Lynch: 'I know I'm not sacrificing the comedy just to make a music record that I like.'
If Paul Simon had an evil twin brother, one whose musical talents explored themes not of love and friendship but Juggalos and acid trips at the mall, he'd no doubt sound a lot like Stephen Lynch. A self-professed "musician trapped in the body of a comedian," he's produced a handful of studio albums and two highly rated Comedy Central specials over the course of a decade. He's also received a Tony Award nomination for his performance in the Broadway version of The Wedding Singer.
With the release of his fifth album, LION, Lynch sounds as if he is at the top of his game musically. At first, the album, which includes accompaniment from singer-songwriter Courtney Jaye, may sound like folk tunes from the early 1960s, the kind of stuff Bob Dylan and Joan Baez might have dug. That's until a closer listen reveals tales of meth labs, Phil Collins and a lazy-eyed girl named Lorelei.
I asked Lynch about his records, his acid trips, Juggalos and making the album he's always dreamed of before his Nov. 16 performance at the Barrymore Theatre.
The Daily Page: By and large, the music of LION has the feeling of singer-songwriter stuff from the '60s. Do you agree with that?
Lynch: Oh yeah. I mean, I've always loved singer-songwriters. People like Nick Drake, Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan. Those songs were simple, but were also very moving and beautiful and told great stories a lot of the time. In the case of Joni Mitchell, they were also very vulnerable and emotional. So I just skipped that part of it and put humor in instead. [Laughs] But I've always loved that style. It's a style of music I still love, and I guess that's maybe where I came full circle, because that was a lot of what I was listening to when I made this record.
You've said that LION is the best work you've ever done musically. Did you set out to create a more musically rich experience than on previous albums?
Obviously this is all very subjective, but I feel like it's my best work musically and as far as comedy goes. I set out to really take my time with this one. That's why there was such a break between records. I decided to really just write, write and keep writing until I was pleased with each song. I'm glad I did, because I didn't settle or rush this time. It may have cost me some opportunities, and some people may have forgotten about me, but I think it's all worth it.
Is that how you feel about your other albums? That you've settled or rushed through things in the past?
It was really just a matter of thinking to myself that it was about time I made a record that I'd actually listen to. I don't hate all my other work; there are parts of all my other records that I think are good and then parts that I think are really cringe inducing. [Laughs] That's probably true for most people who look back on their work, but I wanted to really be able to put on the record and not skip anything. That was my only goal, because it's never been that way in the past. Who knows? Maybe I'll feel that way about LION in a few years, but I seriously doubt it.
I think Courtney Jaye really adds to the musicality of the album. She's fantastic. How did she get involved?
I wrote a bunch of songs as male-female duets, in the hopes that I could find somebody that I could mesh with. When I tried a few of these things out on the last tour I did, I'd just have a few of the guys singing with me, and they were great, but they sounded like they always sounded. So I asked the producer of the record, Doug Lancio, who he thought might be good, and he suggested Jaye. I just took his word on it and hoped she would turn in the kind of performance I was looking for in the studio. The minute she opened her mouth, I knew it was going to add a whole different layer and texture to the record. And then she came and did the live show as well, which I didn't know she'd be willing or able to do, and now she's with me on tour. It's like my little Gram Parsons and Debbie Lou Harris traveling bus right now, which I love. It's like a dream come true for me.
Do you judge your own work more by the technical aspects of the music or by how big of laughs you get?
That's where the balance comes in. I feel as though you can do both. That's probably what I was trying to set out to prove with this record. I know the comedy of these songs is strong, because I try these things out live in spurts as I'm writing them, so I know I'm not sacrificing the comedy just to make a music record that I like. If I were to do that, I'd just make a music record, you know what I mean? But the end goal from where the audience is concerned is to laugh. They don't really care how beautiful the bridge is in the second song I sing. [Laughs]
One of my favorites from the album is the Juggalo-inspired "The Gathering." Has the Juggalo community responded negatively?
No! The Juggalos seem to have embraced the song, which is great. I wasn't necessarily setting out to write an anthem for Juggalos, obviously. But nor was I really setting out to slam them completely. You can either laugh at the song or think of it as something to be proud of, if you're a part of that culture. Of course, my fear was that there'd be death threats against me, but I'm pleased to say that my friends have looked the song up on YouTube, and the majority of comments are from Juggalos who seem to like the song. I tried to write it from the perspective of one of them, as though, "I know the world hates me ... but I just like this music." [Laughs]
Another new favorite of mine is "So This Is Outer Space?" where you tell the story of a guy tripping on acid at a mall. On the live disc that accompanies the album, you said the song was based on real experiences. Is that true?
Well, not the alien part. [Laughs] Taking acid for the first time in college, something like 21 years ago or whatever it is, actually happened. Some friends and I took acid and went to the mall and went to the arcade, and I freaked out and saw a girl I knew and was going to go say hi until everything got a little too weird. It's autobiographical for sure.
Was it an acid flashback that brought the experience back into your consciousness?
I don't remember why it came up. I have no idea. I think, actually, that I came up with the first few lines before I even knew what the song was going to be about. I had "So this is outer space?/What a lovely place/Can't wait to tell the human race." And then it occurred to me, what if this guy was just fucked up somehow? [Laughs] What if he wasn't really in outer space and he wasn't talking to an alien? So I thought, why not have him be on acid? Then from there I drew on my own experiences. Making the song as pedestrian as humanely possible is what I thought would make it funny.