Martin Freeman is probably best known, at least in this country, for appearing on a TV show called The Office. Perhaps you've heard of it. It aired in the U.K. in 2001 before making its U.S. debut on BBC America a few years later. Freeman played a sales rep named Tim who worked at the Wernham Hogg paper company (where “life is stationary”) and pined for a receptionist who was tragically engaged to another man.
He's starred in a few movies since then, including The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and the upcoming Breaking & Entering and The Good Night. With far less fanfare, he's also quietly established himself as a connoisseur of classic R&B and soul music. Motown Records asked him to pick 20 of his favorite tracks for the Made to Measure compilation series, and he hosts a semi-regular show on BBC Radio 2 called “The Great Unknown,” where he spins records by artists he considers “undervalued and underplayed.”
Freeman spoke with us by phone from his home, located in an unspecified town in England. We discovered many surprising things about the one-time Office heartthrob, the least of which being that when he's excited about something, he has a tendency to say “fuck” more times in a single sentence than a Tarantino character.
When you were growing up, did you make a lot of mix tapes for friends or girlfriends?
I did, I did, yeah. I still do, though they're not necessarily tapes. I was making mix tapes up until very recently, but I've moved on to CDs like everybody else. But I do enjoy making compilations for people, yeah. It's one of the first things you do with a woman, kind of like a test. “Let's see how she responds to this.” I was quite fetishistic about forcing my tastes onto people. You're basically finding out if she's going to be a runner or not. “If you like these songs then we've got hope, but if you don't then it might be a short-lived thing.”
Would it seem weird to you to make a mix for somebody who wasn't a woman?
Not really. But I have made them mainly for women. My current partner – well, my partner of forever now -- I've done loads of mixes for her. I think a woman's response to music is much different than a man's. Women are much more honest and direct, and they're not quite as snobby. I say that as a snob. It takes one to know one. Women very often are like, “Well, I just don't like that,” or “I don't care what you think, that Kylie Minogue record is my favorite thing I've heard this year, so fuck off.” Guys have a more difficult time being as direct. We'll say things like, “What do you mean? You can't like that record! It's shit, everybody knows that!” We're more concerned with what people think about us than what we actually think. If I'm making a tape for Amanda, my other half, she won't be impressed if I've got an original pressing of a song, or some B-side that's been out of print for years. When I pick songs for her, all I think about is, “She'd really like this and it'll make her happy.”
Are your mixes just a random collection of songs, or do you pick songs to fit into a specific theme and communicate some emotion or sentiment you aren't able to express in words?
A bit of both, actually. I like the challenge of trying to do a mix tape around a certain theme. I've tried to do that using only songs about places or locations. You know, a city or a country, whatever. But when it's that strict, it's easy to lose interest. After a half-hour of trying to put together the place-name mix, I just gave up. For me, it was the wrong criteria. I was putting things on there that I didn't genuinely love because the lyrics mentioned the name of a town. My general rule for a mix is to find songs that mesh well together. And if I'm doing it for someone else, I'll include at least a few songs that they haven't heard before. But it can't all be unfamiliar. You need a sweetener, you know what I mean? You need some sugar. People are sometimes reluctant to hear a load of new stuff. It's like when you go see someone in concert and the audience just wants to hear the hits, and the poor sod is trying to play bits of the new album. Everyone is like, “Fuck off, play the hits!” When you're making a mix tape, it's usually because someone has asked you for it. “Oh, you have that song by so-and-so? Can you tape it for me?” So I'll make them a tape and then include some other stuff. It's a mixture of things you know they want to hear and a few things, being very presumptuous, that you think they might want to hear. Sometimes you're wrong and sometimes you're right.
My first thought is one of those lady singers from '80s. Either Gwen Guthrie or Janet Jackson. Any of those finger-clicking, neck-moving, “pull your own weight or I'll kick you to the curb” records.
But above all, you've got to really care about the songs you're sharing with them, or what's the point?
That's really true. Maybe it's just a vibe thing and it doesn't really make a difference, but whenever I'm making a mix tape for someone and I feel like my heart isn't in it, my first thought is, “This isn't going to be very good.” If you're really, really excited about making it, you just assume -- and I could be completely fucking wrong about this -- that when the person hears it, they'll be like, “Oh my fucking god!” It's the same with acting. If you're doing a take and it really feels good and you're putting everything you have into it, you hope that'll translate to the audience. It's the spirit of that moment as well as the actual artifact.
Do you enjoy receiving mix tapes from friends, or do you feel like they're forcing their musical tastes on you?
When people have made mixes for me, it's actually been quite a hard thing to listen to sometimes. It's like when somebody says, “You've got to read this book.” Well, no, actually I don't. “You've got to hear this song.” Again, no. Music is such a personal thing, such a lucky thing. When a song hits you, if it catches you, the stars have to be aligned. If you hear it at the wrong time or at the wrong age, you're never going to fucking get it. If somebody sends you a tape and says, “You've got to hear this tape,” you're probably not in the right place, because you're under a certain amount of duress. I try not to do that to people, which is probably why I don't make mixes for anybody but Amanda anymore.
Let's try an experiment. I'll name a theme and you come up with a song or two that might work for the mix tape.
Okay, I'll give it a shot.
“I am sleeping with somebody else and I'm not sure how to tell you.”
Uh... wow, it's been such a long time since I've been sleeping with somebody I shouldn't have. I've done it, but thank god those days are over. (Long pause.) I'm a bit stumped. What's the next one?
“I may or may not be your father.”
(Laughs.) Well, there's a song called “Barbara's Boy” by the Four Tops, which is about exactly that. “Barbara's Boy is Barbara's boy/ If he's mine, I don't know/ How could any man ever really know?” That's quite a good one. That immediately leaps out.
“I'm considering another four years of grad school. Will you support me financially?”
Uh, let's see. Well, my first thought is one of those lady singers from '80s. Either Gwen Guthrie or Janet Jackson. Any of those finger-clicking, neck-moving, “pull your own weight or I'll kick you to the curb” records. It isn't about grad school, but Guthrie's “Ain't Nothing Going On But the Rent” comes to mind.
“I was on a hit show in the UK for a few years, and while I've done quite a few acting projects since then, people still refer to me as ‘Tim from The Office' and I'd really rather they stop.”
(Laughs.) I'd like to write that song, actually. And that would be the full title. If I don't do it, somebody needs to write it. And write it angrily.
You have an impressive collection of vinyl. Are you one of those people who gravitated back to vinyl from CDs, or did you never give up on records?
I never gave up. I started buying records when I was nine or ten. That's when I spent all of my pocket money on singles and stuff. CDs came out in my early teens, and it wasn't like I thought digital wasn't as good as analog. I was just poor, and CDs were too expensive. It was a matter of necessity that I carried on buying records. The aesthetic thing happened later on, when I had some money and decided to stick with records anyway. For me, there has never been any joy in buying a CD. I don't feel I own a record if I have it on CD. And it's even worse if I download it. You don't really own music until it's on a piece of plastic. It doesn't count if it's this digital thing, out it in the ether. I know that probably sounds mental, but that's how I feel. It's my own psychosis.
I tend to agree. I loved all those records from the '70s by the Stones and Elton John. They came with booklets and postcards and really elaborate art. It was like you were buying an entire package, not just the songs.
Yeah, yeah, exactly. You have to see it and touch it and smell all the effort and the love that's gone into it. It's a far more rounded experience. And that's especially true for me, because 70% of the music I enjoy came out originally on analog. If you get a good copy, that's how it should be heard. Obviously, if you're listening to a really scratchy record, then of course a CD will sound better. But it'll never compare with a pressing on vinyl. As I've gotten older and have a bit more money, I can afford to be more anal about that kinda stuff. I know I'm entering into mental territory, but I like it. I like thinking, “Well, I've got that record already, but I only have the reissue, and it's not great and I'd like to find the original.” An original is usually heavier, and it's got a cleaner, crisper sound. You can listen to a song by Aretha Franklin and it's going to sound beautiful in any format, digital or otherwise. But there's something about hearing that fucking needle hit. It just has so much more resonance, at least for me. You can feel the fucking weight of a record in your hands, and you look down and see that red-and-plum colored circle, the Atlantic label, just spinning around and around. That is... (Laughs.) Jesus Christ, that is my favorite fucking thing. I'm in heaven if I've got a great new record.
I prefer to spend all my time in record shops. And when you eventually find what you want, it's a joy. It's an absolute joy.
What was the last record you listened to?
Well, at the moment my record player is broken, and it's really pissing me off. I've got loads of records that I've bought recently and haven't fucking heard. It's actually quite depressing. We've got CDs and iPods in the house and all that, so there's still music. But it's not the same ritual. I miss that private ritual of sitting upstairs alone and playing records all night, one after the other.
When you're shopping for vinyl, how do you decide what to buy? Do you walk straight over to the soul and R&B section, or do you just wander around the store and wait for something to jump out at you?
If I'm visiting a record shop in a new town, I'll usually go looking for the 60s and '70s soul. But that's not all I buy, by any means. It's just a good place to start. It's like with anything; the more you know about something, the more you want to follow the connections and explore the musical labyrinth. When I was much younger, I would've looked at a record and thought, “That guy on the cover has a great afro. This is probably fucking amazing.” But these days, it's more about the details. You look for certain labels or producers or studio musicians or stuff like that. Sometimes I go to a record shop knowing exactly what I want, and sometimes I don't have any idea at all. And then I see something and I'll just know. I'll think, “Well of course I wanted that.”
Are you more interested in something that's rare and difficult to find on vinyl, or only with what sounds good?
I mostly want what sounds good. But of course, it's doubly, triply nice if you find something that's rare that you really, really want. That's the ultimate joy for me. There's a record called “To Know You Is To Love You,” which Syreeta recorded with Stevie Wonder back in the early '70s. I owned a copy of it on one of those old Motown hits compilations, but I really wanted it on a 7-inch. About ten years ago, I was up in Yorkshire working at a theater, and I went to a local record shop. They had it on 7-inch for two pounds fifty! I was like, “Fuuucking hell!” I was literally emitting high-pitched squeaks as I was leaving the shop, just out of excitement. I was almost crying. An original Syreeta 7-inch and it's only two pound fifty? It's not like it's a super rare record, but I'd been looking for that 7-inch for quite some time.
Hasn't anybody ever told you about eBay?
(Laughs.) Yeah, I know. But I can't get my head around eBay. A friend of mine uses it all the time and he swears by it. He buys stuff mainly from America, because he's a fucking soul-and-blues-and-jazz head. Every day, he gets these lovely little packages delivered to him through the post, and he's found some incredible records for just eight quid or something. I prefer to spend all my time in record shops. And when you eventually find what you want, it's a joy. It's an absolute joy.
Do you have a metaphorical white whale, a record that you've been searching for all your life but still haven't been able to find?
Oh, yes. It's the first solo album by Syreeta, which was produced and co-written by Stevie. It came out in 1972 and it's self-titled. I have the second one from ‘74, called Stevie Wonder Presents Syreeta, which is a very good record. But I still haven't been able to find the first one. It's got a version of the Beatles' “She's Leaving Home” and various other things. It's that early '70s, Stevie on the fucking moogs, acoustic-symphonic-soul business, you know? I go to record shops all the time and they'll say, “Oh, that's quite easy to find.” Yeah, but I've never ever fucking seen one in a record shop. A friend of mine has a copy and he brought it ‘round for me to listen to a little while ago. It's not even that great a record, but I still want it. I'm determined not to be beaten. But I want to find it myself. It'll be like Christmas.
I know a lot of vinyl collectors who wrap their records in hermetically-sealed plastic and then put them on the shelf and never listen to them again. Does that make sense to you, or is it wrong to treat a record like a museum artifact?
I can't do that. That's like buying a record for the catalog number. A record exists to be played. If you've got Shakespeare on the shelf, then give it a fucking read. Records are sacred, but they still need to be taken out and appreciated.
I read about a guy named Kenny Burrell who paid $26,483 for an original 45 of Frank Wilson's “Do I Love You (Indeed I Do).” Would you have forked over that much money for the same record?
No, I wouldn't. I'm very happy with my copy of “Do I Love You.” It's just a fucking reissue, but it still sounds good to me. It's not my favorite soul record. I like it but I wouldn't travel over broken glass to get an original. I'm not surprised that somebody would pay that much for a Frank Wilson 45. A lot of people consider “Do I Love You” the ultimate northern soul record. Among collectors, it's one of the holy grails. I don't know how much you know about the whole northern soul scene that's happening over here. It's like a religion.
Do you mean northern as opposed to southern soul? The Detroit hit machine of Motown versus Stax Records and artists like Wilson Pickett and Otis Redding?
No, no, no. In Britain, that's not what we mean by northern soul. It has no relevance to the people who actually made soul music in America. What we mean by northern soul is a subculture and an entire fucking way of life that grew up in the 1960s and '70s in the north of England. It's about the working class people who had fuck all, and on the weekends they'd go a little mad – not by taking drugs, but by going out and dancing at the clubs. Obviously it's not just in the north now, but it's a massive, massive subculture that's been around for about 40 years in this country. When we talk about northern soul, we're talking about people who really, really love a specific kind of Motown and R&B music. If you're not directly involved in it, it looks mentally ill. It's just fucking insane. But it's something that I understand, even if I'm not technically part of it. To be a true northern soul head, you're not allowed to like any record after 1975. I've got a wider taste in music than just listening to “Four to the Floor” all night, but I like what they're all about. I think music should be that important.
It was so naughty. It was like sneaking out of Public Enemy school to listen to some bad boys. But when that became the status quo, when people like Chuck D were seen as passé, it was all a bit depressing for me.
That's a big part of why anybody is drawn to music, isn't it? You feel that by enjoying a certain style or genre of music, you belong to a larger community.
That's true. Although sometimes I think it can be a bit stifling, as well. It's nice when you come across someone and you look at their trousers and think, “Oh yeah, he's into the same kind of music as I am.” But when that determines everything and you realize, “Oh, does that mean I'm not allowed to like The Band?” It's a quick step from “Oh great, he's part of my community” to “This is really fucking stifling.” As soon as you set too many limits on what you listen to or what you're allowed to like, then I think it goes down the wrong path pretty fucking quickly.
You once said in an interview that you have a “Catholic taste in music.” What does that mean exactly?
Catholic in the literal sense, meaning broad or universal. You don't want to say you like everything, because that means you like a lot of shit. But as far as genres are concerned, I don't want to limit myself. I don't want to be one of those people who say, “I don't like any fucking folk records.” In this country, a lot of people have a casual dislike of jazz. Not specific performers but as an entire fucking concept. “Jazz? Oh ugggh, it's just fucking dreadful.” To me, that'd be like saying, “I don't like any classical music. Beethoven's shit.” I understand that some jazz is difficult to take. Not everyone wants to hear endless, tuneless fucking parping for ten minutes on a scale of C. But that's not all fucking jazz. I had a conversation with Ricky Gervais about it, and he said I must be pretending to like jazz. Well no, really, really not. But that doesn't mean you like all jazz any more than you like all rock n' roll.
We haven't talked about rock n' roll yet. Do you like rock music as much as soul and R&B?
When I was younger, I would have limited myself. I would have said, “I don't like any bands with too many white people playing guitars.” That couldn't be further from the truth, y'know. But having said that, if you asked me, “What contemporary fucking American rock music do you like?”, I'd maybe be able to name four. Queens of the Stone Age, and that's about it. There are a few British bands that I like. America is a big fucking place with a lot of people making records, and I feel like I'm 25 years too old to appreciate most of it. But of course, most of the people making these records are 25 years too old for it, too. They're pretending to be 18. It's all about, “Yeah! Fuck you, Bush!” Oh, grow up! You're not fucking Joe Strummer! Fuck off! Stop it, just stop it! Stop dying your fucking hair!
What about contemporary soul? Do you enjoy it as much as the old stuff?
You already know the answer to that. I hate being so predictable, but I don't even need to answer that question. The last contemporary soul album I bought was from the middle to late '90s. I like D'Angelo and Erykah Badu and Adriana Evans, everything that was horribly called “New Soul.” I don't much care for R. Kelly and all of that “Let me lick you up and down” nonsense. When you get to my age, you reach a point where you think, “It's okay if I don't like that, I don't have to like, I'm not supposed to like it, it's fine.” It was the same thing with hip-hop. For a lot of people in my generation, hip-hop ended around 1992. I remember hearing that first NWA record and thinking, “Fucking hell, this is brilliant!” It was so naughty. It was like sneaking out of Public Enemy school to listen to some bad boys. But when that became the status quo, when people like Chuck D were seen as passé, it was all a bit depressing for me. I was like, “Hang on, he's actually fucking saying something.” Let's face it, I'm not a gangster. There's no reason on earth why I should like modern hip-hop. It's not meant for me, any more than Nick Drake is saying something for 50 Cent. De La Soul was for me, and the Jungle Brothers were for me. I liked that. But as soon as the music was all about “fo shizzle my nizzle” and the fucking white limos...
It's difficult for most of us to relate to that.
Exactly! And what people do to start relating to that is so dreadful. It's not about encouraging thought or encouraging debate. It's about encouraging getting money at all costs. I'm not a fan of that, whatever color people are. I think that's always fucking bullshit.
Let's talk about the “Made to Measure” compilation. Most of the songs on your album – like “I Want You Back” and “Tears of a Clown” – are already pretty familiar to the majority of soul fans. What's the point of putting out a collection of songs that everybody already owns?
Well, I was asked to do it, so that was my main reason. I guess I could have picked a few more obscure tracks, but this was a more honest barometer of my personal tastes. And quite honestly, I fucking love “I Want You Back.” You cannot say that isn't a fucking storming tune. I would debate that most people have heard those songs. In fact, I know for a fact that most people haven't heard them. Let's face it, the kind of people who might be attracted by my face and my name on the cover of an album aren't the people who have already been buying northern soul 7-inches for twenty years. They're people who might go, “Oh look, it's that bloke from the telly. They say he's on to something, maybe I should check it out.”
The majority of the human race has a passive relationship with music. They're downloading music onto their fucking cellphones. They don't want to make a fucking effort. For twelve year-old kids, they don't give a shit. Music was invented six months ago.
Is that the same reasoning you used in picking artists for your “The Great Unknown” show on BBC Radio? You claim to be spotlighting underexposed acts like The Band and The Staple Singers, but neither of them strikes me as particularly obscure.
Not to you and me, no, probably not. But if you're talking about people like your cousin and my auntie, your nephew and my best friend's mum, you forget that people do not have the same relationship with music that we do. They just fucking don't. I'm not against Britney Spears, but there's a reason why she had several #1 records and somebody like The Band never did. It's all about who gets radio airplay. At least in this country, not everyone has heard of the fucking Band. Most people who are into music have heard of the Band, but most people would also be stumped after “The Weight.” You know what I mean? They wouldn't know anything else from any of their albums. They just fucking wouldn't. The majority of the human race has a passive relationship with music. They're downloading music onto their fucking cellphones. They don't want to make a fucking effort. For twelve year-old kids, they don't give a shit. Music was invented six months ago. If you're talking about music from the 50s, it might as well be biblical times. I'm under no illusion that I'm turning people on to a fucking Robert Johnson b-side. Of course I'm not. But we forget that people don't know what we know. If you have a civilian job and you're not in the arts and not in the media, people don't know what the fuck you're talking about. I bet you don't hear anything by The Band or the Staples Sisters on the radio in your country.
Not really. As you mentioned, you might hear “The Weight” now and again. But only on an oldies station.
Your radio is even more fucking segregated than ours. Our radio is pretty fucking depressing. But in America, the mainstream radio isn't playing an even mix of old and new, black and white, rock and rap. So I'm just saying, “Listen, have a half-an-hour of this and you might like it.” It's the same thing that people have always done for me and done for everyone. I wouldn't fucking know about most of the records I love unless somebody had turned me on to them. You don't come out of the womb knowing everything you need to know about music.
You really are doing a great public service.
(Laughs.) I see myself as an English Gandhi. I am that important.
How do you judge a song when you hear it for the first time? Is it all head or all heart, or a combination of the two?
I suppose your head's in their somewhere, but I've tried to get rid of my head in the last fifteen years. I've realized that it's not to be trusted. I don't like cerebral music, I have to say. I can understand it. It's fine. I was never as much of a Morrissey fan as most of the other people at my school. It's not just about, “Does it make me want to shake my butt?” It's more, “Does it make me want to stay in and listen to this record all night?” I think the brain is about the most dangerous fucking organ you can bring to art, be it theater or film or music or anything else. Being smart helps, and you don't want to read a book by a complete moron. But without heart and some semblance of what we would understand as soul, it's fucking pointless. And I don't mean that in a musical sense. Mozart had fucking soul. The Beatles had soul, as far as I'm concerned. I don't mean the color of your skin. I just want to know, “Do you mean it?” You know what I'm talking about? “Are you serious?” Does the music get under your skin and make your stomach lurch?
You could base your entire life on that philosophy.
And I really try to do that. When I was in drama school, I decided to judge what I do and the industry that I'm in with the same criteria that I've always used to judge records. And it's not cerebral. It's absolutely not that at all.
You're guided more from your gut than from your head?
Yeah, yeah, yeah. I think you have to be. I've just never cared for overtly intellectual music. I don't respond to Leonard Cohen the way I respond to Elvis Presley. It could be that when I'm 45, I'll listen to a Leonard Cohen record and go, “Oh man, that's fucking brilliant.” It's what I was saying about coming into records at the right time. When I was 18, I probably would've thought that Van Morrison was fucking awful. You need to be ready to hear a record. I know Leonard Cohen isn't shit, but it doesn't do anything for me. It's subjective, and that's what's so beautiful about music. It doesn't matter what you know or what you think you know, there's always going to be somebody who listens to a song you love and says, “That's shit.” And what can you say? You can't say anything! I can't talk to somebody who loves Bono and convince them that he's a prick. They think he's great. Good for them. That's brilliant. It's not my business to fucking tell them any differently. When people try to bully me or tell me that my favorite artists are crap, I'm just like, “Leave me the fuck alone. Let me like that fucking record. How is it hurting you?” Some of my best friends love records that I hate, and I'm sure I like records that they hate. It doesn't mean that I don't like them.
They just can't bring their records to your house.
(Laughs.) That's right. They're welcome to come over any time. But those fucking records are not allowed in my fucking house.