Russell Crowe: The Gladiator star on taking a stab at music

Best-known as a Hollywood A-lister, Russell Crowe is also something of a musician. Ahead of a gig in Leeds, he talks to Duncan Seaman.
Russell Crowe.Russell Crowe.
Russell Crowe.

Russell Crowe might be one of Hollywood’s most bankable actors, with an Oscar, Golden Globe, Bafta and Screen Actors Guild award gilding a big screen career that’s lasted 25 years and includes such triumphs as Gladiator, A Beautiful Mind and Master and Commander.

But beside his acting work, the New Zealand-born star also has a deep love of songwriting and playing music that began in his teens and has continued through the bands 30 Odd Foot of Grunts and The Ordinary Fear of God. His latest musical project, Indoor Garden Party, is described as a five-piece ‘hive mind of world-class musicians, songwriters and performers’. They have just released their first album, The Musical, and are about to play their first UK tour, which includes an intimate date at Leeds City Varieties Music Hall.

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The band is an extension of the long-running songwriting partnership between Crowe, now 53, and Alan Doyle, the 48-year-old lead singer with the Canadian folk rock group Great Big Sea, and also includes actors Samantha Barks and Scott Grimes and multi-instrumentalist Carl Falk.

With multiple careers on the go, the logistics of getting “this funny old band” together is tricky, but not insurmountable for brief periods of time, Crowe says. “I live in Sydney, Australia, Scott lives in Los Angeles, Alan lives in Newfoundland, Samantha lives in London and Carl Falk lives in Stockholm, Sweden, so getting together for rehearsals is a b**ch but that actually, funnily enough, adds to the energy that we create when we’re on stage together because it is special for all of us. Everybody’s got such big lives and big schedules. The last concerts we did were in Australia in 2014 and here it is three years later and we only get three nights together.”

Crowe first met Doyle in his fellow musician’s homeland. “I was in Canada making Cinderella Man and they asked me to present at the National Hockey League Awards,” he recalls. “Alan was aware the band I was in for 20 years used to cover one of his songs and we’d always introduce it as a Great Big Sea song. He was also on the bill at that NHL Awards, his band were musical guests, so he manufactured to bump into me backstage and we just started having a chat. He said, ‘If you ever want to get together and write a song it would be great’.

“We ended setting a studio up in the hotel that I was staying at while I was shooting in Canada and the first song we wrote together was called Raewyn – that’s on The Ordinary Fear of God album My Hand My Heart – and that song is the absolute reason why we kept writing together.”

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Crowe has known Barks since they acted and sang together in the multi-award-winning film version of Les Miserables. “She’s got an amazing voice, she’s brilliant,” he enthuses. “We were doing some concerts in New York at the end of 2012, which is the same year we shot Les Mis, and we just asked Samantha if she’d like to sit in with us. That was mainly doing the songs from an album called The Crowe/Doyle Songbook Volume III – don’t go looking for volumes I and II, there’s only the one, it was a perverse title but it’s the way it is. She just became part of what we did in that, she’s one of the principal voices.”

Crowe’s relationship with Grimes dates back to 1998 when they were making the film Mystery, Alaska. “We started singing together back then as friends,” he remembers.

Falk is actually one of the most in-demand producers and songwriters in the pop world, having worked with the likes of One Direction, Madonna, Nicki Minaj and Ariana Grande. Yet Crowe admits: “I actually had no idea of Carl’s history or background. I was at a party in Los Angeles at an Australian singer called Delta Goodrem’s house and I was working on some songs at the time and there were some guys there that were from some hot producing duo and as you often do in those situations, you go to where the best stereo is, which happened to be in the Cadillac outside, in the esplanade rather than play it inside.

“There were seven or eight people crammed into this SUV, I put on the CD of the stuff that I was working on and played three or four songs and they were all very complimentary then they left the vehicle and there was just one bloke sitting in the backseat and he just said, ‘Can you play track one again, please?’

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“So I played track one, it was just me and him in the car, and he listened to it again and said, ‘I think I can improve that’. I just thought it was a really odd thing for him to say, so I said, ‘By what percentage?’ and I’m thinking he’s going to come back and say 1,000 per cent, or 10,000 per cent, and he really put some thought in it and he said, ‘Maybe 30 per cent?’” Crowe roars with laughter at the memory. “It was so weirdly humble then we went back inside and started talking and we just really got on.”

As for what he feels binds the band together, Crowe says: “I think it’s to do with the energy that this particular set of personalities create when they’re on stage. I also think it’s partly to do with a slightly anarchic leaning where we love the fact that we don’t know what’s going to go on at any particular show. I appreciate when I go along to see an artist I know they’ve told that story a thousand times and it’s polished and they’re going to dip it in the right place and put the buttons so the audience laughs or whatever but I actually prefer to tell stories off the top of my head because I never know what it’s going to be on any given night and something will come out with the interaction of the audience or something that’s said between the people on stage about a particular story because everything that I write in terms of music it all has a source, it’s not just writing a song for the sake of writing a song.

“It was strange for me when I got famous and people sort of implied that I shouldn’t do music any more because now that I’m famous I shouldn’t try to be more famous. I don’t connect with music on that level. I’ve never really been the guy that looks for the big record company deal or anything like that. So many of the records we’ve done have just come out independently and they’re available for the people that connect with it and dig it, that’s just what it is.”

Crowe laughs good naturedly when it’s suggested the choice of a venue in Leeds might have been influenced by his well documented affection for the city’s football team. “I’ve got other associations to Yorkshire in general,” he points out. “I’ve got a great love for Yorkshire. Actually Michael Parkinson saw one of the first Indoor Garden Parties ever in 2009 – we put it on at his pub and he said after that show that he thought it was one of the best shows he’d ever been to because of how we interact, how we bring other people from the stage, we sort of set people up in the audience to enjoin in what we’re doing.

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“But I’ve got a longer family history (with Yorkshire) that goes back. I married a girl (Danielle Spencer) whose mum comes from Yorkshire. Obviously I stole some of the greatest rugby league players that Yorkshire’s ever produced in the Burgess brothers and they won a championship with South Sydney (Rabbitohs, the Australian team that Crowe co-owns), so there’s many connections, but of course Leeds United is one of them as well.”

Indoor Garden Party play at Leeds City Varieties on Friday September 29.