like magickal hygiene. For me it feels like having a shower or doing a detox. The Bornless Rite I do quite a lot, my own Mercury invocation I do a lot, I do a lot of stuff with Mercury. So day to day stuff, just really basic beginner’s rituals.”
O’Neill is now planning on following up A History of Heavy Metal with a book focusing on the occult. “It’s really hard writing a book, I don’t recommend it at all. I’m probably gonna write another one this year. You know that thing where when women give birth, their brain makes them forget the pain, it’s a similar thing. My loose idea is for an occult zeitgeist-capturing book, because there’s more going on in occultism now, more people knowing about it and reading about it than there’s ever been, and that to me should throw up a couple more Crowleys. But every book on magick you read talks about Victorian guys – it’s all history basically, so I wanna know what’s happening now, who’s in the UK who’s actually living this stuff. So my idea is that after I’ve interviewed someone, going and interviewing who they most recommend I talk to, and then who they say I should definitely avoid and is most full of shit.”
Not long after, O’Neill is on stage – chanting, raving about how everyone should try doing ritual magick on psychedelic drugs (“that’s what they’re fucking for!”) delivering jokes in the form of short, shouted songs:
“Magneto on a lilo,
Magneto on a lilo,
Magneto on a lilo,
His head points north.”
Pick up A History Of Heavy Metal here.
Words: Joe Gilbertson
Header photo: Steve Brown
In-text photos: Tom Medwell