When Joe Scarborough turned 50, he realized he was going to die, so he finally did what he had wanted to do since his teenage years—be a rockstar. "It is the worst rock 'n' roll story ever," the former Republican congressman prefaced his explanation for how his band, creatively titled Scarborough, came together. "Guys don't realize that they're going to die until they turn 50. They're stupid—like women know this all along." He told his fiancée (and Morning Joe co-host) Mika Brzezinski, "If I do it, I'm just gonna get absolutely killed, slaughtered. I'm a Republican, cable news host. Old guy. It doesn't fit."
She replied, "You will get killed. And you have to do it." Joe recalled this moment to me, with Mika's hand resting on his thigh, as we sat in the basement of The Cutting Room, where he had just played a show to celebrate the release of his new EP, Freaks Love Freaks. "I jumped off a cliff," Joe said. Ostensibly, he landed snugly into a record deal with Sony Red, where he is releasing an EP every month, which he wants me to know is definitely not some "midlife crisis."
It is, to speak carefully, quite silly for the 54-year-old politician-turned-pundit to decide to add "rockstar" to the resume. The repeat victim of the president's cyberbullying, Joe hosts a morning show that, according to New York Magazine, "distinguished itself by treating Trump as a plausible nominee and offering some favorable appraisals of his campaign."
I gotta say, I was fucking jazzed for the Scarborough concert. To explain why I'm a fan of this music—which critics have said "isn't awful" while Noisey's own Dan Ozzi asked you to "step away from the guitar"—and why I was even more giddy to see a person in concert whose politics that I, to put it gently, hate, you should know that irony has poisoned my brain. I spend around six hours a day shitposting on Twitter, and I can no longer differentiate between my alt, who loves everything you hate, the queen of trash who has been known to do things like put $100 worth of Suicide Squad merch on my credit card, and me, Eve Peyser, real woman and politics writer at Vice, who sees what's really going on. I started liking Joe Scarborough's music because I thought it would be an incredibly funny and fun thing to do.
There's a certain amount of mental anguish that comes with having a strongly held belief that the lowest forms of culture, the ones that are over-engineered for you to like to the point where it becomes vaguely disconcerting, are low-key the best. This idea is expressed through an expanding brain meme I made. Basically I'm fully galactic brain, and you know what? So is Joe Scarborough.
Standing in a crowd of his friends and colleagues as he had the time of his life on stage, I felt like I was at Joe Scarborough's bar mitzvah. The Cutting Room, in Manhattan's midtown East, is the type of venue that primarily caters to an older, richer demographic of New Yorkers and tourists, where you can enjoy the musical stylings of Scarborough (he plays there monthly), alongside a cocktail and a $17 cheeseburger—thank you, by the way, MSNBC and/or Mika, who presumably footed the bill for the cheeseburger and 12 seltzers my boyfriend and I ordered throughout the show.
Joe energetically danced around the stage while singing the title track from his new EP, "Freaks Love Freaks," dipping down to the floor and hoisting his guitar on his shoulder for each time he played a solo. He was having the time of his life on stage, and his enthusiasm was infectious. When his fiancée wasn't dancing around with her friends—almost all of whom looked like bizarro Mikas—she schmoozed with various acquaintances and colleagues, ordering a buffet of food for her guests to enjoy, which was really adding to the bar mitzvah vibes. All that was missing were the half-torah portion, fondue, and a lot more preadolescent hormones.
"They tell me freaks dig freaks," Joe sang, his signature poof of hair looking poofier than ever, dressed in a full suit to evoke a sort of Beatles-vibe. "I guess that's why I get good press / They love my life / It's such a mess / Now I spend my days locked in this cell / As inmates whisper / He ain't well…"
Later on, engaging in the standard concert crowd work, Joe asked the audience where they were from and how they were doing. Then, staying true to political roots, he asked, "Are there any Democrats here tonight?" Lots of cheering.
"Are there any Republicans here tonight?" More cheering than I'd expect in New York City, but then again, I was at a Scarborough concert.
"Are there any Independents here tonight?" More cheering.
"Thank you for being an independent!" one super fan shouted. I laughed.
A lifelong conservative, Joe recently renounced his Republicanism declared himself a proud Independent during an appearance on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, where he also performed the song "Welcome to the Monkeyhouse." (One of Scarborough's more overtly political tracks, it could be mistaken for a Wiggles song if not for its use of the F-word, with the lyrics, "Feel the chaos in short order / Celebrate your new disorder… / Welcome to the monkeyhouse / You're fucked.")
With a reality TV buffoon in White House and the line between culture and politics fast dissolving, Joe couldn't have picked a better time to launch his music career. A former friend of Donald Trump, Joe found himself elevated to the unlikely role of resistance warrior over the summer, when the president lobbed particularly nasty insults at the Morning Joe host and his soon-to-be wife on Twitter: "I heard poorly rated @Morning_Joe speaks badly of me (don't watch anymore). Then how come low I.Q. Crazy Mika, along with Psycho Joe, came.. …to Mar-a-Lago 3 nights in a row around New Year's Eve, and insisted on joining me. She was bleeding badly from a face-lift. I said no!"
Turns out, Joe's campy political persona is sort of endearing when translated into the art of the song. His songs are highly listenable in a Top 40 sort of way, and Scarborough seems hyper-aware of the weirdness of his music career. The music video for Scarborough's first single, "Mystified" features quick cuts of Joe and Mika sitting together with America-themed footage projected onto their faces, then Joe, suited up, playing the guitar in black-and-white, with "BREAKING NEWS" flashing on a green screen in the background, an atomic bomb explosion, then Donald Trump, back to Joe and Mika, American flag, war footage, hot girls on spring break, Edward Snowden, clips of OJ Simpson's infamous white Bronco quickly dancing around the screen as Joe sings, "I won't be going down without a fight," and so on.
His lyrics are playful, and sometimes confusing, like they were written by the predictive text function on your phone, or an old person who read the Wikipedia page for "Punk rock in New York City," something music snobs scoff at, but someone like me, who has a general fondness for outsider art of all sorts, thinks is just incredible. In "Mystified," he sings:
So tell your Asian girlfriend what you want to, Tim
I won't be coming over tonight
And tell those Bleecker speed freaks that you hang out with
I won't be going down without a fight.
Tim, if you're wondering, "is nobody specific." Joe explained, "I guess he represents the person who always pulls out the worst in us. 'Mystified' is about a broken person trying to get themselves up off the floor." I sat down with Joe after the show to chat about the haters, his musical influences, and the meaning behind the lyrics:
Noisey: Did you always secretly dream of being a rockstar?
Joe Scarborough: There was nothing secret about it. That's what I wanted to do, but I did all these other things, but I kept doing music. It's one of the reasons when I lifted my [acoustic] guitar up [at the show]. I've owned this guitar since 1981 or 1982. It's been with me everywhere I've gone. You're one of those people, like the guitar is older than you.
People might prejudge your music because of your political persona, but I think you make pretty objectively enjoyable music.
Who are your influences?
I always say it's the Beatles because it's always been the Beatles. I always listened to the Beatles, but it's just so many things over so many years. Whether it's Radiohead, the music we listened to when [Scarborough's son] Joey was growing up in the 90s, Beck and [his album] Odelay, actually there is a lot of Weezer, especially the early stuff.
What's your favorite obscure record?
Set Yourself on Fire by Stars and "Your Ex-Lover's Dead" is an amazing song. I remember liking it because I grew up, and people would always ask me, "What's your music sound like?" And I never really found a band that sounded like what I wanted to be, which is indie-pop. And then when I heard Stars, Set Yourself on Fire, like "Ok, yeah." They have a song called "Ageless Beauty" that sounds a lot like [my song] "Party Line" which is on [ Welcome to the Monkeyhouse].
Can you tell me about your inspiration for your lyrics?
It's really strange. When you first start writing songs, lyrics are the hardest. You struggle over it. I'm sure you know this—you struggle over your first article or your first blog. After you've done, like, 500 of them. You kind of figure a way, like oh this works, this is how you get from the first verse to the second verse. This is how we write a tight lede and move into the heart of the story. And we kind of see how the column is gonna end. That's the same thing with music. So the lyrics, it really kind of depends on whether I'm trying to get something very specific out emotionally, or whether I'm trying to make a statement.
I know in "Mystified" you sing about the "Bleecker speed freaks" and all that stuff. Is that from your imagination?
Well I'm generalizing.
I don't think there's been a speed freak on Bleecker Street since 1975.
There aren't any speed freaks on Bleecker but there might be one. And if the guy listens to it, he'll be like, 'Oh my god! How did he know!!?? But that's a great example of like—it's just not literal. It's a general thing. Actually that song is the best example of, for me, lyric writing, about what we try to do, which, I was going through a really, really rough time in my life, and I was driving around, and just like, "I, I've been looking inside and I've been mystified by what I saw." Which probably started with me going, "Who the fuck am I and why am I in this horrible position and I'm mystified." And then that leads to one line.
What was happening at that point in your life?
I got divorced. And everything just blew up really fast. One second everything's wonderful, and the next second, I'm knocking around in this house, by myself. I started with one line: "I've been looking inside. I've been mystified by what I saw." And then, you sort of expand it out because you don't want to be too literal. Here I am walking around my house. You know, the first band I played in, every time you got too literal, everybody would stop and sing, [singing] "Happy birthday Abraham Lincoln!" So you generalize and then I sorta took it and expanded it out, and then took it back. For some reason, my first EP was sort of New York 1970s. Like "Girl Like That." When I wrote that I was like, OK, this sort of Velvet Underground morphing into Lou Reed and sort of that feel.
A lot of your songs mention "downtown," and on your new EP, there's a song called "Downtown." What is downtown to you?
That's me making fun of myself. Being an old guy. "Downtown / wondering where the cool cats go / I'm going downtown / trying out my new afro / downtown / where the cool kids roam / going downtown / with my AM ra-di-ooooo." A lot of it is just me mocking myself. It's nothing about below 4th street. I'm an Upper West Side guy. I'm extraordinarily boring.
You'll have to write a song about Brooklyn if you wanna really seem cool.
I know, I know. I KNOW! That's one of the funny things—I've spent the last seven or eight years being in Manhattan going, "When can I go to Brooklyn? Why am I not in Brooklyn?" This would be like living 30 minutes outside of Seattle in 1991. Why am I not goin' over the bridge? And it's a New York thing, right? I wake up at 4, I go to the show, my work's in midtown, I live on the Upper West Side. I just sit there and I'm like, I'm a freak about music why am I not there?
You mentioned earlier you were concerned about "getting killed" when you started playing music. Were you worried that people wouldn't take your music seriously?
I mean, you know how it is. I know they're not gonna take it seriously at first, and I don't expect them to, which is one of the reasons, when I talked to Sony, I was like, "Listen, here's the deal. I'm gonna have to do an EP a month." They were like, "That's crazy. Bands come around. They do an album a year." I said, "Yeah, see here's the thing, I'm gonna do an EP a month." Because the first month I do it, it'll be like, "Oh great. John McEnroe's got a band." And the next month it'll be, "OK. Russell Crowe's got a band." I said, "The only way I'm gonna do this is keep coming and keep coming and at the end of the year, then people can go, "Oh shit, he's released like 50 songs and they aren't the worst songs that have ever been released."
As far as me being fearful, I guess actually for the first time in my life, I wasn't afraid of being judged. For the first time, it was like, "Fuck it." I ran for congress when I was 29 or 30. I didn't know anybody. I had no money. Nobody expected me to win. Everyone was very patronizing. Five people were running in the race, and my friends sorta patted me on the head and said "You're doing so well! Joey, you may end up in third or fourth place."
But I kept going. That didn't bother me. My music was what I was always worried about. I'd play somebody three seconds of a song, and if they just sorta stared there, I go, "I take it back." Finally I got to a stage where I was like, You know what? I've written like 400 songs. I've recorded 50 or 60 of them. They're not that terrible. So I'm gonna try it. And I'll tell ya—I've been really shocked, for the most part, people have been fairly nice.
Do you have any songs that are overtly political? Like "Welcome to the Monkeyhouse" or "When Will You Go" when you say, "You're a fascist and a fool."
Well, I wrote both of those the weekend after somebody tweeted something about Mika. I'm putting out a new song in the next month or two called "Contract With Bulgaria" that's especially political. It actually would fit very snugly at a Bernie Sanders rally. "Got a call from my old friend Jake / He said babe, there's a deal to make / Shit is starting to break down in Bulgaria / Got a friend who works in FM / She said she'd grease the skids if we cut her in / What in sin, down in Bulgaria / Count on me / You know, it really doesn't if the price is right / You can count on me to make a deal / And if blood spills / Well we can't change the world / We can't change the world / but baby life is rich / at least we'll change our market share" and it goes on from there.
Wow. Well, I can put you in touch with Bernie's people if you ever want to ask about playing that at one of his rallies.
OK! I will do that! Bernie will actually like the song.
It'll be a beautiful bipartisan effort.
Eve Peyser is a politics writer for VICE. Follow her on Twitter.