Let's Yacht Rock, Chum
We tried to contact J.D. Ryznar , the Yacht Rock co-writer/co-producer who plays Michael McDonald on the series, in time for our story in this week's edition, but he didn't check in until now. But thanks to the launch of our blog, we still have an excuse to interview the guy and we'll run it here.
So read on, and learn about how Ryznar conceived of his portrayal of McDonald, the barriers the show has broken down, the fun to be had at a yacht rock evening at a club, and the future of the show. (Yes, the show does have a future, just not at Channel101.com.)
A little backstory: in our initial email exchange, Ryznar had told me that McDonald and the members of Steely Dan have donned captain's hats in honor of the show at their concert in Chicago. — John Nova Lomax
JNL: So in an email you sent me, you told me that at the Chicago show, Michael McDonald and Walter Becker and Donald Fagen all wore captain's hats on stage. How did you hear about that?
JDR: I was at the show. It was pretty thrilling. Pretty thrilling....You know, we weren't a hundred percent sure it was for us, but the next day somebody who works for Steely Dan in some capacity sent me an email that said 'Did you see the tip of the hat to Yacht Rock?' Wow. That was just amazing.
Have you ever talked to them about it?
JDR: No, I haven't.
Yeah, well McDonald's quote to me about it was that the first thing he did was send it to his son, who's about 18 and got a big kick out of it. As for himself, he said it was both ingenious and stupid at the same time. (Cackles)
And there was something else that was kinda garbled on my tape where I asked him if the characters rang true to him, and he said something like 'No, but you could read that into them retroactively' or something like that.
How did you get the idea to play McDonald as The Keeper of the Smooth?
JDR: That just seems to be his role, if you look at his career. He was brought in by Steely Dan, joined the Doobie Brothers and totally smoothed out their sound with his Motown influences, and his solo stuff is all extremely smooth, and now he's doing Motown covers. He's been consistent. He knows his style and he keeps with it, where guys like Kenny Loggins are trying to be rockers and Hall and Oates are always changing their image. But McDonald has always stayed smooth.
Only his hair has changed, huh?
JDR: Yeah, but very slowly.
It seemed to be slowly at first, and then all at once...Anyway, at first, it seemed that people were into your show as kinda an ironic thing, but since it's moved beyond that now, to where that music is really starting to resonate with indie rock kids.
JDR: We wouldn't have made the show if the music didn't resonate personally with us. We didn't make it entirely out of irony...
And that comes across in the show, but what I mean is it really seems to have broken down a wall where people can appreciate that music honestly again.
JDR: We just showed all ten episodes in Chicago and 450 or 500 people showed up and filled the place to capacity and had a great time. And these guys called the Smooth as Fuck DJs showed up and played before and after the show, and it was the first time I ever heard anyone spin straight yacht rock music for an entire night, and it sounded great. Everybody had a lot of fun. A barrier possibly has been broken and people are really appreciating this really great music for what it is now.
Were your parents fans of this music?
JDR: They weren't really. It was around, but I was always kind of anti- the music of the '70s. I really didn't like Steely Dan, and the Doobie Brothers, you know, their older stuff with that country twang didn't resonate with me at all until I got older and then I was sort of hungry for new kinds of music.
What did you listen to when you were younger?
JDR: (Sighs) Weird Al. Buncha dumb stuff. I started getting into real music in junior high, and then it was stuff like Pearl Jam and REM, and then I got a record player in college, I started buying vinyl. And I can't stop, because here in L.A. there's this great music store called Amoeba that has tons of dollar vinyl. You can spend whole afternoons sifting through them and they seem to have an entirely new selection every two weeks. There's no end to the obsession now.
So you're buying mostly '70s stuff?
JDR: Yeah, that's mostly what there is — '70s and '80s stuff. I buy everything from something that has a sweet cover to whatever Michael McDonald sings back-up on. The great thing about sweet covers is that it might end up being good. That was how I got into Uriah Heep. That Dungeons and Dragons album cover...
You're probably sick of hearing other people's ideas for your shows, but I have all these ideas for regional Yacht Rock episodes, like an East Coast version that revolves around Billy Joel, a Gulf Coast one around Jimmy Buffett and so on...
JDR: We're gonna make an episode eleven that involves Jimmy Buffett.
Oh really? I thought y'all were done.
JDR: We're done on Channel 101, but there were two more episodes we wanted to do, and the audience is there, so we're gonna launch Yachtrock.com in a little bit and put the episodes on there. I think we're gonna debut episode 11 in Chicago 'cause we had such a great time there. Nothing's set in stone yet but it's gonna be around the tenth [of August]. And then there gonna show all the Yacht Rocks in Austin at the Draft House sometime in September. The 18th, I wanna say...
One of the things I wrote in my story was that I believed that Yacht Rock hasn't caught on as much in Houston as opposed to Austin and Chicago, San Francisco, LA, is that there's not that much distance from that music here. Two of our top five stations are pretty much yacht rock stations. This is smooth city. Our number one Anglo station is Sunny 99, which is like all McDonald, all-Steely Dan all the time...
JDR: Oh, wonderful.
...And it's billed as "Houston's Official At-Work Station."
JDR: Yeah, but the DJs that spin it have more of a fun attitude about it rather than the people who make those smooth radio playlists. You listen to those radio stations and they really make you wanna stab yourself...
JDR: ...And there's just something off about it. There's no joy. There's enough songs out there that have a joy and nail the relaxing yacht rock genre, and the DJs are finding them and it makes for a really fun night.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.