After breaking from his warped sense of musical humor to perform on Broadway, comedian Stephen Lynch is thankfully back with a new album and ready to corrupt our minds again.
It’s been nearly four years since Stephen Lynch released a collection of his fucked-in-the-head ditties. But after one listen of his new album, 3 Balloons, (his fourth) you’ll agree the wait was well worth it.
Since his debut album A Little Bit Special was unleashed on the masses in 2000, Lynch has proven that guitar comics need not be derivative and lame. With a voice and songwriting capability better than most Top 40 stars and a sense of funny that would scare most well-adjusted humans, Lynch has no doubt lulled thousands of unsuspecting music lovers into his warped world. Lynch is bringing that world across the country on his Comedy Central-sponsored tour, which runs through May.
Lynch recently chatted with Punchline Magazine about his new approach to recording albums, finger-banging Ann Curry and much more.
I always thought it was good that you kept your albums basic – your voice, a guitar and minimal accompaniment – so that there was never a distraction from the lyrics and from the jokes. Now that I hear “3 Balloons,” however, it’s clear you’ve done a great job of adding instruments at no cost to the comedy. What kind of measures did you take to ensure the comedy wouldn’t be buried behind more lush orchestration?
It was trial and error. The first thing I recorded, Half A Man, was a five song demo that I did with a full band. Drums, bass, piano, keyboards, a thousand guitar overdubs, vocals, background vocals. It became more about the music than the comedy, which if you ask me, wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. Tenacious D did that a few years later with what I thought was great success. For my second record, A Little Bit Special, I decided to focus more on the comedy. I still added a piano and some bass here and there, but the album is pretty acoustic, more singer-songwriter than band-oriented. Also, it was recorded in a basement studio in Brooklyn for no money, so our resources were limited.
For the next two, Superhero and The Craig Machine, I had developed a following and a fairly consistent stage show, so I figured I would try to capture that feel by recording live in front of an audience. Finally, for the new record, I threw caution to the wind and went back into the studio, but for real this time. I wanted to actually record the instruments that I always heard in my head when I write these songs. I’ve always been more interested in music than comedy anyway, so why not try to do the songs justice musically, and let the comedy speak for itself? If people really need to hear an audience to know where to laugh, then the songs must not be very good to begin with. Or they are mildly retarded people. Either way, at this point in my career I’m more interested in satisfying my creative impulses than putting out a traditional live comedy album. I’m sure this will be off-putting to some, but who knows? Maybe others will like it.
You released an album called Cleanest Hits to be sold at your Wedding Singer performances and at Wal-Mart. Can you explain how that discussion between you and whoever approached you with the idea went down?
Wedding Singer Producers (use stereotypical flamboyant gay theatre-y voice): “Hey, girrrrllllll! Can we sell one of your saucy little albums in the lobby after the show?”
Stephen: “Sure. Which one?”
Wedding Singer Producers: “Whichever one you don’t swear on, sweetie!”
Stephen: “Uhhhh… I’m pretty sure I swear on all of them.”
Wedding Singer Producers: ” Oh, snap! What if we took the songs from each record that you DON’T swear on and compile them into a greatest hits album!”
Stephen: “Ok, but you can’t call it ‘Greatest Hits’ because those songs are probably lame.”
Wedding Singer Producers: “How about ‘Cleanest Hits?’ That’s hilarious! LOL! ”
Wal-Mart: “Hi. We ams Wal-Mart. Can we also too sel yur cd?”
Stephen: “But I’ve been boycotting you for years. How can I justify letting you sell my merchandise?”
Wal-Mart: “Pleze? wE are not evil, just dum. ”
Stephen: “Fine. As long as I can include songs that, despite having the profanity removed, will still subvert the “moral values” and “socially acceptable standards” that you claim to represent, thereby using you as an agent for that which you are so strongly opposed.”
Wal-Mart: “You are will cums right before Toby Keith alphobeticly!”
What are your thoughts on what is actually “clean” and “dirty.” The folks that shop at Wal-Mart apparently can’t handle the words “fuck” or “shit” but they’re OK with themes like losing your virginity to a woman with a penis or murdering your grandfather to get his inheritance money. While I find that shit hilarious how can “safe” retailers justify them selling your product just because swear words are taken out?
I have no idea, but I’m glad to let them. Selling a “cleaned-up” CD in the lobby of a Broadway musical was sort of a no-brainer. They’re still my songs as I wrote them, just in a different format. Plus, the money went to a good cause. Selling it at Wal-Mart, however, was completely different. It was something I wrestled with for a long time. Can I do this in good conscience? Am I selling out? Am I contributing to the bottom line of a company whose policies I disagree with?
I did a little research and came to the conclusion that in certain rural areas of the country, Wal-Mart is the only retail outlet that some people have. A 15 year old kid from Buttfuck, Indiana doesn’t have a credit card to order music online. But he can pedal his bike down to Wal-Mart. Also, many bands who’s politics are in line with mine sell their music at Wal-Mart: Radiohead, Rage, Steve Earle. If they can convey their messages without compromise, then it doesn’t matter where they do it. I agreed. Was I right? I don’t know.
Your new song, “3 Balloons” is largely about drugs. You’ve made some drug references on your previous album. What’s your opinion on recreational drug use and do you have a favorite drug?
Drugs can be the greatest thing in the world and they can be the devil. I’ve experienced both. Let’s just leave it at that.
Did you get much flack from your hardcore fans when you started doing The Wedding Singer on Broadway?
Surprisingly, I didn’t get shit from anybody about doing Broadway– except one reviewer, who said that I have the stage presence of a turnip. Asshole. I thought maybe there would be some sort of backlash, but nobody seemed to care. Maybe I should be offended by that, I don’t know. I guess most people just assumed it would take a few months to get it out of my system, then I’d be back on the road, doing my own show. Who knew it would take four to five months to rehearse and preview, nine months to run, then another year of touring before I felt back in the mindset again to write original material. Seriously, I actually forgot how to write a song. I was so in that Groundhog’s Day mode of performing the same thing, night after night, with no creative outlet that when it ended, I was sort of lost. Now what do I do? I had to re-learn how to play and how to write. It was like Regarding Henry. Not really.
Knowing you’ve made a career writing and performing socially unsavory songs, it’s odd to see you doing press and performances for mainstream media like The Early Show. You kept your comments and answers pretty short during that appearance. How tempted are you to say or do something more Stephen Lynch-esque when you do a show like that?
I was always tempted, but, let’s face it: when there’s a $12 million production resting on your shoulders, you tend to not want to fuck it up. People’s investments and careers and reputations and futures are at stake, so you remind yourself it’s not about you and your shenanigans, it’s about the bigger picture. And your window of opportunity is pretty limited anyway. That said, I would throw in certain things during interviews and awards shows, like surreptitiously cupping my balls or pretending to have a facial tic. Also, I fingerbanged Ann Curry right before she interviewed me on the Early Show, so I was extra nervous.
Before you became a singing comedian, you were on a path to become an actor. That said, how eager are you to return to Broadway?
I think I got it out of my system.
You wrote a piece for Time Out: London in November of last year. The piece is framed with Flight of the Conchords references. What’s your honest opinion on them?
I was looking for a funny way to open the article, and thought that being second choice after FOTC would be good. Then it sort of turned into a running joke that I still use. I’ve never seen them live, but I find their HBO show to be hilarious. I think any act that can lessen the stigma that comes with combining music with comedy (especially if you play the guitar) is great. I love the “D.” And Spinal Tap rules. There are so many bad “guitar comics” out there, guys who do shitty song parodies or Adam Sandler impressions. People should be aware of the good ones. Flight of the Conchords are one of the good ones.
In reference to you being a musician first (and a comedian second), you’ve said, “I wouldn’t know where to begin if I had to stand up in front of a mic and a brick wall and tell jokes.” Let’s say you had no choice in the matter. You had to tell jokes for one night. Who’s jokes would you steal?
If I had to do a typical weekend of shows at, say, Carolines on Broadway (blech) I think show number one would be a word for word recreation of Eddie Murphy’s Raw. For show two I would get a stand-up bass player and do some Mitch Hedberg jokes. The rest of the shows would be a compilation of Woody Allen, Louis C.K., Bill Hicks, and of course Don Rickles. Those people make me laugh.
Besides the songs on the new album having a more whole band feel, what differences can we expect this time around?
This tour will be very different from my last one, in that there will be a multi-media aspect (slide shows, short movies, etc.). Also, I will sing a couple of songs to tracks from the album, so the audience will hear drums and bass and choirs and more. I’m going to try my hand at playing piano on stage, which I’ve never done before. I’m getting sick to my stomach just thinking about all this. It’s so nerve wracking to throw away every “safe” bit I have that I know works, and start again from almost-scratch. But it’s time to mix it up a bit. Also, I will behead an Indonesian child as an encore every night.
Do you ever think of putting out an album full of earnest songs about love and loss and maybe hitting the road with wannabe comedian John Mayer?
I think about it all the time. Not the John Mayer part, but the part about relieving myself of the pressure to be funny and just writing songs. I’m sure it would be a different kind of pressure, but some day I’ll try it. I’ll grow a big Yusuf Islam beard and change my name and start all over again, playing shitty coffee houses and open mic nights. It actually sounds very romantic. I will call myself Jon Mayor and my big hit will be “Your Body Is a Wonderplace.”
Your parents are former clergy folk. What’s your relationship with religion these days?