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Denis Leary on becoming a rock & roll frontman, and why he hates vinyl

Editor’s note: This interview contains quite a few F-bombs, but we couldn’t bring ourselves to censor Denis Leary. Read at your own discretion.

“I hated records. I was glad to see records go. I couldn’t be happier to have a button on my phone that I can hit and call up my favorite music.”

Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll is the title of Ian Dury and The Blockheads’ seminal 1977 punk anti-anthem, so, in fine rock tradition, it has been lovingly-slash-sneeringly nicked to serve as the letter-perfect and now all-one-word name for Denis Leary’s new show Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll, which has begun its 10-episode first season Thursdays at 10 p.m. EST on FX.

“We had this great, gigantic cast of musicians around us to make sure we sounded good and looked good. It was like going to rock & roll boot camp,” says Leary, the show’s creator and executive producer. On S&D&R&R, Leary portrays Johnny Rock, the erstwhile bandleader of The Heathens, an early ’90s alt-rock/punk band that never quite got over the hump. Johnny freely blames the likes of Dave Grohl (who turns in a totally on-point wink-nudge cameo) and Greg Dulli of The Afghan Whigs (actually a longtime Leary compatriot who produces the show’s music) for getting in the way of their path to success.

Leary is unafraid to skewer rock conventions, especially when delving into the volatile dynamic Johnny Rock has with his lead guitarist, Flash (John Corbett), which mirrors classic rock pairings like Steven Tyler and Joe Perry of Aerosmith and Mick Jagger and Keith Richards of The Rolling Stones. “Steve and Joe were already famous when I first met them, and I’d seen a couple of their blow-ups,” Leary notes. “And I’ve had some experience hanging out with Mick and Keith and seeing those arguments. My guitar tech in the show, Adam Roth, who’s also the lead guitar player in my band, has played with a million bands. He was in the Jim Carroll Band, and the Del Fuegos. I saw him and Jim Carroll go at it, and I saw him and Dan Zanes go at it. Having seen those three sets of guys, I just knew that relationship inside and out.”

Finding the right actress to portray Gigi, the 21-year-old firebrand singer who comes to New York to find her estranged father Johnny and reform his band with her as the frontwoman for a shot at the bigtime, was Leary’s admittedly toughest casting endeavor. Enter Elizabeth Gillies, who began her Broadway career at age 15 and starred for four seasons on Nickelodeon’s Victorious. “I knew that I had to get an actress who could improvise dramatically and be able to sing live, because I wanted to use live vocals,” explains Leary. “I almost thought I was asking for too much until Liz walked into the room — she was a life-saver.”

Laughs Gillies, “No pressure on me at all, singing great rock songs courtesy of Denis! He’s the mastermind behind this whole thing. I started singing and doing musical theater when I was really young, and then it evolved into singing and acting. I’ve always been passionate about music, so this is a godsend to be able to do songs with comedy and improv.”

Digital Trends recently caught up with Denis and Liz in New York to discuss being in an operational rock band on TV, talking comedy with David Bowie, and sharing their favorite misheard lyrics. It’s all your brain and body need.

Digital Trends: I’ve seen the first five episodes, and you all really look like you’re in an authentic dysfunctional rock band. How many band names did you have to go through before you got to The Heathens?

“I tried listening to what [Neil Young] was talking about [with hi-res audio and Pono], but I don’t hear the difference.”

Denis Leary: You know, I think before I first conceived of and had even written the show, a few years back, that name came to me. My comedy band is called Denis Leary and The Enablers Featuring the Rehab Horns. So we’re always fucking around with band names, and it’s almost true that any band name you jokingly come up with, somebody has it. But The Heathens was such a perfect way to describe these guys, and it’s probably how they would have named themselves back in the day.

How do you both listen to music these days? Are you cool with streaming and Apple Music?

Leary: Here’s what I think, as the old guy. I hated records. I was glad to see records go. I couldn’t be happier to have a button on my phone that I can hit and call up my favorite music. Neil Young — I tried listening to what he was talking about [with hi-res audio and Pono], but I don’t hear the difference. I’m so fucking happy with my access to music right now. It’s fantastic.

Elizabeth Gillies: My compromise is that I bought the Gramophone for iPhone speakers. Technically, it’s just what comes out of your phone, but it comes out sounding like a record. That’s the way I contribute to get the sound of a record, but you’re probably right, Denis. It’s being a little pretentious.

Leary: I think this generation is rediscovering records, but I told my kids, “Don’t buy me a fucking record player, or any fucking records.” The last thing I want is to clean records again. Never again in my life.

Wait, Denis, you don’t want to get out the brush, and the liquid —

Leary: No, I hate that shit!

Maybe the record-revival thing gets people to listen to albums all the way through instead of just cherry-pick songs.

Leary: I was never an album guy. I was more of a three-minute, four-minute song guy. I didn’t like prog rock, and I didn’t like Tommy — though I love The Who, who are one of my favorite bands of all time. But I’m not a Quadrophenia or Tommy guy. I like My Generation.

Some guy just asked me to pick 10 records that made a difference to me, and I picked 10 songs. He meant 10 albums, but I can’t pick 10 fucking albums. It had to be 10 songs.

What was the first song you bought or got into that had impact on you as a kid? Denis, you first.

Leary: Satisfaction. I don’t remember seeing The Beatles, but I remember seeing The Stones. I don’t remember what show it was, but I was watching television that night and saw them play (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction. I saw that song, I saw that group, and I went, “What the fuck is this?” And my dad bought me a guitar, and from then, it was pretty much over.

Liz, how about you? What was the first song that impacted you?

Gillies: It was definitely by The Beatles. I remember hearing Happiness Is a Warm Gun, yeah. I really liked that one a lot.

Denis, you’ve got the perfect hair for Johnny Rock — are you going for the David Bowie look there?

“I thought, ‘This is it. I’m going to ask David Bowie five fucking questions, and he’s going to answer them.’”

Leary: That’s what Johnny says, yeah.

You have a great story how Bowie once asked you about comedy.

Leary: It’s the only time I ever met him. Where did you hear that story?

Umm, I know people.

Leary: OK, nice. We did a TV show together in London. I was the host, and he was the musical guest. Bowie — he’s in my pantheon. He was in Tin Machine at the time, and I asked the guys, “Is it possible that I could meet him, and talk to him?” And they said, “Well, he’s got a soundcheck, and then he’s got to go into hair and makeup.” So the vibe was like, “You’re not going to be hanging out with David Bowie.”

To smoke there, you had to go out in the alleyway. I was outside smoking, and I heard the walkies going off to say he was arriving. Two minutes later, he was down in the alley, and he asked me if I had a cigarette, and I lit it. And I thought, “This is it. I’m going to ask David Bowie five fucking questions, and he’s going to answer them.” Instead, he goes to me, “So you’re friends with Bobcat Goldthwait — what’s he really like? And you knew Sam Kinison, right? What was he like?” The next thing I know, I’m answering his comedy questions, and then he has to go get ready for soundcheck. And that was the last time I spoke to him. I got to ask him nothing — nothing!

You’ll have to get him on the show next season, then. Liz, have you ever improvised any of the lyrics you’re singing?

Gillies: No. That’s how I get stage fright sometimes. I have this weird thing. Maybe in rock & roll you can do it, but it’s harder to improv lyrics, I think.

Leary: The thing to remember, Liz — and this is from the voice of experience, because I’ve forgotten some of my own lyrics, and I’ve also watched guys do this onstage. If you get lost, whether it’s a ballad or a rocker, or rhythm & blues or soul, you just go into the “Yeah yeah!” or go into the “All right!”

Gillies: (laughs) Thank you, I appreciate that!

Leary: Or sounds: “Unh-unh, unh-uhhhh…”

Gillies: That’s true. I was performing Dreams by Stevie Nicks and Fleetwood Mac, and I forgot all of the lyrics from top to bottom, so I went (sings), “Oh hey nah nah nah nahhh” — and no one knew.

Leary: Oh, I thought you were really singing that song! (Liz laughs)

Or you just turn the microphone around to the audience and go, “You sing it!”

Gillies: That’s when it gets too high and your voice gives out on the first chorus, so on the second chorus you go, “Ok, now it’s time for you!”

Leary: Do you remember that Joy Behar bit? She’s seeing Diana Ross live in Central Park, and it was some crazy ticket price like $300 for the people upfront, and it was free for the people in the back. Halfway through one of the songs, Ain’t No Mountain High Enough, Diana started walking through the audience, holding the microphone out for people to sing. And when she got to Joy Behar, Joy said, “Bitch, I paid $300 for these tickets, I’m not singing the fucking song!” (All laugh) So classic.

Liz, who do you feel your vocal influences are?

“We can understand everything you’re saying. We need to change that immediately.”

Gillies: A little Stevie [Nicks], and a little Janis [Joplin], maybe on the higher stuff. I’m big on diction and enunciating because I come from a theater background, and that’s something I had to totally throw out of the window when singing this music to be taken seriously. I remember one of the things Denis said on the first day of recording: “We can understand everything you’re saying. We need to change that immediately.” (laughs)

Leary: I remember being in the booth with Chris Phillips, my writing partner who wrote the Asshole song with me years ago. [Written in 1992 and released in 1993, Asshole was a classic MTV hit back in the day.] We were listening to one of your takes and I went, “Jesus Christ; I can understand all of the lyrics. What’s going on?” He said, “She’s enunciating them, asshole!” “Oh, OK; I’ll go talk to her.”

Gillies: Like, “Drop your jaw!” I remember we changed that quick. But it makes more sense for rock & roll.

The important question I have to ask is, what would Tommy Gavin say about Johnny Rock? [New York City firefighter Tommy Gavin was Leary’s character on Rescue Me, which ran on FX for seven seasons from 2004–2011.]

Leary: Wow, that would be interesting. You know what? My guitar player Adam Roth was playing a gig one night, and he was with a great, famous firefighter friend of his who ultimately died on 9/11 — a guy who did two tours in Vietnam, and then became a New York City firefighter. He was a highly decorated guy. Adam had one of those anxiety attacks in his head and he asked him, “Dude, I just feel so worthless as a rocker, playing a weak guitar in a rock band. When you’re watching me, you must think I’m ridiculous.” The firefighter said a great thing. He said, “You don’t understand. Guys like me, what we do for a living, we do it because we love it. But we need guys like you doing what you do so we’re able to sit down and relax afterwards.”

And I thought that summed up what rock & roll is to everybody. So, in this case, Tommy Gavin might actually be friends with Johnny Rock, you know?

There’s your twist for Season 2 — Johnny and The Heathens put on a benefit for Tommy and the firefighters.

Leary: Oh my God!

Gillies: You could play dual roles! Dude, that’s funny.

Leary: It would be fucking hysterical.

Come on — with the technology they’ve got on Orphan Black, you could easily be onscreen playing opposite yourself.

Leary: Oh shit, that’s a crazy idea. Wow. That’s a crazy fucking idea.

Gillies: That’s like a mind-blowing thing.

Then get your character Mike McNeil from The Job, and you’d have three generations of yourself in there.

Leary: Oh my God, people’s heads would explode.

“Wrapped up like a douche”? How’s he getting away with that?

I don’t want any points or credit for the idea, I just want to see it done. (more laughter) Do you have a favorite misheard lyric that you heard one way but figured out what it was later?

Gillies: Oh, Blinded by the Light, and the “douche” part.

Leary: I’d pick that one. Because when I was a teenager, I couldn’t believe this guy [Chris Thompson of Manfred Mann’s Earth Band] is really singing about a douche!

Gillies: It really blew my mind, but OK, if he thought it was OK to sing…

Leary: “Wrapped up like a douche”? How’s he getting away with that?

Gillies: I know! Only recently, by the way, I figured out that it wasn’t that.

Even after you know what the line really is, you can’t hear it any other way.

Gillies: No!

Leary: Can I just say this? Lyrically, “wrapped up like a deuce” is a better line.

Gillies: A much better line.

[Here’s the “douche/deuce” deal: In the popular Manfred Mann’s Earth Band version of Blinded by the Light, which hit #1 in 1977, the line was changed to “Revved up like a deuce,” from what it was in the original Bruce Springsteen version, which was released in 1973: “Cut loose like a deuce.” How you hear either of those lines come across is, of course, entirely up to you…]

Finally, how does Johnny Rock handle being off in the wings when Gigi and the band are onstage performing your songs? Doesn’t that just kill you to want to be out there since you were the original Heathens frontman?

Leary: Believe me, it’s not only murderously hard for him to do that, but if the show goes to a second season, the plan is that that band is only going to get better without him onstage. It’s a thing he’s going to have to live with, because it’s the future.

Gillies: I think he recognizes that it’s also going to bring in more money, with him stepping back from it.

Leary: Yeah, I think he wants the money, but he loves the spotlight too.

Gillies: Maybe we can share it in the future.

Leary: Nah, probably not! (all laugh).

Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll airs Thursdays at 10 p.m. EST on FX.