The last time we saw Denis Leary starring in a television series, he was racing into burning buildings during a successful seven-season run portraying tormented firefighter Tommy Gavin on FX’s Rescue Me.
The Massachusetts-born comedian and actor makes his return to FX on July 16 with Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll, a series he created and stars in.
Leary portrays Johnny Rock, lead singer of a fictitious, early-’90s New York band called The Heathens, a group whose partying and debauchery become the stuff of legend.
Yet The Heathens missed the boat on breaking big—poised for stardom, the band split up the same day its debut album was released, brought down by Johnny’s arrogance and flare-ups with his lead guitarist.
Fast forward 20 years, when an aging Johnny, low on cash and prospects for fame—but still high on ego, drugs, and booze—receives a surprise visit from long-lost daughter Gigi, portrayed by former Nickelodeon star Elizabeth Gillies.
A talented singer who shares her dad’s thirst for the limelight, Gigi might just be the one to rejuvenate Johnny’s sagging career, if he doesn’t sabotage his chances first.
Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll boasts a top-notch cast including John Corbett, comedian Bobby Kelly, John Ales, and Elaine Hendrix as Leary’s bandmates, and features cameos by Dave Grohl, Joan Jett and Greg Dulli.
Leary co-wrote the show’s original music, which was performed in the studio by such notables as The Afghan Whigs’ Dulli and Dave Rosser, as well as Adam Roth (The Del Fuegos), Alec Morton (Raging Slab), and session drummer Charly Roth, who perform in Leary’s comedy band.
Ten episodes were filmed for the show’s debut season, which FX will air on Thursdays at 10 p.m. EST.
Playing a rocker seems a natural fit for Leary, who rose to fame in the early ’90s with his rapid-fire MTV segments and comedic song “Asshole,” and grew up associating with members of Boston’s music scene.
It’s a busy time for Leary, who serves as executive producer on IFC’s successful Maron, and will debut another TV series this fall.
I recently chatted with Leary about the creation of Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll, his personal rock and roll idols, and dreams of making a hockey movie.
When was the idea for Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll first hatched?
A bunch of my best friends, who I met at Emerson College in Boston, I was in a theater group with them up there called the Emerson Comedy Workshop. We did original shows and original music. A lot of those guys became professional musicians, and some of them were in notable bands like the Jim Carroll Band and The Del Fuegos. Through them I got involved in the Boston music scene at the time. And the only guys we knew who became famous were The Cars. Everyone else, their various groups kept breaking up. The Del Fuegos were going to be huge, but they ended up breaking up. Always for the same reason, which is the lead singer and the lead guitar player not getting along. I stayed friends with those guys and they’re actually in my comedy band when I perform live. So I was witness to what it was like for those guys to be getting older and be unknown despite being very good musicians. And that idea interested me.
So, when I was doing Rescue Me, I started to think that [project] would be what I wanted to do next if I came back to TV, but I knew that I would have to take time off after Rescue Me. Right before we went on for the final season of Rescue Me, my writing partner Peter Tolan told the head of FX, John Landgraf, that I had an idea for this rock and roll comedy. And I said to Tolan, “Dude, why the fuck did you tell him that—I don’t have anything written!” But I said to John that when I have it written, he’d be the first person I show it to. I finally sat down and wrote it about a year and a half ago, and I gave it to John. I wrote the theme song and the song I wanted the character of Gigi to sing, so he had an idea for who those characters were. I gave it to John on a Monday and then Tuesday morning he called back and said, “Let’s go to work.” And here we are.
You’ve written comedy songs for a long time, but how did it feel to write original rock music that would need to carry a lot of weight in the show?
Well, I was really worried about it. My songwriting partner, Chris Phillips, who wrote the “Asshole” song with me, is a talented musician as well. What I did was, I went mostly to Greg Dulli and recorded five or six songs in a demo. He’s a friend of mine in the best sense. He’ll tell me something sucks, whether it’s a movie or a standup bit or a pair of pants. And I can trust him. He came back to me and said he liked four of the songs, and let’s book a studio at Electric Lady. So we went in for about seven days with Greg producing and we just played the songs. And that gave me a lot of confidence in terms of where I wanted to get to.
Liz Gillies is a real find—she’s very talented, and it seems that this show could launch her to even bigger things.
I like an actress who can improvise on camera. I like to throw some things away and just keep the basic outline of it, comedically and dramatically, and just be able to fly. It’s almost like theater. I had a lot of people like that on Rescue Me. But asking a 21-year-old to do that doesn’t happen every day. And she can sing her ass off. When I screen-tested her, I didn’t give her any pages and just started improvising with her. And she was fucking great at it. When we started filming the episodes, I started throwing more and more pages with her out the window. If the show works, a lot of the credit goes to her because she’s just terrific.
In preparing for the role of Johnny Rock, were there any famous rock stars that you studied or tried to emulate?
Johnny says at one point that he’s what happens when David Bowie meets Joe Strummer. In Johnny’s mind, that’s probably his truth, but of course there’s no talent matchup there at all. I love the Stones and The Who, and The Clash was one of my favorite bands. And then Bowie, when I first saw him that flipped me out. It wasn’t so much the outfits, it was his fucking voice. He never gets enough credit as a singer. In addition to his ability as a writer and performer, his voice has never gone away. Bowie was always huge in my mind. Everyone used to say how effeminate he was, but he’s still one of the most macho fucking guys in rock and roll. Watch the way he poses at the mic, and grabs the mic, and what he does. He’s dressed up in these glam poses, and he’s still really masculine. And I thought I’d put that in my character Johnny’s head.
You can’t find a performance on YouTube where Bowie doesn’t have command of the stage. Sometimes he’s just standing there holding a mic stand, and your eyes are just riveted to him. I hope Bowie doesn’t read this, because if he does and then looks at my performance, he’ll wonder what the fuck happened (laughs). My dream is if the show gets picked up, that I’ll be able to write an episode and have David Bowie come on. First of all, I’m probably his biggest fan. Second of all, I don’t think there would be a more likely scenario for Johnny’s head to explode than if he met David Bowie.
In general, are you drawn to rock stars who are full of flash and bravado, like Johnny?
To me, it seems like every band that I’ve fallen in love with over the years has had incredible tension. It’s usually the lead singer and the lead guitar player, but sometimes it’s the entire band. Like The Replacements, who I love. They were a fucking mess. I remember seeing them one time and they did a three-hour show, and the next time I saw them they did two songs and got into a fistfight! Which was awesome, by the way, but the show was over in like five minutes (laughs).
I saw the Gallagher brothers in Oasis do that one time at Roseland Ballroom. They got into a fight and left the stage, but then they came back and the second half of the show was way better than before they got into a fistfight. So I thought it would be a blast to play with that kind of history with the band [in the FX show]. They’re like a family, they can’t get away from each other, and everyone’s got their own bitter, resentful petty things with each other.
Johnny Rock has many of the same qualities as firefighter Tommy Gavin on Rescue Me—problems with substance abuse, and they’re both selfish and self-destructive to the core. What is it that makes you identify with the human side of these characters and want to portray them?
I like fucked up people. In Tommy Gavin’s case, he was based on a couple of guys I knew. They were heroes, with what they do for a living. I think it’s easier to understand why Tommy was such a fucked up guy, based on what he did for a living and what happened on 9/11. It’s probably less easy to understand why Johnny is the way he is. I think in rock and roll, especially in Johnny’s generation, people thought that if you quit all of the chemical substances you wouldn’t be able to write great music. It’s that false bottom that a lot of creative people like to use. More interesting to me was a guy who thought he had to be famous, and still thinks that he’s going to be famous. But the truth is, very few of us get long-term places in the show business hall of fame. You really have to be iconic. Johnny is going to have to learn that lesson. He’s never going to be famous. The only shot he has is glomming onto this girl Gigi. At the same time, she’s got to learn that there’s a little more to life than being famous for all the wrong reasons.
Generationally, now I think fame is worse than ever. I thought it was fast when I got famous, the MTV generation. Now, it’s crazy. You can be famous for having 27 great posts on Twitter last week.
It seems like people today can be famous just for being famous and not for any real achievements.
I made clear to Liz when she came in, that I was recording her live vocals for the scenes in the show. I wanted to have that feel, but also I’m not Auto-Tuning shit. If you can’t get up there and sing that fucking three-minute song with your band really playing the music, then you’ll have no longevity. I don’t give a fuck who likes you now, it’s just not going to be there 15 years from now.
What musical ability did John Corbett, Bobby Kelly and John Ales have prior to starring in the show? They all look really natural as musicians.
I wrote the part of the drummer for Bobby. He couldn’t play the drums, but my drummer Charly Roth is a highly respected session guy, and I knew he could teach him. Bobby had at least six months to start learning. To his credit, he did it. He was like a method actor. He had a drum kit in his house, he had an electronic drum kit that he took on the road. He Skyped with Charly wherever he was, on the set of Louie or doing a comedy show. John Ales, the guy who plays the bass player, didn’t know how to play bass. But he did the same thing. I gave him my bass player, Alec Morton, who was in Raging Slab. So I gave those two each other’s cell phone numbers, and Ales was playing bass from the first episode on.
John Corbett plays guitar and he can sing. That was big. I knew that even if he wasn’t able to play the solos that Adam Roth or Dave Rosser did in the studio, he’s so good at the guitar that at least he could fake it really easily. He’s a great rhythm guitar player, so he was a natural at it, and he can sing. I never thought Corbett would say yes, because he’s a busy guy. I wrote it with him in mind. I wanted a handsome guy who was a threat to Johnny. And he said yes, so that was a lifesaver.
In the show, I really liked bass player Rehab’s rock opera about the Irish potato famine—it seemed very Spinal Tap, and a nice send-up of the indulgent side of rock and roll.
It’s usually the bass player or the keyboard player in a band who has a really serious project (laughs). So I came up with this idea for the potato famine song cycle [“An Gorta Mor”]. There’s this movement that he starts later in the season called beastcore. It’s built on keyboard samples and animal sounds. And it takes off in this little scene in Brooklyn. What I’d love to do in season two is find one of these backers who puts things on Broadway to tell Rehab, “We’ve got something here,” and put “An Gorta Mor” on Broadway. That might be where we’ll go with that.
I understand you have another new show coming out in the fall called Benders, which is based on hockey and will air on IFC. Are you starring in that one as well?
I’m just producing that one. It’s a balls-out hockey comedy, about a bunch of guys and their girlfriends who are hockey fans. The team they play on is a C League men’s team in New York City at Chelsea Piers. The “C” level is really low on the totem pole in terms of hockey ability, but it’s “A” level in terms of the drinking Olympics. It’s about a bunch of guys who just drink their asses off and play hockey in this men’s league and get into fights, and then try to explain their childish behavior to their wives and their bosses the next day. It’s a bunch of young guys—I think the oldest guy in the cast is 28 or 29 years old. Combine that with Maron, and we’re kind of taking over IFC at this point.
Your name is pretty much synonymous with hockey.
Yeah, I have a dream hockey project in my back pocket. It’s a movie. I’m dying to get to some open time so I can actually sit down and write it. We used to have some hockey scenes in Rescue Me and it was some of my favorite stuff because we’d be in the hockey rink all day shooting the show, playing hockey on camera and getting paid, which to me is just fantastic. My dream was to make a hockey movie, which is OK because the idea I have involves an older guy and a younger guy. I’d play the older guy now.
I love hockey, man. There’s nothing better to me. Those Rescue Me days, when we’d be in there skating all day, some of the other guys would be like, “My legs are really tired.” And I’m like, “Dude, we’re fucking getting paid to play! This is the closest we’ll get to professional hockey, ever.” It doesn’t get much better than that.
Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll premieres on Thursday, July 16, at 10 p.m. Eastern time on FX. For more information on the show, go to fxnetworks.com, and for more on Denis Leary, go to denisleary.com.