The Humourdor

Keeping comedy moist.

Martin White - Revealing the Mystery of The Mystery Fax Machine Orchestra… or Something.


Martin White is a comedian and song writer, probably best known for his accordion-playing appearances in Robin Ince’s comedy shows The Book Club and Nine lesson and Carols For Godless People. That and his 30 piece band: The Mystery Fax Machine Orchestra. He is also a co-host (with Danielle Ward) on Dave Gorman’s weekly radio show. In this interview we talk about the relationship between comedy and music, the genesis of his band & German lesbian musicals.

The Humourdor: What makes you Laugh?

Martin White: Silly voices, silly faces, silly dancing, repetition- I laugh at the kinds of things babies laugh at.

H: Who makes you Laugh?

MW: I love one-liner comedians - Tim Vine, Dan Antopolski, Gary Delaney, Steve Wright, Simon Munnery, Milton Jones all terrific. Michael Legge listing stupid names makes me cry with laughter. Buster Keaton, Chuck Jones. Colin Hoult’s funny dancing is a joy to behold. Robin Ince is a brilliantly funny man.

H: You co-host a radio show with Danielle Ward & Dave Gorman. How did that come to be?

MW: I was asked, out of the blue. I knew Dave a little from our having crossed paths at gigs occasionally, and he had gamely joined in when Danielle and I did our Karaoke Circus show at the Latitude Festival in 2009, but it was a lovely surprise to be asked. I hadn’t had the opportunity to do radio since my days doing weekend breakfast shows on student radio, so of course I leapt at the chance and the show is great fun to do.

H: How did the Mystery Fax Machine Orchestra start and how would you explain what it is to those who are unaware of it?

MW: The Mystery Fax Machine Orchestra is my huge symphonic band of woodwind, brass and string players - I write and arrange the songs and front the band on the accordion. The project’s genesis goes back to when I used to make recordings of my songs on accordion and would layer up accordion tracks like an orchestra, using different settings to replicate different instruments. The live solo versions would always sound rather sparse by comparison so I enlisted some members of the rock band I was in at the time (Monochrome Set spin-off project Scarlet’s Well) to join me on cello, violin and tuba, and it grew from there. A string section has to be either four players or a dozen (anything inbetween sounds a bit scratchy and off) so the size of the band really ballooned. The name came from the first song I ever wrote, an ode to doomed office romance called Mystery Fax Machine Girl.

H: How has the band evolved since it began? Do you still have the same aims and objectives as when you started out or has it become something else entirely?

MW: I’m still figuring out what kind of band it is: we’re not really a comedy band - some of the songs are very silly, some are more serious thoughtful numbers. I’d like us to be a bit more of a serious-ish pop band but my experience of performing live comedy has instilled in me a compulsion to elicit audible audience response so I can know how well the gig is going, and you can never tell whether a crowd has enjoyed a sad song. Unless you make them cry.

H: Didn’t the producers of Britain’s Got Talent approach you to audition for the show? What was that like?

MW: Yes, Britain’s Got Talent got hold of me and invited the MFMO to audition. We went along, if only for the story to tell. It was a bit of a disaster, we auditioned to one miserable TV executive. We did a really stupid song called The History Of Europe, which was about the history of the Swedish band Europe in all its banal detail - it did not go well and we didn’t hear back from them.

H: You have co-written two musicals with Danielle Ward: Psister Psycho & Gutted- What was that like in regards to the writing and your involvement? Had you done something similar before? How did the process differ in comparison to your other work?

MW: The writing process with Danielle is very easy and fun, she does the words and I do the tunes. The rehearsal process for a comic show is always fun, especially when you are as lucky as we have been to have the country’s best new comic actors in the cast. Psister Psycho was great fun to do in Edinburgh, a daft late-night knockabout romp. The production of Gutted in Edinburgh was rendered overambitious for reasons beyond our control and I learnt a lot of lessons from that. I immensely enjoyed the orchestral concert performances of the show which we recently mounted in London. I had written one musical before, for an after-school musical club l when I was a teaching assistant in Germany in 1998. The only people interested in doing a musical were girls and they, oddly, decided they wanted it to be about lesbians at a girls’ boarding school who enter an all-Germany dance contest. It was very strange. I wrote the book and songs myself, in German.  The small-town newspaper sent two lesbians to the opening night to review it. The published review’s headline in the following week’s paper was ‘APPROVED BY REAL LESBIANS’. Small-town life in Germany, there.

H: You’ve worked with Robin Ince; providing accompanying music to his Book Club shows as well as Nine Lessons And Carols For Godless People. What do you feel music can add to comedy?

MW: It’s an interesting question and one which I am continuously endeavouring to answer through a haphazard drawn-out process of trial and error. Robin used to read bad books to the accompaniment of grandiose music, dialectically taking two things that weren’t funny and creating a comic synthesis. When I got involved in Book Club Robin would experimentally involve my accordion-playing in his act. I would try to clown about but I learnt that it was confusing for the audience if both of us were trying to be funny. If I was making silly noises or pulling focus I was undermining what Robin was trying to do rather than supporting it. Robin’s stand-up was funny with or without the music so the music had to be the straight-man in that situation. It’s like Elmer Bernstein’s score for the film Airplane! which, heard on its own, is a proper, serious piece of film music. A score with non-stop swanee whistles and other wacky noises would kill the humour completely. I’m preparing for a series of shows with Mark Thomas, accompanying his Extreme Rambling show with a small klezmer band I have assembled for the purpose, and we’re playing it pretty much straight.

H: Are there any upcoming tours with The Mystery Fax Machine Orchestra or anything else coming up that you could maybe shed some light on?

MW: We’re working on an album at the moment which I’m hoping will be ready later this year. Next gig is at Sullivan Hall in New York City on April the 30th, which is something to look forward to, and I’m in the process of organising some live shows in London for the summer with some fun headliners we can accompany orchestrally.  In the meantime I’m working on a new musical called Master Flea with the Irish writer Reggie Chamberlain-King, based on the novel by E.T.A. Hoffmann, which was performed as a work in progress in February and will hopefully see the light of day again soon.

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