Jon Ronson is a busy man, this Cardiff-born, New York-based writer, film-maker and broadcaster clearly juggling lots of big deadlines.
But he was nothing less than charming and entertaining when we caught up via a web link from NYC this week, telling me about his seven-date A Frank Talk tour, his surreal brush with pop fame, and much more.
“I’m at the very late stages of the next book, so after about three years I’ve got about a week left. But I can stop for a while.”
The 47-year-old is perhaps best known for writing 2004’s The Men Who Stare At Goats, later a film starring George Clooney, Jeff Bridges, Ewan McGregor and Kevin Spacey.
He made his name with his newspaper, magazine and investigative film-making work, leading to Channel 4 and BBC Radio 4 series, tackling a wealth of complicated issues, from conspiracy theories to debunking.
I neglected to ask which book he was currently finishing, but it could be the one he was rumoured to be writing on public shaming.
With that in mind, it’s fair to say Jon must have some interesting conversations with his publishers when telling them about new projects.
And one he must have struggled to explain was the screenplay of Frank, the comedy-drama that went on to feature Domhnall Gleeson, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Michael Fassbender, loosely based on the story of late, great Mancunian papiere-mache-headed cult indie legend Frank Sidebottom.
If you’re not familiar with Timperley’s finest, I’m not sure I can explain this showbusiness leg-end any better than that. I’m not about to try either. Besides, it’s hardly a bio-pic.
Frank premiered at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival in Utah, with the filming experience just the latest mad twist in the life of Ronson.
That whole experience is the subject of Jon’s A Frank Talk, about to do the rounds in the UK, including an event at The Dukes Theatre in Lancaster – my excuse for speaking to him via the wonders of Skype.
And all because Jon, while working as an ents officer at Central London Poly in the late ‘80s, picked up the phone and admitted he could play keyboard one day.
I think I’ve already intimated it’s a long story, and I haven’t the space, but it’s nicely told on his blog, with a link here.
As it turned out, that one-night-stand at the Kennington Cricketers led to a three-year stint on the road with Frank’s Oh Blimey Big Band, and subsequently a major writing project.
I put it to Jon that had it not been for radio and TV presenter and fellow author Mark Radcliffe’s busy life, he might not have got his first-hand taste of the music business.
“True. It was Mark being absent that got me the job. One day he became very abruptly unavailable – I don’t know why – so Frank’s manager Mike Doherty called me in a flap.
“I didn’t know Mike, I didn’t know Mark, and didn’t know any of the band, but Mike said if they didn’t find a keyboard player that night, they were going to have to cancel.”
Jon wasn’t confident it was the job for him, but once it was confirmed he knew the C, F and G chords on keyboard he was in, albeit hiding behind a stack of speakers while playing that first night.
Has he brought it up with Mark Radcliffe since?
“No, I’ve bumped into him once or twice and he’s been perfectly affable, but I wouldn’t call us firm friends … I think it’s because I’m a Southerner!
“He was much closer to Chris Sievey (Frank’s alter ego) than I ever was, and that was at the back of my mind throughout this whole process with the movie and everything.
“I didn’t want to annoy Mark, and to feel like he would disapprove. I really admire him, but I’m slightly frightened of him. He’s like the spiritual heart of Frank Sidebottom.
“But I read something the other day by Mick Middles in which Mark said something relatively positive about me. That made me quite relieved.”
I’m guessing the Sievey family were always on board with the film project.
“We were talking to the family throughout, so knew how they were feeling. The film was shown to them the day after it debuted at Sundance. They were very happy.
“They understood right from the beginning it wasn’t a straight bio-pic but much more experimental than that.
“Also, the family came to my last show at the Dancehouse in Manchester a couple of months ago, and loved it.
“We reformed the Oh Blimey Big Band, with Chris’ son Harry on vocals, which was brilliant and extremely moving.
“The movie and the true story are both honestly labelled, with the movie a complete fiction inspired by Frank. It wouldn’t exist without Frank, but isn’t at all about Frank. Both the story and the speaking tour are by no means definitive biographical accounts.
“It’s much more a personal story about my relatively brief time with the band. Neither pretend to be something they’re not.
“Both have real integrity but don’t claim to be something they’re not, even though I feel they’re both really good.”
Did you think during that three-year spell with Frank you’d be writing about it all one day, and that might lead to a film?
“During that period of my life I was squatting in Islington, along with a psychotic man called Shep, who smashed all the plates every time Arsenal lost.
“As he hurled plates across the kitchen, I remember thinking I might do something with this one day … but not necessarily the Frank story! That was much later.
“Frank got back in touch 15 or so years later, and asked if I could write something for The Guardian to help with his comeback.
“That started me thinking. My pieces take forever to write, but my little 2,000 word story about Frank came out in three days.
“It had a sweet, fairytale quality to it. That took me by surprise. I think it was that Alice in Wonderland feel that made me think there was something there.
“Peter Straughan, who wrote The Men Who Stare at Goats and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy scripts, read The Guardian piece and said he’d always wanted to write a fictional music bio-pic.
“He told me he’d always wanted to write the story of what would happen if Captain Beefheart had been around in the 1940s or 1950s, and how society would have dealt with him.
“Then he said, ‘but your idea is better’, which I thought was kind of odd, because I didn’t actually have an idea!”
This seems to be a theme. I was reading about you getting your first TV series, BBC 2’s The Ronson Mission, commissioned by Janet Street-Porter in similar circumstances, saying you had a wonderful idea, one you denied knowing at the time.
So is this the story of your life – you’ve got a great idea, but you’re not quite sure what it is? (Just a thought, but maybe there’s a ‘Ron Johnson’ out there pitching all these brilliant ideas, but getting over-looked every time).
“It’s more like I have no ideas, but then someone tells me it’s a good idea. In fact, it’s happened again now with Peter, telling me another of my stories was a great idea, saying ‘that’s a movie!’
“Anyway, straight away I said to Chris Sievey about Peter, and explained that he was so in demand that if he wants to do something, it’s really stupid not to do it.
“I said we’d be idiots to say no, and Chris said he’d love to do it. But I explained how Peter, Film Four and all those people like those fairytale moments – like me jumping up on a stage.
“I told him it was never likely to be a bio-pic as much as a story about someone like me and someone like him, and the relationship between us.
“He was totally fine about that, and didn’t really want there to be a Chris Sievey in the film anyway.”
So where did you learn the three chords that got you that first gig at the Kennington Cricketers?
“Busking at Cardiff High School. Me, Dick Jones and Bethan Morgan would go off to Barry Island.
“And when my brother went to Guildford to the University of Surrey, when he was 18 and I was 16, I’d busk on the high street there.”
I explained at that point how I spent my Saturdays in an office at Boots the Chemist in Guildford in my student days, listening to buskers outside, wishing I was there instead. But that’s a whole different story.
“That was around the same time. I totally fell in love with them and thought they were the future. And there was a time when they might have been the future.
“I just feel our timing was unlucky. They were very much in the same world as The Smiths and James, and C86 bands like Tallulah Gosh and The Monochrome Set.
“There was a moment when we were one of the biggest bands in Manchester, around 1988, just before The Stone Roses and Happy Mondays made it.
“We weren’t in that world. It was just bad timing. If the whole thing happened two years earlier, I’ve no doubt The Man From Delmonte would have become at least as big as James.
“But it was kind of a class thing. Rightly or wrongly, people saw bands like us and James as middle class, as opposed to the Roses and the Mondays.
“One set just fell out of favour. We had gigs when we were supported by 808 State and Inspiral Carpets, then months later those bands were headlining.”
Jon was studying journalism back then, but gladly gave it all up for life on the road.
“I don’t think I would ever have finished those studies. It was all very theoretical, and at the age of 18 I wanted to be doing stuff, rather than sat in a classroom learning it.”
“Absolutely. There was no comparison. I didn’t have to think about it more than a second.
“Man from Delmonte were offering me a chance to be their manager and Frank was offering me a chance to be his keyboard player. I didn’t hesitate.”
Having interviewed Frank Sidebottom once, speaking in character to me over the phone during my time at the Chorley and Leyland Guardian, I can only begin to imagine what a bizarre time that must have been for Jon.
“I wonder if he just put the nose peg on for his phone interviews… or the whole head.”
I don’t want to think about it being anything less than the whole papier-mache head, so quickly batted away that suggestion, then moved on.
You’ve come up against some very difficult characters over the years through your investigative work and writing. Who was the most difficult?
“Mmm … there are different sorts of difficult. There’s hostile, but that makes for a good interview. And if things are often unpleasant at the time, the writing’s better.
“Alternatively, I remember interviewing someone really successful and famous, maybe a politician or business leader.
“I can’t recall exactly who, but he was talking and talking, and I thought ‘Great! This is gold dust!’
“But then I came away and listened to it and it was nothing but bland, banal platitudes. He’d rather brilliantly given absolutely nothing away, despite all that talk.”
Does the thought of performing a one-man show make you nervous?
“No, I really enjoy it. I spend so much time on my own, writing. Frequently I’ll spend an entire day where all I’ve done other than going to the gym is write and rewrite again and again one sentence.
“Alone in my room for about 10 hours, trying to get that one sentence right! That’s basically my life!
“So when I go out and do a one-man show, have an adventure and interview someone or get the source material to make the writing work, that always feels like a real treat.
“The one-man show is never as hard as that walk into my office in the morning. That for me is the far greater horror.
“At the same time, I must say I really enjoy the writing when it’s done. But it’s very daunting.
“Also, I know people enjoy coming to my talks. I’m better at it than a lot of authors – more entertaining. It’s almost like stand-up.
“I have this feeling of confidence that people won’t leave disappointed. That leaves me less nervous about it.”
What do you see yourself as first these days – journalist, film-maker, screenwriter, radio presenter or author?
“Always an author. The other stuff is great and I really enjoy it, but books are definitely what I care most about, or feel are the most stable part of my life.”
Jon has been based in New York for two years now, with his wife Elaine and son Joel, who is about to turn 16.
“Erm … I don’t know. My wife and son love it, so definitely it feels like home for them. I definitely have some good days too.
“I love the fact that it’s 80 degrees today and I don’t even feel the need to rush outside because I know it’s going to be 80 degrees every day up to October.
“We’re in the Upper West Side, but all of New York is pretty small, and there’s a lot about it I do love.”
Does Joel ever head back over to London with Jon to watch the writer’s beloved Arsenal FC?
“No, but we watched the FA Cup Final together at this really nice club in New York, The Blind Pig, which shows all the games. I do miss going to The Emirates though.”
Is New York proving to be a positive creative base for you?
“Well, this new book is working, and I don’t think I could have written it if I wasn’t based in New York.
“People are very ‘can do’ here. If I say I want to do a monthly show where I talk about how my immigration’s going, we just do it.
“There’s nobody there to tell you that you can’t. I love Britain’s sense of negativity, but it’s quite nice to be in a culture which is the opposite of that.
“You lose some of the funny cynicism, but you gain stuff as well.”
Do you keep in touch with your Cardiff roots?
“I keep in touch with my parents, and I’m going back next week on this tour, but I’m more in touch with my London and Manchester roots.”
What was it like to have people like Ewan McGregor play your character on the big screen in The Men Who Stare At Goats?
“Well, imagine being 15 and knowing one day that’s going to happen – the feeling of joy when you’re sat in a room in Cardiff. It would be the greatest day in your life, wouldn’t it!
“But when it actually happens, it’s just work. I wish I could be more Wizard of Oz, a bit more Dorothy about it.
“It’s all about contracts, if a film may or may not happen, problems with scripts, whether you’ll be invited on the set. And when you are it can all be a bit boring.
“Then, when the premiere happens, you’re on the red carpet, but nobody really wants you there. They want to see George Clooney.”
How about the books then? It’s 20 years since your first, the Clubbed Class travelogue, was published. Was that a big moment?
“Actually, that was a bit of a let-down too! I never really liked Clubbed Class. What wasn’t a let-down though was Them, which I think of as my first proper book.”
“The first time I saw that on the shelf at Waterstones was incredible, and the fact I got to be about No.5 in the bestsellers’ list.
“It was a similar feeling when I gave a talk at Borders in Oxford Street when it came out, and around 300 to 400 people turned out.”
It appears that the rights to Them were bought by Universal Pictures too, and ear-marked for a Mike White screenplay and co-production, with comedian and actor Jack Black involved.
But Jon’s clearly not too starry-eyed about the film industry experience anymore.
“I’m not saying the movies are a let-down, but there’s never a magical moment, and the film industry experience is all very stressful.
“There’s lots of pushing and shoving and people vying for the glory at the expense of others.
“Saying that, I visited the set of Judd Apatow’s latest film last week, and everyone was laughing and happy.
“Things were fine on the Frank set too. I loved the experience of writing it. It’s just that I wasn’t really involved on the Goats set. And it’s still work.”
Jon’s seven-date A Frank Talk UK tour starts at London’s Wilton’s Music Hall this Thursday, July 17, followed by visits to the Latitude Festival (Friday, July 18), Cardiff Chapter Arts Centre (Saturday, July 19), Llangollen Fringe Festival (Sunday, July 20) and Lancaster The Dukes Theatre (Monday, July 21).
He’s also set to give A Psychopath Talk at Hebden Bridge Trades Club (Tuesday, July 22), before ending at Manchester Dancehouse (Wednesday, July 23), complete with a full Frank Sidebottom Oh Blimey Big Band in the final A Frank Talk event.
Then it’s back to the US and ‘on the first Tuesday of every month until one of us gets deported’, he’s putting on his I’m New Here – Can You Show Me Around? immigration talk with comedian Maeve Higgins at Union Hall, Brooklyn, NYC.
* With thanks to Louise Bryning at the Dukes Theatre in Lancaster and Mike McCarthy at Lakin McCarthy for helping arrange this interview.
* This is a revised and expanded version of a Malcolm Wyatt feature published in the Lancashire Evening Post on July 11, 2014.