Denis Leary has always been a music guy.
As a young comedian in the late 1980s, he appeared on MTV’s game show “Remote Control,” doing impressions of Keith Richards. A few years later, he became famous for MTV commercials in which he speed-ranted against R.E.M and in favor of Cindy Crawford. In 1993, he even had a hit song (with an unprintable title) about being a terrible man.
“At that time, I was going to the MTV Awards to present and all those guys were there – Kurt and Courtney and Dave Grohl, Eric Clapton and the Stones,” he said recently. “It was crazy, and I was kind of face to face with it sometimes.”
He went on to great success as a comedian and a dramatic actor, starring for seven seasons on FX’s “Rescue Me,” about firefighters in post-9/11 New York. But his follow-up for the cable network is a little crazy, and he’s face to face with it once again – it being the three things that make up the show’s title: “Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll.” The black comedy, about an aging, washed-up band that gets one last chance at the big time, harks back to his MTV days, with cameos from rock stars including Grohl, and an insider’s sense of backstage drama.
In the show, which has its premiere Thursday, he plays Johnny Rock, a drug-and-booze-guzzling singer who fronted a band in the early ‘90s called the Heathens; the group seemed poised for greatness until it broke up on the day its debut album was released. Twenty-five years later, Rock is contacted by Gigi, a daughter he never knew he had (played by Elizabeth Gillies, formerly a star of the Nickelodeon series “Victorious”), who is an aspiring singer with enough family money to get the Heathens back together to support her attempt at stardom.
As is so often the case, there’s conflict between the singer and the lead guitar player, Flash (John Corbett, best known as Sarah Jessica Parker’s boyfriend in “Sex and the City,” and also an accomplished musician with several albums of his own). The bass player, Rehab (John Ales), and drummer, Bam Bam (Bobby Kelly, Louis CK’s brother on “Louie”), have their own issues and aggravations; Rehab has spent the last few years working on a lengthy song cycle about the Irish potato famine.
Over coffee and cigarettes in the upstairs bar at Irving Plaza – the club where some of the performance scenes in “Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll” were shot, and where Leary filmed his breakthrough 1992 stand-up special “No Cure for Cancer” – Leary seldom showed his smart-aleck persona. He was surprisingly sincere talking about his inspirations and intentions for the series, dropping references to old favorites like the Who and new discoveries like the Australian songwriter Courtney Barnett.
Leary, 57, took up the guitar in high school and began writing comedy songs with other musicians at Emerson College. As those friends went on play in various bands, Leary immersed himself in the Boston and New York rock scenes.
“I got to see the guys who became famous, like the Cars,” he said, “but what was more interesting to me were the ones left behind, the ones who say, ‘That could have been me,’ the guys who would rather stand at the back of the room and criticize than take the leap. And in Johnny’s case, clearly he would be dead from the drugs if he had become successful.”
Joan Jett, who appears as herself in the show’s third episode, said that the series’ depiction of a rock band feels accurate. “It’s pretty much on the money,” she said in a telephone interview. “A band is like a dysfunctional family, and fame can be really empty unless you have something to say and you’re making music you really believe in.”
Meditation on fame
Leary, who is the show’s head writer and an executive producer, said that while much of the comedy on “Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll” comes from the dynamic of an aging band, the emotional core of the show is the relationship between Johnny and Gigi. “I have a daughter who’s the same age as Liz,” he said. “I know what that negotiating process is when they get to be teenagers, the way the buttons on a dad get pushed.
“You’re never cool to your kids. The coolest aspect of me to my kids is that I’m friends with Jon Stewart. Sting’s not cool to his kids, at home Mick Jagger is just dad.”
The show also spoofs the difference between fame now and back in previous generations. Fame doesn’t last, Leary said. “My kids thought Paul Newman was a chef until I forced them to watch the movies. They don’t know who Johnny Carson was, or Cary Grant, or anything further back. The thing that really lasts is a great song. They know who Frank Sinatra is, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, not because of me, but because they heard that music, they’re aware of those 3 or 4 minutes of great stuff.
“It’s a whole different ballgame – you can be famous for anything now.” The show offers some spot-on modern examples to get this point across – Flash has stayed in the spotlight by playing in Lady Gaga’s band, and Gigi, of course, measures success by Instagram followers.
Music is ‘down and dirty’
“Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll” brings Leary back to FX, where he created and starred in “Rescue Me” from 2004 to 2011. He initially thought of the new show as a film, but then warmed to the idea of the weekly rhythm. “I really love television,” he said. “I love working with the same crew of people, so I knew I wanted to go back to TV, but I needed to take a break.”
“Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll” airs at 10 p.m. Thursdays on FX
In order to get a sense of the Heathens’ sound then and now, Leary started by writing the show’s theme song as well as a song that Gigi sings in the pilot. When the show was greenlit, he added five songs – some cowritten by his longtime collaborator Chris Phillips – and went into Electric Lady Studios with Greg Dulli of the Afghan Whigs as producer. Some of Leary’s old friends, including Adam Roth (the Del Fuegos), Alec Morton (Raging Slab) and Charly Roth (Ozzy Osbourne’s band), were assembled to play behind Leary and Gillies.
“Liz is a fantastic singer, but she’s coming out of a Nickelodeon show, so I wanted her to get down and dirty a bit,” said Leary.
By telephone Gillies explained that she comes from a musical theater background, “where you hit every note and enunciate every word.”
“The first day, I was singing and Denis came in and said, ‘I can hear every word,’” she recalled. “I said, ‘That’s great,’ and he said, ‘No, it’s horrible! You’ve got to blur them and rock it up.’ It took me a minute to get into that messier side of singing.”
Show leans on improv
Dulli and Grohl appear as Johnny Rock’s nemeses, the rock stars who stole his “vibe and aura” and had the success that eluded the Heathens.
Dulli, of course, is hardly a household name, but his role fits with the side of the show that’s full of more esoteric music references and inside jokes. There are riffs about Metallica’s band therapist and a song spoofing the mope-rock of Morrissey and Radiohead.
“I wanted the musicians to sound like musicians,” said Leary. “If they’re in a room, they’re” insulting “the other guys, and themselves, all day long. I wanted to get inside that world, and I think the rest of the audience will adapt to that.”
Because Leary’s approach leans heavily on improvisation by the actors, Gillies observed that fiction and reality sometimes collided on the set. “We were always getting into arguments, fighting, hugging each other,” she said. “The chemistry and the banter never ends, and there were definitely blurred lines between being a band, a family, a cast.”
However, Leary noted that before the first season wrapped, the nonmusician actors had started picking up their instruments. “By the end, Bobby was playing along with the drums and Ales was learning the bass,” he said. “We were actually becoming a band. And then, who knows what happens?”