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Jon Ronson: Affable Investigator of Pop Culture's Outliers

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Any child of the 80s will remember with equal parts fondness and fear the super-sized papier-mâché head of Frank Sidebottom. Along with Max Headroom, Frank was an irritating but endearing real-life cartoon in a pre-CGI world. He was everywhere for a while, a composite and compostable northern bloke with a childlike love of pop covers. About to stage a comeback in 2010, it was revealed that Chris Sievey, the man behind the mask, was terminally ill. Within a few months, he was dead. After a tweet from Jon Ronson, Frank was saved from a pauper's grave by the donations of an army of fans, both young and old.

Affable investigator of the often lonely, always fascinating outliers on pop culture's scattergraph, Jon Ronson spent the late 80s in Frank Sidebottom's Oh Blimey Big Band after a chance phone call while interning for his student union. After leaving the band, he combined his curious and comedic brand of journalism into a series of best-selling films, documentaries and books, among them 2004's The Men Who Stared at Goats and 2011's The Psychopath Test. He's currently touring to promote new film Frank, a fictionalised story of the avant-everything pop band starring Michael Fassbender in a giant head.

Hi Jon. I was thinking that you've made a career out of a gentle, English kind of voyeurism.

[Laughs] Well, it's voyeurism in the sense that all non-fiction's voyeurism, and all art in some way. For me the question is: is it exploitative or not? I really try very hard not to do that. Frankly, the older I get, the more I just want to be kind. There's definitely an upward trajectory of kindness in my work.

You found yourself in Frank's band almost by accident. Was it really as easy to play keyboard as you make it sound in the book?

Yeah, it was - C, F and G. If the Frank Sidebottom Oh Blimey Big Band had been more like Soft Machine, I don't think I would have lasted three years. It just so happened that the level of talent required matched the level of talent I had.

Do you find writing as easy as music?

[Chuckling] I think I'm better at writing than playing the keyboard. But writing gets harder in some ways because for me it's always been about solving mysteries. Now I know what I think about the world of psychopath spotting, I can't do that anymore. It's like the wind has stopped and the boat's just sitting there. I always need a mysterious world. I need to work out why we're behaving in that way. Obviously that's worrying, because what happens when I get to 60? Are there still going to be mysteries to me? I mean, do you die when you work everything out?

Well, I hope there are enough mysteries in the world to make you immortal. Do you think quitting college for rock and roll was wise in retrospect?

Yeah, I do. I think a lot about this because my son's about to reach that age where he's going to have to decide whether to go to college or not. I live in America at the moment and there are an awful lot of graduates who have been well-educated in a good college. They can't get a job and they're all kind of interchangeable. I'm sure that's the same everywhere. So I'm thinking, why did I make it and what lessons can I give my son? Honestly, I think what's more important than qualifications is to be driven, to have that psychological need to do what you do and to try and do it well.

Is it increasingly difficult to be different in what you describe in Frank as our "conservative, conformist age"?

Yeah, though I'm aware that lots of people in their 40s think that about the world! But what I've really noticed, which is what my next book's about, is how social media is leading to a more conformist age. It's like a giant echo chamber, like the flipside of transgressions.

Do you think Chris/Frank would have used social media?

Yeah, in fact he was a big tweeter in his last years. He was doing social media before it was invented. When he sent out fan videos, he'd personalise them: "Hi Steve, thank you very much for buying my record!"

Is Frank's amateurism on a different level to the kind encouraged on TV talent shows?

That's an interesting question. If Frank had turned up to an X Factor audition, what would have happened? Would he have made it into the second round?

He'd be the token oddball. Jedward! Or Wagner! I'd like to think so. The problem is there's a sort of mockery of those people and Frank should never have been mocked. If he was starting today, would we have treated him differently? I don't know the answer.

I really like your Jonathan Richman quote in Frank about band The Shaggs: "They bring my mind to a complete halt." Does the power of outsider art lie in its ability to stop us thinking so deeply about stuff?

That's an interesting question. When you first hear their song 'Philosophy of the World', you do feel like you've just seen Bigfoot. It's incredible. The really interesting outsider artists are the ones who are actually good despite their burdens. Like Daniel Johnson - he was one of the big references for the film and why we chose an American accent for Frank.

There's an element of dysfunction and mental illness in a lot of outsider art. Is this true of Frank?

No. Chris was definitely chaotic and he definitely lived an overly hedonistic life, but that's as far as it goes in terms of mental illness. Frank was Chris' innocent side. So in the film I've written, our Frank is mentally ill, but that's nothing to do with Chris. It's a fiction inspired by personal experience and Daniel Johnson. If our Frank's bipolar, which he sort of is, then that's from Daniel Johnson.

You talk in the book about how lots of people around Frank got famous - Chris Evans was his driver, Mrs Merton started as a skit between his songs, and you became a TV presenter. Was Frank basically a catalyst for other people's self-actualisation?

Yeah I think that's really true. But it is sad that he's not around to see this renaissance of interest in him. I mean, not many people get their own statue and often it takes ages. He got his within three years of dying.

Are you being deliberately perverse by casting Michael Fassbender, someone at a career high, and anonymising him with a false head?

Well, actually as far as I know he chose us. As I remember it, we hadn't sent the script out to anyone. Eventually it was the eighth draft that got filmed and we were on about the fifth when we got a message saying, "Michael Fassbender's read it and he wants to be in it!" My first thought was, "Great, but how did he even read it?" We asked, "Is he absolutely aware that he wears a big fake head throughout the entirety of the film?" And a message came back saying, "Yes, he is aware of that!"

You say you tried the head on. How did it feel to be Frank?

It was quite hard in there and he had a nose peg to make his voice, which was really painful. There was a lot of physical pain involved in being Frank.

Alex Murray

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