Monday, February 5, 2007

Stephen Lynch

Maybe it was his parentage — his father was a priest and his mother was a nun — but something twisted Stephen Lynch enough to come up with an oh-so-wrong (but funny) song called “Kill a Kitten.” The song drew protests from animal lovers outraged at the lyrics. Here’s the opening line: “When the game of life makes you feel like quitting/it helps a lot if you kill a kitten.”

No matter how many protests that song draws, there are more than enough people who like Lynch’s sense of humor and comedic songs to keep him on the road. That’s where he is now, after spending most of last year on Broadway in the lead role of “The Wedding Singer,” the musical based on the 1998 Adam Sandler movie. Lynch earned a Tony Award nomination for the role.

Since the release of his first CD, “A Little Bit Special,” in 2001, Lynch has followed that up with three more and a concert DVD, “Live at the El Rey.” His latest release is “Cleanest Hits,” a sanitized version of songs from his first three CDs and clean enough to be sold at Wal-Mart.

How would you rate yourself as a singer-songwriter? How’s the singing and how’s the guitar playing?
I think I’m an average guitar player. I have not improved in the 10 years that I’ve been playing because the focus is not on the guitar playing. I only picked it up so that I could accompany myself. The songs are, to me, what’s important. And I think I’m a decent songwriter and a good singer. I’m not a great guitar player. I know that much, though.

Any desire to get better?
Yeah, I would love to if I had the time, to take some lessons and improve a little bit. I’m sure some day I will. I think I can still make each song interesting and different from the others. I have that ability. It’s just I’m not going to bust out into a speed metal guitar solo any time soon.

You weren’t one of those people who grew up playing guitar?
No. I just picked it up in college and thought it was fun. I learned all the basic chord structures. And that’s about it. That’s all I can do.

Where did you go to college?
Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, Michigan.

What did you study in college?
Acting. I studied acting in college. That’s what I was going to do. I used to do a lot of summer stock theater back in Michigan and I go there every once in a while in the summer just to do a couple of shows and have a little vacation. I did “Jesus Christ Superstar.” I was Jesus.

What drew you to acting originally?
I don’t know. My dad did it, locally, when I was little kid and I saw him up on stage. It looked like something fun to do and I gave it a shot. Probably like anybody else who does it professionally or wants to do it professionally, I found out that I was pretty good at it and it was a lot of fun to do, so why not?

What was it that made you start playing guitar?
All the people I lived with in college. We all lived in one of those big old houses in Kalamazoo with seven bedrooms or something, there was constantly people moving in and out, and there was a good music scene in Kalamazoo. A lot of the guys that I lived with were in bands so they all had guitars or they played drums or they wrote songs. There were always guitars lying around and it looked like fun to me. So I had them teach me a couple of chords and figured out the rest from there.

Did you want to do humorous stuff from the beginning?
Pretty much right from the beginning, it was just a matter of trying to make all my friends laugh and then trying to make people who weren’t my friends laugh. When I started writing songs, it was purely for my own amusement and the amusement of my friends. And really that’s all it was. When I went to a party or something or went over to somebody’s house and they had a guitar, I could pick it up and make people laugh.

Who’s easier to make laugh? Your friends or people you don’t know?
Oh, people I don’t know, definitely. It’s way harder to make your friends laugh, I mean, when you’re trying to. If I were to sit down with a guitar in front of a friend of mine and try to make him laugh, that would be way more difficult than being funny in casual conversation.

What about straight music? Have you ever thought about trying to record the next big pop song?
I’ve thought about it. But I’m such an infrequent writer and I’m so non-prolific that when I actually get a song idea I’d rather use it for what I’m doing right now than start some new singer-songwriter endeavor. Maybe someday down the line I’ll get tired of writing funny songs and write something that’s not funny, but for the time being any idea that I get I kind of cherish it and try to use it, if I can. I’ve tried to write more straightforward, non-humorous songs but I don’t know. I can never get past a certain point. It always takes a turn in that direction.

How did you make the leap from entertaining friends at college to getting outside attention?
I moved to New York, first of all. I still had no intention of singing funny songs for a living. I just wanted to perform. In what capacity, I didn’t know.

What was your big break?
I ended up playing at a little club in Manhattan called the West Bank Café, downstairs. A buddy was running a show down there, kind of a variety show — comedy-based but standups, sketches, scenes, improv — and he remembered that I used to do this sort of thing back when he knew me in Michigan. He asked me to come audition and do a couple of songs. I remember it was raining and I had a nylon string classical guitar with no case so I had plastic grocery bags rubber banded around it to keep it dry. I couldn’t afford to buy a case. I went down there and completely screwed up my audition because I was so nervous, but the guy let me go up anyway. So Friday night I sang these songs that I’d been playing in college just for my friends. I played them for an actual paying audience for the first time and they went over really well so I kept going back and I kept going back and I became part of this music comedy show at Catch a Rising Star at Chelsea, when that existed. That’s where I cut my teeth, as they say. I learned how to put the songs together and talk between the songs and stuff that I had previously never done before. And then I started doing radio in New York and that was a huge break for me because it allowed me to reach a lot of people that I wasn’t reaching in those little clubs. That led to meeting my manager. It led to me meeting people from Comedy Central. It led to me forming relationships with the comedy club owners and before you knew it, I’d quit my job and this was my career now.

What job did you have?
I had several. I think at the time I was just doing temp work, actually. I went through a bunch of jobs but finally I gave into the world of the temp because it was a little more relaxed. I could work when I needed to and not work when I had to do something else.

What went wrong with the audition?
I think I just forgot some lyrics, which I still do to this day.

Do you remember what you sang at your audition?
Yeah. “Half a Man.” “A Month Dead.” These are all songs that are on the first record. Probably “Kill a Kitten.” And that’s all I remember.

How long did it take you to get comfortable on stage?
Well, I was always pretty relaxed on stage, only because I had done so much acting as a kid and in college I was used to being in front of an audience. Which is not to say I wasn’t nervous before the show. Still, before every show I’m pacing around and biting my nails. But once I got up on the stage I got comfortable and I could relax and play. It was just a matter of doing it a lot. I think my first college tour where I really learned how to make it a show and not just a series of songs. So it took a few years to actually get it to the point where it was a show.

You still get nervous?
Oh, yeah. Every show.

Why is that?
I don’t know. You never know what’s going to happen. I don’t know. There’s a part of me that’s confident enough to know that these people are buying tickets to see me. They must on some level enjoy me already. But then again, you never know what’s going to happen out in the audience. It might be a particularly quiet crowd or I might just be off that night. I don’t now. I think nerves are healthy as a performer anyway because it keeps you on your toes. It gives you energy. It keeps you alert. If you get too blasé about it, that’s when your show suffers, I think. I kind of wish I didn’t get nervous because I can’t eat before shows. I don’t want to socialize with people. I just want to get out there and do it. I wish I didn’t have that, but I do, and I’m stuck with it.

At a certain point do the nerves go away?
I would say after the first couple of laughs. When I know that things are going to be OK. That’s when I cease to be nervous. It doesn’t take long. Then I just have fun.

Do most shows go pretty well?
Yeah. They do now. I think it’s a solid show. I’ve done it enough times to know what works and what doesn’t work. Usually. There are always exceptions, but usually. And like I said, most of the people I’m playing for now I don’t’ have to win over. They already know who I am. They already like the songs. I know that. It’s not like the old days when it was a group of people who didn’t know who I was and I had to win them over. That was a lot harder. Maybe that’s why I still get nervous because I remember those days.

How does performing in front of an audience change your songs or your style?
My songs tend to evolve over the course of touring. I’ll write a song in my living room and then I’ll test it out in front of an audience and if I like it and they seem to like it, when I tour I’ll put it in the set. Usually by the end of the tour, I wouldn’t say it’s a whole different song, but a lot of things have changed. The tempo maybe has changed. I may have changed a line or two. They improve, I think. Obviously, I try to make them funny as possible and keep them as fresh as possible. That’s the only difference I would say, though.

If someone has heard your CDs and memorized them, they can still come and be surprised?
Yeah. I always try to throw some new stuff too into the shows. It’s strange when you do a combination of music and comedy because since it’s music a lot of times people want to come and sing along to their favorite songs. At the same time, you want a big laugh so you want to be able to surprise some people so you change some things around and you throw in some new stuff so that the people who want to sing along are happy and those people who just want to hear new things s are happy as well.

Could anyone sing and perform, let’s say “Special Ed,” and get a laugh, or does it have to be you doing it?
You know what? I have no idea. I’ve never heard anybody else try to do any of my songs. I get feedback from people at shows. A kid’ll come up and tell me he did one of my songs at an open mic night and that people liked it, so I assume anybody could do it. On the one hand, that’s bad for me. It doesn’t say much for me. But on the other hand, it says that the song is at least good enough that other people can do it and if they pull it off then people will enjoy it.

Did this kid give you credit?
So he says. Who knows? He may have claimed it as his own.

What are your writing habits like?
I usually kind of sit around all day with a guitar and putz around on it until I come up with music that I like and then I store that in my memory for future use. When it’s actually time to get serious, I’ll just lock myself in my bedroom and say all right, I’m not coming out until I’ve at least written something. Whether or not whatever I write turns into a song that I end up performing, who knows? But at least I try to force myself to do a little bit of brainstorming. When I come up with an idea, I pull from the memory banks some of that old music I came up with and if none of that seems to fit I’ll try to write something more appropriate for it. Once I get an idea, it takes me probably a few days to write the entire song to the point where I like it or think it can be tested out for an audience. But it’s coming up with the idea that takes me so long.

What’s your favorite song that you’ve done so far?
I like the song about Jesus’ brother, Craig. It’s still fresh. I like some of my older songs, too, but I’ve done them so many times they lose a little something in the translation.

Take me through the process. How did you get to the point where you had this song?
I know I was brainstorming and jotting down a string of consciousness ideas. Then I was looking through that list of things that I had and I saw Jesus’ brother and it just kind of clicked. I thought if he had a really funny non-biblical name it could be a good song. So I picked Craig and I shouted it out to my wife. I said, “Hey, how about a song about Jesus’ brother Craig?” and she started laughing so I knew I hit upon something. Then you go through the process of how do you shape a song? Are you singing it from his perspective or someone else’s perspective? What is his relationship with his brother like or does that even come into play? Is he just like him? Is he a loser? You go through all these things and you keep trying things out until the song takes form. Once it does that, you can fill in the blanks and put some jokes here and there. Get out your rhyming dictionary and come up with some hopefully clever lines.

Do you ever censor yourself? Or worry that you can’t sing something because some people are going to be mad?
I don’t really worry about what people are going to be mad at. What I think about is whether or not it’s funny to me, and if it’s funny to me then I have no problem writing about it. If it’s not funny to me then for whatever reason then I won’t cross that line.

Have you gone over the line?
I don’t know. I try not to. I usually try to point the comedy finger at myself and write songs from the perspective of my own failings and shortcomings. I’m sure there’s a line somewhere that I tiptoe around but I won’t cross. It’s a personal thing. You know it when you come to it and there’s things that I just don’t think are funny. I couldn’t’ define it or give you a list of things. It’s just you feel that it’s funny and something you can write about, or not. I don’t want to be the offensive comic. I just want to be a funny comic. If some people happen to get offended by a song about Jesus’ brother, I really couldn’t care less about that. But my intention is not to offend people with a song about Jesus’ brother. It’s just to make people laugh.

Obviously, a song with a title like “Kill a Kitten” is going to set off alarms with some people.
Yeah. Many more than I figured. I wrote that song long ago. You know obviously as a joke as usual. The song used to be a little different, it was a little slower and more melodic and prettier. It’s kind of lullabyish. I figured with that kind of music, obviously the joke would be I would sing about the most horrific thing I could think of. I happened to be talking to a friend of mine on the phone. She was talking about her little kittens running around. I said, “Perfect. That’s it.” People hear it or more accurately read the lyrics on the Internet and think that it’s some sort of call to arms to main small animals. I guess they don’t really get the full picture. They don’t get the joke without having gone to a show or heard the song in a proper context. I kind of brush it off now. I’m tired of that controversy. If people want to protest me, that’s fine. Do whatever they want. I know the song’s a joke. The people who hear it and have a sense of humor realize what the intent of song is.

What are your musical influences and inspirations?
Well, I don’t know what my inspirations are. I know what I like to listen to and I know that the songs that work out the best for me are songs that have that kind of singer-songwriter feel to them because it’s a great way to tell a story and you don’t want to get bogged down by drum solos. The stuff that I like in rock and roll sometimes doesn’t fit into these songs. I try to go with a real simple pattern of guitar or piano and a vocal melody. But I also have a buddy who sings with me and my brother sings with me sometimes so we can do a little more intricate stuff. I would say singer-songwriter storytellers like Paul Simon and Joni Mitchell. Anybody with a guitar and a voice, essentially.

Paul Simon and Joni Mitchell? What did you pick up from listening to their songs that you use in your own music?
I don’t know. Maybe it’s a subconscious thing but maybe a sense of melody, maybe a certain finger picking style. I’m not sure. I couldn’t say exactly. I just know that I listened to a lot of that growing up so it has to come out somewhere in my playing or my songwriting.

Do you emulate other comic singes who have come before you?
Not really. Except maybe Spinal Tap. I say Spinal Tap because they were the first musical group who did funny songs who in my eyes write songs that I would enjoy playing. Aside from the fact that I think it’s one of the funniest movies ever made, the thing that really struck me about it was these guys were doing funny songs but they weren’t knockoff novelty songs and they weren’t parody songs. They were real songs, songs that if you put different lyrics in, you could hear some ’80s metal band doing them. I thought that was great. When I started to do this sort of thing myself, I really concentrated on writing actual songs, not just taking a hit off the radio and putting different lyrics to it, which is a whole other ball of wax. I wanted to make the songs interesting and catchy and fun to listen to. I like to think on some of these songs if you replace the funny lyrics with non-funny lyrics, you’d still have a decent song. That’s how Spinal Tap made me realize comedy and actual songwriting can work together.

How often do you sit down and watch that movie?
The funny thing is of course I own it on video and DVD and laser disc and whenever some new version comes out I’ll be the first one to buy it. I never pop it in to watch it, though. I always seem to just catch it on TV and I can’t turn it off. I don’t know how many times I’ve seen it. About a million, probably.

How do you keep it interesting to you? How can you make it so it’s entertaining to you and the audience?
Well, sometimes you don’t. Sometimes you just have to do what you are there to do, which is sing a song that you’ve 5,000 times before, because there are 500 people in the audience who’ve never seen you sing that song before, but for them it’s brand new. I won’t lie. It does get a little monotonous sometimes, which is why I try to change the set list every once in a while. I try to switch songs here and there and why I really try to play as much new stuff as I can because that’s the stuff that’s still completely interesting and fun for me to play.

You joke in the opening of the DVD “Live at the El Ray” about what you have in your dressing room [a huge pile of cocaine]. What do you really have backstage?
I don’t have anything except beer and water. Miller High Life and bottled water, that’s all I ask for. I figure the less I have the harder it will be for people to get it wrong. And that’s all I really need before a show anyway is to have a couple of beers and wet my throat with some water and I’m ready to go. If you bring me a big elaborate meat and cheese platter, I can guarantee you it’s just going to waste, so what’s the point?

How do you entertain yourself on the road?
A lot of time I travel with somebody. Sometimes my wife comes along on tour if she has friends in the city if she has friends in the cities that I’m going to or if she just wants to hang out. If there’s someplace she’s never gone before that she wants to go. And plus it’s kind of a grind but these shows are usually just on the weekends so I spend most of my time at home.

What do you when it is just you?
I usually fly into a city the night before a show and I’ll just hang out in my hotel room. I’ll get up really early in the morning and go do morning radio. I’ll get back and sleep for the better part of the day. I’ll get up, change my strings, practice a little bit, maybe go out and walk around wherever I am and check out the sights for a couple of hours in the afternoon, get something to eat. I always have to go in early to do a sound check before doors open. Then I do the show and afterwards I might have friends in the audience and we go out of if I’m traveling with somebody we might go hang out somewhere. Back in my younger days, when I was doing the college shows, I used to always go party with the kids after the show. And that was a lot of fun but I don’t really do that anymore.

Is your family musical?
Yeah, my dad’s a singer. That’s where I got it from.

What does he sing?
He sings old standards. Irish lullabies. Things like that.

Does he sing professionally?
Yeah, he does it professionally, just as kind of a hobby. He does it at weddings.

What does he think about your career?
He gets a kick out of it. I know he’s proud of the fact that I succeeded in what I set out to do. I don’t know that he likes all of the songs, but he’s been to a few shows and he always seems to enjoy them, he and my mom. Yeah, they’re proud of me, and very supportive of me.

How did having a former priest and a former nun for parents mess up your childhood?
Why do you think my childhood was messed up?

I’ve heard your songs.
It didn’t. It’s my adulthood that’s messed up.

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