Dawkins with the band in the studio.
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Richard Dawkins to feature on Finnish metal band Nightwish's new album

The biologist-turned-atheist campaigner is sampled on the band's forthcoming Endless Forms Most Beautiful.

Richard Dawkins is no stranger to controversy; musical and otherwise.

It’s hard to imagine, given how his recent remarks on the shooting of three Muslims in North Carolina have been taken, but the arguments against Dawkins were once quite mild. Back in 1995, after his appearance on Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs, the evolutionary biologist-turned-atheist campaigner was criticised for his choice of Bach’s St Matthew’s Passion — an odd choice, apparently, for such a vocal opponent of religion. 

If such a small thing can draw discussion, his latest foray into the arts will presumably garner some fairly raised eyebrows — at least, if my inbox is anything to go by. When I message a friend to say I’m about to interview Richard Dawkins about Finnish metal, her response is simply “please explain this”.

It’s hard to know where to begin. It’s not every day, after all, you sit down to listen to a 24-minute symphonic metal track with rolling piano, cello and ape noises; and fewer still you get to watch a Scandinavian rockstar discussing childhood clarinet lessons with one of the country’s most prominent and – not to put too fine a point on it – most criticised public intellectuals.

When I meet Dawkins and Nightwish lyricist Tuomas — who is wearing a T-shirt with Charles Darwin’s face on — in a Kensington hotel, however, it seems a surprisingly straightforward collaboration. Both of them are disarmingly earnest about their work together; indeed, by the time I leave, it seems almost inevitable that Dawkins would be sampled on a Nightwish album.

For that is exactly what’s happened. A self-declared “life-long science fan”, Tuomas studied the subject at university before dropping out to pursue music. A recent interest in the works of Dawkins, as well as Christopher Hitchens, Carl Sagan and other figures, led to him approaching the scientist.

“I wrote him a handwritten letter, explaining what we had in mind”, says Tuomas. Two weeks later, Dawkins replied via e-mail expressing his willingness. They set up a studio date in Oxford, and less than six months later, two tracks are ready for the forthcoming album Endless Forms Most Beautiful.

Richard Dawkins recording in Oxford.

I ask Dawkins if he’d heard of Nightwish before he received Tuomas’ letter. There’s no sense of irony in his response.

“No, I hadn’t. But I was interested, I was intrigued and fascinated. I asked advice of my assistant, and he urged me to do it. I was pleased to do it.”

When I suggest that perhaps the genre is a little unexpected, Dawkins is sanguine. “Yes, it’s a bit of a different kind of music, but I am capable of being very moved by music.” The lyrics Tuomas has him read, alongside his own writing and the works of other scientists, are “beautiful”. When I ask if he'll play at Nightwish's upcoming Wembley show, both parties seem keen. "Let's do it."

Being moved by music is a topic Dawkins spoken on before. Is this an attempt to make the scientific sublime? “Exactly”, Dawkins says. “That’s so important.” Tuamos agrees: people may think of science and evolution as dry, but it’s “exact opposite of that. It’s the most poetic thing there is, evolution.”

And what of people who think Dawkins should stick to his discipline? “Yes, I can’t think what else I’ve done… I did that rather strange thing for Saatchi & Saatchi. A psychedelic extravagorama.”

Dawkins's performance at Saatchi & Saatchi. 

It seems an easy thing to laugh at, but again, Dawkins seems to take it all at face value. His explanation of the “ewi” – which he plays at the end of the clip – is in-depth, conveying a genuine enthusiasm for the instrument.

I ask about other cultural gestures that have been awkwardly received in the press, like his recent Twitter poetry. “Did I do poetry?”

“I call that comic verse. I don’t know why the Independent keeps picking up these ridiculous things.”

It’s impossible to tell if Dawkins is unaware how he is perceived, or just gifted with a total lack of self-doubt. Either way, it might explain something about his public persona. I ask if there’s a certain pleasure in provoking people – his detractors on the Christian right, for instance, will surely be unhappy that he’s now collaborating with a metal band. Dawkins seems not to know what I’m getting at. There’s a certain image, I suggest – “satanic?”, he fills in. Yes, perhaps.

And what about the Nightwish fans? According to Tuomas, “people are really excited”, but there is some opposition. He imitates some of his fan responses: “I’ve been a fan of Nightwish for fifteen years, I’ve seen twenty of your shows, but I will never ever come to see you again. I just burned all your CDs.”

“It’s good for publicity, that sort of thing”, says Dawkins. And he would know.

Endless Forms Most Beautiful is due out on 30 March. Nightwish – possibly featuring Richard Dawkins? – will headline Wembley Arena in December this year.

 

Stephanie Boland is digital assistant at the New Statesman. She tweets at @stephanieboland

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Why a man soiling himself was one of my Olympic highlights

The joy of the Olympics is how easy it is to drop in and form strong opinions about the best way to win in any discipline.

There used to be a rumour that a newspaper (now defunct) had in its possession some compromising photographs of the wife of a beloved TV entertainer (now dead) romancing a chihuahua. I mention this because I think John Inverdale must have a similar hold over BBC Sport bosses. How else does he get such great gigs? At the Olympics, if he wasn’t being corrected by Andy Murray about the existence of women, he was having water droplets “accidentally” shaken over him by a sour-faced Steve Redgrave as he aired out his umbrella.

Then again, perhaps Inverdale’s continued employment is the salt in the caramel, or the Tabasco in a Bloody Mary: a small irritant, designed to give a kick to what would otherwise be bland niceness shading into enforced cheeriness. The rest of the Olympic presenters (grumpy Sir Steve possibly excepted) were a bunch of lambs: the sweet Helen Skelton, and the even sweeter Mark Foster and Rebecca Adlington, hosting the swimming; Matt Baker from The One Show and Beth Tweddle doing the gymnastics; that poor bloke they put on the beach so that leery passers-by and lecherous drunken couples could get into his shot. With 306 events over 19 days, I felt as if Clare Balding had moved into my spare room, we were spending so much time together. (The fact I didn’t want to smash my screen every time she came on is proof that she’s worth every penny of her £500,000 salary.)

The time zone difference could have made these Olympics a washout for British viewers, but the BBC used its red-button technology sensibly, and the presenters (mostly) coped with pretending they didn’t know what was going to happen while hosting the highlight reels. Someone at New Broadcasting House even grew a pair as the first week went on and stopped news programmes from intruding on the medal action. Earlier in the week, viewers had been forced to hop from BBC1 to BBC4 to BBC2 to follow their favourite events, the change sometimes occurring at an inopportune moment.

The joy of the Olympics is how easy it is to drop in and form strong opinions about the best way to win in any discipline. Unlike football, say, where true enjoyment requires memorising rafts of statistics and forming strong opinions about the transfer market, all Olympics coverage is designed for people who couldn’t tell one end of a derny bike from the other five minutes ago. Who really understands the rules of the omnium? Luckily, it turns out you don’t need to.

I thought I was going to hate the Olympics, which took place in the shadow of controversies over drug testing, the US swimmer Ryan Lochte’s faked robbery and Caster Semenya’s hormone levels. For all the guff about the international hand of friendship, the Games are a ruthless commercial enterprise, and one in which global inequalities are harshly self-evident. Are Americans just better athletes than the rest of the world? Clearly not. Money buys success. Could most of us, even given a trainer, dietician and acres of free time, qualify for any of these sports? No. Genetically, most of us are Morlocks compared to these people.

Nonetheless, all the natural (and artificial) advantages in the world can’t win you a gold medal if you sit on your sofa and eat Pringles all day. One of my favourite competitions was the gymnastics, where Simone Biles of the United States seemed to dominate effortlessly. Yes, being 4ft 8in clearly helps her – her shorter steps allow her to pack in more tumbles – but she’s still willing to do a somersault on a bar four inches wide. (The dangers of the discipline became clear when the French gymnast Samir Aït Saïd snapped his leg landing off the vault on the first day of qualifying rounds.) In the 50-kilometre race walk, Yohann Diniz pooed himself, collap­sed twice – and still finished in eighth place.

These are the Olympic moments I cherish. Usain Bolt makes it look too easy, which is boring. Without a narrative, sport is little more than a meaningless spectacle – a Michael Bay film or the latest Call of Duty. Luckily, Team GB seemed to heed the call for drama, delivering us a penalty shoot-out victory in the women’s hockey (and a team with a married couple in it); a comeback for Mo Farah after the allegations against his coach Alberto Salazar; and a surprising failure for Tom Daley in the 10-metre dive. We also got to see Laura Trott and Jason Kenny’s races through each other’s eyes.

In other words, bring on Tokyo 2020, so I can grouse about the money and the drugs and the inequality right up to the moment the first person shits themselves – and still finishes the race. Truly, human endeavour is a beautiful sight to behold. 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser