Q&A: Mashup Kings Cassetteboy On Death Threats, Politics And Patience
In a world flooded by online videos, mashups, recut political speeches and have-a-go comedians, it takes something special to stand out.
Whatever that something is, the electronic musical-comedy collagists known as Cassetteboy have lots and lots of it.
In Cassetteboy's own words they "are a double act who edit footage they've nicked off the telly to make celebrities swear", and though their mission is simple they are now bona fide heroes of 'plunderphonics'.
Mike Bolton and Steve Warlin allowed their project to first emerge in 2000, only revealing their identities years later. At first they worked only with audio, producing music for various collections and two albums of their own. More recently they have moved to working mostly with video for a series of extremely popular clips including their chopped-up (and much more entertaining) take on The Apprentice, which has received more than three million views.
But while their work has most often been grounded in humour, there has always been a political aspect. So Cassetteboy's most recent project - a series of videos produced for Amnesty International - fits neatly into their portfolio.
The first of those videos, which tackled President Barack Obama's policy decisions - or lack of them - over Guantanamo Bay was controversial, and all the better for it. Their latest clip, in which the Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu "plays the pipes of peace", promises to annoy and delight even more people around the world.
We asked Mike from Cassetteboy about what makes him laugh, what keeps the project moving and what's next.
What's the last thing that made you laugh?
At the moment I can't stop listening to the audio book of Alan Partridge's autobiography, 'I, Partridge'. I've also got an insatiable appetite for American sitcoms - right now 'Parks and Recreation' is the best one by miles. Oh, and 'Louie'. And I can't wait for 'Bored To Death' to come back. You get the idea.
What's the funniest thing on YouTube?
Tom 'Ska' Ridgewell's 'ASDF Movies' are very funny, quick-fire animated gags. Harry Partridge's cartoons are also excellent, 'Stephen the Lesbian' is particularly good. 'F**k Everything' by Jon Lajoie is a brilliant comedy song.
Which other YouTube cut-n-pasters do you admire?
Swede Mason. His Masterchef cut-up, 'Buttery Biscuit Base' is incredible. DJ Rubbish, AKA Shaun Pubis, has done some good cut-ups, including the brilliant 'Wonders of the Stoner System'. Cyriak's animations are a different kind of cut and paste, his 'Cows Cows Cows' and 'Cycles' are both fantastic. Also there are lots of funny Star Wars redubs, where Darth Vader's dialogue is replaced with lines from other films. I wish we'd thought of that. The Kenneth Williams one is probably my favourite.
How do you cope with having to read so many YouTube comments? Does your brain not melt in despair?
Oh, we don't read them all. When we first put up a new video we probably look at the first hundred comments or so. It's nice when people quote their favourite joke, so we get a sense of which bits are popular - that's the closest you can get to hearing people laugh online. And it's fun to see who gets in first with "Not as funny as the Apprentice one". After that we might dip in occasionally if we need an ego boost, but it would be madness to try to keep up with them all.
Which of the current political leaders in the UK would be the most enjoyable to recut?
Nick Clegg is quite easy to cut up, because he speaks very slowly and clearly, as if talking to idiot children. I think that's why he did so well in the televised debates before the election - as the saying goes, no one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the general public. However, I think people have seen through that now, and just find him extremely patronising. I know I do.
Really, though, you should go for the one with the power, so that's David Cameron. Fortunately it's always fun cutting up someone you despise, because you don't feel obliged to pull any punches. There's a bit in a video from our live show where he says "I want to get the NHS... and set it on fire", which is a nice summary of his health policies. And you can really see the evil glittering in his eyes.
Why did you decide to work with Amnesty International?
Because they asked, simple as that. When you're asked "Do you want to do some good in the world and help fight suffering and oppression?" I'd like to think most people would say yes.
Your last Amnesty video caused quite a controversial stir - did that bother you or did you enjoy it?
I enjoyed it. If everyone agreed with Amnesty, there would be no need for Amnesty to exist anymore. So if a video creates a stir, that means it's getting through to the people who really matter, the people who disagree with you.
Have you ever received hate mail?
Yes. After our video cutting up Nick Griffin on Question Time, we received death threats from BNP supporters.
Why did you decide to play it safe and tackle the Middle East this time around?
For our Amnesty videos we try to do something topical, and something that fits in with Amnesty's campaigns. The Middle East happened to fit the bill this time round (and unfortunately will probably continue to fit the bill for the foreseeable future...)
How much work does it usually take to make one of your videos? And how often do you start one and discard it halfway through?
We've got pretty good at spotting what will be suitable material, so it's quite rare for us to start a piece and not finish it. It does happen occasionally though, and sometimes the pieces end up being much shorter than we'd planned.
The time it takes can vary enormously depending on the source material. A political speech is probably the easiest thing to cut up, as it is just one person speaking, well recorded, and often we can find a transcript, which helps enormously. So we can turn that around in a few days.
Our Alan Sugar video, for which we watched almost fifty episodes of The Apprentice, took a couple of months. Most of that time is spent collecting words and phrases that might be useful, and organising them so we can find the word "bollocks" when we need it.
As with most things, the more time you put in, the better the end results. I think we're probably more patient than most people who do similar work.
Why is making politicians say funny (or poignant) things still entertaining?
Politicians talk a lot and say very little, and they always dodge the difficult questions. So it's always going to be satisfying to see them actually speaking plainly for once, whether it's an uncomfortable truth about Guantanamo Bay or a knob gag.
Are you ever sad that producing work on political topics reduces the opportunity for innuendo, with which you have often been so enamoured?
Far from it. Although a well-crafted smutty gag is a thing of beauty, it's one of the most obvious ways to get a laugh. When we make a piece we're generally looking for any angle apart from innuendo, as the clean jokes are more difficult to construct, and therefore more satisfying for us. Ideally you combine a bit of both approaches, although that's not always possible. With the Amnesty videos, we wouldn’t want to dilute the message with a load of filth – it would give the haters a reason to dismiss the entire video, and the whole point would be lost.
Did moving from audio to video change your process, or re-inspire you to do new types of work?
Absolutely. We'd kind of given up on the whole Cassetteboy thing - our albums had run their course, and we learned video editing mainly because we thought we might be able to get proper jobs as editors.
But the immediacy of putting a video on YouTube, seeing the view counts go up and reading the positive comments was really inspiring. We reached a whole new audience, and that persuaded us that it was worth sticking with.
The format of a YouTube video was challenging in itself. Previously we'd been making albums, but a YouTube video is like a single - more tightly focussed, with no room for messing about. So that was an interesting new discipline.
Creatively the addition of a visual element is a double-edged sword. On the negative side, you can get away with editing the audio much more heavily if there are no corresponding pictures, and also some brilliant lines don't work if the camera isn't looking at the person speaking. However you can do new types of jokes with looks and facial expressions, so on the whole it's a positive development.
What will you do if working in video becomes stale, the same way that audio editing became stale?
We’ve only scratched the surface of video so far, so there's a long way to go yet. We did audio editing for 15 years before we got bored – who knows what will be possible in another 15 years time? We'll be editing thoughts, or smells, or something.
What's next for Cassetteboy?
We've got a slot at a comedy night in London in November, so that's going to be fun. We've only ever performed live at festivals and concerts until now, so it will be interesting to see how the Cassetteboy Live Experience works in a less raucous setting.
We also really want to see how the videos work stretched over a longer time period. Basically, we want to make a Cassetteboy album with pictures, which will be an insane amount of work, but could end up being quite new and unusual. So if our YouTube channel is a bit quiet at the moment, it's because we’re working with various people on some quite grand plans. Don't hold your breath though - our first album took us seven years...