If there is any comedian and actor well-positioned to find the humor as well as the drama that lives inside the jungle of the rock and roll lifestyle, it's Denis Leary. The Massachusetts native proved that with season one of his rock comedy, Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll, which first premiered on FX in July, 2015. Teaming with his songwriting partner Chris Phillips (who also co-wrote Leary's 1993 hit "I'm an Asshole,") as well as a team of gifted musical performers and actors like co-star Elizabeth Gillies, Leary and company turned out a reliably funny show that's also unafraid to dig into the thorny and volatile relationships between relatives as well as long-time friends.
On the show Leary plays Johnny Rock, described by FX as "washed up early 90s rock star" who once came this close with his band The Heathens to busting into the big time. The band fell prey to all the usual tensions and broke up the day their first album dropped. Rock is a dissolute middle-aged rocker when he meets a daughter Gigi (Elizabeth Gillies). Born out of an early 90s hookup, she's grown into a talented singer with the means to start her own band—which she does with Rock and ex-Heathens guitarist Flash (John Corbett), and bassist Bam Bam (Bobby Kelly). The first season tracked the evolution of the new Gigi-fronted band, The Assassins, as they try to make her own dreams of rock and roll stardom come true.
In season 2 of Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll, members of the group are heading in surprising new musical directions. Denis Leary was kind enough to talk to Maxim about where his show is headed in the new season as well as the process of creating new music alongside good comedy.
I wanted to know more about the songwriting process for the show, which I read in another interview you said adds time to the whole production—and I was curious about when you start it and what comes first—the scripts, or the songs, or do they kind of feed into each other?
Well, usually what we do is, between myself and my songwriting partners—I was at Emerson College, at the comedy workshop up there—this guy named Chris Phillips, he wrote “The Asshole Song” with me and a number of others over the years...so, he and I talk in advance, maybe 6 months before we’re getting ready for production. He’s generally always coming up with song ideas and I might have a few in my back pocket that are just general song ideas. And then the other guys in the band, they’ll have stuff that they’ve been accumulating—like starting even now, since we’re done, we’re in post-production—those guys, they’ll just be writing down song ideas and they’re all in different bands anyway so that’s just a part of their process.
So, you know, once we start to formulate the stories for the upcoming season there are specific things. Like, this year we knew we were gonna do this sort-of Hamilton-esque satire where Campbell Scott—the actor Campbell Scott, playing himself—buys the idea of doing a show about the Irish Potato Famine from our bass player, Sonny Silverstein. He basically is buying the idea and throwing most of the music out and then bringing in some hip-hop writers and some Broadway composers to create what he believes will be a Tony-award winning show for him. So we knew that we were gonna do at least six episodes that involved the beginning and the rehearsal phase and the opening night of that show. So I just basically said to Chris and the other guys in the group, ‘we need about—approximately—six or seven real numbers. One of them has to be a big, hip-hop 11 o’clock finale number just like in Hamilton. A couple of them need to be dead serious songs because we need to sell this to the audience as if it’s a real show. Then we need a couple of others.'
So those guys went off and worked on that by themselves, I didn’t have anything to do with that. Chris and I had a few ideas for songs that would be chi-chi songs and Liz Gillies also had a couple of original ideas of her own. So really what we ended up doing is me, Chris and Liz sang each other demos. We’d go back and forth with those. Then we have a rehearsal week… we make very rough demos with acoustic guitars, with myself and Chris and my son Jack, who’s a terrific guitar player. Then just like any other band we go to the studio with the entire band and we throw everything in the middle of the room. The band starts jamming, we see what sounds good and what Liz likes and from there we just build them out, the same way a real band would.
That sounds like a lot of fun. Sounds like it really adds something to the typical production process.
Well, for me it’s a blast because for a month, you’re just a band going to the studio every day, like you would if you were making an album. And the musicians are so fantastic and the energy they bring is so amazing that for me it’s the closest I ever get to being in a real band. These guys are all pros, so for me that’s the most fun part in some ways because I just get to sit there and watch a band record an album. And she’s (Liz Gillies) got such an amazing singing voice—I’m listening to her sing and it’s just fantastic.
One of the most fun things about the show has been professional musician walk-ons like Dave Grohl. You had mentioned David Bowie in the past (for a possible walk-on role). I was wondering if before he passed away in January there had been talk about actually trying to get him on the show. I know he kept his illness really close to his vest, so...
David was mounting that musical himself—there’s a lot of people mounting musicals like that—so when I came up with the storyline about the Irish Potato Famine (which within the show is called Feast), we referenced the fact that a bunch of different artists are coming up with different kinds of musicals, including Elvis Costello.
I knew Bowie was doing that so my angle was gonna be that we were going to try to come up with a story where David’s show was going to open before these guys’ show would open and that would give me an excuse to find a way for us to get to David’s show and-or see him backstage or somewhere within that scene. Then unfortunately, you know, we all kind of found out the same thing at the same time.
But what was really interesting is—you know I’m a huge Bowie fan and so are a lot of people on the show—we had a moment where we reference his death. The opening episode this year involves a friend of ours dying too young—a musician—and it kind of affects everybody and it throws everybody into a mid-life crisis and it throws Gigi into a quarter-life crisis. And we reference (David Bowie’s) “Lazarus” video and how powerful that was. And so...the second episode is a straight-out comic one where Gigi’s reaction to the death is to try to experiment with stuff she’s never tried before—just like, live her life to the fullest, all in the same three days.
We had a very funny reference point for David Bowie. We asked if we could get some concert footage to use for this final scene and they gave it to us, which is great...so, David makes an appearance in the second episode—which is called “Rebel, Rebel”—at the very end. And in typical Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll fashion it’s in a very inappropriately funny scene for what’s going on. So that was as close as we got.
Another thing that interested me is the dynamic between Johnny and daughter Gigi. It’s a study in parenting in very unusual circumstances. I know you have a couple of grown kids and you’ve probably been asked this question before, but how does that feed into the way you handle the dad/daughter storyline in the show?
Well, you know, you’re dealing with a circumstance that I don’t have personal experience with, which is, you know, a rock n’ roll dad. I mean he’s not famous, but he’s lived his life as if he’s famous and because he kind of goes by that credo, you know—sex and drugs and rock and roll—he kind of has that ‘Keith Richards approach.’ Like, ‘yeah, I don’t drink and get as high as I used to, yet I still do because I’m a rock star.’ But I always thought that was an interesting dynamic. I’ve never really witnessed it, even though I’ve met a lot of famous rock stars.
I did in fact one time spend an evening a charity event with [Aerosmith front man] Steven Tyler and one of his daughters and what I discovered was Steven was just as embarrassing to his daughter as I am to my kid as Sting probably is to his kids.
So it doesn’t matter—there might be more sex and then maybe more drugs than most kids are used to in terms of their environment, but you’re still an embarrassment. You can’t really make your kids proud, you know, and in Johnny Rock’s case, we’re quite a distance away from that. But it’s a very interesting storyline this year because of that death that sets off a bunch of mid-life crises in the band, that serializes through the season and it affects everybody.
Strangely enough, everybody kind of loses their mind, but Johnny and Gigi sort of end up as this little team against everybody else. So they actually get really close before the end of the season, closer than they’ve ever been before. It was an interesting thing that we planned on doing then as we were shooting it happened even more so. It ended up with all these moments where Johnny and Gigi were sort of on their own laughing at what these other people were doing with their lives.
When you’re producing so much music like that, enough to get an album out of it, is there a chance of any kind of live concerts in the future?
You know it’s such a hard thing to do because, you know you start these publicity tours which we’re doing very soon and you’ve gotta involve the entire band, which in this case is… six, maybe eight musicians. All those guys and all the backup girls, the singers that we use, they’re people that I use for my live gigs, you know—they all have careers, so they’re all working. Like my drummer used to be with Ozzy Osbourne. They’re always working session work or on tours. So, it’s like trying to get all those dates together to get that band together is very difficult.
But we are doing a live “town hall”—it’s called the Sirius XM Town Hall, which is someone’s studio space at XM—the week of the premiere. We bring the band in, and myself and Liz Gillies, and we’re gonna do probably about five or six songs live for the audience there, but that’s about it—for this go-around. I think what we’re gonna have to do is if we go to a season 3, we’d have to book it in advance so that we have my schedule, Liz’s schedule, and all the musicians’ schedules clear for the following summer. I think it’d be a great way to publicize the show.
I just looked at the album and I thought, ‘that’s a lot of music, that’s plenty for a few sets in a few different concerts.’ But you know, I see what you mean, with that many musicians involved.
You know, the thing is on top of it, this year, with that Feast music from the fake musical there’s like another seven pieces. There’s like three of those that are funny, there’s… four of those that are really good, straight-ahead—you know, if you went to see a hip-hop musical based on the Irish Potato Famine, it’s sort of hip-hop mixed with Gaelic traditional music. It’s really kind of interesting. It felt like, ‘we could open this show and it actually could run somewhere.’
You got me intrigued when you started talking about it. Maybe that’s partly because I watched the Tonys the other night and enjoyed it, but I immediately started thinking, ‘it makes sense to me that someone might write a music like that.’
You can guarantee like in three years’ time or maybe even two years there will be a couple more hip-hop musicals on Broadway. Hopefully we’ve satirically beat them to the punch, but it’s gonna be hard to replicate what those guys (the creators of Hamilton) pulled off, you know? That’s such an original, one-of-a-kind thing.
Are there any surprises in store (for season 2), anything you can preview, tease, that might not show up in one-paragraph breakdowns of what’s going to happen this season? Walk-ons, I guess, is what I was thinking about.
Besides Campbell, there’s not. Campbell’s in multiple episodes. I think he’s probably in about 5 or 6 episodes total as they rehearse and write that Feast musical. Everything else belongs to the cast and I can’t really give away what’s gonna happen because there are some major plot twists and turns that happen as we go. If I leaked one aspect of it, it might give something away.
But safe to say, because of that sense of mortality from that unexpected death of a young friend in episode 1, several people in the band start to believe maybe they should have their own solo career. Which basically means everybody starts to think they should have a solo career. You can imagine—once all those people in that room start to think they deserve to be a star now, then it’s really like a nuclear fame-whore attack that just dominoes through the season.
It goes places I don’t think the audience is gonna expect it to go. Some places we had planned, some places we discovered it as we were doing the writing. It’s gonna be interesting to see how the audience reacts.
The comedy aspect of the show is great, it’s a very funny show, but one of the things about it that grabs hold and pulls you along is that it’s not just comedy—there’s a dramatic undertow, and I mean that in a good way. Part of it is the relationship between the two main characters but part of it is what you’re talking about now. That’s a funny situation, but it also sets up a lot of conflict and a lot of opportunity for different plot threads to spin off in surprising directions.
I guess that’s the one thing we have, since we did our pilot and went to air last year. Now there’s sort of a little explosion—kind of a zeitgeist about rock and roll shows. You know, so Vinyl and Cameron Crowe’s show (Roadies, on Showtime) they’re straight dramas, so it’s nice that we still have that.
There are some very serious moments this year, but obviously there’s a lot of comedy—not just in the course of the mounting of the fake musical but amongst other cast members as they try to deal with all their own desires and wishes and dreams. That’s one of the things—obviously the most fun part of the show, to me, is just the comic aspect that we’re able to bring in about rock and roll. You know, whenever the band is sitting around not just making fun of each other but making fun of certain songs and certain rock artists and certain things rock and roll stars are doing right now—that kind of stuff to me is just—I love it.
Season 2 of Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll premieres June 30 on FX.